Simon Heyes is the award-winning blogger behind the website Simon’s Jam Jar. Recently he travelled for 25 hours from London to reach the nation of Papua New Guinea after he won a competition to visit the country. It’s just south of the equator, above Australia and in the South Pacific. You won’t find much written about the place, as there is currently little tourism.
Simon has featured PNG on his blog and I caught up with him for the Great Destinations Radio Show.
“It was almost a case of going back a hundred years,” he says. “There are places in Papua New Guinea that haven’t been civilised. They have not even seen a westerner before. The locals walk around in loincloths. Some of the area has been cut off from western civilisation which is fantastic,” he adds.
This could be a double-edged sword, I thought. It could provide a new frontier for travellers keen to find authenticity but it could also mean cultures slowly eroded as places get on the tourism trail. I was keen to know Simon’s views on why there’s so little promotion of PNG.
“They don’t really promote themselves heavily – maybe for budgetary reasons,” he replied.
I’ve spent time in the Pacific nations of Tuvalu and Niue, talking with staff from aid agencies. They were filled with scare stories about the PNG capital. I wondered if this might be why it isn’t promoted. “Did you find Port Moresby sketchy?” I asked.
“No” he replied. “But we were warned. I would take it with a pinch of salt. You have to be careful in any city and don’t go in certain places. You have to be careful at night in London and New York. Port Moresby has a bad reputation. It is a very commercial city but I never felt uncomfortable walking around it and I found it fine.”
Any traveller to PNG will have to go through the capital. It’s the travel hub, but Simon says there are basic facilities in many places away from Port Moresby. “If you fly from the capital you will land at a small grass or gravel landing strip and be collected by a tractor.”
Simon visited the city of Mount Hagan and then travelled to Tari. It’s 90-minutes flying time from the capital and it’s where the Hugli tribe is based. They are famous for their wigs.
“They see wig growing as a ritual and rite of passage from boy to man. Many of them do it all the way through until they are 30 or 40 years old. We met a couple of people who had grown wigs every three years. One man had been doing it for 40 years and said this was his final year because he’d had enough of it. He needed a break!”
“There’s a local hierarchy. Within a single tribe there are clans and families in different villages, even though they share the same traditions. There are 852 languages spoken in PNG, more than any other country in the world.”
It’s clear that there are different cultures within this Commonwealth nation of 7 million people. I asked Simon if he experienced any other rituals that would seem unusual to westerners?
“There are many similarities between their customs and what you would find in different villages around Africa. There’s a lot of religious connotation and separation of women and men so the different sexes sleep separately until they are married. That’s partly tradition, partly religious,” he explains.
“Witch doctors are quite prominent. A lot of modern medicine hasn’t reached villages so they rely on the likes of what they deem to be magic and traditional ways of healing to cure all sorts of illnesses. That was very, very different,” he added.
PNG is very lush, green, verdant and tropical and there’s plenty of local food on offer. “Everything grows,” says Simon. “Nearly all locals grow flowers, sweet potatoes and vegetables.”
I asked Simon about the standard of accommodation in the country, which I assumed to be quite basic.
“We were put up in really nice accommodation in each of the cities. It wouldn’t be five star rating but they were comfortable with great views and superb hospitality so I couldn’t fault it.” Simon added that Papua New Guinea has some of the best diving in the world, “despite the fact they don’t shout about it very much.”
If you are prepared for 25-hours travel time from London, maybe you too can discover one of the world’s last ‘secret’ destinations.
Follow Simon at Simonsjamjar.com and listen to my chat about his experiences here: