Saturday, December 08, 2007

Choo-choo trains in Cairns

Most of the photos can be viewed at Flickr (I don't have Sarah's from the start of the weekend)

If you don't count the nine months spent in my mother's womb I recently turned 31 in effin' queue (Far North Queensland). It was my first trip to that part of the world and was prompted by its proximity to Sarah's temporary hometown of Port Moresby. In fact, it takes about twice as long to get to Cairns from Canberra which goes a long way towards explaining why North Queensland is much closer to PNG in landscape and climate than the southern parts of Australia. Cairns would be the spitting image of Port Moresby if there were more dilapidated buildings, violent crime, smoke from burning garbage, and less backpackers. I think I have stumbled on to the secret breeding ground of the backpacker. Cairns is teeming with them and their associated cheap hostels and drinkeries. Such a tourist town is it that it's hard to spot anyone who doesn't appear to be either a tourist or to work in the hospitality industry.

Sarah and I made the very sensible decision to bypass the hoi polloi by outspending them at a resort perched on the edge of the Daintree rainforest complete with a jungle camouflaged swimming pool, a restaurant in the trees overlooking the river below and individual bungalows surrounded by rainforest and the off foraging bush turkey. It's such a relaxing place that I went off into a reverie just thinking about it.

Our only outing on Saturday was to Mossman Gorge where we lowered ourselves into the surprisingly cold water in a secluded part of the river which rolled through the thick forest where creepers climb the trees in an effort to find sunlight. The roots of the trees in the rainforest tend not to exist solely under the ground. The look as though they have grown up from the ground and attached themselves limpet-like to the tree, or else they look like flat anchors spreading out from the trunk, making you wonder how trees usually stay upright without such support. Without doubt the gorge would be more spectacular when the waters are flowing fully, but there aren't many better places to be when the thermometer climbs over thirty, apart from in your exclusive pool resort having a nap and reading the paper.

Sarah and I have developed a bad habit in recent times of getting up early while on holiday. This is not by choice, but usually revolves around stupid, stupid airlines. This trip was no exception. As Sarah's work denied her request to fly back to Port Moresby early on Monday morning, she had to leave early Sunday morning instead. I guess I could be understanding about the fact that Sarah's managers cut her weekend short because there was a conference on Monday that she was organising, and half a dozen staff members were away on emergency flood relief, but it was my birthday and I don't have to be understanding, that's one of the good things about birthdays. So a pox on Sarah's managers for making me spend my birthday alone.

The result of all this was that I was in the unusual position of getting up at 5:15 on the day of my birthday to drive Sarah to the airport. The positive aspect was that the drive to the airport, from Port Douglas to Cairns, is rated as one of the best drives in the world, which we experienced as the sun rose over the water. It was quite a topsy-turvy day – getting up early, driving along a beautiful stretch of Australia's coast, saying goodbye to Sarah at the airport, then hopping on the Kunanda Scenic Railway, a train which winds its way through the hills outside Cairns, passing under mango trees and through 15 tunnels along the way. I wish I could say that the train sped along, generating a cooling breeze, but it seemed to be affected by the heat as well and chugged along at a leisurely pace through the 36 degree heat. If anything it felt hotter in the higher altitude of Kunanda, and after a quick jaunt past the tourist shops, and a brief wander through the residential area dotted with beautiful flame trees, I retreated to the shade of the pub near the station with a cold pint while the staff spruiked the next load of passengers with the offer of mango daiquiris.

The best part about going to Kunanda was the trip back down to the coast. I had a dim idea about a cable car at Cairns but I didn't fully appreciate how cool skyrail is. It travels 7.5 kilometres back to Cairns, but the beauty of it is that the trip doesn't go through the trees, but above them, giving you the sensation of being a bird above the canopy. It is an alpine form of transport in a lush, verdant landscape. Rather than bulldoze a path for the cable cars to travel through, they flew each supporting pole in my helicopter. It's an impressive idea which seems to have been executed well. Both the train and the cable car stop at Barron Falls, a spectacular looking waterfall (even more so in full flow).

On my birthday night I went to bed early in preparation for another 5:30am departure. It's a lot easier to get up early in the tropics than during a Canberra winter, which my taxi driver was attempting to recreate through the power of air-conditioning. It is freezing at Cairns airport as well, as though they feel the need to prove that you can be cold in a hot part of the world. As I sit here shivering, waiting for my plane to be depart, which has been delayed, oh a mere six hours, I really hope that the part they are flying in from Timbuktu is crucial to the successful flying of the plane and not just something to make the toilet flush properly. The Chinese passengers that I am waiting in the terminal with have the unfortunate habit of hawking up a goobie and spitting into the bin. I guess I should be grateful that they are not expectorating all over the floor. Qantas very kindly shouted everyone breakfast from the one food outlet in the terminal. Their thinking seems to be that one plane load of pissed off people is a lot less damaging that the biggest aviation disaster in Australian history. If I wasn't getting this flight free through my parent's frequent flyer points, I would be tempted to ask for my money back.

Just to switch tense on you again, I am back in Canberra now, the flight home from Cairns taking twelve hours in total. One of the stewards on the Cairns to Canberra leg asked me whether I wanted anything because I had kind of a blank look on my face. Sitting in a departure lounge for six hours will do that, I though to myself. He gave me a free Mars Bar. To compound my day of travel hell, although I was rescheduled on a later flight to Canberra, just as we had all boarded, and everyone had shoved their luggage into the overhead locker and sat the hell down, an electrical storm rolled in, and those namby pamby ground staff decided that getting me home on time wasn't worth being struck by lightning. Then a thunder storm rolled across out flight path anyway, making the captain delay us further. After a 50 minute delay we had a stroke of “luck” and got that sucker into the air. So not the most relaxing journey home, but it was another memorable birthday flight to add to the list. I must remember that my birthday falls right in the middle of storm season.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

PNG pigs

Pigs are expensive animals in PNG. If you run over you're in big trouble. Most of the time they just root around the road (probably in both senses). I like pigs. They're cute, they sleep a lot, and they have great eyelashes, just like me. Sarah patted a piglet in a Sepik village which immediately went to sleep or played dead. I wanted to eat it, but Sarah restrained me.

Here are some pigs at a roadside market near Dualo pass. They fell fast asleep about 10 seconds after this footage was taken.

Even more photos

I know you didn't get quite enough photos of PNG last time, so here are some that I forgot about. They feature some shots of Dualo pass, a guy making his house, a village near Goroka, Goroka market, and the amazing Asaro Garden.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The largeness of Papua New Guinea

To see the full set of photos go to our Flickr account.

Travel is reassuringly linear. You start at the beginning of your journey, have some revelatory experiences in the middle, and at some point it ends. The latest jaunt that Sarah and I took began in Port Moresby, the scary capital of Papua New Guinea. Sarah had been using up her lunch breaks planning our week long trip around PNG and did a fantastic job navigating conflicting advice to get the best trip for the best price. One example of the complexities of travelling in PNG emerged when we started thinking about driving through the highlands in a rental car. Leaving aside the exorbitant cost of hiring a car, it was also advised that we get security for fear of raskols. The initial quote was for an armed escort which would drive behind us the entire way, was about $1200 for two days. After getting some good advice Sarah found that it was possible to hire a driver at about two dollars an hour instead. So it pays to shop around.

Sarah was so focussed on organising the trip that she forgot to pack her camera. Luckily we were only 30 seconds down the road. The driver and I waited for her while listening to The Skyhook's 'Living in the 70s'. That was not the cultural highlight of the journey.

First we flew to Mount Hagen, the scene of the Mount Hagen show which we went to in August. There we picked up a big tough Hilux and a teenie weenie security guard with impressive sideburns who didn't speak English too well, but had a good command of Tok Pisin, the local variety of pidgin, which sounds deceptively like English until someone starts speaking it fast.

Sarah had picked up enough pidgin during her time in Port Moresby to impart useful information, such as could you drive slower please. This came in handy about an hour out of Mount Hagen when Sarah noticed that we were bombing down the road at 140km/h. “Easy-easy” she told the driver, right before we blasted by the police camped by the side of the road. We came to a fairly rapid halt, and our driver reversed back up the highway. We got a stern talking to in pidgin, but luckily the driver had remembered to bring his licence along, so we were let off with a stern warning to stop the next time we see police.

On that first day we were driving from Mount Hagen to Goroka, a leisurely four hours over roads with a varying size of pothole, through gorgeous mountain scenery.

If you don't already know, I love mountains. They fill me with inner calm. If I were to become a hermit it would be in a cave on a mountain. The mountains in PNG are beauties and quite unexpected. I'm loathe to compare them with others I have seen, but far from being the jungle covered expanse that I expected, they looked more like the lower slopes of a European alpine area. I expected to see men dressed in lederhosen and women milking goats. This image was often shattered by a guy with a big beard wearing a beanie and carrying a machete. The temperature in the highlands is reputed to be a year-round 25 degrees, perfect for a Canberra boy, and despite the threat of robbery, everyone we bumped into was more than friendly.

The highlands are also the vegetable basket of PNG. These huge valleys even resemble baskets, surrounded as they are by huge mountain ranges. The valleys in which Mount Hagen and Goroka are situated have rich soil, lots of rain and sun, and get neither too hot nor too cold. We saw the evidence of this in markets we stopped at, the first being at Kundiawa, a bit past halfway on the road to Goroka. The produce is just spread on blankets laid on the dirt, but it's as fresh as can be, and a huge range, from cabbage to cucumber, banana, strawberries and the sweetest pineapple I've had in quite a while. There are plenty of yams, carrots, beans, garlic, lettuce, and some very nice potato which we tried after it had been boiled in oil. I wasn't game to try the fried meats, but I like their style.

Tucked away from the modern world until the 1930s they are a recent discovery to the modern world, but people have been farming here for thousands of years. The area has a cultivated look, and every area of land has a traditional owner. Apart from the odd aid worker or missionary this part of PNG has a remote feel to it still without the hordes of tourists you encounter in other parts of the world. It’s refreshing to travel to where people are just living their life. The downside is that the infrastructure along the highlands highway is basic. The petrol stations are a wooden bench with old oil containers filled with fuel.

Whenever we stopped for a photo, which was often, people seemed to emerge from nowhere to stand in front of the camera, giggling when Sarah showed them the photo. This scene became quite extravagant at times, such as when Sarah stopped to take a photo of a couple of goats. The goats soon had garlands on them as men smuggled their vegetables into the shot, including the biggest cauliflower we will ever see.

At another roadside market Sarah took about a dozen photos of people in various poses. When the old lady selling twisties asked for a photo on her own she had no chance. The roaming crowd followed the lens to where she stood and crowded around while she held up her wares. We have promised to send photos to everyone, which will prove a major undertaking, mailing photos to friends who will travel up the road again to deliver them.

The town of Goroka is an enchanting little place. It has the lush look of the tropics, while the surrounding mountains bring an alpine climate. Apart from the airport being located right in the middle of town, it’s a lovely part of the world. We stayed with friends who live in a small community on the side of hill, amongst the trees and above a small creek which burbles day and night. There was a power failure on the Friday night, and as we sat on the deck in the glow of a lantern fireflies flashed their neon green mating signal in the air outside, which made it look like they were taking photos of each other on tiny little cameras. The next day we drove up to one of the many villages outside town which was as nice as any Australian country town. Just replace the tarmac with a dirt road and imagine bigger front yards with nicer lawns. The only sign that we were in a poorer country were the rusting cars, and a guy weaving the cladding for his own house from pandanus leaves, but I’m sure many Australians wish they could build their own house in a couple of weeks. As is the custom in PNG, we were woken early that morning, not by the resident two-year old as expected, but by the Goroka Screaming Bug, a creature often heard from the window of moving cars and those times you're trying to sleep in. It sounds exactly like a roller coaster full of screaming kids passing by in the distance.

The next day we picked up a new Guard Dog driver named Peter, a bullish little guy with an excellent ‘Movember’ fund raiser on his upper lip.

He bristled into action when he discovered I had decided to walk alone to the ANZ bank to get money out with Sarah yelling after me “make sure you get a lot out”. For some reason he thought this would make me a target for robbery, combined with the fact that I was the only tall white guy in town that day, so he got on the walkie talkie to his fellow guard dog out the front of the bank. I wondered at the time why he was staring at me so much. With more typical faffing around we finally got on the road and into some beautiful scenery. The landscape heading towards the coast was much sparser, and the mountains looked like they belonged in Wales. It was totally different to what I expected to see, which made it a refreshing surprise, especially after the dusty plain which houses Canberra.

The other exciting thing about this drive was that we were approaching a spot of renowned raskol activity where the highway slowly winds up a hill, giving the raskols time to spot their target and set an ambush. Peter knew this, and we roared up the hill in our Hilux, overtaking a slower vehicle, and a suspiciously abandoned truck. People driving down the hill had a reassuringly full load, and we made it through with no problems as well, passing the police station at the top of the hill which looked like an abandoned caravan. The raskols are reputedly much more likely to knock off a bus or a truck than worry about individual travellers, and Peter claimed never to have had any problems in twenty years.

The drive from Goroka to Madang on the coast has to be one of the most spectacular in the world. Starting out in the garden paradise of Goroka, you head through spectacular mountain scenery before coming to the truly incredible Kassam Pass.

This is where we emerged from the highlands plain we had been on since flying to Mount Hagen and starting descending to sea level. The experience of arriving at Kassam pass is similar to when you're snorkelling over a coral reef which suddenly drops away to deep ocean. It is epic in scale and has that grand canyon style illusion of being too big for the eye to communicate properly to the brain. Once down in the Markham Valley the temperature rises to what you would expect of PNG. To give an indication of just how mountainous PNG is, once you are out of the highlands there is still a completely separate mountain range between you and the coast. So it was up the valley that we drove, through stubby palm oil trees and into the sugar cane country of the Ramu Valley.

Along the way we stopped for a bite to eat at a service station as the market wasn't open on a Sunday. We came to regret that more than we knew at the time, as the alternative to fresh market food was a meat pie that tasted like tinned corned beef soaked in urine. Peter seemed to like his, though so I guess it's an acquired taste.

After the expanse of the valley the road begins to wind through the jungle on the way to the coastal town of Madang. At a roadside market Peter redeemed his taste buds by getting us some pitpit, an edible cane grass which when baked has a core which tastes like a artichoke hearts and has the texture of a warm sponge. It was better than I'm making it sound.

I also gave betel nut a try here, although without the other special ingredients which give it a buzzing effect, lime powder and mustard stick (which I think are also the carcinogenic ingredients). When you mix all the ingredients together in your mouth it turns a bright red which you can see people spitting at regular intervals. Betel nut on its own is a starchy, bitter ball which manages to make your mouth feel dry while producing large amounts of saliva simultaneously. I gave it a pretty good chew before I got sick of my mouth feeling numb. It made the banana I ate afterwards not the taste sensation I was expecting.

The sad sight at the market was the caged cuscus, a native possum who wasn't too happy about being out in the sunlight and the centre of attention. We passed on the opportunity to buy him and either keep him as a pet or eat him for dinner. Maybe we shouldn't have encouraged them by taking a picture, but its an instinctive reaction on seeing wildlife.

I wish I could give a better report of Madang, but we turned up there in late afternoon, had a swim in the pool, some good fish for dinner, and were up early the next morning for out flight to Wewak on the north coast, the entry point to the famed Sepik River, although I didn't realise how famed until I got back and people started talking about the Leyland Brother's exploits there. The strange aspect of our stay in Wewak was the hotel. Not strange because it was so bad, but because it was so good. In PNG you get used to everything being a bit old and run down, and you start looking past that to the more positive experiences. But the In Wewak Boutique Hotel would not be out of place on the beach at Noosa.

It was completely renovated a year ago by Phillip, oldest brother of the Asian family which seems to own half the town. The hotel is a side project for him, a place where he can escape from his import/export business where he complained the people are constantly asking him for loans. I suspect the hotel also assuages his loneliness, providing a steady flow of new people to talk to. He invited us to pre-dinner drinks one night which subtly turned into dinner, and tried to invite himself to dinner on our last night. He has a strong Australian accent, did his schooling in Australia, and his ex-wife and children live there, but he was born and raised in Wewak and seems to have done a decent job making a life for himself there. Despite being a little bit clingy at times, he really was a fantastic host and was very generous with his time and in organising our Sepik River jaunt. The hotel felt amazingly luxurious, especially after our experiences overnight in a Sepik village.

The Sepik River is enormous. It stretches 1,100 kilometres from the central highlands to the north coast, but it is the scale of the river that once again boggles the mind.

It is as though a large lake just keeps stretching on to the horizon. Perversely travelling up this large expanse of water felt a bit like being in the desert, a yawning sameness all around. We got on the river at Angoram, a two-hour dirt road drive south-east of Wewak. Our guide for that day and night was Kenny, a local guy with his own boat. We were seated on two cane chairs in the middle of the boat, a recent innovation, and I suspect to keep us out of trouble as much as for our own comfort.

The heat on the Sepik is incredible. It is the hottest place I have been so far in my life, beating New Orleans and Taiwan by a long way. The heat was bearable while we were bombing along in the boat getting natural air-conditioning, but whenever we stopped the heat settled over us like a blanket. It was hot when cloudy in the morning, but when the sun came out in the afternoon it was almost unbearable. One village we stopped in had climactic conditions similar to what I would expect to find in hell, with no shade to save us whiteys from the burning, burning sun.

We applied sunscreen every 30 minutes, but with our malaria medication making us more sensitive to the sun than normal, we were lucky to get away as pink as we did.

The river is a highway for the people who live on it. Most people get around in dugout canoes with some featuring outboard motors, but most powered by muscular arms and backs.

Kids jump in little dugouts as if they were bikes to get to school or visit another village, and there are floating markets selling vegetables which the owners apparently sleep on.

The villages in the area have wooden and bamboo stilt houses, no electricity, but some radios, and volleyball is big here as in other parts of the country.

The first village we stopped at we asked about carvings. The Sepik is famous for the quality of their work, but our surprise visit caught people unaware. Necklaces and bilums (hand-made bags) slowly emerged but while we were waiting for the others we took a wander through the village, along the river bank, followed by a large crowd of children, some of whom raced ahead to pose in front of us before running away giggling as we approached. When we asked about what we thought was a canoe being made, it turned out this was sago harvesting in progress, which was demonstrated for us for photographic purposes.

We almost made it to the school when we came across the goods for sale, transported ahead of us while we strolled to ensure it caught our eyes. Sarah bought a few bilums to add to her collection and I bought a carved lime holder for if I ever take up betel chewing in a serious way. We wandered back down river to the first shopping spot, only to find that it was all the same stuff as where we had come from, once again whisked in front of us as we walked.

We had been advised to take food and used clothes as gifts. Luckily for us the used clothes shop in Wewak was having a half price sale, so t-shirts cost 50 cents instead of a dollar. We loaded up and distributed gaily to villagers from our boat before departure, handing over plastic bags of clothes and non-perishable food items from the esky.

We spent the rest of the day tooling around the river, getting off the main highway towards the end of the day and into the back alleys, where we came across a village with a resident master carver. This old man shooed the laughing kids away as he fetched his work out.

There were the large story boards which we had seen elsewhere but had no chance of getting on the plane, even with the relaxed carry on policy of the local airline. We saw one woman carry on a watermelon, it's address neatly written on the skin in black pen. Thankfully he had some smaller carvings, one of which we bought. His initial asking price was 10 kina, about $4, but we talked him up to twenty kina. He then motioned for is to go up into his house and take some photos of his wooden crocodiles, which were not lovingly crafted out of a single block of wood, but interesting sculptures stuffed with straw which would not look out of place in the Mardi Gras parade. They look a bit like slugs with headdresses.

Towards the end of the day we went back to our guide Kenny's village, where he showed us his crocodile farm, the scariest wildlife we had seen that day, if you don't count the flock of eagles circling above us earlier in the day.

The crocs on the Sepik are of the small freshwater variety, and apparently do not come out during the day. I felt safer in the knowledge that any stray crocs in the area would be immediately nabbed and thrown in the farm, the same farm which I now jumped into (after some encouragement). The farm was just three open-roofed tin sheds with pools covered by shade cloth. The crocodiles progress from one shed to the next as they grow in size. Understandably the pool closest to the door contained the smallest crocs, which our guide's nephew proceeded to wade about in looking for examples to show us. Sarah wasn't quick enough in taking the photo of the first one, which starting thrashing about and hissing, and continued to give us the evil eye once safely back in the water. Despite being small, they still have pretty sharp looking teeth.

Before dinner we took one last cruise to the nearby lagoons. We passed through a village built entirely over the water on stilts, where the kids must have to learn to swim before walking.

The lagoons were beautifully still. The water had a deep dark colour, unlike the muddy, opaque waters of the main river. White egrets burst from the reeds by the bank as we passed by and wheeled away towards the setting sun. Water lillies peppered with purple flowers bobbed in our wake. It looked like an idyllic English river, until we stopped to turn around and the heat set in once again. On the way back we were ambushed by kids in canoes with flowers to give us.

Kenny kindly offered to share his food with us. We were treated to four varieties of fish – soup, fried, cooked in banana leaf and cooked on the fire. They were all delicious. The sago was not quite so delicious. It had been prepared in two ways, the first fried, which had the consistency of chewable rubber, and the second gelatinous, which had the consistency of sticky jelly. The taste was bland, like solidified river water. It was just filler to eat with the fish.

When we first sat down to eat in a hut on stilts looking out over the sun setting on the Sepik, we were amazed at how much food there was. Kenny invited us to sample everything, and not wishing to be rude by leaving any food behind, we took a deep breath and started eating. Luckily at some point Sarah asked what the rest of the village was going to eat, and the answer – whatever is left after we finish – made us slow down our pace. We had images later of small children crying and cursing our name as we waddled off to sleep in our waterside hut with full bellies.

The heat eased when the sun set. We flopped on mattresses setup beneath our mosquito net, then spent the next thirty minutes killing mosquitoes who somehow found a way in. Lightning flashed in the distance, and within an hour a storm had rolled in, pelting the thatch roof with rain.

Despite the discomforts, which will be forgotten, it was an enchanting place to spend the night, even with rats fighting in the early hours as they gnawed through my bag in a desperate attempt to get the coconut biscuits contained within. We were woken an hour before dawn by duelling roosters, surely one of the most horrible sounds in the world, other than rats screeching. Once there was enough light to see by Sarah took a ride in a dugout across the river to complete her morning ablutions, and we set off back for town in the cool of the morning.

On the way we stopped at various villages buying out their supplies of river prawns for the hotel. As with a lot of things in PNG, these prawns are gigantic, the size of a small lobster. They were hauled fresh out of the river and thrown in the esky still clicking away. We feasted on them that night back at the hotel.

So the sun sets on another PNG trip. It's a great country to travel in, with so much variety in the landscape and really friendly people.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Mont 24 hour MTB race

Photos taken on October 27 at Mount Majura. You can see more on my Flickr page.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Mt Hagen show

Here's some video taken at the Mt Hagen show. Apologies for quality - it was shot in high screen, not wide screen, which blogs don't seem to understand.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

It's springtime in Canberra

The blossom is amazing in Canberra this year, the best I've seen in ages.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

PNG dreaming

As you probably know, Sarah is working in Port Moresby until December. I was drawn up to Papua New Guinea recently for a week, powerless to resist her magnetic charms.

You don't hear much about PNG in Australia other than violent raskols, angry politicians and the occasional highlands war. Port Moresby is rated as the tenth most dangerous city in the world for expats, with violence and car jackings common. It is not a place that leaps to mind when thinking of relaxing holiday destinations, a feeling which is reinforced when you get a security briefing after a long day of travel. It doesn't inspire confidence to hear about the danger, to be supplied with a list of all the recent major incidents, told to never walk around at night or visit certain areas of town. If someone jumps out in front of your car holding a gun, stopping is optional. Then you get your own personal security radio, unique call sign, and have to go out the back of the building to test it by calling back to base with a pre-written script (which I managed to stuff-up by forgetting my call sign). All of this adds to the ambience of the city, giving a cheap thrill, especially with the knowledge that you're only visiting. I imagine for those living in Port Moresby the thrill wears off fast.

A short chauffeur-driven air-conditioned trip later and we arrive at one of the razor wire tipped Australian compounds, graced with high walls and replete with security guards who forlornly patrol the interior perimeter on a regular basis. It was a steamy night (they all are) and my body, finely tuned to the Canberra winter, was still pumping out enough heat to power a small city. I began sweating, but at least I had managed to drag Sarah away from work, and the caring clutches of security, and into my arms again. I would recommend spending a month away from your other half if only for the joy a reunion brings. It is the sudden satisfying of many longing hours.

It is a difficult to move to another country and start a new work role, as Sarah has done, especially in a place as claustrophobic as Port Moresby. This pain is lessened by having a Haus Meri, the local term for a maid, who was foist upon Sarah and her housemate by the previous occupiers of the apartment they are temporarily looking after. So despite Sarah's protestations, a local lady named Rose makes her bed, irons her clothes and tidies up. She sometimes cooks meals as well, a tasty example of which Sarah and I ate that night, a sweet potato, banana and lemon grass curry, washed down with Aussie white wine.

The apartment Sarah is staying in has views of the port and a nice balcony for eating breakfast on. It has plenty of space downstairs, bedrooms upstairs, and is a very liveable place. All of the apartments in the compound are perched on a steep hill which tumbles down towards the sea. We slept with the creaking ceiling fan slowly spinning above us all night.

This was not to be a holiday of sleeping in. I had risen at what, for me, was an early hour in order to fly to PNG, but now we had to get up even earlier to catch the plane to Kokopo, a beach resort town on the large island of New Britain, just off the east coast of PNG. Kokopo is famous for being near Rabaul, a town which was almost completely destroyed in 1994 from the simultaneous eruptions of Vulcan and Tavurvur volcanoes. The ash from these eruptions slowly piled up over the town, then hardened after the effects of rain and sun, causing a massive weight which collapsed the mostly abandoned buildings. Most businesses have since moved to the nearby Kokopo, but people still live in Rabaul, the market is still running, and people are waiting for the next big one. It is a strange place to locate a town, nestled among six sleeping giants which could spew hot ash and lava at them at any moment (the last small eruption was in October 2006), but the locals have a healthy respect for the volcanoes, and seem to be proud of them.

We stayed in a beautiful beachfront bungalow which overlooked a lush strip of flowery jungle and a black sand beach. It was a beautifully peaceful spot, and our first day there was perfect - a quick swim followed by lunch, then a nap, a quick walk, dinner, then blissful sleep, in spite of the frog bleating just outside.

The next day we took a half-day tour to Rabaul, guided by Willie, a local guy who went to school in Lismore and spoke with a rasping Australian accent. He had a nasty boil on his cheek which was accentuated by the bright yellow poultice which had been spread on it. Willie was a solidly built guy with a happy confidence. He first showed us tunnels carved into the cliffs next to the sea, built by the Japanese during World War Two for hiding barges from enemy planes. They are huge tunnels, about twice my height, which POWs had to drag the barges into every time the air-raid siren went off. Six barges remain rusting in one of the tunnels, the Japanese insignia still visible on the brown metal. Seeing these tunnels gives just a glimpse of the scale of the operation during WWII. It is quite bizarre to see the evidence of all that effort and pointless waste just rotting away. Seeing the relics of WWII on location somehow accentuates the realities of war more than a museum does. You can hear the echoes of the fighting, weariness and pain. It is such a contrast to have this history slashed into a landscape so warm and friendly.

The violent history of Rabaul is not all man-made. Nature has played its part. Driving through Rabaul seemed normal enough until Willie explained that this empty grassland on the other side of town used to be the main street, and that ash-covered piece of land was once Chinatown. The rubble is under there somewhere still, along with the sealed road, but it has been covered in a dark ash and a flourishing flora, which has wiped parts of the town off the face of the earth, so that now it looks like it never existed. The volcanoes are constantly changing the landscape. What used to be an island became attached to the mainland by land rising from the sea. What used to be an island was blown in half, leaving 500 people homeless. Land here is not the solid thing it appears in other places. Those underground forces which everyone is intellectually aware of are much closer to the surface here, and the powers beneath us are on display. The shoreline near the Tavurvur volcano is covered in black pumice stone, rust-coloured where it touches the water. The sea is a milky blue colour, and steams with the heat. Near the shore the water is filled with bubbles from underwater vents and is hot to the touch. Tavurvur makes a loud hissing sound like a jet engine, and a huge steam cloud rises from its recently renovated crater.

The caretaker of the tribal land told us about the most recent eruption. He noticed that the steam coming from the volcano was a funny colour so he decided to keep an eye on it. Black stuff started oozing out down the side of it, the wind blowing steam off the magma as it headed for the sea, which sizzled when they came in contact. It was only when the rocks started falling out of the sky (one slightly bigger than me) that he decided walking back to his village would be a good idea. If the day we saw him was an indication, he would have been wearing thongs that time as well.

4:30 in the morning is a time when I'm usually twitching in my sleep, dreaming of strange things. On my fourth day in PNG Sarah and I were awake, dressing, then heading to the airport at that ungodly hour. The blame for this absurdly early start lies with Air Nuigini, the monopoly airline in PNG. Apparently they regularly cancel flights and overbook them, meaning that if you have to be somewhere on a certain day, which we did, you are wise to get the earliest flight in case others are cancelled, and you are wise to check-in as early as possible to avoid disappointment. So we were up before the sun in the warm pre-dawn air with other Air Nuigini-weary travellers and staff, driving through the lush landscape. We arrived at new Rabaul airport (the old one was buried under ash) in plenty of time, then lined up as the one member of staff received passengers. The luggage carousel creaking into action, the signal for the next passenger to move forward, was heard infrequently. We were kept company by the midges, hordes more of which waited for us in the departure lounge. The only way to avoid being covered in them was to stand under the ceiling fans which created a force-field of air turbulence that the midges seemed unable to break through. The volcano was still puffing away in the dawn light as we slumped in our seats for the journey back to Port Moresby.

The reason we had to back to the capital by Saturday was that we were flying into the highlands on Sunday for the Mount Hagen show, a display of tribal splendour, colourful face paint, headdresses, dancing and sing-sing. As expected, we left for the airport before the sun had woken, this time heading for a chartered flight organised by Sarah's work. Flying into the highlands is an experience in itself. Mount Hagen is a town in the Wahgi valley, surrounded by mountains nearly twice the height of Kosciusko, Australia's highest peak. Flying into the valley the plane tilts from side by side, navigating a path through the peaks, winding its way like a river to the massive valley below. This valley went undiscovered by western society until the 1930s when prospectors stumbled across it in their search for gold. The documentary, First Contact, shows footage of this moment, the only time a meeting of such different culture has been captured on film. The highlanders thought that these white people, the first they had ever seen, were the ghosts of their ancestors returned from the land of the dead. Mount Hagen is known as the wild west of PNG, a frontier town to the wild highlands beyond, where wars are not uncommon.

The Mount Hagen show features tribal groups from all over the highlands who decorate themselves with clay paints, elaborate head wear, and arse-grass which, as the name suggests, is an assemblage of native flora gathered behind the bottom. You can wander among the various groups as they get ready. Having their photos taken seems to have become part of the ritual - they don't have much choice really. The number of zoom lenses rivalled a red-carpet opening. The colours on the faces are amazing, rich reds and yellows and blues, with headdresses made from masses of feathers. Contrasted with these bright tribal groups are figures clad only in white clay, or painted as skeletons, or wearing beige clay-fired heads.

When the show starts the groups parade around the local rugby league field, which is open on three sides to grass banks, while the western guests make up the majority of the audience in temporary stands on the fourth side. Various groups sing, chant, re-enact war scenes or hunting tree kangaroos. It's an amazing experience which I don't think can be captured other than by seeing this orgy of colour and sound in the flesh. The only strange note for me was that the small crowd was almost entirely made up of westerners, which gave the show a colonial feel of inspecting the natives, rather than the true cultural exchange it must once have been. I like to imagine the show taking place back when the valley was still cut off from the rest of the world, when people travelled for days to get there, and colour meant more than a good photo, more than something we are bombarded with everyday, but was a shock to the senses amongst the green hills and blue sky.

Back in Port Moresby the sky was filled with the smoke from hundreds of piles of rubbish being burned. The streets thronged with locals in discarded western clothes as street hawkers struggled to make a living selling food to people as poor as themselves. The air-conditioned car droned along, avoiding pot holes and dented taxis, ferrying me through the detritus to my flight home. It was 5am.