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ISSUE 15 ARCHIVE - PAPUA NEW GUINEA

HE Sawyer

Papua New Guinea. Since forever, the dive industry have extolled the virtues of this underwater paradise.

Port Moresby. National capital and gateway to PNG, consistently ranked as one of the worst cities in the world.

So the question is: Would Moresby ever make it to the top of your to-dive list? Would you fancy world class diving from the armpit of the Pacific?

No. Of course you wouldn’t.

Imagine it: Lost valleys, hidden tribes, smoking volcanoes, the whole ‘Land That Time Forgot’ gig, coupled with diving war wrecks from palm fringed beaches. Best of all, it’s not Thailand, so you’ve got the whole place to yourself.

It’s pukka Robinson Crusoe, and he’s scoffing a Bounty.

And it’s all so very vintage Lonely Planet because PNG has a bit of a scary reputation, although much of it is misinformed, as illustrated by the Mayor of London.

“You watch out for them cannibals, Aitch! They’ll ‘ave you for the pot!”

And my plumber. Truth is, cannibalism lost out to Jesus, as the missionaries and the Twentieth Century moved up river. Eaten alive by mosquitos however... But I had DEET, I had doxycycline, and a shirt that buttoned down to the wrists.

The big problem with PNG seemed to be the crime, especially what went down in Moresby on a daily basis. Invariably I found the worst bits trawling the internet just before bedtime, and things went a bit quiet under the duvet after that. I lay there, listening for gunfire and the sound of running, but all I could hear were the sirens heading for Romford to deal with the gunfire and the sound of running. Moresby was going to be just like Romford, but without the woo-woos.

Subsequently I planned my first expedition so that I spent as little time as possible

in transit through Moresby’s Jacksons airport, let alone set foot outside it. Seeing something of the country without seeing anything of the capital constituted a result. Port Moresby was best seen from the air anyway. Like Romford.

But the truth is, once Moresby was left behind the clouds, and I was pointed safely towards Australia without so much as a scratch, I felt guilty. Because I hadn’t given

it a chance. I’d fallen victim to its reputation, and worse still, reinforced it. A bit like blowing out the London Dive Show because there were ‘no trains’, when in fact there were trains, there were just engineering works, so you had to change trains. Lazy.

Moresby was touted as having the best diving of any capital city in the world. I mean honestly, how bad could it be? Seven years on, naturally closer to death anyway, I decided to grow a backbone and test the waters for myself.

Most dive packages to PNG will send you and a loved one to a couple of locations for your ten days, and if Moresby’s one of them, then you’ll be staying on Loloata Island as a guest of Dik Knight. This is great because;

a) you’ll be whisked out of Moresby in no time at all.

b) you’ll be ensconced in beach front lux until it’s time to go home.

Indeed being on an island away from the city is part of Loloata’s appeal for the weekending expat community. Think castle, moat, and pulling up the drawbridge. Sadly I’m too cheap for Loloata, at over US$300 a night for a single fan cooled room and two boat dives, no matter how enticing their web site.

The first thing to take on board when planning an independent trip to Moresby is the fact that nearly half the crime there involves a high degree of violence, of the gun-totting and sword wielding variety. That said, the first muggers you’re guaranteed to meet are welcoming and armed only with big smiles. They are the city hotels.

The cost of a decent room in Port Moresby is frankly preposterous. Tourism in PNG is expensive anyway, be you diver, birder, or trekker. They work on a high return from the low numbers of visitors, which naturally contributes towards the overall ‘last frontiers’ tag.

To compound this, natural gas has been discovered in the highlands, and there’s a plan to pipe it to Australia, if they can get seven hundred landowners to agree on ‘compensation’. We’re talking billions.

Consequently with PNG in the grip of a Gas Rush, the cheapest single room at Moresby’s premier hotel is over two hundred quid a night, but that does include complimentary tea, coffee, & uniformed guards with shiny shotguns.

What I need is no frills accommodation, no violence of any kind, and some diving.

So thank goodness for the Dive Centre, run by John Miller, a greying wily fox with a twinkle in his eye. He books me in at the Ela Beach Lodge, just down the road from the swanky Ela Beach Hotel, and at a fraction of the price.

I can’t find any mention of Ela Beach Lodge in the guide book, but bump into a group of boozy, barking mad expatriates from the capital en route.

“You’re staying at Ela Beach Lodge??! Not Hotel??! Ela Beach Lodge??!”

“Mmmmmmm.”

Hope withers and dies. A young woman from PriceWaterhouseCoopers actually gets up and shakes my hand. John and driver Maino pick me up early and transport me to the other worldliness of the Airways hotel, where the dive centre is based. Corporate guests are gently fanned over breakfast at the poolside restaurant, everyone focused on their laptop. They pretend not to notice me, the ghost of a man with a thousand yard stare, who spent the endless night chain smoking behind the razor wire.

“Nice... This... Not very ‘street’ though, is it?”

We load the cylinders, then duck back into the craziness of the city, heading for the coast, zooming through shanty towns that give way to rolling countryside, and arrive at Bootless Inlet inside twenty minutes. The dive boat ‘Solatai’ awaits, with skipper and guide Thomas, and boatie Getto. It’s fair to describe the ‘Solatai’ as serene, but frankly I’m the only passenger, we’re on PNG time, and I’m in no rush to get back to Ela Beach Lodge.

“Not Hotel??!”

No. Not hotel.

Most weekends the ‘Solatai’ becomes a diesel powered getaway with the diving expats who work in Moresby. It’s a good job they dive, because the handy city guide, issued by the PNG Tourism Promotion Authority, limits the places of interest in Moresby to just four, and one, the Ela Beach Craft Market, is only held on the last Saturday of the month. For the record the others are the golf course, the Museum, and the Parliament House.

To be fair there’s also the Bomana War Cemetery, the yacht club, and the gun club, although for the yacht club you need to be signed in by a member, and remember, ‘strictly no hats’.

I especially like the bit where the CEO of the PNG Tourism Promotion Authority writes, (and I swear I’m not making this up), “there’s so much more to Moresby than meets the eye, so please don’t hide in your hotel room”.

He obviously hasn’t seen my room at Ela Beach Lodge. I wouldn’t want to hide in there, although I’m obviously in the minority; half the city’s ant population were cowering under my towel this morning.

So don’t hide. Got that. On the other hand... “If you feel like taking a stroll, check with your hotel first to find out if it is safe to do so. The best piece of advice we can give you is to trust your instincts.”

This roughly translates as;

“Is it safe?”

“Dunno. What d’you think?”

But the best bit is on the page dedicated to ‘Safety & Security’. (I think we all realise the game is well and truly up when there’s a page in a city guide dedicated to ‘Safety & Security’).

“We would discourage you from attempting to explore the city without knowing exactly where you are going and how you are going to get there.”

This effectively translates as;

“You know those four attractions on the map?”

Or you could hide in your hotel room. They’re only ants.

It takes the best part of an hour to get to the wreck of the Mv Pacific Gas. Formerly the Nanaya Maru, a 1967 Japanese built liquid gas carrier, she was eventually condemned and donated to PNG diving pioneer Bob Halstead, who arranged for ‘The Gas’ to be scuttled as an artificial reef in 1986. Coincidentally, this was the same year that Chris de Burgh got his classic ‘Lady in Red’ to number 1 in no less than 25 countries. He must’ve worked like a Trojan. But I’m sure Chris de Burgh wouldn’t begrudge Bob Halstead the recognition and gratitude he rightly deserves for clearing the decks and sinking ‘The Gas’ in a site where tidal flow would encourage prolific marine life.

The result is 65m of top quality wreck, upright on a slope, with the bow at 14m running down to the propeller at 43m, and typical visibility in the region of 20-25m, which is what I’m enjoying today. The best bits are the bridge and the stern, so I fin there first when I come off the line at the bow, over the void previously filled by the gas containers.

The doors and windows of the bridge at 25m have been removed, so the interior can be enjoyed with care, as can the crew quarters and engine room below. Behind the bridge stands a beautifully decorated funnel, and it’s well worth hanging off the back of the ship to admire the stern.

You’ll find a range of great features, including ladders, hatches, winches, bollards, and railings, all beautifully presented with hard and soft coral. Jacks, snappers and sweetlips cruise the wreck, and ghost pipe fish and leafy scorpion fish have been found at the bow.

All this in blue water between 24C and 29C. There’s a bowl of noodles for the surface interval as we chug over to Susie’s Bommie. This is the premier fish dive of Bootless Bay, with a coral sea mount rising up from a sandy bottom at 30m, to about 10m shy of the surface. There’s a channel between this pinnacle and the wall behind it, and today there’s plenty of current, so there’s a superhighway of fish life racing up and down.

The site is renowned as a hiding place for pygmy seahorse, and Rhinopias, the amazing weedy scorpion fish. I don’t see either because I’m knackered after finning head down like a bastard into the current for twenty five minutes. Sod that for a game of soldiers.

We get back to the dive shop mid afternoon, and I hang around lapping up the rarified atmosphere at Airways, with gift shop, Italian deli, and panoramic view over the airport runway. Before you know it it’s time to cadge a lift back to Ela Beach Lodge, now known as ‘Dave’s’.

Originally from Cornwall, Dave is happy to see the back of England, his ex-wife, and the cold weather. He runs a tight ship in his Hawaiian shirt, shouting at his staff, who he swears are thieving from him. To this end the phone in reception is locked, so no one can phone out, including the guests. We share a beer and a fag on the porch as darkness falls.

There’s a couple of guards with keen dogs on duty round the clock in the compound, the steel door to the building is always locked behind you, and the doors of the rooms are braced with 3mm steel plates on both sides, with an aggressive lock that would give the police some lip. Dave tells me he sleeps with a 9mm under his pillow. (I’ll have a bash at the accent. Think ‘agitated yokel’).

“We ‘ad one of ‘em in ‘ere – but ‘ee scarpered before the boys could catch ‘im – left a pipe gun behind – ‘ome made! Oi’d ‘ave shot ‘im if oi’d ‘ad the chance”.

Dave is obviously gutted he didn’t have the chance, but his attitude is spot on for Moresby. I’m just here to ‘survive’ for a couple of days out of curiosity and so I can say I’ve done it. I suspect Dave’s here for good, what with his local girl and kid.

I wonder if I should ask Dave if he has a spare gun I can borrow to put under my pillow, but then I remember the Tv in my room doesn’t work, so I can use it as a last bargaining chip with any burglar, or as a ‘Grosse Point Blank’ weapon of last resort.

The complimentary condoms are a nice touch, but they don’t carry a kite mark and are probably as thin as the sheets, walls and floors, and I only mention this because my bed is vibrating due to the love action of my transient neighbours. The newly signwritten sandwich board out front that advertises the ‘Day Rooms’ is pulling the punters in, but it’s then reduced to matchwood under the wheels of a reversing truck.

Dave abandons any pretence of anger management. His management style is pretty much ‘Mr. Angry’ anyhow, although it’s fair to say I’ve warmed to him. Joking aside, Ela Beach Lodge does the job. The room is clean, secure and affordable, (just ask the ants), and they’ll even cook you breakfast and bring it up on a tray, just like mum.

Outside the compound there’s either the public beach across the road, or the central business district, aptly called ‘Town’, just ten minutes walk up a steep hill, where there’s a view of the container ships, a character playing the bagpipes, and somewhere with air conditioned broadband internet access.

After dark the only place to go is a couple of hundred yards to the ‘Beachside Brasserie’ at the Ela Beach Hotel. Racks of lamb, fish and the usual pizza-burger-fries guff, a bar with expats, wannabe local girlfriends, and a big telly. How you get there is up to you. I walked, wearing my Hawaiian shirt, pretending I was Dave.

The Pai II, a former prawn trawler, was also scuttled, thanks again to Bob Halstead. It’s upright, 27m long and rests with the keel on the sand at 30m. There’s plenty to see with a wheelhouse packed with copper sweepers and vibrant coral growth everywhere, especially the mast. The wreck has been visited by mantas, hammerheads and whale sharks, but, as always when I dive, not today. Although not as impressive as ‘The Gas’, it has the same ingredients, and is a superb wreck.

My last dive in Moresby is a plane, the Boston Havoc A20, a WWII twin engine attack bomber discovered by Dik Knight, stuck on a fringing reef south of Loloata Island. Maximum depth is only 18m, and although the aircraft is intact and in good nick after ditching, (the nose cone is broken off and lies behind the tail), the typical visibility is only about 12m. The lack of current on this dive means that the wreck has very little growth on it, and the water is generally filthy. One for WWII enthusiasts, plane anoraks, or the desperately curious.

Moresby’s never going to get many visiting divers from the UK. There are too many other drawcard dives around PNG for the handful of divers that make it this far, and that is a great pity, because the capital has something to offer above and below the waterline.

If nothing else I’ll take the kudos for having toughed it out, although I’m not sure if I earned it for venturing outside my room, or given it was Ela Beach Lodge, staying inside it.

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