SEPIK SOIRÉE

To cruise Pa­pua New Guinea’s is­lands is to ven­ture where few have gone be­fore.

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With a colour­ful his­tory of un­sta­ble pol­i­tics, many peo­ple have con­sid­ered Pa­pua New Guinea un­safe to visit… that is, un­til now. Through the en­deav­ours of peo­ple like Broome-based Craig How­son, found­ing di­rec­tor of North Star Cruises who was first in­tro­duced to this north­ern wilder­ness by Steve Irwin, trav­ellers are now able to dis­cover its charms – from the com­par­a­tive safety of the wa­ter.

Hav­ing pi­o­neered lux­ury cruis­ing in the Kim­ber­ley some 28 years ago with a smaller edi­tion of the now 36-berth lux­ury adventure ves­sel, the True North, How­son has in­tro­duced two back-toback 11-night Sepik Soirée itin­er­ar­ies in Novem­ber and De­cem­ber each year that cruise along PNG’s north-east coast, ven­tur­ing more than 70 nau­ti­cal miles up the crafts-rich Sepik River and then to the far-flung Ad­mi­ralty Is­lands, stop­ping off to visit re­mote com­mu­ni­ties that few have had the priv­i­lege to visit.

A true adventure ves­sel

Af­ter a two-hour pri­vate char­ter flight from Cairns – in­cluded in the rate – the cruises set off from ei­ther Madang or

Kavieng where guests are wel­comed on board by a young 20-strong all Aus­tralian crew.

Ac­com­mo­da­tion is in 18 en­suite cab­ins over three lev­els and in three cat­e­gories. The top-rung Ex­plorer and River Class cab­ins fea­ture king-size beds that can be con­verted to sin­gles, while Ocean Class of­fers two com­fort­able sin­gles. All are stylish in dé­cor with in-room en­ter­tain­ment and satel­lite tele­phone.

Days start early with hearty break­fasts be­fore guests who wish to join in ac­tiv­i­ties meet on the well-equipped tran­som, which be­comes Adren­a­line Cen­tral each morn­ing and af­ter­noon as six steel-hulled ex­pe­di­tion boats pre­pare for fish­ing, snorkelling, scuba div­ing, ex­plo­ration or is­land ex­cur­sions.

Af­ter the day’s ex­ploits, guests can re­lax over drinks in the up­stairs lounge with sink-into so­fas or on the out­side rear deck, be­fore din­ing at com­mu­nal ta­bles. There is also an ob­ser­va­tion lounge and guests are wel­come to visit the bridge.

With a shal­low draft of 2.2 me­tres, the 50-me­tre-long True North was cus­tom built for ex­plor­ing river sys­tems and coastal wa­ters. She is a true adventure ves­sel, be­ing able to ven­ture where few oth­ers dare.

Sing-sings and cray­fish

Along the Sepik, guests are wel­comed by lo­cals in prim­i­tive dug-out ca­noes, some bear­ing flow­ers, oth­ers proudly car­ry­ing baby croc­o­diles – and young­sters as naked as the day they were born. Pas­sen­gers are able to visit open-air vil­lage mar­kets where home­grown pro­duce, fresh and smoked fish and sago wrapped in green leafy plants are among items for sale. Some vil­lages are known for their tra­di­tional arts and crafts where masks, grass skirts and in­tri­cately carved story boards make good sou­venirs – pro­vided they can safely pass through cus­toms on re­turn to Cairns.

Leav­ing the main­land, the itin­er­ary in­cludes nearby is­lands such as Ram­bu­tyo and Ponam where vil­lagers stage lively sing-sings of wel­come – whole com­mu­ni­ties dress­ing up in feath­ers and leaves with elab­o­rate head and an­kle beads. One vil­lage is known for its en­thu­si­as­tic dance with gi­ant croc­o­dile pup­pets. Guests of­ten get caught up in the spirit of the dance and join in.

True North is greeted ev­ery­where en route – es­pe­cially in the re­mote Ninigo Is­lands where fish­er­men pad­dle their dug-outs over to the sleek ves­sel in the hope of sell­ing their abun­dant catch of beau­ti­fully coloured painted cray­fish. Many cray­fish later – at a mod­est price around seven dol­lars a kilo – ev­ery­one goes home happy.

In the gal­ley, chefs pre­pare con­tem­po­rary fare of­ten with pro­duce gleaned from these wa­ters – fresh Sepik prawns, elu­sive black bass caught by lo­cals, tuna, bar­racuda or Span­ish mack­erel caught by guests – and those suc­cu­lent painted crays. They make yo­ghurt and ice-cream and bake fresh bread and sweet treats daily.

Into the depths of the Sepik

On board is ma­rine sci­en­tist Andy Lewis who has logged more than 2000 hours in the past decade guid­ing snorkellers in co­ral reef en­vi­ron­ments. He brings the un­der­wa­ter alive giv­ing run­ning de­scrip­tions of on-the-spot dis­cov­er­ies and trans­lat­ing them dur­ing evening talks ac­com­pa­nied by his ex­cel­lent un­der­wa­ter pho­tog­ra­phy. Among un­ex­pected en­coun­ters might be pods of pi­lot whales – some breach­ing high out of the wa­ter, and a sea of spin­ner dol­phins that seem to show the way.

Unique in the re­gion, True North boasts a six-seater Euro­copter ded­i­cated to sight­see­ing over trop­i­cal is­lands, fly­ing in close over mildly ac­tive vol­ca­noes and for trans­port­ing guests deeper into PNG’s Sepik wilder­ness. A cul­tural high­light of the PNG cruises is a chop­per flight 250km up­stream in the mid­dle Sepik to visit a Yech­tan spirit house where guests are privy to an ini­ti­a­tion cer­e­mony of young lo­cal men into the

puk-puk or croc­o­dile cul­ture. How­son sums up the jour­ney’s ap­peal: “This is an in­cred­i­ble mix of what the re­gion has to of­fer: be­sides its rich cul­ture, it shows na­ture at its best – above, on and be­low the wa­ter.”

Travel file

Ac­com­mo­da­tion www.north­star­cruises.com.aul In­for­ma­tion

The 11-night Sepik Soirée sails from 11 to 22 Novem­ber, and 22 Novem­ber to 3 De­cem­ber in 2015. Priced from $17,695 ($19,995 for 2016 voy­ages) per per­son twin share. www.papuanewguinea.travel

“VIL­LAGERS STAGE LIVELY SING-SINGS OF WEL­COME – WHOLE COM­MU­NI­TIES DRESS­ING UP IN FEATH­ERS AND LEAVES”

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01 Snorkel in Madang Har­bour 02 Jun­gle ca­noes 03 Dressed up, is­land style 04 Bril­liant Pacific blues

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