THE GREAT BREAKS TEST New waves
John Borthwick discovers the delights of surfing in Papua New Guinea With no witnesses but the teeming jungle and a single thatched hut, we pig out on a feast of clean 1.5m waves
F everybody had an ocean . . .’’ sang the Beach Boys almost too long ago. Today, anyone who has an ocean is figuring a way to make their waves pay. With once unsung shores from the Indian to the Pacific oceans sprouting resorts and charter boats for escapee urban surfers, Papua New Guinea hasn’t been slow to see that hot tubes have a silver lining. Mainland and island villages, if they’re fortuitously situated beside good breaks, are plugging into the ever-growing surf travel market and offering accommodation, tours and boatbased surfaris.
‘‘ Wake up . . . surf check time,’’ calls Adam Smith, expat Australian surfer and owner of the charter catamaran Tiki Tu. We’re anchored at Kavieng, north of the PNG mainland in New Ireland Province. We throw our boards into his runabout and cross Kavieng Harbour to a right-hand break where local kids on battered boards are romping in the fun waves, along with a half-dozen expats and visitors. Everyone has waves to themselves, no dropping in, no hassling.
‘‘ It rarely gets too crowded,’’ Smith explains. ‘‘ There’s a limit of 20 non-locals allowed to surf the Kavieng area at a time. Plus, we’ve got plenty of local breaks to choose from.’’
In a world first, the Surfing Association of Papua New Guinea has developed a surf management plan that aims to head off the negative effects that have often accompanied surf tourism in developing countries. These include privatisation of surf breaks (as in parts of Fiji), overcrowding (as in some areas of Indonesia and the Maldives) and the consequent reactive localism.
Visiting surfers at Kavieng have to register, usually before arrival, and pay a small daily fee that goes to funding indigenous surfing. The plan, endorsed by the World Bank, is being adopted across the country and soon may be written into national law. It’s easy to see the benefits of the still contentious scheme. Even though today’s swell is nothing special, if there were 30 visiting surfers scrabbling to get their money’s worth of these clean, one-man reef waves, it would be far less fun; not to mention the reactions of the local crew to being crowded out of their home break.
After breakfast we scoot out of the harbour to check other reefs. As in many tropical zones, these Bismarck Sea waves depend on the fickle variables of swell, wind and tide. We’re soon overtaken by a dory of excitable, hooting blokes from the nearby surf resort, Nusa Island Retreat, being shuttled out to the reefs. Sated, we will all return a few hours later to epitomise the surf-slobon-holiday life cycle: morning session, back to base, rehydrate, recuperate, graze, nap, paddle back out and do it again.
Mostly in their 40s (or older), these gleeful guys, like surfers anywhere with the sniff of a wave, are acting more like 14-year-olds. Of PNG’s 1300 annual foreign surf tourists, many are older, better heeled (and padded) gentlemen surfers who want fun waves rather than lethal, overhead barrels and who can afford the air fare and accommodation rates.
IFoam sweet foam: At Lido, in Sandaun Province, a wide flat reef and a lagoon extending seaward ensure there’s enough surf breaking for everyone
Jumping into a truck later that day with local surfers, Luke James and PNG junior national champion Titima Mange, I head down the Boluminski Highway (named after an early German colonial administrator).
About 35km south of town we find a reef known as Kapso pumping nicely a few hundred metres offshore. Given that we’re on a sparsely populated jungle shore, I’m surprised to find another surfer already out there tucking neatly into the barrels.
He is Hawaii-reared Shane Clark, a long-term PNG resident who, along with his parents and New Guinean wife, operates a little guesthouse at Dalom, 170km from Kavieng, which also happens to be our overnight destination. We surf Kapso for an hour in easy waves over a coral reef, with Titima in particular shredding it, until the tide becomes too full.
The Boluminski Highway runs the length of narrow New Ireland Island, tracking beside the blue Sepik of the Pacific: perfect for constant surf checks as we drive. Palm oil plantations and jungle line the road.
Local folk travelling to their gardens often push their gear in wheelbarrows, so James calls this the wheelbarrow highway.
Dalom is a travelling surfer’s paradise. Surrounded by jungle, the basic, six-bedroom guesthouse and its bungalows sit right on the beach, with a swift little creek as its boundary.
We pile out of the truck to see a neat beach-break peeling right and left. Using the creek current as a sort of chairlift to lazily carry us out the back, we surf until dusk. Next morning, Clark shows us a new break he has recently discovered. Climbing down a steep hill to the beach, we paddle out around a coral headland to behold a ripping little left that probably has never been surfed by anyone but him. With no witnesses but the teeming jungle and a single thatched hut, we pig out on a feast of clean 11/ 2m waves.
PNG’s coasts are littered with waves. Milne Bay, Rabaul, Bougainville, Madang, Muschu and Wewak region all have good surf, although as Lou, an old-hand expat, cautions me, ‘‘ The operative term here is, ‘ If only . . .’ ’’ That is, if only the tide were lower (or higher), the swell from the northwest (or northeast), the wind offshore, and so on.
It’s a variation of the classic surfer’s mantra, ‘‘ You should have been here yesterday.’’
This is sometimes billed as surfing’s last frontier, in which case PNG’s northern, equatorial Admiralty Isles are the frontier’s frontier.
I meet Lucas, a young Brazilian just back from a week’s exploration there on MV Kamai, a 14m catamaran. He describes how the boat would ‘‘ park’’ 40m from the surf and they would jump straight off, catching barrelling right-handers on the first day, then ‘‘ perfect peaking lefts’’ on the second. All this in water ‘‘ so clear you could barely see the wave as you were surfing it’’. The local villagers were pretty impressed, too, paddling out in their canoes to hoot at the visitors’ hottest rides.
A sleeper until recently on the world wave map, PNG has had a surfing community for 20, possibly hundreds of years. Surfing Association of Papua New Guinea president Andy Abel believes that people here have been riding bodyboard-like surfcraft for generations and that surfing here possibly pre-dates its evolution in Polynesia. Abel, a Papua New Guinean, was educated, and learned to surf, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. In 1987, an expat pilot and surfer known as ‘‘ Crazy Tas’’ told him about a classic point break he’d flown over on the northwest mainland coast. To their surprise, they found the villagers of Vanimo were already surfing on splinters, bodyboards carved from old dugout canoes.
Tas and Abel developed modern shortboard surfing there and Abel went on to found SAPNG. The association and Vanimo surfing have since come a long way. In November this year they will host an
Bed and board: Nusa Island Retreat is the perfect spot to enjoy the leisure and exertion of the surf-slob-on-holiday lifestyle
international contest on the World Qualifying Series professional surfing circuit.
Vanimo is a surf that you earn. You fly from Port Moresby to Vanimo, capital of Sandaun Province, take an old taxi 8km out of town to leafy Lido village, weave amid the wooden stilt houses and shade trees, and come at last to an idyllic beach.
A wide flat reef and azure lagoon extend seaward, with a right-hand wave peeling for 100 leisurely metres down the west flank while a more robust-looking left races down the other side. The right is working best today. Leaving my belongings with local surf lodge owner Steve Tekwie (who has been surfing here ‘‘ for 10 wet seasons’’), I paddle out amid a small crew of Lido children and visitors. Everyone’s having fun, plenty of long-walled waves for all.
So why does this one plump local girl who’s wobbling about on a longboard keep dropping in on me? Perhaps I should have been here yesterday? Fly to Port Moresby with Air Niugini, then to regional destinations. The airline has discounted one-way flights from Brisbane, Cairns and Sydney to the end of the year. Ex Brisbane from $336, ex Cairns from $273 and ex Sydney from $523, all including taxes. More: 1300 361 380; www.airniugini.com.pg. For details of Dalom Guesthouse: firstname.lastname@example.org; Vanimo Beach Hotel: + 675 857 1102 or 857 1310. www.surfingpapuanewguinea.org.pg www.pngtourism.org.pg www.adventuresinparadise.com.pg www.nusaislandretreat.com.pg www.worldsurfaris.com
Ready for a break: Resort guests leaving Nusa Island on the hunt for waves