To the home of the ghosts

Reach se­cluded PNG is­lands by kayak

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - KEVIN RUSHBY

Starlight is skit­ter­ing across the waves and a few gi­ant fruit bats are head­ing to­wards the mid­dle of the is­land. Moses and Tony, my lo­cal guides, look at me ex­pec­tantly. I have to de­cide where to go.

I re­sist the de­sire to say, “Let’s just stay here. I can snorkel the reef and pho­to­graph the hum­ming­birds at my hut win­dow.” Why go any­where? I have trav­elled to the re­motest spot imag­in­able, and now, hav­ing ar­rived in dark­ness at a sur­pris­ingly com­fort­able surfer’s retreat, I am plan­ning to leave at dawn.

I shine the torch on the map. Maps are the root of all rest­less­ness, if you ask me, es­pe­cially when you have a blue sea span­gled with con­stel­la­tions of is­lands, reefs and wrecks, plus a pair of kayaks wait­ing on the beach. On that map, Pa­pua New Guinea looks like a gi­ant warthog charg­ing to­wards the Pa­cific, toss­ing bones ahead of it. One of those bones, 1000km east of the warthog’s snout, is New Ire­land. With a bat­tered in­dex fin­ger, Moses points out Nusa Is­land, a tiny atoll off its north­ern tip. “That’s where we are now.”

Be­yond it, in a 65km-long north­ward arc, is a string of is­lands, the Ti­gak ar­chi­pel­ago. For a long time, much of PNG has been the ex­plorer’s par­adise, un­known and un­vis­ited, but it is rapidly open­ing up to less in­trepid vis­i­tors. Get­ting to th­ese is­lands has not been dif­fi­cult. Moses has met me off the small plane at Kavieng airstrip, then fer­ried me across to Nusa Is­land where I’ve been pleas­antly sur­prised to find the well-or­gan­ised and com­fort­able Nusa Is­land Retreat.

Now I fol­low Moses’s fin­ger as he points. “Good snorkelling here. Nice is­land, that one. Place to sleep here.”

His fin­ger stops at a larger is­land, Tsoi­lik, an oval bi­sected by a curv­ing creek. “Fin­ish here.” But my eye car­ries on along the crooked line of the reef to one more is­land — the is­land at the end of the world.

“What’s this one?” I ask. Tony laughs un­easily. “That’s Nemto. Let’s not go there. It’s a bad place, full of ghosts,’’ he says.

But Moses is from the Pa­puan high­lands and the ghosts of Nemto don’t bother him. He mea­sures out the route in pad­dling ses­sions and overnight stops. “If you and me pad­dle out and Tony fetches us in the mo­tor­boat, we can do it,” he says. This is why I have come. Adventure is close, eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble. I stop think­ing about loung­ing in a ham­mock.

At dawn, I am wo­ken by the voices of women pre­par­ing break­fast for me and the other guests at the retreat. Moses is al­ready sorting out kayak equip­ment on the beach. In the chan­nel, a Chi­nese log­ging ship is slid­ing away to the north­west, a re­minder that global events do im­pinge on even this re­mote area. Dur­ing World War II, bat­tles raged here, leav­ing a grisly her­itage in sub­ma­rine and jun­gle-cov­ered relics, now a big at­trac­tion for vis­i­tors. Moses throws a cou­ple of div­ing masks into the pile of gear. “We can try and find the Ja­panese war­plane,” he says. “There’s one near the old leper colony on Anelaua.”

Hav­ing made our ren­dezvous plans with Tony, we set out. It is a wind­less day with a thin veil of cloud. We skirt Nusa then set a course to­wards Nu­bils, our first night’s stop. Dol­phins cut across our bows and a tur­tle pops up to take a look. By lunchtime, we have reached a de­serted, jun­gle-cov­ered is­land, where we swim off the reef. I am struck by the quan­tity and qual­ity of soft corals wav­ing in the cur­rents, each in­hab­ited by an or­ange clown fish. Fur­ther out, the crea­tures be­come more deadly. A lion fish drifts along and, in the gloom, a gang of sharks.

Reach­ing Nu­bils that af­ter­noon, we work our way around the jun­gle shore to a small, shel­tered beach where

Pad­dling an out­rig­ger ca­noe in New Ire­land, left; a sub­merged World War II plane wreck, op­po­site page, above left; and lo­cals set out for a day’s fish­ing, above right

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