To the home of the ghosts
Reach secluded PNG islands by kayak
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