Thursday 6 August 2015

True North in PNG's remote Louisiade Archipelago


Archipelago a go go

An almost forgotten chain of islands off the coast of PNG holds a wealth of wonders for those who care to make the journey, writes Roderick Eime

We are flying so low, it seems the branches of the thick jungle will slap the undercarriage at any moment. But our pilot, Rainor, keeps a steady hand on the stick, his steely gaze fixed on the ridge jutting high up above us.

The aircraft rises steadily to the top of the rocky outcrop that juts out from dense undergrowth, the engine straining slightly as we pull up to clear the peak. A small village is directly below and the residents are running about excitedly as our ‘miksmasta blong Jisas’ swoops overhead.

I lean toward the tiny window to try and snatch a photo as the villagers wave furiously, but no sooner have I hit the shutter and we are in steep dive toward the jungle floor on the other side. By this time the traces of a cheeky smile are evident on Rainor’s face.

“How was that?” his voice crackles over the intercom. No one answers as we gather our wits, but we’d do it again in an instant.

True North at anchor (Jeannette Lloyd-Jones)

Here in the air-conditioned cabin of the Eurocopter 130 B4, seven of us sit in leather-clad comfort as we tour the lush islands of the Louisiade Archipelago on a half-hour joy flight from the helipad of True North. Carrying just 36 passengers, the superb, 50m purpose-built expedition yacht has come all the way from its home port of Broome for an annual Papua New Guinea exploration.

This string of islands to the east of the PNG mainland, first sighted by Portuguese navigator de Torres in 1606, are still seldom visited by any vessel, let alone cruise ships. Once a year, usually during November and December, a scant handful of specialist small ships may drop in for a flying visit and, in our case, literally. North Star Cruises, whose only vessel, True North, has been visiting the magnificent reefs and glorious tropical islands of this remote chain since 2005.

Unlike the unsympathetic Portuguese who often shot first and asked questions later, here we are greeted like royalty and welcomed ashore at unheard-of islands like Rossel, Kamtal, Misima, Panapompom and the evocatively-named Panasia. Fresh green coconuts with sweet, refreshing juice are offered for our enjoyment while soccer balls and school books are offered in exchange.

The horrors and wholesale destruction of WWII also seemed to pass by the Louisiades without too much effect despite the Battle of the Coral Sea being nearby. A US submarine strayed onto a reef off Rossel Island in 1942 and the remains of a Japanese freighter, the Inaho Maru, grounded in almost the same spot in 1922. Its rusting skeleton, still pounded by the relentless breakers, is clearly visible from Rainor’s chopper.

Back in Deboyne Lagoon, near Panapompom where the Japanese had briefly set up a seaplane base however, is a solid reminder of the conflict. An almost intact Zero fighter lies on the sandy bottom after ditching when its aircraft carrier was sunk during the 1942 Battle of the Coral Sea. Pilot, Okura Shigeru, carefully landed just off the beach and swam the few metres to shore, leaving snorkellers a tangible relic to ‘discover’.

Apart from our own heart-stopping airborne excursions, we are travelling on what may well be the most luxurious liveaboard dive vessel anywhere. Ticketed divers can bring their own gear or hire a full outfit for a nominal fee and then dive to their hearts’ content in water as clear as Bombay Sapphire.

Our divemaster, Oliver, leads the scuba team out onto the remote reefs that still teem with both reef fish and the occasional pelagic (open ocean) brute like the nasty-looking dogtooth tuna that darts ominously through our dive group. And we don’t just gaze in bewildered amazement at the quantity and variety of fish we encounter at such unambiguous dubbed sites as ‘the fish bowl’ at the deliciously named Saru NomNom Island.

Aboard almost every True North departure is Dr Andy Lewis, an eminent marine biologist and ecologist. Tall, lean and with a hint of cover model looks, Andy more than satisfies the many enquiries I and other guests pose about both the land and marine ecosystems we encounter daily. In the Kimberley, diving is a hazardous affair no one is going to attempt, but here in the (mostly) crocodile-free waters of PNG, he is in his absolute element.

“There are fantastic reefs scarcely seen by other travellers, with beautiful reef slopes dropping into indigo blue water, all teeming with fish and other marine life,” Andy tells us. “The waters of the Louisiades and PNG offer some of the best diving and snorkelling in the world and present an excellent example of highly diverse tropical marine ecosystems with very little human impact. Coral cover and fish densities are both exceptional.”

Out here fishing is largely done on a subsistence basis by locals from the tiny villages, but the scarcity of sharks that would normally patrol the fringes of these colourful outcrops is apparent. The tentacles of greedy shark-finners have reached even these remote waters it would seem.

Our own squad of fishers head out daily to catch the evening meal. This fun diversion is a hallmark of any True North cruise where local permissions can be sought. Instead of the iconic barramundi hooked in the Kimberley, our keen anglers triumphantly return with ample snapper, cod and even a tuna to grace chef’s table.

Dining aboard True North is best described as casual gourmet. The quality of food delivered to our table by barefoot stewardesses is superb. Designed by head chef Nik Flack, it’s a creative combination of freshly caught fish from our intrepid fishers and carefully selected provisions. It’s sustainable, organic and very Australian cuisine. Braised lamb shoulder, seared king snapper, WA crayfish with truffle risotto or slow-cooked wagyu beef fillet could easily appear on any day’s menu.

Cabins are available in several grades and sizes with the choice options on the main and upper decks (called Explorer and River Class) where space and comfort levels are befitting the experience and $1000+/pp/day price tag. While Ocean Class (lower deck) cabins are still comfortable, they are ‘cabins’ without the expansive picture windows, floor space and double beds. Forward cabins are subject to noise from the anchor chain and single travellers will end up sharing on a busy departure, so you’re sure to make a new friend.

For decor and public spaces, think more along the lines of exclusive, designer beach house rather than fancy boutique hotel with a relaxed, decidedly unpretentious atmosphere that quickly levels out any pretenders.

As Rainor prepares to settle the Eurocopter back on the upper deck of True North, I cast my eyes one last time across the lurid waters of the bay as the ‘tinnies’ bring the snorkellers, fishers and hikers back to the ‘mother ship’. We’ll shortly pull anchor and head back out to open sea and leave this mesmerising scene behind, leaving our hosts to return to their blissful isolation and this divine archipelago to its own mysterious devices.

Doing There

The 6-day Archipelago Adventure is part of North Star Cruises’ PNG and West Papua season that runs annually from October through December aboard the 36-berth expedition ship, True North

Archipelago Adventure departs mid-December ex-Alotau (Milne Bay)

Charter flight connections included in fare plus all meals, accommodations and excursions aboard True North.

Helicopter flights are extra. A full four hour, six flight package is available for $3160 but single flights can also be purchased depending on space.

Diving is available for PADI-certified divers and occasionally for beginners.

Rates for 2015 and 2016 departures start at $8,995/person in an Ocean class cabin

The writer was a guest of True North and the Papua New Guinea Tourism Promotion Authority

This story originally appeared at

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