It was the phrase “Captain’s Adventure” that got to me. Couple that with the destination – Papua New Guinea – and the notion was irresistible. To explain: The World, a 644ft, 43,524 ton ship, which, its PR blurb insists, isn’t a cruise liner but, rather, “home” to the owners of its 165 onboard apartments, was going to be sailing round Papua New Guinea. It would be taking its passengers into remote corners of that wild and wonderful-sounding land just as back home we’d be easing into grim, grey winter.
I had wanted to visit that great island ever since reading Isabella Tree’s Islands in the Clouds, a vivid account of her journey to the Papua New Guinean Highlands. And who wouldn’t want to go to a country where, as Jay Griffiths tells it in Wild: An Elemental Journey, “Wanting to meet someone at dusk a person might say, ‘I’ll see you when the bird of paradise sings.’” The Lonely Planet guide made it sound even more thrilling: “Travelling in PNG can be challenging,” it warns. “With almost no tourism infrastructure and limited information available in books and on websites, it can feel like you’re stepping into the great unknown.” The combination of a country I’d long wanted to explore and The World, which would take one comfortably, expertly and safely to places where outsiders rarely venture, where there are still culturally intact indigenous populations, was the opportunity of a lifetime.
For most of the year The World sails the oceans, spending a few days at sea then stopping off at tourist hotspots – Rome, Sydney, Cape Town, Rio, Hong Kong. A few times a year, however, there is – and here’s that emotive phrase that caught my imagination – a “Captain’s Adventure”, when the ship goes into expeditionary mode. These are itineraries for those who want something more off the beaten track. And the great thing is that you and I can join the adventure. Though the ship is owned and run by those who have bought apartments onboard, some 35 per cent of these self-same apartments can be rented out, just like hotel rooms. You simply check the ship’s itinerary, consult with Abercrombie & Kent (who organised my whole trip), see which part of it appeals and then join the ship at the most convenient port.
Papua New Guinea sounded perfect. A wildly exciting country, its huge main island is divided down the middle, with Papua Barat to the west, run very contentiously by Indonesia, and PNG to the east. Then there are some 600 islands – some quite large, such as New Ireland and Bougainville (the names are relics of the days when missionaries and traders took it upon themselves to hand out names), others no more than small atolls. It is a country of more than 800 different languages, hundreds of different tribes, deep ravines, forests and famous Highlands. Particularly thrilling is the fact that, thanks to the rugged terrain and far-flung islands, many of its people have retained not only their separate languages but also their own cultures, rituals and ceremonies.
As recently as 1933, four Australian gold prospectors had found a large community of people who had no knowledge of the outside world. They were living, undiscovered by legions of adventurers, in a fertile valley between two jagged mountain ranges. They had no wheel, no metal, no glass. They wept and wailed when they saw the white men. These days, the tribes in the Highlands are one of the great tourist draws; their rituals, dress and dance are some of the most colourful and exotic in the world.
But there are still peoples, such as those living on the smallest, outer Trobriand islands, who can only be visited by ships and who see no more than two or three a year. For budding anthropologists it is a fascinating destination, but there’s so much else besides: clear warm seas, great underwater life, second world war relics, extraordinarily colourful birdlife (25 per cent of the world’s songbirds evolved in PNG, making it, as the onboard expert Michael Moore put it, “a very cool place biologically”) and lush flora – not to mention lots of strange carryings-on for people-watchers.
PNG would take a lifetime to get to know and we had just 10 days. The captain and expeditionary team had worked out an itinerary that took us to some of the most interesting places the boat could reach – fortunately, The World has a shallow draught and could get surprisingly close even to small islands. First stop was Rabaul, which has two of PNG’s hundreds of rumbling cones and craters. Once a languorous South Seas paradise, today Rabaul is a rather desolate little town. It lies in the shadow of the perpetually grumbling Mount Tavurvur, which, along with nearby peak Vulcan, exploded in 1994 and all but destroyed the town. Volcanologist Jonathan Kunuan led a party up to the rim of the caldera to gaze into its sulphuric, spitting centre, while military buffs went off to see the wartime Japanese submarine base.
But it was the Baining fire dance that gave us our first real glimpse of PNG’s cultural riches. Up we went through the forest to the mountain village of Gaulim, where we witnessed a spectacular ritualistic dance of the semi-nomadic Baining people. As the sun went down, the whole village began to gather, the fire was built up, the women began to sing, and out of the shadows came ghost-like figures wearing huge masks made from bark cloth, bamboos and reeds. Like all fire dances, it involved lots of different acts, with the men walking through the hot coals. Through these elaborate, night-long dances, the customs and myths of the tribe are captured, celebrated and remembered. As Dr Nancy Sullivan, an anthropologist who speaks Pidgin, the country’s unifying language, explained, “The ephemeral nature of the masks makes the fire dance very special – these elaborate creations are used just once and then thrown on the fire when the dance is over.”
From Rabaul we cruised through the waters of the Solomon Sea to the Trobriand Islands. Along the way we stopped to visit islands straight out of Robinson Crusoe – clear turquoise water, pale sandy shores, coconut palms, thatched huts (sometimes on stilts), and everywhere warmth and lush abundance. The ship’s staff were always on hand to help, zipping us ashore in Zodiac inflatables to visit hot springs, palm plantations and second world war relics. Ornithologists would take us up through rainforests to catch frustratingly fleeting glimpses of the brilliantly coloured Blue-eyed Cockatoo, Long-tailed Mynah or the Red-knobbed Imperial Pigeon – “such a wanton waste of extreme beauty”, mused Michael Moore.
Back on ship, we would gather each evening in the lecture theatre to be primed for the next day’s activities. The anthropologists would explain the elaborate cultural rituals we were to witness. Major-General Maurice Dodson, a second world war historian, reminded us of the dramatic events that took place in the South Pacific, while marine biologists, ornithologists and naturalists filled us in on the extraordinary flora and fauna.
Always, the local people on the islands had been contacted in advance by the anthropologists, so that we would arrive to find them ready for their “singsings”, colourful combinations of dancing and singing where everybody is extravagantly costumed. Here we’d see close up the brilliant feathers garnered from the amazing birds that trill away in the forests.
From the port of Madang there was an optional two-day excursion into the Highlands, flying to Mount Hagen and into the heart of PNG. Here, many of the tribes still live in a state of perpetual war, with vendettas and paybacks a way of life, where within living memory head-hunting and cannibalism were rife. Body painting, we learn, is not just a form of self-expression but, like singsings, a way of establishing tribal identity. We viewed the most elaborate of headdresses, which sported the longest, most colourful bird-of-paradise feathers. The extreme geographical isolation of some of these tribes has preserved their many different customs and rituals, all of which are still vibrantly alive, not mere displays for tourists. This region is home to the famous skeleton warriors, the Huli wigmen and to the wildest of dances, funeral and marriage ceremonies.
The Trobriand Islands, though, were the highlight of our trip. This is where the famous anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski carried out the studies that led to his seminal works, Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922) and The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia (1929). Once the Trobriands were regularly visited by trading boats, but after the arrival of container ships they were abandoned and these days they get few visitors. On the beautiful island of Kitava we found a culture scarcely changed from the time Malinowski lived there a century ago.
We learnt about many of their customs and were all intrigued by the “kula ring”. The Trobriand Islanders seem to have cracked the present-giving problem. They recycle them. But they recycle them ritualistically, investing the giving and the receiving with much meaning. Participants travel in high ceremonial gear, sometimes covering hundreds of miles in beautiful kula canoes, which we saw beached up on the sand. Kula valuables usually consist of red shell-disc necklaces that are traded to the north (circling the ring in clockwise direction) and white shell armbands that are traded in the southern direction (circling anti-clockwise). Nobody is ever allowed to own the kula valuables permanently – they have, in good time, to be passed on and exchanged. It sounds idyllic but there are, Malinowski discovered in the early 1900s, “many squabbles, deep resentments and even feuds over real or imaginary grievances in the Kula exchange”.
On Kitava we spent an amazing day, watching the singing and the dancing, the young men with their kula valuables draped round their bodies, the young girls in their finery, getting a glimpse of a way of life few people get a chance to see. We wandered over the island and bought artefacts from the islanders.
We swam and snorkelled in the sea, picnicking on another nearby island. From there we set sail for Port Moresby and the long journey home. What was curious, though, was that when we got back, our friends weren’t half so interested in the cultural traditions of Papua New Guinea as in the tribal customs of the people on The World. What, they all were dying to know, were the residents really like? Were they awful? Was it a tax dodge? Well, for the record we loved it and, no, it isn’t a tax dodge.
The residents weren’t quite as fascinating as the Trobriand Islanders but they did offer an insight into contemporary wealth distribution. Many were much younger than you might imagine; the average age, I’m told, is 55. There appeared to be little inherited wealth, most had made their money themselves. Very few live on the ship all the time. The average time an apartment is owned is seven years; the average length of time spent aboard is three months a year – a very expensive three months.
If you think you’re going to become bosom buddies with any of the owners, think again. As a guest, you are largely excluded from the nightly round of cocktail and dinner parties held in the apartments and restaurants. There were in-jokes and well-known stories, just as you would find in any circle of friends who’ve known each other for years. We were aboard for Thanksgiving, and a charming Englishman invited us to join him and his party for dinner. And a middle-aged New York couple – she very interested in design, he having recently sold a publishing business – included us in some of their meals. But mostly, if you rent an apartment, you’re essentially an outsider, passing through occupied territory.
There are always some apartments for sale, ranging in price from $825,000 to $13.5m for a six-bedroom penthouse. The running costs, however, are awesome – between $200,000 and $300,000 a year, depending on the size of the apartment. Our apartment felt just like home. It had two (small) double bedrooms, two bathrooms, a sitting room with eating area, a small kitchen and a balcony. Apparently, the notion is that it should feel like a private yacht. Well, it doesn’t. It feels much more like a cruise liner without the vulgarities – none of the cheap entertainments or the celebs – but all the facilities you could want: spas, a fabulous library, cinema, casino, restaurants, a tennis court.
The price isn’t cheap but it is all-inclusive, from laundry to food, drink, tips and extraordinarily charming service. What made going on The World special for us was not the food (it’s fine, though nothing like as good as it should be) but the itinerary, the wonderful service, the planning and the experts they’d got on board. If you’re young, energetic and have plenty of time, then exploring PNG on your own would be an amazing experience. For us, it needed more time and gumption than we could muster. The ship won’t be going back to PNG for a couple of years but the captain has several more adventures planned. Residents were getting excited by Greenland (they all raved about the previous year’s expedition to Alaska and the Bering Strait) though, to be frank, Brazil appealed to me more. Whichever itinerary you choose, it will doubtless be brilliantly planned. You’ll be able to explore from a base of great comfort and you’ll have world-class experts to guide you as you go.