Papua New Guinea consists of the eastern half of the island of New Guinea, which it shares with Indonesia, and several smaller islands and island groups off the north and east coast of New Guinea. Much of the nation’s land area is located in the eastern half of the Indonesian archipelago, which is part of a chain of thousands of islands stretched east-west to form the boundary between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Papua New Guinea has four distinct regions: Papua, Momase, the Highlands, and the island territories. Papua is the southern portion of the country’s main island, New Guinea, while Momase is the northern portion. The Highlands are the central portions of the main island. The island territories, meanwhile, are located to the north and east of the main island, and include Manu Island, New Britain, New Ireland, Woodlark, the Bismarck Archipelago islands, Buka and Bougainville in the Western Solomons, and the island groups of Louisiade, D’Entrecasteaux, and Trobriand.
Geographically, the country is dominated by the central cordillera mountain range. There are numerous mountain peaks that reach as high as 15,000 feet, broken up by upland valleys with altitudes between 5,000 and 10,000 feet. Rushing rivers flow through the mountains and valleys, emptying into the ocean in the south. The largest river is the Fly, which flows for more than 700 miles through the plains of the southwest. More than 70% of Papua New Guinea is covered in rainforest.
Beaches and Water Sports
Papua New Guinea has some of the most spectacular beaches and coral reefs in the world. Swimming, scuba diving, snorkeling, windsurfing, fishing, and other water activities are well supported by facilities.
The best diving area in the country is off the island of New Britain at Loloaka, which is a destination singularly dedicated to the activity. Other great diving destinations include Port Moresby, Rabaul, and Madang, whose offshore offer a number of shipwrecks and reefs. In Port Moresby, there is also an underwater club that is open to tourists.
Another great beach destination is Milne Bay, which are the islands off the shores of Bougainville. The beaches there are stunningly white. The Trobriands is the most accessible island group in the bay, but the other islands of Milne Bay such as D’Entrecasteaux Islands and Goodenough Island are more inviting; the former is mountainous and the latter features large stones decorated with mysterious paintings. Most of the islands in Milne Bay have water sports facilities and are touristy, infrastructure-wise.
Game fishing and sailing is best done in Port Moresby where there is both a yacht club and a game fishing club, as well as facilities that aid visitors in both endeavors. Game fishing is also popular at Rabaul, Lae, Wewak, and Madang.
Papua New Guinea has some interesting natural sights, most notably the Chambri Lakes, which serve as habitats for diverse species of birds. It is this region, in fact, that has made Papua New Guinea famous as a birding destination. Birdwatchers are treated to egrets, whistling kites, pied herons, jacanas, brahminee kites, cormorants, darters, and kingfishers. But this series of swamps and canals streamed by the Sepik River that is known as the Chambri Lakes region is also thick with jungle-like vegetation and infested with crocodiles in its salt and freshwaters. Visitors can tour along the river in canoes and spot traditional pottery-making villages, while listening to a cacophony of bird chirps.
The Baiyer River Wildlife Sanctuary about 35 miles north of Mount Hagen of the Western Highlands is another worthwhile natural attraction. This is the sanctuary of famous birds of paradise, but you’ll also find tree kangaroos, cassowaries, parrots, and possoms in their natural habitat.
Wau, a former gold mining center, is home to the small museum and zoo, Wau Ecology Institude. Nearby, you’ll find McAdam National Park, the Tami Islands, Mount Kaindi, and the coastal town of Finschhafen – all areas where visitors can spot cassowaries, birds of paradise, rhododendrons, tree kangaroos, native butterflies, and crocodiles.
Kundiawa has some local caves that were once used as burial sites. The caves can be explored today. The Mendi Valley in the Southern Highlands also has some limestone caves and is home to the Huli Wigmen who wear signature elaborate wigs and paint their faces in traditional yellow and red.
Hiking enthusiasts should explore the tourist trails of New Ireland and the Manus group of islands where islanders float down the Sepik in their traditional log canoes. The Purari, Wahgi, and Watut rivers have rapids that are great for white-water rafting. Mountain climbers can visit the country’s highest mountain in Simbu Province, Mount Wilhelm, which stands 1,480 feet high.
Papua New Guinea is home to thousands of tribes and distinct cultures. Many villages are lined along the banks of the Sepik River. In many of these villages, you can get a taste of New Guinean tribal art. At Angoram, the village’s Haus Tambaran (which is the place of ancestral religious worship) has an example of art representing each area of the Sepik River. At Kambaramba, tourists can take a dugout canoe tour and observe the tribal houses built on stilts and decorated with distinctive architectural gables and posts. The village is also known for its local crafts and carvings on Haus Posts.
In the upper regions of the Sepik River, you’ll find more insect totems that are decorated with art making use of rhinoceros-beetle motifs and striking insect eyes. The dwellings in the villages have notably elaborate stepladders. In the village of Waskusk, the Haus Tambaran has ceiling drawings depicting a clan leader’s dream. The village of Yigei is famous for its sounds of Sepik-Style Garamut Drums. Swagap Village has some elegant pottery, fine canoes, and signature yellow and white architectural designs.
In the Eastern Highlands, visit Goroka and its JK McCarthy Museum, which has a comprehensive collection of regional artifacts. Only about 7 miles away, you’ll find the village of Bena Bena, which is noted for their handweaving skills. The village of Asaro features reenactment performances of a historic revenge on a neighboring village; men are coated in grey mud and re-enact a legend in which the villagers, after being defeated in battle, dressed up as ghosts and frightened the victors away by pretending to be ghosts.
The climate in Papua New Guinea is tropical. Temperatures in the lowland, island, and coastal areas generally average about 27° C (81° F). The highlands are much cooler and generally average about 16° C (61° F).
There are several thousand distinct tribal communities in Papua New Guinea living in thousands of villages and speaking in more than 850 different languages; as many as 160 languages are totally unrelated to each other. These staggering figures in such a relatively small area of the world have a lot to do with the rugged terrain of Papua New Guinea, which has imposed isolation on the various groups.
Most of the people live in the coastal areas, interior valleys, and Highlands. The mountainous areas and vast swamplands are largely uninhabited. Increasingly, more and more Papua New Guineans are moving to the towns and cities in search of better opportunities.
For most Papua New Guineans, life revolves around the village. Men build houses for their families and each village typically has a longhouse that serves as a ritual center. Religious rites and worship of ancestors take place in the longhouse. Each village generally has a rectangular-shaped park, which serves as the village’s community center; dances, feasts, and social gatherings take place there.
Humans have lived on the island of New Guinea for more than 50,000 years. The first people hunted, fished, and gathered edible plants. Farmers arrived later on and introduced fruits and vegetables, as well as domesticated dogs and pigs.
The first Europeans to discover New Guinea were Portuguese and Spanish explorers in the 1500s. In the early 19th century, the Dutch colonized the western part of the island (present-day Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua). The Germans arrived later in the country and settled the northeastern part of the island while the British took the southeast. In 1906, Australia took over British New Guinea, governing it as an Australian territory. They eventually claimed German Guinea during WWI. The northeast and southeast were eventually joined to form the Australian Territory of Papua and New Guinea.
In 1973, the Territory of Papua and New Guinea were granted independence and renamed Papua New Guinea. The country is a parliamentary democracy with the British monarch as the head of state. Most of the people today live on a subsistence level, producing their own food, shelter, and clothing. Food crops such as bananas, yams, and sweet potatoes are grown and livestock are raised. There are also copra plantations and mining that take place. Papua New Guinea is home to three of the world’s largest gold mines.