Friday, December 4, 2009

A few days at the end of the earth

We have just enjoyed a few days in Alotau which is the nearest thing to a large town that there is on the eastern tip of PNG. It is unreasonably attractive. More like a series of Pacific Island post card settings than a real place. As with everything in PNG, every picture does not tell the story.

We had a uneventful flight up in a little dash-8 turboprop with Airlines PNG the second airline of the country, most recently famous for crashing on the way back from Kokoda (not their fault). Domestic travel differs from international and the check-in was a inexplicably long process in a baking, uncooled room with what seemed like half the population of Port Moresby. Everyone was friendly and chatty and eventually we repaired to departure lounge with one printed boarding pass and one hand written one (computer error apparently).

On arriving in Alotau we found a tiny airport building in which to claim our bags straight from the baggage handler's cart. It was hot and humid as we bumped through the ubiquitous pot-holes into town accompanied by the driver's apologies and modest indifference from the other road users.

We checked into the Alotau international hotel a comfortable if rather characterless place down by the water. After lunch we ventured down the road to local travel agents to see what there was to see (it took about 7 minutes to walk around the commercial centre of the town so that was clearly not going to be a major part of the entertainment).

We had, it transpired arrived too late for the half day local tour the nice lady in the hermetically sealed and uncooled office informed us. They needed to advice (ask) the locals before dropping by with a load of tourists, even if the load was only two. Sunday we were informed there were to be no tours as there was going to be a cruise ship in the harbour and it would keep them all busy all day! Humm.

We booked a day trip down to the eastern most point of the island and returned to the hotel. It started to rain and kept it up all night. At breakfast the next day as we prepared ourselves for the day of travelling needed to do justice to the beautiful country the inevitable message came in. The rain had caused the road to become impassable. No tour! As there are a lot of rivers and only a very few bridges, most crossings being fords, this was not that surprising. At this point it appeared that our entire weekend away would be spent looking out of a window at rain – something we do a bit in Port Moresby anyway.

Later in the morning we managed to persuade the hotel to lend us a driver (and the hotel manager's personal car). He took us on a very detailed tour of the town for about 40 minutes. We passed and commented on every place of business, residence, school and public building. He even knew the names of the residents of many of the bigger houses, what they did and how long they had been in the town. (He as was no a guide, just the driver.)

Alotua is a beautiful place and in a considerable contrast to Moresby there was not a single bit of rubbish on the ground, no streaks of buai stain, nothing! Apparently the locals' natural habit of keeping the place clean is supported by a system of on-the-spot fines!

On returning to the hotel there was good news. We had secured a place on a local dive boat going out for a day in the islands on Sunday (despite the presence of 9,000 cruse passengers!)

We had an excellent sunday with Darrel from Explore PNG (highly recommended – contact him through the International Hotel) I even had a short dive and some excellent snorkelling over the coral which is only a few meters from the ridiculously attractive and unvisited beach. The island was about an hour and a half from the town in a fast boat, so this is a reasonably inaccessible place. We saw only one other boat the whole day with a handful of divers on board (apart from the few local fisherman that is). Oh yes, we were the only two people on the boat out of Alotau, though we did meet up with a few others that had spent the night on an island and returned with us at the end of the day at the beach to define days at the beach. Eat your heart out Sydney, Bondi seems like the centre of a Cairo by comparison. (Sandy yes, but hot and crowded too).

The evenings were a little slow in Alotau. Of the four places we knew of to eat two were closed when we tried to eat in them! At the weekend the hotel had a driver that took us about, but in the week the driver was not available and the taxis had all stopped with the departure of the sun. It was eat in the hotel most of the time.

Check out the pictures in Picasa (soon).