May 2016: After spending a week traveling to the Korowai tribe in Papua, the Indonesian side of the island of new Guinea, I traveled across the Indonesia and Papua New Guinea (PNG) land border from Jayapura to the remote jungle outpost of Vanimo. I would end up staying 4 days in Vanimo and one day in the capitol of PNG, Port Moresby. I had spent collectively almost a month visiting the tribes of the interior of Papua so my main goal for the PNG was to experience some of the idyllic coastal villages and also to relax after my long arduous journey to the Korowai.

 

 

Vanimo

PNG is an independent country that comprises half of the island of New Guinea. The other side although consisting of the same tribal cultures belongs to Indonesia and is named Papua. Cannibalism and headhunting were practices that ended in the late 1900s with the introduction of Christianity, but tribal warfare is still a reality in many parts of the country especially if hiking guides take tourists into tribal territory that is not their own.

PNG was a British and then Australian colony and it saw fierce fighting in World War II between Japanese and Australian and American troops. Relics of the war are still scattered all across the island. PNG eventually did become an independent country but still relies on Australia heaily for economic support. PNG is one of the poorest countries in the world despite its immense mineral wealth. PNG contains one of the last great rainforests in the world and vast tracts of it in the island’s interior remain virtually unexplored.

 

 

Crossing the Border

Looking at Google Earth before the trip, the whole northern coast of PNG is rain forested with one small road all the way until Vanimo before disappearing into a patchy network of rugged logging roads that go all the way to the Sepik River. I initially planned to travel to the Sepik River and hire a small motorboat to travel upriver and visit villages, but I had to cancel that trip because of mysterious headaches I was having after visiting the freezing cold of the Siberian Arctic in winter. When I did choose to return to the Papua region, I chose to visit the Korowai instead of the Sepik region. But I wanted to see some of the PNG too so I decided I would visit the Vanimo region across the border from Jayapura.

To get to the border I hired a taxi in Jayapura and went to the border with my visa in my passport for the PNG. The border had fickle opening hours, so I waited in a border post for hours with a group of Indonesian soldiers with a pet parrot. I ended up befriending them, one Iam still friends with years later on Facebook, and together we went into the market to buy watermelon, which I carved up with my knife.

Once the border did open, I said my goodbyes, received my exit stamp and crossed under a giant arch in between two walls and a kind of Noman’s land separating Indonesia and PNG. The arch over the entry way to the PNG stated, “Jesus is Lord Over this Land.” The PNG side was a basic hut with a group of men chewing beetle nut. They were friendly and curious about my visit and welcomed me to the PNG. From the border post I waited for a shared van to gather enough passengers for the few hours’ drive to Vanimo, where I planned to stay in a hotel.

 

 

Border crossing into PNG

Eating watermelon with borderguards in Indonesia side of the border of PNG

Vanimo

From Vanimo I organized a few trips up the coast to explore some of the villages, waterfalls, caves with skulls and an uninhabited island where I snorkeled.  During the rest of my time, I relaxed in Vanimo, a sleepy tranquil tropical village on an idyllic beach with thatched roof houses and a few government buildings and an open market where villagers come from far and wide to buy and purchase various products. There are a handful of hotels in town run by Aussies and the hotels also run bar/restaurants used widely by foreign expats and locals alike. My hotel was also the one where the pilots for my flight stayed. The flight departed every few days, so they had a short vacation in Vanimo, and I sat with them one night on the beach watching the sunset drinking cold beers.

Vanimo was an easygoing village, and everyone was friendly and constantly stopping to shake my hand and invite me over to their table wherever I was dining to sit with them and buy me dinner. I enjoyed just walking around the town and going for a casual swim while drinking the canned coke/rum drinks imported from Australia but there was definitely a problem with mean drunks in Vanimo. This was not an issue I encountered in Papua. In Vanimo I would typically run into one angry drunk on the street every few hours and they would threaten me in pidgin language and sometimes even follow me making hostile remarks. I would always walk the other way and avoid eye contact.

 

 

Vanimo Beach

Vanimo Market

Exploring the Vanimo Coast

I hired a 4WD jeep and driver and drove up the coast to visit some of the villages and to hike out to a waterfall and go for a swim. I also found out that there was a sea cave with skulls in it. The skulls were old and came from a time when villagers would practiced cannibalism order to assume the powers of the deceased and what remained of the skeletons and skulls would usually be stored in a sacred place like a cave.

Typical village house

Children swimming at low tide

Village graveyard

Village beach 

The cave was in the outskirts of a village along some sea cliffs, and we didn’t know how to find it and it was not a tourist attraction, but something considered scared, so it was strange to ask around. We followed protocol and asked for the chief’s permission, but the chief was gone and only his wife was present. She offered to take us to the cave instead and we hiked down a steep rocky limestone cliff to get to it. it was an opening with a dozen or so skulls and hundreds of bones fragments that had crumbled over time into dust. The chief’s wife refused to go in with us because of spirits she said. 

Canibal cave

Canibal cave

The next stop was a waterfall that I hiked to. To find it some village kids led me through the jungle and showed off their jumping skills once there.

Village kid eating beetlenut at the waterfall

Having fun at the waterfall

My favorite thing was taking a small dugout canoe out to a deserted island and swimming on the beach with the village kids who joined us in their dugout canoes. I didn’t really snorkel instead all I did was pick up kids and toss them around while they laughed and had a great time.

Deserted island

Village kids in their canoe

Me playing with the kids

Village kids

Village kids

Village kids

Village kids

Village kids

From Vanimo, I flew in a small twin prop plane to Port Moresby over spectacular rainforests. In Port Moresby i took it easy because I was exhausted, and the city was known for its high crime rate, but I did go out to a hip hop night club by my hotel which was a weird experience. From Port Moresby I flew home via Philippine Airlines.

 

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