Expedition cruiser Roderick Eime had no idea what he was doing when he set out for Papua New Guinea aboard Oceanic Princess. That’s why he went!
It starts as a low rumble, a distant reverberation that could have been a thunderstorm somewhere over the horizon. But it rises as an increasingly ominous crescendo to the point where I am looking up through the palm trees frantically searching the skies for the 747s I am sure are about to pass overhead at about 100 feet.
Rabaul is intermittently the jewel of the New England and New Ireland district, the perfect Simpson Harbour, and the glorious Blanche Bay, but it is also framed by a magnificent but volatile mountainscape with but a scant indication of its tumultuous past.
Just the day before, with a technicolour dawn breaking behind us, Captain Scotty guided Oceanic Princess to our anchorage in the port of Rabaul. As we cruised serenely up the bay, pastel hued clouds sat delicately atop the high, distant ridgelines beyond Mount Tuvurvur, which loomed on our starboard bow.
As we stared, trancelike, across the mirror-still waters, our gaze was quickly diverted to an enormous, dense grey plume of smoke and ash that rose quickly into the sky, staining and smearing our previously perfect watercolour landscape.
“BA-ROOOMM!”, the thunderclap came several seconds after the appearance of the cloud and quickly brought the rest of the breakfasting passengers out on deck amid gasps and swoons.
“Mount Tuvurvur,” explains Dr Nancy Sullivan, our accompanying cultural interpreter, “has been acting up like that for the last twelve years – ever since the big one in ’94.”
The “big one” to which Nancy refers was the catastrophic eruption that again laid waste to the town of Rabaul. Again? Yes, Rabaul has been comprehensively flattened by a series of natural and manmade events in the last sixty-something years. Although some semblance of life has returned to the remaining streets, no large scale rebuilding is likely to take place again.
But today I’m disembarking Oceanic Princess after ten days amongst the romantic and superbly isolated islands within and around PNG’s Solomon Sea. It’s been a breathtaking, almost intoxicating exploration of remote tropical atolls and
secluded islets, inspirational encounters with reclusive villagers and wonderful exposure to secret rites and rituals. I’ll always remember our celebrated landing on the island of Kiriwina amongst the Trobriands, where we weren’t sure
for a moment whether we were being feted or prepared for a feast.
This is the new adventure, the 21st Century holiday, where travellers transcend the stereotypical, brochure-inspired, lazy week beside a pool and move into a whole other world. A place where experience rises above star-ratings and
inspiration replaces perspiration.
The unexpected bird-catchers of Egum Atoll, the mesmerising Yam Harvest dancers of Kiriwina and the mysterious spirit geyser of Seuseulina on Fergusson Island blur into head-spinning medley when I try to recount them all at once. But these high points are just a few of the richly rewarding events that occurred en-route from Alotau to Rabaul.
Most of the passengers have elected to stay on for the second leg of Coral Princess Cruises’ “The Place Time Forgot” expedition voyage, and I’m honestly disappointed to be missing the legendary Sepik River, the tropical fjords of
Tufi, and the old colonial glamour of Madang that they are clearly looking forward to over the next ten nights.
Often the subject of unflattering publicity with disproportionate attention paid to the unease in Port Moresby, the rest of PNG, particularly the outlying islands are a bewildering patchwork of languages, customs and diverse ethnic groups. My own brief but thoroughly enriching experience was one of genuine wonder. Even when I pondered the glossy brochure, tracing the route of the voyage, I was in no way prepared for the deluge of experiences in store. When I remarked to Coral Princess Cruises’ Managing Director, Tony Briggs, that the prospectus completely undersold the product, he replied candidly, “I know, I know!”
The array of so-called expedition products currently on offer to South Pacific and Australasian destinations like the Kimberley, Vanuatu, the Solomons, New Zealand and New Caledonia create a perplexing mix that makes choosing nigh impossible. Yet the innate mystery and tantalizingly unexpected nature of these voyages adds great attraction to each itinerary. Expedition Cruising, in its truest form, offers only an outline of the intended trip. The reality is a
titillating anticipation that approximates the sensations once only experienced by the pioneering seafarers who trail-blazed through these unknown lands many hundreds of years ago.
As Mount Tuvurvur’s latest little eruption subsides and another downpour of fine, gritty ash ensues, I load my bags into the van for the one-way trip to the airport and vow to return and complete my odyssey in the land I’ll never forget.
Vessel: Oceanic Princess
Cruise Line: Coral Princess Cruises (Cairns, Australia)
Star Rating: not rated
Tonnage: 1838 GRT
Max Passenger Capacity: 76
Entered Service: 2005
Itineraries range from 10 to 13 nights and are priced from A$6950 twin-share.
Built by NQEA in Cairns, Oceanic Princess is equipped with zodiacs, a
glass-bottomed boat and a specially designed, high-powered aluminium excursion
vessel with awning and toilet.
* 38 staterooms, each with private facilities, sofa, desk, wardrobe, luggage
space and individual air conditioning controls. Serviced daily.
* Australian registered with full SOLAS (international) compliance.
* Large sundeck and Spa Pool
* Internet booth and Comprehensive reference library
* Phone and fax facilities
* Lecture lounge with large plasma screen
* Limited laundry facilities
* Two fully stocked cocktail bars
* Boutique and dive shop
* Air-conditioned public areas