Papua New Guinea
Surfing’s Last Frontier
There are already three dug-out canoes full of staring kids behind our boat. I wave and salute them with my coffee mug – enough, clearly, to bring them undone. They burst into long bouts of giggles, although the smallest kid just stares at me like I’ve got two heads. There are coconut trees, warm blue ocean and – except for the nine other blokes on this boat – not another surfer within a hundred kilometres of us. In 30 years searching for the best breaks around the globe, this is the first time everything looks exactly the way I imagined.
I’m on the only surf charter boat, the PNG Explorer, that operates full-time in Papua New Guinea. There is one other, the Indies Explorer III, but it’s only here for some of the season. The surf season in PNG runs between October and May, and for those eight months the PNG Explorer will ply its trade up and down New Ireland’s east coast and beyond, pausing at spots never before surfed by anyone who didn’t arrive on this vessel. There are 600 outer islands in PNG, so there are waves breaking right now that have never been seen by a foreigner.
Former skipper/owner Andrew Rigby started this business after stumbling accidentally on these swells. He was here working for his father’s trawler business catching lobsters, but after watching perfect wave after perfect wave go unridden he leased his dad’s lobster boat and started a surf charter business. He’s since sold it.
This is very far from how it is in other less developed countries, where greed, over-demand and corruption rules the waves. The first time I ever took a surf charter overseas, I rode a boat through the Mentawai Islands in Indonesia. I went looking for waves I couldn’t find at home. What I found instead were boatloads of surfers with exactly the same purpose. The waves were as incredible as I’d imagined, but flotillas of boats had anchored beside them, and their occupants were taking it in turns to snatch each flawless break from me.
It got worse the better – and bigger – the waves got. A week in, I gave up the battle, settling instead on the deck of my boat with surf magazines full of stories about seeking out unmatched waves. In 1965, surfers Robert August and Michael Hynson travelled the world seeking out sublime, never-before-surfed waves, a journey captured in The Endless Summer. Their expedition provided the spark for 55 years’ worth of hardcore searching. Now it’s become big business. Surfers have found their way to every reef break on Earth then colonised them, putting up surf resorts, surf shops and bars right beside them.
Somehow, thank goodness, they missed PNG. Actually, thank Andy Abel. The Papua New Guinean has spent the past 31 years devising the world’s most innovative surf management plan. His reverse spiral model gives the power to host communities, rather than rich foreigners or the government.
“My lasting legacy, when I’m dead and buried,” he says, “is that in PNG we’ll always remember who’s the most important element in the surfing equation. Remember who owns the land and the fringing reef.
I didn’t want locals to be beggars and bystanders while westerners came in and took over.”
I’m travelling up the east coast of New Ireland, 500 or so kilometres east of PNG’s main island. In terms of volume, variation and the biological significance of the fauna and flora, the only place that compares is the Amazon Basin. This is one of the most diverse and untouched regions left anywhere on the planet. The sea teems with creatures. Last night, as the sun set, I saw eight sailfish jump in 15 minutes; there was an orca nearby at dawn. If it was anywhere else, it would have long ago been conquered by Club Med or some other chain hotel brand.
I can’t tell you exactly where I’m surfing – there has to be some secrets – but the waves here aren’t of the bone-crushing variety you’ll find in Indonesia. Most of the blokes on board are of intermediate ability at best. But that’s the joy of PNG – there are waves here for the crazies (almost all break over reef and if you combine big waves with shallow reef, there’s always plenty of adrenaline involved), but you’re more likely to find surfers in their 40s and 50s, who don’t want to leave bits of themselves on rocks and coral.
Luxury in PNG comes purely from exclusivity: there are no cold towels or welcome drinks, and no one makes your bed. If you want overwater bungalows, day spas and French champagne between surfs, head to the Maldives.
I surf three times a day, till my shoulders ache, my ribs are bruised blue, and my nose turns red. Between surfs, I take tender rides up clearwater rivers and, on the shaded upper deck of the Explorer, feast on the fish we catch.
Just as important as the surf, though, is the cultural side of being here. One night we’re invited to a nearby village to take part in a celebration. It’s hard to see who’s under closer examination: us or them. PNG remains one of the most traditional places on Earth, and being here on a charter allows surfers to see lifestyles barely tainted by the modern world.
There are surf camps to stay at too, should you prefer a land base. The first camp set up here was at Vanimo, on PNG’s main island, close to the border with Indonesia. Kavieng – where you fly to from Port Moresby – is home to several low-key camps. There are also waves and camps on Manus Island, New Britain and the St Matthias Islands. Amenities are simple, yet comfortable and safe.
Now Abel has paved the way for surfers to ride waves in the formerly volatile, autonomous region of Bougainville. He says this is truly the new frontier.
“It’s taken a long time,” he says. “At every place where I see wave potential, first I need to see if the land owners want us to come. Then I have to see who actually owns the land and reef. I need to find out the genealogy, so that we know how the money will be passed out. [All surfers to PNG pay a flat AU$50 surfing levy then a AU$12 a day fee.]
“When I was travelling around the world surfing, I saw indigenous Hawaiians – some of them with royal blood – living in Oahu as beggars in tents,” he adds. “It made me think this won’t happen in PNG.”
Air Niugini flies to Kavieng via Port Moresby from Brisbane and Cairns.
If you want more information on travelling to Papua New Guinea, head to the official tourism website.