Archipelago, À Gogo - Winter 2015, Crown Group
An almost forgotten chain of islands off the coast of Papua New Guinea holds a wealth of wonders for those who choose to travel there aboard luxury cruise ship TRUE NORTH, writes Roderick Eime.
We are flying so close to the earth, I’m sure the branches of the thick jungle will slap the undercarriage at any moment. But our pilot, Rainor, keeps a steady hand on the stick, his steely gaze fixed on the ridge above us.
The helicopter rises steadily to the top of the rocky outcrop that juts out from dense undergrowth, the engine straining slightly as we pull up to clear the peak. A small village is directly below and the residents are running about excitedly as we swoop overhead. I try to snatch a photo as the villagers wave furiously, but no sooner have I hit the shutter than we’re in a steep dive towards the jungle floor on the other side. By this time the traces of a cheeky smile are evident on Rainor’s face. “How was that?” his voice crackles over the intercom. No-one answers as we gather our wits, but we’d do it again in an instant.
Here in the air-conditioned cabin of the Eurocopter EC130 B4, seven of us sit in leatherclad comfort as we tour the lush islands of the Louisiade Archipelago on a half-hour joy flight from the helipad of True North. Carrying just 36 passengers, the 50-metre purpose-built expedition yacht has come all the way from its homeport of Broome for an annual Papua New Guinea exploration.
This string of islands to the east of Papua New Guinea’s mainland, first sighted by Portuguese navigator Luís Vaz de Torres in 1606, is still seldom visited by any vessel, let alone cruise ships. During November and December, however, a handful of small ships may drop in for a flying visit—in our case, literally. True North, North Star Cruises’ only vessel, has been visiting the magnificent reefs and glorious tropical islands of this remote chain since 2005.
Unlike the unsympathetic Portuguese, who often shot first and asked questions later, here we are greeted like royalty and welcomed ashore at unheard-of islands such as Rossel, Misima, Panapompom and the evocatively named Panasia. Fresh green coconuts are offered for our refreshment, in exchange for soccer balls and schoolbooks.
The destruction of World War II didn’t affect the Louisiades too much, despite the Battle of the Coral Sea being nearby. A US submarine strayed onto a reef off Rossel Island in 1942 and the remains of a Japanese freighter, the Inaho Maru, grounded in almost the same spot in 1922. Its rusting skeleton, pounded by relentless breakers, is clearly visible from Rainor’s chopper.
But back in Deboyne Lagoon, near Panapompom, where the Japanese had briefly set up a seaplane base, there’s a solid reminder of the conflict. An almost intact Zero fighter lies on the sandy bottom after ditching when its aircraft carrier was sunk during the 1942 Battle of the Coral Sea. Pilot Okura Shigeru carefully landed just off the beach and swam the few metres to shore, leaving snorkellers a tangible relic to ‘discover’.
Apart from our heart-stopping airborne excursions, we are travelling on what may well be the most luxurious live-aboard dive vessel anywhere. Ticketed divers can bring their own gear or hire it for a nominal fee and then dive to their heart’s content in water as clear as Bombay Sapphire.
Our divemaster, Oliver, leads the scuba team onto the remote reefs that teem with both reef fish and the occasional pelagic (open ocean) brute, such as the nasty-looking dogtooth tuna that darts ominously through our group. And we don’t just gaze in bewilderment at the quantity and variety of fish we encounter at such unambiguously dubbed sites as ‘the fishbowl’ at the deliciously named Saru Nom Nom Island.
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