January 27, 2012 9:58 pm

Treasured island

Known for its rainforests and remote tribes, Papua New Guinea is also winning a reputation as one of the world’s best places to learn to dive

My learn-to-dive course starts with a bold declaration. You can have, so the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (Padi) manual suggests, “more wildlife experiences in 10 minutes on a coral reef than in 10 hours in a forest”. Batting a mozzie away from my ankles, I cast a look around. I’m in a makeshift classroom in a land where the forest is particularly rampant, alongside a sea which contains a higher density of marine species than anywhere in the world; in short, I couldn’t be better positioned to put that declaration to the test. Provided I can wrap my brain cells around O-rings and how to measure nitrogen in minutes.

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I’m in Papua New Guinea, which you might consider an unlikely place to learn to dive. But I’m not yet sure whether I’m a natural-born diver, so I’m very happy to be in a location which is as extraordinary on the land as it is under the sea.

It is clear as soon as you step off the aircraft at Port Moresby that Papua New Guinea is a great place to avoid discussions on the eurozone. Ninety per cent of the land is covered in forest, sparsely inhabited by far-flung tribes who between them speak 800 languages – but only cobble together a dozen significant roads. Given this scarcity of Tarmac, I begin my trip with another flight, up to a forest-lined airstrip in the highlands.

This is Mount Hagen, where my tour operator, Dive in Style, has organised a couple of days in the Wahgi Valley, 1,700m above sea level, so I can get a feel for the people and the culture before heading for the coast. First impressions are of a tropical Switzerland, an exhilarating landscape that swoops from one cloud-trailing mountain ridge to the next in billows of glossy rainforest. In places the undergrowth has been pushed back to make way for grass huts in clearings surrounded by carefully tended vegetable gardens. This highland community was discovered by outsiders only in the 1930s, when Australian gold-prospectors arrived, and the drive from the airstrip to the lodge at Rondon Ridge is up a rough track past one mission station after another. These days the missionaries spread their message with a radio station: Bible FM, “Hooked on the Book”.

Papuan tribesmen

Papuan tribesmen

Apart from special occasions, nose-bones and traditional costumes have largely been replaced by mobile phones and shorts, but tribal allegiance still holds sway and I get to see it in action on expeditions out from Rondon Ridge, a well-appointed lodge perched in pioneer territory between subsistence settlements and cloud-wrapped forest.

Visiting a nearby village, we stumble across the beginnings of a compensation ceremony, where both money and pigs are being handed over to pay for a road accident in which three members of another tribe were killed. Anywhere else it would involve police and courts but here it is settled with a pig/cash combination that together totals about £30,000 per life, while the driver walks free.

The next day I go up into the forest in the company of Joseph Tano, who once guided David Attenborough during the making of his programme on Papua New Guinea’s bizarre birds of paradise. These are the birds whose extravagant plumage and bouncing, bopping mating displays have made them stars on YouTube, but it seems they don’t perform on cue.

Climbing through dank corridors of giant pandanus, through trees that get taller and more primeval as we get higher, we glimpse the king of Saxony bird, and the brown sicklebill rails at us with a call like a machinegun, but without long lenses and weeks of patience these birds are little more than canopy-grazing silhouettes. The undersea, I hope, will be more productive, as I relocate from highlands to islands.

A bungalow at Walindi

A bungalow at Walindi

My dive resort, Walindi, is 10 miles north of Kimbe on the shores of New Britain, an island with a gently smoking volcanic spine flanked with forest and fringed by orderly rows of palm oil plantations. The coastal people turn out to be slenderer and lighter-skinned than their highland cousins, while the fertility of their soil is redoubled thanks to the volcanic ash which has also blackened their beaches. Here the vegetation is on steroids, the path from my rosewood-built bungalow to the resort’s main building leads through a riot of hibiscus and heliconia, and casuarina trees which are double their normal size.

Walindi was created by an Australian called Max Benjamin, who bought a cocoa plantation here back in 1969, only to realise that there was a far more compelling world under the water just offshore. The giant warm-water (never lower than 28C) bay is full of islands and shallow coral reefs, so it is a paradise for divers, particularly as it is at the heart of the “coral triangle” (with Indonesia and the Philippines), the most diverse undersea region in the world.

But to get to see it I must first pass my Open Water course, which is why I’m sitting in a makeshift classroom trying to get my head around the correct speed of ascent to prevent my lungs from tearing like a paper bag. Fortunately, Dan Johnson is here to help me sort it all out.

It is one of life’s peculiarities that I have crossed the globe to one of its remotest corners to be taught to dive by a lanky ex-roofer from Essex. Happily, Johnson is full of crackling good humour, and knows every inch of the science of diving, its physiology, and ultimately – when we get down there – its marine biology.

For three days classroom sessions are followed by putting routines into practice in the shallow water just by the dive jetty. And then in the evenings I join the rest of the guests at what is in effect a giant dinner party, preluded by drinks at the bar.

Papua New Guinea map

The resort, it seems, is not just for divers. There are international travellers here, come to chill by the sea after cultural immersion in the highlands. But there are also real dive experts, including people who have written books on the subject, making reassuring noises that I’ve come to the right place.

After a couple of days Johnson declares himself pleased with progress and I know why: if I was learning in a cold municipal swimming pool back in London, there’d be little incentive. But every time we get in the water there are glimpses of diamond jacks, and a barracuda hanging in the shadows, as a foretaste of what is to come. My mind performs surprisingly well, despite me being well on the wrong side of 50, and I manage a decent score in the final exam. Then I’m out there, mastering a part of the planet I’d never really considered would ever be available to me.

My initial feeling on the boat out to Restorf island, one of Kimbe Bay’s 25 dive sites, is just how big the bay is, and how unpopulated. The resort is the only substantial building visible on what must be 30 miles of shore.

Under the water at Restorf, though, it is heaving with activity. There’s a garden of garden eels, periscopes up and waving, as giant sea cucumbers vacuum the seabed around them. That’s followed by tables of pink coral and giant purple sea fans, with lurking gloomy-looking rock cod. Rocks of boulder coral are dotted with Christmas tree worms, looking just like the colourful trees you get on a Christmas cake – except these ones disappear into the cake when you touch them.

There are clouds of yellow fusiliers, surgeonfish with kite-shaped tails, tiger-coloured giant clams, and sprawling spaghetti worms, looking like animated string. And there are clownfish galore, defending their pink-fingered anemones in true Nemo style. It’s a whole new world – and, unlike my recent experience with the birds of paradise, it’s up close and it doesn’t run away.

Initially I feel incompetent, down among it all, a bit like a satellite firing the wrong boosters and struggling to stay on course. But gradually, as dive succeeds dive and I meet a couple of small sharks and avoid the lunges of grumpy triggerfish, I learn how to attain neutral buoyancy, to change height just by breathing, and to hover, an artist in a floating world, soaking up all the colours and shapes around me. I begin to belong.

So yes, is the answer – although by now I know you’ve forgotten the question. I’ve done the research and I think the Padi manual is right: you can have more wildlife experiences in 10 minutes on a coral reef than in 10 hours in a forest.

My main problem now, as a newly qualified diver, is what to do next. It seems that, with my PNG experience, I’ve already peaked, and yet I’ve only just begun.

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Details

Andrew Eames was a guest of Dive in Style (www.diveinstyle.com). A 14-night trip taking in highlands and the coast costs from £4,100, including full-board accommodation, tours and transfers and domestic flights (or £5,300 including flights from London). A package of six dives at Walindi costs an additional £260.

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MORE MARINE HOTSPOTS Tim Ecott’s pick of outstanding diving destinations

Tubbataha Reefs, south of the Philippines’ island of Palawan in the Sulu Sea, is remote and only reachable by live-aboard dive boat. Famous for its deep walls, manta ray encounters and brilliantly coloured soft corals, this is adventurous diving within a 13,000 hectare marine park. Two reefs surrounded by deep water are home to large numbers of pelagic species including sharks and several types of whale.

Best time to go: March to June www.divequest.co.uk

Wakatobi resort in the Tukan Besi islands at the southeastern tip of Sulawesi in Indonesia is about as good as it gets. Collaboration with local communities over many years has led to a successful programme that conserves local reefs – home to more than 3,000 fish species – which are easily accessible from a superb small resort.

Best time to go: April to December www.wakatobi.com

Guadalupe Island in the Mexican Pacific is the best place in the world to see great white sharks. Suspended in a cage above the blue abyss you get very close to a visiting population of whites that seem to be less aggressive than those around South Africa – and in better visibility. Sharks up to six metres long pass within a few inches – making these dives unbeatable for photographers.

Best time to go: August to October www.nautilusexplorer.com

Fundu Lagoon on the Tanzanian island of Pemba is a piece of blue-water heaven. It’s got shallow reefs, frolicking dolphins and a luxury lodge tucked into the tree line from where you watch dhows silhouetted against the sinking sun. The diving isn’t too challenging but taking the boat through the channels between the islands makes it seem as if you are exploring a genuine frontier.

Best time to go: June to December www.fundulagoon.com

Tim Ecott is the author of ‘Neutral Buoyancy: Adventures in a Liquid World’ (Penguin £9.99)

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