Papua New Guinea's secret fjords

Crossing mountain ranges and thick rainforests, Nellie Huang delves deep into the Pacific island nation to find a hidden oasis.

The emerald green mountains were veiled in a ghost-grey mist as our small aircraft made its way over the Owen Stanley Mountain Range towards Cape Nelson. From the aeroplane window, the mountain peaks resembled the spine of a dragon and the vertiginous fjords its claws, grasping the indigo waters of the Solomon Sea.

Papua New Guinea is the stuff of legends, shrouded in mystery by tales of cannibalism and headhunting. Largely unexplored and unknown, the remote archipelago protrudes from the Pacific Ocean and remains full of impenetrable rainforests and imposing mountains. It’s technically just a hop away from Australia, yet its rugged geographic terrain has made it one of the most challenging and least-visited travel destinations in the world.

My destination was Tufi, a quiet coastal area set right at the tip of Cape Nelson on the northeast coast of Papua. Carefree and laidback, this is said to be one of PNG’s best-kept secrets. Tracing its roots back to the eighteenth century, it was first used as an anchorage for British capital ships but later became a government station.

Tufi has a unique topography characterised by deep volcanic fjords. Geologists refer to them as rias, as a true fjord is created by glaciers while a ria is produced from volcanic activities. The lava flow from ancient eruptions of three volcanoes in Cape Nelson created these long and narrow rias many years ago.

On landing, I was surprised to find that the bush airport was nothing more than a five-kilometre strip of tarmac and a small concrete building. The weekly flights that connect the area to Port Moresby are somewhat of an event for the villagers, who had all gathered to see and welcome new visitors.

by Nellie Huang by Nellie Huang by Nellie Huang

As part of the Coral Triangle, PNG is known for having some of the best diving in the world; the waters have excellent visibility and marine life is extremely well preserved. With such a spectacular location at the mouth of the Tufi fjord, just off the Solomon Sea, I was only a few miles from a string of reefs with visibility exceeding 30m and water temperatures from 26–29ºC (79–84ºF).

Under the water, I found patchworks of techni-coloured coral fans and schools of barracudas, parrotfish and big spotted triggerfish. Stacks of corals and plump barrel sponges jostled for space, moray eels slithered amidst clusters of silver feather stars, while sharks patrolled the blue sea.

My skinny Papuan guide may be in his early fifties, but has the humour and energy of a much younger man.

Having seen the rias from beneath the waters, I was eager to explore its surface. Dozens of hiking trails crisscross the region – there’s even one that stretches from Tufi all the way to Port Moresby – but I chose to do the one-day Lelioa Trek, starting from Tufi Dive Resort, zigzagging through the forest-clad ridges and ending at Komoa Beach.

Led by my local guide Randol, we slithered our way through tall grass, jumped over rainwater puddles, and leapt from one volcanic rock to another. Randol raced along the trail at lightning speed in his barefeet, while I struggled to keep up the pace. The skinny Papuan may be in his early fifties, but has the humour and energy of a much younger man.

Along the way, we stopped at various viewpoints to see the Tufi fjord: black volcanic ridges rose from dark indigo waters, where a few dugout canoes bobbed on the water surface like tiny lego pieces. Closer to shore, the shallow waters sparkled under the sunshine in clear spearmint colors, enticing me to dive in.

At the end of the hike, the thick jungle disappeared behind us to reveal the inviting waters of the Solomon Sea. I removed my hiking boots and dipped my worn-out toes in the clear-as-glass water. That night, I stayed with a local family in their beachfront bamboo hut. We enjoyed a simple dinner, barefoot and cross-legged on the open-roofed veranda and slept outdoors under the starlit skies.

On my last day in Tufi, Randol wanted to show me “something special”. We hopped onto a wooden outrigger canoe piloted by a 12-year-old local girl and meandered up the jade-coloured waters of Kofure River into the McLaren Fjord. We were on our way to meet the Korafe people, the main tribe that inhabit the area.

Unlike the other Pacific nations, PNG has managed to retain a rich heritage, as colonial missions never reached all of its 840 tribes. While headhunting and cannibalism are a thing of the past, most of its population still live in remote communities – only 18% of its seven million population inhabit urban centres.

As we landed at the river bank, a troop of young men and girls emerged with rosewood drums and grass instruments.

The girls wore shell necklaces hung over their bare breasts, hibiscus flowers in their hair, and tapa cloths made of tree bark and ochre dye, while the men donned headdresses made of feathers from colourful birds of paradise, which were valuable heirlooms passed down from their fathers.

As the drums began thumping, girls chanted and the boys let our deep bellows from their throats. Their voices echoed through the jungle, powerful and infectious, and almost hypnotizing.

This was a sing-sing, a gathering to celebrate events like the ascension of a chief or initiation of a young boy or girl. Some take months to prepare and involve hundreds, if not thousands, of people, while others happen almost spontaneously.

It was in that moment I realised the many romantic mysteries I’d heard about Papua New Guinea before my trip had rung true – it really was a remote and moving island.

Tufi Dive Resort is the only accommodation in the area. Lodging is the form of comfortable bungalows perched above the Tufi fjord. Hotel rates start from US$140 for a double room, including transfers and all meals. The resort also organises dives and many land-based activities. You can reach Tufi with direct flights from the capital, Port Morseby. 

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