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Wednesday, May 10, 2000

PAPUA NEW GUINEA

Postcards from the flip side of Japan


By DAVID LARKING
Staff writer

Think of the antithesis of Japan. A place where there are few people, an abundance of unspoiled natural beauty, a low standard of living and, perhaps most importantly for the visitor, sparkling blue oceans teeming with fish and alive with coral reefs.

Japan -- one of the most expensive countries in the world. Papua New Guinea -- a place where $10 will buy you a three-course meal, a round of golf complete with caddy, or, if you have the connections, the death of your worst enemy. It's a place where life is cheap, but the lifestyle is luxurious.

The expats in Lae, a small city some 30 minutes flight from the capital, Port Moresby, believe they have the best of both worlds. This city is small enough to avoid a lot of the crime that is rampant in places like Port Moresby and the highland city of Mount Hagan, yet big enough to offer the facilities which make life so comfortable in this tropical wilderness. A selection of fine restaurants, an immaculately groomed golf course and a bustling marina that gives access to the nearby Huon Gulf make this city a mecca for the sports lover.

After a flight from Narita to Cairns, then to Port Moresby, and over the highlands to Lae, I found myself plunged into an environment as different from Tokyo as I could imagine. The drive from Nadzab Airport, some 45 km from Lae, was a real eye-opener.

The scenery is one step removed from the Stone Age. Grass huts line the side of the roads, with the ever-present Coca-Cola signs and an occasional vehicle the only signs of the modern world. By the side of the road, Papua New Guinean locals stare as the vehicle drives past, more often than not brandishing a wicked-looking bush knife in one hand. My guide informed me that it is prudent to lock the doors at all times, and, she warned, never stop the vehicle.

Approaching a small settlement that seemed to have been carved from the surrounding wilderness, my guide told me in a matter-of-fact voice that we were approaching a "trouble spot."

"My friend was shot here recently," she said. "She was driving past and some rascals tried to stop the car in front with a shotgun. They missed and some pellets hit her in the neck."

Despite the danger, I was assured her friend had survived, and that life in PNG was simply a matter of taking precautions. Like living in a compound with 2-meter fences topped with razor wire and patrolled by guards. Like vehicles with armored glass to obstruct stray bullets. Like not leaving the house at night or even in the day, unaccompanied.

Yet all these things were not enough to spoil this beautiful country for me. While PNG has some problems, it also has advantages that, in my opinion, more than make up for the negatives.

I had three goals on this trip -- to dive, to go fishing and to play golf. These three were accomplished in such style and at such marginal cost that I left the country with little but positive thoughts.

After an evening of torrential tropical rain, Saturday morning dawned -- as clear and perfect a day as you could wish for the weekly golf tournament at the Lae Country Club. The golf course was in superb condition, with tight fairways and deep sand bunkers ringing the greens, all framed by the encroaching jungle ready to swallow a stray ball. To hook or slice on this course is to invite disaster.

That evening, following dinner at a local Chinese restaurant, I retired early because Sunday promised to be a big day -- the annual ladies' fishing tournament.

As predictable as clockwork, the rain stopped on Sunday morning in time for the regatta to leave Lae Harbor. Heading out past the Markham River, which sends out a constant stream of mud and trees from its highland origins, we headed for a small island named Jawani.

The captain pointed out that the goal of the trip was to catch the big fish.

"There are a lot of marlin and sailfish taken in these parts," he said. "But to get the big fish you have to find the big currents."

That day was to prove an unlucky one for our boat, with a few strikes taken while trolling, but no fish landed. Although this was a minor disappointment, our arrival at Jawani for lunch more than made up for it.

The island appeared on the horizon like something out of a tourist magazine. Ringed with tropical palm trees and circled by a thin white beach, I watched the depth sounder as we approached. Just 10 meters offshore it was still reading about 100 meters; then we reached the sides of the underwater mountain that has the island as its summit. Glancing over the side I saw the water alive with fish circling through the coral garden that surrounds the island.

Mooring the boat to a tree, I donned a mask, snorkel and flippers and plunged into the lukewarm water. Diving on walls, for me, is one of the best ways to see the myriad marine life that abounds on reefs, and Jawani proved to be no disappointment.

Pulling up a seat on a submerged log near the beach after lunch and enjoying an icy cold beer, I considered the differences between Tokyo and Lae. I looked at the unspoiled coast of the main-land, covered with trees and without a dwelling in sight, before turning my gaze to the boat that had taken me to this island paradise. I considered the crowds and pollution that are an intrinsic aspect of life in Tokyo, and then thought of the dangers that are equally intrinsic in PNG before deciding that while Lae is a unique holiday destination, I would still prefer the safety and convenience of Tokyo.



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