Gora Bara Bara PNG
Huge Manta-rays glided overhead. We could almost touch them — grey, black, sucker fish clinging to their bellies. It was exhilerating! This was one of the biggest reasons we came back to PNG again; it was worth it.
Young James had been quietly fishing in his canoe and watching the day awake when our boat appeared out of the vastness of the Coral Sea and came to rest right next to him. Surprise, surprise, but he spoke perfect english and soon we were enjoying a delightful chat. Before long James pointed to one of the many islands and invited us over to his little slice of paradise. We couldn’t believe our luck when he said the name “Gora Bara Bara” — the PNG home of giant manta rays!
We were able to anchor in a large sandy patch just 90 m from the land and were even closer to the small coral head where the Manta Rays congregate to have their parasites removed by an assortment of tiny fish.
The 40 people on the island were very hospitable, and we quickly made friends & traded for fresh fruit. The chief was a remarkable 95 y.o. His oldest son James Snr had been the head engineer & master diver for one of the liveaboards that had pioneered diving around PNG. A most helpful chap. We spent a day with him visiting several nearby muck diving locations, although a beautiful coral garden just near our boat was as good as any. A better place for us to anchor would be hard to find. After six days we felt part of the community.
This is a more substantial privately owned Island and was an excellent place to stretch our legs along its bush tracks…plus meet up with some past residence. It has resort facilities. When cruise liners are scheduled to anchor people from nearby islands provide a market and traditional song and dancing entertainment. Yachts are welcome anytime and can enjoy a reprieve from boat tucker if the cooks about. The manager is Mark Russell.
p.s. We also met up with quite a few friendly midges here, so insect repellent is a must.
Samarai Isl PNG
It was the bustling capital of the Milne Bay Province before Alotau took over in 1968. Five hundred people still live here amongst many abandoned buildings. A small shop, market, customs, and a hospital keep its status as the central hub of the district.
The shop sells pre-paid digi phones, and there is mobile reception over much of this area. Forget the Internet until you reach Alotau.
Felix Dosi ph +675 73373405 does customs and is very handy when departing back to Australia, but as he doesn’t do the necessary quarantine and health, he was not much use when clearing in. We needed to save that until we reached Alotau.
The hospital’s health manager is Alex ph +675 72051277; he is very grateful to receive donations of medical supplies and children’s clothing from visiting boats. Even outdated medicines & boxes of cheap panadol are better than nothing!
Samarai’s main attraction for us was scuba diving around its derelict wharfs. The bottom is covered with big steel beams, pipes, old tyres bottles, rope and bric-a-brac dating back over 50 years. An excellent place for muck diving with lots of corals and critters amongst the tangled mess. Several big schools of bait fish were also quite spectacular and great fun to shoot with our fisheye camera lens. We were able to anchor in 11m depth 70m out from the jetty and reverse back; there was always a fisherman to help tie our stern rope to the old pier. Stepping of our back step straight into the weird and wonderful was so good.
Kato Island passage PNG
This is a perfect anchorage when first arriving or departing .
It felt like we were in a perfect lake, but were actually in a pass between three islands. A calmer prettier anchorage would be hard to find. We donated a soccer and netball to the local school and traded with a continual stream of well-spoken children. Exercise books and pencils were their main request. When we needed quiet time, we hung out our ” Resting sign “
Dave lives on the tiny Island of Bonaloahilihili at the western entrance and was happy to show us around his place which included a personalised man cave complete with state of origin rugby pin-ups…a sign of afluence we had never seen around PNG Islands before.
East of South PNG
Close by to the east are the three large Islands of sariba, sidle and Basilaki. The charts showed the channels that we would need to pass through could be hazardous with currents up to seven knots. It was no exaggeration; we were glad our cat had 160 hp motors as we pushed through Sawa Sawaga channel which was running at six knots in a confused state of spinning eddies and overfalls.
Once thru we found some average muck diving around then ventured further east to locate a well-known WW2 P38 plane wreck that lay in 35m depth at Basilaki Island. We were adviced there was a possibility of Rascals ( gang of thieves) in this area. thankfully we found only accommodating people except for several young boys who hung off the back of our vessel in their canoe, then stole fins that I had inadvertently left on the back step. Lesson learned.
Like most wrecks it had a story to tell. The American pilot was running low on fuel and as he was about to ditch realised that the Bomb on board would quite likely explode in the shallow water he was about to land on, so he regained just enough height to glide to the deeper location where it now rests. He had the remarkable presence of mind to open the roof and throw out his partly filled life raft then jump from the plane as it skimmed the water prior to sinking. He was a short man, and the natives who helped him a shore were fearful that he might be Japanese and kill them. The pilot had heard stories of native cannibalism and was equally scared. But all worked out, and he made it back to his Milne Bay headquarters–minus his plane.
Notes on our security:
The people here are amicable, polite and are lovely to be around, but PNG does have a reputation for criminality. So even though the Milne Bay Area is considered by many to be safe, we took no chances and spent a few minutes each day to keep our PNG experience a positive one.
Even when we had made good friends, there was still a possibility of petty theft, especially during the night. So each evening we locked down the dinghy, OB and fuel tank and relocated valuables from the deck and cabin to our saloon – that included mats, remotes, clothing, and anything which could be picked up …even old shoes. When we were ready to hit the hay, we activated our $50 you beaut eBay alarm system and motion sensor solar lights.
On a more serious level criminal gangs known as rascals are known to pop up around the PNG coast from time to time. Even though I could not find any record of them targeting yachts in this area, there had been recent attacks recorded on a local ferry to the west and several small local fishing boats just to the north of Milne Bay. So with this in mind, of an evening we locked the back door and hatches, except for our bedroom hatch which we had modified so it only partly opened.
Another of our after dark habits was: if we were sitting out the back counting the stars when a canoe arrived – we promptly turned off any lights and shone a spotlight directly on them. We felt a little mean because usually, we then needed to explain to some poor guy trying to trade crayfish that we don’t except visitors after dark, and could he please come back after brecky in the morning. They usually got such a shock we never saw them again, but we thought better to ere on the side of safety.
*As I write this, I have just been advised that a rascal gang went on a rampage robbing shops at Samarai, Alatoa and Tawali resulting in several deaths. Very sad indeed and a bit of a shock to find out this was unfolding just before we left for home and only a few kilometres from where we were anchored. I am glad I had my lucky star (Sylvie) on board.
Paying to Dive
The ocean may be free in Australia but here in PNG landowners believe their property extends into the water. I am not sure of the PNG law; some say it’s to the 12-meter depth. The liveaboards seem to pay anywhere from K5 a diver to K50 a boat, so when you anchored to dive in a popular diving location, you are most likely to be visited by a cheerful man in a canoe requesting you fill in his visitor’s book & make some payment. It is very little money however we prefer to instead pay our respects to the head man first up and explain we are not a commercial vessel, but wish to support their community through gifts such as soccer, net and volleyballs, non-denominational bibles, trading etc. We were always well received and made lots of friends.
Trading with PNG communities
Trading is an essential win-win part of cruising life while in PNG. We receive fresh fruit and vegetables and in return supply clothing, fishing gear, School supplies, medical needs and many many other items which they usually find it hard to source or don’t have the necessary money to purchase. It’s a good feeling helping people, and we’re very generous traders. It can be a lot of fun in small communities but near large populations, we can quickly become inundated with canoes loaded with goods waiting at the back of our boat, then it often becomes a very tiresome and painful chore. When it becomes too much, we hang out a sign ” Sorry we are resting–no trading” and disappear into our cabin
We have found in PNG Minor cuts can more quickly become nasty infections or tropical ulcers, plus we seem to be more prone to ear infections, so we need to take extra care. A full medical kit with plenty a variety of antibiotics is important. We never encountered any mosquitoes, but a malaria testing kit also makes good sense.
To see more of our images of the Milne Bay Province click here.
For those interested in cruising or diving the Milne Bay Province of PNG scroll thru DESTINATIONS on this web site:
Louisiades Sept 2016
Inside Milne bay Nov 2016
Tawali resort refuge Nov 2016
Nuakata Islands Dec 2016
Conflict Islands Dec 2016
Our Next story will provides more info on cruising inside Milne Bay proper. This year we discovered unique diving and photo opportunities under the mangroves at Kana Kobe Bay, got more insite into the workings of the Western province capital of Alotau and one of our favourite destination at Wagawaga.