Is It Safe To Go To Papua New Guinea?

Australian Government travel advice on Papua New GuineaIs it safe to go to Papua New Guinea – a question I have been asked a lot, but generally only from those people who have not yet been to PNG.

The honest answer is no, Papua New Guinea is not 100% safe, but in my experience the risks are manageable and are far outweighed by the overall experience.

PNG is certainly not without it’s faults, but it is unique country and, for the adventurous traveler, offers a very special experience.

Prior to moving to Bali, I was based in Sydney for over 15 years and can honestly say that I never had a single situation where I felt threatened or in any real danger there – is that because Sydney is 100% safe?

No, it’s not… and what it really means is that I used my common sense and avoided areas or venues where there could be trouble. Coincidentally I have been also been visiting Papua New Guinea on a regular basis for about 15 years and also never had a single situation where I felt threatened or in any real danger – again because I used my common sense!

Should you go? Well… the fact that you are reading this would indicate that two weeks laying on the beach at a resort somewhere is probably not your cup of tea, so the short answer is yes you should.

Six Mile Market in Port Moresby - said to be a dangerous area

Six Mile Market in Port Moresby – said to be a dangerous area…

Port Moresby – Just How Dangerous Is It?

Unless your final destination is Loloata Resort in nearby Bootless Bay, all scuba diving trips to PNG involve either transiting through, or over-nighting in the capital Port Moresby as it is the only international gateway in to the country.

In my experience this is probably the most intimidating part of any journey to PNG, because there is definitely an element of danger in Port Moresby, plus it’s also an expensive place and personally I don’t find it particularly appealing.

Panoramic image of Port Moresby from  Paga Hill

Panoramic image of Port Moresby from Paga Hill

The danger is principally from the Raskols that have become a permanent and very negative feature of Port Moresby, and some other major cities in PNG such as Mount Hagen & Lae.

Image courtesy of Stephen Dupont

Image courtesy of Stephen Dupont

Virtually every expat I have spoken to in Port Moresby seems to have a “near miss” story and some have stories that are really scary…

But I really don’t think the place is the “near death” experience these stories and the media tend to make it, and in reality I believe it is actually the local people that suffer the most from the Raskols.

A violent crime against an expat will usually bring severe retribution from the police…

Whereas similar crimes against the locals appear to be much more common and not a lot seems to be done about them.

Apparently very few, crimes against expats are planned, instead they tend to be random & opportunistic occurrences where a Raskol seizes the chance that has suddenly presented itself.

For visitors to Port Moresby being involved in such a random event is probably the biggest danger you will actually face, and that is only likely to happen if you are particularly careless, such as walking around unaccompanied with an expensive looking camera or wrist watch, or maybe a visibly bulging wallet.

A local family at Ela Beach in Port Moresby

Local people in PNG tend to sit on the ground and watch the world go by when they have nothing to do.

This can be very intimidating to the uninitiated visitor who will already be semi-paranoid about raskols just waiting to pounce!

While it is unlikely that they will be wearing a T Shirt with “Raskol” on the front to identify themselves, the fact is that you will probably know one should you cross paths with one…

So the trick is to use your common sense and get out and see the things Port Moresby has to offer (see below), but use the guided tours offered by all the hotels to do that.

The guides will know the potential trouble spots, who the possible trouble makers are and steer you well clear. Just in case you are wondering what a Raskol actually does looks like, check out Australian photographer Stephen Dupont’s image gallery.

Dupont is quite a guy – he specializes in what he calls fragile cultures & marginalized peoples and in 2004 he managed to get to the “Kips Kaboni” (Red Devils) Raskol community and  Papua New Guinea’s oldest gang, to allow him to spend time in their midst and document the individuals in the gang.

Apparently it took him several trips to Port Moresby to build the trust needed, but eventually he was able to set up a makeshift studio in their squatter camp in which to photograph his subjects.

Other Locations in PNG and General Safety Tips

Away from Port Moresby, in the bigger towns such as Alotau in Milne Bay and Rabaul & Kimbe in New Britain I have often wandered around alone and never experienced any problems.

Some excellent general safety tips I picked up from the Lonely Planet are as follows:

– Use a Bilum: Bilums are the locally made colorful string bags that everybody seems to use in PNG and using one does a lot to neutralize the flashing “I’m a tourist” sign above your head that draws attention to you…

– Raskol money: Have some money ready in your pocket in case you do have a “raskol moment” and keep the rest of it well hidden.

– Pay Friday: The locals get paid fortnightly on a Friday and the younger men get on the grog in a big way – stay well clear…

Is It Safe To Go To Papua New Guinea – Additional Reading

Kirra Salak's excellent Four CornersProbably the single most effective book to put the potential dangers of PNG into perspective is Kirra Salak’s excellent Four Corners.

Written in 2001 when she was just 24 years old, the book documents her journey from the south coast of the main island of New Guinea, all the way to the north coast.

The terrain she crossed and the hazards & dangers she faced are quite amazing and at times almost unbelievable.

That she did at all is an incredible feat in itself, but not only did she succeed against all odds in some of the hardest possible conditions, she did it as a single white female.

It really is an fantastic story, but what makes it such a wonderful book are the insights she provides into some of the local people she met on the her journey who went out of their way to help & protect her.

It made my “adventures” in PNG seem like a trip to Disneyland and I realized that like most things, danger in PNG is a relative thing…

An interesting paper well worth reading is “Keeping Safe – How international volunteers manage crime & violence in Papua New Guinea” by Joe Weber.

Joe was the Country Director of Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO), a UK based development organization that provides volunteers in developing countries.

This meant that had the overall responsibility for the safety of the VSO volunteers in PNG.

His paper provides a rational view of the risk and the strategies available to mitigate those risks.

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