Papua wood carvings

It is believed that Papua New Guinea was originally inhabited by Asian settlers over 50,000 years ago. The first European contact in 1526-27 was by the Portuguese explorer Jorge de Meneses, who named the island Ilhas dos Papuas (Island of the Fuzzy Hairs). The Spaniard Inigo Ortiz de Retes later called it New Guinea because he thought the people similar to those of Guinea in Africa. Further exploration followed, including landings by Bougainville, Cook, Stanley and John Moresby.

A large, rather daunting place, New Guinea was left alone for several centuries, with only the Dutch making any effort to assert European authority over the island. But in 1824, the Dutch formalised their claims to sovereignty over the western portion of the island. Germany followed, taking possession of the northern part of the territory in 1884. A colonial troika was completed three days later when Britain declared a protectorate over the southern region; outright annexation occurred four years later.

Papua New Guinea is a raw land, remarkably untamed and as variegated as swamp and jagged limestone, mud and moss forest, suffocating heat and Highland chill, plumed, pearl-shelled villagers and prosaic hill people, tiny tree kangaroos and enormous Queen Alexandra Birdwing butterflies. It is this diversity that has, for so long, excited a raft of explorers, anthropologists and travellers.

Today, the country also attracts bad press, and although much of it is scare-mongering, it is wise to remember that PNG is subject to the same problems - urban unemployment, a rising crime rate and environmental exploitation - facing many emerging nations. Remember also that the tourist infrastructure of Papua New Guinea is only in its infancy and that accommodation can be expensive, transportation limited and the food uninspiring.

Port Moresby (population 145,000), the capital of Papua New Guinea and the major exit/entry point for travellers, is located on a superb natural harbour on the southern coast of New Guinea, and have some interesting things to see and do.

These include: Boroko (an important shopping centre that includes a number of restaurants and bars, banks and department stores); Gordons (an otherwise lacklustre area enlivened by Gordons Market, one of the largest and busiest in the country); Parliament House (the new parliament building, built in Maprik haus tambaran or spirit-house style); National Museum & Art Gallery (offers excellent coverage of the country’s geography, history, culture, flora and fauna); Idler’s Beach (a popular swimming spot east of Port Moresby); and Sinasi Reef and Daugo Island (a beautiful reef and white, sandy beaches) are popular excursions from Port Moresby.

Central Province covers the narrow coastal strip along the southern coast from the Gulf of Papua almost to the eastern end of the mainland, plus the southern half of the central mountain range. Northeast of Port Moresby is the spectacular Rouna Falls and nearby Varirata National Park, the first national park in Papua New Guinea. There is a variety of interesting and clearly marked walking trails in the park and some excellent lookouts back to Port Moresby and the coast. North of Port Moresby is Brown River, a pleasant spot for swimming, rafting and picnics.

Madang Province consists of a fertile coastal strip backed by some of the most rugged mountains in Papua New Guinea. Offshore is a string of interesting - some still active - volcanic islands. Lying in the middle of the coastal stretch is the town of Madang, often described as ‘the prettiest in the Pacific’.

The most densely populated and agriculturally productive region of Papua New Guinea, the Highlands also has the most extensive road system in the country, many major towns (Kainantu, Mt Hagen, Mendi) and a culture that is equal parts traditional and modern. The Highlands were thought to be uninhabited until gold miners ventured up from the coast in the 1930s and discovered 100,000 people living Stone Age-style unaware of the outside world.

A region of islands, open coastline, good beaches and rugged mountain ranges, The Sepik is perhaps the most fascinating area of Papua New Guinea. Commanding most of the attention is the Sepik River - a meandering, oily-brown, serpentine flow of water 1126km (698mi) long. The river’s extent, the beautiful stilt houses along its shores, long canoes with their crocodile-head prows, fauna, flower-clogged lakes, misty dawns and striking sunsets make for an unforgettable experience.

Rabaul was Papua New Guinea’s most spectacularly sited city - and perhaps its most beautiful - before it was destroyed by the September 1994 eruption of Tuvurvur. It was built between Simpson Harbour and a dramatic backdrop of volcanoes along the old caldera’s rim and had a very cosmopolitan and friendly feel about it. Today, Rabaul is a weird wasteland buried to the waist in black volcanic ash.

It’s still worth a visit, though, if only to walk around the deserted streets. You can climb all the volcanoes except for the still-smoking Tuvurvur, and the diving in the area is exceptional - the harbour is littered with sunken shipping and war relics. In the hillsides around Rabaul you can explore countless tunnels and caverns - the Japanese dug over 500km (310mi) of tunnels during WWII and local kids will show you the scattered wreckage of Japanese planes.