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Papua New Guinea - Paradise across the water

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Papua New Guinea - Paradise across the water

Some places just make you pinch yourself.

The sun has danced a merry jig all over my face throughout the day and left its trademark glow. Intermittently a cool zephyr blows in from across the calm waters, beyond the mango trees that grow from the sand, to cool my tingling brow. I sit on the balcony of my beach bungalow, relaxing with a bottle of SP lager, gazing out over a calm slice of Pacific perfection and the tropical trees that gently wave their foliage in the breeze. After some reflection I pinch myself and say, "Some fool is paying me to do this."

The stresses of my city life have evaporated as fast as my shorts have dried after a day's snorkelling in the waters off Rabaul. The memories of hiking up to the base of an active volcano are still fresh in my mind and the complex tastes of fresh, delectable market food are still pulsing across my palate.

It's been a mere 48 hours since I arrived in Papua New Guinea (PNG) but my mind is already replete with stories and my body bears the marks of many experiences.

Lifting the cultural mask
It's before dawn and the tropical heat is already causing my body to sweat. From across the shadowy water with a huge glowing red sun as the backdrop the beat of a drum can be heard. Gradually something comes into view; strange silhouetted figures writhe on the water's surface. My brain cannot quite keep up with developments. I know this is the arrival of the kinawai spirits - here to preside over the impending National Mask Festival but the experience feels far more otherworldly. Maybe over-indulging on cocktails the previous night wasn't such a good idea after all.

With each passing moment the sun climbs higher. Its heat haze shimmers above the water and illuminates an awe inspiring site. Traditional dugout canoes appear on the horizon carrying dukduk spirits. The dukduks are a bulbous sphere of leaves with a large conical headdress and two spindly human legs. They look like a voodoo version of Sesame Street's Big Bird, only a lot more ominous. These spiritual leaders perform a variety of tasks within the local tribes of East New Britain, from healing to meting out justice (in darker times this would extend to performing executions) and their power is revered and feared in equal measure. Their presence on the beach and their role overseeing Kokopo's National Mask Festival is very significant.

One of the most popular events in PNG, this incredible festival takes place next year from July. It sees cultural dancers from all over the country - including the Asaro Mudmen and the New Ireland Malagan dancers - converging on the sleepy town over four spectacular days.

While visitors are encouraged to mingle freely, the festival is a local event and doesn't take place for the benefit of tourists. Accommodation sells out very quickly in the area with visitors often planning their trip 12 months in advance.

Rising from the ashes
Rabaul and its surrounding area has a history of ruin and regeneration. In September 1994 Mt Tavurvur and nearby Mt Vulcan erupted. The ensuing destruction is still evident today and a visit provides a mesmerising insight into the force of nature. The sheer scale of the devastation is hard to comprehend unless seen with your own eyes.

Yet there is tremendous beauty to be found here. Forests of palm give way to huge and desolate expanses. Black impenetrable ash is occasionally pierced by the tiny fronds of verdant green ferns that burst from the ground in defiance. Mt Tavurvur still smoulders threateningly, each day discharing small puffs of smoke and occasional debris. Tourists can visit the base of this volcano and witness bubbling geothermal pools, frozen lava flows and buried buildings.

In fact, over 80% of Rabaul's buildings were destroyed by the falling ash and now the region's capital has moved to Kokopo, which is where you'll find the majority of hotels (see box).

There aren't many places in the world where you can roam so close to a truly active volcano and often completely without the accompaniment of any other tourists. The upshot of this is that visitors can get a truly profound insight into the beating heart of our planet's core and its incredible power.

History comes to life
PNG and the Kokoda Track are no secret, but the entire country is literally covered in World War II historical sites. In Rabaul, which was controlled by the Japanese, spectacular yet poignant reminders remain. After wreaking so much destruction to the environment, wrecked and burnt out fighter planes now lie throughout the jungle, ensnared by nature in an ironic twist.

Tunnels dug by hand are etched deep into cliff faces - many were used by the Japanese to hide from the American bombers and Australian troops as they came through the region, liberating the locals. There are intricate crane systems and rusted artillery pieces protruding from the sea, while gigantic caves still house ships used to transport Japanese troops. All in all the modern history of Rabaul is just as relevant to Australians as Gallipoli, and much closer to home.

But for a very different perspective, visitors can also dive and snorkel around decaying wartime paraphernalia. One of the most popular sites is the Italy Maru - a 5859 ton transport that was was sunk by US Navy aircraft on December 27, 1942. The ship lies on her starboard side in 54 metres of water and is renowned as one of the region's best wreck dives.