Adventure on our doorstep
DAWN is breaking on the Sepik. Small groups of people cluster on the river banks, shivering in the morning chill.
The daily business of the village is beginning and we're looking eagerly for our transport.
Someone has thoughtfully placed cane chairs inside the 40-foot dug-out canoe which will deliver us to our next destination, the village of Ambunti, 60km up-river.
I look at other passengers crouched in the bottom of less elaborate longboats, and am grateful for this concession.
It is silent on this magnificent river and after three hours we've seen little traffic, but plenty of birdlife - and this is one of the great attractions of this place: nature, beauty and simplicity.
Despite it's proximity to Australia, Papua New Guinea gets relatively few tourists, apart from the hardy souls who walk the Kokoda Track.
In part, this is due to a perception that PNG is a risky and unpredictable place to visit.
With organisation and local guides, however, it can be a rewarding and fascinating experience in a place that remains untouched by mass tourism and where the people are friendly and unworldly.
We arrive safely at the village of Ambunti and find it is preparing to celebrate one of its most respected inhabitants: the crocodile.
We join about 20 Westerners, mainly expatriate workers, witnessing a spectacle of colour and music as the importance of the crocodile to the village is celebrated in one of PNG's many cultural festivals.
Supported by WWF, this one has the modern aim of teaching villagers the importance of sustainability of the crocodile population.
Twenty-two tribes have gathered for the singsing.
It's a mass of colour, painted faces, wide smiles, shell necklaces, ornate feathered costumes, dancing, drumbeats, and crocodiles.
At first, I think the crocs strapped across the chests of young men are fake; but then the eyes move. They are small, but very real and very alive.
Standing out in the crowd is “the crocodile man”, Alphonse Maven, resplendent in a necklace of 16 large croc teeth and happy to share his story and his tips for catching the big ones.
The Sepik Crocodile Festival is just one example of the vibrant living culture of PNG.
Better known - about 500 foreign tourists attended last year's event - is the annual Mount Hagen Show in the Highlands, where tribes from across PNG gather in arguably one of the most colourful spectacles on earth.
But PNG's attractions are not all cultural. Our first stop, after the capital Port Moresby, is Rabaul on the island of New Britain.
In 1994, Rabaul was devastated by eruptions of two of its live volcanos, Mt Tavurvur and Mt Vulcan.
Tavurvur is still belching and smoking but the residents of Rabaul have grown used to living with its constant eruptions, which leave the town cloaked in grey ash.
It's a surreal, almost-apocalyptic landscape. The main street, Mango Avenue, is now little more than a track through the deep ash, but life goes on regardless.
Astoundingly, frangipani trees bloom along the street.
We're exploring the mysteries of the megapode bird, which lays its eggs deep in the hot volcanic ash at the base of Tavurvur when we get a taste of the mountain's wrath - and it's quite an experience. The earth rumbles, the volcano roars and ash pelts down on us.
Rabaul's rich World War II history has left many relics, including the wrecks of Japanese fighter planes, Admiral Yamamoto's bunker, barge tunnels and a small museum.
Your first stop in PNG is most likely to be the capital, Port Moresby. With a high rate of crime, Port Moresby is not a place to linger, but it is necessary to travel in and out of as you access other cities (roads are bad and sometimes non-existent).
There are some interesting places to visit with a tour guide, including the impressive National Parliament building and the neighbouring National Museum and Art Gallery on Independence Hill.
Travelling in PNG puts you in danger of sensory overload. But it's almost guaranteed to be a place you will find hard to shake from your mind long after you have left.
■ The Sepik Crocodile Festival and the Mount Hagen Show are both held in August each year. For more information contact Papua New Guinea Tourism Promotion Authority on (02) 9414 9020 or check out www.png-tourism.com
■ Air Niugini flies to Port Moresby from Cairns and Brisbane daily and from Sydney twice a week. www.airniugini.com.pg or 1300 361 380.