Walindi Plantation Resort

Walindi Plantation Resort lies on the northern coast of New Britain, the largest of Papua New Guinea's northeast islands. Long ago, British and German colonists established large coconut plantations in coastal areas here, but now most of these have been converted to palm oil plantations. 

Jeannie (a distant cousin) and I flew from Brisbane to Port Moresby on September 2, 2017; then to Hoskins Airport in New Britain. The resort is about one hour by bus from the Airport, and is situated on the shores of a very large bay (marked on the Google image below as Stetin Bay, but known locally as Kimbe Bay).  The Bay contains dozens of discrete coral reefs, and these are the focus  of diving here. The resort also partners with a live-aboard diving vessel, the Febrina. Both the resort and the Febrina have a good reputation.

The resort was established about 1985 by an Australian family, the Benjamins, and has been operating since then, now mainly servicing divers and bird watchers. It caters for up to 40 guests. There is a small marine ecological research facility nearby, which caters largely for scientists from James Cook University (Townsville) but also hosts occasional scientists from other nations. Over 20 PhD thesis have been written about Kimbe Bay ecosystems.

My experience in the South Pacific is that it is now very difficult to find diving locations which have not been heavily fished, and as I write this I am regretting that I did not spend some extra cash and enrol on a live-aboard dive trip here.

However, having said that, it has been a pleasant surprise to find that the Kimbe Bay reef ecosystems have not been destroyed in the way of most of the accessible reefs in Fiji, Vanuatu and Tonga, where little remains of the original fish and shellfish communities, or the associated pelagics. Here in Kimbe, there are masses of tiny fish of a huge variety of species, and the occasional small-sized reef fish. We saw schools of small barracuda, however no large sharks or other pelagics. Although killer whales and sperm whales once visited this area, we saw none. We did see a solitary dolphin. It appears that both legal and illegal fishing operations have hugely reduced populations of pelagics, so animals preying on pelagics, like the dolphins, are in trouble.

Kimbe Bay is not far south of the equator (5 degrees) and the significance of this is immediately obvious both on land and in the water. On land, the height of the rainforest (where remnants can still be found near the coast) is staggering. The old rainforest trees around the resort simply dwarf the buildings... I think my jaw dropped open at the sight of these magnificent trees, clearly hundreds of years old. A forest of this height and density could never survive in places where tropical cyclones are a regular feature of 'summer' weather.  And it is the same with coral on the shallow reefs... many intricate and beautiful coral and soft-coral structures can be found...  which again would never survive a tropical cyclone.

The resort has a guest lounge complete with a large number of photos of local marine ecosystems, as well as a substantial library on the marine environment. It appears that turtles and a few crocodiles where once commonplace many decades ago. However now both are rare. We have seen no turtles, and we were told that estuarine crocodiles have not been seen in Kimbe Bay for over 15 years.  I would love to see turtles here... I'm not so sure about crocodiles. In Australia there are a handful of deaths each year from crocodile bites. 

The dry season landscape of Kimbe Bay is characterised by low hills (mostly extinct volcanoes) with a cloud layer hanging at around 200m - giving an atmosphere of mystery and beauty. Small islands are sometimes old volcanoes and sometimes ancient limestone... the remains of what were once coral reefs.

There is enough rainforest left around the resort to create the feeling that we are "living inside the forest'.  And indeed the sounds bear out that impression. During the day, the calls of forest birds never cease. By about 4pm in the afternoon, the insects start, gradually increasing in volume and complexity as the sun tracks towards the horizon. By the time the sun is about to set, the frogs start up, and by the time the stars come out, the frogs are predominant. These sounds, and the lack of wind at this time of year, give the resort a wonderfully peaceful atmosphere. 

Above and below: we dived 12 times. I was pleased to see barracuda at one of the outer reef sites. These are the remnants of once enormous gatherings of pelagics.

Unfortunately, cane toads have been introduced to PNG... where they are no doubt doing untold damage to natural ecosystems, as they are in Australia.

Rain adds to the feeling of peace and quiet within the resort. At this time of year the rain seems to come in rather discrete patches... I would call them tropical squalls if there was wind too, but that seems absent, although there is occasional thunder. It has rained lightly each day since we arrived. I was told that 'winter' is the dry season... (now). Summer is the wet season... "It rains all the time".

Above and below: the ecosystems of Kimbe Bay are particularly rich in anemones and their associated clown fish (immune to the stinging tentacles of their hosts). The tentacles of the anemone below are actually translucent, giving a ghost-like appearance.

And anemones can even be found on mud.

I asked Fred (doubtless not his real name) one of the PNG dive crew about the population of New Britain. He said, rather vaguely, that he thought there were about 500,000, plus an unknown number living deep in the forest. This intrigued me, so I asked a few questions. He told me that a local politician had decided to talk with the forest people. First he had to locate a person who knew how to find a forest village (there being no roads or maps) and who also knew at least some of the forest dialect.

Having found the right person, he gathered a few supporters and started his walk into the forest. At length they heard the sound of a drum. Within a short space of time they located a village... completely deserted. The drum, apparently, was a warning signalling the hasty evacuation of the village. They set up their tents and waited overnight, but the villagers did not return.  This party contained no Europeans... so it seems the forest dwellers avoid strangers of any colour. It seems possible that the forest people have had, perhaps long ago, some very bad experiences with strangers. I thought about the Second World War, which reached into many corners of the Pacific.

"Long may they live in peace, happily ignorant of motor cars, televisions, guns and Donald Trump" I thought to myself... although wondering, of course, about issues like malaria.

"These forest people are not like us" Fred mentioned as our conversation drifted to other matters. "They are huge... giants... like the people of Tonga". I knew exactly what he meant, having been struck by the size and strength of the Tongans myself. Whether hearsay equates to fact, is of course another matter.

Above: where direct sunlight cannot reach, as in this overhang, there are many brilliantly coloured filter-feeders.
Below: these large white nudibranchs are quite common. This one was around 100mm in length.

 

Marine protected areas do exist in Papua New Guinea, as in most coastal countries, but whether protective controls are enforced is another matter entirely. Even in Australia, a relatively rich and law-abiding country, little effort goes to policing marine protection... one can guess the situation here. It is not surprising then that the resort goes to quite some lengths to avoid marking the reefs they use. Although all such areas have mooring points, none of these points are visible to the un-aided eye.

There are other guests here of course. Mick and Brendan from Brisbane. Kathryn and Richard, a New Zealand couple, both keen and experienced divers and photographers. Margaret and Mark, from Dallas Texas, are also keen and experienced. Mark particularly has an eye for detail. He pointed out a partnership between a small fish (goby?) and a shrimp. The shrimp was excavating a burrow, while the goby sat on sentry duty. An amazing partnership between entirely different species.

The cabins are beautifully done... comfortable beds, set quietly away from the central building. Each with its own shower and toilet.  The gardens have been laid out, I think, by a professional landscape architect, and the construction of the bungalows is meticulously designed and constructed. For example, the beautiful polished floors of our bungalow are alternatively wide and narrow boards... a nice feature found in Australia only in the most expensive dwellings.  The replacement value of this resort would run to many millions of AU dollars.

My only complaint about this resort is the food. It is far too tasty, and there is far too much of it. Shortly before I set out on my trip here I put myself on a diet to try to loose some excess weight accumulating around my stomach... But the standard of the food here has made it impossible to maintain my diet...  I will have to loose weight AFTER I return to Australia!

The temperatures here are surprisingly pleasant. Morning air temperatures are around 26 to 27 degrees, and not much hotter as the day wears on. Ocean surface temperature is around 29 degrees (30 on shallow reef tops).

How many resorts can boast of a small volcano in their backyard?  The walk to the volcano is about three hours up and two back, with lunch near the top of the walk.  The walk starts at the edge of the old cocoa plantation. Here there are a few small houses built of wood poles and thatch, and a bit of corrugated iron roofing if some can be found. Dogs and small children, both dressed the same, play near the dwellings. Around the houses, and for a good distance up the slope towards the higher forest, are bush gardens. There are still many of the old cocoa trees, together with banana and coconut. A tall thin palm is grown for betel nut. Chewing this dark red nut is the local equivalent of drinking tea or coffee in Australia. Yuk!  The body soon adapts to the drug, so little benefit is obtained, but the habit has taken root... just as in Australia. There are occasional fruit trees of other varieties: avocado, pawpaw, mango, breadfruit... The lower level of the gardens contains pineapple, yam, and taro.  Pigs and chickens are not nearly as common as in Fiji or Tonga.

As I walked higher, I left the village gardens and entered what seemed to me to be a pristine rainforest. Perhaps there has been selective logging here long ago, but I could see no signs of this. The forest is full of bird calls. It's hard to see the actual birds, except for the local hornbill, an enormous and noisy bird. The forest is quite dark, and very high.  Huge trees, some tall and thin, others massive, tower into the forest canopy. There is no sky... or almost none. Epiphytes are everywhere. The colours of the rainforest are dark green above, brown leaves below. The brown soil looks rich and fertile to my eyes. The path, paved in leaves, is easy walking. Here and there are newly dead leaves of brilliant red or yellow. Every now and then a huge tree protrudes well above the canopy. One was so big I estimated it shaded an acre of ground, and it would take about 20-25 people, holding hands, to circle the massive trunk. I remembered the enormous tree in the Studio Ghibli movie "My neighbour Totoro", and the even bigger tree in the movie "Avatar". While there are mosquitos in the forest, there are no other troublesome pests...  for example the huge numbers of leaches to be found in many wet forests in Australia, Indonesia and Malaysia. In many places the cover of fallen leaves has been pushed aside, and the soil scratched... presumably by some ground-dwelling forest bird.

I could smell and hear the volcano before I could see it. Judging by the dead trees around the volcano, it must have gone through a quiet phase over the last few decades, but has apparently recently heated up. Small pieces of sulphur, perhaps 20 to 50 gm each, have been flung over an area of about 300m radius from the volcano. Even though there was a light breeze blowing from me towards the caldera, the smell of sulphur was thick in the air, and I started to cough and sneeze. The sound was like the 'white noise' you get from a waterfall... only this time it was water in the caldera boiling. Clouds of steam rose into the air.

On the way back to the resort, the day got darker and darker. Then thunder, not too far away. The wind dropped completely and the birds stopped calling. The forest became quiet and still. Then a different sound, like rain falling on a roof... but of course it wasn't a roof, it was the forest canopy. As I walked on, the sound got louder and louder, yet still no rain on my path. A wonderful calmness covered the forest. At last the rain came, falling on to the canopy directly above me, then bouncing and sliding and dripping to the forest floor below. Although I had a raincoat in my backpack, I left it there, so I could enjoy feeling the warm rain on my skin, being in the forest... All around leaves were bouncing and glistening with the rain drops. Wonderful warm rain...

Pristine rainforest, like this (above) is being cleared all over Papua New Guinea at an alarming rate. If you look carefully at this photo you can just make out the path (centre, bottom) I took to reach the volcano. I felt lucky to be able to walk so easily into an untouched 'wilderness' even though this forest was so small.  If you look carefully at the Google image (second top above) you can see that the remaining rainforest is largely on steeper ground around the hills (look for the traces of calderas). This forest is alive with birdcalls .. including the calls of hornbills. 

I had no idea these birds were so big. They are the size of small eagles!  They are highly conspicuous due to their noisy flight. I found them impossible to photograph... so high in the canopy. The photo above is by Markus Lilje.

Unfortunately Papua New Guinea is permeated with corruption and crime, which starts at the very top of the political machine, and seeps through society. PNG is certainly not a safe place to visit or to invest, in spite of the many people who behave fairly and honestly.  The real situation is even worse than the stories which get back to Australia.

 

Notes
I used a 3/2mm wetsuit, with about 7kg of lead (a bit less). I was warm on most dives.
I am taking one Malarone tablet per day (malaria preventative) which has upset my stomach a little.

 

 

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