Surfing’s Last Frontier: Papua New Guinea

There are still perfect, unridden waves out there, as Craig Tansley discovers on an off the grid surf trip to Papua New Guinea.

On my first overseas surf charter, I took a yacht through Indonesia’s Mentawai Islands off the west coast of Sumatra. I wanted to find waves I couldn’t ride at home; the kind of waves I’d only ever seen in surf movies, the waves I drew on exercise books in high school maths class. But what I found was boat after boat of surfers with exactly the same desire, and many of them were willing to do more than I was to live out their fantasies. And so at my first break – off a dreamy, coconut tree-clad headland – two Brazilians took it in turns to take over my perfect wave. It went downhill from there, with other wave-crazed surfers invading my space, at times narrowly avoiding collisions.

The trip made me question surfing in the modern world – the few great waves I caught were not enough to negate the nagging feeling that finding the perfect wave was simply a dream now. Even if there was such a thing as the “perfect wave” and I happened to find it, surely I’d be sharing it with hundreds of others.

And so I paddle into my first Papua New Guinea surfing line-up feeling both relief and excitement. There are no other surfers here, and the skipper of the surf charter boat I’m on says that in 13 years he has never seen another soul on these waves. He should know – his boat, PNG Explorer, has been the only surf charter vessel in the whole country.

I’ve flown to Kavieng in the country’s far northeast, via Port Moresby. From there, we steamed overnight westward along the New Ireland coastline to New Hanover Island. At dawn, I find myself in a pretty bay surrounded by islets and a lot of coconut trees. Villagers paddle past in wooden canoes, while children play in the water beside the boat.

Papua New Guinea is surfing’s very last frontier. While territorial locals rule the waves of so many other surfing meccas, here in PNG, the only locals I share waves with are kids on old boards discarded by surfers on the PNG Explorer.

The boat’s owner and skipper Andrew Rigby stumbled upon these waves by chance. A mad surfer hailing from Victoria, he was in this part of PNG with his dad, catching lobsters for live trade, when he saw the potential of the breaks – some of the nicest waves on the planet, and no one on them. Despite his inexperience at anything remotely tourism-related, Rigby leased his dad’s lobster boat and started a surf charter business operating out of Kavieng.

Things were rough in the beginning. Even today, don’t go expecting the PNG Explorer to be the Queen Mary. There are no cold towels and welcome drinks, and no one makes your bed every day. But you can enjoy a cold beer on the deck (just mark it down next to your name on the tally sheet), there are good, frothy lattes whenever you want them, and there is lobster for every meal if you want it – when I’m on board,  locals delivered more than 100 kilos of the crustaceans to the boat.

The luxuries on this charter don’t come from the trimmings – they come from the exclusivity. There are no other surfers within 100 kilometres of us, and there’s no surf boat for at least 1,000 kilometres. The best waves PNG can deliver are all ours. That’s all the luxury you need right there.

On my first morning aboard PNG Explorer, I wake at dawn to survey conditions. There are only two of us on board the boat, getting ready to tackle a perfect gentle-breaking right-hand reef break. Endless waves peel off, and the only company I’ll have is an old bloke in a canoe which paddles past 100 metres further out to sea. While there are some dangerous breaks in this part of the world, the waves in PNG are not that powerful, and are generally less threatening than those to the east in Tahiti and Hawaii, and to the west in Indonesia. This – combined with the higher costs and hassles associated with getting here – stops the brigade of testosterone-charged surfers who frequent other camps around the world from descending in droves.

In the middle of the day I fish from the boat’s tender – a canopy blocking the equatorial noon sun – and watch marlin jump nearby while spinner dolphins ride the bow waves of the boat. But it’s a surf in the late afternoon that I look forward to most. It’s when the water is dead still, once the afternoon trade wind dies down. As the sun sets I ride perfect head-high waves. Each time I kick off one, I feel like I’m riding in my own surf movie. We motor back to the PNG Explorer in time for fresh sashimi on the back deck as the moon rises and the stars come out, dazzling in their brightness thanks to the fact that there’s not a single artificial light for 100 kilometres in any direction.

When the swell drops, we steam north to an island called Emirau. There’s no airport on the island and, except for the occasional visiting doctor sent to check up on the locals, villagers here won’t see any westerners other than those on this vessel. We pull in to a protected passage between tiny islands, anchoring in clear, blue water. A small community lives on the beach beside where we’ve anchored. Five kids paddle out to greet us. The smallest balances on the front of the canoe, watched over by his older siblings. Over the course of the surf trip we become firm friends, despite the language barrier. Some days we hand them fish we catch in exchange for coconuts they bring from the shore.

On our voyage back to Kavieng we stay close to the coast, giving me the opportunity to study the wild mountains, wondering what kinds of creatures call them home. There are no other boats around, nor are there any hotels. If this was anywhere else on the planet, surfers would’ve descended on this paradise en masse and opened scores of surf camps. But despite its proximity to Australia, PNG still manages to keep its secrets.

While charter boats like the PNG Explorer continue to operate alone in a country teeming with unseen surf breaks, there will always be the perfect wave waiting for me, with not a single other person to spoil the ride.

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