Silversea Silver Discoverer in Papua New Guinea

Expedition voyage review

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Silversea Silver Discoverer in Papua New Guinea

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Silversea are charting a new course in discovery cruising with the introduction of Silversea Expeditions. Starting with the launch of Silver Explorer in 2009, the ship sailed the Polar Regions offering exploration-style cruises with the addition of the traditional Silversea hallmark luxury services.

The next ship added to the fleet was Silver Discover, she joined on 1st March 2014 and sailed around the Russian Far East and Asia, and finally Silver Galapagos entered service on 1st October 2014, sailing around the Galapagos Islands on alternating 7-day itineraries.

Silversea Expeditions offer off-the-beaten-track cruises to places seldom, if ever, visited by any other passenger ship.

I was onboard Silver Discoverer, a small ship (5,218 GRT) on a 14-day voyage around Papua New Guinea. On this sailing there were just 86 guests with a crew of 96 to look after us, however the ship can accommodate up to 120.

This was my first expedition ocean cruise - how would I enjoy such a small ship? Would I like exploration cruising?

Expedition cruising is not like regular cruising, and anyone wanting to embark on a voyage needs to understand the difference, such as wet landings, zodiacs, life jackets, daily briefings and rash vests! There is no cruise director, no Broadway shows, no rock climbing walls, no 10-deck high atrium, and no afternoon bingo! An expedition voyage with Silversea helps you immerse yourself in the culture, wildlife, landscape and habitat of a region with the help of industry-leading experts and expedition guides who bring it all to life.

I flew to Koror in Palau, an island nation situated in the Pacific Ocean, east of the Philippines and part of Micronesia, popular with divers due to the rich marine biodiversity and WWII wrecks. I had arrived the day prior to sailing, and took a taxi to the port. I was expecting a terminal building or at least some building, but no, the Silver Discoverer was tied up amongst the containers, and so my cab dropped me off right at the gangway! Again, the difference in regular cruising and expedition cruising was becoming clear!

Embarkation was a breeze, I walked up the gangway whilst crew members took my suitcase, and I was then shown to the main lounge to complete the embarkation procedure, all handled by the ships expedition team. After being given a moist towel to freshen up followed by a glass of champagne, I handed over my passport and collected my room key and security pass. Easiest embark ever!

As I made my way along the corridor my suitcase had already arrived; that's the beauty of small ship cruising, nothing takes too long and there aren't any queues. The butler, Mary-Ann from the Philippines, soon arrived offering a choice of bath amenities (Bulgari or Salvatore Ferragamo) and showed the features of the Suite. I was travelling in a View Suite – a comfortable 181 ft² / 16.8m² with marble bathroom complete with rainfall shower. There was a picture window, sitting area, flat screen TV, wardrobe and sofa – very comfortable and a good size for a smaller ship.

That evening, my fellow guests and I met the expedition leader, Brad Siviour, and the rest of the expedition team. There was a lady who specialised in Ethnography, an ornithologist (or Bird Nerd as he introduced himself as!) two marine biologists, a dive master, a geologist, a traditional master navigator and other staff – we were in good hands! The voyage also featured a dive program, and there were maybe 20 guests who were onboard specifically for this – some of the destinations we were travelling to were pretty remote and hard to reach by any other way.

Silver Discoverer sailed south from Palau under clear blue skies and bright sunshine towards Papua New Guinea, and had two days at sea to relax and get to know our fellow guests and crew. I enjoyed lectures held in the ships main lounge, the Explorer Lounge, on subjects such as “Papua New Guinea -a land like no other”, “The Peopling of New Guinea” “Introduction to Expedition Photography” and “The Pacific Ring of Fire” - covering a wide range of 'ology's. When not enjoying the talks, I was out on the deck eagerly looking for wildlife and birds. I was lucky to spot a short-fin Pilot whale breaching out of the water (the only guest or expedition leader to do so I hasten to add!), along with brown footed boobies, heaps of flying fish and gulls.

After our two days on the high seas, we had crossed the equator and arrived at our first port of call in Papua New Guinea – Vanimo. Vanimo is the capital of Sandaun Province in Papua New Guinea and is located on a peninsula close to the border with Indonesia. The zodiac boats were lowered and Brad and the team went ashore to find a suitable landing site and prepare for our arrival. My group was soon called to debark, wearing our special life jackets (a lightweight seafaring version, not the big orange ones in the cabin!) and our complimentary water resistant backpacks and aluminum water bottles.

Getting into the zodiacs was easy - we made our way to the stern of Silver Discoverer onto a special platform where two sailors and the expedition team helped us on to the rubber launches. It was exciting to zip across the ocean in the open zodiacs, the wind in your hair with the occasional sea spray blowing over the bow. Each zodiac accommodates just 8 guests and you sit along the thick edges of the boat – it was very stable and pretty exciting!

It wasn’t long until we saw the landing site and we had our first wet-landing – basically the zodiac gets as close to the beach as possible and then the guests jump out – it was only into about a foot of water– and the tropical warm waters and soft sand felt so good!

 We were greeted by the locals – dressed up in ceremonial costumes with traditional face markings – a real local welcome. One particular man had a pink feather headdress, yellow face paint with red painted eye sockets and a green top lip – a real PNG look. They were singing their tribal songs, known as a “singsing” – and made us feel really special and welcome. They had put on a few demonstrations such as pottery making, weaving, and one lady was even being tattooed with charcoal ink, using a long thin plant thorn in place of a needle. The local school children were on hand to assist us and help answer any questions -  they were just as curious to see us as we were them! It was then time for the main show – and we were ushered to the beach to enjoy the full singsing and dance performance. It started with a steady drum beat and the men of the tribe came onto the sand, wearing nothing other than painted cloth split skirts, seed-and-feather headdresses and white body paint. The women soon joined them and gave the guests a great show. After the performance there was plenty of time to look around the village and even purchase some local artifacts such as hand-crafted wooden masks and beaded bags. As we waved goodbye to the villagers and headed back to the ship, we had a taste of what was to come for the rest of the voyage.

The next day we were in Kopar Village, near the mouth of the Sepik River. After landing in the zodiacs we were treated to about five different singsings, all very different from the previous days, with different costumes and instruments, one particular highlight was the “spirit dance” which is very similar to the Chinese dragon dance. This spectacle was much larger than the one the day before and there was plenty to see and do – we even took the zodiacs up the Sepik River and into the jungle for a river safari. The show in Kopar was great – however we had seen nothing compared to what awaited us in Madang.

Madang, located in Madang Province, is located on the north coast of Papua New Guinea, and is one of the main tourist destinations of the country. A variety of local markets sell artifacts, shell jewellery, and carvings. After a tour to Bulbils, a local village known to produce excellent clay pottery, we were dropped off at a hotel that had extensive grounds and a pool. After a BBQ lunch of suckling pig, we were treated to the most amazing performances and singsings – about 20 different tribes had been arranged to sing and dance for us from all over the region. It was a really special occasion and the local villages had flocked to see the event – a rare occurrence to get all these different tribes together. After the first few tribes had started performing, the sound of the rival groups filled the air with chanting and high pitched singing; it was if each tribe was trying to out-sing the other. The event had a carnival atmosphere about it; we saw the Mud Men tribe and the famous Huli Wigmen, with their bright yellow faces, nose piercings and colourful head gear – the traditional image of Papua New Guinea.

The event was a cacophony of sounds, of bright colours and music and the memories will stay with me forever. We visited many tribes and villages on this trip and enjoyed many singsings, however one of the stand-out visits was the evening trip to see the Baining Fire Dance, about a 45 min drive from the port of Rabaul.

We left Silver Discoverer after an early dinner and arrived in darkness at Kainagunan Village, where a fire was already burning surrounded by a semi-circle of chairs for us to sit on.

After being seated it wasn’t long before the drums sounded in a steady, hypnotic rhythm and the chosen tribesmen emerged from the jungle wearing elaborate oversized masks, made from bark cloth, bamboo and leaves and decorated in black and red paints. The mask are used once and destroyed at the end of the performance. The Baining are a reclusive people and not much is known about them even to this day. Apparently the performers take themselves off to the jungle for a week prior to get themselves in to the right “state” in order to be able to dance through the fire without burning themselves – no-one is entirely sure of this secretive process but we can speculate it includes some hallucinogenic substance or locally brewed liquor.

The full reasons as to why the fire dance is performed are still not entirely known - the secretive Baining people do not let people outside of the village into their tribal secrets, however it is thought it is performed in order to celebrate the birth of new children; the commencement of harvests and also a way of remembering the dead. The Baining firedance is also a rite of passage for initiating young men into adulthood.

The performers danced around the now roaring fire in a circle, matching their pace with the rhythm of the drums. Most had huge masks featuring large painted round eyes and beaks, and wore various leaves, palm fronds and flowers whilst a few others wore disks suspended from penis gourds.

As they walked around the fire, occasionally one would run into it and kick the burning embers, sending sparks flying across the grass and into the night sky. More wood was added to the fire and soon flames were shooting into the sky, and still the performers would rush into the fire, kicking and stamping on the embers. At one point, one of the dancers carried a new-born baby into the fire to celebrate its birth. It was a dramatic performance and one that I felt humbled to have been able to witness; a glimpse into a way of life seldom seen by westerners.

After 90 minutes we were ushered away and returned to Silver Discoverer – apparently the whole dance can last until the morning.

Another trip highlight was looking for the elusive Birds of Paradise on Fergusson Island. It was an early start as the zodiac left the ship at 6am – however most of the guests had signed up for the walk so it was almost a full complement of guests ashore. Our guides took us through a local village then we headed up to see the hot springs. The smell of sulphur was strong in the air as we made our way over the brown and yellow stained rocks to see the small geysers and bubbling mud pools. Back on the jungle trail I stayed back from the group and managed to spot a rare Curl-crested Manucode, a bird of paradise that is only found on the islands of the D'Entrecasteaux Archipelago. It was quite large – about 45cm and had glossy purple, black and green plumage. We also saw local parrots, butterflies, spiders, imperial doves, pacific swallows, atoll starlings, frigate birds, Torresian Imperial Pigeons and more – it was another highlight of the trip – so many highlights on this voyage!

Our final day was spent on Dobo Island, a remote, uninhabited palm-tree sandy island that had some excellent coral reefs surrounding it. The snorkeling gear is all provided on board and you store it in metal lockers positioned down the side of the ship, so you don’t get your suite all sandy. We received a quick briefing by the expedition team on the beach and were soon swimming over the coral reefs, spotting black and white striped fish, various surgeon fishes, wrasse, sea cucumbers and a few clown fish too – or Nemos as we liked to call them. To have this whole island to ourselves was a real treat, and the crew even set up a bar on the sand, providing beers, cocktails and fruit punch!

The entire voyage was one of my favourite holidays ever, (and I’ve travelled a lot). The ships staff and crew were second to none in terms of service and the quality and the knowledge of the expedition team was exceptional. The ship was comfortable and food tasty – but the real star was the destination and the friendly people of Papua New Guinea. I think I am a convert to expedition cruising.

All photos & video (c) Scott Anderson/The Luxury Cruise Company 2016

Silversea Silver Discoverer in Papua New Guinea

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