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THE MANUS PERSPECTIVE

There’s an old copy of the Papua New Guinea Lonely Planet guide sitting outdated, dog-eared and tattered next to me. The opening line of the introduction reads ‘PNG is the last frontier for travellers’. The book runs through the usual list of history, climate and other generally dry and totally uninteresting facts, the photographs are bland and the ‘things to do’ list reads like a bad high-school excursion. If you were looking for a place to go and decided to consult the Lonely Planet guidebook, I am pretty sure you would not end up in PNG – your loss. If following guidebooks is your thing, then go enjoy the ‘loneliness’ of Kuta Beach in Bali. If however, you are interested in finding paradise, read on…

Enjoy your day,
Joel Coleman…

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In 1998 I was living on Lorde Howe Island, one of the most beautiful places in the world. I was fresh out of high school and working as a dive instructor. The captain of the dive boat told me about the time he had spent in PNG with the legendry Jean Michel Cousteau (son of Jacques) sometime in the 80’s. He spoke of some of the most incredible diving in the world, amazing tropical locations and friendly people. His descriptions of Manus Province sounded like he had found paradise. I promised myself that one-day I would get to Manus. It took 16 years, but it was worth the wait and certainly a lot better than what the guidebooks made out.  Surfing, is what took me to Manus, no surprise there, it takes me pretty much everywhere.

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Perspective is defined as: “A particular attitude towards or way of regarding something; a point of view.” Most people’s perspective of Manus Island, PNG is what is fed to them through the media. Very few (I’d hedge a bet and say virtually no) tourists go there as very little infrastructure exists to entice them. But surfers have a different perspective on the world. If there is a wave worth surfing, it’s is a place worth visiting. Furthermore, if there is no information on if there are waves in a location or not, but it looks from the nautical charts and swell maps that a region might hold even the smallest potential for waves, surfers will go. From the frozen arctic waters to the doldrums of the tropics, surfers are out there looking for waves. Well some surfers are, others are quite content to book a week at a resort in Fiji or Bali and think that browsing the carvings in the hotel gift store constitutes a genuine ‘local’ experience.

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A lot of people that surf want to have a taste of the pioneering days; To come around a headland, expecting nothing and finding a new wave, to have it to yourself, to soak it up, to name the break, to own the story. Most people have that dream. But their reality is somewhat different. While most people will tell you that’s what they want to do, they really don’t. It’s kind of like a sexual fantasy, that if lived out may just cause more problems than the fantasy was worth. But then there are the real explorers, those who will push into a new area, take a punt, go around the next headland just to see what’s there and if the elements align, they will strike what they are looking for. The captain and crew of the PNG Explorer are those people. They have spent years going where other people wont; running a charter business where other people say it is too hard. Working with the locals and the local politics that most businessmen would run a mile from.

The rewards, well, the rewards are incredible. They take their guests to some of the most amazing surfing destinations in the world. And they do it from one of the greatest floating toy-boxes I have ever had the privilege of going to sea on, the PNG Explorer. They could have set up their charter business anywhere in the world and easily competed with other operators for clients. But Captain Rigby spent years in PNG as a young sailor and saw the potential for running surf charters throughout the region, so he went for it, followed his dream and now has the most incredible lifestyle business, hunting waves with no one else around. I have returned to PNG many times to photograph, and every time it has been incredible, so when I heard the boat was going to Manus, I locked in my spot.

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Whilst this was not the first time they had taken the Explorer to Manus it still had the feel of an exploratory trip. The swell, winds and tides can throw a lot of curve balls at you in PNG so you never know when a reef may go from lying dormant to rising into a proper ‘stand-up-barrel’ kind of wave. For the first part of this trip, however, we did not get a lot of swell. What we did get was the sheer natural beauty of the islands. It’s easy to forget about the surf when you are floating in gin clear 30+ degree water. The islands are so incredibly beautiful and the water so amazingly clear that it redefined my perspective on what a tropical ‘paradise’ really is. What we lacked in swell during the first half of the trip was more than made up for in the second half, I’ll let the photographs do the talking for just how good the surf in PNG can be. Barrels like this really can’t be described in words.

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Unless you are completely detached from the flow of news and information in Australia, you have heard of the Immigration Processing Center on Manus Island that the Australian government has funded to establish a way of ensuring that no person seeking to enter Australia ‘illegally’ will ever make it into the country. To debate the policy of the Australian government or the will of their constituents is not what I am here to do, there are more than enough journalists and writers on all sides of the immigration debate that can better argue both sides of the issue than I can.

Before I left for this trip I mentioned to a few people that I was heading to Manus, I might have even posted something on Facebook or Twitter. Quite quickly I was hit with several emails from people wanting information on what I was going to do there, questioning whether it is safe, will I try and visit the Processing Centre etc. The day before I left there was even a protest in my hometown of Manly calling for a change in the policy of detainment.

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As it turns out I did end up going to the facility. In fact we anchored for a few nights just off the naval base that has been extended to accommodate the facility and were invited into the ‘wet mess’ (workers bar) for drinks that night. I am sure there are journalists and human rights activists that have been doing their utmost to gain access to the facility without success. All we did was show up with a bunch of surfers, say hello and we were invited in. I was however requested to not take any photographs, a request with which I complied. After all I was not there to ‘kick the hornets nest’.

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What struck me more than anything was the sheer volume of construction work going on there. What was, only twelve months prior, a collection of World War II buildings and a small naval outpost of the PNG government was turning into a city of workers and ‘donga’ shed accommodation to house them. Talking to some of the people who worked there was interesting. The Australians I conversed with were not allowed off the base without being granted special permission. They were being paid ‘danger money’ on top of their salaries and living a life totally separated from the town of Lorengau where the facility is located. This may not be the case for everyone who works there, but was for the people I met.

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Given that, earlier in the day, we had absolutely no problems walking through the town, going to the markets and generally hanging out in Lorengau, the danger money received by the workers seemed a little over the top. Yet, I am not an expert on such things, merely a photographer that likes to surf and will travel to any remote destination where there is a possibility of a wave!

Essentially what I am saying is that the people who I spoke to that worked there had a very, very narrow perspective on what Manus was really like. They’re shut out from the rest of the islands, the perfect beaches, the amazing water, the surf, the diving and the giggling children of the villages. Like the Lonely Planet guidebook and the Australian media, they seem to have missed the point about Manus. The place is incredibly beautiful. Yet it’s the limited perspective of most people who look at a General MacArthur era naval base, that the Australian government is funding into an offshore immigration-processing center (which only takes up a tiny part of one island in an entire province), that has captivated the worlds attention. Of course it is understandable that controversial politics will gain the media’s attention, but not visiting Manus Island Province because of the detention centre is like refusing to visit Sydney because there is a prison at Long Bay.

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I can only hope that there are more people in the world like Captain Rigby of the Explorer, people willing to show how amazing this place really is, people willing to take others there, to let them surf the waves, dive the reefs, get the fine white sand between their toes and the tropical sun on their shoulders, to drink straight from the freshly cut coconuts and dive into the crystal blue water and maybe, just maybe peoples perspective will start to change. PNG is closer to Australia than any other country, it has, in my opinion, some of the best adventure tourism in the world, yet visitor numbers remain very low. I spoke with a political / tourism representative about this in a Port Moresby hotel on my way out of the country and he said that PNG is not trying to become the next Bali, they don’t want mass tourism. What they are looking for are people who want to explore, to see something new, to go where others don’t and most of all they want the local population, the villages and towns to take ownership of these small, community driven tourist enterprises and show people what PNG really has to offer.

Don’t limit your perspective, that’s all I’m saying.

Enjoy your day,
Joel Coleman…

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34 Comments
  • Alan Guest
    Posted at 00:24h, 04 December Reply

    Luved it ,I am a scuba diver every year a group of us take a trip away, Manus/PNG has just gone up the list.
    great pics that make you want to be there.
    Alan

  • Steve Southgate
    Posted at 00:41h, 04 December Reply

    I thought these were some of the most amazing photographs I have ever seen. Absolutely beautiful, what a great eye you have. I loved the colours, the perspective and mostly I loved the warmth. Truly a craftsman.

  • Aidan
    Posted at 01:08h, 04 December Reply

    Thanks for the insights and images Joel. PNG is top of my list – here’s hoping it stays as special as it looks for a long time.

  • tom-paul jagg
    Posted at 01:16h, 04 December Reply

    There’s good, theirs great and theres “Beyond Words” !
    ***HapPy HolidAys***

  • Hans
    Posted at 01:32h, 04 December Reply

    Thanks for lifting the veil of misconception off Manus island…on the bucket list.

  • Mark
    Posted at 01:35h, 04 December Reply

    insane images as usual mate!

  • tom coleman
    Posted at 03:37h, 04 December Reply

    wow, what great photos …. well done

  • Ness
    Posted at 05:34h, 04 December Reply

    Beautifully written article and amazing pictures. I can’t wait to go there!

  • Shaun Levings
    Posted at 05:39h, 04 December Reply

    Amazing photos Joel. I Brings back fond memories of my the first discovery expedition we did there in Feb 2007 with Peter ‘Joli’ Wilson and Troy Brookes. I’ll never forget the wide open eyes of the villagers in the islands to the SE of Manus when we paddled out at Twiggies (that’s what we called the mechanical right). They had never seen surfers before however within a short time they were riding the waves in their canoes like they have probably done for many years…1 guy was even standing up in his canoe and surfing it like a SUP…amazing imagery and great words Joel..well done

  • Hayley Windsor
    Posted at 09:11h, 04 December Reply

    Thanks Joel. Fantastic imagery, and words with soul, message and meaning. Thanks for sharing the journey. Hayley

  • Karen
    Posted at 11:10h, 04 December Reply

    Wow Joel! You have really managed to offer up a different perspective. Beautiful photos and thoughts. Thanks, Karen

  • Mason Daimoi
    Posted at 11:46h, 04 December Reply

    I am from PNG, great to hear and see your positive perspective on our beautiful nation. Awesome photos!

  • Pete
    Posted at 16:12h, 04 December Reply

    Rare images wordsmith 🙂

  • Nigel Wickens
    Posted at 02:34h, 05 December Reply

    Those pictures are insane Joel. you should be proud of your work mate because it is excellent. well done – I might have to get a couple blown up so let me know what i have to do. Cheers, thanks for the memories. Nigel

  • Raymond
    Posted at 10:46h, 06 December Reply

    Great article and photographs. I am going to forward to my daughter Laura and son in law Cheyne they are Manly residents and know your outlet there. They are also adventure tourist types, Cheyne does the paddling, Laura the photos. Keep up the great work.

  • Martin Laurie
    Posted at 15:14h, 07 December Reply

    Hi Joel, I’m originally from PNG (New Ireland Province) these photos and your experience brings happy memories of a childhood growing up.
    Folks with a sense of adventure can enjoy a holiday off the beaten track.
    Marty.

  • griz
    Posted at 23:20h, 10 December Reply

    After considerable investigation Maunus , and particularly an island just off it’s NE coast has gained a lot of my attention. After reading and viewing your profile piece it has now become a compulsion to get there. Absolutely gorgeous images mate that only confirm what I hoped.

  • gary beasley
    Posted at 05:23h, 11 December Reply

    great story and photos. brought back great memories, did one of the last trips to manus and admiralty islands with stumpy our guide and our drunk captain. think shaun levings set it up. didn’t have the greatest swells but the sheer adventure of knowing that not another surfer was within 500 ks of us made it worthwile. what a beautiful undiscovered place.

  • Connor Cantrell
    Posted at 02:44h, 24 March Reply

    Well done!! Thanks fort sharing. How is the surf accessibility from the land? If I were to buy a one way flight, where should I land? I would like to explore the island for myself.

    • Joel Coleman
      Posted at 02:48h, 24 March Reply

      Hi Connor, without a boat like the Explorer you would want to be one very, very intrepid traveler or just accept the fact that you can’t really get there. There is no real access to surf from the main island and accommodation is virtually non existent…

  • Brian Alois
    Posted at 10:54h, 27 March Reply

    thanks for visiting my island home, Rambutso.

  • Jacob Matambuai
    Posted at 11:23h, 27 March Reply

    Well done Joel…
    Great article, amazing photographs.
    I am from Manus Island and am extremely happy that you have exposed
    what Manus has on offer in terms of adventure and tourism.

  • Rister Sovo
    Posted at 22:38h, 27 March Reply

    Thank you Joe for puting the Manus Isles in the spot light. I am from Lou Island Manus. I am now a 51 years old female who still love surfing. And the island life. I read articles about surfing in PNG with great interest. I grew up surfing with the boys and girls on our island at a very early age. Most of them are real experts. Back than we didn’t know surfing boards do exist. We surf using sawn timbers or our body by stretching both arms in front or on our side and ride the waves.it was great fun. I take my kids there during school holidays and they love it. I hope one day to own a surf board even if I am not going to use it. Maybe my grand children will. Thank you once again for sharing Manus paradise with the rest of the world.

  • k silver muloue
    Posted at 09:27h, 28 March Reply

    Absolutely superb pictures of magical scenes.. On your trip I invite you to visit my place, Tong Is which is situated at the eastern part of beautiful Manus Is. It is a dormant volcanic Island with three beautiful lakes each has distinct colours:- black/green, orange & blue (these are visible from plane when kvg/mas or mas/kvg). You might discover somethings never seen any where else on the Planet??? Thank you so much..

  • Peter Molean
    Posted at 23:38h, 28 March Reply

    Awesome photography …fantastic write up !
    Might venture to say this is only a little dip into the treasure chest of this magnificent undisturbed island paradise deeply rich in generations old maritime traditions..next time you’re there enquire about a ‘little known’ gem: the Pacific’s largest traditional ocean-going canoe and let the locals sail you away in its magic to ‘undiscovered’ surfing locations and more!

    Sunamist!

  • Dot
    Posted at 04:40h, 29 March Reply

    Thank you for posting the fantastic photos. I was born on Manus and it brought back lots of memories growing up as a child on this fantastic island.

  • Purpleman
    Posted at 09:39h, 29 March Reply

    Nice Pictures….

  • Polo Kepiniu - Manus Island
    Posted at 13:46h, 01 April Reply

    Great words indeed.. I took Andy Abel to Bundrou, my village which is about 20 minutes by boat from these waves, and he liked it. the pictures? rare beauty.. Thanks Joel Coleman
    pkepiniu@gmail.com

  • Christine Tewi Tomokita
    Posted at 05:51h, 02 April Reply

    Wow beautiful as it is Manus Island. You are such a wonderful place to live on earth. I enjoyed seeing these pictures and thankyou for taking these photoes as I have not visited islands, places and beaches on Manus Island. Great job!

  • Cecilie Williams
    Posted at 07:38h, 03 April Reply

    Im an Australian Manusian who has only returned from Manus Island back in Jan 2015…I fell in love. Amazing people, energy is just incredible. My family have land about 20 mins from Loney Bridge, Pwah is the name of our family land. My memories as a young child were vivid, my father with Dept of Education. Returning 42 years later was an experience I will never forget. From a family of fishermen that trawl the waters in the early hours of the morning…to bring painted crayfish for the evening feasts. Manus has the wrong type of media coverage…tourism has been minimal for years. Your photography has captured the true beauty of this majestic place, thank you so much.

  • kat
    Posted at 09:48h, 03 April Reply

    Wonderful article, amazing pictures.

  • Lina Kewas
    Posted at 02:57h, 10 August Reply

    Fantastic article and photos. I am from Manus Island from the West Coast from a village called Lessau Village. Great article about my little island. Thank You

    Lina ( pitaluh ) Sunamist

  • Jon Hastings
    Posted at 05:08h, 14 February Reply

    Great article! I lived on Manus for a few years prior to independence and my dad was the last Australian ‘Kiap’
    Back then in the early 70’s there was an old balsa mal that we all used to try and ride in the river mouth, apparently it was left there by a US navy guy in the 60’s

    I went back in Feb 2014 for my 50th birthday and took a couple of boards with me, not really knowing what I’d find. Well I had the best time, my only regret was that I was only there for 6 days. I had some great waves up to double overhead, which was a bit scary on my own. Named the left break off Hawai ‘Kiap’s ‘ in honour of my dad.

    I can’t wait to get back and take my wife as well as possibly assisting the locals with some micro-enterprise initiatives.

  • Kutan
    Posted at 23:54h, 06 November Reply

    Thanks for the positive comments I saw about Manus plus the beautiful pictures you took. I am a Manus lady from the Island of Tilianu closer to Rambutso Island. Your beautiful pictures reminded me of my young days when I used to travel by canoe using sail and coming across huge waves. To me, Manus is a Paradise.

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