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Australia has a massive draw on anyone from the Northern
hemisphere and a huge numbers of backpackers/travellers/tourists head to
Australia on [gap] year outs or extended holidays
(the possibility to work being the main draw card for many - simply going as far as they can go, without
coming back being the appeal for the rest).
A whole industry has sprung up around travellers, offering hostels, hotels working visas, car rentals, local guides, tours, etc. So for Australia there's a lot of detailed info available on the Internet. Unfortunately most is commercial in orientation with good advice the small unheard voice. So don't get suckered into all of this at home by making commitments to tours, routes and/or prearranged travel; just get a good guidebook and head off – the rest is easy. In Australia (especially at the budget independent end) travel is a factory and alongside India and Thailand you will meet all of the world's cliché travellers here.
By contrast, although it is a relative stones throw away from Australia's East coast (with the best flight connections), few know what or where Melanesia is or take the time away from the huge array of attractions Australia has to visit. Melanesia is hard work to travel but with fascinating cultures and natural beauty.
What follows are only basic snapshot summaries and breakdowns of the factors important to budget independent travellers. Australia have a lot to offer spread over a wide area – it's impossible for this page to be comprehensive.
If you're thinking that the destinations on this page are some of the countries you want to visit and need more planning information then you are strongly recommended to complement what you find here with any of the excellent guidebooks or activity guides for Oz and NZ. Trust us it will make life much easier and fill in the grey areas.
Few have heard of the term
Melanesia. A region in the Pacific (Micronesia
Polynesia being the others) close to Australia (where the best
flight connections are found). The name is derived from the Greek
for black and with a culture different to Polynesia (but with many
The folk here most closely resemble aboriginal Australians with dark skin (hence the racist name given to it by European cartographers). Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Island and Vanuatu are large island chains with few visitors and (outside of a few Vanuatu islands) very limited tourist infrastructure. Islands are typically densely forested with deep valleys and high mountains. Thus few roads. For Polynesia head here.
If you are set on going and need a guidebook or reading material please see a list of recommended guides/books here (go on, have a look!). All guides/books can be viewed in more detail and click-through purchased with Amazon in the UK, US or Canada. Plus shopping through the site is a big thank you (if you have been helped out). To see why click here.
It's worth looking, if you have not already, at the example layout to see the guidelines each section of information is based on – or for other travel advice and site home head for www.travelindependent.info
Get your bearings... show/hide map of the region
Intro: Crikey! The world's biggest island, smallest continent and an icon for round-the-world and exotic travel. Somewhere perfectly civilized, English spoken, a lot of beer drunk, the chance to earn some money and miles from home with loads of places to see on the way there and back. Australia is stunningly beautiful with great infrastructure, it is safe and well set up for tourist – especially backpackers. That also makes it extremely popular with younger visitors and expensive.
How you may experience Australia will depend much on your budget, age and time available. Australia in many parts is a 'tourist machine' of tours, transport, bars and accommodation catering at the lowest possible cost to an army of late teens (to early-twenty's) Brits, French, Germans and to a lesser extent Americans that pour into the country every day with little idea of what they want to see and do apart from have a good time and not spend too much doing so. If you too are on a limit budget you will get caught up in this and either have a fantastic time meeting new people, hanging out, parting – or feel out of place in wanting to get an early night for an early start. At the budget end, standards of food and accommodation are poor value when compared to say Chile, South Africa, NZ or Korea/Japan – such is the backpacking machine churning though traveller after traveller.
If you have a little bit of a higher budget, can afford your own transport and don't worry quite so much about cost then you can move yourself away from town centre mega-hostels – their often specific type of guest and crowded kitchens – into places where you can get the best from a stunning part of the world. For that reason and the fact it is plan and simple an expensive part of the world, you will enjoy it (at whatever age) with more if you have a solid budget.
As with money, time is another important consideration. Australia is huge (and the cost of getting around soon mounts up). For example, making it to Alice Springs its still the distance from London to Edinburgh to get to Ayres Rock. From Darwin, Perth and most major centre that are not on the East coast, it is a long way to anywhere. Roads are great, but you need time (or air-tickets) to travel them.
How expensive Australia is does depend a lot the current strength of its currency the Ozzie Dollar, but with a standard of living second only to Scandinavia and few bargains in big cities, living dirt cheap like in the rest of Asia is simply not possible. A myriad of things to see and do (and party culture), do mean you often simply haemorrhage money. Some travellers love it and end up staying for extended periods (working). Other loath it and quickly more on for less familiar and cheaper stomping grounds like South Africa, Korea, New Zealand or South East Asia.
Sydney, Melbourne, Fraser Island, the Gold Coast (well its beach culture), the Great Ocean Road, neat animals and some generally beautiful diverse scenery and weather . If you have the money, sailing in the Whitsunday Islands is fantastic. Forget the various 'party boats' and plump for a traditional vessel for the best experience – either way it's not cheap, but almost paradise.
The speed you spend money and long distances. In many people's opinion the Great Barrier Reef is not too different (for the average tourist) to reefs that can be seen in Asia and Central America. It is a long way off the coast and in winter the trip can be rough. Although those with the money to dive it (or transfer by helicopter) during the best seasons will not be disappointed.
Typical tourist trail: Cairns to Sydney. Side trips down to Melbourne, Darwin to Alice or to Perth
Dangers: Spending too much money, never leaving
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Normally fairly hot pleasant weather. Darwin can be unpleasant in the wet season and Sydney/Melbourne and the far south can get colder than you might expect in the winter months.
Costs: Coming from Asia you're going to find
Australia expensive on a day-to-day basis. However if making
a comparison with Europe prices are comparable with parts. Nevertheless,
to summarise, Australia is expensive and the Australian
Dollar is a strong currency. Sticking to major cities (as
backpackers do) and covering the country's vast distances
you are going to bleed money, particularly if you want to live
it up to any degree. At least US$60/£40+ per day and that's
with cooking most of your own food. The country is well set
up for independent travellers, so with a student, YHA or
other backpackers' card you can find discounts on transport,
etc and with a highly competitive market you can find
some bargains. Just remember, getting around costs a lot of
money, so does drinking and giving in to all the great
things like parachute jumping (cheaper in NZ) that the
country has to offer.
Incidentally (and probably because it is a long distance trip and thus tourists stay longer and spend more) according to statistics gathered by the UN World Tourism Organisation, when you take total visitor numbers (5.9 million in 2010) and divide them by total tourist receipts the amount spent in Australia is the highest in the world at an average of over $5,000 per person. Way ahead of everywhere else on the list and [tellingly] 2.5 times more than New Zealand. - Ref.
Guide book: Many available, all good. The Lonely Planet: Australia is a good choice, but extremely popular. The Rough Guide: Australia version is a great alternative and recommended. It may not be as well geared to budget travellers, but who cares when there is so much free information and promotional [money saving] material available catered to backpackers available from hostel message/ad boards. It is however, [and typically] a really good read and not boring in the way the Lonely Planet can. For a full list of guides and reading material click here.
Other reading: Recommended by readers are: Down Under by Bill Bryson (known as 'In a Sunburned Country in the US and Canada) which has a fair bit of history and general humour in it. (see details – UK).
Locals: Fine, some backpacker jaded souls in places, mostly friendly
Other travellers: A lot of backpackers from
all over the world, especially the UK and France. Many young first
time backpackers, coming after graduating from school
sometimes on 'Daddy's' money to work or seemingly just
to get drunk – normally both. However too many travellers to
Everyone requires a visa for Australia,
except New Zealanders. Usually it's an electronic visa
called an Electronic Travel Authority (ETA). If American you
need to head to Washington, Los Angeles or Ottawa – or you
can use embassy web sites. Nationals of Canada, Malaysia,
Singapore, Japan and most European countries (if staying for
less than three months) can get an ETA, valid for multiple
entries over one year. Applied for online, there is no visa
stamp in your passport (ETAs are computerised) and it saves the
hassle of queuing or sending off your passport. ETAs can be
applied for on the web with a credit card for AU$20 (see
www.eta.immi.gov.au) or from travel agents and airlines
(for an additional fee levied on top of the cost of the
If you want to stay longer than 3 months, you'll need to complete an application form and lodge it either in person or by post with the embassy or consulate. It'll cost AU$105 (or the equivalent in your country) and takes up to three weeks to process. If you think you might stay more than three months, it's best to get the longer visa before departure, because once you get to Australia extensions cost AU$160. Once issued, a visa usually allows multiple entries, so long as your passport is valid.
Working Holiday Visa (WHV). If you want to work to supplement the cost of your holiday through short-term employment a WHV might be possible. However if you want to travel to Australia to work seriously a WHV won't cut it. The WHV is for those aged 18 to 30 (at time of application), who are interested in a working holiday of up to 12 months in Australia. If your nationality allows it you basically get a 12 month multiple entry visa with the right to study for 4 months and/or work in Australia for up to 6 months (with each employer per visa). If you search the internet for information about the WHV Visa Subclass 417 (most nations) and 462 (Americans among other more exotic nationalities), you can find all the details.
These 12-month working holiday visas are easily available to British, Irish, Canadian, Belgium, French, German, Korean, Japanese, Swedish and Norwegian and Dutch. However, remember work is not always easy to find or guaranteed and a WHV typically only opens the door to casual work (often hard agricultural work which is seasonal) and is not a chance to make a wonderful career – as mentioned you are meant to work for no more than six months at any one job (per visa). You must arrange the visa before you arrive in Australia, and several months in advance. Working visas cost A$230; some travel agents such as Trailfinders can arrange them for you.
The all-important condition for the working holiday visa is that you have adequate funds both to support yourself during your stay – at least A$1000 a month – and eventually to get yourself home again.
Many options. Backpacker
buses (see getting around in the
on the road
section) are popular. Perfect if you are in a hurry or on
your own, but better avoided if there are a few of you in a
group who could club together for more independent means
(such as car hire or Greyhound Buses (for which you can buy
a mileage pass). Car hire is quite expensive given the time you may need and that major rental firms will limit you
to a useless 100km/day, so buying a
car or, better, a campervan and splitting the cost between a
few is a cheaper option if you have the time.
There are quite a few car hire re-locations available around the country, if you keep an eye out and long-term rental deals from local smaller companies can be great value. You will always find the best car hire rates on the Internet.
Train travel is an other option and comfortable, but slightly more restricting as trains don't run as frequently or operate to as many destinations as buses. There are numerous good value rail passes and special 'backpacker' fares.
(air): There are many companies offering internal travel in Australia, the staples of which are Virgin Blue, Qantas and its budget arm Jetstar. They operate on the same basis as low cost/no-frills airlines in Europe, i.e. the sooner you book, the cheaper the price.
It's worth studying both airlines, because it is sometime cheaper to take the outward journey with one airline and the return journey with the other. Of the two, Virgin Blue is more no-frills while Qantas (not Jetstar) provides a free meal and drinks. Note that internal flights booked from outside Australia are free from 10% GST (Australia's VAT).
There is much more information in the budget airlines section of the 'on the road' chapter.
Tourist factor: 9/10 on the main circuit – it's no coincidence that this is the second most viewed page on this site!
Money: ATMs and credit cards
Accommodation: There is a huge variety and range of places to stay, and notably an excellent choice of hostels with good social scenes in most towns: book ahead for the best ones and for double rooms. Camping is widely available at campsites (if you can get to them with your own transport) or in some hostel gardens.
Hot water: Developed country, never a problem
Average cost: US$60-80 double room in Sydney hostel, prices lower outside big cities
Communications: Annoyingly most cheap places to stay charge for Wi-Fi, sometimes at a reasonable cost, sometimes a rip-off if you only need to pick up a few mails. If you don't have a your own device or need a keyboard/screen most hostels have a PC you can use. If you will be in country for a while a local SIM card and data package will be the best option to access the Internet when you just need to quickly book/check something or pick-up e-mails.
Food: Buy your own and cook it in hostels to keep costs down
Hassle and annoyance factor: None
Women alone: Fine
Local poisons for the body: Big drinking culture, smoking an expensive and difficult pastime (smokers in Australia have been squeezed out of bars and restaurants, as well as some beaches and most other public places). Check out Nimbin in NSW and bigger cities for the alternative scene.
Get your bearings... show/hide map of the region
The countries of Melanesia (PNG, New Caledonia, the Solomon Islands and
Vanuatu - the former two not covered here) hug Australia
and are most easily visited from Australia's East/Gold Coast. Despite having huge 'on paper' appeal with amazing cultures and natural wonders, alongside
'out of this world' beaches and spectacular underwater life (arguably the world's best wreck dive locations), these countries are expensive
to travel [extensively] within and getting around outside of
main hubs normally means walking, small aircraft, specialised tour or your own yacht.
Technically the Pacific nations split into the following regions (overseas territories omitted):
Micronesia (Kiribati, Palau, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia),
Melanesia – closes to Oz and Indonesia (Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea) and
Polynesia (New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Easter Island and Nauru). Polynesia is covered in a separate section. There is nothing on Micronesia yet. We are still saving to get there!
Much like the rest of Melanesia, unless you live in the region or are a WW2 history buff, you would be forgiven for not knowing anything about the Solomon Islands.
A former British overseas territory gaining independence in 1978, beset with ethic violence 1998-2003, the Solomon Islands starts where Papa New Guinea stops.
Comprised of 6 main islands and 900 smaller islands, almost all visitors for logistical reason pass Honiara, the capital with regional/national air connections. The Solomon islands are poor, with difficult (often impossible) inter-island connections and island transportation. All major islands (as with PNG) have rugged forested mountain interiors with patchy costal roads that sometimes don't even circle the island. Smaller islands can be coral atols, but (apart from the ones close to shore or 'artificial coral islands' without your own boat you will struggle to get close to a coral island. Travel remains a great (and often expensive) challenge, but with any such challenge you can really leave the crowds behind and get places few ever see.
This is full on adventure travel with all that comes with it. It is actually a concept most yearn for without understanding the reality. If Thailand is not authentic enough for you, if Bali is too full of Ozzies or if you think India is now too full of tourists: come experience the antitheses.
Some like to pitch the Solomon Islands as an 'Under discovered Gem', most are realistic to know that even though they represent a wonderful
unspoilt and forgotten wilderness, with sunken wrecks and coral islands, getting to and around is an expensive, time consuming nightmare
(if not on an organised diving trip/tour). If you do of course spend the time and money there are �on paper� some amazing sights and a chance to be really off the beaten track.
During the Second World War the island of Guadalcanal saw heavy fighting (much close to Honiara) and much tourism is focused on visiting battle locations or diving the huge number of wrecks found close by. If you have seen Terrence Malick's excellent The Thin Red Line, you have a good idea of the beauty of Guadalcanal and many on the locations in the film can be found a few hours walk from Honiara.
Highlights: Okay you made it somewhere few do. Get out of Honiara, drive a wreck, understand and see some WW2 history. Spend the time and get to Malaita or another more remote island.
Lowlights: It is unfair to call Honiara a lowlight, but it isn't a highlight. Lowlights are costs, lack of tourist infrastructure and difficulty to more freely and explore.
Honiara can see a little dull - one long strip along an undistinguished shoreline - but by virtue of the airport all pass through.
Still not far behind the drag is the sort of scenery featured in The Thin Red Line and some the site of fierce battles.
Getting to this area can seem tricky, but a hike to the Mataniko Falls is perfect and easy trip to make in a relaxed morning or afternoon. Locals are pretty useless at telling you where to go, so here is the lowdown:
Jump in a minivan along the main drag (Mendana Ave) and ask to be let out at 'Town Council' - this is actually where mini-vans natural stop and the rough break between town and 'China town'. There you have a round-about. With your back to the sea: directly up hill (Mbokonavera Rd) takes you to the American WW2 memorial, to the left and right are the main coastal road, and the third option is to Mataniko.
Walk up this road (5mins) and cross the river. After the river you see a bank of Chinese shops on your left (buy water). Ask some local here and they will point you to take a mini-van from the corner of the first right in front of you. Take this to the end (5mins). Ask again and walk for 5mins. Keep asking locals. After a while you can't go any further and cross a river (this time without a bridge). Someone will be waiting for you. Everyone will know where you want to go. You will be quoted a crazy fee (e.g. SB$150 access fee and SB$100 guide fee - or whatever they feel they can get away with). Negotiate to a reasonable price (especially if by yourself) and off you go with a guide.
The walk takes you through grass land and then into the forest, down a steep and often muddy slope. At the bottom you have the waterfalls (a lovely spot, but the falls are not anything particularly special). Then you follow the river [bed] to get back. If there has been heavy rain the first 100-300meters maybe deep enough that you can't walk (thus make sure you have something waterproof for money, phone, etc. - or are a good enough swimmer to swim holding one hand above your head!). It may be the case that the water is low, so don't worry and certainly after a few hundred meters it goes to knee and then ankle depth. Keep walking and you are soon back at the point of the river you crossed to get to the village.
Here is a bigger map showing the above. This is a great and not too long hike that show cases the real Guadalcanal on the door step of Honiara. You will see Japanese fox-holes and if lucky bullet casings.
Wear shoes/clothes you don't mind getting wet, take water and something to waterproof your valuables. Travel light. If you don't like steep uneven paths, give it a miss or allow more time. All typical commonsense issues apply: sun protection, water, back before dark - yes mum!
Visa strategy: Easy and free on arrival for most. You will be tapped for an onward ticket before departing.
Typical tourist trail: Honiara, few get beyond. There is a good tourist information office in Honiara that can help and inspire you on your next move.
Dangers: Malaria is the biggest health issue in the Solomon Islands. There are also saltwater crocs and sharks. There are still simmering ethnic tensions Guales (residents of Guadalcanals) and Malaitans, as well as between everybody and the Chinese who as in the poorest parts of Africa have established many businesses.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Late May to December is the dry season.
Costs: Like many of the poorest African states, the Solomon Islands finds itself in the space where the country is poor enough to make it really expensive. Lack of development, local industry, foreign investment and a remote location all compile to mean budgets need to be quite high at times. Move around Honiara in local mini-buses and it costs you nothing. Try and get transport on a remote island like Renell and it will cost you a small fortune. There are few accommodation choices at the budget end suitable for tourists (outside of prearraged homestays) and almost everything is imported. As with the rest of the region, food is expensive and anything of 'western quality' is imported and expensive. If you want to get around by air and venture far from airports your costs will escalate.
Money: Many ATMs in Honiara you can count on and in other major cities.
Accommodation: There are few places aimed at travelers. Accommodation ranges from cheap(er)
Chinese built hotels and midrange hotels in main cities to small guesthouse in less populated towns (but with a
tourist draw or air connection). Costs are expensive comparatively speaking.
Boats: Despite the countries geography there only a basic interisland ferry network. Don't expect someting on par with the Philippines. Sea voyages are long and normally the quality and comfort of vessels is low (read: incredibly basic by western standards). It is however far cheaper than flying. The most convenient ferries connect Honiara with Malaita: The 360 Discovery and the Pelican Express are the best options. You can also connect Gizo with Honiara without too many problems. There are many other services and many ferries make other island calls (but not dependently enough to want to put on a website). With time and effort you can find many other options.
Land: If you are going somewhere remote it is often connected to an accommodation booking you would have made in advance who will collect you. In major towns mini-van travel busy routes. Outside of busy towns and without a previous arrangement getting someone to take you any great distance on an island with few car and high fuel prices will be expensive.
Air: Solomon Airlines is only airline offering domestic flights. All aircraft are based in Honiara. Getting anywhere quickly and efficiently needs a flight. Flights depart for Munda and Gizo in the Western Province daily. Other routes are less regular, but with a far reach. http://www.flysolomons.com/domestic-routes
Communications: Internet is painfully slow and tough to find. There are Wi-Fi hotspots in Honiara, but finding the vouchers to buy to access is not easy. Best best get a local SIM and use the data.
Health: Malaria is present
Food: There is a large Chinese presence in major populations hubs, so Chinese food is never far behind. Honiara has good eating options, but away from the capital food is basic and almost all food outside of fish and locally grown fruit or root vegetables has to be imported and is expensive.
Vegetarians: You're get by.
Local poisons for the body: In the same way Kava seems to have missed the New Caledonia, The Solomon Islands also have only passing acquaintance to kava. It is available, but the local vice is quite clearly (clear from the red stains everywhere) as in Burma and India: the areca/betel nut. It is a mild stimulant, said to promote relaxation, general well-being and a peaceful feeling, meals end with the chewing of betel nut as a digestive aid. Most visitors give it a miss and as with smoking, if you are not accused to it, it is pretty horrible if trying for the first time.
Rating: 6.5/10 (but higher if you can dive a wreck or have the funds to really explore).
Few outside of Australia will be able to locate Vanuatu on a map let
alone pronounce it correctly (Van-ou-r-two). With more than a passing resemblance to the Caribbean, Vanuatu, mixing French, Polynesian and English influences is the best of Melanesia.
A chain of (roughly 80) gorgeous islands easily reached from Brisbane or Fiji (north-east of New Caledonia), Vanuatu see few travellers and almost no one from the
'round-the-world' traveller crowd.
Mainly the preserve of drivers in the know, yachters, well-heeled Australians and cruise ship passengers.
Vanuatu is not the easiest place in the world to get to if you don't live in Brisbane, Sydney, Auckland or the handful of places with reasonable connections - it is even harder to get
around and it is a relatively expensive place to travel. Nevertheless it is beautiful, unique and unspoilt.
Those who do visit do so normally via Port Villa on the island of Efate (considered the 'main island'), which has a stunning natural harbour (great photo for a travel brochure) and the international airport. The 'second island' is Espiritu Santo - of which the main city is Luganville, which connects easily with Port Villa. Both towns are small (in the case of Luganville, very small), but with creature comforts that appeal to cruise ship visitors, drivers and expat residences. The outer islands are rural, undeveloped, relaxed, very Melanesian and very beautiful. Escaping to a place without telephones, internet, electricity, TV, vehicles, pollution and noise - in fact modern life - is easy.
Many who do visit the outer islands will either have their own transportation (a yacht) or will be on a fly-in-fly-out tours visiting the land diving on Pentecost Island or the volcano (Mount Yasur) on Tanna. Both of which are easy (but expensive - by virtue of the flight required) to arrange tour from Port Villa. Regardless of how well visited an island is, drive 5-30mins from the airstrip/port and you will find the modern world disappeared behind you. Just make sure you know where you are going to stay and have some idea of transport, because the absence/scarcity of inter-island ferries, roads and transport on few roads makes life either very complex or very expensive.
Laid back, friendly, with reasonable standards. If you do have the time and money to get 'lost' doing so here is one of the world's highlights and far more preferable than a similar experience in South East Asian island nations or indeed elsewhere in Melanesia.
Highlights: The outer islands – under-visited and uncorrupted by tourism. No one island is 'best' – they're all enjoyable and all a little bit different.
On the outer islands you can find the best beaches, coral reefs, waterfalls, lakes, mountains and forests. Some are great for bush walking and hiking. Unfortunately, there are no diving facilities away from Santo and Vila so you have to BYO gear or just snorkel.
another big thing in Vanuatu. The locals enjoy custom
ceremonies and performances and some are major annual
events. There are still a few villages where people live
Lowlights: Costs, it is not cheap. Food especially is expensive and so is trying to get anywhere in a hurry.
Cruise ships do periodically arrive in Port Villa, Luganville dumping the worst kind of visits on shore for short spells. Port Vila on Efate, the national capital and
main port of entry, is perfectly fine as is Luganville (the second biggest town on Santo) although a little dull.
It is a shame that most simply hang around these two towns due to the time and cost needed to get elsewhere interesting.
The jury is out on both visits to Mount Yasur and the land-diving festival. As amazing and super interesting as they are, the whole experience can seem manufactured due to the fly-in fly-out nature of most that come and far away from a 'normal life' experience on these two peaceful islands.
Visa strategy: Most visitors can get a one month visa upon arrival and these can be extended. One month should be enough for travellers with limited money to spend. As with all island nations make sure you have something that looks like a return flight booking.
Costs: You can technically travel the islands for about US$30-50/day (basic accommodation and diet).
The budget destroyer is internal airfares which you'll have to add on top of your daily expenses. For
example, it costs about US$230 for a return ticket from Port
Vila to Tanna. It's best to travel for longer to reduce the
overall cost per day. Loop fares allow you to island hop for
little more than the cost of a return ticket to the furthest
destination on your loop. Ships are generally unreliable, of
poor standard and have little to recommend them.
Vanuatu has no income tax and has tried to position itself as an offshore banking/wealth centre (similar to several Caribbean nations). Thus the main income for the government is VAT and notably import tax. With little produced domestically this means many simple items (a can of Coke for example) will be artificially expensive. This mostly translate into high costs for decent food. Domestic food production is mainly fish (some beef), starchy root crops and fruit and even that is expensive. Enjoy some great food, thanks to the French influence, but don't freak out at some of the prices.
Money: Cash, cash, cash. There are ATMs in Port Vila (Efate) and Luganville (Santo) only. Some islands have National Bank of Vanuatu branches or agents where you may be able to cash travellers cheques.
Tourist factor: Depends on where you are – about 8/10 in Port Vila and 0/10 on some of the more remote islands.
Getting around: In town, minibuses are the cheapest option. The buses have a red 'B' on the number-plate. Just flag one down, climb aboard and tell the driver where you want to go. You can find them at the airport in Port Vila (Efate) – they pass by the domestic terminal. Luganville (Santo) has more taxis than buses and a short ride in a taxi here is as cheap as a bus. On the outer islands people ride in the back of trucks ('transports'). Santo, Malekula and Tanna are the only islands with regular shared public transport. Charters are expensive if you are only one and it's cheaper to wait for a ride although you might only find transport in the mornings (into town) and afternoons (return). If the distance is not far then walking can be an enjoyable and independent mode of travel.
Guide book: Not much choice here. Most people go with Lonely Planet although it's rather main stream, in fact it's pretty useless, aimed far more at honeymooners than independent travellers. The Moon handbook is probably a better option if you really feel you need something.
Accommodation: Few backpacker places in the towns (Port Vila and Luganville). A room in a modern motel/guesthouse in town costs about US$40 for one and upwards of US$70 for a double.
On the outer islands there a couple of pricey resorts on Tanna and Santo. Generally you would head for the local bungalows and guesthouses. Many of the best bungalows are family businesses which offer a friendly and informal atmosphere in an idyllic setting. Local bungalows are often simple with thatch roofs and bamboo walls, capacity (number of beds) may be limited and facilities can be primitive (pit toilets and bucket showers).
Rural bungalows and guesthouses cost US$20 per person on average and usually this includes meals. There's a wide range in price, value for money and standards. Keep in mind that most rural Ni-Vanuatu (Ni meaning of) people are not business-minded (which is most often a good thing) and are not too experienced in looking after tourists (so don't be shy to ask and suggest). Camping is not really an option in Vanuatu.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Hottest Dec-Mar which is also the season for tropical cyclones. The cooler months are June to September. A warm top is handy in the south and at higher altitudes. Rain and getting wet is not usually a concern in the warm tropical climate.
What to take: There are practically no tourist facilities on the islands so bring your own. Sandals or thongs are the best footwear for everyday use. Walking shoes are needed in the bush and on the volcanoes. Sunglasses, a hat and sunscreen are essential.
Stephen Totterman who has spent several months travelling the islands for a travel website on the outer islands: positiveearth.org
Equally many thanks to Mark Rogers-Lee for his information on diving the USS President Coolidge.
Communications: Expensive. There are internet cafes in Port Vila (Efate) and one in Luganville (Santo). The TVL prepaid telephone cards are handy and most islands have telephones (that may not be working) and a cell phone signal.
Language: Bislama, a form of pidgin English, is the lingua franca. When you visit the outer islands Bislama is the default language and speaking Bislama opens doors. The two other main languages are French and English. Both are taught in school, but it is English you here spoken the most.
Locals: The villagers are very friendly and genuine. It's a novelty and sometimes a great honour to have a white person visiting a remote village.
Other travellers: Very few.
Food: Compared to the rest of Melanesia (and certainly coming from Honiara) food in main urban centres is fantastic. White rice is almost a staple food, especially in the urban centres. Ask to try some local food or you may be served rice by default. Fruit and vegetables are cheap in the town markets. Port Vila (Efate) has good restaurants if you have the money. Guesthouses in town and more than a few island guesthouses have self-catering facilities. Try the local food (‘aelan kaekae')
Vegetarians: Not much choice away from town but there should be plenty of fresh fruit.
Hassle and annoyance factor: None.
Nearly all Ni-Vanuatu (of-Vanuatu) people are Christian and conservative by western standards – think 19th century. The Ni-Vanuatu also hold their 'kastom' and land very tightly – ask first to avoid offence. Go slow when first arriving in a village community until you learn who's who and what's OK or not OK. Vanuatu is not the place to rush although allowances are often made for tourists.
The USS President Coolidge is a world famous wreck. Located only 100 metres from the shore off Espirito Santo people often arrive to spend a week diving on it. A luxury liner requisitioned for US navy use in the second world war, it struck one the US's own mines and sank just short of the shore with the loss of only two lives. It has memorabilia from both its lives from mushroom lamps and chandeliers in the 1st class dining room to medical supplies, gas mask, jeeps and guns. It is a vast wreck, lying on a slope with the top of the bow at around 20 metres and the stern sitting in close to 70 metres. The diving is generally deep, albeit superb. A statue called "The Lady" of a lady and a unicorn is one of the classic dives and lies at 38 metres, a short swim into the wreck. The other relatively famous shallow dive (30 metres approx.) is a night dive inside the holds without torches to look at the eerie flashlight fish blinking like a starry sky in the pitch black. The dives generally require mandatory decompression stops and a decompression station with safety tanks, spare weight and safety bar and a beautiful man-made coral garden has been constructed in the shallows. This might lull one into a fall sense of security but it is important to take care to dive within your limits (if not qualifications) and not be rushed into diving beyond your capabilities. Many of the dives require significant dangerous wreck penetration, most require long decompression stops for which you should have been trained and some of the dives are extremely deep. All the diving is done on air and for serious diving injuries help is a long way away. The local guides often take inexperienced divers with less than ten dives well beyond their capabilities and you should really know what you are doing if planning to dive past 30 metres here.
Women alone: Traditional Vanuatu society is male dominated and there's very little mixing of the sexes in rural Vanuatu. It's recommended that solo women associate with other women when on the islands. Hanging around with boys may broadcast the wrong message.
Health: Medical facilities are very basic on the outer islands. Don't get seriously injured or sick.
Local poisons for the body: Alcohol is available at only a few places on the islands and you may need to BYO. Cigarettes are widely available. Kava is the cheapest and most popular intoxicating drink. Traditionally kava drinking is a men's pastime and you will rarely see women drinking kava outside of the urban centres. Often it's customary for a visitor to a rural village to join the locals for a few shells of kava and some conversation in the evenings. Kava hangovers can be cured by sweating it out. See more on Kava in the Fiji section. There's no drug scene to speak of, although marijuana is becoming popular in the towns.
With thanks to Geoff who shared some info from his trip. Not really a summary, but some notes that may be helpful.
Firstly, it is inaccessible enough that you see many travellers tagging it onto a round the world trip.
With the high costs of getting there and travelling while there, security issues and the amount of planning needed you have to really want to go there.
But for sheer adventure as far removed from normal western life or even normal travel as its possible to get I doubt there's anywhere that can compete.
For the most it's certainly rough and ready travel out there, no electricity, no banks, no shops apart from a few people sat on the ground selling fruit and fish, you wash yourself and your clothes in the river with the crocodiles (minding crocs), toilets are a few planks of wood nailed into a rough hut and there's also no such thing as schedules. Sometimes someone else would be using the boat or there would be no petrol available and you'd spend days just hanging out in the village reading or chatting to people. Sometimes you'd be in an area with amazing fresh fruit, sometimes you'd have to make do with the weird tasting local staple- Sago, really bony fish and any supplies you stocked up in town (crackers, peanut butter, tinned beef). You just go with the flow and never know what you'll encounter next.
Lowland jungle areas such as Sepik are different to places like Madang in the Highlands. The highlands are very different. The climate is cool, the people look different, and the range of food available is incredible. Kokopo in the islands brings more variety. This is the most normal region with well running public transport and a range of eateries (I described village food in PNG - town food is normally greasy and western inspired like fish'n'chips but in Kokopo it was surprisingly really good!). You can still base yourself there though and get those remote village experiences.
Planning and costs: Most visitors can get a one month visa upon arrival and these can be extended. One month should be enough for travellers with limited money to spend. As with all island nations make sure you have something that looks like a return flight booking.
Costs: It's difficult! Because of the complete lack of transport, the lack of information, security issues and cultural issues you can't just go places by yourself.
Basically if you don't contact a guide in advance there is no guarantee (or as close as you can get to a guarantee in PNG!) that you'll manage to get anywhere,
or at least you'll likely spend a week just hanging around waiting for someone to show you around. This can make things very expensive, especially if you're travelling solo.
If you stay at the accommodation listed in the lonely planet, you'll notice for a lot of towns there's nothing below about $50 a night.
When you're actually there you realise there are various pockets of cheap(ish) accommodation around. In villages you stay with families, in towns there may be a convent or something).
And the only way to get between regions is flying.
Basically if you're not prepared to wing it and hope for the best you'll probably end up spending over $150 a night as a solo traveller or much more on the Sepik where you'd need to hire out a whole canoe yourself. If you are prepared to wing it like me then it's cheaper. Reports are $60-$70 a day of which a large part was flights, some people manage less but we think anyone who claims less much than $50 is either lying or they took serious risks with their personal safety by doing things like getting overland transport on roads where there's a big chance of hijacking.
So what this basically means is if you're not rich or you don't have a big group then give yourself a wide open schedule and just go with the flow! You will probably have to book one or two internal flights in advance though from Air Niugini or PNG Air. Finding out when fares become available and you get the best deals is largely a process of trial and error (usually 3-6 months in advance) but if you leave it to the last minute you'll end up paying hundreds and hundreds of dollars for a one way flight.
Getting around: Journeys without flying are insane here. For example here's an experince of a banana boat from Wewak to Madang. What this meant in practise was:
1) arriving at the boat in the morning
2) waiting until the afternoon for someone's cousin or aunt who wanted a ride to finally get here
3) boat finally leaves. Commence hours crammed into what is basically a rowing boat with an engine and an unsafe amount of people!
4) Boat lands somewhere in the middle of nowhere where we were supposed to get the bus. No bus. Another passenger told me "it might arrive to tomorrow morning or it might arrive in the evening or maybe the next morning". What ended up happening is we all spent the night in this big open sided hanger and most of the next day before the bus (or truck rather) arrived sometime in the evening.
This all this sounds utterly dreadful but by this point in the trip you might have just stopped wearing a watch or checking the time and it won't be so bad! It is impossible to go anywhere in PNG without chatting to almost every one of your fellow passengers and learning more about PNG. Because everyone seems to be connected to everyone in PNG in some way when you leave one region you'll probably find yourself being taken to the next region by someone's second cousin or uncle in law. Transport may be slow but you never have to figure it out by yourself and it's always eventful!
Security: Avoid Port Morseby and Lae or taking anything a local tells you to avoid! Everywhere, even villages, feel a bit lawless in PNG. At one point most of the male population of a village erupted into a machete fight and I was rushed back to my accommodation. At another point we had to change plans when the local village criminal tried to lure us off our trail. I doubt there's anywhere in the world though that you feel more protected by the people around you than in PNG, it felt like every single person who isn't trying to harm you is trying to look after you. Not just in a security sense either, they rush to find you a seat so you don't have to sit on the ground! It can be too much at times!
Other tourists/Tourist route: Unless you're coming to PNG for a specific thing which usually means diving, WW2 history or walking the Kokoda track, you generally organise your trip around one of the big festivals. At those festivals they'll probably be a tour group or two and a handful of independent foreigners who may be backpackers or may be anthropologists, linguists, missionaries perhaps. Get beyond those festivals though and you won't see anyone for weeks. In three villages I was told I was the first foreigner they'd ever seen! They asked me tons of questions about Britain and one place they gave me a present for the honour of being their first tourist!
Festivals: Weird, colourful, some of the dancers seriously do look like spirits as they defy physics by gyrating and jumping in costumes 3 times the size that they are. There's fire dancing, there's people dancing with snakes, some of the performers will be on (traditional) drugs. If you're lucky (more likely if you go through the expensive pre planned route) you may encounter a local village dance. The big festivals in towns though are still authentic in that they are people from the villages doing their traditional dances and they aren't just created for tourists. They are still organised events though, with speeches from the local politician and the aim of fostering harmony across the region etc.
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"The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see. - Gilbert K. Chesterton"