Papua New Guinea

  • overview
  • geography
  • history
  • fauna & flora
  • further reading


Explore Papua New Guinea with Heritage Expeditions

One of the most culturally diverse nations in the world, Papua New Guinea (also known as PNG) occupies the eastern half of the island of New Guinea and many offshore islands. There are literally hundreds of indigenous ethnic groups and over 820 languages spoken, though many of these are only spoken by less than 1,000 people. The majority of the population lives in rural areas where they adhere to a traditional clan based culture. The capital is Port Moresby, which lies on the southern coast of the island of New Guinea.

Experience this destination by expedition cruising with Heritage Expeditions on the following departures:


Situated on the Pacific Ring of Fire, PNG has a number of active volcanoes and earthquakes are fairly common here. It is connected to Australia by a shallow continental shelf across the Torres Strait, which would previously have been a land bridge. The main island of New Guinea features a spine of mountains running down its length, most of which are covered by a tropical rainforest. The highest peak is Mount Wilhelm at 4,509 m which has equatorial glaciers and amazingly can have occasional snow cover - something very unique in these latitudes. The lowland and coastal areas have denser rainforest and large wetland areas surround the Sepik and Fly rivers. Coral reefs surround most islands, some of which are extremely rugged.


The earliest human remains found are estimated to be from around 50,000 BC. These early inhabitants are thought to have originated in South East Asia. Agricultural activity is thought to have begun here around 7,000BC, making it one of the few areas in the world where people independently domesticated plants.

Portuguese and Spanish explorers visited the islands as early as the sixteenth century. The name 'New Guinea' was coined by Spanish explorer Ynigo Ortiz de Retez in 1545 when he noted the resemblance of the people to those he had earlier seen along the Guinea coast of Africa. From 1884 the northern half of the country was ruled as a colony for some decades by Germany and known as German New Guinea. The southern half of the island, originally British New Guinea and later Papua, was administered by Australia.

After WWI Australia was charged by the League of Nations with administering the former German New Guinea and so both halves were controlled by Australia. WWII saw fierce fighting in the area between the Allied forces and the Japanese in what became known as the New Guinea Campaign. Some 216,000 Japanese, Australian and US troops los their lives during this conflict. After the war the two territories of Papua and New Guinea were combined, forming the country now known as PNG.

Various revolts, cultural clashes and attempts for different islands to break away from PNG have resulted in continuing unrest, making this a somewhat volatile nation to this day.



Because the island of New Guinea was originally connected to a landmass called Australia-New Guinea, many of the species of birds and mammals found here have close genetic links with corresponding species in Australia. One unique feature shared by both countries is that both have marsupial mammals, including some kangaroos and possums which are not found elsewhere. Other islands such as New Britain, New Ireland and Bougainville were never connected to New Guinea by land bridges, so they have very different flora and fauna. Notably they do not have the land mammals and flightless birds common in Australia and New Guinea.

Probably the most well known of the colourful birdlife are the spectacular birds of paradise, of which 38 of the 43 known species are found here, including the rare blue and raggiana varieties. Together there are about 700 species of birds and they include many parrots, pigeons, hornbills, cassowaries, cockatoos and kingfishers. The rainforest is home to many rare species of insects including the world's largest butterfly, the Queen Alexandra Birdwing. The wingspan of this monolith can reach up to 30cm.

Australian Ornithologist Mike Tarburton has produced a birdlist for Melanesia which is a useful tool for birders.

Native mammals include bats and marsupials such as tree kangaroos, forest wallabies, echidnas and bandicoots. Dolphins, whales and dugongs or sea cows range off the islands coasts.

Orchids are plentiful, with more than 3,000 species endemic and more being discovered as botanists push into the rain forests. The National Botanic Garden at Port Moresby has the largest collection of orchids in the Southern Hemisphere, with specimens collected from the different provinces.



Anderson, Atholl J., The Prehistoric Archaeology of Norfolk Island, Southwest Pacific, Canberra, Australian National Museum, 2001.

Andrew Kippis, The Life and Voyages of Captain James Cook, Westminster 1788, Reprint London and New York 1904, pp. 246 ff

Nobbs, Raymond, Norfolk Island and its Third Settlement: The First Hundred Years 1856-1956 Sydney, Library of Australian History, 2006.

Hazzard, Margaret, Punishment Short of Death: a history of the penal settlement at Norfolk Island, Melbourne, Hyland, 1984. (ISBN 0-908090-64-1).

Hughes, Robert, The Fatal Shore, London, Pan, 1988. (ISBN 0-330-29892-5).


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