Stepping off the Air Niu Guinea plane, I am greeted by a bare-breasted young woman and the Prime Minister of PNG.
After the woman puts the garland around my neck, the Honourable Peter O'Neill shakes my hand in the hot morning light. "Welcome to Papua New Guinea," he says.
"Thank you, Prime Minister," I say.
I've never been important enough to be greeted by a world leader, but the gleaming Air Niu Guinea Fokker 70 certainly was. On November 6, it became the first international flight to land at Gurney International Airport, gateway to the diving destination, Milne Bay.
Given that the Gurney "International" Airport was opened almost 20 years ago, you can see why there has been some pent-up expectation on the part of the thronging local dignitaries. More significantly, however, charter PX5097 was a direct flight from Brisbane – and with it came (a) seven Australian tourism agents and (b) hopes that this will be the start of something huge.
The previous night, as a storm lashed Brisbane's Marriott Hotel, the excitable PNG Minister of Enterprise, Ben Micah, explained how the government planned to boost Australian visitation by scheduling direct flights. In October 2016, he said, it was hoped state-owned Air Niu Guinea would begin flying direct from Brisbane to tourism hubs such as the volcanic outpost Rabaul, trekking hub Mount Hagen and Milne Bay.
The minister said PNG – a country of 9 million – receives only 70,000 visitors a year, fewer than those who visit the tiny islands of Vanuatu.
"What's getting in the way?" I ask.
"Putting the word out there," he says. Then adding with remarkable candour: "And Port Moresby."
At present, visitors must fly into the Papuan capital, where fears about safety persist; they must then transit onto domestic flights, increasing travel time and costs.
By cutting Moresby out of the equation the government could address these issues at a stroke – and further sweeten the deal by offering Australians on-arrival visas at the regions. (Visas to PNG have been a vexed on-again-off-again issue ever since 2005, when security officers at Brisbane Airport forced then-prime minister Sir Michael Somare to remove his shoes – shoes that quickly became diplomatic spats.)
Any way, they laid on a charter flight to demonstrate how feasibly it could be done, and gave our party 48 hours to sample the tip of PNG's "dragon's tail", which is home to Milne Bay.
I knew PNG was going to offer something different, I just didn't know how different.
Within half an hour of landing we are sitting at a modest white-timbered resort called Driftwood, on a jetty overlooking millpond waters rimmed with mountains. Lunch is coconut rice, caramelised pork belly, prawns and fish washed down with South Pacific Lager. Locals wove hats for us using fronds from some of the biggest pandanus trees I've ever seen. Actually, they are some of the biggest woven hats I've ever seen, each with a faintly ridiculous spray of half-metre strips around the brim that lazily bobbed in the bay breezes. Many of the agents were old PNG hands and knew exactly what to do: put the hat on, feel the love and go with it.
Next door, in the town of Alotau, the National Canoe and Kundu Festival is getting under way. This annual three-day fest of drums, dance and war canoes was apparently organised in 2003 as an alternative for local tribesmen who were demonstrating their prowess through lethal encounters and never-ending payback.
We were given seats behind the ministerial party, which spoke (at length) to some 500 eager attendees. When a smooth young Tourism Minister began berating the crowds for not appreciating their politicians enough, I sneaked off to the shoreline to inspect a dozen war canoes.
"What does the name of your canoe mean?" I asked a small knot of wiry, short men. Their 14-metre-long canoe, carved from a single tree, is called Hetubo Uo.
"It means 'start again'," said Harry Kaisa from the village of Kila Kilana. Harry wears shells, pig tusks and a grass skirt. "Our forefathers were at war for a long time. Last year we made our first canoe for festival instead of fighting – so we start again'."
Everyone is in agreement that the team from Wariwa will win this year's race. "They're fishermen who use their canoe all the time," says one, bracing his forearms. "Strong!"
"But not this year!" laughs another with betel-stained teeth. "We do some magic tonight – throw ginger in the air. We get stronger and they get sick …" I later learn that even in Milne Bay, there were villagers across the water who have never seen white people.
That evening we transfer by rutted dirt road and swift motor launch to the Tawali Dive Resort, a timber complex built into steep rainforest on the north-facing coast. It is fringed with elegant palms leaning out to sea, and from the resort's elevated decks, you could look down onto coral gardens with their bommies, fans and brains.
At 5am the next morning, however, we were looking up not down.
We'd trek through darkened rainforest to the foot of a great tree, where local guide Gilbert asks us to sit on the cool soil and keep quiet. As the sun began to warm the canopy, three male ragianna birds of paradise arrive at this "lek tree" – a mating tree – to outdo each other by transforming themselves into small clouds of apricot. One of our party had a guide book to PNG birdlife that is bigger than the King James Bible and for good reason: the country is home to the world's third-largest rainforest, after the Amazon and Congo.
Later that morning, locals from the resort's neighbouring village – including a fuzzy-haired flotilla of small kids – accompany us along the shoreline to find two great caves drilled into the limestone mountains. The first cave contains 300 skulls, heaped in three piles, all showing trauma from spear or club; the second had skulls too, though they are piled at the foot of a glittering cascade of crystalline calcium carbonate.
The skulls are said to be 300 years old, although PNG tour specialist Ray Andrews suggests some could be relatively recent. "The missionaries had put an end to a lot of the tribal warfare and cannibalism by the early 1900s," he says in the rich-smelling cave. "Visitors sometimes complain that things don't work as quickly as they'd like in PNG, but you have to remember the people of New Guinea have gone from the Stone Age to the computer age in just four generations."
The afternoon we spend snorkelling in glassy waters off deserted Boiboiwaga Island, a perfectly round islet of graceful palms, and just one of 600 in Milne Bay. I inspect small shoals of electric blue fish, larger bumpy-headed parrot fish and angel fish that fly through the trees of staghorn coral. When we tire of the island's white sands, the resort's motor launch is ready to serve us a lunch buffet of chicken, lasagne and rice, with glasses of Australian wine.
Time seems to stretch forever here and I find it hard to believe that barely two days ago, I was in Brisbane…
When the minister announces the new plan for direct flights, a few agents rolled their eyes in a 'we'll believe it when we see it' sort of way. But no one can gainsay Minister Micah when he says: "Where you're going tomorrow, ladies and gentlemen, is a place of magic. It's a last frontier."
If being met by the Prime Minister was a surprise, so, too, was alighting from a three-hour flight into a land that time forgot. We have one of the world's truly exciting destinations right on our doorstep. And I for one barely knew it was there.
Flights to PNG are not cheap and at present you'll need two flights to connect from Brisbane, Cairns or Sydney to Gurney (Alotau), all via Port Moresby. Search online for fares: ex-Brisbane return flights start near $850 return with Air Niu Guinea (airniugini.com.pg).
Driftwood Resort in Alotau (driftwoodresortpng.com) has 10 spacious bungalows, some with decks over the water. From about $285 a night (twin share) including continental breakfast. Tawali Leisure and Dive Resort (tawali.com) has four-night packages for non-divers, with meals and airport transfers from $US876 a person (twin share); the same packages for divers (includes daily dives) from $US1521.
Ray Andrews' Oceania Expeditions (Oceania Expeditions) specialises in upmarket small group tours.
Max Anderson was a guest of Papua New Guinea Tourism and Air Niu Guinea