Fiji and PNG: lands of my heart
Updated: Mar 27
This is my first 'scheduled post'. I'm writing it on 2nd February and setting my website alarm for an automatic release mid-month on 15th February. Let's hope it works. Normally I sit down on the 14th or 15th, put the post together and publish it as soon as I've finished.
But on 15th February I'll be sailing the Solomon Sea and maybe the satellite connection to our small adventure cruise ship won't work, so I'm getting this post done in advance. As you may know from bmallsopp.com/author, my family lived in Papua New Guinea (PNG) for ten years before we found Fiji. In fact, our first two children were born there. That fabulous land became an abiding interest, so we decided to return to celebrate my husband's birthday-with -a-zero this year. We often roughed it in our twenties but being older and wiser now, a comfortable cruise along PNG's spectacular north coast calling at islands and tiny coastal ports appealed.
As I pack, unearthing my snorkelling mask only to discover the rubber has perished, I've been pondering the differences between these two South Pacific lands I love.
Scale: big vs small
PNG is the eastern half of the second biggest island in the world, New Guinea. At roughly the same size as California, PNG has one of the most spectacular and diverse landscapes on earth, from rugged mountain ranges to sandy coral atolls. The land area of Fiji's 330 islands is only 3.95% of that of PNG. While Fiji's larger islands are mountainous, the highest peak, Mt Tomanivi (1,324 metres) is less than a third the height of PNG's Mt Wilhelm (4,509 metres). Sometimes it even snows on Mt Wilhelm's upper slopes. Because of PNG's great size, it has half the population density of Fiji, although PNG (9,949,000) has ten times as many people as Fiji (924,000),
Nature: wild vs domesticated
Situated on the Pacific Ring of Fire, active volcanoes erupt frequently in PNG, occasionally threatening local populations. Large areas of the country's rugged terrain are impassable and defy road-building. In many places, the only possible travel is still by air or by foot. For this reason, PNG was a pioneer in air transport before World War II, when Guinea Airways (founded 1927) became the world's leading air freight operator, especially servicing the highlands gold mines.
Along the coast and offshore islands however, PNG people are skilled mariners like Fijians and get about by water.
Fiji's islands are simply lovely, but it can't be denied the diversity and strangeness of PNG's wildlife outclasses that of Fiji. PNG is home to crocodiles, tree-kangaroos and more than 3,000 orchid species, but surely the birds of paradise inspire our greatest wonder. The choice for the national emblem shown here would have been easy, in my opinion. While these unique birds are protected by law, loss of habitat due to timber extraction is a real threat to their survival.
Pre-history: ancient vs recent
Nearly all the indigenous populations of both island nations are Melanesian. However, current archaeological data suggests humans first inhabited the island of New Guinea between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago, but reached Fiji less than 3,000 years ago.
Cultures: isolated vs connected
Because of PNG's precipitous terrain, hundreds of small societies on the mainland developed in isolation, except for trade and war with their nearest neighbours. So much so, that there are more than 800 distinct languages. Traditional customs, law, architecture, art and religion are as varied as language. Today, most people speak their mother tongue but use one of the colonial lingua francas of Tok Pisin (Pidgin) and Hiri Motu alongside English, which is taught in schools. Wantok (same language) is the Tok Pisin word defining members of the same ethnic group. Nowadays, nearly all of PNG's population are Christian. Interestingly, among the first missionaries in New Guinea were Fijians, Samoans and Rarotongans who had been Christians for decades.
While different dialects of Fijian were spoken in different islands, most people could understand one another in pre-colonial times, with some exceptions. A lingua franca never developed as it wasn't needed. However, when the British brought Indian labourers to Fiji to work in the sugar industry, these workers became a substantial population who didn't speak Fijian and weren't Christian. Their descendants today are mostly Hindu with some Sikhs and Muslims who all speak a Fiji variety of Hindi among themselves and use English in the wider community. The latest figures show about 65% of Fijians are Christian, including almost all the indigenous population.
Agriculture: women vs men
While men clear and prepare the fields in PNG, women perform all the labour of planting, maintaining and harvesting crops, not to mention cooking. This may be because in the old days, men were always armed and on guard against attacks from rival tribes. It's the opposite in Fiji, where men carry out most agricultural work.
By the way, who were the world's first farmers?
You may not know that the New Guinea highlanders were one of the first agriculturalists in the world. Elaborate systems of drainage and irrigation channels supported the intensive horticulture practised from at least 9,000 years ago. The photo shows the archaeological excavation at Kuk Swamp in the PNG highlands, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Crops including red-fleshed bananas, sugar cane and taro were first domesticated in what is now the PNG mainland and eastern islands.
Fiji's first settlers sailed epic voyages from the west and introduced food crops which had originated in New Guinea. A remarkable exception is the sweet potato which originated in the Americas. It was probably introduced to the New Guinea highlands from Indonesia during the 18th century, enabling rapid population growth. But sweet potato came to Fiji from South America via Polynesia and may possibly arrived earlier than in PNG.
I don't want to bombard you with too much information so I'll stop here. If you're interested, maybe I'll write more on this topic next month on my return from PNG.