By CHEYNE BENJAMIN
EVERY year birdwatchers from around the world come to Papua New Guinea for one thing – the birds but more specifically the birds of paradise and birds endemic to this island nation.
One popular destination for birdwatchers in PNG is Walindi Plantation Resort in Kimbe, West New Britain. The resort has been accommodating birdwatchers for many years and even though there are no birds of paradise on New Britain Island there are birds only found here like the Golden Masked Owl.
Walindi Resort started life in 1983 as a dive resort, highlighting to the world the marine wonders of Kimbe Bay. In the early 1990s Walindi diversified to cater for the birdwatching market after experiencing increasing demand from travellers. It was here that Cheyne Benjamin, as general manager of the family business, developed his knowledge of the industry.
Annually, he travels with the PNG Tourism Promotion Authority (TPA) to the United Kingdom to attend the world’s largest birding tourism trade show, the UK Bird Fair. Tour operators from all over the world gather at this show to promote their tours and unique species of birds.
In 2013, a major birding agency approached Cheyne and expressed their interest in the Huon Peninsula and the spectacular birdlife endemic to the area. Cheyne was asked to look at the logistic prospects for visitor tours to the area which presented a significant untapped opportunity for the birdwatching circuit in PNG, but many challenges lay ahead.
Why the Huon Peninsula?
The geography of the Huon Peninsula makes it very special – the Huon mountains are isolated from the central New Guinea ranges by the Ramu/Markham Basin lowlands.
Essentially, it is an island, and this isolation is what has spurred its unique speciation of flora and fauna. There are birds in the mountains of the Huon Peninsula found nowhere else in New Guinea such as the Emperor Bird of Paradise, Huon Astrapia and Wahnes’s Parotia.
At first Cheyne thought the idea of opening a new birding site in the Huon Peninsula was crazy. How was he going to operate a birdwatching business in an area he had never visited? Not to be deterred, Cheyne did a scouting trip into the area with a PNGTPA representative in 2015. He immediately saw the potential the area had to offer.
In 2016 the first birding groups visited the Huon Peninsula with Huon Birding, the newly created arm of Walindi Plantation Resort, aiming to facilitate birdwatcher access to this remote and stunning part of Papua New Guinea. There are no hotels or restaurants in this part the country. It is remote, it is rugged, and it is a tough area to operate in, let alone a place to bring international visitors.
During the first two years’ operating in this region, Huon Birding guests slept on the floor of a small single room house in Gatop Village. Facilities were very basic with a bucket and cup for washing. As you can imagine this was a bit of an eye opener for guests, but they were determined to see those birds. Recent years have seen the road condition in the area deteriorate significantly, making travelling to and from sites difficult. It was time to rethink the operation and what could be done to make visiting the Huon Peninsula a much more comfortable experience.
It was then that Cheyne thought up the concept of a small safari-style camp to cater for birdwatchers. Being that birding in PNG is seasonal, and groups only visit in the middle months of the year during the dry season, a permanent lodge which would only be used for half the year, was not ideal. Cheyne decided that a seasonal camp would be best, where it could be packed down at the end of each season and stored away. But this created another challenge, how was he going to store away a camp up in the mountains?
Each time Cheyne guided a group into the mountains, he kept an eye out for a suitable location to develop such a camp. In 2018, he settled on an area just past Satop Village which is located at 2000m above sea level. This location was ideal, as the road to the site goes from sea level to 2000m, which offers the opportunity to see birds that live at different elevations.
Cheyne approached the local landowners and the community of Satop Village to set up camp at the top of the range. The Satop community agreed to let Cheyne develop the camp and they seemed very excited about the project and opportunities this might bring.
Once he had an arrangement with Satop Village, the plan was to ship all the equipment from Lae to Wasu (coastal access) in a container, get it up the mountain in a truck, get it off the truck into the site and build the facilities around the container, which would then act as the storage facility at the end of the birding season. Even though this sounded simple enough, this is rural PNG and logistics are not easy here.
As you can imagine, Cheyne ran into several logistical problems throughout the project, but what he noted was that every time he felt like giving up, it was the community who rallied and found a way to make it happen.
“There were several occasions where I was brought to near tears, I just wanted to give up, but the community here in the Huon are incredible. They live in a physically tough environment, they live a tough life. For them hard is just normal,” said Cheyne.
One of the biggest issues faced was getting a 10ft container up the mountain. Long story short, the container was cut in half and driven in the two sections up to the camp site. Once in place it was welded back together on site. Not an easy feat!
Finally, in mid-2019 the Huon Birding Camp was complete and ready for the arrival of the first birdwatching group. The camp consists of six canvas cabin tents, a large marquee for meals, a small kitchen, a double toilet, a small generator for power and the best feature, a gas hot water system for hot showers.
The final camp setup was completed – with tents, meal and kitchen marques, toilets and shower.
The canvas cabin tents provide comfort for the birdwatchers and can easily be packed and stowed away at the end of each season. The camp is also surrounded by food gardens which supply the camp with fresh, organically grown produce.
It has taken a few years of sweat and tears, but the dream has been realised and the camp is now established. Several birding groups from around the world have now been welcomed to the little village of Satop.
As demonstrated by Huon Birding, niche tourism operations can bring much needed funds into remote communities where very few income opportunities exist. Guide and entrance fees are paid to local people and rental is paid to the clans that own the land. In order to spread the economic benefits, Huon Birding also setup a community project fund to support the local community and school.
Furthermore, all the fruit, vegetables and dry goods are purchased locally making a significant positive impact on the local economy.
As for the future and what lies ahead, Huon Birding hopes the camp can lead to environmental conservation in the area. Areas such as the Huon Peninsula are PNG’s treasures, and it is hoped ecotourism operations like the Huon Birding Camp can work with local communities to show the value of conserving their environment.
This part of PNG has been so poorly studied in the past, Huon Birding Camp hopes to raise awareness and knowledge of the birds of this region. There are bound to be discoveries waiting to be made about the birds here and their special behaviour.
About Cheyne Benjamin
The Benjamin family have been in Papua New Guinea for over 50 years. Cheyne grew up in PNG and has a strong understanding of its marine and terrestrial ecosystems as well as the cultures and beliefs of its people. He is the owner/manager of Walindi Plantation Resort in West New Britain where birdwatching groups from all over the world are regularly hosted. It was his experience with these groups on New Britain Island which led him to cast his eye over to the Huon Peninsula on mainland New Guinea. This area exists with great birding potential. Seizing this opportunity, he commenced Huon Birding in 2015 and completed it in 2019. For further information visit: https://www.huonbirding.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org