The transport and communications system of PNG has been shaped by the country’s unusual and complicated geography. Air, sea and river are the main links, with road networks only in certain areas. It has never had a railway system, but plans to develop one are being considered. In such mountainous country it would be all tunnels and viaducts, very expensive.
Although there are almost 25,000 kilometres of roads, most of the rainforests and mountainous regions remain unapproachable except by air or on foot. Road building continues but only at a functional minimum, less than a fifth of it being sealed. A quarter of the population live in areas that have no road access whatsoever. The country’s main road is the Highlands Highway, which starts on the northeast coast at Lae and services the interior where nearly half the population resides. Smaller systems branch off from this central highway, going to various regional capitals to where trucks carry industrial goods and raw materials. The national capital, Port Moresby, has no road link to the rest of the country. By international standards, very few Papua New Guineans own cars.
Future planning is determined by the National Department of Transport, who have employed the services of international and regional agencies to assist them with development. The need for expansion is obvious. Without it, neither commercial nor domestic needs can be properly handled. Health, education and local government will all enjoy the advantages of an organised road infrastructure.The history of PNG is inextricably linked with sea transport. Many of the country’s first inhabitants came here by sea, traded with one another by sea and built a range of sophisticated vessels of which the most famous is the ‘lakatoi’. European navigators, traders and whalers sailed into the same waters thousands of years later. Copra, the kernel of coconuts which was PNG’s main crop for many years, was totally dependent on sea transport. The plantations themselves often purposely located close to the coastline. A number of large shipping companies developed the nation’s domestic and international sea links and even brought in some of the first tourists. Today, the shipping industry in PNG is dominated by Steamships Trading Company and the Century Group of companies.
Aviation has a long and eventful history in PNG. It began in 1921, when a certain Captain Lang of the Australian Flying Corps set out from Port Moresby in his seaplane to become the first man to fly over New Guinea. A decade later aviation became vitally linked to the economic development of the country in a way that could not have been envisaged when that first flight was made. The discovery of gold in PNG, in the Wau-Bulolo area in the early thirties, sent a thrill through the country, but without aviation transporting the gold would have been impossible.
In April 1927, the newly established Guinea Airways flew from Lae to the goldfields of Wau in a De Havilland DH 37. The following year they acquired two Junkers W34 aircraft which had a much greater payload. In 1932, Guinea Airways actually carried more freight than all the aircraft in England, France and the United States combined! The aviation industry had revolutionised transport in PNG, opening up the country for large-scale communications for the first time. Airstrips were laid all around the nation and light planes carried people and goods to some areas which had previously been labelled as the most remote in the world.In 1973, two years before independence, the national carrier Air Niuguini was formed, providing a sophisticated domestic flight service and an essential link with the outside world.