Papua New Guinea - An Extraordinary Encounter - South Eastern Pacific 1

Author: Sue Rogers
Date: 25th August 2012

Port Moresby - Don't Go Outside

Great views of the Barrier Reef from the plane on my way north from Brisbane to Papua New Guinea. Splatters of ochre and emerald on a turquoise palette.

I'm in the capital city of a tropical country that consists of the eastern half of the second largest island in the world and a large number of smaller islands. There is a central chain of high mountains, so it’s not always warm. This is a polyglot people to say the least. The population of six million is of Melanesian origin in the main, but there are over 1000 different cultures speaking over 800 local languages. In order to communicate most people speak pijin. So 'tok isi plis' (talk slowly please). Much of the land is very remote. It is thought there are still tribes that have never seen a white person. According to the local newspapers some of them still practise cannibalism and many folk still dabble in black magic. Spirits sometimes have to be appeased by the eating of parts of dead bodies, often the intestines.

I'm in Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea and have been told not to go outside the (very grubby, but this is as good as they get) hotel on my own as it's just too dangerous. Especially at night. So I'm watching the Olympics. The Aussie commentators are a trifle annoying. They keep calling us GBR and pronouncing the sailing races 'regartas'.

Mount Hagen - Sing Sing Festival

A plane up to Mount Hagen in the highlands of Papua New Guinea,where the people of the inland tribes had never seen a white face until Aussie gold prospectors arrived in the 1930s.  I'm here for the big show of the year. Tribes from all over the country meet for their annual 'Sing Sing' festival. The idea is to promote unity amongst all the different peoples. They spend the whole morning painting their faces in intricate primary colour patterns and fastening long spiky bird of paradise feathers into magnificent headdresses.

Each tribe is differently attired, but most wear very little, except for grass or leaf skirts and sea shell necklaces. The shells are very precious. Historically, they were used as money and still often are. They were paid as a bride price when men got married. (The paper currency is called the kina which means shell.) Nowadays the men still pay for their wives in pigs and shells. They are allowed more than one wife if they can afford it, so they have to save up first.

Asaro Mud Men of Papua New Guinea

The strangest people preparing for the SingSing are the Asaro Mud Men, who are smeared in white clay and wear nothing but loin cloths. They cover their whole heads in weighty clay masks and creep around with spears or bows and arrows.

Tari Clan - Unlikely to Win This Year

When they are ready everyone parades into the show ground to incessant drumming and whistle blowing. The yellow faced Tari clan has won for 5 years running but the other tribes aren't happy about this. There have been threats to burn the judges' houses down. It is thought that someone else will win this year. Fortunately, most of the tribal warfare in Papua New Guinea, which we're told is the hobby of choice, is reserved for the clanspeople. Fights are common, usually over land, women or pigs. Laws of possession are very complex, as being part of the family can mean that you have rights to everyone else's possessions. Tourists are usually safe in these fights, unless there's a stray bullet. Fortunately, ammunition is hard to come by and bows and arrows, knives and fire are more likely to be the order if the day. However, we have been told to watch out for the raskols (bandits) who maraud around.

The show goes on for two days. My group is as polyglot as the indigenous population. I'm the only one that speaks English. Apart from our Aussie guide who is frankly a little embarrassing. She calls the locals natives to (their faces) and confided that she doesn't like Papua New Guinea much, as she's a city girl. In addition she's as deaf as a post, gets all her facts wrong and keeps telling us the same thing twice.

Highland Villages and Markets of Papua New Guinea - and Pigs

We've been visiting the highland villages and markets of Papua New guinea. The people are really friendly. They all come out to greet us, shaking hands. They love to have their photos taken. The big man- the village headman -gives a speech of welcome.

Most of the homes are very poor and the people wear western style sekonhan klos (second hand clothes). Some of the children wear very little at all, or adult sweaters that threaten to trip them up. Everyone has pigs and gardens. The pigs are prized possessions. The women train them to dig in the fields with them (the men are generally too busy drinking or talking to work). Sometimes they take one for a walk on a lead. By gardens they mean fields.' How big is your garden?' someone asks me. ‘Mine is 60 hectares'. 

School is not compulsory in Papua New Guinea and families have to pay, so the children only go if they can afford it. There are some catholic schools that are fairly cheap - about £40 a year. That will amount to half a pig.

Birds of Paradise

We have flown further into the highlands of Papua New Guinea, a tiny charter plane, dipping over mountain tips, to Tari, the land of the yellow faces. There are no roads here. Way up in the clouds the misty rainforests are full of lianas and curling ferns with tendrils that reach out to grab your legs. Very Jurassic Park. And the birds are amazing. Birds of paradise with iridescent feathers that contort into incredible shapes for their courtship dances.

We are really lucky to see a male superb bird of paradise with a dazzling blue boomerang of feathers on his breast. We have to hide behind a tree for 20 minutes before he ventures out to feast on the V shaped fruit of the umbrella trees. And the next day a King of Saxony with extraordinary sawtooth plumes streaming from behind his head, a Stephanie of Astraphia with a long purplish twirling tail and a ribbontail. The name of the last speaks for itself, but its tail is the longest in the wild in proportion to its body and it looks like a kite flying. As if that isn't enough it's got a huge emerald green cravat too. Also, amongst others, a really pretty bright yellow and black specimen called a tit berrypecker. It is all so fabulous I feel as if I am filming with David Attenborough.

Now I'm desperate to see the equally gorgeous bird of paradise cousins, the bower birds. They build intricate towering houses to attract their mates and fill them with 'jewels' - berries, flowers and caterpillar droppings.

The group dynamics are developing. In fact it's so dynamic that it's threatening to explode. Maybe it’s because it’s cold and rainy. The Israelis are rude to everyone, eat their own food on their own and throw a tantrum if they don’t get the best rooms. The French know it all and speak French all the time and the Portuguese poke their cameras in front of everyone else.  No-one is speaking to anyone else and there have been some spectacular shouting matches. The only point upon which the whole group agrees is that the guide is poor. I'm keeping quiet and have formed an alliance with the Germans, who complain about everything.

The Huli Wigmen of Papua New Guinea

Today its anthropology instead ornithology, so I'm channelling Michael Palin. The people from Tari are known as the Huli tribe. They show us round their wooden stilt houses, where the men live separately from the women. A witch doctor tellls us how she casts spells to help the women to get chosen by the husbands that they want. There don't seem to be any charms on sale so I can try it out.

Then they perform a repeat of their award winning 'Sing Sing' for us and show us their costumes. They use mud to paint themselves-or powder paint. The bodies are red and their faces mainly yellow with some white.  Their dance is based on the bird of paradise, so they tuck large plant sprays into the back of their skirts so they lift up like the birds breasts when they display, as they all jump in unison. They thread feather quills through the septum of their noses, hang boar's tusks round their necks and they keep their money in sliced-in-half-bones inserted at their waists.

Their hats are the most fascinating piece of apparel though. They are woven from living hair. Boys go to wig school (honestly-I saw this) where they grow their hair for 18 months over a frame. They have to sleep with their heads on branches to keep it off the ground. The hair is watered with moss sponges and fed regularly, as well as being bleached by the sun. They told us that the wig master creates strong magic to help the hair grow. They gargle with some of his medicine to demonstrate and spit it out in fountains through bamboo pipes.

When the hair is ready it is cut off, rather like skinning an orange, and the wig is lifted off and sewn into shape. This is an ordinary every day wig. Wigs for shows or 'best' are contrived from two or more plain wigs and are fantastic.  Most have scarlet and yellow parrots' feathers, American Indian style, down each side, with a turquoise superb bird of paradise breast stuck proudly on the front. They are crowned with cassowary feathers and further ornamented by assortments of other colourful feathers and bird of paradise or pheasant plumes. I'm surprised there are any birds left alive. The boys sell the wigs to get back their school fees and help them save up for a wife. One of them was on his seventh wig. He said he came from a poor family!

The Sepik

I'm waiting to fly to one of the great river basins of the world - the Sepik. But the cloud is still low over the forest and our teeny plane can't take off from the airstrip.

We land on a clearing in the jungle after dipping over the many tributaries of the river as it wanders down the mountains. In the Sepik the sun shines, the sky is blue, it's hot and steamy and an entente cordiale has been established. We are now The United Nations. The Israelis have even introduced themselves.

Our rustic lodge is above the river and I have secured a room with a really good view across the water and the vast rainforest plain by throwing a copy cat tantrum.

We venture across the river to visit another village and see sago being extracted from huge palm trunks and turned into pancakes, or a thick pink gloop, over the open fires. It's the staple diet round here, along with river fish.

Headhunters of Papua New Guinea

I should have saved my tantrum. There was no water in my room and it was full of every sort of insect you could imagine. I felt as if I was trying to sleep in a Damien Hirst installation and had to keep my head under the sheet all night.

Down the river all day in a boat. Lots of women out fishing in dugout canoes. They use a line or a basket woven from sago leaves to catch the fish.  There are little fires burning on the backs of their canoes. These keep mosquitoes away and act as portable ovens to cook or smoke the fish. The flames also come in handy for lighting cigarettes rolled from their own tobacco.

One village pust on a headhunter demonstration for us. The warriors swoop up, paddling furiously and brandishing bows and arrows. Then the villagers dance to show us how they used to behead and eat those whom they had vanquished. They said that cannibalism here was eradicated in the 1960s. Many of the villagers are garbed in traditional costume, though some of the semi naked women didn't seem to enjoy the experience. I worry that they are being overly coerced. I don't feel I need to see their breasts to get the idea. On the other hand all the little boys run around totally naked all the time and seem very comfortable. They only get upset when they are asked to dress up. One little tot removes his grass leaves, screaming, as fast as his mother can push them into his waistband. Though he does calm down when she picks him up by his feet and tucks him into her bilum. These are stretchy bags that the women wear on their backs; the handles go around their heads.

Finally a visit to the tambaran (spirit house) where they hold the initiation ceremonies as boys become men. The ceremonies still take place in many villages of Papua New Guinea and here they involve scarring the back with serrated leaves. The resulting pattern represents the crocodile, as most of the people around the river belong to crocodile clans. We're told there are some crocodiles around, but (un)fortunately we haven't seen any.

The Courtship Dance of the Twelve Wired Bird of Paradise

More bird hunting. Fish eagles, egrets, cormorants and the odd darting kingfisher are common on the river, but I am after some more exotic stuff. A 5.30 start to see the courtship dance of the twelve wired bird of paradise. He uses the same perch every day, which would be excllentfor us twitchers if it wasn't forty foot up above the forest canopy. For some reason known only to himself he also performs this ritual before the sun comes up every morning. I wonder if the female would be more appreciative if she could see it better. Needless to say the photos aren't great but he does the whole works, dancing up and down his branch, puffing out his feathers, collecting a willing female and mating. The coupling takes all of a second and then he begins the whole thing again with another female. They seemed to be queuing up. It's a really bizarre and exotic looking bird. Bright yellow rolled back wing feathers with six long wires attached on each side.

River Cruising in Papua New Guinea

Then more river-cruising along great meanders and past small ox-bow lakes into larger lakes teeming with fish. More villages with more traditions on offer. As well as fish, mussel shells are being smoked to extract the calcium. The locals chew this with the betel nuts they all love. The ground is covered in rust gashes where they spit it out and their teeth are stained red. We are all villaged out now. Which is just as well as the last village has a row of human skulls in its spirit house.

Back to Civilisation? A Series of Unfortunate Events

Not a great day. There was a rat in my room last night chomping on my rice crackers. Then I lost a contact lens and found half of it on the floor. I didn’t bother looking for the other half. A final small plane flight back to Port Moresby via Mount Hagen. The plane is late and we sit around waiting. When we finally land at Hagen we are barred from the street as there is a tribal fight going on. Chunks of rock are flying through the air and a van is on fire. It explodes as we drive quickly away. We are hanging around again all afternoon before returning to the war zone for the final leg of our journey. Or maybe not.

When we get to the airport they announce that they are cancelling our flight. Uproar, as we all have onward connections tomorrow morning. Air Nuigini say it doesn't happen very often - just once a week. Then we have to find somewhere to stay. We end up back in our original hotel, but they won't let us in until we hand over the airline vouchers and the airline hasn't sent any. It's Sunday. Eventually we are allowed in and given some dinner. The Israelis are more irate than ever by then. They are pretty strict, won't travel on Saturdays and have to have all their own food cooked in the pans they brought with them. So they aren't best pleased when they find bacon in the bottom of their dish of couscous.

Back to Civilisation? A Series of Unfortunate Events Part 2

Waiting in the hotel foyer for yet another trip to the airport. There are the usual signs forbidding betel nut chewing and spitting. I'm busy trying to decant all my belongings onto a table, but they all start jumping about and toppling onto the floor. Then I notice that the floor itself is moving. An earthquake. At least it doesn't last very long.

This flight is only 40 minutes late, but there is total chaos when we finally arrive as everyone is trying to find out which planes they can catch and rushing about from one office shack to another depending on what misinformation has been given. We all end up with an onward connection, after a great deal of aggravation, and get checked in. I'm on a 3 o clock flight.  The Portuguese think that they are too, but when we get to the departure lounge their flight number is flashing 'cancelled'. They disappear quickly, disgruntled to say the least. In the melee I've not managed to say good bye to anyone. I've got 9 more flights to make before I get home. This is going to be an interesting trip.

New Britain

Eventually an arrival, 12 hours late, in the islands of Papua New Guinea - New Britain, via New Ireland. I'm too tired to eat, which is just as well as the food (and everything else) in this country is so expensive, that travelling on my own is going to bankrupt me. I'm going to bed and I've hung out my sign - Yu No Ken Kam Insait (Do Not Disturb).


It's really steamy here. I've got the air conditioning and the fan on together. A visit to Rabaul, which was totally flattened by a volcano erupting in 1994.  We drive over the town and up the airport runway- all just flat brown ash. There are hot springs too, flowing like a giant boiling jacuzzi over orange sulphur daubed rocks and hissing into the sea. Not a good place to go swimming.  The whole bay is a volcano caldera and the two cones that did the recent damage are lined up opposite us, one steaming ominously.

Some history too. This part of Papua New Guinea was a German colony before it was taken over by the British/Australians in World War I. Several German signs and remains around and several places called Bismarck. Then we jump to World War II with excursions to Japanese tunnels dug to hide barges and cargo. Also pits and jetties where enterprising locals are charging five kina to see parts of Japanese warships and fighter planes rusting quietly.

Coral Island

Today a boat trip round the bay, past more rusting Japanese boats and machine guns and back past the volcanoes. Now I can see that there are at least 5 cones around the old caldera.  The devastation from the last eruption is also more evident. Miles of coconut plantations all buried in hardened ash. I think it's called lahar? The mountains look so beautiful and peaceful swathed in velvet folds of greenery. Though the smallest one is still smoking.

Megapod birds lay their eggs in holes they dig in the ash and boys are mining them with their bare hands. They are caked in black as they squeeze their head right into the burrows. The birds flap about in consternation.

Then off to the most idyllic little coral island. It's surrounded by an atoll and the lagoon is patterned in every possible shade of blue. I thought the Papua New Guinea claim that they had the best diving in the world was possibly an exaggeration, but the reef is excellent. Multi coloured coral cushions and teeming with shoals and shoals of sparkling fish. I think I might swim all the way round it, but I am on my own. The sight of a small, harmless reef shark down in the depths sets the Jaws theme running in my head and it won't go away. So I strike back to the safety of the shore.

More interactions with wild things. I do my good deed for the day and fish a struggling toad out of the swimming pool. And a dozen small white geckos are running races up and down the corrugations on the eaves of my bungalow.

Castaway in Papua New Guinea

The queue to check in for the flight back to Moresby moves excruciatingly slowly. Partly due to the fact that the computer is working at snail's pace. The flight is due to take off at 7 a.m. and by 6.30 only one passenger had been checked in. Then there is a power cut. Amazingly I am not bumped and the plane takes off only an hour late. Only 7 flights to go. If I don't get the one tomorrow I'm really in bother, as there isn't another one for about 5 days.

When I get to Port Moresby I am to be met by a rep from an island resort in nearby Bootless Bay. Except there isn't anyone there. Abandoned, I stand outside the airport all forlorn, remembering all my instructions not to go into town as this is such a dangerous place. Eventually some local guides help me phone the resort and the errant driver is tracked down.

The words commonly used to describe Moresby are 'it's a dump'. I don't see anything to make me disagree as we drive along. It's just a sprawl of buildings with tin roofs, lots of squatters' shacks and a dirty market.

More coral islands dotting the bay and my residence is on one. I'm offered a free trip to the snorkelling wonderland of nearby Lion Island. What they don't tell me is that the skipper of the little speed boat is afraid he will miss his lunch, so he deposits me on the beach and disappears. Abandoned again. Jaws is resonating even more strongly in my head. However it's not too long before a family appear from between the palm trees. Not Swiss Family Robinson with breadfruit, but Australians with potato chips. So I have company for my last swim in Papua New Guinea.

The Solomon Islands next.

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2 comments on “Papua New Guinea - An Extraordinary Encounter - South Eastern Pacific 1”

    1. Hi
      I booked through Reef and Rainforest in the UK, but they used an Australian company- sorry can't remember their name.
      Are you going?


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