My travels have seen me visit many so called primitive cultures before. However in reality it wasn’t unusual to turn up to an ethnic village ready to photograph their cultural ways only to see a brand new 4×4 parked behind the grass huts and mobile phones and other western devices in use…
But this was different – this was Papua New Guinea! And it was here that I was going to witness genuine culture amongst the tribal people of PNG’s remote interior.
From the crowds waiting behind razor wire fences at the airport to the high security required in Port Moresby there was no mistaking that you had arrived into a different world. With a population of over 300,000 living in a city trying to balance western industry with traditional culture, Port Moresby is subject to high levels of crime and unemployment, cited as the world’s worst city to live in a 2004 article by The Economist. However, Port Moresby was the gateway to the rest of PNG, and with sensible travel precautions in place we felt secure and were looking forward to our cultural adventure inland. After 4 days safe in our hotel compound it was finally time to leave behind our contact with the western world and head out on our exploration of Papua New Guinea’s interior regions.
I was travelling with Virginia Woolf as my assistant on this trip, she had won the experience in a photography competition I had run and like me, she was not quite sure what to expect from PNG.
We were using the services of Trans New Guinea Tours and the brief I had given them was that we wanted to see the real PNG, no tourist shows, no cultural festivals – just the real deal.
We left Port Moresby on a commercial flight bound for Mount Hagen; flying over heavy jungle and spectacular mountains before touching down amongst the forested peaks, with Mount Hagen itself towering above us at 3834m. We were met by our guide and driven out of the township, through endless coffee plantations and up to our first base which was the fantastic lodge at Rondon Ridge. Sitting at over 2000m above sea level, from here we had endless views across to Mount Hagen and Mount Giluwe which, at 4368m, is PNG’s second highest peak.
It took no time at all for us to realise that the people of Papua New Guinea are very proud of their cultural heritage and so many of them staunchly cling to their traditional ways. PNG is a land steeped with superstition and ancient rituals where witchcraft and clan wars are still a very real part of everyday life. Our exploring began that afternoon in a distant village, home to the Pogla mudmen.
Some time ago the villagers had been driven off their land by a larger, stronger tribe. Not to be outdone they returned by night wearing very spooky masks made from clay and mud. They came armed with spears and long “fingers” of sharpened bamboo. Creeping eerily through the mist they terrified the invaders causing them to flee and so reclaimed their land. They still celebrate these historical events and even now, seeing these men appearing through the smoky haze and dancing around a fire in daylight, the piercing “clack clack” of the bamboo fingers sends a chill down your spine. Luckily for us they are very friendly and now very welcoming to the rare visits from outsiders and even seemed quite fascinated by our presence.
From here we moved on to Touka village. On our arrival we were taken to see the village elders – six Malpa chiefs wearing little more than a bunch of leaves hung from a few cords of crudely woven string around their waist. These are known as tanket or arsegras. These chiefs were sitting in a small thatched hut around a roaring fire discussing important “men’s business”. The walls were hanging with a wide array of bones. When we arrived they came out, danced clockwise around us before chanting and dancing their way back inside. Apparently these meetings are a daily ritual with the chiefs spending great lengths of time sharing secrets and preserving their tribal history. From here we journeyed back down the Wahgi Valley through the coffee plantations and past the acres and acres of coffee beans laid out to dry before returning to the exquisite sunset and comforts of Rondon Ridge.
Our next day saw us travelling in the opposite direction and up the mountainous, jungle clad Nebilyer Valley to Paiya Village. After John, our guide, went into the village to ensure it was suitable for us to visit, we were welcomed by the chief and brought to meet his 3 wives. The chief was an older but powerful man with a long beard and a huge clump of cassowary feathers in his hair. He had a belt of bamboo and a huge necklace of bones reaching down to the ground. This necklace was an indication of his status with each bone representing one pig. In this tribe, wealth is measured by the number of pigs you own. We learnt that possessions in order of importance were land, pigs and then wives. It is the job of the first wife to tend the pigs and trade and save for more pigs in order to pay for the second wife. The two wives then in turn save for the third and so on… It was an amazing afternoon spent exploring Paiya village. There was no common language but with facial gestures and hand signals we enjoyed the day laughing with the chief and his people just the same.
The following morning saw us back at Mount Hagen airport wading through the crowds of the city, passing the security fence to board our chartered plane. It was just us, our extensive photography kit and Dwayne, our personal pilot from Trans New Guinea. On this flight we passed over vast expanses of jungle and mist shrouded mountains that reminded me of Fiordland back home in New Zealand. There were crystal clear mountain streams meandering down to the vivid blue Chambri Lakes with their white sandy shores. A country dazzling in its beauty.
An hour and a half later we touched down on the remote grass airstrip at Karawari, we were now in the midst of one of the most remote and unexplored parts of the planet. Our altitude was much lower here and the temperature was stifling hot. Our base was to be on the Karawari River. It was good bye to Dwayne as our plane left, taking with him our last contact with the western world for the next few days. A further 20 minute boat ride downstream past an array of stunning villages comprised of thatched huts, dugout canoes and waving locals and we arrived at our exquisite home for the next two nights – Karawari eco Lodge. We were the only people here apart from our host’s Augus and Paul.
The lodge was amazing, a museum of artefacts and a deck with views that have to be seen to be believed. After a quick talk with Augus about what we hoped to see, we were in the boat again and heading to Tangamimbit Village. Here we were welcomed and before long invited into the men’s spirit house, a sacred place normally strictly restricted to the men of the village. The interior was filled with masks and weapons and a shelf displaying a line of human skulls. These were “trophies” from the not so distant days of cannibalism. We were both welcomed in and even allowed to photograph, although Virginia found it uncomfortable and chose to move outside.
The following few days were spent exploring the river and calling on remote villages along the Karawari and its smaller tributary, the Konmei. This was a real highlight of the trip; there was virtually no sign of the outside world anywhere, everyone was dressed traditionally – or not dressed at all. The children were coated in mud from head to toe – an effective sunblock – and their days were spent fishing, collecting the staple diet of sago, and simply playing. Many of the young children of these villages were timid and would peek from behind trees with curiosity – they had not experienced people with “pale skin’ before. Though they didn’t take long to ease up and start giggling and laughing as they watched us.
The adults were adorned with the colourful face and body paints that were part of their ancient culture. The pride and identity of the individual tribes remains very intact here, after all, the only way to get in or out is small charter plane, not something available to the local population. One elderly lady – who we called Dorothy for lack of understanding her local tongue – danced and sang and laughed hysterically as she used hand signals and gestures to teach us to catch Piranha from her dugout canoe. The ladies and children of the villages – who seemed to do all the work – not only caught the fish from their canoes, but often cooked the catch over a small fire burning in the front of their vessel.
When our time at Karawari came to an end it was with sadness that we headed back to the airstrip to await Dwayne and our small plane onwards. Leaving the low lying rivers and tropical heat behind we flew onwards for two hours to reach Tari in the Southern Highlands. The height and ruggedness of the peaks that we had journeyed over on this flight were quite unbelievable. There is so much unexplored jungle here, it is little wonder that new species of animals, birds and insects are being found on a regular basis.
Our arrival at Tari was in stark contrast to where we had just come from. This was a commercial airport servicing a mining town with planes and helicopters coming and going. Once again modern enterprise mixed with local culture and it was with amused surprise we saw that our baggage handler was dressed in traditional grass skirt and head wear, having to put his bow and arrows down to unload our plane. His yellow reflective safety vest – worn on top of his traditional attire – highlighted the difficult contrast to be found in the more western influenced areas of this intriguing country.
Leaving the “razor wired” fences of the airport behind, Tari felt somewhat similar to Port Moresby with the exception that many of the people – even in the city – still wore traditional costume and were carrying traditional weapons. Here we stayed at Ambua Lodge, a group of villas nestled in the forest some distance from Tari and echoing with the calls of the famous Birds of Paradise. It was from here that we explored several villages of the famed “Huli Wigmen”, one of the largest ethnic groups in Papua New Guinea.
Traditional Huli culture is highly developed and strikingly executed in dress and personal decoration. The Wigmen get their name from the very detailed and intricate wigs they wear. Medicine men put spells on chosen men to enable them to grow great crops of hair. This hair is then harvested and woven into wigs – often supplemented by hair from other family members – using a specific design indicative of each wigman’s tribe.
The Huli also cultivate yellow everlasting daisies, these are used to decorate their wigs along with feathers and cuscus (possum) fur. A band of snakeskin is worn across the forehead, and a cassowary quill is usually pierced through the nasal septa. Kina shells are worn around the neck, a decorative belt and bilum-cloth are worn to cover their private parts and an arsegras (tanket leaves stuck into a belt) covers behind. The beak of a hornbill is often worn at the back of the neck.
These elaborate costumes are complemented by face and body painting with the patterns done in red and yellow ochre to be both prominent and arresting. Overall the effect is highly striking and provided us with endless photo opportunities of these amazing people.
The Southern Highlands region where the Huli Wigmen live over a territory of around 2500 sq kilometres remains unaffected by modern law and sees regular lawlessness and tribal fighting. Land ownership amongst the tribes is a complex affair and disputes over land are often at the root of these conflicts. We felt safe with our guide and amongst the friendly locals we encountered, but it was obvious that tribal warfare and clan fighting was still a serious and commonplace event in this area.
So while the rumours of Papua New Guinea being a dangerous destination can be true, our experience showed us that strictly speaking this risk was confined to selected city areas only, while any conflict amongst the tribal people was settled between themselves in much the same way it has been done for centuries past.
Once we were out in the remote areas seeing the people living the way they have in untouched and remote Papua New Guinea for countless years, it was easy to see that they were in fact one of the friendliest and most fascinating people – living in the most stunning location – I have ever had the privilege to visit.
It was an amazing 6 days and yet we only touched on this primitive land full of color and culture – much of Papua New Guinea still remains yet to be fully explored.
I made a video so you can share in some of my favourite images from this trip…
All images copyright Chris McLennan Photography.