After being dropped in by charter plane to a lonely grass airstrip, surrounded on all sides by dense tropical jungle echoing with the musical notes of abundant birdlife, it was obvious to all that we were in one of the more remote areas of Papua New Guinea. I was here to guide a small group of photographers as we journeyed to see the primitive tribes and traditional culture of this incredible country – one of the worlds’ least explored and yet home to 7 million people who claim around 800 different languages between them.

From the airstrip it was a short hike to the smooth flowing Karawarai River along which we travelled by boat to our accommodation at Karawari lodge. The only access in or out is via charter plane, or for locals it is via the river itself. With a generator to provide power and traditionally built but wonderfully comfortable accommodation, we were a long way from the hustle and bustle of today’s busy western world, and we loved it! The majority of the people in this country still live an uninterrupted subsistence lifestyle, spending their days fishing and harvesting sago (a starchy extract found in the spongy centre of various tropical palm stems), and we were looking forward to spending time amongst them.

It was along the Karawari River that I spotted local “stand-up paddle boarders”, noting that while the women paddled their canoes in a seated position, the men were all standing. Which possibly explained their incredible physiques. The women were predominantly seen fishing, catching a piranha type fish by hand from their dugouts, often also cooking or smoking the fish over a smouldering fire in one end of the vessel. Babies and children are part of the action and sit perched in the dugouts from an early age, or crowd around the cook fires helping their mothers.

The children in the village laugh and hide when they see us, many of the youngest having not seen white travellers before. But they are happy to be photographed and we make sure to thank the village elders before heading further north to our floating home for the next few nights on the “Sepik Spirit”. In a country known for its diverse cultural beliefs, nowhere was this in more evidence than amongst the tribes found along the Sepik River of the Black Water Lakes District. Famed for their “crocodile cutting”, the tribespeople of this area practice an incredibly bloody yet intricate form of body scarification that marks their rite of passage to adulthood.

Held every 4 or 5 years, the ritual involves boys as young as 12 through to men in their mid-30’s. (This disparity in ages is caused by the cost of the ritual itself, with many families having to save for a number of years to afford it). Prior to the cutting the young men will remain in isolation inside the local spirit house for up to three months, where they are taught the skills and lessons that will enable them to become strong men and leaders in their tribe. The cutting itself is usually performed by an uncle on their mother’s side, and is a detailed yet painful process with the initiates only able to chew a narcotic type leaf that offers some pain relief during the process. The wounds are then carefully managed throughout the healing process to ensure development of the raised scars unique to this form of body modification. The results are indeed stunning. The scars and the patterns they form are evocative of a crocodile’s scales and cover each man’s chest, lower torso and back, and more importantly, they mark the initiate’s successful transition from boyhood to manhood.

This personal beautification was in contrast to the colourful adornment we saw amongst the tribespeople of the Huli villages, found in the very central regions of PNG. Known as “Wigmen”, these natives get their name from the meticulous and intricate head pieces they wear, woven from human hair using a specific design indicative of each tribe. Yellow everlasting daisies are cultivated and used to decorate the wigs, along with feathers and cuscus (possum) fur. The overall look is completed by a band of snakeskin worn across the forehead and a cassowary quill pierced through the nasal septa. In addition, Kina shells are worn around the neck and a decorative belt with bilum cloth is worn to cover the private parts. Face paint is elaborate and done predominantly in bright yellows and reds, making them one of my favourite photographic subjects during our time here.

Spending time amongst these remarkable people always fills me with a sense of wonder, impressed by their unhurried pace of life, their hospitable nature and their proud self-sufficiency. It is this extreme pride in their cultural heritage that makes them so happy to share with us, welcoming us in and encouraging our photographic enthusiasm. In stark contrast to their harsh and ongoing history of tribal warfare and cannibalism as recent as the 1960’s, and at odds with the big business mining and agricultural activities found in the industrial centres, I have found the native people of Papua New Guinea’s interior regions to be amongst the friendliest I have ever met.

↑The brightly coloured face painting that is recognisably Huli.  I captured this image using a large aperture to create a shallow depth of field, allowing the incredible face painting of this tribal elder to stand out from the background.

↑The Birds of Paradise feathers, with which the Huli decorate their wigs, reach elaborate heights above their head pieces.

↑A Cassoway quill is worn through the nasal septa.

↑A young buy from the Kundiman Village on the Karawari River.  Photographed backlit and with the blown out river behind, I used a small reflector to add fill and provide a catchlight in his eyes.

↑This young girl was photographed sitting on the edge of her dugout in the shade.  I only used natural light to capture the warm tones in this image.

↑Emas 2nd Village, Karawari River.

↑Possibly the first “stand-up paddle boarders”?  The canoes and paddles are all shaped by hand and show incredible workmanship.  The men’s paddles are longer and fairly simple in styling, whereas the women’s paddles are more intricately carved.  Konmei River Village.

↑Spearing for fish in the plentiful waterways.

↑These fish camps are seen dotted along remote areas of the Black Water Lakes district.  Villagers journey to the camps where they will spend several weeks at a time to fish and hunt crocodile, smoking their catch before returning home.

↑A native from the Black Water Lakes but now living in Karawari, Timi proudly shows off his crocodile scarification.

↑The crocodile plays a significant part in the tribal culture of the Black Water Lakes region and are believed by many to be their ancestors.  The locals hunt them for both skin and meat, and they will catch young ones to rear until they are large enough to harvest.  Here a local boy proudly shows me his captive.

↑The Sepik Spirit, our floating home for a few nights.

All images copyright Chris McLennan.

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