I first saw them pogoing on the spot, beating hand-held kundu drums and looking rather like glam-rockers. It was at Makara in the Southern Highlands and the famous Huli Wigmen were bouncing and chanting by way of a traditional sing-sing. They looked extraordinary and almost vain given the degree of attention to their appearance – although in fact they are fierce warriors.
The have a fine bone driven through their noses, yellow painted faces, oiled chests, and grass skirts, but I can't take my eyes off their hair-pieces. The wigs are fashioned from their own hair: wide enough to act as a small umbrella and rather resembling a midshipman’s hat adorned with the feathers of parrots and birds-of-paradise.
Despite being regulars on the tourist scene the process of creating the wigs remains authentic and true. Young unmarried Huli men attend a wig school for anything up to 18 months to learn how to grow their hair and the art of fashioning it into their precious wigs.
There has been a modest revival in recent years of young women obtaining exquisite facial tattoos in Oro Province. I first saw them some years back after flying into Popondetta. The ladies were elderly, but were marked by exquisite inked designs and I was told they heralded from the Tufi clan on the coast.
The designs feature many intricate geometric representations of surrounding nature, such as birds-of-paradise feathers. They are considered a rites-of-passage for young girls (aged 14-18) to enter womanhood. The secretive process may take several months and upon emerging from the tattooist’s hut the new initiate will be considered a woman. It’s easy enough to see the women in communities around Tufi, now a world-class location for diving, or at September’s Tufi Tapu Tattoo Festival.