From fire blazing-Bainang dancers and Huli Wigmen warriors, to crocodile-scaled men of the Sepik River. Meet the local communities of Papua New Guinea...
Fifty thousand years of human evolution on Papua New Guinea has seen societies adapt to the island’s primeval nature; explore offshore islands in the warm surrounding oceans by sailing canoes, and then stumble into the modern world with a legacy rendering it the most exciting country on Earth to explore.
The upshot of this tropical fermentation is a loosely affiliated society of some 840 languages and over a thousand tribal clans, who even now as modernity slowly permeates Papua New Guinea, cling to their traditions of dress and customs.
Below are five of the most iconic cultural encounters that visitors will find readily accessible either by chance, at festivals, or arranged via tour-operators. For certain the sing-sing and costumes have now been adapted so Papuans can benefit from tourism. But scratch beneath the photogenic surface and you will find authenticity strong at heart.
On the outskirts of Rabaul it is nighttime. The hulking shadow of the active Mt. Tavurvur dominates the bay serving this East New Britain city and then the dancers appear. A burning pyre glows bright; flames leap into the sky as the rhythmic beating of kundu drums and bamboo-sticks usher the fire-dancers of Baining into view. They wear bulbous-eyed masks resembling bird’s faces, like cassowaries, and what looks to be highly flammable grass skirts and roughs around their necks.
The dance is usually performed on special occasions to celebrate a new child or the coming-of-age of young men. It’s usually forbidden for women and children to watch but this is a spectacle laid on for our tour-group, so those usually barred are shrieking and laughing their approval. Working their way into a trance-like state, the fire-dancers shimmy around a fire that dares them to feel its heat. It’s not long thereafter when they daringly plunge through it, barefoot, sending fiery embers flickering into the night sky. It’s a sight to behold.
During several voyages up Papua New Guinea’s largest river, the Sepik, I have never ceased to be amazed by the most remarkable examples of body scarification imaginable. In reverence to the crocodile spirit young male initiates enter wooden and thatched spirit-houses called tambaran to learn how to become a man. It’s during the process of acquiring knowledge such as how to look after their future family or hunt that they will undergo an excruciatingly painful scarification that used to be cut with sharpened bamboo until their skin resembles the hide of a crocodile.
These men are easy to meet for any travellers along the Sepik and will proudly remove their shirts to show you their design. The raised welts on their skin cover their backs, shoulders and run down their chest – often incorporating the nipples as eyes. The custom remains very much alive in the Sepik.
At a small village in the Eastern Highlands, near Goroka, I sit shivering in a mid-morning mist as a cultural performance arranged solely for myself commences. Soon a dozen or so grey figures emerge, ghostly pallid. It's then I notice several bows with loaded arrows pointed towards me. As they edge closer the mud-men are naked bar a loincloth, their bodies daubed in grey clay, and they don grotesquely scary mud-baked masks with exaggeratedly pointed ears and brows with drooping tongues and pig bones piercing the nose.
Legend has it the Asaro were chased from their village by a larger hostile tribe and they hid in the mud of the riverbank. The aggressors saw their grey mud-smeared bodies and believing they were ghosts fled in terror. Ever since they have been scaring enemies and tourists alike on their way to becoming one of Papua New Guinea’s most popular performing cultures.
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.