Papua New Guinea by Jim O'Brien - Imaginative Traveller Operations Manager
The enormous mystical island had long held an enchanting allure for me, ever since I first read ‘Cannibal Adventure’ by Willard Price when I was around eight years old, a place of barely visited and remote tribes, of almost mythical creatures such as tree kangaroos and birds of paradise, a picture fed and enhanced over the years through the watching of numerous wildlife documentaries. A place at the edge of the known world, where ancient customs still reign strong and where few foreign visitors tread.
After a long series of flights (sadly with a poor selection of in flight entertainment – I end up watching ‘The Incredible Hulk’, the best of a bad bunch) and inexplicably three internal flights in PNG itself, I finally find myself there, a quarter of a century after the country emerged onto my consciousness. Papua New Guinea has a poor international reputation, known mainly for its tribal fighting (known locally as clan warfare), excessive exploitation of its natural resources, and the involvement of foreign mercenaries in putting down local rebellions. This and its very remoteness means that it barely features on the world tourism circuit – fewer than two thousand UK visitors step onto its shores each year, and having spoken to none of them I’m not entirely sure what to expect, which is one of the rare but great joys of travel.
The small eight seater aircraft that we’d been travelling in finally touched down in Tari, a small town in the highlands region, and is greeted by the sight of two elderly locals dressed in grass loincloths and sporting feathers and vegetation in their bushy Afro hair. One has what appears to be a bone sticking out of his belt, and I can’t help but wonder if it is human.
‘Apinun’, he says as he takes my bag. The pidgin version of ‘good afternoon’. PNG has over eight hundred known languages, meaning that from one village to the next an entirely different tongue can be spoken. So rather sensibly the people here have adopted the rather odd language of pidgin as a national language, a mixture of corrupted English and various local words, unintelligible to the untrained. We drive higher up into the mountains to a surprisingly comfortable lodge, its cottages set on the edge of thick rainforest with a breathtaking view over the valley below. After almost two days of non-stop travelling, I promptly fall asleep for the rest of the day.
This area of the highlands is home to the Huli tribe, a fiercesome looking people whose menfolk are renowned for taking immense pride in their appearance. The next day our guide takes us a small settlement where a group of warriors gather, their faces painted yellow and red, their hair decorated with feathers from birds of paradise, and with noses pierced with quills from the native cassowary, a large flightless bird resembling an emu with a helmet on.
They perform for us a traditional ‘sing-sing’, an elaborate group dance involving lots of jumping and yelling. We are told how this is often performed at the end of a tribal confrontation, a way of demonstrating their military superiority over the vanquished enemy. I ask whether these fights happen often, scarcely believing that in this day and age that this can be allowed to happen, and am told that only last year this village was involved in a battle with one of the nearby villages, with men killed on both sides. The nature of their weaponry – bows and arrows and spears rather than firearms – means that the death toll is usually not too high, but even so it’s still a serious business.
The Huli live their lives according to strict rules of gender separation, and when boys are eight or nine they are taken away from their mothers to live with all the men of the village in a separate house. Some men choose to join the improbably named wig school and live in the forest in seclusion under the tutelage of an adept, growing their hair for eight months until it becomes an enormous mushroom shaped afro, helped in shape by twigs. Wigs are an important part of the Huli mens’ ceremonial dress, and these men grow then shave their hair off for sale – a wig can reach around eight hundred kina (about £150). We watch as the master whispers spells into fern fronds which are then dipped in the stream and used to ‘water’ the hair, the spells falling from the leaves into the hair to ensure that it grows correctly. They then sit around smoking cigarettes through a section of bamboo, and offer me one. On closer inspection the cigarette is really just a few pieces of thin bark wrapped in a dry leaf. I smoke it and it burns my lungs, but I manage not to cough, unlike one of my companions who provokes howls of laughter from the Huli wig men.
On the drive back we witness our own mini version of clan war, driving along a dirt road through the forest. The local market ahead is full of people and as get closer it seems all is not well and a mass argument is in full flow. Suddenly a few men brandishing machetes run towards another group, who grab nearby rocks and start pelting them. Our guide calmly stops the vehicle and gets out, shouting at the combatants before getting back in.
‘I told them if one of the rocks hits the truck, I will come back and find them’
he says, like a schoolteacher admonishing a bunch of unruly children rather than grown men who look like they are about to kill each other. It turns out the dispute was about a woman.
‘We Huli fight about three things. Land, pigs and women. In that order.’
A few days later we fly by small aircraft across the mountains, descending into the vast green carpet of jungle that is the Sepik basin, along with the Amazon and the Congo one of the world’s great ecosystems but one which surprisingly few people have heard of. An area roughly the size of southern England, with not a road to be seen. The only way to travel here is by river, on the Sepik or one of its many tributaries, and the people that live here are about as isolated as you can be in the 21st century. We land on a small patch of cleared ground that serves as an airstrip and are confronted with a very different climate from the highlands, a steamy, sticky and all enveloping heat that threatens to sap the lifeforce out of you within minutes of touching down. Our lodge perches high on a ridge, overlooking the muddy brown river carving its way through the forest below. Decorated in the style of a traditional haus tambaran, or spirit house, it is crammed with numerous carved artefacts bought over many years from the villages nearby. Most of the masks and sculptures have a menacing look to them, piercing eyes boring into you and jagged angry patterns painted onto their faces. This is the closest we’ll get to a real spirit house. In the Second World War, Japanese soldiers retreated into this region in the face of increasing attacks from Allied forces, and the spirit houses were bombed by British and Australian pilots who feared that they were being used as hiding places. In an area as uncharted as this, there are far better places to hide but the spirit houses were never rebuilt, and this area of the Sepik has lost a tradition that doubtless has been here for many hundreds of years. A reminder that the ravages of war can touch even the most remote of places.
We visit small villages on the banks of the water, settlements that betray no trace of the modern world, their wood and palm thatch buildings sitting idyllically in small clearings where small naked children watch us curiously. This is an area of PNG where old traditions have not long died out, a place renowned for headhunters and cannibalism. As recently as the 1960s, the villages here would engage in frequent warfare with their neighbours, bringing back the skulls of their unlucky victims to keep in their houses. Some tribes were even reputed to bring her victims back alive and keep them in cages for weeks on end, fattening them up until they were judged to be plump enough to make a good meal. Nowadays the missionaries have put a stop to these practices, introduced more western customs and style of dress (although many of the women still walk around bare breasted, which I would imagine appals the more prudish missionaries) and brought Christianity to the jungle. A quick peek inside a local church (little different from any of the other huts in the village) shows that the missionaries haven’t had it all their own way though – the carved spirit totems still look down forebodingly upon the congregation. Although one bears more than a passing resemblance to Jesus, just with a lot of face paint. The skulls won in headhunting expeditions are nowhere to be seen in these villages, the locals having been encouraged to abandon their old customs and bury them, but I’m told there are still a few knocking about, although disappointingly we’re not allowed to see them.
I find it hard to believe though that old customs have completely died, and ask our guide whether there are still instances of cannibalism anywhere. He looks slightly embarrassed and says that the last known case was in the late seventies, when a group of missionaries pushed too hard for a local tribe to adopt Christianity and upset the elders, who arranged for them to be part of the evening meal. Later, the lodge manager tells us that she is sure that the practice still exists in remote pockets of the region, perhaps a far fetched notion but nevertheless one that excites my imagination immensely. Papua New Guinea is still home to ‘undiscovered’ groups of people living primitive lives deep in the jungle, and I can’t believe that the missionaries have reached everywhere.
Cruising along the river in a motorboat, we pull to one side to allow a convoy of enormous rafts pass, so vast that house like structures have been built on them, sheltering several people inside. The rafts we are told are taking sago palms from the villages to the nearest town, following the lazy current and without any form of power, at the whim of the river itself. The shelters are necessary as it will take three weeks or more from this point to reach the town, and they function as a general living space, with small cooking fires within and curious children peering from their dark unlit interiors. As I write this I realise that I forgot to ask how a raft that simply gets pulled along by the current can ever make it back to where it came from. We continue along smaller waterways, occasionally passing a village but more often than not travelling through vast swathes of uninhabited jungle. Children jump into the water when they see our boat coming, swimming excitedly into the wake that we leave behind. Eagles circle overhead, fish occasionally jump out of the water, betraying their presence with a ‘plop’. ‘Civilisation’ is a million miles away.
That evening, sipping cold beers on a balcony with what has to be one of the best views in the world, over the river below and then miles and miles of dense forest, we spot a fire a few hundred yards below. It starts to burn out of control, engulfing all vegetation until eventually a small building goes up in flames, sending plumes of smoke into the fading light, hanging over the forest like a layer of smog. It looks oddly beautiful, but is threatening enough for the lodge staff to dash down there and try to fight it before it consumes the balcony that we’re sitting on. They tackle it for half an hour, getting absolutely nowhere, until the air cools and the clouds send down a violent downpour which finally quenches it. Talking later to the manager of the lodge, she confesses that she is certain one of her staff lit the fire – whether out of malice or boredom she cannot say, but she seems rather anxious and reluctant to investigate further. It can be dangerous to cause too much trouble among the local villagers, she tells us; she was here twenty years ago but had to leave suddenly after sacking one of the housekeepers. The headman of the next village, all smiles when we met him, threatened to kill her in her sleep as retribution and she wasn’t about to take any chances. Out here it could be days, weeks even before any help could be raised, and longer before anyone would notice you were missing. This a land where law and order is fragile at best, where one must tread carefully. I am reminded of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – a river journey into the unknown.
It takes me the best part of two days to fly home – to Mt Hagen, then Port Moresby, then Singapore, then Kuala Lumpur and finally Heathrow – loaded down with wooden carvings and the like. The short time I spent in PNG makes me want to find out more, to return to explore more. There are few, perhaps no, places on our ever smaller planet like it – the world’s second largest island holds many secrets and mysteries, perhaps still undiscovered species and people. It is a place where the modern world has only the most tenuous of holds, where tradition is more important than anything else, a place where one can really feel excited about travelling to. I vow to return one day.
Jim travelled as part of a research trip to Papua New Guinea, see our current trips to this amazing country here
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