Visiting Papua New Guinea
PNG (Papua New Guinea) is a fascinating, brilliantly colourful countrythat is home to thick green landscapes, birds of paradise and a fistful of bizarre and unique cultures such as the Huli wigmen in the Highlands, Sepik River Crocodile cultists and sensual Trobriand islanders offshore.
These tribal people dress to kill (sometimes literally) and welcome PNG travellers taking photos – after all if you had spent several years in wig school or hours getting made up with war paint you’d want someone to capture your style too!
The Highlands is home to the most people in Papua New Guinea wchi still doesn’t make it crowded. Highlanders are live in different tribal clans across PNG’s Highland plateau and frequently engage in combat with neighbours but rarely causes fatalities. The largest tribe are the Huli wigmen.
Mt. Hagen is the capital of the Western Highlands; Goroka capital of the Eastern Highlands; Mendi capital of Southern Highlands. Both Hagen and Goroka arrange spectacular sing-sings (elaborate clan festivals with costimes and dance) every year.
The Southern Highlands are not very safe but rich in culture and wildlife/birds and well worth visiting with professional guides.
The Eastern Highlands stretches between the Highlands and the coastal provinces of Morobe and Madang with several mountain ranges. Local people there are regarded as the friendliest in the Highlands and particpate in less tribal fights than in other provinces. The Asaro Mudmen – who wear masks made of mud for battle or ceremonial purposes – are the main attraction.
A Huli wigman security guard in Ambua Lodge, near Tari in the Southern Highlands.
The Papua New Guinea Highlands is tribal territory along a ridge of low mountains running more-or-less the length of the country east to west. This is where most of PNG’s population and the most colourful tribes/clans, live, such as the Huli wigmen. The key areas are Western (capital: Mt. Hagen), Eastern (capital: Goroka) and Southern Highlands (capital: Mendi).
Local people live in extended family clans as part of a tribe and there is considerable low-tech warfare between clans as well as tribes, with bow, arrows and little axes as primary weapons and trench systems dug around ‘gardens’ (plots of land where vegetables, mainly sweet potatoes, are grown). Fighting is almost always about land, women or pigs (an enormously valuable beast). If hiking across farmed land you will be expected to pay a toll.
It is strongly advised that foreigners travel with a guide, whether hiking, bird-watching, diving or visiting a clan or festival as language will almost certainly be an issue as there are estimated to be in the region of 700 different languages spoken in Papua New Guinea. For this reason Pidgin English (Tok Pidgin) was introduced to enable cross-clan communication.
Highland roads tend to be rough, muddy and tiresome, not to mention attempted hold-ups by groups of men with little axes (we experienced that excitement as the driver floored the accelerator and the axe men dispersed quite rapidly). As a consequence flying to a small airstrip – of which there is an abundance – near the destination of your choice and driving from there is normal travel sense.
PNG’s Sepik River is a very different experience to the Huli Highlands, with no fearsomely decorated warriors, just plenty of lazy river cruising, Crocodile Cults and very artistic but disturbing masks.