Traveling there can be very frustrating at times, but when asked if I would return, my response is always the same: absolutely. Julie L. Kessler writes of her experience.
It’s not easy to travel to Papua New Guinea. The exact qualities that make the country so attractive to adventurers—its rugged natural beauty, thriving traditional cultures, an anachronistic lack of infrastructure—is precisely what makes it such a challenging destination. The Australian government’s travel guidelines for the country is one long warning about a terrifying compendium of biblical and modern-day plagues: Landslides! Car-jackings! Gang violence! Venomous snakes! Civil unrest!
The eastern half of the second largest island on earth, Papua New Guinea first gained notoriety in the Western world after Errol Flynn visited in 1927 and declared the land one of his greatest loves. In 1930, while searching for gold, Australian brothers Mick and Dan Leahy discovered a million isolated people living in the lush, secluded valleys of the Highland. Previously thought to be uninhabited, it was actually the most densely populated region—a colossal anthropological discovery. Altogether, Papua New Guinea has one of the world’s most diverse cultural and linguistic landscapes, with over 800 indigenous languages, or 25 percent of the world’s spoken tongues.
The site of Amelia Earhart’s doomed final flight as well the 1961 disappearance of Michael Rockefeller, the 23-year-old son of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, the country remains steeped in a history, mystery, and myth that, for me, at least, overrode the potential hazards. With its unique topography, prolific birdlife, and remote indigenous cultures, PNG had long captured my imagination.
The cloud forest surrounding Wasana Hunting Camp. Blake Everson/Courtesy of Black Tomato
My travel partner George and I arrived in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’s dusty capital, last November, after a 25-hour journey from Los Angeles. After visiting the National Museum, Parliament House, and well-maintained botanical gardens, we flew to the Southern Highlands town of Mount Hagen, overlooking the Waghi Valley, PNG’s food basket and home to the Melpa people. Our flight had been set up by Audley Travel, which handled all logistics after we arrived in PNG. (Traveling without a local agent is not advised in the country because of the complexity of domestic travel, including a total lack of infrastructure, telephones, and electricity in the areas outside of the capital.) Audley contracts with PNG’s largest ground agent, TransNiuginiTours, which arranged all domestic air travel, all transfers, all lodge stays (including meals), and local, English-speaking guides.
Although I had heard various stories concerning PNG’s raskols—hoodlums—and there was significant rioting in Lae during our nine-day journey, I had only one yikes-that-was-close moment. While strolling the outdoor Hagen Market, where possum hair, seeds, tobacco, and vegetables were on display, a man lunged for my small canvas satchel. Fortunately, I was quicker and slipped aside. Locals who viewed the would-be-thief’s attempt badly beat him right there. Later I learned that security arrived and continued pummeling the man. Bearing witness to this display of extrajudicial justice was a strange, powerful moment.
A completely different scene unfolded a few miles away, in Pulga Village, where young men from the Wurup clan, their bodies covered in white clay and precious little else, wore heavy ceramic masks and danced alongside the matriarch amid the tropical foliage. Although the vast majority of Melanesians are now Christian, here, Jesus exists in detente with animism, ancestor worship, bride prices (namely, pigs and Kina, the country’s currency), polygamy, haus tambarans—spirit houses—and ritual body scarification.
In a five-seater, 1973 Beechcraft Baron piloted by a septuagenarian Aussie named Bob, we flew northwest, landing on a narrow, impossibly short, grassy airstrip 300 feet from the Karawari River, a tributary of the mighty Sepik. This lowland rainforest in the East Sepik province foothills is as far off the grid as imaginable.
We walked through mud to the river, where a pontoon was waiting with our guide Paul, a Karum tribe member from nearby Yimas Village. While heading upriver, we passed a few stilted houses, the homes of subsistence farmers living with their clans. These groups exist with virtually no outside influence—other than the occasional intrepid traveler—precisely as they have for generations.
Twenty minutes later, the pontoon docked and Argus, manager of the 12-room Karawari Lodge, drove us 10 minutes uphill on a potholed, dirt road in an open, slat-seated 1990 Landy that looked more war relic than truck. Our rooms faced the river, and while we ate lunch with the only other guest, an Australian educator, a beautiful, massive hornbill dubbed Jonny happily perched on the veranda’s railing, eventually sauntering inside to join us.
Across the river was Kundiman Village, inhabited by the Yokoium tribe. The men were covered in white clay and chopping sago—a ground and pummeled starch and their main dietary staple—and the women invited us into their open pavilion, where they cooked the sago along with a river-fish stew. The women were topless, some of them breastfeeding. Besides clay, the men were adorned with only leaves, feathers, and penis gourds. We, on the other hand, were covered head to toe in lame attempts to ward off the swarms of potentially malaria–carrying nat-nats (mosquitoes).
In every village we visited, throngs of school-aged children were present. The government—including a charming provincial governor I interviewed named Paias Wingti—boasts that 92 percent of school-aged children attend primary school. However, education, even primary, isn’t compulsory. International organizations’ statistics confirm that actual numbers are significantly less, and more than one-third of the population (UNICEF reports 37.6 percent) is illiterate. Repeatedly, I was told that public school teachers had not been paid and had been on strike since September, when government coffers were exhausted by PNG’s participation in the South Pacific games.
That night, sleep was fitful, given the 90-degree heat, stifling humidity, a 2 a.m. torrential downpour, the jungle’s continuously intense cacophony, and pervasive nat-nats. In the morning, after leaving Manjami Village, we headed upriver to Konmae Village. Lush trees and the seemingly never-ending horizon stretched out as far as the eye could see. A teenaged girl in a canoe glided by with a cuscus—a honey-colored marsupial—atop her head. As our pontoon passed, the cuscus moved to her shoulder, and I saw her back, covered with crocodile cuts: deep scar formations, ritually performed at puberty to reflect tribal allegiance. A mixture of white clay and Tigaso tree oil is inserted into the wounds during cutting to promote keloid formation.
After lunch on the pontoon, we stopped at the Tanganbit Village, home to the Alamblack tribe. Traditionally named Kombrop, Alamblack people were well-known headhunters and cave dwellers, but in 1959 the Australians forced them to move riverside. As a foreign woman, I was permitted into their haus tambaran (indigenous women are not allowed to go in) and there, lined up on a mantle, were an array of human skulls.
Returning later to the lodge, I had a cold shower and a warm beer. I would have preferred those temperatures reversed, but that warm beer tasted like fine cognac.
Flying southeast with heavy clouds the next day, Captain Bob took the Beechcraft up to 13,000 feet. My heart’s loud thumping distracted me from the marvelous vistas. Finally we arrived at the incredibly remote Hela province and its tiny capital, Tari. Forty-minutes up Highlands Highway brought us to our stay, Tari Lodge, which offered views of the Tari Basin.
Later, we went in search of birds-of-paradise, for which the province is known. After passing a massive waterfall, we hit pay dirt, seeing both a blue bird-of-paradise and a King of Saxony with incredibly long, flirtatious plumage.
In the small Tigibi Village, we met Chief Tumbu, who was adorned with red, yellow, and white facial clay, a wig, myriad cassowary feathers, pig tusks, shells, and septum piercings. He boasted of his three wives and ten children, a reflection of his elevated tribal position. In contrast, our guide along the Hulia River, a divorced woman with two teenagers, spoke of returning the bride price to her husband, so that she “could leave and he could buy another wife.”
Perhaps the most extraordinary village we visited was Poroiba Akau, where Chief Kubumu and wig specialist Nabeta showed us how the decorative human-hair wigs they make are grown, cut, and adorned. The Huli Wigmen cultivate their own hair, and when it’s sufficiently grown, it’s shorn, adorned, and then worn by the grower. It’s a major badge of honor to wear a wig of your own hair.
The unmarried men who make these wigs live together in isolation for 18 months, observing rituals, eating special diets, and casting spells to advance hair growth. Once their wig is completed, the men return to their village to marry, or they stay another 18 months and grow another wig to sell.
I ventured to PNG to glimpse life utterly unchanged by modernity, and the country didn’t disappoint. In their traditions and adornments Papuans possess a key to their colorful past. Traveling there can be very frustrating at times, but when asked if I would return, my response is always the same: absolutely.
How to Get There
From LAX, connecting service (change of planes) to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, is offered on Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong, Singapore Air via Singapore, or Quantas via Brisbane, connecting to Air Niugini. Restricted, round-trip airfare begins at $2,165, including taxes and fees. Domestic air travel is best arranged by tour operator or local ground agent.
Nine-day custom tours with Audley start at $6,950. Longer custom Audley tours are also available. For those interested in the magnificent snorkeling and scuba diving that PNG offers (including diving among WWII wrecks), in September 2016 Silversea Cruises is offering a 14-day expedition that will visit 12 regions of PNG along the Bismarck Archipelago.