I spent 12 days in Papua New Guinea in September. Twelve remarkable days. I learned and saw so much…and yet…just scratched the surface of this uniquely fascinating, isolated and diverse culture. I don’t know it all, but here is what I know – My Adventure in Papua New Guinea.
Why Papua New Guinea
It’s taken me a few weeks to finalize this blog post – there was so much to consider. During my visit to PNG many of my followers reached out asking why we had chosen to visit this remote destination. The best way I can answer this question is this; as we have explored the world these past seven years, our thirst to deeply experience new cultures has grown. Seven years ago I could not have found Papua New Guinea on a map. Today, after visiting so many nations (both highly touristed and off the beaten track), I want more. I am not satiated – rather I’m intrigued, engaged, and astounded. The clarity and understanding that comes from travel takes hold of something deep inside. It opens your heart and mind to tolerance and broadens a quest for understanding. And if I am doing anything right, travel gives me an opportunity to share an inclusive understanding of the world.
As we begin to explore lesser-traveled destinations, we find ourselves booking more tours than at anytime before in our travels. Like last spring in Bolivia (see A Very Big Bolivian Adventure here), booking with a reputable company was important for our visit to Papua New Guinea.
Relatively little archeological work has been carried out on the island of New Guinea. On the basis of current evidence, it has been postulated that parts of New Guinea were occupied as early as 50,000 years ago. This population is primarily the Melanesian people. The Melanesians are an ancient group who migrated from Asian areas to populate the island now known as New Guinea. (Source Britanica)
This ancient peoples developed into regional tribal structures throughout today’s New Guinea, living off the land and the sea and often warring with each other. Today Papua New Guinea has more than 800 tribal languages – a reflection of the insular tribal system that has endured for tens of thousands of years.
Considered one of the world’s most remote and least explored areas, Papua New Guinea remains a mysterious and misunderstood place in the world. A country of some 7 million people, there are anywhere from 350 to 600 distinct tribes depending on which source you reference. Many tribes continue to live in such remote areas they have little contact with the outside world. Parts of the country, particularly in the north, experience tribal warfare even today and are considered too dangerous for visitors.
The earliest missionaries are thought to have arrived on the island in the 1500’s and continue to have a presence among the island people today. Through colonization, de-colonization and eventually independence in 1976, missionaries have provided stable assistance in education and religion for many of the local people. Today much of the population claims to be Christian at some level.
The reason we visited Papua New Guinea in September is to attend the annual Goroka Festival, the oldest continuous festival in the nation, and where I took the majority of these photos. The Goroka Festival, always held the weekend of Independence Day, was founded by Australian missionaries in 1957. It was conceived as a way to bring tribes together in a non-violent way and to celebrate the individual differences and diversity of the island nation.
The 2023 Goroka Festival we attended was the largest festival ever held, bringing 157 tribes together from around the country. Many tribes cannot afford to attend the festival annually…so we were thrilled to witness the largest one ever held. Some tribes walk for a week to get to the three-day festival in the mountain town of Goroka (population 19,000).
About three-hundred VIP guest tickets are allowed. This gives access to people like me, to be up close and personal with the various tribes on the festival grounds (a soccer field). We were allowed access to the tribal celebrations from 8am to 2pm on each day, before the gates were open to the general public. Each tribe brings to the event their special form of traditional dress, dance and music. Known as a “sing-sing”, some of the tribes do a “sing-sing” style dance with music while other tribes have a more military style of marching. Still others present a seated “sing-sing”. It was loud, colorful, a bit overwhelming and an absolutely remarkable thing to behold. I felt very grateful to witness something so few outsiders ever get to see.
Some of the most fascinating tribes we found were the Huli Wig Men, the Mossmen of Jiwaka and the jumping Black Face Tribe. Such a fascinating difference between the look and dance styles makes it clear how little interaction the tribes have with each other.
As part of our tour we also had a unique opportunity to visit several villages throughout the country. Our first opportunity was the Asaro Mud Men Eco Lodge village, where, during the Goroka Festival, numerous tribes from the region come together to share with guests music, stories, arts and crafts, food and dance. We spent several hours here getting our first taste of the wide variety of cultures of the Island. The event provided photo opportunities as well as a chance to talk to some of the local people about their crafts and way of life. The fascinating Asaro Mud Men, the cane swallowing Bena Tribe and the Oma Bruglgoma Skeleton Tribe were all fascinating.
After we left the Goroka Festival and drove to the Mount Hagen region, we had another full day of visiting small villages. On this day we visited a small mountain village where they presented two dances and showed how they use a bamboo flute. We visited another village where we learned about ancient tools and beliefs and were greeted by the chief, his wife, mother and grandmother.
At another small village we saw the local people panning for gold, drying coffee beans and cooking the evening meal. It’s important to note that most villagers today only don the traditional costume and makeup for festivals, ceremonies, special guests, weddings, funerals and holidays. On a day to day basis they will dress in informal work clothing like you see in the photos below.
The Huli Wigmen
And finally my absolute favorite village visit was to the Huli Wigman village. These fascinating people have such a unique custom for the young men in the tribe.
The clothes, colors and headdresses are complemented by a dramatic wig worn only by men. Each wig is made from their own hair. The process of making a wig takes 18 months. Young boys are sent to “wig school” to make their wig from their own hair as it grows during the 18 months. Only virgin boys can make the wigs. Sometimes boys and men make several wigs in their lifetime. At first glance it’s hard to tell that the headdress is made from human hair. Some of the head pieces are so intricate and are decorated with feathers and other natural items.
In addition to this amazing cultural ritual, the high pitched musical song the Huli sing while dancing is distinctive and mesmerizing.
Because I have been asked about cannibalism I must take a moment to answer this question here. It is well documented that a couple of the tribes of Papua New Guinea have practiced cannibalism. But it is not a custom among the majority of tribes. It is possible it still happens today…our guide told us the last documented incident was in 2016. To be clear, cannibalism in Papau New Guinea is not about a source of food…rather it is believed by some tribes that eating the brain of a revered family member or chief or even of an enemy killed in warfare will give the person strength and special powers.
But the truth was that the few tribes practicing cannibalism begun to experience serious deadly disease that was annihilating their tribes. Sometimes called “laughing disease” those who ate the dead bodies usually were dead themselves within a year.
The practice is illegal and education efforts have been made to help the tribes understand how dangerous it is. Learn more about it here.
How to Visit Papua New Guinea
My Adventure in Papua New Guinea was remarkable. Writing this blog post has been difficult, because this experience was difficult, but also incredibly rewarding. The opportunity to visit one of the most remote and unexplored places in the world was such a gift. I have no regrets.
That said, this is not a place for everyone. It’s hard to be here. Accommodations are basic to say the least. It’s hot. But also cold and wet (we went as high as 9000 feet in elevation). Infrastructure is poor. Flights are often canceled or delayed…roads are truly awful in certain places. There are bugs and snakes. And the food is bland, starchy and usually poorly seasoned and served lukewarm. But I felt safe and everyone we met was friendly and welcoming. The people are somewhat shy, soft-spoken and as interested in us as we were in them. They are extremely patriotic.
You need a guide to see this country and many guiding services are available. We chose to do a group tour with a company called Indigo Safaries-The Best of Papua New Guinea Tours. This company does the annual Goroka Festival as well as takes guests to the Sepik River region and on diving excursions.
If you are interested in visiting, I highly recommend coming during September and experiencing the Goroka Festival. You won’t ever forget it. But additionally, the country is host to several other tribal festivals through out the year so do your research. Hopefully My Adventure in Papua New Guinea has opened your eyes to this unusual destination.
My Adventure in Papua New Guinea
Next week I will share with you about the stunning bird life we discovered in Papua New Guinea. A truly phenomenal collection of rare and beautiful birds call New Guinea home. Check back next week for another new post. And watch for lots of new posts in the weeks ahead about Hong Kong and Bohol Philippines.
If you want to see about our upcoming destinations read Year Eight of the Grand Adventure Begins here.
As always, we thank you for engaging in our posts, pinning, sharing, and commenting. Thank you for reading my post My Adventure in Papua New Guinea.