The Wilds of New Guinea

The unspoken truism of travel is that the less you expect of a destination, the better you'll like it. That may be because the anticipatory build-up to the so-called top travel destinations is so great that it doesn't allow you any scope to discover the place for yourself.

Unfortunately, the corollary is that the only places worth going are the ones we're told aren't worth visiting. That puts travel writers like myself in a tricky position. But like everyone else, it also makes my selection of destinations a lottery. It also produces some wonderful surprises.

I've never wanted to go to Papua New Guinea. Some of my school mates were Australians who lived there and from them I formed a preconception of a boring last outpost of empire where ex-pats lived a life of luxury amidst a backward and somewhat threatening local populace.

Then last month I went to the New Guinea highlands to see the Mount Hagen show, a two day cultural festival. I also travelled to Tari, the home of the Huli wigmen and the site of PNG's only luxury highland lodge. It was a revelation. Here is a place where dressing consists of stuffing a few leaves down your belt and where a man's work day is limited by the time he spends completing his face make-up. On the drive between Tari airstrip and Ambua Lodge we saw men armed with spears, bows and arrows guarding their village against a possible raid in an ongoing "payback" war.

"Payback" is a concept of schoolyard simplicity. If you do something against me (such as kill one of my village) then I'm honour bound to kill you or one of yours. Our driver put it bluntly. "We don't go in much for organised sport. War is our sport. The only difference is that every time we kick a goal someone dies." This particular dispute began with a rape. When we left the score was five dead. Eventually, a peace will be negotiated but as one villager told me "it is now up to a seven hundred pig disagreement".

Clearly, PNG is not a destination for everyone. But if you are looking for a holiday that provides a stunning spectacle and a complete sensory overload, the highlands has it all.

What about personal safety? Strangely, that's only an issue in the urban areas of Mount Hagen and Port Moresby but even there we tourists are cosseted against potential harm by security guards and compound fences. There's nowhere to go at night and that's fortunate because we're not allowed out of the hotel in any case. In the rural areas, we aren't at risk. Stories abound of full scale battles interrupted by the arrival of a tourist bus. The mayhem continued after the bus departed.

Papua New Guinea is raw and vibrant. Although only a few hours from Sydney or Melbourne, it's hard to think of many points on which the two national cultures converge. Take, for example, the Huli wigmen of the highland Tari region. These warriors go into special camps for 18 months to grow their hair which is then cut off and constructed into an elaborate wig, decorated with possum fur and Bird of Paradise plumes. I visited several Huli villages where some of the residents put on their very best make-up and wigs and performed for our benefit. It was fascinating to note that the other villagers watching the show were in their regular daily attire of leaves, wigs and make-up. In fact, their appearance differed little from that of the performers.

That's the attraction of this near neighbour. Not only is it a stone age culture of great richness but it hasn't degenerated to become a mere tourist side show. The men at one village explained to me through an interpreter how they lived completely separate from the women who occupied the other half of the village. The warriors smiled and joked for our cameras before resuming deadly serious guard duty against likely attack.

The few cultural cross-overs are startling. I met one man who had a ballpoint pen refill through his nose. Another wore the empty rims of an ancient pair of glasses while yet another had put on his face paint over his sunglasses. One Huli troupe at the Mt Hagen show had "Coca Cola" written across their shoulder paint. And we passed a semi-naked man in a scanty loin cloth using an umbrella as a sun parasol.

At Tari, we stayed at Ambua Lodge. This collection of up-market individual huts scattered along a mountain rim and surrounded by waterfalls and Birds of Paradise is the nation's best wilderness lodge. From here one does excursions out to communities that would gladden the heart of any anthropologist. Ambua is exotic travel at its best: the jungle setting is superb, the daily excursions are fascinating, and each evening you return to a comfortable lodge and good food.

On the other hand, the only good reason to visit Mt Hagen is the show or passing through to somewhere else. It's a drab collection of supermarkets, shops and markets that has lost the vitality so evident in other rural highland communities.

But the show itself more than makes up for the town's short comings. It seems as if every community in the highlands sends a team and each is determined to claim the title for the most outrageous outfits. Whole squadrons of wigmen can be seem hopping to the insistent beat of a drum. Others are clad in huge mud masks, or covered in chicken feathers, or carrying totems several metres high and performing elaborate dance routines. Drum beats fill the air. There was one lone Scottish piper in tartan kilt this year but he looked drab against his peacock-hued competition.

Then there were the other acts. One group had painted their skins with Japanese army uniforms and, in a World War II parody, paraded around the grounds led by an "officer" carrying a pair of painted wooden binoculars. Others were painted in prison stripes. Youth bands beat out complex (and remarkably melodic) rhythms with old thongs banged against water pipes cut to various lengths. My personal favourite was the all-female rugby team that seemed to have rules closer to mud wrestling than any code the All Blacks would recognise.

The structure of the show reveals the nation's colonial roots. After a few speeches that were boring in English but fascinating in pidgin, the dancers (who literally covered the whole arena) started their routines. At that time, the gates from the grandstand were opened to allow the tourists onto the grounds to take photographs. After we had been mingling with the performers for about an hour (and boosting the profits of Fuji and Kodak considerably), the other gates opened to allow the locals onto the field. Soon it was impossible to move in the crush yet the dancers continued unabated.

It was a long way from an Australian agricultural show. There were some sideshows but they were all variations on a gambling theme. One lonely stand had a small display of vegetables and a sign encouraging home growing but as the yams were dusty and the corn withered it wasn't a convincing exhibition.

But the people were the real show. Everyone in Mt Hagen came out to the grounds and they all seemed to be enjoying the spectacle. That was particularly true early Sunday morning when we all arrived a few hours before scheduled show time. Everyone wandered around the huts housing the visiting groups and watched them getting ready. The sight of a fearsome warrior anxiously looking into a hand mirror to check his eye make-up is an enduring memory. So, too, was watching another trouper dressing by putting some leaves down the back of his belt then asking a friend if the covering was adequate. When his friend shook his head, he added a couple of extra leaves.

New Guinea markets itself as the Land of the Unexpected. One day in Tari we visited some spirit men who normally don't welcome outsiders into their village. They were very different from the open and up-front villagers we met everywhere else. Indeed, they were smaller and blacker and under their head gear they seemed almost incorporeal black shadows.

We had just arrived at the next village when the earthquake hit. A villager indicated we should sit down just as the first wave hit. We remained standing but it was like being on the deck of a yacht in a rough sea. I watched a grass hut try to tear itself apart. As the ground stopped buckling under our feet, I looked further out and saw a wave in the soil almost half a metre high run across next field towards a grove of trees that tilted and swayed as it hit. It is very disconcerting to discover that the earth under our feet isn't an invariable constant. Maybe we should have tipped the spirit men.

Initially we were told that seismologists had recorded the quake at 8.1 on the Richter Scale and we'd been on the epicentre. Later that was revised down to 6.4. The Land of the Unexpected indeed.

It says a lot about Papua New Guinea that my recollections of the bizarre highland people are just as intense as my first major earthquake. There is a lot of spectacular scenery in the highlands but viewing it seems like an interruption to the main activity of people watching. And the show seems certain to continue. A few months before I arrived in PNG another two tribes were discovered who had never seen a white face before. This really is the world's last frontier.

As I said earlier, it's not a destination to suit everyone. But if you think the world has no more surprises in store for you, take a short flight north. You'll discover an alternative to our conventional view of humanity and civilisation. You'll also return with stories to last a lifetime and the most colourful photographs imaginable.

Travel Fact File

Special Events

The peak time to visit PNG is for either the Mt Hagen or Goroka shows. The Goroka Show is a biannual event but the Mt Hagen show is now on every year. Both take place around July/August and you should book early as the limited local accommodation invariably fills.

Getting There

Air Niugini and Qantas operate from Australia's major east coast ports directly to Port Moresby. Air Niugini has daily flights from Cairns to Port Moresby (the flight time is about an hour and a half), three flights a week to Brisbane and two to Sydney. It takes about five hours to get from Sydney to Port Moresby (with a stop in Brisbane). Despite the primitive nature of much of the country, there is nothing backward about Air Niugini: the aircraft are modern and the service perhaps better (and certainly more friendly) than many other international airlines. However, if you don't expect much of Port Moresby airport you won't be disappointed.

PNG is not a destination where you can just arrive and start exploring. Hotels and transport must be carefully choreographed. In effect, you need to book a tour from Australia. The major tour operator (which has its own lodges, aircraft, cars and ships) is Trans Niugini Tours, P O Box 371, Mt Hagen, Papua New Guinea, tel (675) 52 1438, fax (675) 52 2470. Considering the environment in which it works, this is a very smooth operation. It has a comprehensive range of tours listed in its brochure. If you want a cultural experience aim for the Sepik and highlands. For a more beach-oriented holiday, there are a number of coastal options available.

The best place to stay in Mt Hagen is the Highlander Hotel. It certainly has the best food in town. The Highlander is a part of the Coral Sea Hotel Group and its address is PO Box 34, Mt Hagen, tel (675) 52 1355, fax: (675) 52 1216.

The best hotel in PNG is the Port Moresby Travelodge, operated by Southern Pacific Hotels Corporation. In Australian terms, this would get about three and a half to four stars. SPHC also has a hotel in Rabaul, the town that locals describe as best fitting the image of a relaxed Pacific paradise. Bookings for SPHC hotels can be made in Australia by calling (02) 267 2144 or (008) 222 446.

Climate

As a general rule, the climate is hot and humid all year round. The monsoonal Wet runs from December to March and the Dry from May to October. However, because of the rugged terrain, the regional variations can be more important than the time of year. In the Dry, Port Moresby is very dry and dusty. Up in the highlands, mornings and evenings can be very cool so you'll need a jumper and sometimes even a jacket.

Currency

The unit of currency is the kena. Its exchange rate is slightly higher than the US dollar. Unfortunately, there aren't the same local bargains available as there are in the US so Australians find PNG is an expensive destination.

Visas

Everyone needs a visa to enter Papua New Guinea. These can be issued at the Papua New Guinea Consulates in Sydney (Somare Haus, 100 Clarence Street, tel 02/299 5151), or Brisbane (307 Queen Street, tel 07/299 8067) or the High Commission in Canberra (Forster Crescent, Yarralumla, ACT 2600, tel (06) 273 3322). A range of fees apply depending on whether you want a tourist or business visa, single or multiple entry or even if you are entering on a yacht.

Health

As with other tropical destinations, you should check the current health requirements with a specialist travel health centre (such as the one operated by Qantas or the Travellers Medical and Vaccination Centre, Level 7, 428 George Street, Sydney, tel (02) 221 7133). The main precaution is against malaria, especially if you are going bush in the lowlands. Lariam by Roche is the new wonder anti-malarial but it is expensive. You should also take the standard precautions against being bitten by mosquitoes by wearing long pants and long sleeves around sunrise and sunset and using repellents.

Personal Safety

From the Australia media, we have a perception that the PNG slogan could be: "visit us and die". The reality is that New Guinea (even the cities) feels much less threatening than many parts of the USA.

However, Port Moresby and Mount Hagen have been flooded with people from the rural areas seeking work. Failing to find it, many have turned to crime and they are the so-called "rascals", a most misleading euphemism. It's worth noting that when a house is burgled in Moresby, the fridge is invariably emptied.

It is dangerous to be on the streets of these towns at night so visitors just don't. In Mt Hagen the hotels are surrounded by barbed wire-capped compound walls patrolled by guards. The local guides know where you should and shouldn't go and direct you accordingly. The result is that, although the security in a few places is intrusive, the tourist never feels threatened.

Shopping

Collectors of primitive art find PNG to be a treasure trove. It's not cheap but it is unique. Among the masks and sculptures on offer you'll find something to suit every nightmare. Buying locally (especially along the Sepik River) is cheaper but visiting one of the clearing houses in Port Moresby may be more convenient. Everyone should visit the huge hangar-like showroom of PNG Art on Spring Garden Road, Hohola (tel 675/25 3976). If Stephen King designed Disneyland he'd have turned out something like this. Note, in particular, the gigantic duck-head grotesques hanging from the beams.

Further Information

For more information about Papua New Guinea, contact Air Niugini, 100 Clarence Street, Sydney, NSW 2000, tel (02) 290 1544 or 13 1380. It has a range of free literature about PNG and in effect, acts as the country's tourist office. Air Niugini's other Australian offices are Brisbane (127 Greek Street, tel 07/229 5844), Melbourne (12th level, 520 Collins Street, tel 03/614 0429) and Cairns (Shop 2, Tropical Arcade, 4-6 Shields Street, tel 070/514177).

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd