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Papua New Guinea: Behind the mask

In the tribal heartlands of Papua New Guinea, modernity merges with the ghosts of colonialism and cannibalism

By Jamie Lafferty
Published 3 Apr 2019, 17:11 BST, Updated 14 Jul 2021, 09:36 BST
Joanna the hornbill at Karawari Lodge

Joanna the hornbill at Karawari Lodge.

Photograph by Celia Topping

It begins with a sickening snap. The Mud Men of Pogla emerge, moving like mechanical marionettes: juddering, shuddering, dancing; their huge masked heads and bodies painted deathly white. Theirs is a dreadful spectacle.

Snap! While some hold spears, others have wicked-looking bamboo talons, which they crack together to provide a terrible beat for their awful advance. All of this is unnerving, but hardest to bear is the cruelly amused looks on their clay faces as they creep from the undergrowth.

The original Asaro Mud Men performed this trick to frighten their enemies — to avoid fighting them — and today's show is a homage to that sneaky horror story. This is one of a series of cultural demonstrations I'll watch over a week in the interior of Papua New Guinea. I'll meet pensionable spirit dancers, adolescent medicine men and experience a confrontational 'warrior welcome', but nothing leaves a psychological scar quite like the Mud Men.

My group is told such performances help sustain practises and traditions that were commonplace in Papua New Guinea until about a century ago — the songs, dances, and stories don't just entertain tourists, they help keep the past relevant for the current generation.

The Mud Men belong to the Melpa, a tribe based around the unlovely city of Mount Hagen in central Papua New Guinea's Western Highlands Province. Melpa customs are unique; what happens here differs from life in the next valley, or along the coast. There are 842 languages in the country, and at least as many interpretations of the right way to live life and manage death.

My education in these social mores starts a few days earlier, and it begins with an end. Along with his young family, a beast of a man improbably named Simon is demonstrating what happens when someone dies in his village. I'm quite certain he would thrash me at arm-wrestling, or indeed almost any physical pursuit.

I wouldn't mess with Simon, but his loud wailing and faux-mourning is so convincingly pained I feel compelled to intervene; even his three children are confused. The presence of foreigners must already be pretty weird, and the kids seem unsure what to do.

Are we causing the upset, one seems to be thinking. No? OK, I'll go back to sucking my finger. Another uses the end of a bow to jab his brother in the ear. After recomposing himself, Simon explains, through a translator, the lengthy and elaborate Melpa funerary process. Among other things, he tells us that at celebrations and other major occasions in Papua New Guinea, a death requires slaughtering a pig (this, mercifully, isn't demonstrated).

In these first days in Papua New Guinea, I find displays like Simon's fascinating, if a little awkward. There's an uncomfortable intimacy and, initially, I have a nauseating concern that I'm that white tourist. You know, the one being fanned on a lawn at empire's edge, soaked with gin, while indigenous people perform for their entertainment. My hand-wringing only stops when I remember a different Highlands — those in my native Scotland. Last summer, I watched a small troop of local youngsters dance for a large, loud group of American tourists. Were the kids wearing tartan because they wanted to? No. Did they enjoy jumping over swords in the rain because they love their country? I doubt it. But was it a lucrative part-time job? Absolutely.

Remembering this gets me through the weirdness of spectating in Papua New Guinea — which is a large part of the country's tourist offering. Besides, I need all the help I can get understanding this country: one about which I'm spectacularly ignorant.

In that I'm not alone. Europeans have a comparatively short history on this island — and contact with the interior happened more recently still. Missionaries and gold prospectors were among the first people to reach communities like the Melpa, all offering promises of a better life in exchange for cooperation and the chance to export their worldview. By the time the Melpa were contacted by the outside world, the First World War had been fought and the first television show broadcast. Despite the proximity of Australia, which claimed Papua New Guinea as a colony from 1920-45, the modern world has come slowly to this island — and, I was soon to find out, it feels as though some parts are still resisting it.

Welcome to the jungle

So far as I know, there isn't a Kurtz figure in the Karawari area of Papua New Guinea's interior, but there's no shaking the Conradian intensity of the place. Heart Of Darkness it's not but there's an unnerving, throbbing humidity, rampant foliage, the natives at once right there and a million miles away. And while Conrad's lunatic renegade collected skulls during some sort of psychotic episode, in this part of the world, heads were harvested with a good deal more clear-eyed rationality.

Before coming to Papua New Guinea, you're likely to hear jokes about cannibalism. You may even make some yourself. It's easier to laugh about horror than consider it too closely, and easier to make believe than face a hideous truth: until recently, headhunting and people-eating were widespread across Papua.

I'd expected this to be a mutually embarrassing taboo subject but here, on the banks of the remote Karawari River, people don't shy away from it — if anything, they're proud of their cannibalistic heritage.

Our guide, Paul, seems happy to talk about headhunting in the newly built spirit house in the village of Yimas. He grew up here and remembers seeing the first white people arrive on boats, when the Karawari Lodge was built in 1974. Back then, there was no spirit house in Yimas, the original having been razed to the ground by Allied forces hunting Japanese soldiers in the Second World War. It took until 2017 to build a new one.

The construction and the decoration are men's work — they're responsible for the heavy lifting, but also the detailed painting on terracotta bark inside. The hot, thick air and the silent reverence with which the priests toil lends the place a serene, holy atmosphere. Just a few decades ago, however, buildings like this would also have been depots for freshly decapitated heads. The newly orphaned bodies were butchered outside.

"We have a payback system," Paul tells our group. "You do good to me, I do good to you. You do bad to me…" This reciprocal attitude applied in the headhunting era, too. If members of your village were killed and eaten, you could only placate the spirits by seeking vengeance. Where the bloodshed began or how it might end, no one knew.

Paul explains this as he passes me a tambain, a wooden strip with what looks a little like a row of coat hooks attached — only this would've been used for displaying human skulls. As he talks, it dawns on me that if we see an elder over 60 years old in this faraway part of the country, there's a chance they'll know what it's like to taste human flesh.

In every sense, we're a long way from home. The only way to get here is by charter plane — landing on a grass airstrip (as we did) — or by the slow boat along the Sepik and Karawari Rivers.

From the vantage point of the Karawari Lodge, a great green sea of jungle stretches to every horizon. To maintain this eternal canopy, it rains frequently and heavily, often without warning. The precipitation runs across the red-clay soil and into the Karawari, turning the water a permanent milk chocolate brown.

For the electricity-free villages and tribes of this remote region, the river is everything from larder to laundrette to lido. Most importantly, it's also a highway, the only viable way for people to travel between communities. As we pass hamlets and moored canoes, we slow the engine to prevent our wake damaging the riverbanks. The locals mostly appreciate this, but on the outskirts of one settlement, three naked boys encourage us to go as fast as possible so that we send waves curling up their muddy beach. Delighted, they leap in, body-surfing back to shore. Riding waves, it seems, is universally popular.

There's a purity to the subsistence living here that I want to believe is superior to our lazy modern existence: hunt when hungry; sleep when tired; bathe in the river; sleep under the stars; wear clothes to cover your modesty, or don't; feel the sun on your bare skin; appreciate the value of a good rain. Life itself is a full-time job. From the optional clothing to the slithering serpents to the jungle's bounty, it's not inaccurate to describe life as Edenic, even if that blithely ignores the ugly realities of disease, malnutrition, and infant mortality. When things go seriously wrong here, expert help is very far away. Supplies are also delivered infrequently, so at the heart of life is sago, a gooey starch harvested daily from palms of the same name. Up in Mount Hagen, the Melpa's fertile land yields an abundance of sweet potatoes, but there's neither the soil nor the know-how for serious agriculture here. Instead, for the Karawari River folk, sago is the go-to carbohydrate, used to make pancakes and porridge, and covering everyone who touches it in a strange dust. It has the texture and culinary appeal of edible glue.

We watch the surprisingly convoluted harvesting and cooking process while children babble, entranced by our blue eyes and monstrous cameras. We're clearly a distraction, although it's not enough to stop one child dashing off to launch insults and a coconut shell at an inquisitive pig. Introduced by early Western traders, the pigs thrive here in the bush. Implausibly, there are also imported tree species along the riverbanks, unnecessarily added to this infinite green like a pint of water to an ocean. Some of the timber, at least, finds its way to the local carpenters, to be carved into totems, garamut drums and masks to be placed in spirit houses.

That night, a thunderstorm explodes across the jungle sky, its din eventually replaced by the ambient hum of frogs and bugs and birds. This prehistoric soundtrack lulls me to sleep, but I'm woken in the profound dark by another noise — a wailing, mournful sound rolling up from one of the Karawari's hamlets: the unmistakable, universal sound of grief. The spirits are receiving another soul. Someone, somewhere hasn't made it through the black night.

The yellow mountain

As our plane takes off, the Karawari Airstrip appears beneath us — a bright slash in the deep green of the jungle soon swallowed by the canopy. We're heading over 100 miles south to the Tari-Pori District — home of the Huli people — where we'll spend two nights at the Ambua Lodge. At 7,500ft above sea level, its cold, thin air will make us feel like we're on another planet.

This is the preferred domain of many of the country's 800 avian species, including over 40 bird of paradise varieties. Weather permitting, the lodge runs bird-watching trips every morning and afternoon, through ancient woodland, along mulchy and mossy trails — each with a virtual guarantee of seeing the flamboyant birds. Their calls are so bizarre, so non-bird-like that it's impossible not to fall into simile and metaphor when describing them. The friendly fantail has a mysterious five-note tune you might hear in a 1960s sci-fi thriller; the wonderfully named King of Saxony has a complex crackle of many sounds, something like a rainstick. All the while, invisible cicadas sound like relentless cellos in a horror film.

The birds of paradise mostly stay up on the high slopes, but just 20 minutes downhill lies the town of Tari. First contact with Europeans came late here too, in 1934, when Australian gold prospectors arrived. They fell into immediate confrontation, and as the first gunshots heard in these parts rang out, 50 Huli tribesmen were killed.

Despite that bloody beginning, visiting Caucasians today are still a tremendous novelty for locals. There's no more visceral demonstration of this than the fixation with waving. After almost a week in Papua New Guinea, I'm relaxed waving to complete strangers without breaking conversation with those around me; while out with the cameras, we're inundated with requests to take folks' photos. When I finally get home, it takes several days to accept the universal apathy to my presence.

In the local language 'ambua' translates as 'yellow'. As well as the lodge, there's a Mount Ambua, but the ambua that really matters around here is the one on the faces of Huli men. Their face paint is the most intense yellow. If you multiplied a banana by a sunflower, it wouldn't match this, the yellowest yellow imaginable.

As well as the remarkable paint adorning their chestnut skin, they are famous for creating sensational wigs made with human hair and birds of paradise feathers. Boys are sequestered to wig-making school as teenagers, where they spend 18 months separated from their parents, learning how to create their tribe's bombastic headwear. The modern and ancient worlds are tugging in opposite directions in Papua New Guinea, but although the Huli have begun to modernise in some areas, the wigs remain sacrosanct.

We've been invited to a village to learn about this and other Huli customs (men and women live separately; ageing medicine men are still important), but mostly we're there just to gaze at their extraordinary outfits and that fabulous yellow. Camera memory quickly fills up, but before we move on to meet women dressed as widows, the men have one more party piece: the art of bamboo fire-lighting.

This isn't the first time we've seen it on this trip, but I summon my most convincing impressed face, all the same. And it is remarkable how, with just a little tinder and elbow grease, smoke quickly creeps skywards. Within seconds there are flames, and moments after that, two of the Huli use the fire to light bamboo bongs, great plumes of tobacco smoke soon tumbling from their mouths.

To my left, another Huli man has seen it all before. He's manning a little stall in the hope of selling some of us some post-show souvenirs, but now he fancies a smoke himself. He reaches for a cigarette, and for a Clipper lighter, puncturing the Stone Age facade. While his clansmen puff on their antique pipes he clicks the lighter. And clicks it again. He gives it a shake and looks at it sideways. He tries once more, holding it closer still, but the thing just doesn't work.


Getting there & around

With no direct flights between Britain and Papua New Guinea, the most efficient route is via Singapore with British Airways then on to Port Moresby with national carrier, Air Niugini. Visas are free on arrival.  

Papua New Guinea's interior is best accessed via air. To make transport a little smoother, lodges such as Ambua and Karawari Lodge include charter flights as part of their bookings.

Port Moresby, the capital city, has a deserved reputation as a dangerous city. For information on travel safety and places to visit and

When to go

With its tropical climate, travel is best in the dry season (March-October). Some lodges in the interior close in the other, rain-prone months.

How to do it

Cox & Kings has a 14-day private tour from £8,495 per person, including international flights via Singapore and domestic flights, full-board accommodation, excursions and transfers. 

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Published in the March 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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