Travel: Being part of the tribe in Papua New Guinea

Birds of Paradise, tree-dwelling kangaroos and men in colourful face masks greet Liam Creedon on a trip to Papua New Guinea.

Huli tribesman from Tari Highlands in Papua New Guinea. Picture: PA Photo/Chris McLennan.
Huli tribesman from Tari Highlands in Papua New Guinea. Picture: PA Photo/Chris McLennan.

“Never spend more than 24 hours with a woman,” the village ‘bigman’ huskily intones, pausing to scratch his nose with the sharpened tip of an arrow. “It will make a man lose his magic and his powers will be weakened.”

Advice from a Huli tribesman in the Papua New Guinea Highlands is generally heeded, especially if given by a man whose facial expression is masked under a thick layer of red and yellow war paint, whose nose is pierced by the long quill of a cassowary, and who is naked apart from a pig-tail belt.

Seated around an open fire in the gloom of a smoke-stained hut, my interpreter explains that to preserve his ‘powers’ the chief lives separately from his three wives.

Wife number one lives next door in a similar lean-to, sharing space with the pigs and children. Other wives and relatives are housed around the settlement, guarded on all sides by steep mud walls designed to deter attacks from marauding neighbours.

While the women tend to the cooking, child and pig-rearing duties, the chief devotes his thoughts to the two great concerns of the Huli male - war and gardening. I have the unsettling feeling that I’ve stumbled back into the Stone Age.

Papua New Guinea is a place you don’t forget in a hurry. Sandwiched between Northern Australia’s Cape York Peninsula and the sultry haze of the Equator, New Guinea is the world’s second largest island after Greenland. While Papua New Guinea occupies the eastern part of the island, Papua and West Papua in the west belong to Indonesia.

It is a sweltering hotchpotch of jagged peaks, half-forgotten malarial swampland, mighty rivers and remote, enveloping rainforest.

The island, shaped like a scurrying forest bird, is the most culturally diverse place on earth with more than 800 active languages spoken by its seemingly limitless ethnic groups and tribes. This variety is matched by New Guinea’s wildlife where kangaroos live in trees and birds appear to strut about in fancy dress.

For a land where travelling from A to B can still be something of a challenge, PNG has a mind-boggling number of airstrips - more than 400 at last count. I was earnestly pondering the veracity of this claim as my tiny plane plummeted toward a tangle of jungle and certain oblivion. At the last minute, the Highland airstrip of Tari shook itself free from the greenery.

New Guinea’s startling diversity is best expressed in the Highlands - a vast, previously impenetrable region sheltering broad, fertile valleys where the majority of Papuans live. The area was only ‘discovered’ by European explorers in the 1930s.

Tari is Huli territory. The Huli are the largest ethnic group in the area, their distinctive red and yellow ochre colours noticeable everywhere, from face-paint to wooden fence posts guarding the airstrip.

Traditional culture thrives here. The unsealed Highlands Highway is the only road, where Huli saunter barefoot, casually swinging machetes, their heads crowned with bamboo creepers - a Huli mark of respect to the jungle.

Children pause from pig-walking duties to wave as our van travels ever higher to Ambua Lodge, situated at 7,000ft in the Tari Gap, a world famous bird-watching area.

I find myself standing at a village edge, face to ochre-painted face with a man whose head-dress is taller than he is. Four feathers in particular stand out, lending him the appearance of someone who’s suffered a catastrophic collision with a radio transmitter. “Birds of Paradise feathers,” whispers Peter, my interpreter.

The village is preparing for a festival. Gardening is temporarily forgotten, head-dresses are dusted off, cassowary quills straightened through septums and face-paint applied via plastic hand-held mirrors. Carved pig ribs, giant hornbill beaks and blue beads adorn necks.

A forest clearing reveals men delicately tending to oversized wigs. Huli wigmen are famous across PNG. They attend wig schools where they’re taught incantations to encourage hair growth. The hair is then harvested and used for ceremonial wigs. Selling these helps the young men save for the all-important ‘bride price’. Acquiring a wife means they can enter adult Huli society.

PNG is the world’s best birding location and the Tari Gap one of the country’s top spots. A lack of predators and glut of food has encouraged extravagant diversity, epitomised by the Birds of Paradise.

A 5am start reveals the first in a series of birds seemingly designed by a madman. The silhouette of a tennis ball attached to a metre-long black streamer bounces through the dawn gloom. “Stephanie’s Astrapia,” Peter mouths - my first ever Bird of Paradise.

This is bettered by the appearance of a thrush-sized bird with TV antennae protruding from its forehead. Binoculars reveal the antennae to be checked blue and black - King of Saxony Bird of Paradise is added to my list.

Madang, nestling against the warm waters of the Bismarck Sea on PNG’s north coast, provides welcome respite after the nervous excitement of the Highlands. Dubbed the ‘prettiest town in the Pacific’, Madang is PNG’s leading tourist destination with a good range of hotels and excellent diving.

In the Fifties, the Malolo Plantation Lodge was the first place in the province where locals could sample alcohol. The raucous atmosphere is long-gone; the sound of waves crashing on the black-sand beach the only distraction nowadays.

More developed than the Highlands, Madang’s stifling tropical heat lends the region a laid-back feel. It’s also one of PNG’s diving jewels, boasting gin-clear water, extravagant wildlife and carcasses of warships holed during WW2.

Being a coward I opt for snorkelling. A hollowed-out canoe deposits me on a tiny coral cay seemingly lifted from a Bounty advert. A confetti of psychedelic fish dance like underwater butterflies before my face-mask - zebra stripes, vermilion, sulphur with a blue trim - every feasible pattern is represented.

But it’s the corals that steal the breath. I drift over a giant purple brain, then dodge between the stiff leaves of a four-metre cabbage, the reverie broken only by a sea cucumber vomiting up its stomach to deter a snorkeller.

I recall the ‘bigman’s’ warning. I’d spent much longer than 24 hours with Papua New Guinea. Rather than stealing my powers, her magic had soaked me to the core.

Travel facts - Papua New Guinea

:: Liam Creedon flew courtesy of Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeair.com) and Air Niugini (www.airniugini.co.uk), with Trans Nuigini Tours (www.pngtours.com). Trips from £4,775pp, based on two people travelling, including international and domestic flights, transfers, accommodation, most meals and all excursions.

:: For further information about PNG visit www.papuanewguinea.travel and www.wildlifeworldwide.com