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Review: Cultural Show

Specialist Holiday - Festival

Mount Hagen, Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea Cultural Show

  • By SilverTraveller Holland

    35 reviews

    Ribbon Ribbon

  • Aug 2013
  • Solo

34 people found this review helpful

The island of New Guinea is the second largest island in the world, after Greenland. Just a skip and a hop from northern Australia the west of the island is owned by Indonesia and the east by Papua New Guinea, which gained independence from Australia in 1975. Papua New Guinea, known everywhere as PNG has over 800 different tribes, and each tribe has several different clans. Each tribe speaks its own language and PNG is home to roughly one-fifth of the world’s languages. Tok Pisin, or Pidgin English, has been a written language since the 1920s and is used in all areas of daily life, including the administration, education, churches and the media. It is learned as a second language in most schools and has words that originate in English, German and several local languages. When Prince Charles visited PNG at the time of Independence he was known as “Nambawan pikinini bilong Misis Kwin” The country is still a member of the Commonwealth and was visited by Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall for our Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2012.



The main purpose of my visit to this island, barely known to tourism, was to see the annual show or “sing-sing” at Mount Hagen high in the central mountain area of the island. These events draw many groups from all over the country in traditional dance and dress competitions. Groups converge and camp for one weekend at the showground or in local schools. Over two days they parade at the showground proudly wearing their most coveted shells and feathers and displaying amazing face painting.



Getting to Papua New Guinea was quite a trek: 12 ½ hours Heathrow to Singapore, 6 hours waiting at Singapore Airport and a further 6 ½ hours flight Singapore to Port Moresby, the capital of PNG. More time to kill for a whole day at a fairly reasonable hotel near the airport. It was not advisable for a single female to venture out alone, even in daylight.



Next morning an early start for a one hour flight to Mount Hagen followed by a long drive to Rondon Ridge Lodge for an overnight stay. An “afternoon birding tour on the trails surrounding the lodge” was, according to what I wrote in my diary, a “total waste of time” I huffed and puffed up a steep stony path and then onwards and upwards on a muddy path to a tiny cleared area where one of the birds makes its place to gather berries and stuff to make a show to attract females. No sign of berries or indeed anything to make a show and certainly no sight nor sound of any birds. But I have seen that on wildlife films at home. It was raining by now so the going down was even more muddy and slippery. Three more Americans arrived in the evening to make our group a total of 14: four Americans (one was actually Colombian/Peruvian/Chinese), three Brits, two Spaniards and five Russians. Two of the Russians, originally from Latvia but living in San Francisco made this The Group From Hell.



Torrential rain during the evening and most of the night made the drive back to Mount Hagen on an un made up road a bit hairy. Our group had been divided into two for the short flight to Karawari but because of the bad weather the first group left late and as the small aircraft (seating maximum nine passengers) had to fly there and return for us, the second group, it was lunch time by the time we arrived at the lodge where we were to stay three days. Karawari Lodge was very pleasant, large bedrooms sharing balcony, mosquito netting draped over the bed and across the windows. As we were very near the Karawari River this was probably a necessary precaution. After a somewhat meagre lunch (the Russians complained) we left by boat for a local village to see a demonstration of sago making. A lot of naked children were running around and the men and women were wearing feathers, beads and had painted faces. When we left they changed into jeans and T-shirts!



Next morning the unspeakably awful Russian man made a huge fuss at breakfast as he had got up at 5 a.m. to go bird watching, not having checked if it was on or not. It wasn’t. Instead we had breakfast at 8 and left for a full day out on the river Karawari. First stop to a village of the Fram tribe called Yimas. Here they performed a “Fish Dance” – lots of colourful costumes, leaves, beads, painted faces and their bare backs painted with various intricate designs. We had a wander round the village looking at stuff for sale: bags, bead necklaces etc. Then on up the river to see women fishing. Except they weren’t actually fishing, just pretending to. But there were some cute babies in the dug out canoes being paddled by women in grass skirts, bare breasts and painted faces. They had appeared from nowhere – must have been lurking in their canoes up little side canals. Our last visit of the day was to the Targaininbit tribe. Their dance took place on a stage in the Spirit House or haus tambaran. Very much the centre of village life they are sometimes known as “men’s houses” as often only initiated men are allowed to enter. The ill-mannered Russian woman bounded up on to the stage to have her photo taken with the dancers before they had even finished their routine.



There were some interesting facts about this tribe, not least that they used to live in caves up in the hills. But the Australians, when they came in 1939, re-located them down to the river to make it easier to control their health and to send children to school. But these people worked the land up in the hills and were not happy being forced to make a living as fishermen.



The following day we did get up at 5 a.m. to go bird watching. The two Russian wives didn’t come. A pity the husbands didn’t stay with them…..We went by boat to an area beyond the airstrip. It was getting light by now and I stumbled along a muddy path with hazardous branches and tree trunks to trip over. Stood for ages looking at one tree with nothing in it then went somewhere else to another tree with nothing in it then back to the first tree then finally a bird was spotted, a yellow and black chap identified by the guide as a Twelve Wired bird of Paradise. Hooray! It was a long way away but I was able to enlarge the photo of it on my camera and it was quite impressive. The rest of the day was spent on the river visiting villages and tribes, their dances and to see their “Spirit Houses”



We were due to leave the next day but there were long delays on account of a storm the night before with rain of biblical proportions. There had been long discussions the previous evening about who was to go on which flight, one small aircraft having to do two journeys. Logically those who had been on the first flight from Hagan would go second this time. But they wanted to go first again. We, who had been on the second flight from Hagan, were not having any of it. We left at 2.35 p.m. for the 40 minute flight to Ambua, our next destination. The Aussie pilot then left straight away to pick up the second group. Unfortunately for them it was bucketing with rain when they reached Ambua where it was unsafe to land and had to divert to the nearby town of Tari and an hour’s drive to the lodge at Ambua. They were not pleased.



Our first full day at Ambua began at a “sing-sing” with dances by the Huli wig men with yellow and red painted faces, cassowary bird quills through their noses and, of course, the wigs which are made of human hair. They wear a band of snakeskin across their foreheads, shells around their necks, a decorative belt and string bag cover their bits and their bottoms are covered by a bunch of leaves attached to a belt (known as a tanket or arse gras) The Huli are the largest ethnic group in the Southern Highlands. A group of American birders were also there with their very charming and interesting Anglo/Australian leader who had lived in PNG for many years. Our Russians who, as usual, got in everyone’s way did not impress them.



Our next stop was to the Wig School. The boys in the school turned out to be young men who grow their hair for 18 months. It is then cut and made into a wig. They live with other unmarried men in isolation from the rest of their community. After their hair is grown and cut three times they can leave, and get married. Presumably taking their wigs with them. Under the instruction of a teacher spells are cast, diets are prescribed and rituals take place. One that we were shown was for the teacher to give the pupils pipes and they sucked in water from a stream and then spat it out. (No, I don’t know why) Another was to swizzle a bunch of leaves in the stream and then shake it over their hair. The hair is never washed properly and I imagine must be full of creepy crawlies.



Back at the lodge the birding group were setting up telescopes to look at a tree at the end of the gardens. Plenty to see there. I stayed and they let me look through their telescopes. I asked if they would adopt me, as I was fed up with The Group from Hell. The problem being that we had no tour leader to keep control. The manager of each lodge told us what time we were to be where and on arrival wherever we were met by a local guide who might, or might not, speak good English and take us to see villages, tribes etc. The chattering Russians paid no attention to the guides, despite speaking passable English themselves, inevitably drowning out the guides’ explanations.



The day we were to return to Mount Hagen dawned misty and murky and subsequently the fog came down and it looked (to me) very unlikely that the aircraft coming to pick us up would be able to land. But it was a bigger plane, a De Havilland Otter, than our previous two flights and it did land and was able to take our entire group together. One of the two pilots came from Surrey and I had a brief chat to him on arrival at Mount Hagen. The air company is called MAF, Mission Aviation Fellowship and flies all over the island delivering food, medicines etc to outlying villages. He said he has been in PNG 20 years and doesn’t fancy a commercial airline pilot’s job.



On arrival we were driven for an hour out into the country for a pre show of the Cultural Show, which was to take place the next two days and which was really the purpose of my visit to PNG. On account of our late arrival there were a lot of tourists there already who ,had the best seats, which, needless to say, irritated our Russian who made a complete fool of himself by barging into the middle of the showground and the dancers with his monster video camera, to boos from the spectators and he had to be hauled back by security officials!



There were ten groups performing at this pre-show including the wig men we had seen in Ambua. There were also groups of VERY large ladies with huge bare breasts and groups of men covered in clay with enormous clay masks covering the whole of their head. After the bare breasted women had been jumping up and down for the best part of an hour I was not surprised to see they put on their bras!



Then followed two day visits to the Cultural Show or “sing-sing” We went early in the morning to enable us to see the tribes preparing for the show. It was fascinating watching them putting on their make up, assembling their elaborate headdresses and grass skirts and beaded necklaces. It is now illegal to kill Birds of Paradise for their feathers so many of the headdresses were made with feathers which have been handed down from generation to generation and are carefully preserved as valuable heirlooms. I saw some being carefully selected from a business briefcase. The show started at about 10 a.m. and it took a good two hours for all the tribes to file into the showground; many with a banner showing their name and where they came from. There was a cacophony of noise and some energetic dancing. It was all very colourful and quite amazing. At about midday the watching tourists started to wander into the centre of the showground and mingle with the groups and then it was a photographic free-for-all.



The second day was the same but even more. Certainly even more groups including the skeleton men: covered in black paint with white skeletons painted on them chasing a bear with a long tail representing an evil spirit. I think my favourite were the clay men, painted grey with huge masks on their heads. It was even more colourful and noisy than the day before.



In the afternoon after the show ended at about 1.30 we had a pleasant drive out into the countryside to see a tea plantation. As we had flown by small aircraft between lodges at the beginning of the week it was good to see the local land and villages at ground level.



Would I go to PNG again? Unlikely. But I was very glad to have seen the famous “sing-sing” or Cultural Show and the other areas of PNG, Karawari and Ambua. I will certainly never forget this trip – for many reasons!!

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