Papua New Guinea

03 August 2015

Papau New Guinea (PNG) basics:
  • Incredibly diverse cultures; over 800 languages; lingua franca is Pidgin English.
  • Large majority of its 7+ million live in rural villages, depend on subsistence agriculture; nearly half are quite poor (under $1 a day).
  • The coming of Christianity and rule by Australian authorities eventually ended cannibalism, head-hunting, and tribal warfare by the 1960s, according to most sources I’ve seen.
  • Today it’s the few urban areas feared for crime and violence.
  • Prior to independence in 1975, PNG was administered by neighboring Australia for many decades. Australia still provides the biggest share of development aid.

TARI AREA – Ambua Lodge

Left: Guest huts at the mountaintop Ambua Lodge.
Right: A Huli tribesman in classic dress with a human hair wig
and feathers from Birds of Paradise.

Huli men in full ceremonial dress

Monotone guys in black (Francis from Switzerland) and tan
standing beside elaborately bedecked Huli men.
(Photo from Francis' wife Tanya.)

Left: The amount of detail in the full ceremonial and even the daily traditional garb is astonishing. Right: A Huli father and son.

This Huli son watches his father start a fire with twigs.
In this Huli village, males (over age 8) and females live highly segregated lives
(except for occasional sex in the forest).

Huli women weaving mats and all sorts of things from leaves and vines.

A Huli woman preparing a mound for planting the main crop ― sweet potatoes.

Huli wigmen spend 18 months or more growing hair (which they believe is accelerated by incantations and other traditional practices) to be sold for ceremonial wigs.

A sweet woman in the classic Huli gradient grass skirt.

Hiking (with Francis, Tanya, and guide Thomas)
through a thick tropical forest to a small waterfall.

With guide Thomas and driver Paul at an even higher waterfall.

The main road through the PNG highlands.
This was the start of an amusing attempt to see PNG's famous Birds of Paradise.
Francis (see earlier pic) is the first person I’ve met who is as bad at birding as I am. Together we endlessly frustrated our guide by our inability to spot allegedly conspicuous birds. In sharp contrast, also staying at our lodge was a covey of eccentric but cute British birders who cared nothing about local culture and obsessed about seeing new species to add to their record books.

I happened to be at the Tari airport the day that this group of Huli tribesmen were going to participate in ceremonies in Port Moresby. They urged me to take their pictures. For many, it was their first flight and visit to a city.

I was lucky to cross paths a few times with Marc Dozier, a super-nice
French photographer and film-maker who has specialized in PNG.
Above is Marc (third from left) with his film crew.
Marc's web site ― ― has some of his
remarkable photographs and links to his books.

KARAWARI AREA (Mid-Sepik) – Karawari Lodge

Left: Cool kiwi pilot Matt let me sit in the cockpit on this small plane as he flew me (no other tourists on board) to this grass airstrip and again later from Karawari to Mount Hagen. Right: Matt landing to bring lodge supplies and retrieve me for the onward flight to Mount Hagen.
Unlike the Tari region, inhabited almost entirely by clans of the Huli tribe, this part of the Karawari River area is home to six different tribes. They apparently get along fairly well and settle land disputes peacefully these days without the perpetual warfare and head-hunting of years past.

About 100 kilometers downstream from here the Karawari flows into PNG's fabled Sepik River.

On arrival this friendly hornbill posed perfectly for me ―
at last a bird big enough and close enough that I can easily spot.

View from my lodge room of the Yokoium tribe’s small
village (Kundiman) just across the Karawari River.

Visiting Kundiman village I got to see this man cut open the center of the sago palm (always a man’s job) to get the pulp then drained by a woman (like this young woman I observed) to cook the starch staple eaten at every meal as a pancake (and it did not taste bad) or as a porridge.

Sago palm and fish (here being smoked) are the daily diet in this region, supplemented sometimes by fruit, or by a rare other treat.

Girl in the Kundiman village

Boys gotta climb trees. On the right, climbing to satisfy the craving to chew the nasty stimulant betel nuts.

At an age when US kids are not allowed out of the front yard on a tricycle,
local boys are out exploring on the big Karawari River in their kiddie canoes.

The Karawari River and its tributaries are the local highways.
Here are four of my many canoe photos.

I never tired of cruising the Karawari, seeing life along the river and enjoying the beauty of the pristine wilderness.

One afternoon we went upriver, turned off the engine, and simply drifted slowly downstream, floating past friendly villages with waving kids, being passed by guys rowing their canoes standing up, listening to chirping birds, noticing subtle variations in foliage, and getting just enough breeze to mask the afternoon heat.

One day we went upstream on a tributary and visited a couple of villages unannounced. At the Yimas village of the Karam tribe, a young man named Allan volunteered to walk me the length of the village (almost every house faces the river) seeing people living their lives, smoking fish, preparing sago, returning from a fishing trip, hanging out. Here is Allan with his parents and some of his eight siblings sitting on the porch over the large, high, one-room house.

Waiving goodbye at the Yimas village.

One afternoon on the river I noticed crowds gathering on the banks and soon happened to see the “Samaritan” plane in action, a medical evacuation plane run by some American Christians to help the many people in the Sepik region who have no hospital or clinic.

Top: At the Tanganbit village of the Kombrop tribe (largest tribe in the area) I met the pastor of the growing Evangelical Brotherhood Church who, seems to me, resembles a young (PNG) Billy Graham.
Bottom: The Catholic church at the Yimas village. Some villages have two or three denominations; others seem to be affiliated with just one.

MOUNT HAGEN – Rondon Ridge Lodge

From the Sepik river valley I was flown back to the highlands, this time to Mount Hagen, PNG’s third largest city. In this urban setting, traditional life is eroding of course.

Here shows performed for visitors are more to “preserve the traditional culture” than to actually practice it. The experiences were interesting nonetheless.
One tradition is the reenactment of the Asaro “mudmen” drama, said to have once successfully scared away larger invading tribe by appearing to be angry spirits of the dead.

The “spirit dance,” as I understood it, was used to cajole
good spirits to come to the aid of the village.

Mount Hagen’s large central market was bustling with friendly vendors and shoppers.


PNG’s capital, Port Moresby, is said to be dangerous after dark but I enjoyed my afternoon there.

The “National Park” in Port Moresby is a big, beautiful, botanical garden with a mini-zoo of PNG animals. These local girls were more shy than the tree kangaroo but they cautiously agree to pose with him.
The handsome PNG parliament building draws on traditional style.The cassowary is a colorful ostrich-like bird that tries to hide from hungry villagers in the PNG highlands.

Sun sets (here in Tarawari) on my journey in Papua New Guinea.
I'd heard traveler tales of PNG’s uniqueness, its colorful vanishing cultures, its friendly people, and its untrammeled beauty. They were quite right.