“12 months for sorcery” ran the front page article of PNG’s main rag on the day I arrived, hardly an auspicious start. Welcome to PNG, Land of the Unexpected.

Squirreled away on the remote periphery of both Asia and Australia yet ticking to a very different beat, PNG confounds pigeonholing. A vast tropical island of torturous topography, tree-dwelling kangaroos, 850 different languages and a population with a penchant for personal decoration, pigs and rugby league.

Cannibalism and cargo cults, skull caves and spirit houses, wigmen and Asaro mudmen – for those with a taste for the exotic it really doesn’t get much better. Modernism came late to PNG and few cultures still offer such a rich and fascinating culture. Yet the modern world is encroaching; PNG is making the extraordinary quantum leap from Stone age to the Internet age in little over a generation. Billboards in the Highlands town of Mount Hagen exhort passing tribesmen to join the +3G mobile generation, while villagers in remote villages ask how they can join Facebook. Worrying harbingers of irrevocable change.

The Melpa witchdoctor stretched out his bony hand, took mine and placed something in it. “For luck” he said simply and smiled. Lying in the palm of my hand was a small, black, well rounded pebble with the pleasing feel to it of a well-thumbed book; one of his precious magical stones. And in that one altruistic gesture I realised that PNG’s spirit world was still very much alive.