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Travels in a magimiks – a journey by helicopter over Papua New Guinea

There is an archipelago off the east cost of Papua New Guinea where the women have a reputation for sexual assertiveness and the local people play a game of cricket to resolve their differences. Welcome to the Trobriand Islands, where the notion of free love is held sacrosanct and the virtues of a straight-batted cover drive are acknowledged by both men and women alike.

On a recent trip to Papua New Guinea, escorting Steppes Travel’s exclusive charter aboard the True North, I was given the opportunity to take a helicopter excursion over the Trobriand archipelago and to land on the largest island, Kiriwina. We took off after breakfast at about nine o’clock. The air was still, the sky cloudless and the sea as flat as a giant blue blanket. As we climbed high above the watery expanse of the Solomon Sea, our pilot, Rob, confirmed what we were already thinking.

“These conditions couldn’t be any better for flying. It is the perfect day.”

Psychologists have long extolled the soothing properties of the colour blue. On that morning, the six of us flying high above the Solomon Sea were becalmed by a deep and vibrant blue, so pervasive that where the sky finished and the ocean began was at times, indistinguishable. The feeling of serenity was at odds with the frenetic activity of the rotor blades above our heads but overwhelmed by the magnitude and simple beauty of the ocean, this paradox was easy to ignore. The blue beneath us gave way to white coral ribbons that unravelled beneath the sea and in places, large coral spires broke the surface of the water, providing a landing spot for pelagic birds.

The island of Kiriwina emerged beneath us and within a minute of flying along its coastline a small village came into view. As the noise of the helicopter disturbed the peace, curious villagers left their houses and children ran around in circles, waving frantically in our direction. Rob circled the village and gently lowered the helicopter above a large clearing, landing it as smoothly as he had taken off.

In the common language of Papua New Guinea, Tok Pisin (or pidgin, as it is more often referred), a helicopter is known as magimiks bilong Jesus. As we dropped out of the sky and touched down in Kiriwina, the reaction of the villagers was as if something otherworldly had imposed itself on their uncomplicated lives. That is not to say that we were greeted with suspicion or uncertainty; far from it. The excitement and wonder displayed by the children bordered on hysteria as groups of toddlers with wild, tousled hair held each other up as they laughed uncontrollably, while the smiling faces of their parents conveyed an unequivocally warm welcome.

I tried to imagine how I would feel in their situation and felt a hot flush of shame. I could only think I would feel apprehension or even mistrust. I know I would not have welcomed these strangers, dropping uninvited out of the sky, with anything like the unaffected hospitality we were being shown. The experience was humbling and edifying.

Our pilot, Rob introduced me to the village’s school teacher. He was immaculately dressed, wearing a pressed, white shirt, untucked and very loose around his tall, slender frame. His heavy brow and well-kept goatee beard gave him the look of a serious man but his smile belied this appearance and exuded a generous spirit so typical of Papuans. He shook my hand and spoke softly.

“The children are practising for a dance competition against the other schools on the island – would you like to see them dance?”

The children were aged between five and ten years old, a mixture of boys and girls and dressed in traditional costumes of short, red grass skirts or loin cloths with matching head bands. Some wore hand-made necklaces and arm bands made from an assortment of shells, coloured seeds and flowers; others were sprinkled with glitter-like gold flecks that flickered in the sun while others had been adorned with Adam Ant-like white, face paint stripes.

They formed straight lines and danced with serious faces and like any young children in the limelight, there was an air of self-consciousness about their first dance. It was only when the teacher stood up and the tempo of the music increased, that the children began to relax. Their looks of earnest intent melted into spontaneous smiles as they watched with glee, as their teacher gambolled in front of them, throwing rambunctious moves on the grassy dance floor. All good parties have a moment when inhibitions are discarded and the real fun begins. This was their moment and the children followed their teacher’s lead with gusto and danced up a storm.

It was a wrench to leave the celebration. As we climbed into the helicopter to leave, our own smiling faces mirrored the hundreds of smiles that had gathered to wave us goodbye. We were silent as we lifted from the ground and each one of us craned our necks to maintain eye contact with the villagers for as long as we could. Before long though, the village was out of sight and once more, we were hostage to the big blue — a tiny, whirring speck in space, the magimiks returned to Jesus.

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Skin Deep – Papua New Guinea

“He is a great cutter.”

I stare at him. Is it my imagination or are his features crocodilian?
“What makes a good cutter?”
“He has twenty-five years’ experience. He can cut quickly.”

Looking at the number of vivid welts across the bodies of the young men in the tambaran it was obvious that speed was a key factor in being a good cutter. So too skill and dexterity. Emulating the ridges of the crocodile which they worship, the patterns were intricate. They had a tactile beauty that made me want to reach out and touch the weals tattooed into their skin.

I was in the Middle Sepik, which thanks to its diversity, arts, rituals and ceremonies, is the cultural heart of Papua New Guinea. No mean accolade in a country famed for its tribalism. More than 800 mutually unintelligible languages are spoken in PNG – the highest concentration of languages in the world. They attest to the extraordinary isolation of individual tribes over centuries and the country’s formidable geography – even today there are no roads out of Port Moresby, the capital.

There is little that binds the country together. No real sense of national identity. No road networks. Pidgin, a kind of creole, is the lingua franca that just about enables communication from tribe to tribe via its playful lyricism. Bilum is the word used for the ubiquitous string bag, meri for woman (derived from Mary) but it is the composite phrases for introduced words where pidgin shows its real ingenuity: a helicopter is mix master bilong Jesus Christ and Prince Charles is nambawan pikinini bilong Mises Kwin. For me, such phrases hint at an endearing sense of humour that unites the country.

Our journey, after a brief transit through Port Moresby and internal flight during which the safety briefing asked us not to chew betel, began at Wewak on the north-east coast. From here we were driven inland passing wooden huts on stilts in well-manicured plots – the grass is cut to keep out snakes, reduce mosquitos
and to keep the encroaching fecundity of the forest at bay. The villages were poor but there was not poverty. There was none of the squalor that blights the shanty towns of the cities.

Wherever we stopped people came forward to shake hands. They smiled. There was a warmth, openness and welcome. It is a friendliness that challenges the aggressive stereotypes that prejudice preconceptions of the peoples of Papua. Above all they spoke English, allowing for engagement, a reciprocity that is all too rare in travel today. There was a mutual interest.

We arrived at Pagwi, a frontier trading port where one doesn’t ask too many questions, and headed downstream in a motorised dugout. Sprouting hills, walls of vegetation, banks of papyrus, villages on wooden stilts, palm thatched roofs, children swimming in the water’s edge gave a sense of journey. A feeling of going beyond the ordinary which was confirmed by the simplicity of the rudimentary guesthouse in which we overnighted.

“You are up early this morning,” an old gentleman commented with a smile as we poled through a narrow channel.

“To beat the rush hour.”

Good for you,” he replied with a smile and a laugh. Laughter is a universal and inescapable feature of PNG.

We arrived at Palimbe, a village surrounded by banana and palm trees, a village of 400 people who speak the Yatmul Language and worship the crocodile. The early morning sun bathed the Spirit House, a long thatched building on stilts, in a gentle light. Blood stones, where the heads of enemies were smashed, spoke of a darker, more violent past. The rhythmic visceral drumming of a hollowed-out rain tree announced our arrival. I felt transported back in time. As if an explorer stumbling upon an isolated idyll for the first time.

But I was not. The Japanese were here in 1943 – in the museum in Goroka I was shocked to read that 300,000 Japanese had been in the country during WWII and that 170,000 of them had lost their lives. Missionaries, a pervasive part of PNG, had been here. So too tourists.

None of the above detracted from the charm of Palimbe. Mobile phones and murderous mosquitos, however did. That was until I shook myself out of my naivety and remembered that not only are mobile phones a fact of modern life but that they are bizarrely preserving many local languages in PNG which are now being written for the first time. The mosquitos were less easy to deal with but were only a temporary irritant and certainly no deterrent to what was a most magical visit.

We met Richard who spoke flawless English, having been educated in the Eastern Province. He was born in 1973 and was married in 1997. Two of his children have died.

“What of?”

“My enemies.” An educated man who believes in superstition, a ubiquitous idiosyncrasy of Papua New Guinea.

In the tambaran, spirit house, smoke wafts. Young bearded men – they are not allowed to shave whilst initiates – sit in grey mud and silence, swatting themselves with palm fans. They wear only short skirts of palm leaves – lap lap or more derogatively arse grass – that give them a modicum of modesty and leave their buttocks bared. Their pectorals are hardened from years of chopping wood and paddling the waters of the Sepik. Their bodies are articulated by the lines of welts across their bodies, the scarification for which the village is famed.

The cuts are made with a blade, which has replaced the bamboo needle, and then rubbed with the oil of a guat tree to make them blister. Older men – fathers, uncles, relatives – sit on wooden platforms, swinging their legs and observing their charges to ensure that rituals are upheld. This seems odd given that female tourists are allowed into the spirit house, a sign of change and that the tourist dollar is keeping the tradition alive. I have an issue with cultural voyeurism but it does provide a source of much needed income to the villagers. Whatever my doubts, my time in the spirit house with the initiates is both intriguing and compelling.

Further upstream in Wagu we saw the Lesser Bird of Paradise – PNG has 38 of the world’s 41 birds of paradise. Lesser in name but not spectacle. A beautiful bird of maroon-brown with a yellow crown and brownish-yellow back. It is easy to see how their feathers were desired by the women of Europe to decorate their hats in the nineteenth century and that, at its height, this trade in the plumes of birds of paradise reached 100,000 skins a year. A magical sight made all the more special by John’s reaction. John was a young man from Ambunti, a couple of hours downstream by motorised dugout. It was touching to see his smile and wide-eyed, open-mouthed wonder at seeing this bird for the first time. It speaks volumes of the innocence of the people but more importantly the regionalisation of the country as a whole.

We walk through the village which has a laidback charm and sense of civic pride. Here children do as they are told; none of the interminable negotiation that so blights the lives of western parents. We entered a men-only hut on the lakeside, a place for men to come and share stories. It seems at odds with the school on the hill which is teaching gender equality. James, an old man of the dog tribe with a pierced nose and septum, was tending to his net. It no longer happens, piercing that is.

A few hours further upriver in Sawgup we meet another James. This James belongs to the insect tribe and worships the praying mantis, a symbol of strength. He remembers human skulls being kept in the spirit house when he was young. He sees ghosts as lightning. He has travelled to Abergavenny, Wales, as part of a television production on remote tribes.

Both dog James and insect James personify the dichotomy and changing nature of PNG. Whilst remote and little visited, stereotypes of primitive, un-contacted tribes are outmoded. Already by the late 1960s the lowland peoples were no longer wearing traditional dress. Although the peoples of the highlands where, they would only do so for another thirty years, traditional dress having faded out by the turn of the millennia.

On the one hand this makes the action of getting dressed up for tourists as inauthentic. On the other hand the fact that they have the costumes is a different situation. Seeing tribes is the same as seeing the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace – both are a tradition that is performed for tourism. Indeed some traditions, whether dance or dress, have only survived in areas where there have been tourists.

We travel to the highlands to see the Asaro mudmen, specifically to a village called Geremiake. The plots are fertile, a veritable garden of Eden. Ginger, yam, banana, sweet potato, sugar cane are all grown. For a short time they down the tools of the gardener and put on the attire of performers.

The men cover their bodies in a light grey clay. They shiver with cold. They stand around a fire to warm up and also to dry the clay. Banter and home-rolled cigarettes are shared. They don their masks of mud, homemade and ghoulish. They perform a silent ghostly dance. Afterwards there is laughter, the camaraderie of a shared moment. Inside a hut, I catch a glimpse of two of the dancers taking photos of each other on their mobile phones. It might be staged but it is not contrived.

The dress might have been dropped but many of the traditional beliefs remain. Clothing might change but inwardly nothing has changed – not even the missionaries are able to do this. Superstition is engrained in the national psyche.

The coast off Tufi’s peninsula, or Cape Nelson as it was named by the British, is a place where sea and mountains meet. A paradise accessed only by boat or air. Gnarled green fingers stretch out into the sea creating fjords of hidden surprises – technically they are rais as they were created by volcano as opposed to ice. These rais give the region a very particular fingerprint of turquoise coral bays, surrounded by steep ridges covered in rainforest and kunai grasslands.

In one we swim up to and under a twenty metre waterfall. The water is cold. Refreshingly so. In another we climb up a hillside bursting with bromeliads and vines with the enchanting Molly and meet her elderly mother Wilma who, whilst uncertain of her age, knows that she had her face tattooed when she was fifteen. She knows too that it took a month to tattoo. She remembers how painful it was. Whilst her face bears the scars of the past, her heart does not: she welcomed us with the biggest smile and hug I have had in years. Saying goodbye was not easy.

In a third, I listen to the crash of the surf, the rustling of palm leaves, the whistling of a honey eater and the fluttering of a butterfly. There is much beauty in such simplicity. This is best illustrated by six year old Gary, who, when asked to draw the things that matter most to him, sketches a fish, a tree and a house.

We pass palm trees silhouetted against sunlit clouds and rickety outriggers, the only mode of transport in the region. Vines, as opposed to nails and screws, bind the outriggers together. The only concession to the twenty-first century are the patchwork of materials used in their sails. They are paddled slowly, deliberately, in even strokes. Nothing is rushed. Such is Tufi. It is easy to see why there is only one policeman. So too that he is underemployed.

Unemployment is a problem in PNG, a country whose population has tripled in the last forty years to nine million. It is a country with little employment. Young men head to towns in search of riches but end up being branded as raskols and embroiled in a world of violence.  There is an edge to parts of PNG but having been made to feel so welcome and laughed so much you see beyond the bad press – most security issues are largely misplaced and based on the interests of Australian journalists. I could not say the same about the problems of gender inequality.

In short it is not a straightforward country but its complexity is part of its charm. It is a country that I have fallen in love with but not for the reasons I had expected. Maybe the trite tourist board strapline is true after all – the land of the unexpected – and I had only just scratched the surface.

Faces of Papua New Guinea

”Wherever we stopped people came forward to shake hands. They smiled. There was a warmth, openness and welcome. It is a friendliness that challenges the aggressive stereotypes that prejudice preconceptions of the peoples of Papua. Above all they spoke English, allowing for engagement, a reciprocity that is all too rare in travel today. There was a mutual interest.”

Here are just some of the faces of Papua New Guinea, across ages, across tribes; the people that I had the pleasure of meeting on my last trip.

Tribes of Papua New Guinea

33 hours of travel and 11 time zones later I had finally reached one of the most culturally diverse, little known and remote countries in the world.

And ‘remote’ is a very apt word when describing PNG; along with ‘raw’, ‘untamed’, ‘complex’ and ‘charming’.

Papua New Guinea is a country that certainly ticks to a different beat; it’s an explosion of colour and culture, confounding pigeonholing.

“It’s all about land, pigs or women…in that order” my guide casually explained by way of introduction to the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. I was lucky enough to meet the different tribes; learning more about them, their traditions and interestingly the encroachment of modern life.

In a densely populated area where pigs equate to mobile wealth and status, and travelling armed is still de rigeur if you’re a Huli Wigman, it’s always going to be a dynamic situation as I very much discovered for myself.

Despite modern life encroaching fast, you can get a very privileged insight into the traditions of the tribes of Papua New Guinea, seeing them in their traditional attire or watching them at a ‘sing sing’, the biggest of which is the Goroka Show in September every year featuring more than 100 tribes.

Below are just some of my favourite pictures from my trip.

Cannibalism and cargo cults, skull caves and spirit houses

“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.