Dancing birds, wig school and rhythms played with pig bones: Only in Papua New Guinea
Catholics have crosses, Arabs cherish nazars, but in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, villagers use sweet potatoes to ward off evil spirits. Wearing a pig’s lower jaw bone under his chin, a clay-smudged man is running through farmland with an unripened tuber dangling from his lips, clattering animal bones like claves and chasing ‘demons’ through the banana plants.
Cassowary quills jiggling in their pierced septums, painted men roar with applause and perform a celebratory ‘sing-sing’, pausing only to erect rainbow-printed umbrellas when it starts to rain, for fear their painstakingly applied make-up might run.
Shows and spectacles are commonplace in this tribal nation, which forms the tail-end of a bird-shaped island, gliding through the southwest Pacific and scurrying above Australia.
The Highlands, in the mountainous interior, are especially famous for their festivals; the Mount Hagen and Goroka shows, running in August and September respectively, are both world-class affairs.
But year round, residents perform for travellers, even if their elaborate war paint and feather headresses are packed carefully away at the end of each day.
And although much of Papua New Guinea’s well-worn tourist circuit is connected to the modern world, everyday cultural practices and thought processes are still a million miles from our own Western mindset.
In place of lamposts, gravestones line the dusty roads of Tari, making me glance nervously at our driver as we swerve from one pothole to the next. “Don’t worry,” laughs my guide Paulus, a local Huli man who’s dressed for work in a tatty tweed suit and a bowler hat pinned with plumes.
“It’s an intentional display so they can claim compensation.”
Sensing my confusion, he provides further explanation: “We still have a lot of clan fighting here.”
“Over what?” I ask, now feeling mildly alarmed.
“Oh, nothing to do with foreigners,” he insists. “Mainly land, women and pigs – and always in that order.”
Learn to grow your own wig
It’s true, many of the homes in Tari are built like mud castles, with gates locking the entrance and moats keeping enemies at bay. I’m granted access to one of those guarded premises when I visit the Huli Wig School, where ‘students’ spend 18 months growing and preening their own hair to create the mushroom and moon-shaped wigs worn by men in ceremonies.
I’m told wigs can sell for around 800 kina (£190), but only if the strict rules of wig school are obeyed: no sexual relationships, no consumption of hot food and certainly no snacking on pig fat or intestines.
Worst of all – the growers can’t wash their hair during cultivation. Instead, they sprinkle groomed afros with water three times a day as part of a purification ceremony, and use a comb to alleviate any itching.
Looking the part
Huli Wigmen, it appears, are extremely vain; looking good is just as much an obsession as defending their front lawns.
It can take hours to gather the appropriate attire for a sing-sing; the standard uniform demands a cassowary thigh bone dagger, a hornbill’s beak and boars’ tusks slung across the back, and a pig’s tail around the waist – apparently a lure for ladies.
And then there are the feathers; fiery wisps from the Raggiana, long silky trails once belonging to the Ribbon-tailed Astrapia and saphire plumes worn by the Blue bird of paradise.
Passed down through generations, the delicate items are wrapped in newspapers and stored carefully, minimising the number of birds shot with catapults (hunting them with guns is forbidden) and leaving more for us to see.
A source of curiosity and adoration for ornithologists, many of the 39 techincoloured birds of paradise species can be found in this part of Papua New Guinea, and their behaviour is just as bizarre as the Highland’s human inhabitants.
Birds flit between the thatched rondovals and landscaped lawns at Ambua Lodge, where I’m staying, but for better sightings, I’m taken to a forest trail further up the hill.
As shards of morning sunlight splinter through branches, the unmistakable call of a Brown Sicklebill ricochets around us like machine gun fire. Overhead, we spot the trailing, quill-like eyebrows of the King of Saxony, who waves his appendages proudly in a flamboyant courtship dance.
Finding birds AND paradise
My search for birds continues in Mount Hagen, 140km east. Established by Australian entrepreneur Bob Bates (who also owns Ambua), Rondon Ridge is one of the most luxurious lodges in the country; mezzanine loft-style apartments are at eye level with the clouds and views sweep across the Wahgi Valley. It clearly met with the standards of Mick Jagger and Sean Lennon, who are both past guests.
At 5.30am, I join Joseph, my hawk-eyed and bat-earred guide, for a torch-lit trek into the forest, hoping to catch birds performing their daybreak displays. The son of a hunter, Joseph grew up listening to bird calls and can identify species immediately.
As darkness lifts, whispers of mist occupy its space, and in a place crowded by centuries of wild and untamed growth, it’s impossible to determine where foliage ends and the earth begins.
Today, unfortunately, our birds are shy – unlike a local community close to Rondon, who invite us to watch the re-enactment of a funeral ceremony, involving fire lighting, hair-pulling (an expression of sadness) and climbing trees to retrieve gifts for grievers.
Even more macabre is a performance by the Mudmen, who emerge from bushes wearing loin cloths and 8kg clay masks, and claw at stunned spectators with long bamboo talons.
Going wild in the city
A return to vague reality only comes when I land in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’s capital and the main port of international entry. Electric fences have replaced flower beds in a city famous for its ‘thieving rascals’, but I never once feel threatened during my stay.
And any urban development hasn’t been at the expense of the environment; I’m treated to a firework of tail feathers from the Raggiana bird in Varirata National Park (an hour’s drive outside town) and in the Pacific Adventist University grounds, I encounter the Papuan Frogmouth – a bird with amphibian features, which looks even weirder than it sounds.
It’s also here, amidst students rushing between lectures, that I finally have a chance to witness a bowerbird tending its bower; two perfect columns of twigs erected in a pristine arena with sprigs of elderflower dangling like chandeliers – a veritable palace for a potential avian princess.
From the forest floor, to treetops and remote village farmlands, it’s always showtime in Papua New Guinea. And regardless of whether the feathers are bonafide or borrowed, the performers never fail to entertain.
How to get there
Reef And Rainforest Tours (reefandrainforest.co.uk; 01803 866 965) offers a 13-day Tour of Papua New Guinea, which includes stays at Ambua Lodge, Rondon Ridge, Kumul Lodge and Port Moresby from £5,975 per person, including international flights via Singapore.
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