From colourful festivals and artisan markets to fire dances and underwater beauty, welcome to Papua New Guinea…
It feels like a dream; an all-encompassing, colourful, beautiful dream. Bright yellows, reds, greens and pinks swoosh and swing in the afternoon’s haze. Sleek white feathers ascend high into the air, delicate pink petals float to the ground. The lush emerald grass bounces and folds underneath hundreds of pairs of feet, the sun beams on glistening, bronzing skin. Harmonies upon harmonies fill my ears. ‘Hello, Papua New Guinea,’ I think to myself.
We are at a cultural festival in Madang, a large town on the northwest coastline of Papua New Guinea. Our arrival – an expedition ship with 80 guests – has prompted huge celebrations, and we’re told 16 different tribes are expected to perform for us today. Sixteen different tribes? It’s the most extravagant welcome party one could imagine.
We are all seated under a large shelter, having enjoyed a delicious outdoors buffet of fresh king prawns, sweet potato, yam, hog roast and even homemade pizza. Chilled coconut water, fresh juice and iced coffee are on hand for rehydration, and the sky is a brilliant cobalt blue. The day could not be more perfect.
The groups come slowly at first; each with a leader who signals the start of the choreography and directs the chorus. There are grandmothers and grandfathers, mothers and sisters, young boys and girls. Each with their brilliant white smiles piercing through the sweat and humidity to show us they are here to have fun and not just to entertain.
A reason to be
One of the group leaders tells me this is a rare chance for the various tribes of the region to meet and socialise with each other. Some meet their future wife or husband at festivals like this. During the breaks, their guards come down; their headdresses rest on the floor. The beetlenut comes out and the tribes mix. The making of friendships begins.
By mid-afternoon, we are watching 16 communities display the stories of their traditions. They call them ‘sing-sings’, and it is breath-taking. The colours blur and mix against the sunlight and the harmonies expand and strengthen as more groups join the festival.
Our journey into the remote
This is just Day Three of our Silversea expedition through beautifully wild Papua New Guinea. We boarded the Silver Discoverer in Palau, Micronesia and immediately set sail to one of the least-explored countries in the world. Over seven million people live here, and 852 languages are spoken. Communities are vast and spread far apart and we are exploring both towns and islands on our trip. I wonder what our Expedition Team will pull out of the bag next.
Expedition Leader, Brad Siviour, answers my internal question during the ‘Recap and Briefing’ that evening, when he explains our plans for the following day. We are to visit a remote community on the small island of Tuam. ‘They rarely see ships like ours,’ he tells us. ‘This is the first time the Silver Discoverer will be visiting the island.’
I’m excited. This is what real ‘expeditioning’ is about. Setting foot somewhere new and barely explored.
An island less visited
The Tuam Islanders are famous for their depictions of legend and history through choreography – and here the setting is much more intimate. On arrival, we are welcomed with a garland of flowers and the Head teacher of the local school gives a short speech. We then wander the one main street of the village, winding through the small wooden huts the islanders call home. Chickens run wild across the paths, pigs waddle around in the sand. Mothers holding babies wave at us from doorways and children run over to hold hands and look on in awe. I immediately fall in love with Tuam.
Meeting the locals
As we walk, small groups begin their performances; each from a different social circle, like the primary school or men’s club. We see an insight into the daily lives of farming, fighting the spirits and raising families told through dance and song. Small children dress up to join their parents, and a little girl – who insists on walking through the whole village with me – tells me it is because it is a school holiday today.
We watch as families set up small tables outside their houses and carve rings and necklaces, weave bags and mats – all so we can take home a few authentic souvenirs. And they are authentic, made by the hands of mums, dads, brothers and grandmothers – my partner picks out a small wooden ring with two engraved hearts and places it in my hand, and we both laugh at the ‘Ahhs’ and ‘Ohs’ of the family behind the table. I take the ring home as my little Papua New Guinea treasure. It means so much more knowing who made it – and for the bargain price of 10 Kina ($3).
World War II history and volcanoes
The sing-sings define our trip. As each village visit passes, I feel I learn a little more about the meaning of these performances. Each is unique. No two costumes have been the same. On Garove Island, I watch as the headmaster paints his students with yellow ‘weatherproof paint’ for their dance. Only the heavy rain soon washes it all away. Luckily a few locals brought along banana leaves as umbrellas, so they didn’t get too drenched.
In Rabaul, New Britain, an island to the east of the country, we learn about the Japanese occupancy of Papua New Guinea’s during World War II. We visit memorials, a museum and bunkers – before resting in nearby Kokopo’s artisan market.
On the hills of the Rabaul Volcano Observatory, we watch the Silver Discoverer glisten from a hill. In the background, the famous Mount Tavurvur, quietly emitting clouds of white steam. Located within the famous ‘Ring of Fire’, Papua New Guinea is surrounded by volcanoes. The island is prone to eruptions, earthquakes and even tsunamis. Our on-board Geologist, Thomas Hammerich, can barely contain his excitement. He flits between the groups of guests explaining the volcanic state of Tavurvur while we gaze at the steaming cone in the distance. The view is magnificent. No one misses an opportunity for a photograph.
Face to face with the ‘fire dance’ tribe
And then… the highlight of the day. After dinner, we make the one-hour journey into the hills to meet the famous Baining people. Tonight, the tribe is undergoing an initiation ceremony. Kindly welcoming us to watch this traditional act.
There is little known about the complexities of the Baining costumes. If you ask around locally, you receive different answers. The dance is an initiation ceremony for men as they pass into adulthood. Therefore only men take part. Each wearing elaborate masks made mostly of bark cloth and bamboo. Covering themselves in leaves of the forest and not much else. It is also thought the ceremony celebrates the new harvest, and remembers recent births and deaths. This, as well acknowledging the spirits of the forest and appeasing them into looking after the men and their families throughout their lives.
We watch the men in their huge, eerie masks, singing loudly and jumping through the growing fire. They kick the flames so embers fly high into the air. I can not believe I am witnessing a tradition so few will ever see.
Here is one of the few cultures that still practice old ways of life. They sideline modern practices to maintain their beliefs. It’s wonderful to be here. I silently thank the Expedition Team (who are just as wide-eyed as I am at this moment) for bringing me here and showing me a world I could hardly imagine.
Desert islands and exploring the seas
Throughout the trip, the snorkeling has been beautiful. Serene greens and blues have welcomed us, and although it’s sad to see coral bleaching taking place in this region, the fish life is still abundant. Marine Biologist, Patrick Demus, is on-hand to name every species we spot.
When we make our last stop on uninhabited Deka Deka Island, it’s finally time to reflect and relax. The ever obliging Bar team bring across their finest juices, beers and wines and we relax on a beautiful white-sand beach. Some don their mask and snorkel one last time and take in the colourful reef on our doorstep – while others sunbathe in the gloriously warm sunshine. The Wellness team – Natasha Eksteen, Jenni Kauppila and Dalila Roglieri – have been impressively dedicated, hosting morning yoga, fitness and nutrition classes on most days – and a beach day is no exception. Today, they attempt beach yoga – and it’s impossible to resist practicing sun salutations in this perfect paradise. But first a swim in the turquoise sea…
As we come into port in Cairns on Day 14, my mind feels richer, full of excitement and more colourful. I came to Papua New Guinea expecting adventure. What I got, was so much more.