It’s the first morning of our expedition in Papua New Guinea. We trek through a dense jungle punctuated with waterfalls and scored by deep gorges, which in turn are crisscrossed by thickly knotted vine bridges. In the distance, the music of rare species of birds, and that feeling of life being as close to perfect as it could ever possibly be. We hike up alongside dozens of types of wildflowers until Thomas, our local fixer in the Highlands, Max – a photographer -and I reach the first tribal village. “This is a fortune-teller tribe,” says Thomas, “The men here use their ancestor’s skulls as instruments to foretell the future.” I look around and find a bunch of red and yellow-painted skulls lined up in a hut. There is nothing more bizarre.
It’s early October and the start of a journey in search of the most engaging tribes that remain in Papua New Guinea. The island of New Guinea – a region of the southwestern Pacific Ocean north of Australia – feels incredibly far from anywhere I’ve ever been, both geographically and culturally. Nineteenth-century colonial history divided it. The western half, formerly known as Irian Jaya, comes under Indonesia’s control. We are on the island’s eastern part – Papua New Guinea – a country that only gained independence from Australia in 1975. It has a reputation for being especially dangerous – clan conflicts in the Highlands owing to the isolation topography; and Port Moresby with complicated issues related to high unemployment rates and alcoholism. PNG is the second-largest island on Earth and, culturally, the most diverse, home to more than 800 of the world’s 7,000 languages.
We fly into Port Moresby and then to Tari town, followed by a drive to a remote valley in Tari’s countryside and the only “guesthouse” available in the area. We then make our way deep into Papua New Guinea’s Southern Highlands in Hela Province, one of the last places to be discovered by Western civilization sometime in the 1930s. Surrounded by impenetrable mountains, the Highland plateau is where the highest concentration of tribes resides. It’s also home to the largest ethnic group in the country – the Hulis – who have lived here for more than 1,000 years.
The Huli are mostly known for growing wigs from their own hair as a ritual of initiation. “Young Hulis must learn the processes of becoming a man and the fundamentals of Huli costumes: from growing their hair into wigs to collecting feathers and making armbands,” explains Thomas. As we hike the area the next day, we come across a group of them dressing up for a “singsing.” Their yellow-painted faces, feathers, and grass skirts relate to the majestic Bird of Paradise – a species unique to PNG – and immediately reveal the precious connection between the indigenous people and the sacred bird.
Traveling to these remote tribes in impenetrable Papua New Guinea is a tricky business. The territory is so challenging that the government failed to lay asphalt on most of it. With no roads, helicopters, it turns out, are a familiar sight, catering mainly to the oil, gas, and mining industries. We, on the other hand, do not board on any choppers. Instead, we traverse the country by plane, which, in a way, is also an extreme experience. As I hop on domestic aircraft in PNG, I am consistently hit by a deep fear – the planes seem genuinely outdated. With no other choice, I take up to eleven commercial flights over a 19-day trip, not always going on logical lines as we crisscross a land without effective infrastructure.
In the east of the country, however, we also travel by canoe. Moving slowly across the Sepik – Papua’s largest river and navigable almost its entirety – is the best way to get close to the native people in a place where you don’t really know what you are getting into. The Sepik is a vast network of lagoons, lakes and grass islands, of tributaries and veins that change with the rains. In the town of Wewak, commercial flights arrive from Port Moresby. From here, we drive a few hours on a rough road to Pagwi – a river settlement where we board on a dugout canoe. We head upstream, until the river opens up into a cobalt water lagoon, at Wagu village. As we forge our way further, the river rine lagoon rises into a thick jungle. A 10-year-old girl from Wagu leads us on a trek to the swath of forest where Birds of Paradise gather. She points to the highest trees following the distinct whooping call. I watch three birds through the canopy above my head while leeches shower over my skin.
Over four days, we visit the tribespeople of remote Sepik basin, guardians of artistic and cultural traditions going back thousands of years. Papua New Guinea is one of the most daunting destinations I could ever think of for a journey. Traveling the Sepik by canoe demands commitment, and sleeping in Tribe’s homes is anything but comfortable. However, there is no more immersive way to explore this last frontier. We pass by Mariwai village in Upper Sepik. When I hear about Swagup – a cannibal village further upriver, where very few westerners have been – I convince Jerry, our local fixer in the Sepik, to take us there.
“I was always afraid of coming this far upriver,” says Jerry, “I’ve heard stories the tribe here still eats people.” We spend a rough night in Swagup not only for the brutal humidity but also for the mosquitoes that don’t let up. We meet the Insect Tribe – of which only 300 members remain – who believe God is a praying mantis. Then, when the sun sets, the Tribe gathers on a singsing – a celebration where they show off their music, dance, and traditional outfits. Only by sleeping in one of the village’s homes we are able to join the Insect Tribe on a crocodile-hunting expedition at night. It’s 12:30 am, and we lay out in a canoe with a few natives, who still hunt in their traditional way. Surrounded by the dark, we barely see anything. We hear little except for the breath of the hunters and the crackle of insects. After three long hours, we catch a fleeting glimpse of a reflection. It’s the unmistakable, evil-looking eye of a crocodile. The spear breaks immediately, and one of the men catches the beast with his bare hands and feet. The big crocodile rises from the muddy water and jumps towards us.
None of what we experience in Swagup is familiar, and there is this moment I feel crazy for coming here. Some of the tribesmen try to take financial advantage of us, and so does our local fixer – perhaps a glaring reminder of the island’s recent colonial past. The heat and humidity are debilitating, and we are awake all night feeding of mosquitoes in a village famed for having the most of any in the entire country. It feels strange to be here amid their chaos because we are only observers. We can always leave them behind and return to three meals a day, air conditioning, clean clothes. In writing about our travels in Papua New Guinea, I am conscious that my words will always be unequal to the task. Meeting such isolated people in their true light changes our perspective forever.
The mouth of the Sepik River opens up into the Bismarck Sea. Along its banks are tribal communities that, thanks to the island’s diversity of language and culture, don’t understand each other’s tongues. Further downstream, we meet the crocodile tribe, whose young men scar their backs to look like their God, who they believe is a reptile. Such initiation ritual takes place inside “Spirit houses,” that local women are forbidden to enter. Because I am white – and considered a ghost – I am allowed in. There is no initiation ceremony taking place during our time in Palambei, one of the main villages of the crocodile tribe. Instead, inside the same Spirit House, I find the crocodile men making new objects: pots, masks, carvings. I hear stories that since 1890 most of the higher-end art pieces left the country, and many of these pieces are found today in private collections in Europe and the USA. The encounter with sacred tribal art in Palambei’s Spirit House is a compelling reminder of how the Sepik people continue to live in a vibrant, electrifying tradition.
We leave the canoe behind to fly to Tufi, on the southeastern peninsula of Cape Nelson, in Oro Province. Tufi is located among drowned river valleys, locally referred to as fjords. These sharp inlets are fringed in coral and backed by remarkable waterfalls that tip-off green cliffs. It’s only accessible by air or sea and is part of a region recognized for having the highest coral diversity on the planet. We do a homestay in Jebo village – a community on the coast not far from Tufi – and the cinematic landscape makes us feel like we’ve uncovered Eden. We meet the Yari Yari, and Tevari tribes adorned in tribal attire. They share tales of tribespeople’s history of tattooing and the sorcery that exists in every shadow, branch, and movement of their villages. Unlike Highlanders and the Sepik River people, the tribes living by the ocean are gentler.
On my last day in Tufi, as locals wave good-bye with their teeth stained red from chewing betel nuts, I smile. I think about how I’ve never been more uncomfortable than when sleeping with the tribes here and eating dried food for almost the entire journey. Yet, I would do it all over again – it’s made me realize that tribes from so many distinct pockets of PNG, despite their singularity, also have things in common. They like to believe in strange Gods, follow odd rituals, and love to dress up in traditional outfits. But above all, I would come back to chase the land of ferocious headhunters and have a glimpse of what adventure travel is really about.
For details on this trip, please contact Nanda on firstname.lastname@example.org