In a prior report, we described our Sepik River journey in Papua New Guinea. This report describes the second part of that trip, a visit to the Highlands Sing Sing at Mt. Hagen.

DAY 11 (August 17)
After a leisurely breakfast we stood on deck watching for our plane, scheduled to arrive about 9:30. Our bags had each been weighed and everyone had been asked to specify their weight so that the pilots could insure that the plane was not overloaded. We had known before leaving home that there would be a maximum allowed weight of 22 lbs. for each person’s single checked bag. We had been advised to place essential items in our carry on bag in case the luggage had to be flown in the next day. We caught sight of our approaching plane (a Twin Otter) and prepared to disembark. We bid an affectionate goodbye to the great Discoverer crew, took the speedboat to shore, and made our way to the grass airstrip to board our 19-seater aircraft for the 50-minute flight to Mt. Hagen.

Once in the air, we watched the transition from watery, pale green marshland to dark green highlands. Just before landing we caught sight of Mt. Hagan township. It was not pretty, more like a blight on the landscape. Once on the ground, we had a 15-minute bus ride through the shabby town. Practically every establishment was surrounded by high walls and gates.

From our pre-trip preparations, we had become aware that the highlands can be a little dangerous. Two women who joined us for the Sepik cruise after doing some prior independent traveling in another part of the Highlands provided us with some first-hand accounts of several harrowing experiences they had had. One was at Tari, a renowned area for bird watching. While staying at the posh Ambua Lodge, they set out on a road excursion. They were stopped by gunmen who demanded a payment of 50 kina to allow them to pass a roadblock they had erected. The driver radioed the lodge and asked for instructions. He was told that under no circumstances should he pay. After 30 minutes of haggling, a “fee” of 10 kina ($3.00) was settled on. The gunmen were apparently angry with the driver because he was “one of them” and they expected more cooperation.

The two women had another incident outside of Mt. Hagen. Again, they had hired a driver for an excursion. This time, on their way back, they encountered a man standing in the middle of the road with what appeared to be a homemade rifle, trying to make them stop. The driver told them to get down and he did the same, speeding by!

As we drove into Mt. Hagen, we were expecting to pull into the Highlander Hotel, rated the best in town. However, we entered the Highland Park Motel (through two sets of gates). The rundown units circling a rather bleak courtyard were as shabby looking inside as outside. The rooms were not even made up. We felt sorry for Martin, our tour leader, though he was totally blameless. We learned later that our rooms had been “requisitioned” by some tourist officials here to participate in the Sing Sing festivities. The members of our group, all experienced travelers, understood that things like this are common in countries like PNG with underdeveloped tourism structures, and no one complained very much (it wouldn’t have done any good anyway). The food in the lodge restaurant was pretty good -- better, we were told than the Highlander, so that helped. Martin spent several hours in the afternoon valiantly trying to find something better but, not surprisingly, everything was fully booked. And after all, we were in the town’s “second best hotel.”

After getting “settled,” we proceeded to a grassy area about the size of a football field for the Sing Sing, our number one objective in visiting PNG, an event we had been savoring for perhaps 10 years. And it did not disappoint us. Right off the bat groups we had only seen in National Geographic and travel brochures were all at hand –- the Huli Wig Men with their faces painted red and yellow, the fabled Mud Men in their unique masks and grey body paint, the Skeleton dancers, painted to look like human skeletons, and so many others, with painted faces, some punctured by feathers through the nose or nose rings. The members of one group had bones through their noses! Men, women and children are were painstakingly decorated and adorned.

Most of the women were covered above the waist only by body paint or beads or shells or nothing at all. The scene is extraordinary, with stunningly dramatic costumed dancers visible in every direction.

We photographed the scenes, but they could not really capture the color and vibrancy of this event. It is simply
incredible, overwhelming, almost psychedelic. About 35-40 groups participated this year, down significantly from the typical number of 80 or more groups because of travel problems associated ongoing election violence, but it was enough to produce a remarkable spectacle. Our local guide Jack told us that one of the most interesting missing groups this year is one that mummifies their dead. Last year they showed up with a mummified tribe member who they affixed to a board and carried with them as they paraded around.

The show itself was only loosely arranged. At noon, on Saturday, there were speeches by a number of dignitaries emphasizing the potential importance of tourism to PNG and lamenting its largely untapped riches. (Are these the culprits who stole our rooms?) One of the speechmakers was John Kambowa, the PNG Director of Tourism. Prior to our trip we had read a statement of his on a PNG website decrying the state of tourism in the country. After his speech, Larry told Jack that he would like to talk with Mr. Kambowa if possible. A few minutes later, Jack brought him over and he and Larry had a lively chat about the underdeveloped and inadequate state of tourism in PNG.

We thought it remarkable that only about 300 foreign tourists (official estimate) were here for the Sing Sing. But that speaks volumes about the state of tourism in PNG. About this time, the various groups began performing, seemingly on an impromptu basis. These “performances” included group dancing or marching, accompanied by singing or chanting and sometimes by drums, other instruments, or whistles. A wire fence prevented those without an entrance badge from gaining access to the grounds but permitted them to fully view the activities. (Admission was 50 kina, a princely sum for a local.) While some tourists commented that this arrangement seemed inequitable, it did make the situation less intimidating (and safer) for visitors. We had been warned repeatedly about pickpockets. We had also been advised that things would start winding down each day about 2:30 and a meeting spot had been designated. As if on cue, at that point, the gates were opened to all and the locals, many times the number of tourists, flooded to the grounds and most tourists withdrew to their vans and departed.

DAY 12 (August 18)
Prior to the beginning of the show, we were taken to a school gym where a number of the groups are getting prepared for their performance. We were able to watch the steps the Wig Men and others go through to create their dramatic appearances. We saw an amazing number of bird of paradise plumes incorporated into headdresses. (Natives are allowed to hunt these birds but only with slingshots or bows and arrows.) Members of the performing groups who speak English were very approachable and we were able to chat with representatives of several different tribes. It was a lot like a scene from the Star Wars canteen.

We learned that the Wig Men performers progress through various levels of achievement very gradually and that reaching the most senior level can take as long as 30 years.

Each of the groups was very receptive to requests for photos. Several members of our group ran into the two adventurous ladies who had joined us on our Sepik River journey. Last night they stayed at a lodge about an hour outside of Mt. Hagen and reported that they had heard gunfire during the night.

We continued to the grounds. Judi got into the swing of things by having a bird of paradise painted on her face. Then we circulated around the grounds watching additional groups apply their body and face paint and arrange their costumes of shells, feathers, and greenery. At noon, a grand procession commenced with the individual groups parading in a line around the perimeter of the field several times in succession. No one seemed to orchestrate this event. Rather, the individual groups joined in and dropped out of the procession as they pleased. Eventually, each group found their own space and continued to perform, providing a feast of colors and action for the many photographers, including a BBC crew.

12:45 pm. We departed the grounds, very happy with our festival experience, feeling that we had just the right amount of time over the past two days. We returned to the hotel for lunch, and then headed out on a bus excursion around the highlands. We first headed west. As soon as we were beyond the outskirts of the ugly town of Mt. Hagen, the scenery became green and appealing, framed by blue-tinted mountains in the distance. We soon entered the wide Wahgi Valley, the site of first contact between the peoples of the region and gold prospectors from Australia around 1930. On the Discoverer, we watched a documentary of these first meetings between a Stone Age people and whites from a highly industrialized country. The film contained a good deal of original footage shot at the time and there were some extraordinary scenes, such as one in which prospectors demonstrated their power to a large group of natives by felling a pig with a rifle shot, and another when villagers catch sight for the first time of an airplane landing. (The behavior of the western companies supporting these ventures would not exactly stand as a great model for how to respectfully approach first contact with a Stone Age people, but that won’t surprise anyone.)

We passed the coffee plantation and then a tea plantation and processing plant. Jack arranged a tour of the plant. The manager’s office looked like that of a minor bureaucrat in a movie set in India in the 1940s. We saw a worker who caried a very lethal-looking machete. Martin asked him if he had ever killed anyone with it. He said no, not with that one, but stated he had killed a man with his other one because the man shot him, and he proceeded to display a large scar on his side that resulted from the bullet wound. We then returned to town and headed east on the “National Highway.” We encountered numerous potholes so large that vehicles had to pull entirely off the road and creep along the shoulder to get around them. We passed a van loaded with Mud Men heading back to their village. That was a sight you don’t see everyday. We saw additional Sing Sing participants heading to their homes on foot. If you were anywhere else, you might think it was Halloween.

We passed sugar cane fields, then turned off to Placer Dome, PNG’s largest gold mine. The fields were plowed exclusively by hand with spades. The staple in the diet in the highlands is sweet potato. Almost everyone we passed along the road waved enthusiastically at us. We passed Paikano Village, continued our climb, and then stopped to have a look at the round houses found in this area. The walls were made of woven mats. We had become the center of attention and got the feeling that the residents did not see westerners very often. (There would generally be no reason for tourists to venture out to this area. Our excursion was an impromptu arrangement.) Even people in passing vehicles waved at us and shouted hello. The mountainous terrain here looked a whole lot like that of Ecuador and Guatemala.

People excitedly gathered around several in our group who had digital cameras with LCD displays. We walked a quarter of a mile down the highway, shaking hands with all the people we passed. We reluctantly left this place to head back to Mt. Hagen. We saw virtually no private cars on this excursion, just jeeps, vans, trucks, SUVs, Land Rovers, and buses.

DAY 13 (August 19)
8:00 am. We were at the airport awaiting our flight. Martin had been at the ticket counter for a long time. We hoped we could all get on the flight. We tried making calls from 2 more phones. No luck. We wonder if there is a working phone anywhere in this country. We met some of the members of the group who were on the Sepik Spirit when we saw it several days ago. We learned that they too had a harrowing experience in the Highlands. They were in the Tari area for two days and were escorted continuously by armed guards. When they were scheduled to leave, the guards accompanied them to the small airport and then departed. As soon as the guards had departed, armed men climbed over the security fence and robbed several of the group before being chased away by some locals. They told us they were on the first flight into Tari when the airport reopened after its earlier closure during the elections. Approaching airplanes were being shot in an attempt to prevent them from landing and picking up ballots. We all fit on the 60-passenger plane with only 1 or 2 seats to spare.

After landing in Port Moresby and getting checked back in at the now familiar Airways, the group set out on a bus to see the highlights of Port Moresby. And the venture proved to be quite worthwhile. Our first stop was the National Botanical Gardens. The grounds were extensive and well cared for (we were somewhat surprised). There was an aviary where we got our one and only good look at a magnificent Bird of Paradise. There were also a few cages containing interesting species such as tree kangaroos (very cute--their faces resemble koalas), wallabies, and a few Cassowaries. There are fewer than a half dozen visitors here outside of our group of 14. Then we headed for the National Museum. One again, we were surprised by the quality of the facility and the impressive collection of native canoes, totems, and crafts. At the front entrance was a seamless ornately decorated dugout canoe about 80 ft long -- carved from a single tree trunk. And again, the place was practically deserted. The museum was closing and we reluctantly departed -- this time for the Parliament Building, Port Moresby’s showplace. The facility had just closed but a special exception was made for us and in we went for a guided tour. The outside of the building was patterned after the spirit houses we saw along the Sepik. The interior resembled the US Congressional chamber. There were 109 members of Parliament including one woman. The members meet quarterly for a maximum of two weeks. Might that be a good idea for the US Congress? We were told that points of view are often expressed vigorously in the chambers -- probably in the shouting style we witnessed in Manam Village.

Our final stop was at one of two large retail crafts stores in Port Moresby. The selection was large, the prices were excellent, and the owner was said to be a good guy who pays fair prices to the craftsmen and women in the villages. They even take credit cards -- a rarity in PNG. Eventually, we departed and headed toward the downtown area.

We were the only ones who have seen the downtown area up close and other members of our group, having heard our bleak description must be a little puzzled at this point. But as we entered the charmless center, the truth was revealed. As we drove along the shore, we saw a mostly submerged WWII vessel out in the bay.

DAY 14 (August 20)
The rest of our group was scheduled to depart this morning for Cairns. We were waitlisted on the same flight and go to the airport hopeful. But alas the flight was full so we returned to the Airways. We considered returning to the Botanical Gardens and discussed it with the concierge. We reluctantly decided not to push our luck for several reasons. First, we would be very unlikely to be able to secure a taxi for our return. Second, the size of the grounds and the absence of visitors might make us a target. So, as absurd as that seems, we scrapped this plan and decided to stay at the hotel. This was the opening day of Parliament and we watched the ceremony on television. The new prime minister Michael Somare entered to God Save the Queen followed by the PNG National Anthem. Bagpipes were then played. (A bit of British influence.) The session was opened with a prayer in the name of Jesus Christ. In his address, Somare noted a long list of problems in PNG, ranging from underdeveloped health care and education systems to poor roadways to civil unrest and rampant corruption. (There were numerous billboards throughout the country urging citizens to report and fight corruption and one of the national newspapers -- the Post Courier -- had a “Stop Corruption” logo as part of its banner.) Somare’s talk was blunt, with no holds barred. He emphasized the importance of protecting rather than plundering PNG’s natural resources while at the same time developing the economy, and noted that PNG ranks 132nd out of the world’s 174 countries in economic output. He said, refreshingly, “No one is to blame but ourselves.” His will not be an easy job. But for the sake of all the peoples of Papua New Guinea, we wish him success.

In the evening, we bid a reluctant farewell to Papua New Guinea, boarding a 6:30 pm flight to Cairns, Australia for 3 days near the Great Barrier Reef before heading home.

Travel Resources:
Lonely Planet’s Papua New Guinea ~ Travel Survival Kit


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