Papua New Guinea — taking a trip back in time

This article appears on page 6 of the March 2008 issue.
Hanuabada stilt village.

by John Hale, Palo Alto, CA

Welcome to the Sepik. Please set your watches back 900 years.

Greg Stathakis, a retired Santa Barbara high school teacher, has led groups to Papua New Guinea for each of the past 28 years. My older son, Billy, and I joined him in May ’07 for the trip of a lifetime.

A bit of history

PNG occupies the eastern half of the world’s second-largest island, located 100 miles north of Australia. It’s a relatively new country, gaining independence in 1975.

Clownfish on the house reef at Loloata Dive Resort.

Although English is the official language (Pidgin is the second), over 800 languages are spoken in this country that is only slightly larger than California.

PNG is remote. There are daily flights to and from Australia but not many other ways to get into the country easily.

Europeans discovered a thriving interior culture only in 1933. The Japanese occupied the coastal areas during World War II, and Allied forces retook the country in 1944. The outside world has paid little attention since.

That’s surprising because of what PNG offers visitors. Its coral reefs support more species than the entire Caribbean. The tropical mountain forests are home to a dozen species of birds of paradise and an array of orchids found nowhere else. The tribes of the Highlands offer glimpses of wildly different cultures, and, for the shopper, PNG is ground zero for primitive art.

Easing in

Greg visited PNG in 1978, and he raised questions with the tour agents about how they did things. They challenged him to do better and he’s been doing so ever since.

Late one night I discovered his website ( and e-mailed him a few questions. He responded within minutes and we talked for over an hour. I sent in my deposit the next day for the 11-night tour, which cost $7,450 per person including all meals and in-country air.

Billy and I flew from Los Angeles to Brisbane, Australia, connecting to PNG’s capital city of Port Moresby. A van met us curbside and took us to an old dock outside of town. There we caught a launch for the 15-minute ride to Loloata Island.

Loloata Island Resort is a 22-cabin dive resort that is normally full on weekends with locals escaping the oppressive heat of the capital. During much of our stay, though, we were the only guests.

We spent our first morning with a dreadlocked divemaster, a missionary on his way home and a school of 100 toothy barracuda. On later dives we watched half-inch pygmy seahorses hang between the branches of sea fans and observed rare scorpionfish devour their prey. It was good diving.

The Highlands

Huli warrior in the Southern Highlands.

After a few days we returned to the capital, where we met Greg and an interesting group consisting mostly of American retirees who had stories from nearly every country in the world. Then we flew an hour north on Air Niugini to Mt. Hagen in the Western Highlands.

Elections were scheduled for the end of the month, so hotel security advised we not leave the grounds unescorted because of volatile crowds. It was probably good advice; several people were killed that weekend in election violence.

But we experienced only full-faced smiles — and not just from people at the hotel who were paid to be nice to guests. At the central market, vendors clamored to have their pictures taken and then laughed at their images on the digital cameras. At a middle school where we took some supplies, students mobbed Billy and had him autograph their caps.

Greg built our trip around the Tumbuna Sing Sing, an annual festival of tribal dancing. Such gatherings offer often-warring tribes a chance to meet on neutral ground. Participants included batmen, skeleton people and warriors clad in feathered headdresses and beaded loincloths. Each took a turn singing, chanting and dancing (or, in the case of the fierce Asaro mudmen, glaring). Then they staked out their own spots and continued to perform, often drowning out a competing clan.

Watching the audience was almost as interesting; it consisted of 40 “expats,” a word locals use to refer to anyone from outside PNG, and several hundred “nationals” (not “natives”).

Village visits

The East Sepik Province is a 45-minute flight and a world away from the Highlands.

It is almost scarily remote. There are no roads nor electricity. It is hot, steamy and malarial. And it offers spectacular art.

A child from Papua New Guinea’s Eastern Highlands

We landed on a grass airstrip and transferred to the Sepik Spirit, a 40-foot vessel that served as a comfortable base camp for our next few nights. We rested in air-conditioned cabins and during the day visited villages in a speedboat that was better able to navigate narrow river channels.

Missionaries have a long history in the region. In Timbunke we met Father Carlos, a young priest from Paraguay.

Traditional spirit worship seemed to thrive in the Catholic villages, and Father Carlos’ church is designed like a spirit house, each of its supporting posts carved by parishioners from a different village.

In what Greg called the Village at the End of the World, we saw Mass celebrated next to a magnificent spirit house in which young teens undergo a year of initiation into manhood. Those rites culminate with each boy’s back being sliced with bamboo slivers and packed with mud to produce a scarring that resembles the revered crocodile.

In another village, the influence of the missionaries seemed less benign. There the spirit house had fallen into disrepair, the dancing had stopped, and the carving had been redirected from masks and figures said to house spirits to dolls for the tourist trade featuring outsized genitals.

The missionaries had a role in curtailing headhunting — and not so long ago. Our guide, Chris, said his grandfather had seven heads to his credit.

Rare visits

There aren’t many tourists on the Sepik River. In four days we saw only one craft (a supply boat) that wasn’t a dugout canoe. Our captain said that fewer than 50 foreign travelers had been on the river since January, which was understandable given the complete absence of a tourist infrastructure, despite the wealth of art for which the region is noted.

The pieces in the New Guinea Sculpture Garden at Stanford University are all from the Middle Sepik Region. In Mindimbit, we met one of the master carvers who had visited Stanford in 1994. Vendors there were accustomed to visitors and were vocal about the need for them to buy local crafts.

In contrast, another settlement we visited sees no more than two groups of travelers per year. Greg struck up a friendship in the late ’70s with the chief, so he is one of the only foreigners whom they see on a regular basis.

At the riverbank, children surrounded us, giggling and hiding behind their mothers. Masked dancers led us through the village, and we were admitted to the upper floor of the spirit house typically restricted for initiation rites.

Back on land

John and Billy with the Skeleton People at the Tumbuna Sing Sing.

We left the Sepik for Ambua Lodge in the Southern Highlands near the Tari Gap. At 7,000 feet, the lodge is well above the malaria line, and morning treks spotting birds of paradise were exhilarating. It’s a glorious place, the recipient of multiple awards for environmental and cultural sensitivity before “going green” became trendy.

The Highlands are the home of the Huli people, PNG’s most aggressive clan, we were told. Even today, the chief job of Huli men is preparing for, engaging in and negotiating settlements of tribal warfare. Fights are over prestige, measured in land, pigs and women (in decreasing order of value).

It’s not a woman’s world. Our guide, Paulus, paid 30 pigs for each of his two wives. He chose them on their willingness to work hard and bear children.

In the Huli world, women are feared because, as the givers of life, they are also thought to be able to take it away. In the most traditional villages, men are in touch with women only for procreation; they otherwise eat, sleep and live in men’s houses.

Worth a visit

PNG has its issues. Raskols (street thugs) effectively close Port Moresby to nighttime activity. The subsistence economy of the villages does not translate well into the cities, where AIDS is prevalent. The loyalty to clan over country makes curbing the exploitation of rich natural resources even more difficult than in many developing countries.

Yet it’s a fascinating place, closer to my childhood recollection of National Geographic images than any place I’ve seen. Almost to a person, nationals asked us to write to them when we got home or to tell friends to visit. It’s well worth a look, even by the most jaded of travelers.