Travel Destinations

Celebrating Stone Age Culture in Papua New Guinea

Few places in the world fascinate anthropologists more than Papua New Guinea. Occupying the eastern half of the world’s second largest island, ‘PNG’ is known for its warm seas rich with marine life and sun, says Patricia Schultz

World War II ships. On land is a vast array of flora and fauna, including 762 species of birds (with over 400 unique to the island), the world’s greatest variety of orchids, and more than 400 species of butterflies.

But it’s the people of PNG who draw the curious. Living in steep valleys masked by mountains rising as high as 14,000 feet and first seen by Westerners in 1933, the highlands are home to hundreds of tribal groups, whose subsistence lifestyles have changed little since the Stone Age. They speak more than 750 distinct languages and are known for their highly unusual artwork.

In the Tari Basin, a picturesque valley in the Southern Highlands, you’ll find the Huli people, who insert wild boar tusks through their pierced noses, paint their faces with bright primary colors, and wear ornate wigs made from human hair and translucent plumes plucked from Tari’s 13 species of birds of paradise. You can easily visit the Hulis if you stay at the modern Ambua Lodge, which commands a splendid view of the basin from its 7,000-foot location. It is also said to be the finest place anywhere to spot birds of paradise.

Come during a ‘sing-sing’, or cultural show, when drums thunder and hundreds of Huli adorned with lavish face and body paint as well as elaborate headdresses stomp and chant in friendly inter-tribal competition. The sing-sings began in the 1960s as a government effort to halt centuries-old tribal rivalry and warfare. The largest today is the Mount Hagen Sing- Sing, during which nearly 80 tribes come from all parts to ‘mock fight’ on a soccer field in the Western Highlands trading town while some 500 tourists watch. At the much more intimate Tumbuna Sing-Sing, about 250 locals participate and only 60 tourist tickets are sold. It’s held on a hilltop clearing near Rondon Ridge, a luxury eco-lodge 30 minutes from Mount Hagen. Although the shows have inevitably become more commercial since their early days, there’s still nothing like them anywhere.

Where: Mt. Hagen is 320 miles/514 km northwest of the capital city, Port Moresby. How: U.S.-based Asia Transpacific Journeys offers tours that coincide with the sing-sings. Tel: 800-642-2742 or 303-443-6789; www.asia transpacific.com. Cost: 14-night land packages from $8,595. Originate in Port Moresby. AMbuA lodge/Rondon ridge: Tel: 675/542- 1438; www.pngtours.com. Cost: $510 per person, all-inclusive. When: May for Tumbuna Sing-Sing; Aug for Mount Hagen Sing-Sing. Best time: Apr-Oct is cooler and drier.

For Schultz’s take on PNG’s Sepik River, be sure to log onto CD-Traveller tomorrow!

Extract from 1,000 PLACES TO SEE BEFORE YOU DIE. Copyright © 2011 by Patricia Schultz. Used by permission of Workman Publishing Co., Inc., New York. All Rights Reserved

1,000 Places to See Before You Die (second edition) is out now published by Workman at £14.99.

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