It took me nearly 20 hours to get from Bangkok to Mount Hagen in the western highlands of Papua New Guinea, travelling via Singapore and Port Moresby. My first impressions of the country’s third-largest city were of crowds and bustle, despite the lack of tourists who flock there during festival times. Their positive effect, though, was felt; I and my small group of fellow foreigners were warmly welcomed with customary waves and smiles from the locals as we drove through the town and up to our mountainside hotel.
From my base at the cozy Rondon Ridge Lodge, at an elevation of 5,000 feet, the views of the Wahgi valley and the city below were stunning and I was keen to get out and explore. The rolling hills around Mount Hagen are lush and fertile, and everywhere you travel, the land is being farmed for sweet potatoes, corn, cabbage, tea, coffee and various other crops while, further up, the rainforest covering the rugged limestone peaks becomes more wild.
A 45-minute drive took me to Moika village, where I was greeted by the sight of a group of a dozen or so young boys from the indigenous Jika tribe training how to “fight war”. Most held spears or axes, some covered in white mud, and a teacher watched as they practised. After observing for 30 minutes or so, I had a chat with the kids and we asked each other lots of questions. They were very surprised to learn that we don’t fight with spears and practice war in the U.S. One child asked me what our festivals were like, and they seemed very puzzled to learn how different things are where I came from; some even seemed to find it silly that we don’t do things the same way. As we chatted, I photographed them and sent the pictures to my wife – a concept that baffled them. Not only do these kids not have TVs, Nintendos or access to the internet, it struck me that they have very little idea about the outside world or what people do in other countries.
Later, we drove onwards to another village where we met the chief. A friendly, elderly man, he proudly showed us around his village, encouraging us to pay particular attention to the spirit house, decorated with skulls and various wood carvings. On our tour I noticed how everyone kept very large pigs, and my guide told me that to the men of Papua New Guinea, only three things matter: land, women and pigs – in that order. This was brought strongly home to me later when one of the staff at my hotel had to rush home because his sister had been hacked to death over a disagreement about a pig.
As we headed back to Rondon Ridge, the temperature dropped with the sun and the night outside the lodge was a chilly one. The following day dawned bright, however, as we headed to nearby Kolgngi village, home of the Moge tribe. Here, we were met by a dozen or so men, women and children from the village, who demonstrated to us their traditional funeral rites. As we looked on, the whole village began to cry in unison as the chief lit an impressive fire using a rope and some leaves.
The group proceeded to walk around the pyre, still crying, as they brought out a “body”, which was carried around the procession and finally placed in a grave and covered with soil. Though the ritual was very interesting to watch, it felt a little contrived since no one had really died. After the ceremony and a chat with some locals, we continued our journey to the Tokua village to meet the Nogopa tribe.
Walking down a dirt path, an old bearded man stood sentry with a bow and arrow — we were assured this was typical, as the village people want to know if you are a friend or enemy before letting you pass. Though he welcomed us warmly and showed us around his home, the man told us how he has killed five men during disputes with other villages – an ominous indication of how relations between tribes used to be in the not-so-distant past.
This was just the first fascinating lesson we were to learn in Tokua; in a small hut we met an old witch doctor who communicates with spirits in order to cure illnesses. Further into the village, a group of men performed a “Moka” ceremony for us in which a fire was lit and the burning leaves crackled like fireworks. They sat, chanted and walked around the fire and then around a particular tree; afterward, we had the chance to talk and exchange life experiences with the interesting tribesfolk of Papua New Guinea, who proved to be just as intrigued by us as we were by them.
Next stop was Pogla village, where we were greeted by two topless women from the Kaulga tribe. As they escorted us into the village, we were met by a group of “mudmen” who performed their unique dance for us. The legend of the mudmen comes from the Goroka region where, long ago, the Pogla men were driven out of their land by a rival tribe. They sheltered around the Asaro river, regrouped and made a plan, covering themselves in the mud from the river and fashioning horned and fearsome stone masks.
The enemy tribe was frightened off by the evil “spirits” approaching the village and the “Asaro Mudmen” reclaimed their land. The dance is actually quite eery, as they men, covered in grey mud and wearing their carved masks, walk around very slowly in total silence, with the exception of the clicking noises from their long claws. After the performance, the men revealed their faces to relax and talk, and those of us who tried the masks were surprised to feel how heavy they were. This was certainly one of the highlights of my time in Mount Hagen.
All too soon it was time to head back into the bustling city of Mount Hagen to visit the large Central Market, a daunting prospect at a distance; after the peace and simplicity of village life, it seemed over-crowded and noisy. But once immersed, it proved to be full of incredibly friendly vendors, many of them begging to have their photos taken with me and always greeting us with smiles. In many regards, it was the perfect way to end my short time in the western highlands of Papua New Guinea.