Onto Mount Hagen

Posted February 14, 2020 by David McGuinness

The following morning, after an early start things went better and we departed Port Moresby at 08.30. We climbed through the air above a sea of cloud punctuated by jagged ridges quilted in luxuriant undergrowth. I couldn’t imagine a more fitting entrance to the mysterious Highlands of PNG - it was a breathtaking view. However that same sea of cloud quickly became a problem as the pilot announced that he was unable to land until some of the cloud burned off. We circled anxiously for about half an hour and finally landed. The Leahy brothers, gold prospectors from Australia, caused a sensation when they flew over this area, the Wahgi Valley to be exact,  in the early 1930s, and made it known to the world that the region, previously considered uninhabited and uninhabitable, contained huge civilisations (a million people it emerged), vast farms and the most linguistically diverse place on earth.

We were picked up by Natasha, our guide, and Anis, our driver, and began our tour. We passed a pig market and Natasha pointed out an enormous black pig which she said cost about 4000 kina–around £900 or $1200 US–a hefty sum. Pigs are the primary measure of wealth in the Highlands, all men owned at least one pig and bride price was usually paid in pigs. Girls typically married at about 15 but sometimes as young as 12, while boys married when they could afford to. We drove past fields of crops - bananas and coffee (for local consumption) and tea (for export). Locals here are all Christian, a majority Catholic, but with a persisting strong influence from traditional beliefs, which were often in practice more powerful when Christian belief and traditional practice conflicted. Seventh Day Adventists here eat pork. 

We passed clusters of men hunkered down playing cards beside further clusters gathered around lines of dart boards. Card games were mostly played for money, and the boards were for a fairground type game where you hit a double, treble, or a bullseye to win the prize you were playing for. The prize you aimed for determined the price to play and you could choose from a single cigarette to large sums of kina. Betel nut was a favourite prize. Business was brisk. 

We stopped into Tokua village and met a traditional Nokupa witch doctor, dressed in traditional costume - with his face painted black with some white lines, an elaborate headdress of bird of paradise feathers and leaves from the forest tied in bunches on his arms. With a crestfallen expression he explained that the secrets of his craft would die with him. His sons had no interest, and no one believed his truths any more. PNG’s Highland traditions have struggled to survive the influence of the outside world since the Leahy brothers and their like first crashed in. We met another village elder who showed us his home, and he demonstrated how they start fire using just local materials. It was a quick and efficient process. They chanted some songs and had a celebratory dance around the fire.  Then the chief gave a speech which Natasha translated. He was very happy we came so far to see his village. He seemed genuinely proud and grateful and pumped our hands as we said goodbye.

The next village was Pogla where the chief of the tribe had five wives and one was from Goroko, another Highlands town. This meant that the village enacted the famous mudmen dances, normally only found in Goroka. The story was that a smaller tribe, displaced by a larger one, donned mudmen masks, complete with bamboo extensions on their fingers, creating a Freddie Krueger style claw, scared away the bigger tribe who believed they were the dead come back, a sure-fire way to scare away those in the Highlands. They reenacted the whole dance, with fire, chanting, and clicking of those eerie claws. It was quite fun and not too much of a stretch to imagine there was a true story behind the tradition, even if the details were probably not quite as legend tells. I tried on a mask, which weighed about ten kilos. Some stamina was needed for these shows. We looked at some crafts in the village before taking leave of our hosts. 

The third village we visited was called Avi and here we were met by two Chimbu flute players who led us through the village, pied-piper like as the local children smiled up at us in wonder and waved shyly. When we reached the main square of the village Natasha introduced some girl dancers from Webag, another town on the coast. They were called the Silimuni girls and they sang as they danced. They seemed a little shy.

Next up were the “skeleton boys”, seven boys from six up to eighteen years old, painted to look like skeletons, who move in a sort of death shuffle, a languorous zombie-like motion clearly meant to represent the dead. Their dance was to commemorate the dead and would usually start by a cave where the bones of their dead ancestors are left.  We had some lunch at a lovely garden on the edge of the village, where Vincent, the owner, showed us around. He had a stunning collection of orchids and tree kangaroo that had such expressive eyes. 


Natasha and Anis, despite both being from the same tribe, the Melpa tribe, each spoke different languages and so communicated with each other in pidgin.

We drove up above Mount Hagen through fields of sweet potato and cabbage to Ronden Ridge, a beautiful lodge with a very comfortable common area, lovely bright cottages and superb views, which was to be our base for a couple of nights. Joseph, the local birding guide took us out for a walk through the forests behind the lodge. Ten birds of paradise can be seen from the lodge and the forest is home to over 200 hundred species of bird. We were lucky enough to see the Blue Bird of Paradise and the Superb Bird of Paradise. 

The following day we were due to fly to the Sepik area but rains in the area meant landing would be a problem, so we had another day in the Highlands and visited another village, called Raiya. Here we met the chief and two of his wives and visited the chief’s collection of skulls. The top row of skulls were from those who had met their end at the end of the hands of the chief. The lower row were from villagers whose deaths needed avenging...

This blog is part of an Off-The-Beaten-Track Travel Diary. Click on the links below to navigate through this journey.


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