Goroka Show

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Oceania » Papua New Guinea » Eastern Highlands
September 17th 2018
Published: September 18th 2018
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It is a slow five hour drive from Mount Hagen to Goroka, on a poor road. Twice we were stopped at Police checkpoints. These are strange affairs to the westerner’s eye. The barrier is not raised until we have all chatted with the policeman, and the driver has paid a small bribe. When we arrive in Goroka, the weather has worsened and the surrounding mountains are invisible in swirling mist.

It is hard to describe the Goroka Show, the pictures tell the story. Around 100 tribal sing-sing groups come together every year in this mountain town over the Independence Day weekend. On the morning of the first day, we spotted sing-sing groups in traditional dress on street corners - putting on body paint, arranging headdresses, practicing dance moves. But nothing could prepare us for the event itself.

When we entered the sports field there were two or three groups already there – dancing, drumming, singing. And then a couple of new groups arrived on the far side of the field, singing, dancing, drumming as they came in to take their places. And then more and more and more.

Each sing-sing group has its own style of traditional dress. Some are minimal with a lot of body paint. Others are elaborate, with shell jewellery, plants and feathers tied around the arms and perhaps strings of seeds around the body. And maybe some grass anklets or a penis gourd?

Every face is painted, sometimes with nose jewellery or a mask. Most dancers wear a headdress, many of which are ridiculously tall and ornate. And still more sing-sing groups arrive into the show ground, every group singing, every group drumming. We don't know which way to look.

By lunchtime the field is full of dancing, decorated bodies. A song starts here, some drumming over there, marching blue men weave through the other groups, mud men confront us with bows and arrows. It is a wonderous mayhem.

The groups have come from all over the Highlands and beyond. We chat, smile, shake hands and laugh with people from all over the country; people who have spent time, money and a lot of effort to prepare for this wonderful two day celebration of the traditional cultures of Papua New Guinea.

On our final afternoon we visit the mud men's village which gives us a chance to talk to them and their families. When we spot some unusual structures at the edge of the village, the chief explained that the little houses, like glass-less greenhouses, are over the graves of his mother and father, who was the previous chief. He then explains that his grandfather was the first ever mud man.

While running away from a neighbouring tribe after a skirmish over land, grandad fell into a mud swamp. As he rose up again, the neighbours saw him and ran off, scared by the swamp monster. Realising they now had a secret weapon, the tribe took to covering themselves in mud and wandering around local houses at dawn, scaring the half-asleep occupants. Soon the tribe had a nice patch of land to themselves and grandad was made chief!

We have to fly out of Goroka. A mist descended yesterday afternoon so flights were cancelled. In the morning there are 300 people at check-in for 150 seats ... and there are no planes. Eventually, two planes do arrive and at least some of the backlog, and luckily us, can leave.

Everyone has to fly out of the Highlands, there is no road to the capital. Mountains and a giant swamp make a road impossible. It's quite strange to be in a country twice the size of the UK where the capital is so isolated from three quarters of the country and all the other major cities.

Tomorrow we leave PNG to head further East.

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