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Published: September 15th 2018
Papua New Guinea is challenging us but it is a rewarding place. Our first morning is spent on the Rondon ridge spotting Birds of Paradise. The male birds have ridiculously long tails of over a metre. They look all the more unreal as the swirling morning mist moves across this jungle covered mountain slope. Spotting the birds is not easy, dark against a bright sky and the jungle foliage of the canopy provides ample cover. But as it gets brighter we see more and more birds, feeding and calling around us. We even see occasional flashes of iridescent blue feathers, displayed fully only in the birds’ courtship dances. The 4 am start and the steep muddy climb to the ridge were worth it.
Organising getting to PNG was complex but Pym and his small local tour company seem to have it all planned. So, after four flights and two nights in planes, we are finally exiting Mount Hagen airport in the PNG highlands. And there is no sign of Pym. The locals who travelled with us on the little plane leave. The six German tourists leave with their guide. We remain – it’s just us and the three airport security
They would phone Pym but there is no credit on their mobiles. We buy them a 5 Kina (£1.25) credit, they phone Pym. Pym doesn't remember who we are. Pym, we are the people who booked you to take us around PNG! Really? He is clearly not convinced but says OK, he is on his way to collect us.
Five minutes pass and the guard’s phone rings. She hands the phone to me, it is Pym full of apologies and full of promises that he will be with us in ten, maybe fifteen, minutes. We give a sigh of relief. We aren't in a small, allegedly dangerous, town in the PNG highlands with no transport, no bed, no plans. Panic over.
The Paiya tribal show is happening just outside Mount Hagen. We arrive when preparation are well underway, groups of dancers changing into traditional dress and painting their faces. Soon the air is filled with practice drumming, singing and dancing. We make our way to the VIP area, twelve plastic chairs and stools, and await the performers.
There are nine sing-sing groups of six to twenty dancers. Every performer is fully made-up and dressed in
the costume of their tribe. Most groups sing and play drums. Costumes consist of body paint, grasses and plants, beads, feathers from birds of paradise, shells, beaks, wooden jewellery ...
While most are clourful, the mud men are painted grey and wear inverted grey clay pots over their heads. Another group are totally matt black, a third are painted as skeletons. It is a reminder that these dances were both for celebration and to scare any neighbouring tribe. Until twenty years ago, killing a man found on another tribe’s land was not uncommon. Even today, outsiders will be threatened and may be attacked if they don't leave. Everyone has a a machete!
Each group takes its turn to perform in front of us. And each sing-sing is unique and wonderful – singing, drumming, dancing, smiling.
After all the sing-sings have performed a traditional mu-mu is served. Two hours earlier, stones were heated in a bonfire and then placed in a pit together with sweet potatoes, greens and lamb pieces. The whole was covered over with banana leaves and the food steamed and roasted. Coming out, the stones are still hot and steam rises – the lamb is
nicely cooked. All the performers dig in, the party feast begins.
The next day we make a trip to the town’s market, three tourists carefully accompanied by three guides. The market is large and dedicated to fruit and vegetables. Some things are immediately recognisable - pineapples, carrots, ginger, garlic. A selection of bananas - short bananas, green bananas, fat bananas. There is also a selection of sweet potatoes of different colours, shapes and sizes. And then the things we don't know - a brown nut that tastes of coconut, giant spring onions, taro, tobacco as leaves or rolled into cigarettes using old newspaper, bettlenut.
Leaving Mount Hagen, it is a long drive through the Highlands to Goroka to the east. Every drive here is long, all the roads are truly dreadful, except for one. That is the road to the gold mine. Smooth and free from potholes, and maintained by the mine.
We do stop along the way to take in local show. In the first half they discovered fire and then set fire to their hats, put them on and walked about. In the second they fought, and killed, a spirit beast that looked rather like
the Gruffallo. Very entertaining.
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