T he legendary mudmen from Asaro sway to the drums in their symbolic intimidating movements. Their almost naked bodies are painted with grey mud and they wear large clay heads the same colour. They aim their spears and clobbering clubs at me imitating an attack. I feel a little scared. I can see why rival tribes fled in terror when they first appeared as ghostly apparitions.
The air is sultry and humid yet the performers go on all day with hardly a rest. The kaleidoscope of colour, vibrancy and atmosphere are surreal. Echoes of drums, tribal chants and singing fill the air and vibrate the field.
After an hour flight from Port Moresby over high mountain forests, fertile green valleys, roaring waterfalls, dark clouds and mist, we arrive in Goroka, a town set high in the mountains of Papua New Guinea. Bombed several times by the Japanese during World War II, it was a base for Australian troops and many villages worked as labourers for the Allies.
Today it is a successful commercial province capital. We are here to see the Goroka Festival—the most famous tribal event and culture show in Papua New Guinea. It is held every year close to Papua New Guinea’s Independence Day during September. For two days about 100 tribes gather to show their music, dancing and culture. The tradition began in the 1950s to quell conflicts between rival tribes and clans.
The air is humid and thick with the sweet smell of frangipanis as we make our way into the show grounds. With headdresses of flame orange, yellow, sapphire blue, white and black feathers; faces a painted mask of red and white the ladies of the Kora West Tribe start their rhythmic dance. Masses of cowrie shells hang around their neck covering ample breasts. Bracelets of soft pink shells entwine their arms. Grass skirts (pulpuls) sway at their feet.
Skin the colour of cocoa glistens with sweat. In trepidation I hold up my camera and ask if it is OK to take a photo. I am greeted with large smiling teeth stained red with beetle nut “Tenku tru” (thank you). Even the most ferocious looking of them are content to pose for photos and do not ask for anything in return.
Timoti from the Kafahawk tribe who carry bow and arrows, wear long grass skirts and have headdresses adorned with feathers and red hibiscus tells us “We are very happy and proud to show our culture and traditions.” He introduces us to his brother Ufine, who tells us he hopes to meet a wife here at the festival. “There are many beautiful women here. This is our chance to celebrate the diversity of our region and show-off to the other tribes. It is like a competition for drumming, dance, decoration and agility,” explains Timoti.
Beaded skirts of lime green, purple and blue swing to and fro and splash on shimmering skin, as they twist their hips to the beat of the Kundu drums. Some smile from ear to ear as they show their stuff to other tribes. Sweatbands of beads, shells and fur soak up the sweat. The music rhythm and dance steps of each tribe are distinct and unique.
The backdrop of threatening dark grey clouds that come over the mountains and reach out to take over the dark blue sky sets the scene. Thunder gently rumbles in the distance and lightning delicately illuminates the jungle thick mountain peaks. The air is sultry and humid yet the performers go on all day with hardly a rest. The kaleidoscope of colour, vibrancy and atmosphere are surreal. Echoes of drums, tribal chants and singing fill the air and vibrate the field. The tribes all vie for attention and prominence as there are cash awards which have taken the place of pigs and brides.
We stay at Bird of Paradise Hotel. The service is first-rate and the staff friendly. The Lahini Restaurant serves exotic dishes and the Deck Bistro offer a la carte and al fresco dining. The pizzas are to die for and the cocktails divine.
The local market is not far from our hotel. It is colourful and crowded with the festival atmosphere in the air. Bead-encrusted bilum bags, weaved baskets and other handicrafts are for sale. Fat free-range pigs walk around with their little tails wagging. Fuzzy haired villages with faces of delicate tattoos bring their vegetables in to sell, some bring with them their woolly orange pet cuscus (a relation to the possum) sitting on their shoulder. Dark eyed babies with black curly hair and thick eyelashes look out with interest as they are carried around in cherry-red slings. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly. I find the locals to be nothing but polite and shy. Bananas, plump strawberries, pineapples, oranges and passionfruit are artistically displayed. Food stalls selling roasted sweet potato and peanuts do a roaring trade.
Afterwards we trek to a waterfall in the hills through the rugged mountains and the valleys of the highlands. Here wild ginger of yellow and orange grows rampant. Young bare feet teenagers accompany us, they are good humoured and all want to be our ‘guide’ and practice their English on us. The girls put ginger in their hair and pose for photos. The waterfall is a crystal clear oasis, cascading down mossy rocks surrounded by lush green jungle and ferns. Cooling off here is the perfect way to end a day of festival activities.
We visit the timeless village of the Asaro Mudmen where we receive a traditional welcome and a small crowd of enthusiastic ‘guides’ show us around. The traditional houses are a circular shape made of bamboo. Cooking and sleeping is done in a communal open spaced living arrangement. They grow what they need to survive. What they do not need they take to the markets and sell, and then buy what they cannot grow.
After the dancing we try traditional mumu—all types of vegetables picked from the garden wrapped in leaves, then cooked underground on hot rocks. It is edible but we look forward to our meal back at the hotel.
Back at the festival on day two we come across the colourful Kama Tribe who have a baby pig for a mascot. “This is our two girls Camilla and Pricilla who want to perform just for you,” explains the tribal elder as they go into a dance routine. Their brown skin, bare except the large strings of berries around their necks and the snow white beaded skirts cascade down to their little toes as they move to the beat.
The Huli tribe from Hela province are colourful and proud people who still live largely the same way their ancestors did. Their faces are painted an iridescent yellow to match the bright yellow and orange heliconias and ginger flowers that make up their headdress. Their bodies are painted a bright red. They beat their drums in a fast rhythm. Crude piercing of the ears and noses often include pig tusks, bones, cassowary quills and feathers. Over the sound of the festivities hawkers sell handicrafts. Hand-weaved baskets are painstakingly perfect and must take weeks to make. I am compelled to give more—such a small amount to me is their livelihood.
The crowd starts to thin out as the tribes slowly disappear. They will all go back to their everyday life in the villages. The Kuna Bau tribe from Simba are the last to leave. They beat their hour glass shaped kundu drums. The glossy white and yellow metre long tail plumes from the endangered bird of paradise decorate their hair. Large crescent shaped shells with gold hues are worn as ornaments. Madang queen butterflies of turquoise green, yellow and black are used to enhance their costumes.
The Goroka Festival is a world-class culture event. This must surely be an incentive for the local communities to retain their traditional heritage and lifestyle. The culture costumes, music and dance are matchless. It is an alluring and out of the ordinary tourist destination and one of the few opportunities to see and appreciate authentic traditional tribal culture.
FACT FILE Fly with Air Niugini http://www.airniugini.com.pg/
CLIMATE At an altitude of 1600 metres Goroka is tropical with warm days and cool nights.
MONEY Papua New Guinea Kina; 1 Australian dollar = 1.86 Kina.
VISA REQUIREMENTS Australians and New Zealanders require a visa. Visa applications can be made on arrival.
HEALTH The following immunizations/vaccinations are recommended for all areas of travel to Papua New Guinea: Hepatitis A, Tetanus, Typhoid and Malaria Prophylaxis.
MORE INFORMATION Local tour operator in Port Moresby, Eco-tourism Melanesia http://www.em.com.pg/
LAW AND ORDER As with any transitional society moving from traditional times to suddenly be competing in the 21st century – Papua New Guinea has had its fair share of law and order problems. Most problems stem from youth being unemployed and most crime relates to petty theft and pick-pocketing. Visitors are advised to leave all valuables in their hotel deposit safe and carry minimal valuables on person. Above all remember that 95 per cent of the population are great friendly people who themselves disapprove of criminal activities.
All images were taken by Ray & Sue Udy
To read more stories or to view their beautiful images that the couple captured, please visit Ray & Sue’s site: www.raynsuephotography.com