It is hard not to be mystified by Papua New Guinea. It is a land that is untamed and wild in beauty, while diverse in a unique culture.
The country comprises about 600 small islands with only 13 per cent of people living in urban areas. Papua New Guinea has more than 800 indigenous languages and approximately 312 different tribes, including some uncontacted peoples.
From raw and diverse cultures and tribes on display at festivals to diving into some of the most untouched and pristine waters in the world, come on a journey with me to Papua New Guinea and find out why I found this country so fascinating.
Physically remote and still very isolated, Papua New Guinea is a land that is untamed, wild and raw with diverse cultures.
Through festivals and cultural displays, visitors can delve into the anthropological secrets of Papua New Guinea’s rich cultural traditions. Some of the more popular and longer running festivals include The Mt Hagen Show, The Tumbuan Mask Festival and the Goroka Show.
The newest and possibly most interesting festival is the Baining Firedance Festival. Based in East New Britain province, the festival is a cultural spectacle that awakens all the senses. Held across two days, the unique cultures and subcultures on display at the Firedance Festival gives an insight into how diverse the region is. There are over 50 masked performances and each one is as exclusive as the next.
A great example of sustainable travel, the Baining Firedance Festival is a community-driven initiative, with over 1200 performers in attendance. Unlike other festivals and events in Papua New Guinea where the showground is within the town, this festival takes you directly into the villages. It gives a more authentic and genuine experience.
Throughout the day, the various tribes emerged from the forest and shared with the audience their story. Giving further insight into each individual cultural performance was a man called Dr Jacob Simet, who has translated the narrative of each individual cultural group so that you could see, hear, feel and understand each performance at the festival.
Intriguing tales of secret woman’s business, the bravery of adolescents in initiation, harvest rituals and more played out in colourful dance and song. I witnessed tribes transform into geckos, cassowaries, lizards, frogs, birds and spirits that set my imagination alight. Like stepping into a fantasy type realm, each performance transported me into a world of mystery and often secret behaviours. There is a sense of taboo that lingers around the festival grounds as if conjuring up the spirits that are spoken of.
With the setting sun and turn of the night, the taboo became thicker in the air. This is what the day had been building up to, the Linganga or the Bainings Firedance. The dance is performed for the initiation of young boys into adulthood, to commemorate the dead, to celebrate the harvest, the arrival of a new child, a wedding and other special occasions.
A wood stacked fire burnt high and as the flames grew, so did the anticipation. I was surrounded by darkness with the only illumination provided by the glowing wood and fire-throwing off flickering light. The drums began to beat and drew me into a rhythmic trance. I felt slightly anxious like I was watching something I shouldn’t be.
As the flames licked up higher into the night sky, it allowed me glimpses of what was gathering in the dark. To my right sat the percussion from where the drumming sounded, about fifteen adolescent males thudding large bamboo sticks into the ground whilst chanting in unison. The beat was as memorising as watching the flames of the fire dance like spirits.
Suddenly a silhouette passed in front of the fire breaking my gaze. It was the Iarqi of the Uramat group. One by one, more Uramat appeared and accompanied the Iarqi. I was drawn back into the beating bamboo music like a hypnotic trance. This music certainly controlled the atmosphere and the lull soon turned chaotic as the tempo increased, whipping the village into a frenzy.
Suddenly, from the forest, they appeared. One by one, emerging from the darkness, the fire dancers had arrived. These were the masked men of the Linganga, with their skin painted black and huge elaborate masks with enormous cartoon-like eyes and protruding beaks.
Without warning, the first dancer exploded through the fire, kicking embers high into the air. They appeared to feed off music and in an almost trance-like state, each summoned up the courage to take turns running through the roaring fire. Every burst of sparks was as dramatic as the last, raining down like fireworks.
This entrancing performance continued into the night until the fire died down to just glowing logs and embers. The flames had vanished and before I knew it, the masked men also retreated back to the darkness of the forest.