There are few locations left in the world today that conjure up such exotic images like Papua New Guinea (P.N.G.). Papua New Guinea boasts the most distinct set of language groups (more than 800) available anywhere in the world. (English is the official language and is widely spoken, but Pidgen English is common). Papua New Guinea is one of earth’s megadiverse regions because of topography-- lowlands, mountain forests and alpine regions. The idyllic scenery, the traditional cultures and activities are unlike any I have ever experienced.
In September 2015 , I embarked in Brisbane , along with 2000 others (mostly Aussies), and we cruised to Alotau, Rabaul,( New Britain), Kiriwina Island (Trobriand Chain) and Doini Island. Living on these islands the largely Melanesian cultures still actively hold their feasts and ceremonies using wigs, shells, body painting and head-dresses. The traditional “Sing Sings” held in August are vibrant and spectacular.
One of our guides told us that cannibalism was practiced among prehistoric beings and lingered into the 19th century in some South Pacific cultures. Today the Korowai tribe of Papua New Guinea is among the very few who are believed to eat human flesh. We were told the story of 23 year old Michael Rockefeller (son of Nelson Rockefeller) who in 1961 visited P.N.G. to obtain artwork for the Museum of Primitive Art. His canoe overturned and there are several explanations as to what happened to Michael. He drowned, was attacked by sharks or he was killed and eaten by the notoriously violent Asmat tribe as retribution since five of their clansmen were killed by Max Lapre (a Dutchman sent to oversee the colony). Michael’s head would have been separated from the body and his corpse would have been slit from the neck to back, the entrails removed. His legs and arms would have been placed in a huge fire. The ceremony would be like a Christian communion; there would be chanting as the charred body parts would be passed around. Blood would have been smeared over the clansmen’s bodies. The head would have been cooked and scalped; the brain would have been removed and eaten. Our local guide claimed that Michael’s family believes that he drowned while swimming the ten miles to shore.
Cannibalism (and Kuru Laughing Disease) was last reported in 1997. Kura (linked to mad cow disease) is caused by cannibalistic rituals when women and children ate the brain tissue of dead clan members. Those who developed the Kuru disease died with unusual smiles on their faces.
Our first port was Alotau which sits on the northern shore of Milne Bay. Upon arrival our morning was filled with dance performances. Brilliantly attired groups from all around Milne Bay performed for us. Group after group arrived, and as they entered the grass and stage areas, they surprised us with their cheers and loud chirps. We felt honored since the dances were usually reserved for important community events. The older dancers chanted about their ancestors or battles between clans while the youths danced in masks which symbolized the spirits found in the woods. That afternoon we learned about the 1942 Japanese attack which ended in a 12 day period. There were several skirmishes and it is estimated that 750 Japanese and 161 Australians were killed; many more were wounded. This battle was the first Allied land victory in the Pacific and helped boost morale. In our tour group, a 95 year old Australian man shared his graphic experiences as a soldier during the Milne Bay Battle.
The second stop was Rabaul situated on New Britain’s largest island. The whole region is chocked full of volcanoes. In 1994 Mt. Tavurvur erupted and Rabaul town was covered completely in ash and looks now like an apocalyptic ruin. A visit to the Volcanology Observatory was well worth the time…..great views of the harbor…with the earthquake and volcano monitoring equipment. Rabaul also suffered during World War Two. We paid a visit to the World War Two Museum, old Japanese tunnels and bunkers. The Bita Paka War Cemetery contains over 1000 Allied war dead from World War Two. Many Australians on our tour had lost family members and somberly placed flowers on the multiple graves.
Our third port was Kiriwina Island, located in the Trobriand Islands, which is one of the most culturally intact places in the world. We were called “dims dims”---white people-----and not welcome partners on these “islands of love”. I was told by the local guide that Bronsilaw Malinowski, an anthropologist, wrote a book (1914) which made the West believe that the islands were full of sex-starved, and bare-breasted women in grass skirts. It is still widely believed that in order for a woman to become pregnant, she must become infused with a departed ancestor’s spirit. Teenagers are encouraged to have as many sexual partners as they chose until marriage. (There is no contraception so the birthrates are very high; a woman may have seven or more children. The infant and the maternal mortality rate is the highest in the world; life expectancy is 54 years). Young men move into the village’s bachelor house (bukumatula) where they bring their partners. During the June through August Yam celebrations, married couples are allowed to have “flings”. Every village has a yam house and the more yams “harvested” ,the richer the village is. The “kula ring” is a system of ritual exchange that exists today. People are required to journey to an island partner bearing gifts in a banana boat or a sailing canoe. We were invited into a local class room; there was no electricity. The blackboards consisted of green paper and painstakingly written words in white chalk with letters of the alphabet, classroom rules……. When a few children discovered I was a teacher, a textbook was placed in my hands and I was asked to explain a bewildering scientific concept. Then collectively, we read an island myth from their reading book. It was refreshing to observe the thirst for knowledge. We befriended a local man who took us on a walking tour of the many small villages where we saw the leaf huts, yam houses, livestock, and above- ground burial mounds.
The forth stop was Dioni Island. This is a stunning resort with lovely beaches and nature hikes. Locals took canoes and speed boats to visit this island. They sold their wares (wood carvings and masks) and danced for us. They chewed (and spat out) betel nuts. (Unfortunately, some of the passengers introduced lollipops and candy to the local children!) Our guide explained that dental care is non-existent and “betel nut” (with arecoline) is chewed by most. Chewing the nut (Buai) is a daily tradition. I was told that it is a seed of the Areca Palm and it is actually a drupe, not a nut. The drupe is sold, dried, cured and then hardens and has a wood-like consistency. It is then cut and wrapped in a betel leaf. Lime and other flavoring can be added and its taste is pepper-like or bitter. Chewing creates a hot sensation in the body. The betel nut is sold on street corners and causes an orange or red staining of the gums and teeth; mouth ulcers and gum deterioration is common. The effects of chewing the nuts are alertness, increased stamina, euphoria and reduced hunger pangs. The islanders willingly posed for photos; only the church choir solicited donations. I chatted with a family who lived on another island. Once our ship departed they would paddle the family canoe back to their village where they live with eighty family members; they raise their crops, animals and spear fish for their meals.
We learned that nearly 60,000 years ago humans arrived in P.N.G. from Asia; 9000 years ago they began cultivating crops. Europeans (Dutch, British and German) explored and exploited the islands from 1660. After World War Two, P.N.G. gained its independence. In the 1970’s, developers exploited massive gold and copper deposits. Approximately 80% of the 6.31 million people live in rural areas. There are 3 people per square mile (in the USA it is 11 people). Papua New Guinea has experienced constant political turmoil. Currently it is a constitutional monarchy….. Queen Elizabeth of England is the Head of State (Pidgin “Missis Kwin). Michael Ogio is the Prime Minister who is chosen by the Parliament; he then selects members of the cabinet.
Papua New Guinea is raw and remarkable; it has been called the “land that time forgot”. P.N.G. is reminiscent of a Discovery Channel Documentary. Festivals, village life, celebrations, dramatic scenery, wildlife watching (781 bird species), walks and treks (The Kokada Trek is a 96km pilgrimage in steep terrain playing homage to the World War Two soldiers), surfing, diving and island getaways……set the stage for unforgettable adventures.
Fly to Brisbane, Australia. From there, fly to Port Moresby and take a same-day flight to Rabaul. (Avoid a layover in Port Moresby since the city has high crime, rape and murder rates.)
Beverly "Bev" is a Travel Consultant specializing in ocean and river cruises. She was raised in the travel industry, and has visited over one hundred countries. Bev taught high school and adult school English for over forty years. Simultaneously, she worked as an outside sales travel consultant. Bev has served as a tour escort (land and cruise tours) for over twenty years.