Papua New Guinea, The Last Frontier?

By Marie Javins

“Papua New Guinea. The country is, in the truest sense, the last frontier on earth.”  -Melanesian Tourist Services Papua New Guinea Holiday Book brochure

Hagen market, Papua New Guinea. photo: Marie Javins
Hagen market, Papua New Guinea. photo: Marie Javins

Tourist literature is fond of declaring Papua New Guinea, or PNG, some sort of remote, unvisited outpost. No doubt this is true for obscure, hard-to-reach mountain villages, where missionaries and aid workers have yet to tread.

The first contact with the Highlands was made only as recently as 1933, and PNG’s 686 kilometers of paved roads cover just the coast and a limited section of the Highlands.

But local air services subsidize road travel in many areas, and most tourists don’t have the time or temerity to work their way through the bush into the nether regions of PNG anyway.

So while the romantic notion that PNG is one of the world’s less-visited countries is true, you’ll have no problem finding a guidebook. Its proximity to Australia, abundant rainforests and pristine coral reefs keep at least 24,000 tourists visiting every year.

WHY Papua New Guinea?

Villagers in Papua New Guinea return from a hunt. Photo by Kent St. John.
Villagers in Papua New Guinea return from a hunt. Photo by Kent St. John.

Dive! Trek! Explore! Relax! The tourist brochures — if you can find them — trumpet a variety of activities on the PNG half of the world’s second-largest island.

Relaxing it is — almost to a fault as activities are thin on the ground — while trekking is popular both in the mountainous Highland region and along the Kokoda Trail.

But most tourists come to PNG for one of three reasons — to SCUBA dive along its heralded reefs and World War II wrecks, to observe the culture in the Highlands, or to explore remote tribal villages along the 550-mile Sepik River.

A few come for the surfing or caving, and others for the unique, plentiful wildlife. Visitors to the capital, Port Moresby, are usually just there overnight as they wait for connecting flights. Port Moresby itself features a few sights worth a look, but it also has the majority of the country’s fabled rascal crime.

The Wrath of Rascals

“The vast majority of PNG citizens are friendly, live peacefully and are eager to learn about life in other countries…. unfortunately, crime is a serious problem in Papua New Guinea, perhaps even more for Papua New Guineans than for visitors… there is no way to guarantee personal safety during a visit to PNG, only to minimize the chances of becoming a victim.” US State Department website

PNG has, like most emerging nations, its share of crime. But fear-mongering should always be taken with a grain of salt, and “travel gossip” often amounts to simple exaggeration. Even ex-pats living in PNG disagree. Some say crime exists only in cities, while others say it is ubiquitous throughout the country. But most agree on one thing: the danger is genuine in the capital of Port Moresby.

PNG’s 5.1 million people share a mostly Melanesian heritage, but there are at least 800 separate societies and 715 different languages. The transition from an agricultural economy to a multi-faceted economy is still in its infancy, and jobs are in short supply. Young men migrate to Port Moresby in search of work. When they find themselves unemployed, these rascals (or raskols) turn to armed crime.

Ultimately, tourists who follow common-sense rules or travel with a reputable outfitter are unlikely to be the victim of a crime, but there are exceptions as in any country. The U.S. State Department offers tips on personal security for visitors to PNG on its website.

The Undiscovered Country

“Those who venture to Papua New Guinea tend to be well-traveled: it’s often the last place they’ve never been.”
-Time magazine Asian edition, March 18, 2002

I read this in a magazine in Mt. Hagen’s Haus Poroman lodge, where I was the only guest. I quickly turned the page, glancing around to see if the staff had any interest in outing me as an international cliche.

My home base at the time was Australia, which is due south of PNG and has had a close big-sister relationship with PNG since overseeing the country from 1902-1975. With the assistance of some fuzzy-wuzzy angels or PNG helpers, Australia’s World War II battles were fought here, the most famous being along the Kokoda Trail.

PNG and OZ

For North Americans, a trip to PNG is best combined with a holiday in Australia, as the cheapest airfares are package deals with Air Niugini partners out of Brisbane, Sydney, or Cairns.  Arriving by sea is almost impossible, except on a cruise ship or private yacht.

I prefer to travel independently, but PNG, with its still-developing tourist infrastructure, is lacking in budget accommodations. After considering the higher costs of roughing it versus being catered to, I opted for the package deal. I regretted it almost instantly when a concerned man with a “Ms. Javins” sign picked me up at the tiny Mt. Hagen airport.

I ached to be in a taxi with 18 locals and a goat and envied the one backpacker I saw who had taken a 6-hour PMV (Public Motor Vehicle) ride that had turned into a 36-hour ride.

“Forty people had to wait six hours for a pig to board! Can you believe that?” he said.

Instead of giving him the shocked “that’s awful” reaction he was hoping for, I looked at him with envy.

“I bet that was fun,” I said.

He lowered his voice. “Yeah, it was.”

Mt. Hagen is the capital city of the province, but its well-paved roads still surprised me, as did its citizens in their floral-print cotton dresses and well-worn t-shirts. I had been hoping for something a little more untouched from the “last frontier on earth.” Apparently the untouched society I was hoping for still exists, but it can’t be found without canoeing and hiking well into the interior, past the reach of local air services and PMVs.

We drove past secure missionary compounds and corrugated metal warehouses on our way out of town. The pavement ended and the trip to Haus Poroman continued over nine kilometers of bumpy, muddy, disintegrating roads.

Haus Poroman is not the priciest lodge in PNG, but it is one of the nicest. Three daily meals are included with each stay, and travelers stay in dorms, single rooms with shared facilities, or en-suite huts, all positioned on hills above a landscaped garden featuring native plants.

All buildings are made from local materials and decorated with tribal art. I had paid for a shared facility room, but since there were no other guests to share with, the staff bumped me up to my own all-inclusive traditional hut.

Seeing the Mudmen

My package included two walking tours, but after briefly considering the two lonely days ahead of me, I also booked a $55 vehicle tour of the surrounding area. I would not be able to take the trip to see the famous PNG “mudmen,” because it was far away and cost $200 a trip. If others had been there to split the cost, it would have been possible.

Orchids growing in PNG. These were dormant as it was off season.
Orchids growing in PNG. These were dormant as it was offseason.

But no one hesitated to tell me the reality of the situation. The “mudmen” didn’t hang around dressed in their traditional mud masks, as these were originally for wartime and now were purely for tourists and rare occasions.

I had come at the wrong time of year. Traditional Highland cross-tribal festivals, or sing sings, occurred in August — long after I’d be back in the States.

Simon, a young man from the small nearby village, conducted my walking tours. He showed up in baggy pants, a t-shirt, and flip-flops, and guided me through the surrounding muddy fields. There was nothing touristy nearby — it was the real PNG — an agricultural subsistence society of green, hilly farmlands, covered with mud, pigs, and sweet potatoes.

Sweet potatoes are the lifeblood of the Highlands, and wealth is measured in pigs. Cash could be useful to trade for kerosene in town, but pigs make a man rich, and his entire village would profit by association. In PNG selfishness is regarded poorly, and villages take responsibility for all inhabitants.

Wantok People

The extended family doesn’t stop there — all people who speak the same dialect are considered wantok, (or “one talk”) and wantoks have an immediate bond and responsibility to others within their distant clan.

While this means that no one is likely to go hungry as long as he doesn’t stray far from home — the money Simon earned from guiding me went not to him but to his community — it also impedes official governing. Contracts are given to wantoks, and policemen dish out special favors to wantoks.

Simon took me around the farmlands to admire the rolling, forested mountains nearby.
We stood near some orchids and took in the view.

“It looks like…” I started.

“…Queensland. Everybody says so.” Simon had never been to Australia, and probably never strayed far from Mt. Hagen, but he had heard so many tourists make this statement that he could finish my sentence. Some scientists have suggested that PNG and Australia were connected by a land bridge that was eventually covered by the sea, so it is not surprising that the two regions look alike. They also share many of the same odd marsupials found nowhere else on earth.

On the second day, after the usual morning downpour, Simon walked me past the village schoolhouse.

“I am sitting,” rose the chant from within. Then, following the scraping of chairs, “I am standing.” All children in PNG learn English in school. PNG is a Commonwealth country, with Queen Elizabeth II as the head of state and English as an official language. Tok Pisin or Pidgin English is learned on the street and in the towns, as people try to communicate with other wantoks.

Our walk took us along the standard route to town, a muddy path through the mountains that was shorter but steeper than the road. Women walked it several times a week, carrying their cargo in a string bilum, a woven bag that hangs down the back from the forehead. Simon greeted each woman and exchanged a few words. The women always shook my hand enthusiastically.

“Good morning,” said my new friends. ” Nice to meet you.” They would giggle and effortlessly glide up the muddy mountain trail in their bare feet or simple sandals.

I fared badly compared to these cargo-carrying lithe women and slipped in the red mud several times. Even Simon once careened down a slope and landed on his bottom. We were rained on more than once, and I could feel my face burning from the ultra-violet rays. I was relieved when we reached the crossroads where a Land Cruiser was due to pick us up. It was late.

“He is always late,” groused Simon, before leaning back against a leaf to have a nap.

I stayed awake to watch the pigs wandering nearby. Eventually, crowds of women hiked by, and men (all wearing fashionable knit caps) went in large groups in the backs of pickup
trucks. I woke up Simon to find out what was happening.

“They are going to give condolences. Someone has died. It is custom to visit and give money for the funeral.”

It was also customary for wealthier families to erect a shelter over a grave, to protect it from sun and rain. Once, ancestors’ skulls were kept in a shrine, but now Christian burials were common. One custom that was kept, however, was that for months after a husband’s death, a widow still wore white face paint and a flowing black outfit in public. Later, I saw a widow strolling through the Mt. Hagen market, shopping for sweet potatoes and chatting with friends. I didn’t have the nerve to ask for a photo.

Life after First Contact

The vehicle tour took me from the Mt. Hagen market to a model village, a strangely decorated yard with miniature wooden figures illustrating PNG’s tribal past. Our next stop was at essentially a live outdoor theater, where a man and his three sons dressed in traditional arse grass for my benefit.

Arse grass is the pidgin name for exactly what it sounds like… some dry weeds that cover a man’s behind. The arse grass bedecked fellows took up spears, jaw harps, drums, and weapons and proceeded to demonstrate their various traditional uses. After every demonstration, my guide would turn to me and explain that things had changed since my first contact in 1933.

“In the past, we did this,” he’d say. “Today, it has been stopped by the church.” He added that more enlightened churches encouraged locals to practice Christianity while respecting their traditions, but the damage had been done by others who were unaware of the value of the “hands-off” approach to cultural interference.

After a brief stop at a tea plantation, we headed back to the hot meal waiting for me at Haus Poroman.

Searching for Spirit Masks

unhappy tree kangaroo. They are endangered, but some poorer tribes still eat them or display them to horrified tourists.
An unhappy tree kangaroo. They are endangered, but some poorer tribes still eat them or display them to horrified tourists.

It is a testament to the unpredictable nature of PNG that my hour-long flight from Mt. Hagen to the coast required the better part of the day.

Still, by dinnertime, I had left the 18-seat prop plane behind and was sitting on my verandah at the historic Madang Resort Hotel.

Madang Resort is one of the top hotels in a popular town of 30,000 that claims to be the “prettiest town in the Pacific.” It’s a credible claim, as tall palms sway along the rocky shore and people stroll through the grass next to the boulevard around the scenic peninsula.

Madang — with its seafront resorts, deep-water harbor, and outlying reefs — is one of the most popular destinations in PNG. Package tourists heading to the Sepik stop by Madang, as cruises on the 42-passenger MTS Discoverer begin and end here. Madang is home to MTS, or Melanesian Tourist Services, which owns Madang Resort, MTS Discoverer, a travel agency, and Niugini Dive Adventures.

Diving to a Bomber

Divers frequent the coastal town, which has access not just to numerous reefs and shipwrecks, but also to a fully intact B25 Mitchell bomber in 65 feet of water. Hansa Bay with more than 34 sunken Japanese ships is just up the coast. Madang is just one stop on the PNG diving trail, however.

Twelve resort-style operations and eight live-aboard dive boats are scattered along the coast and nearby islands, and divers from around the world make pilgrimages to wreck-dive in the region.

I wasn’t in Madang to go diving though. I wasn’t there for the culture, although a day trip on my package tour did take me to a volcanic spring with a sad caged tree kangaroo, and then to Bilbil pottery village where the women used the coil method to throw their fragile pots. I was there to visit the artist’s pavilion on the grounds of my hotel, as recommended by an art-teacher friend who had come to PNG and gone up the Sepik River on an art-collecting expedition.

“You can find a lot of the same stuff in Madang,” she’d explained. “The carvers bring it there from the Sepik.”

Cruise Ship leaves slim pickings

Unfortunately, the tourists on the international cruise ship that had been in Madang port yesterday had cleaned out a lot of the best stuff. I bought an ancestor mask and a storyboard from some artists and a few pieces from the pricier but excellent art shop within the hotel itself. But the best selection came later, at the warehouse-sized PNG Arts in Port Moresby; I took a taxi there between flights.

PNG art tends to be primitive, abstract carvings based on superstition and religion. Much of it — stools, baskets, weapons, for example — is utilitarian, while some — such as masks and figures — is ceremonial or decorative.

The Sepik area, along with the Papuan Gulf, the Huon Peninsula, and Milne Bay, is one of the major art-producing regions of Papua New Guinea. When I return to PNG — and I certainly will as five days is enough only for a taste of any country — it will be to go on an art-collecting cultural trip by small ship or canoe down the Sepik River.

The carvers originally made their art (spirit masks, ancestral masks, yam masks, dance masks, etc.) for themselves and their communities. Some carvings were made to protect homes from bad spirits, some were for celebrations, and hooks were even consulted as oracles in times of crisis. But now there was a new type of carving — the souvenir mask.

New Guineans had discovered that tourists were fond of their spirit masks and ancestral figures. Rather than sell the figures containing the spirits of their ancestors, the enterprising tribes had turned out new art specifically for the tourist market. Some of the most attractive masks were not traditional at all, but were a hybrid of traditional designs mixed with something the carver supposed a tourist might find attractive.

The carvers were right. The shells adorning the primitive spirit masks dazzled me. The feathers and arse grass covering the squatting demonic figures on display in the hotel gift shop looked great. The art was being produced for tourists but retained its unique appeal as it was still made by hand in remote villages by carvers wielding stone axes, lizard skin, and natural paints.

My notions of a frontier culture of former headhunters untouched by the modern world had been quickly dashed when I’d spotted the same traditional t-shirt of the “untouched” society that I’d seen worldwide, as far away as Sudan and Amazonian villages. I had been disappointed that so many traditions had been abandoned in accessible areas.

On the surface, superstitions and indigenous beliefs had been compromised by zealous westerners anxious to help. Some carried life-giving antibiotics, but others brought disapproval and heavy-handed change. It was ludicrous to believe I could get beyond the interesting-but-westernized exterior on a brief package tour.

Tradition Incarnate

one of dozens of small agricultural villages surrounding Mt. Hagen
One of the dozens of small agricultural villages surrounding Mt. Hagen

And yet, the crafts of the country had proven me wrong. These were not mass-produced trinkets to be smothered in walnut-colored shoe polish and sold at street fairs.

These were traditional incarnate. Right under my nose, ancient, indigenous folklore was reflected in faithfully reproduced designs that contained the religious values that had been neglected as society industrialized and turned its back on its past.

Gods had been wiped out by the advent of western religion, but ancestors were still quietly worshipped through tribal art.

Not the Final Frontier

Papua New Guinea is not “the” final frontier for travelers; there’s really no such thing. If travelers can safely visit a region, and they do (with a certain amount of cultural exchange), it is reasonable to assume that the region will be far from “untouched.”

But in a world of globalized pop culture and foreign aid organizations dropping surplus Titanic t-shirts on destitute villagers, PNG’s inaccessible terrain, plentiful natural resources, and self-help social structure has helped it to retain its insulated, unique character.

The erratic border with West Papua (Irian Jaya) is closed to foreigners more often than it is open, and the lack of cheap transport to Australia from PNG has kept it off the backpacker trail; you’d be hard-pressed to find a banana pancake even in Port Moresby.

For North Americans, PNG is nearly as far away as you can go without leaving Earth. And for determined independent travelers with an interest in diving, anthropology, primitive art, and a few months to spare, it could be the destination of a lifetime.

marie javins 1


Marie Javins, recently returned to New York from an around the world overland journey. She is a colorist for comic book publishers.

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