Brought to light: hidden cultures of Papua New Guinea

The cave’s entrance is so narrow that even Robin, my lithe guide, would have trouble squeezing through. Perhaps that’s why he’s so keen for me to see what’s in there. Although, when I think about it, he’s probably seen it thousands of times.

“You first,” he says.

I wonder how many people have made the journey to the summit of Mount Gurupoka, in the Eastern Highlands province of Papua New Guinea. You won’t find it on many maps; out here, all mountains stand in the shadow of PNG’s highest, Mount Wilhelm.

It’s only the first day of our trek across the Highlands, from Goroka in the east to Mount Hagen in the west, and already I’m further off the grid than perhaps I’ve ever been.

Papua New Guinea Highlands

‘Unspoiled’ environments have become a travel cliché – face it, that sandy white beach is spoiled the moment you post it on Instagram – but the New Guinea Highlands are so remote that it rings very true here.

For starters, there’s no road between here and the nation’s capital of Port Moresby. Access to the Highlands is restricted to flights that depend on favourable conditions. If the weather turns, you either miss out on the adventure of a lifetime, or you’re stuck on it.

And then there’s the road network. The Okuk Highway links the port city of Lae to Mount Hagen in the Western Highlands. Harsh weather and a steady stream of trucks have left the road in a craterous condition, making for a journey that’s not for the faint of heart (or stomach).

But these are just obstacles between intrepid adventurers and the most amazing natural wonders Papua New Guinea has to offer: its people and their culture.

I take the lead and press on into the cave, making sure to place my fern frond on the neat pile outside. This, I’m told, brings good luck, as perhaps it did for the Allies as they fought off the Japanese here during World War II.

Since those violent times, Mount Gurupoka has reverted to its original role: an initiation for the young men of the village. We have followed in their footsteps as we scaled the mountain, visited the sacrificial rock (upon which pig’s blood is usually spilled) and now, as we’ve entered this cave.

Papua New Guinea Highlands

The dim, damp hollow offers welcome respite from the harsh sun. As my eyes adjust to the dark, my hearing picks up the slack: somewhere in the distance, water trickles off to some far away reservoir. On the mossy wall, mushrooms stretch toward meagre sunlight.

Robin makes his way in and tells us the only way out is up a flimsy bamboo ladder. And then, of course, it’s me first again.

Papua New Guinea’s Highlands are filled with that sense of going first. The next day, we’re standing by a stream in nearby Safanaga Village to witness a bloodletting ceremony in which three local boys will become men.

Papua New Guinea Highlands

Their ‘bad blood’ will be expelled via a gruesome series of razor-edged challenges, and their nervous expressions and subdued body language betray the fact that they really are just boys. We watch in fascinated horror as one causes his nose to bleed with bamboo sticks, as another has his tongue pierced, and as the third swallows a length of cane until he gags.

As they take their culturally prescribed licks, we see this ascension to manhood happen before our eyes, for the first time. The three men standing before us in the aftermath have lost their wide-eyed innocence forever; it flows downstream with their bad blood.

I ask one of the brothers how he feels. He spits out a mouthful of blood and grins.

“Better.”

Papua New Guinea Highlands

Halfway to Mount Hagen, we stop at Koroul Village, where our guide, Ben, shows us the reality of day-to-day life. The villagers grow peanuts bound for bar tops around the world, and pick coffee beans destined to meet a boiling end at the hands of some laneway barista.

We’re told Koroul’s population of around three thousand have never seen white people before, and whether that’s true or not, we’re greeted with friendly exuberance throughout the village. The long blonde hair of one girl in our group fascinates the village children, who take it, in turn, to run their hands through it.

The Western world has seeped in via some unusual channels. Local T-shirts, bought second-hand and donated mainly by Australia, contain pop-culture references that would be lost on most of their wearers.

Papua New Guinea Highlands

Even Ben has a Western surprise for us: locally, he’s known as Batman.
“Because I’m strong in this village, just like Batman,” he says.

What about Superman?
“I don’t like Superman, I like Batman.”

We push deeper still into the Highlands along a highway we’re told most visitors to PNG never see. In Koskala Village, we’re unable to look away as a woman eats a pig’s head while local children, in a rite of passage, have their heads shaved and the offcuts pasted to their faces like beards.

We’re reportedly among the first overseas visitors to ever witness the Mindima Village skeleton dance, which tells the story of a tribe of living skeletons that battles and (spoilers) slays a local child-killing monster. Certainly, at no point do we see another tourist.

Papua New Guinea Highlands

Most of the performers are young people, and Batman explains it’s not a coincidence.

“After we were taken over by the British, a lot of people made an effort to modernise and forget the customs of the past,” he says with a trace of regret.

“Today, the young people want to be more in touch with those customs, so they’re happy to get involved. There’s hope.”

As a result, the villages of Papua New Guinea are increasingly turning to tourism for an economic boost, and in the process are opening up their ancient customs and culture to a new audience. In a world that’s more exposed than at any point in human history, there are still firsts to be had here.

Papua New Guinea Highlands

“You first.”

Back in the cave, Robin’s familiar prompt doesn’t need repeating. I plant a foot firmly on the bamboo rung, and I’m surprised when it doesn’t give way. When I emerge from the opening of the Mount Gurupoka cave, the magnificent Papua New Guinea Highlands stretch away in all directions, teeming with opportunities to see the unseen, to do the undone.

Opportunities I can’t wait to dive into, except I’ve got an hour-long hike to the bottom ahead of me. You first.

TRAVEL FACTS

Getting there:
Flights to Port Moresby depart from Sydney, Brisbane and Cairns. From there, the Highlands are a short flight from the capital to Goroka or Mt Hagen, weather permitting. Travelling the Highlands by road should only be attempted with a trusted guide. papuanewguinea.travel or pngtours.com

Staying there:
Rondon Ridge, in Mt Hagen, is the premier luxury resort in the Highlands. pngtours.com/lodge6 


This story first appeared in Vacations & Travel magazine, Autumn 2020, issue 114

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