Highland Showtime - the Splendour of Papua New Guinea

What country covers less than half a million square kilometres with a population of just over six million people but has an estimated 800 languages and 700 very different cultural groups? Where people never exposed to modern western society are discovered in remote highland valleys just about every year? The answer of course is Papua New Guinea.

If you think there’s nothing new to discover in travel you are ready for PNG. Clearly, PNG is not a destination for everyone. But if you are looking for a holiday that provides a stunning spectacle and a complete sensory overload, this nearby county has it all.

Papua New Guinea is raw and vibrant. Not only is it a stone-age culture of great richness but it hasn't degenerated to become a tourist side show. The men at one village may jovially explain through an interpreter how they live completely separate lives from the women who occupied the other half of the village. Warriors smile and joke for the cameras before resuming deadly serious guard duty against likely attack.

Yet this is all only a few hours from Sydney or Melbourne - and much less from Cairns. Cultural crossovers are startling and very photogenic. You may meet one man with a ballpoint pen pen refill through his nose, or another wearing the empty rims of an ancient pair of glasses, or yet another with his bright facepaint over his sunglasses. A Huli troupe at the Mt Hagen show may succumb to the lure of advertising and have "Coca Cola" written in their shoulder paint. Or you’ll be walking through a village and pass a semi-naked man in a scanty loincloth using the bare bones of an umbrella as an ineffective sun parasol.

Festivals are very much part of PNG life. The highlight has to be one of the two main highland shows at Mt Hagen and Goroka. The shows were introduced in the 1950s when Europeans were opening up the area. The shows were "get togethers" to reduce tribal wars. In 2015 the Hagen Show in Mt Hagen is on 15-16 August and the Goroka Show is on 11-13 September.

Whether at Goroka or Mt Hagen, a highland show is a colourful tribal gathering quite different from Australia's agricultural shows. A show is a chance to display superiority in costume and weapons rather than in battle. Crowds of up to 40,000 warriors pack the arenas, a swirling mass of barely-dressed black bodies daubed in bright paints, pig fat and Bird of Paradise plumes.

Some participants are covered in chicken feathers, or carrying totems several metres high and performing elaborate dance routines. Others were painted in prison stripes. Drumbeats fill the air. Youth bands beat out complex and melodic rhythms with old thongs banged against water pipes cut to various lengths.

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Huli Highlights
Whole squadrons of Huli wigmen of the highland Tari region can be seem hopping to the insistent beat of a drum. These warriors go into special camps for 18 months to grow their hair that is then cut off and constructed into an elaborate wig, decorated with possum fur and Bird of Paradise plumes.

At Huli villages when some of the residents put on their very best make-up and wigs and performed for your benefit other villagers turn up to watch the show. They too will be in their regular daily attire of leaves, wigs and make-up - in fact, their appearance differs little from that of the performers.

The women do much of the work as the men spend much of the day on their make-up.

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Fearsome Mudmen
Along with the Huli the other stars of the shows are the Mudmen from the village of Asaro just outside Goroka. Legend has it that, in a war many years ago, an Asaro warrior had the idea that his men should cover themselves in grey mud and wear huge, distorted mud-covered heads. It worked as planned - their opposition fled. Even as you joke with a Mudman fitting bamboo talons it’s hard to resist a shudder of dread as he puts on his mud horror head and turns towards you.

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Everyone in town comes to the grounds. Those in the know arrive early in the morning, a few hours before scheduled show time. Then one can wander around the huts housing the visiting groups and watched them prepare. The sight of a fearsome warrior anxiously looking into a hand mirror to check his eye make-up is an enduring memory. So, too, is watching performers dressing by simply using their belts to hold a few leaves in place. If the covering remains inadequate, add extra leaves.

If you think the world has no more surprises, take the short flight north to discover an alternative view of humanity and civilisation. You'll also return with stories to last a lifetime and the most colourful photographs imaginable.

For more information: Papua New Guinea travel