Sorrel's incredible encounter has her face-to-face with one of the most fascinating cultures on earth.
People go to Papua New Guinea for two main reasons, to experience its unique culture and explore its natural environment its waterways, wildlife, smoking volcanoes, rainforests, offshore diving and village culture.
PNG is a place of amazing diversity those who wish to can stay in comfortable surroundings while getting a taste of village life and marvelling at the colourful birds and butterflies. Others can travel cheaply from village to village, meeting some of the friendliest and most hospitable people imaginable.
For some reason the western media has given PNG a reputation it doesn't deserve. Thoughts of primitive headhunters, malaria, constant political upheaval and crime do not portray the real PNG and should not be deterrents.
PNG was once joined to Australia by a land bridge, which explains why there is much common flora and fauna, but around 6000 years ago the sea level rose.
The remote Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, the most remote and undeveloped province, is made up of lush valleys running between limestone peaks. It is particularly beautiful, with traditional cultures alive and well, particularly in the Tari Basin, where people retain traditional ways and dress.
South-west of Mt Hagen and north-west of Wabag is the country of the wigmen. Isolated by history and geography, the cool alpine setting is home to the Huli, Duna and a number of other tribes who proudly show their intricately-decorated wigs.
The Huli is the largest ethnic group in the Southern Highlands, with a population of around 45,000. Europeans first encountered them in the 1930s and they have resisted any change. They practice traditional culture and remain true to their values.
The Huli do not live in villages, but in scattered homesteads sprinkled through immaculately and intensively-cultivated valleys. Gardens are delineated by trenches and mud walls up to three metres high, broken by brightly-painted wooden gates. Despite their reputation as some of Papua New Guinea's most fierce fighters, they are skilled subsistence farmers. They grow sweet potato, beans, sugar cane, green vegetables and yams. The pig is valued for its protein and as a symbol of wealth.
Trenches not only mark boundaries but control movement of their precious pigs and come in handy for warriors in times of war. War has always been the primary interest of Huli men and as usual, women do just about all the work while men concentrate on their finery and past and future battles.
Huli life is simple they have plenty of good food, families are close-knit and there is a great respect for the wonders of nature. Their traditions are ancient. Young men venture into the jungle alone for maybe years to prove their manhood. There they exercise their hunting techniques and develop skills which will earn them community respect. During this period they can have absolutely no contact with any female, including their mother, and they grow their hair in preparation for creating their first wig under the tutelage of a Huli wig master. Their hair is sprinkled with sacred water, they eat a special diet and abstain from sex. You can visit a session with a guide who explains the whole process.
Before special gatherings and seasonal events, Huli wigmen spend hours preparing their costumes and make-up, complete with ceremonial wigs and accessories.
Materials include clay and flowers, feathers and bones, pigments, plant oils, hand-woven fabrics and threads, precious stones and artefacts from the ocean. The scene resembles backstage of a theatre there is much excitement as dozens of men apply face and body make-up in yellow, red, blue, white and black and make last-minute additions and adjustments to their wigs. They are then ready to perform at the singsing (traditional dancing ceremony). The classic bird dance, which mimics the famous birds of paradise found only in these interior highlands, and beating hand drums is a true spectacle. They treat it as an honour to perform in front of guests from far away.
It takes years to grow the hair necessary to make the wigs. Each is as different from another as the individuals who create them. The daily wig is brown and mushroom-shaped, while the ceremonial wig is red or black with raised sides, using compacted hair. Both are supported by bamboo frames and decorated with feathers from birds of paradise, eagles, parrots and cassowaries as well as daisies, hibiscus, possum, cat fur and even colourful sweet wrappers.
At the centre of every village is the men's hut. They live together with older boys and tend to the most important matters of the village. The women's hut is nearby; they live there with the girls and young boys, tending to plants and caring for the pigs.
It is surprising to find such luxury in a place so remote. Ambua Lodge is high on a mountain overlooking the Tari valley. The 40 round bungalows have large twin beds, private bath, shower and toilet and you enjoy an endless supply of soft rainwater. There is even a spa and sauna for relaxation. Power comes from a mini hydro unit and is available 24 hours a day, except during very heavy rainfalls. There are continental quilts and electric blankets for cool highland nights. Each room enjoys 180 degree views of the surrounding jungle, with its exotic orchids and butterflies and 10 species of bird of paradise.
Papua New Guinea's Southern Highlands
Air Niugini flies daily to Port Moresby on code-share services, with connections to Tari.
Trans Niugini Tours have three-night packages, including return economy airfares, twin-share accommodation at Ambua Lodge, all meals, local tours, guides and transfers. Prices start at $2423 ex-Brisbane, $2516 ex-Sydney, $2693 ex-Adelaide, $2711 ex-Melbourne and $2819 ex-Hobart and Perth, per person. They operate year round.
Please note prices are valid at time of transmission and to the best of our knowledge are inclusive of GST.
Trans Niugini Tours
Box 371 PO Mt Hagen
Papua New Guinea
Ph: 675 542 1438 1800 634 773
Fax: 675 542 firstname.lastname@example.org
Island Travel Associates: Ph: 1800 331 148