Sorrel visits the spectacular yet mystical tribe of Papua New Guinea’s Mud Men.
Sixty-million years ago, Australia separated from Antarctica and began to drift northward. The southern coast of New Guinea, the vast, flat lowland plain, was yet a component of the Australian continent and remained so until its drift brought it into contact with the inchoate mountains on the edge of the Pacific plate early in the Miocene epoch, twenty-five-million years ago.
Papua New Guinea is now the last frontier for travellers. People tend to go there for two reasons: the amazing culture and the natural environment. It has unmatched waterways, village culture, wildlife, smoking volcanoes, rainforest trekking and offshore diving experiences.
It is a country with a very complex character. While it has a cash economy, traditional forms of wealth are very important, particularly in the Highlands and on the Milne Bay islands. A wad of kina would never have the same impact as kina shells, cassowaries or pigs.
In the country's highlands, self-decoration is used at festivals and ceremonies where group or clan member identity is reinforced. The Mt Hagen Festival is one of the most important occasions for ceremonial display, with people from many Highlands groups gathering in full decoration.
To achieve the desired effect, white-out and brilliant acrylics are used to paint faces, cooking oil adds shine to the body and feathers, necklaces, armbands, wigs, aprons, ear and nose rings show where you are from.
Mt Hagen was discovered by Europeans just 70 years ago and is the provincial capital of the Western Highlands. It was a patrol station, but in the last 20 years has grown into a rather unruly city with many squatter settlements and itinerant workers. It is rather incongruous to see its streets packed with people.
There are three tribes of mud men spread throughout the Highlands. We went to the Polga Mud Men Cultural Centre just outside town.
Our guide from Trans Niugini Tours explained some of the ancient customs which are still practiced today. All day long people visit the spirit house. Spirits are believed to take care of homes and families, ensuring no accidents, plenty of food and good health.
The marriage dowry is very important in the culture. Clam shells are no longer used to impress prospective grooms. Now they use money, pigs, cassowaries or cattle and horses.
Inter-clan disputes are common and although guns are prohibited, bows and arrows are still used.
One way of scaring the enemy was devised by ancient tribes, who believed their mud disguises took on supernatural powers.
On the way to seek revenge for a death, men jumped into a mud hole and appeared through trees as grey, ghost-like figures, scaring away their enemies. Masks could be added to make the look even more terrifying.
These days, mud men shows will be put on for kina, but they are rather theatrical and contrived. Nevertheless, the photographs you take home can be pretty convincing.
The highlands of Papua New Guinea
Air Niugini flies daily to Port Moresby, with connections to Mt Hagen.
Trans Niugini Tours has four-night Highlands packages, including return economy airfares, twin-share accommodation, tours. including mud men, and activities. Prices start at $3317 from Brisbane, $3499 from Sydney and $3500 from Melbourne, per person.
Please note prices are valid at time of filming.
Trans Niugini Tours
PO Box 371 Ht Hagen
Papua New Guinea
Ph: 675 542 1438 or 1800 634 773
Fax: 675 542 email@example.com