Papua New Guinea: Wilder at heart

Venturing into the vast interior of Papua New Guinea, Jessica Morris soon realises why package trips to these islands have only just begun

Who would go to Papua New Guinea? Besides wild terrain, a perilous location on the Pacific's geological "Ring of Fire" and fierce animosity between tribal groups, the capital - Port Moresby - is plagued by violence. The country's reputation is that of a dashing, dangerous place to be, fit only for missionaries, mercenaries and misfits. Now, though, the first package holidays in "PNG" are available through a UK-based tour operator. That is how I found myself in this strange position: a novice botanist and twitcher in the company of experts. This is a prime location for botanists: just south of the equator between the Indonesian archipelago and the islands of the South Pacific.

Chris's village is 40 minutes downstream. Most citizens of PNG are Melanesians, and live by traditional subsistence farming and barter. Chris is one of only a few people working in the nation's microscopic tourism industry. He spends so much time working at Karawari Lodge that he has taken a second wife nearby. He knows the river well and heads straight to the favourite display tree of a 12-wired bird of paradise, a bright yellow and black fellow bobbing up and down on a bit of bare branch. After expressing suitable awe at this rare sight, I let myself down.

The unmistakable silhouette of a kookaburra is, to the others, about as thrilling as a sparrow. But it wows me, and spotting a mynah bird fills me with joy. When I was small I would frequently suggest - in that charming way only three-year-olds can - that my parents would love nothing more than to make a detour via a garage on the Old Kent Road to say hello to an imaginatively foul-mouthed mynah who hung among the petrol pumps. Now I am watching one in its natural habitat, not uttering obscenities in a cockney accent but flying across our path as we float through a scene straight from a child's picture-book fantasy.

Banks thick with mangroves and vines give way every so often to stilt villages built to withstand floodwaters. Naked children run out to wave at us and shout greetings, jumping into the river to body surf the wake behind us. Wisps of smoke are the only sign that fisherwomen are sitting hunched in their canoes, moored against the shady riverbanks. They keep embers smouldering in a clay pot to deter mosquitoes and light roll-ups made from home-dried tobacco leaves.

The first time we cut the engine to avoid capsizing a passing dugout, I realise the noise has been as much of a barrier between us and our surroundings as the glass windows through which dazed tour groups stare at foreign worlds. Sight without sound is taste without smell. I close my eyes, the better to see the landscape - a family chatting noisily in their canoe, the splash of a jumping fish, the whirr of a passing dragonfly, the creak of our boat's metal hull as the current carries us in circles back downstream.

The people of the Karawari region are renowned for their magnificent wood carvings - ancestor masks - and the kamanggabi hook. This is a sort of spiritual compass used to decide the direction a tribe might migrate, or find enemies to attack. They are also known for the rituals the first missionaries did their best to suppress. Chris tells us traditional practices are growing in popularity again, finding a way of existing alongside the Christianity that has taken root, and villagers are rebuilding spirit houses they once burned down. As if to illustrate his point, a lad called George hitches a ride with us. He wears a large crucifix around his neck. Below the rolled-up sleeves of a Rolling Stones Voodoo Lounge T-shirt his arms are laced with raised scars. The scarification covers his entire torso in imitation of the skin of a crocodile and marks him out as a man. His dreams, he whispers shyly, are haunted by the river spirit.

That evening, a stuffed crocodile is pointed out to me in the dining hall of our lodge. Legend has it that this beast was hunted down on a nearby stretch of river quite recently. Its stomach was found to contain a pair of Second World War Japanese army-issue boots and matching timepiece: some of the most desperate fighting in the conflict took place on PNG.

After dinner the generator is turned off and the lights go out. As I walk alone by moonlight up the path to my room the jungle sighs and rustles. I lie awake under mosquito netting, reluctant to fall asleep in case the river spirit with his long, spiny tail and yellow eyes swims through my dreams, too. Up in the highlands, the cool air of Mount Hagen comes as a shock after the heat of the river plain. It's not just the temperature that differs up here. Even if this isn't payday, a notorious trigger for drunkenness and violence, there's a menacing edge to the atmosphere. I have no desire to stop the vehicle and take a look around. In any case, there doesn't seem to be anywhere in particular to go. The town has a scrubby, unfinished look. Large groups of people are standing around, gazing at nothing in particular with great concentration. Women wear meri dresses - puff-sleeved, scoop-necked floral Victorian doll affairs introduced by the missionaries to replace their traditional state of undress. Men are in jeans or shorts. A few shops sell supplies, a jumbled carpark full of vans turns out to be the bus station.

We pass a treeless park once visited by Pope John Paul II and the Queen. The guidebook tells me not to visit it if I value my personal property. A fine red coffin stands on display outside the undertaker's. As we speed dustily away towards the meeting, through the back window I suddenly notice a man who looks like a mushroom. He is naked apart from an apron of leaves hanging from his waist both fore and aft, and a huge, upended bowl of a wig on his head, decorated with sprigs of moss and flowers. He is my first Huli wigman.

In the 1930s gold prospectors came across around 30,000 Huli living high in the Tari Basin. The Huli were settled Stone Age farmers with a highly developed social structure. Cowrie shells in their possession suggest they had traded with coastal tribes for centuries, but incoming white men had had no idea they were there and the Huli had never seen a white man. It was the last known "first contact" on earth.

With the expedition came a cine-camera. It was an extraordinary moment in the history of film and anthropology. In order to show who was boss, one of the expedition leaders took out a rifle and shot a pig. For the Huli their pigs are their wealth, their social status, their everything. The moment is captured on film: an explosive shot, the splitting of the Huli atom.

The other guests at Ambua Lodge are Australians again, this time a disparate group of expatriates up from the capital, where the odds are they work for an NGO, a mining company or a mission. I never discover which; they are not great conversationalists. They loll about morosely, quite unmoved by the panorama of wooded valley beyond wooded valley cascading down until hidden by the mist. In the evening, rather than talk to each other, they sit in the main lodge watching films about PNG, including the original pig shooting footage. The hotel staff - grandchildren of the tribespeople on screen - watch the tourists watching the film.

The most animated I see my fellow guests is when we are taken to watch the wigmen paint their faces. Like the tribes of the Karawari, the Huli are known for their bachelor cult. Here, youths make the transition from boy to man while growing their hair out on a wooden frame, to be shorn intact and turned into a wig.

On the far side of a clearing in the bamboo, several wigmen sit in a row on logs. They are * * dressed in leaves and grasses, sporting ceremonial wigs shaped like matadors' hats. One daubs his face with the traditional earthy ochre which gave Ambua, meaning yellow, its name, while another covers his cheeks with a somewhat brighter shade which I identify as poster paint.

On the near side of the clearing, a row of digitalmen sit on a bench. They are dressed in the practical leaf- and grass-coloured clothes favoured by adventure travellers, in curious counterpoint to the wigmen's clothes. Each digitalman is armed with a camera. They shoot the wigmen, who chat among themselves and pretend not to notice. They shoot their grinning wives, who stand alongside the wigmen, who continue to ignore them. They are satisfied and they leave. It takes me a while to realise that this time contact is on the wigmen's terms.

Package holidaymakers deserve a bit of beach: on my trip, this means two days at the coastal town of Madang. A security guard patrols the perimeter of our hotel grounds with a quiver full of arrows slung across his chest and a bow in his left hand. What would have made me double-take on my first day here now seems oddly normal. The others are all proficient divers while I am still grateful to have mastered breaststroke. As they glide and flipper about the reefs, I go into town.

Madang is described as the most beautiful town in the whole country, if not this area of the Pacific. First impressions lead me to think that the competition can't be stiff. Large warehouses selling an odd assortment of car parts and furniture line the main approach road.

A sign behind the bar of the Madang Club promises that punching the staff will result in being banned from the establishment, at least for a while. The walls are lined with photographs of men weighing large fish. I make slightly confusing conversation with a Polish explosives expert, who washed up like a coconut on the coast here at the end of the Second World War. In the suspended animation of the Madang Club it seems plausible that the conflict ended only a year ago. The plastic tablecloths are pock-marked with cigarette burns but the view across the bay from the balcony is of palm-fringed desert islands.

A day later, I'm snorkelling alone off one of those islands, above forests of coral and blue anemones. Despite my extraordinary, dream-like experiences, I realise I am the same person. I travel in part so I might be changed, but in PNG I have had to accept that I remain untouched. I leave as much a fascinated observer of a culture so removed from my own as I was on the day I arrived.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

There are no direct flights between the UK and Papua New Guinea. The main gateway to PNG is Singapore, from where Air Niugini (0845 838 7901; www.air niugini.co.uk) flies to Port Moresby. Singapore can be reached from the UK on Qantas (08457 747767; www.qantas.co.uk), British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) and Singapore Airlines (0870 608 8886; www.singaporeair.co.uk).

The writer travelled with Audley Travel (01869 276 200; www.audleytravel.com), which offers similar 10-night trips to PNG from £2,795 per person. This includes three nights at Karawari Lodge (East Sepik), three nights at Ambua Lodge (Mount Hagen), two nights at Malolo Plantation Lodge (Madang) and two nights aboard the Sepik Spirit (Sepik River), all full board, as well as internal flights, transfers and tours.

RED TAPE & MORE INFORMATION

British passport-holders require a visa to visit Papua New Guinea. These can be obtained on arrival for 100 Kina (£19), or in advance through a tour operator.

Papua New Guinea Tourism Promotion Authority (00 675 320 0211; www.pngtourism.org.pg).

Papua New Guinea High Commission (020-7930 0922).

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