One of the last true frontiers of travel, Papua New Guinea (PNG) boasts an unparalleled array of ecological beauty. From impenetrable ranges with snow-capped peaks, to the largest intact rainforest outside the Amazon, to 600 islands and atolls ringed with coral, this little-visited Melanesian nation is a land of million journeys.
PNG’s geographical wealth is rivaled only by its anthropological diversity, with more than 850 distinctive cultures that between them speak 45 percent of the world’s living languages. See up to 50 tribes strut their stuff at the Mount Hagen Show in the Western Highlands Province from Aug. 17 to 18. Conceived by kiaps – Australian patrol officers who were the law of the land until PNG’s independence in 1975 — it provides an opportunity for isolated and historically warring tribes to interact in a peaceful environment.
Beyond the show’s food stalls and amusement rides are the über colorful song and dance performances known as Sing Sings. A favorite among Highlanders and tourists alike, these see troupes donning elaborate feather wigs, body paint and handwoven aprons as they storm onto the showgrounds beating drums with gusto. But unlike dance eisteddfods in other countries, there are no winner or losers at the Mount Hagen Show — just respect and prestige for all those involved.
“The performers’ mindset is not about showing they are better than the others,” Governor of the Western Highlands Province Pias Wingti told TIME. ”It’s about showing their culture to the rest of the world.”
Of course anyone who makes it to Mount Hagen would be mad not to see what else PNG has to offer. Here are five essentials for any PNG itinerary.
1. Rondon Ridge
Overlooking Mount Hagen and the mist-shrouded Wahgi Valley, the Rondon Ridge lodge (+675 542 1438) is an oasis of comfort set among ancient vegetable gardens and high-altitude rainforests. Its 12 suites and restaurant feature soaring cathedral ceilings and glass facades with soul-charging 180-degree mountain views. Built by members of the local Melpa tribe from traditional materials like Kwila hardwood, woven grass and river stones, the structure fits the landscape like a glove. The property even has its own hydroelectric system that distributes power to neighboring villagers for free. “We were eco-friendly before the term was ever invented,” says Bob Gates, director of Trans NiuGuinea Tours, which operates this and five other luxury wilderness lodges across remote parts of PNG, along with a fleet of private buses, aircraft and boats.
2. Oro’s Fjords
Funneling into flooded gorges that rise 150m out of the sea, the fjords of Oro Province on the southeast coast are exceptional even for PNG. The best way to see them is with the McLaren cultural tours that depart from Tufi Dive Resort on a Sunday morning. Passengers are spirited in a speedboat along the coast, past sheer rock walls intersected by waterfalls that cascade straight into the ocean. After entering the mouth of a fjord, the vessel is surrounded by natives on outriggers who menace it with spears and angry, unintelligible demands. “They want to know if you are enemies or friends,” the driver translates, to which passengers unanimously answer in the affirmative. With their good intentions established, they’re transferred onto the outriggers and paddled upstream to a clearing in the jungle. There, all are welcomed by chief of the Yuri-Yuri Clan and shown a variety of village industries and arts: fire-making, basket weaving, bush medicine and the excruciatingly painful tradition of female facial tattooing. It’s followed by a Sing Sing, a stroll through the village market and a seafood barbecue back at the resort.
3. The Sepik River
Coiling through dense lowland jungle, this 1,226km river is the longest in the country. It came to the attention of the wider world when German explorer Otto Finsch stumbled across it in 1886, yet remains wholly isolated to this day. Hunter-gatherer societies get around in dugout canoes and appease their crocodile gods by carving the reptile’s likeness, as a rite of passage, into the backs of adolescents. Explore it on a Zodiac launched from the MV Orion, an Australian-based cruise ship that visits the Sepik during its biannual Melanesian expedition. “The Sepik is unique in that it has no river delta and stains the sea brown for 50km past its mouth,” says Orion expedition leader Mick Fogg. “Villagers living in islands off the coast can actually draw fresh water straight from the ocean.”
4. Mount Mother
In most parts of the world active volcanoes are avoided. But in PNG, they’re part of the fun. Overshadowing Rabaul, the colonial capital of the island of New Britain until a 1994 eruption leveled 80 percent of all buildings in town, Mount Mother vents a photogenic mushroom cloud of sulfuric gas. Hear her ungodly roar and experience seismic shocks while strolling around Mount Mother’s base with the Rabaul Hotel‘s daily volcano tour. And if the outside chance of being cooked to a crisp by molten lava isn’t thrilling enough, voyeurs must also take care not to fall into the burrows of Megapodes. These ingenious birds bury their eggs in the hot volcanic soil, using geothermal energy instead of body heat to incubate their progeny.
Modern surfing in PNG can be traced back to the early 1980s, when an Australian pilot landed his plane behind this idyllic north-coast village and spent the weekend riding sets of perfect, endless waves. Before departing he gifted his board to curious locals who’d been surfing hand-carved wooden bodyboards for generations but never fathomed standing up. They took to the sport like fish to water — a phenomenon examined in the 2011 ethnographic surfing film Splinters, winner of Best Documentary at the London Film Festival. Today Vanimo attracts surfers from as far as Japan and the U.S. who come here to ride the the village’s famous right-hand reef break. They’re accommodated at home stays and at the Vanimo Surf Lodge, one of four surf camps now operating across PNG. “Logistically, it takes a long time to get there,” says Andy Abel, President of the Surfing Association of Papua New Guinea. “But for surfers traveling the world looking for those elusive uncrowded waves, Vanimo delivers in spades.”