PAPUA NEW GUINEA
by Roderick Eime
“DUM DUDDA DUM DADDA DUM DUM DUM.”
We heard the pounding of the drums over the buzz of the outboard motor as the tiny Zodiac deposited us on the beach at Kiriwina Island. Clearly something was afoot.
We knew from our lecture on-board Oceanic Princess that the Trobriand Islands possess a fabled reputation as the “Islands of Love,” but what was taking place on the pearl-white sands as we approached struck us something much more forthright!
Two lines of lean, well-oiled men, obviously chosen for their physical prowess, greeted us with the most overt gyrations. Even some of well-traveled and worldly ladies were clearly blushing at this unmistakably masculine display. The drumbeats became even more excited and were now interspersed with a shrill umpire’s whistle. Frenzied motions of the men’s hips were leaving absolutely nothing to the imagination. And then ... stop.
A man in a comically chosen shirt-and-tie combo approached clutching a bullhorn and quickly shook the hand of Jamie, our expedition leader, and welcomed us heartily into his community. Then he turned to the several hundred villagers now assembled behind the dancers and proceeded to bellow a torrent of distorted, pidgin English instructions into the crowd. A small group of uniformed but unarmed “community police” stood casually between us and the feverishly curious inhabitants now straining for a view of the unusual arrivals.
On cue, a small corridor appeared in the crowd, and from it emerged half-a-dozen golden-skinned nubile young maidens clutching vivid and intricate flower constructions that were delicately placed over, or onto, our wide-brimmed hats. As in ancient Trobriand tradition, we were being welcomed by the most attractive, eligible members of this little community.
“The Trobrianders have made seduction an art form,” Nancy, our resident anthropologist, reminds us. “It’s all a part of the matrilineal (female-based) society of this region.”
I was a passenger aboard the brand-new, 76-passenger expedition yacht Oceanic Princess, which was making a two-stage, 20-day voyage through the Solomon and Bismarck Seas of Papua New Guinea. This was her maiden international voyage and the first such cruise by an Australian-registered and -crewed vessel in some 50 years. On our journey, we’d explore rainforests, encounter rare plants and animals, and learn about local cultures — some of whom practiced cannibalism as recently as 100 years ago.
Papua New Guinea, one of the most colorful and tribal destinations on the planet, has suffered from more than its fair share of bad PR. True, Port Moresby and some of the Highland regions are somewhat unstable. But our explorations in the Solomon Sea were marked, not by heavy security and armed escorts, but by broad welcoming smiles and hordes of delighted children hopping and yelping about us as we toured, as honored guests, their spotless little villages.
We traded handshakes and schoolbooks and were rewarded with reverence and kindness. Our entire band of world-savvy travelers felt humbled by the genuine hospitality and downright good manners of these proud and resourceful islanders. Prime green coconuts overflowing with cool juice were proffered us as we stepped ashore at the tiniest, most remote villages. Some of these outposts only see white folks perhaps once a year. I’m sure that, to a good many of the children, we were their first.
Dr. Nancy Sullivan was our cultural interpreter on our voyage, and, without her, we’d be floundering in this complex multi-layered kula culture that trades in chattels, food and favours. Kula is a benign yet highly involved game of strategy and influence that has formed the basis for inter-island relations in the Milne Bay region over many centuries.
“This gorgeous shell jewelry,” announces Nancy while selecting one of the Trobriand Islands girls who is probably the equivalent of a princess, “is a very clear sign of her status in the community.”
Nancy delicately cradles and admires the weighty assembly of mother-of-pearl, spondylus and crocus shell strung together to form a magnificent ceremonial piece.
“This piece of kula is probably more than 100 years old and is full of legend and magic,” Nancy announces, her eyes widening behind dark glasses as we peer in wonder at the polished baubles.
For my part, I am completely entranced at the intricate decorations applied to our hostess. Her flawless skin is dusted with stigma from lurid yellow flowers, and garlands of tiny, painstakingly woven flowers drape her neck. Dark armbands with shell adornments match the cluster of hand-fashioned red shells cascading from her petite earlobes, while a similar strand encircles her subtly painted forehead, which in turn is topped with a tiara of bird feathers. Each girl is similarly bedecked, but infinitesimal differences declare her family’s ultimate status with in the community.
The dainty troupe turns to escort us up the short hill to a parade ground where hundreds more spectators await, their coquettish banana-fiber miniskirts waving seductively in unison. The sun and spectacle were stating to make my head spin!
The entire morning we were treated to the most elaborate and breathtaking dances, performed by men, women and children of all ages. From slow, sensual, Polynesian-style hula dancing to the legendary and hilariously ritualized Trobriand cricket, the vibrant and unashamedly sensual culture of the Trobriand Islands was on show.
Prior to our return to Oceanic Princess, we embarked on some kula trading of our own and wandered among the many artifacts laid out for our inspection. Beautiful ebony carvings inlaid with mother-of-pearl, masks and shell jewelry were all on view.
Back aboard and relishing the air-conditioned comfort of Oceanic Princess’ Top Deck Bar, our conversation barely veered from the intoxicating entertainment we’d just witnessed. Nancy threaded amongst us, handling a myriad of questions, all of which she engaged with her seemingly inexhaustible enthusiasm.
The Trobriand Islands make up but a small part of new itineraries in Papua New Guinea and Melanesia. The D’Entrecasteaux group of islands, home of witchcraft, sorcery and — until relatively recently — cannibalism, are next on the list, along with mystical New Ireland and Nissan Island in the newly revitalized province of Bougainville.
On this over-commercialized, globalized planet of ours, very few genuine cultural experiences remain to be savored. Those here in the sprawling archipelagos of Papau New Guinea are undeniably on that list. Even though, in most communities, a tincture of Christianity is evident either as an ongoing practice or as a recent memory, traditional culture is still very strong. Paradoxically, a surprisingly good command of English clearly exists alongside “tok pisin” (pidgin English) and the 800-odd tribal languages in this incredibly diverse land.
Superbly equipped for exploring the tight and narrow waterways that yield such rich discoveries, the purpose-built Oceanic Princess carries not only the ubiquitous Zodiacs, but also a glass-bottomed boat and a “secret weapon”: Xplorer, an 80-seat, high-powered, aluminium-hulled excursion vessel complete with awning and restroom!
Coral Princess’ Managing Director, Tony Briggs, was one of the many awe-struck expeditioners aboard Oceanic Princess for her maiden international voyage. “Xplorer is one of the things that really sets us apart,” Tony points out. “We load every single passenger while it’s still on the launch platform, lower it into the water, and away we go! Every passenger gets the benefit of the most informed guide; everyone gets a dry, comfy seat in the shade; and there are no white knuckles getting on and off.”
So unlike Dampier, de Torres and Bligh, whose journeys in the region were fraught with discomforts, our explorations were in air-conditioned comfort and private cabins the size of motel rooms.
This infinitely multifaceted region of Papua New Guinea continues to exude the rich charm and glamour that drew both scoundrels like Errol Flynn for its “pleasures” and eminent anthropologists like Bronislaw Malinowski and Annette Weiner for its complex societal structures. As for inquisitive travelers like myself — it is simply one of the most fascinating and truly enriching regions I’ve ever visited.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Coral Princess Cruises operates the Oceanic Princess on a range of 10- to 13-day itineraries that include islands of Papua New Guinea, Melanesia and New Zealand. All meals and excursions are included; prices start at $5,220 per person double occupancy. For information: Tel: 800-441-6880; Website: www.coralprincess.com.au.
For more information about other tour operators, see “Find Your Adventure” and select “Cruises — Expedition.”
PAPUA NEW GUINEA — TRAVEL TIPS
• Mainland towns, in particular Port Moresby, do suffer from a higher crime rate. Caution should be exercised when walking alone, especially at night. Visitors should take a cab.
• Bargaining for souvenirs is spirited and energetic, but not aggressive. Travelers should not be afraid to haggle, but should keep in the spirit of the process, and not grind down the price to nothing. Quality items are cheap in any case, especially in the villages.
• Travelers should consult their tour company about bringing small gift items and necessities for the many children, clinics and schools they will visit. Instead of bringing sweets (the people of Papua New Guinea have beautiful smiles because they don’t eat candy), people should bring school materials, simple medicines, first-aid items and light clothing.
• Weather is always warm and humid. Wash-and-wear, non-iron fabrics are ideal and people should keep their packing down. Must-bring items include a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, insect repellent, sandals and closed shoes for walking. A compact umbrella could be handy, as light showers are frequent.