How to see the tribes of Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea is a land of folklore, revelry and spirituality.
Located a few thousand kilometres off the northern tip of Australia, Papua New Guinea remains largely undiscovered.
This mystical land is a diverse nation - over 800 local languages have been kept alive across small villages and in the highlands.
To help you get a glimpse into the local culture, we’ve put together this round up of the tribes of Papua New Guinea.
McLaren Harbour cultural tour
Often described as the ‘Scandinavia of the Tropics,’ Tufi is a beautiful destination for those wanting to dive the Coral Triangle. It’s got heaps of culture too, with remote villages peppered throughout the landscape. A wander through the verdant hills takes you through communities that have barely changed for centuries. Chatting to locals, learning about tribal customs and visiting the local school and medical clinic all offer fascinating glimpses into everyday life.
After wandering through Tufi, travellers can sail down to McLaren Harbour for an organised cultural tour. Your boat will head into one of the local fjords, where you’ll be met by locals in traditional dress on an outrigger canoe. Joining the locals in their traditional vessel allows you to travel to the inner reaches of the fjords, where you can disembark for a sacred walk through the rainforest. In the deep heart of the jungle, villagers shape their way of life using spirits and sorcery. During the tour, you’ll be able to learn how to make sago (a staple of Papua New Guinean cuisine) and bush medicines. For creatives, mat making and traditional tattooing are a unique take on artistic expression.
Asaro Mudmen, Pogla village
Papua New Guinea’s Highlands – home to some of the country’s most infamous mudmen, are a great place to get a taste of local life. The Asaro Mudmen are instantly recognisable – these indigenous people paint their entire bodies white, don frightening clay masks and extend their fingers by sticking bamboo sticks to them. Legend has it that the mudmen’s distinctive costume originates from a fierce tribal war. During this battle, the Asaro mudmen painted their bodies white with dried mud to scare off the enemy. It was a tactic that worked; the superstitious enemy tribe thought the mud men were spirits awakened and so didn’t fire a single arrow.
Today, the Asaro mudmen are keen to share their traditional way of life with the outside world; many have taken part in Papua New Guinean festivals and museum exhibits in Australia. The best place to learn about the Asaro Mudmen, though, is of course in their homeland. Often referred to as the ghosts of Papua New Guinea, the Asaro are elusive and you have to travel to the remote parts of the country to meet them. Visitors to Pogla village will be welcomed with a dramatic dance depicting a wronged villager’s revenge on their antagonists, in true Asaro style.
The best of the rest
The Nogopa tribe, Tokua village
In Tokua village, the Nogopa tribe uses sorcery in their everyday life – the local witch doctor who is thought to communicate with spirits to cure illnesses is a perfect example. Fire-based ceremonies are also not outside of the norm – villagers sit, chant and dance around burning fires and then devote themselves to a particular tree. Swapping stories with the tribes folk of Papua New Guinea is intriguing to say the least. After you’ve experienced a traditional fire ceremony, the locals are likely to show you how the houses in the community were constructed. For a relaxing end to your visit, you can also lunch alongside locals in beautiful tropical surroundings.
Numbering over 250,000, the Huli are the largest tribal group in Papua New Guinea. They are instantly recognisable by their distinct headdresses, which they put together with the help of an expert “wig master.” Decorated with feathers and other trinkets, these showy hats are worn by Huli wigmen during traditional ‘singsings,’ or festivals. The Huli wigmen typically live in isolation from each other, so seeing them together at celebratory events is a real treat.
Baining tribe, East New Britain
On the island of East New Britain, the Baining tribe lives in a small village close to the island’s capital of Kokopo. Aptly known as “bush people,” the Baining people can be found deep in the mountains, surrounded by jungle. The unique Fire Dance ceremony that takes place here as part of the National Mask Festival is a sight to behold and worth making the trip for.
This dance is only performed in the village on special occasions – such as a commemoration of the dead, a celebration of childbirth or a successful harvest – so it’s a spectacle that few get to witness. During the ceremony, fire dancers wearing masks representing forest spirits run through a bonfire. Watching this fire dancing is a surreal experience and a great way to connect with the local people of East New Britain.