Papua New Guinea: Land where spirits still rule (+photos)

By Jim Eagles

Drive along the brand new freeway from downtown Port Moresby to the sea and you may notice a huge chunk of stone about the size of a car standing beside the highway.

"See that?" says Steven, who is showing me round the capital of Papua New Guinea. "That's a spirit stone."

Eh? Looks just like a big lump of brown rock to me.

"When they cut the road through here," he continues, "they found this stone was too hard to break up so they put it on a truck, took it down to the harbour and dropped it in the sea. But the next morning it was back here again. That happened three times. They dropped the stone in the harbour but overnight it returned, so finally they left it here."

Steven, who is telling me this, is a well-educated man, speaking not only his clan language and pidgin but also English and Japanese. He moved to the capital from his home in the Highlands to find work as a guide for PNG Explorers International. But clearly, as far as he is concerned, spirit stones, black magic and such are a normal part of life.

Seeing my sceptical look, Tom, our driver, nods his head. "This sort of thing happens a lot," he says. "There are many powerful spirits living in the hills and stones and it is not a good idea to disturb them."

Unfortunately, he adds, Government officials from other parts of the country, who do not know where the local spirits dwell, often try to push through works in the wrong places.

"Near my village here in Port Moresby they tried to bulldoze a mountain where a very strong spirit dwells. The spirit was angry and froze the bulldozer so it could not move. The bulldozer is still there today."

And was the mountain left alone after that? "Oh, yes, the mountain has not been touched. Now they know about the spirit."

Tom is another well-educated man who, when he is not driving tourists, does the accounts for the travel company. But he, too, accepts such spirits as just a matter of fact.

As we drive around Port Moresby the two of them compete to swap the scariest spirit story. For my money, Steven won with his tale of "the spirit who kills", a spirit who invades the bodies of men and forces them to kill people.

Does this spirit, I wonder, strike very often. "Oh no," he says, "only sometimes." And then the two of them discuss various murders attributed to the spirit.

Later, when we stop at the village of Koki, one of several around Port Moresby where the houses are built on stilts over the sea, Steven whispers to me that they are really refuges from black magic.

"Tom would not tell you this, because he is a Motu [the people who built the villages], but I can tell you because I am from the Highlands."

For generations, he explains, the Motu who live on the coast have feuded with the Koiatu people from the surrounding hills, who are famed for their knowledge of black magic.

"Black magic cannot cross water so the Motu built their houses on the sea so they would be safe from their Koiatu enemies."

Indeed, even though Port Moresby is a modern-looking city, signs of magic are all around.

Even the National Parliament, designed by New Zealander Cecil Hogan, is based on a spirit house from the Sepik River area.

Above the entrance doorway is a magnificent mosaic depicting different aspects of PNG life - the modern world is represented by a helicopter and a longhaired pilot - including the figure of a witchdoctor.

And inside is a superb totem pole, carved from five huge logs, with spirit figures representing the main regions of the country.

Taking pride of place in the foyer is an amazing collection of the country's insects, which includes the world's largest moth, largest butterfly and what may be the largest stick insect.

However, Steven is more interested in the fine fat cicadas, which he assures me are "good to eat, very sweet".

There are some even bigger cockroaches in the display and I can't help wondering if they are also good to eat. "Not for me," says Steven, "but some do. Many people like these too," he adds, indicating the giant stag beetles, "but I don't like them."

The nearby National Museum also has plenty of reminders of the national fascination with magic. The focal point is an extraordinary collection of spirit figures, some merely weird, but many with great artistic power.

The other highlight, for me, is the display of that other great driving force of the human race, money, which in PNG used to be made from shells, pig or dog teeth, cowries, nuts, cassowary bone and even pig tails, all much more interesting than our circles of metal and pieces of paper.

Of course in PNG it's not just black magic that people seek protection from these days but the more modern menace of the bad characters who are rather quaintly called "rascals".

That's seen most clearly on the hill above Port Moresby's central business area, where the well-to-do live, their houses and apartments surrounded by high walls topped with vicious broken class and ferocious entanglements of razor wire.

One property we pass has such extensive fortifications, including a solid metal gate protected by an armed guard in a tower, that I ask if it is the prison. "Oh, no," says Steven, "that is just a rich man's house."

Crime in Port Moresby is not as bad as a few years ago, Tom adds, but there are still problems with people moving in from outside in search of work - at this point he grins at Steven, who is one of those outsiders - and living in squatter settlements on the outskirts.

Those unable to get a job often turn to trading to make money, buying vegetables or betel nuts from the surrounding villages and peddling them in town, or purchasing packets of cigarettes and on-selling them as singles. But others resort to crime.

The central business area, with its cluster of contemporary buildings, is full of people from the squatter settlements, most of the women sitting behind small piles of produce, most of the men standing around aimlessly.

Despite their presence the atmosphere wasn't hostile and I felt quite comfortable wandering round.

Having heard horror stories about the threat of the rascals in PNG, and Port Moresby in particular, I asked several locals about safety.

The general response was summed up by Steven: "Tourists are okay if they have a guide and ask advice about where to go. Mostly it is okay but there are places you should not go, especially at night."

Hideo Kamioka, who owns PNG Explorers International, says he can recall only one instance of a tourist travelling with his company getting into trouble.

"This man wanted to go for a walk at night and I told him, `No, this is not a safe area.' But he went for a walk anyway. Well, he is not a child, I cannot put him on a lead. And he met a man with a knife and had to give him 20 kina [about $10]."

As muggings go that sounds fairly mild, but it's obvious the authorities don't want the fledgling tourist industry ruined by a nasty incident and there are security precautions everywhere. Hotels and lodges have barbed-wire fences, barred windows and entrances manned by security guards.

And I couldn't help noticing as I strolled through Port Moresby's delightful Botanical Gardens - the highlight is the orchid house displaying many of the 3000 species of orchid found in PNG - that a security guard shadowed me the whole way round.

GETTING THERE
Air New Zealand is the only airline offering non-stop flights from Auckland to Cairns (four times a week). Air New Zealand also offers several non-stop flights a day from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch to Brisbane. See www.airnewzealand.co.nz.

Air Niugini has daily flights from Brisbane and Cairns to Port Moresby. Air Niugini also has regular flights from Port Moresby to Highland towns like Tari and Mt Hagen. See www.airniugini.com.pg.

WHAT TO DO
PNG Explorers International offers a range of tours around PNG, including a day tour of Port Moresby. See www.pngexplorers.com for details.

FURTHER INFORMATION
For general information on Papua New Guinea see www.pngtourism.org.pg.

* Jim Eagles visited Port Moresby as guest of Air New Zealand, Air Niugini, the Tourist Promotion Authority of Papua New Guinea and PNG Explorers International.

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