PNG: Land of mud, sweat and beers

By Jim Eagles

A thick cloud of smoke drifted across the open area between the cluster of grass huts.

Then suddenly strange figures appeared moving in and out of the smoke.

They were white in colour, with strange, misshapen heads, and they waved bows and spears as they danced forward like so many warlike spirits.

These are the Asaro mudmen whose unique dance has made them probably the best known of Papua New Guinea's 800 or so different tribes.

We were cruising round the coast of PNG on the expedition ship Orion and the mudmen are found high up in the highlands. To see them, passengers left the ship berthed in Madang Harbour, flew up to the highlands town of Goroka and drove out to Komunive village.

There we sat in a circle around a cluster of grass huts until smoke began to drift across the scene and an elder explained that the forthcoming dance commemorated a famous moment in Asaro history.

Once, a very long time ago, the people were under attack from their enemies and in danger of a serious defeat, he said.

In fear of their lives, they fled to the Asaro River and hid under the banks hoping they would remain undetected and be able to escape under cover of darkness.

As evening came and the mists rose from the river, the people clambered out of their hiding places only to find their enemy waiting for them. They feared the worst ... but suddenly the enemy warriors gave cries of fear and ran away, having mistaken the mud-covered figures for evil spirits.

The Asaro subsequently incorporated that event into their culture, adding to the scary effect by making clay masks, and according to our commentator it continued to send enemies fleeing.

The ritual remained a secret until the inaugural Goroka Show - a marvellous showcase of PNG culture - in 1957 when the mudmen performed it publicly for the first time ... and by all accounts created panic in the audience.

It's easy to see why.

Even when you know what's coming, the sight of these goblin-like figures appearing through the smoke, waving bows and arrows, is pretty disturbing.

Afterwards, though, the mudmen are happy to meet visitors and show off their muddy outfits.

You can even try on a mud helmet if you wish.

But be very careful.

If a helmet is returned in damaged condition you may end up paying for it ... as one passenger discovered.

"We are very lucky to live here," said Sam, as he guided me down the rough track beside the steaming hot river. "It is much easier for us to cook and wash clothes than for other people in PNG."

Sam comes from the village of Palagua (population 75), on Fergusson Island, in the D'Entrecasteaux Group, which is right in the middle of Papua New Guinea's most active geothermal region.

A couple of dormant - for now - volcanoes loom overhead.

And about 20 minutes' walk from the village is an area of steam vents, geysers and hot springs.

"That," said Sam, as we walked past the incredibly clear water of the hot river, "is the best place to wash clothes. The water is also good for people with skin diseases.

"Over there," he pointed at a shallow bubbling pool, "is where we cook our food."

Nothing was cooking at the time but it was easy to see how the pool had been lined with stones and poles to make the cooking process easier. "You put your yams in a bag, put them in the water, and in six to eight minutes they are cooked. It is so easy."

In fact, he added, the geothermal activity made household chores so easy that "sometimes boys do their own washing instead of asking their mother or sister. And often they cook their own food as well."

For a local like Sam, the geothermal activity may be mainly a matter of domestic convenience, but for a visitor it is a bit surreal.

After arriving at Fergusson Island, which is off the southeastern tip of New Guinea, we then went ashore in a fleet of zodiacs.

At the sandy beach stood a cluster of guides, dozens of hopeful traders with shells, carvings and baskets spread out in front of them, and scores of enthusiastic local children.

Then we walked through steamy villages, plantations and swamps, teetering delicately over a few precarious log bridges - one of which, we were told cheerfully, "fell down this morning" - to the even steamier geothermal area.

Suddenly the thickly enclosing trees and reeds gave way to clear, steaming lakes of hot, seething pools.

The activity is not as spectacular as somewhere like Whakarewarewa - though there is one very impressive geyser - but the impact is much greater because it is in a completely undeveloped state.

But that lack of development does have its downside. "Don't walk that way," Sam pointed urgently. "The surface is very thin there. Another tourist broke through there a few days ago and burned his feet."

When we landed on the golden sand of the tiny island a smiling waiter approached and offered us an ice-cold glass of rum punch.

This, I thought, was my kind of desert island.

We had landed from Orion, on a tiny atoll in Papua New Guinea's Tami Islands, a place too small and lacking in food or water for anyone to live there. Not, you might have thought, a place where you would spend a pleasant day ... let alone enjoy a rum punch.

But the crew of the ship had spent the morning transforming the island, remedying the lack of food by organising a barbecue - including some of the huge, sweet local prawns - and tables laden with salads and deserts, erecting awnings for shelter and setting up chilly bins full of beer, wine, water ... and rum punch.

So we were able to enjoy all the joys of a desert island with all the comforts of a luxury hotel. Robinson Crusoe eat your heart out.


Getting there: Air New Zealand offers non-stop flights from Auckland to Cairns and Brisbane. Air Niugini has daily flights from Brisbane and Cairns to Port Moresby.

Orion cruises: Orion operates regular expedition cruises around Papua New Guinea and the other Melanesian Islands.

Further information: For information on Papua New Guinea

Jim Eagles cruised around Papua New Guinea with help from Air New Zealand, Air Niugini and Orion Cruises.

- NZ Herald

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