Rosalie Willis goes on a journey of discoveries in Papua New Guinea.

Rolling our suitcases along smooth pavement and stepping into the air-conditioned shuttle, it was like we were stepping back into the future.

The modern touches of our van were a luxury. Seat belts, what were these things? And handles on the back of the seats, they would have been handy on our earlier drive from Goroka to Mt Hagen. Zooming along smooth, sealed roads, it felt like years since I had seen a traffic light.

The past 10 days had been a roller coaster of experiences, featuring extremes in more ways than I'd imagined. Colour and culture with a bit of carnage thrown in, the island nation of Papua New Guinea is uncharted territory for many travellers. Despite being just 200km off the coast of Australia, it is vastly undiscovered, making it an intrepid explorer's dream.

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We are here for just over a week, our trip culminating in the Mt Hagen Cultural Show, an extravaganza that brings in more tourists than any other festival in Papua New Guinea. We begin our trip in the capital, Port Moresby.

Mount Hagen Cultural Show, Papua New Guinea.
Mount Hagen Cultural Show, Papua New Guinea.

As we fly in over the clear blue seas, there are many small islands poking out of the water with Papua New Guinea being the third biggest island country in the Pacific.

Known as the business and government district, Port Moresby has more than a million people living within its boundaries. The size of the city is made evident when we arrive at our first night's accommodation, The Stanley. Complete with a mega-mall and nightclub along with the usual hotel amenities such as gym, pool and restaurant, the hotel is a rare slice of modernity in a land I soon realise is still very much in the past.

I felt very small in this monster of a hotel, its size and luxury exactly what I had been expecting in Papua New Guinea. Luckily for me however, as someone who loves a good adventure more than I love lush white marble hotel lobbies, we were only there for a night and quickly found ourselves stepping back into the past with a visit to Owers' Corner.

KOKODA TRACK

Owers' Corner, found at the foothills of Owen Stanley Range, is the beginning of the Kokoda Track. The 96km track with 5500m of climbing takes on average 6-10 days by foot.

The Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea takes 6-10 days. Photo / Rosalie Willis
The Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea takes 6-10 days. Photo / Rosalie Willis

Steeped in history, the track was mapped out by Captain Noel Owers, of the Papua New Guinea Volunteer Rifles, just before the Japanese invasion in May 1942.

Despite its history as a place of battle, there is a sense of calmness here.

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Anthony Nagul from the Kokoda Track Foundation explains how the track, originally based on historical bonds dating back to the war, has now evolved to be based on socio-economic ties. The Kokoda Track Authority manages the track and, with the foundation giving back to the communities along its path, the track has evolved from appealing solely to history buffs to those wanting a physical challenge, and now to those wanting to be part of humanitarian projects.

"Our Village Connect programme has provided solar lamps to every single house along the track," Anthony explains to us.

We were told of people in villages seeing light for the first time across the valley, something barely imaginable to those of us who have trouble remembering to turn out the lights at the office each day. More than 800 households have been illuminated thanks to the foundation.

With an average of about 4000 trekkers a year walking the track, take the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of history, challenge yourself along the wild terrain and encounter villages seeing light and accessing healthcare for the first time.

MT GORUPOKA

I somehow managed to keep my shoes intact at Owers' Corner but after a short flight from Port Moresby to Goroka, the capital of the Eastern Highlands province, I soon found them caked in mud as I stand in the middle of Asaro Valley.

Told we were to climb a mountain when we arrived in the province two hours before, I was glad I hadn't had time to mentally psych myself out of the hike. "It won't take long," "just half an hour," were phrases I heard often from the locals as we started up the hill.

Although I hadn't been in Papua New Guinea very long at this point I was beginning to understand that time is a somewhat fluid notion. So, too, was the fact that I sit in an office all day, whereas the locals spend their time in the fields doing physical labour.

Rosalie Willis atop Mt Gorupoka.
Rosalie Willis atop Mt Gorupoka.

Getting puffed as soon as we started climbing and at some points crawling and stumbling up Mt Gorupoka, we went across rickety ladders until we reached a secluded cave in the mountainside. Putting down a fern leaf as payment to the ancestors of the mountain, I crawled in, unintentionally producing a great re-enactment of Gollum at the same time.

The hike was full of unexpected moments, typical of such as undiscovered land.
Seeing an unknown species of butterfly land right on my hand and just chill there with no desire to fly off was an experience I will long remember.

Told by our local guides they had seen this species of butterfly only on this mountain, I realise now why scientists love coming to Papua New Guinea. Who knows, I could have just seen a species of butterfly that has not yet been formally discovered.

INITIATION CEREMONY

My perception of initiation ceremonies comes from American sporting culture where the rookies have to perform tasks to prove themselves to the rest of the team. However traditional initiation ceremonies are a far cry from shaving foam and blindfolds.

In idyllic surroundings with the river gently tickling by, the Keeya Tribes initiation ceremony, where boys become men, was anything but idyllic. Believing the need to purge the old blood from their bodies, boys as young as 9 perform a bloodletting ceremony that puts our rugby boys to shame.

Nose bleeding with sharp flax arrows, tongue splitting with a glass-pointed bow and arrow and finally cane swallowing, the most dangerous of them all, watching the ceremony was not for the faint-hearted. Although it may seem backward to us to make yourself bleed in order to gain strength, the process is all about purifying the body by removing the bad blood.

Standing at the side of the river, watching the blood stream away, we were given a glimpse into their world. From the outside it felt uncomfortable watching a person bleed right before your eyes, but you could sense something special was taking place. These boys were proving their strength, showing us who they are in a way that has not yet been robbed by capitalism, intellectual prestige or money.

VILLAGE EXPERIENCE

Heading out on the bumpy road from Goroka to Mt Hagen, a road less travelled by car and more often flown by plane, we decided to drive between the cities to visit more villages along the way. Not to be missed, the Huli Wigmen with their elaborate headpieces and colourful, all-natural facepaint and the Korekore Tribe with their erotic celebration dance, the moko moko, were experiences that made the bumpy ride worth it.

The Huli Wigmen, Papua New Guinea. Photo / Rosalie Willis
The Huli Wigmen, Papua New Guinea. Photo / Rosalie Willis

They say Papua New Guinea operates on "island time" and I've certainly experienced that here. But it was a stop at Korul Village that shook my perception of time from its foundations.

It opened out like a patchwork quilt before us, each turn through Korul revealed another colourful aspect of village life. From families gardening in fields of sweet potatoes to women picking coffee berries, to men building huts in traditional flax skirts, time stood still.

Getting up with the sun, these people know a life more fruitful than the rat race of western life. We see families tending their gardens, men building huts, and children running barefoot up and down the valley.

We are brought to Bomal, an elder, chief and husband to three wives. This marriage arrangement is not a cheap affair. A bride price is still a common occurrence. Up to $300,000kina (NZ$50,000) can be paid, but it's more likely to come in the form of the traditional "currency" of 30 pigs given to the bride's family. Witnessing this ancient practice of polygamy, the wives' respect for Bomal was evident as they brought him their daily offerings.

PAIYA MINI SHOW

Surrounded by the feathers of a thousand birds of paradise, the Paiya Mini Show was a visual overload of colour and dance.

Paiya Mini Show, Papua New Guinea.
Paiya Mini Show, Papua New Guinea.

Moving forward with the beating of their drums, each tribe performed a traditional singsing at the Paiya Village showgrounds. Laying not only their chests bare, but their hearts and souls for a handful of tourists to see, hundreds of villagers from around PNG stamped to the pounding beat of their ancient war cries.

Witnessing tribes come together to perform when only a short few years ago they were the worst of enemies, the unity on display took away all my misperceptions of tribal conflict from the past. With the beating of the drums staying in my chest for hours afterwards, the Paiya Mini Show was a spectacular way to start the weekend of festivities.

MOUNT HAGEN

The stunning view from Rondon Ridge, Mount Hagen, Papua New Guinea. Photo / Rosalie Willis
The stunning view from Rondon Ridge, Mount Hagen, Papua New Guinea. Photo / Rosalie Willis

On our way to Mt Hagen we were honoured along the way to witness centuries-old village traditions, some of which have never been performed outside the private sanctuary of the tribe's province.

A true Papua New Guinean experience, I found, is all about meeting the people in their place. Being welcomed into many villages as family, I found such honour in witnessing the singsings, initiations, courting rituals and ceremonies in our own private showings that I was unsure what the Mt Hagen show, with hundreds of people performing, would be like.

Mount Hagen Cultural Show, Papua New Guinea.
Mount Hagen Cultural Show, Papua New Guinea.

What I saw was colour in every sense of the word. Colourful dress, colourful dancing and people who are colourful in nature.

I found myself carried away with the joyous dancing of the Kimel tribe. After I was beckoned into the dance circle, my black attire was a stark contrast to the Kimel tribe's traditional dress of feathers, face paint and shells but all was forgotten as I let go and pulled out some dance moves that will probably never be seen again outside of Papua New Guinea.

Held at Mt Hagen Show Grounds, the gathering sees tribes from all around Western Highland Province and nearby Jiwaka Province come together to celebrate their diversity of culture. It was once a time to calm any tribal animosities and enmities present by bringing all sides together in a cultural event to expose the positive side of life.

Now, the focus of this show has shifted to become a tourist attraction for both locals and foreigners. It stands out from many shows because of its interactive nature and I am able to walk from one tribe to another witnessing their passion as they perform.

Walking out to the middle of the showgrounds, there is something about the colour and beauty of the people that welcomes you in. It makes you want what they have. No cellphones are in sight, no fancy lighting or sound systems are present. Just the hearts of a nation of colour laid bare for all to see.

CHECKLIST

Kokoda Track: Adventure Kokoda
PNG Highlands Adventures: Jenny Wal Gonopa pnghighlandsadventures@gmail.com
Trans Niugini Tours: Bob Bates bob@pngtours.com