Behind the Mask

It begins with a sickening snap. The Mud Men of Pogla emerge to no music, moving like mechanical marionettes: juddering, shuddering, dancing. Their huge heads, like their skin, have been painted deathly white. Theirs is a dreadful spectacle.


While some hold spears, others have wicked-looking bamboo talons which they crack together to provide a terrible beat for their awful advance. All of this is unnerving, but it’s the cruelly amused look on their clay faces that’s hardest to bear as they creep from the undergrowth.

The original Asaro Mud Men performed this trick to frighten their enemies, rather than fight them, and today’s show is an homage to that sneaky horror story. This is one of series of cultural demonstrations I’ll watch over a week in Papua New Guinea’s interior – I’ll meet pensionable spirit dancers, adolescent medicine men, and experience a confrontational ‘warrior welcome’, but nothing leaves a psychological scar quite like the Mud Men.

My group is told such performances help sustain practises and dying traditions which were commonplace in PNG until about a century ago – the songs, dances, and stories don’t just entertain tourists, they help keep the past relevant for the current generation.

These Mud Men belong to the Melpa, a tribe based around the unlovely town of Mount Hagen in the Western Highlands. Melpa customs are unique; what happens here differs from life in the next valley, which doesn’t match life on the coast – there are 842 languages in Papua New Guinea, and just as many interpretations of the right way to live life and manage death.

My education starts a few days earlier, and it begins with an end. Along with his young family, a beast of a man improbably named Simon is showing us what happens when someone dies in his village.

I’m quite certain Simon would best me at arm-wrestling. Quite certain he’d thrash me in almost any physical pursuit. Simon does not skip leg day; judging by his great knots of muscles and the serpentine veins running over them, I’d guess Simon does not skip any day. He eats his porridge, gets plenty of protein. His full beard looks bulletproof.

I wouldn’t mess with Simon, but his loud wailing is so convincingly pained that his three children are confused by their dad’s faux-mourning. We foreigners’ presence is already pretty weird and the kids seem unsure of what to do. Are we causing the upset? No? OK, so one goes back to sucking his finger; another uses the end of a bow to jab his brother in the ear. After recomposing himself, Simon explains through a translator the lengthy and elaborate Melpa funerary process. Among other things, he tells us that as with celebrations, or any major occasion in PNG, a death requires slaughtering a pig (this, mercifully, is not demonstrated).

In these first days in PNG, I find displays like Simon’s fascinating, if a little awkward. There’s an uncomfortable intimacy and, initially, I have a nauseating concern that I am that white tourist. You know, the one being fanned on a lawn at Empire’s edge, soaked with gin, ordering servants shot in the knee for their entertainment… Perhaps not, but there’s no getting away from the fact that indigenous people have dressed up to perform for us. Having politely applauded, we then must leave past a table of trinkets and curios.

My hand-wringing only stops when I remember a different Highlands – those in my native Scotland. Last summer, I watched a small troop of local youngsters dance for a large, loud group of American tourists. Were the kids wearing tartan because they wanted to? No. Did they enjoy jumping over swords in the rain because they love their country? I doubt it. But was it a lucrative part-time job? Absolutely. And what tourist attraction, anywhere in the world, doesn’t have its visitors exit through the gift shop?

Remembering this gets me through the weirdness of spectating in PNG. Besides, I need all the help I can get understanding this country, which has long been on my radar, but is one about which I am spectacularly ignorant.

In that I am not alone. Europeans have a comparatively short history on this island – and contact with the interior happened more recently still. Missionaries and gold prospectors were among the first people to reach communities like the Melpa, all offering promises of a better life in exchange for cooperation and sharing their world view. (Perhaps because of the reverence of pigs, Judaism and Islam have not caught on in this part of the world, but Christianity certainly has). The First World War had been fought and the first television show broadcast by the time the Melpa were contacted. Despite the proximity of Australia, which claimed PNG as a colony from 1920-45, the modern world has come slowly to this island – and I was soon to find out, it feels as though some parts are still resisting it altogether.



Welcome to the jungle


“Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest.”

Josef Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 1899.


So far as I know, there isn’t a Kurtz figure in the Karawari region in PNG’s interior, but there’s no shaking the Conradian intensity of the place: the throbbing humidity, the rampant foliage, the natives at once right there and a million miles away. And while Conrad’s lunatic renegade collected skulls having had some sort of psychotic break, in this part of the world, heads were harvested with clear-eyed rationality.

Before coming to Papua New Guinea, you are likely to hear jokes about cannibalism. You may even make some yourself. It’s easier to laugh about horror than consider it too closely, and easier to make-believe than face a hideous truth: until recently, headhunting and people-eating were widespread across Papua.

I’d expected this to be a mutually embarrassing, taboo subject, but here, on the banks of the remote Karawari River, people don’t deny it – if anything, they’re proud of their cannibalistic heritage.

Our guide, Paul, seems happy to talk about headhunting in the newly built spirit house in Yimas. He grew up in this village and remembers seeing the first white people arrive on boats when the Karawari Lodge was built in 1974. Back then, there was no sprit house in Yimas, the original having been razed to the ground by Allied forces hunting Japanese soldiers in the Second World War. It took until 2017 to build a new one.

The construction and the decoration are men’s work – they’re responsible for the heavy lifting, but also the detailed painting on terracotta bark inside. Between the hot, thick air, and the silent reverence with which the priests toil, the place has a serene, holy atmosphere. Just a few decades ago, however, buildings like this would also have been depots for freshly decapitated heads. The newly orphaned bodies were butchered outside.

“We have a payback system,” Paul tells our group. “You do good to me, I do good to you. You do bad to me…” This reciprocal attitude applied in the headhunting era, too. If members of your village were killed and eaten, you could only placate the spirits by seeking vengeance. Where the bloodshed began or might have ended, no one knew.

Paul explains this as he passes me a ‘tambain’, a wooden strip with what looks a little like a series of coat-hooks. These would have been used for displaying human skulls. As he talks, it dawns on me that if we see an elder over 60 years old in this faraway part of the country, there’s a chance they’ll know what it’s like to taste human flesh. They may even have a preferred cut.

In every sense, we are a long way from home. The only way to get here is either by charter plane, landing on a grass airstrip (as we did) or by the slow boat along the Sepik and Karawari Rivers (as diesel for the lodge’s generator does).

From the vantage of the Karawari Lodge, a great green sea of jungle stretches to every horizon. To maintain this eternal canopy, it rains frequently and heavily, often without warning. The precipitation runs across the red-clay soil and into the Karawari, turning the water a permanent milk chocolate brown.

For the electricity-free villages and tribes of this remote region, the river is everything from larder, to laundrette, to lido. Most importantly, it is a highway, the only viable way for people to travel between communities. As we pass hamlets and moored canoes, we slow the engine to prevent our wake damaging the riverbanks. The locals mostly appreciate this, but on the outskirts of one settlement, three naked boys encourage us to go as fast as possible so that we send waves curling up their muddy beach. Delighted, they tear out and leap in, body-surfing back to shore. Riding waves, it seems, is universally popular.

There’s a purity to the subsistence living here that I want to believe is superior to our lazy modern existence: hunt when hungry; sleep when tired; bathe in the river; sleep under the stars; wear clothes to cover your modesty, or don’t; feel the sun on your bare skin; appreciate the value of a good rain. Life itself is a full-time job. From the optional clothing, to the slithering serpents, to the jungle’s bounty, it’s not inaccurate to describe life as Edenic, even if that blithely glosses over the ugly realities of disease, malnutrition, and infant mortality. I try to remind myself that when things go seriously wrong here, expert help is very far away.

Imported supplies are infrequent, so at the heart of life is sago, a gooey starch harvested daily from palms of the same name. Up in Mount Hagen, the Melpa’s fertile land yielded an abundance of sweet potatoes, but there’s neither the soil nor the know-how for serious agriculture here. Instead, for the Karawari River folk, sago is the staple they literally cannot live without.

We watch the surprisingly convoluted harvesting and cooking process while children babble, entranced by our blue eyes and monstrous cameras. We’re clearly a distraction, but not so much that one doesn’t run off to launch insults and a coconut shell at an inquisitive pig, drawn from the undergrowth by the smell of cooking.

Though they thrive in the bush, pigs were introduced by early western traders. Implausibly, there are also introduced tree species along the river banks, unnecessarily added to this infinite green like a pint of water to an ocean. At least some of the timber finds its way to the local carpenters to be carved into totems, garamut drums, and masks to be placed in spirit houses.

That night a bellicose thunderstorm explodes across the jungle sky, its din eventually replaced by the ambient hum of frogs and bugs and birds. This prehistoric soundtrack lulls me to sleep, but I’m woken in the profound dark by another noise. A wailing, mournful sound rolls up from one of the Karawari’s hamlets – the unmistakable, universal sound of grief. The spirits are receiving another soul. Someone, somewhere has not made it through the black night.



The yellow mountain


As our plane takes off, the Karawari Airstrip briefly appears beneath us — a bright slash through the deep green of the jungle soon swallowed by the canopy. We’re heading to Tari, home of the Huli people, somewhere near the exact centre of PNG, where we’ll spend two nights at the Ambua Lodge. At 7,500ft above sea level, it’s cold, thin air will feel like being on another planet.

This is the preferred domain of many of the country’s 800 avian species, including over 40 varieties of birds of paradise. Weather permitting, the lodge runs birding trips every morning and afternoon, through ancient woodlands, along mulchy, mossy trails, each with a virtual guarantee of seeing the flamboyant birds. Their calls are so bizarre, so non-bird-like that it’s impossible not to fall into simile and metaphor when describing them. The Friendly Fantail has a mysterious five-note tune you might hear in a 1960s-sci-fi thriller; the wonderfully named King of Saxony has a complex crackle of many sounds, something like a turned rain-stick. All the while, invisible cicadas sound like relentless cellos in a horror film.

The birds of paradise mostly stay up on the high slopes, but just 20 minutes downhill lies the town of Tari. First contact with Europeans came late here too, in 1934, when Australian gold prospectors arrived. They fell into immediate confrontation, killing 50 Huli tribesmen with the first gunshots they ever heard.

Despite that bloody beginning, today visiting Caucasians are still a tremendous novelty for locals. There’s no more visceral demonstration of this than the fixation with waving. After almost a week in PNG, I’m relaxed waving to complete strangers without breaking conversation with those around me; while out with the cameras, we are inundated with requests to take folks’ photos. When I finally get home, it takes several days to accept the universal apathy to my presence.

In the local language ‘ambua’ translates as yellow – as well the lodge, there’s a Mount Ambua, but the ambua that really matters around here is the one on the faces of Huli men. Their face paint is the most intense yellow – if you multiplied a banana by a sunflower, it wouldn’t match this, the yellowest yellow imaginable.

As well as the remarkable paint adorning their chestnut skin, they are famous for creating sensational wigs made with human hair and birds of paradise feathers. Boys are sequestered to wig-making school as teenagers where they spend 18 months, completely separated from their parents, learning how to create their tribe’s bombastic headwear. The modern and ancient worlds are tugging in opposite directions in PNG, but though the Huli have begun to modernise in some areas, the wigs remain sacrosanct.

We’ve been invited to a village to learn about this and other Huli customs (men and women strictly live separately; ageing medicine men are still important in the community) but mostly we’re there just to gaze at their extraordinary outfits and that fabulous yellow. Camera memory quickly fills up, but before we move on to meet women dressed as widows, the men have one more party piece.

Those with the Simpsonian faces stand aside to allow another to demonstrate the art of bamboo fire-lighting. This is the third time we’ve seen it on this trip, but I summon my most convincing impressed-face all the same. And it is remarkable how, with just a little tinder and elbow-grease, a spark catches and smoke quickly creeps skywards. Within seconds there are flames, and moments after that, two of the Huli use the fire to light bamboo bongs, great plumes of tobacco smoke soon tumbling from their mouths.

To my left, another Huli man has seen it all before. Rather than join in, he’s manning a little stall in the hope of selling some us some post-show souvenirs. Now though, he fancies a smoke himself so reaches for a cigarette, and a modern lighter, puncturing the stone-age façade. While his clansmen puff on their antique pipes, he clicks the gadget. And clicks it again. He gives it a shake and looks at it sideways. He tries once more, holding it closer still, but the thing just doesn’t work.



A version of this piece was published in National Geographic Traveller in February 2018.

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