Papua New Guinea: Gulf Mask Festival
The Gulf people don’t have many opportunities to participate in sing sing, the traditional Papua New Guinea festivals organised in other provinces. Attending the Gulf Mask Festival is a rare occasion to catch a glimpse of the unique culture of the Gulf Province.
Papua New Guinea festivals: Gulf Province
After a bumpy ride and with our 4×4 being stuck in mud a couple of times, a few hours later we are finally in a small village of Toare, the location of the Gulf Mask festival, one of the unique festivals in Papua New Guinea.
Garlands of flowers on our necks, clapping locals all around and speeches in our honour, we feel ourselves as a royal family, kind of Prince William and Kate Middleton paying a visit to a Pacific country.
Those interested in the Melanesian culture must have heard about the famous Hagen Show and Goroka Festival. More fervent admirers of the PNG vibrant and unique culture are familiar with Enga Show, Sepik Crocodile Festival and other Papua New Guinea festivals. However, these festivals attracting a variety of tribes from different regions of Papua New Guinea, don’t usually see the performers from the Gulf Province.
While the Gulf Province isn’t entirely isolated, it’s a remote region. Located on the southern coast of Papua New Guinea, river and sea are the most popular means of transportation in Gulf as the region is barely served by roads. For about half a year, the south-east trade winds make sea so choppy that small boats stay ashore most of the time – sea journey can be treacherous.
The remoteness has contributed to the uniqueness of the Gulf culture making it different from other regions of Papua New Guinea. Although facing the risk of vanishing under the impact of the invasive globalisation as elsewhere in the country, the Gulf culture is still alive. The Gulf Mask Festival. one of the unique Papua New Guinea festivals, is a great opportunity to experience it first-hand.
The Gulf Mask Festival is the initiative of a small group of men, the local enthusiasts caring about preserving the unique culture of their homeland. Their motivation, passion and energy resulted in this truly unique festival, bright in colours.
Becoming friends with one them, Vincent, living a simple village life, we truly admire his enthusiasm and his determination to show his culture to foreign visitors.
Every kid and dog in the village seems to be aware about us coming for the festival. The performers are ready but everyone is waiting for us. Some locals gathered on the beach watching us arriving.
With colourful garlands of flowers put on our necks, we are invited on the VIP tribune for a special welcome. Soon, with the announcement of the performing groups coming to the end, a rhythmic and powerful beating gives a signal to begin the festival. The showground is now crowded with the dancers wearing colourful traditional attire, elaborated decorated masks and stunning headdresses.
Traditional dancing and singing show the Gulf culture at its best. Intricately decorated giant masks, the trademark of the Gulf people, are proudly on display, or rather on the heads of the local men demonstrating their traditional dances. Papua New Guinea festivals are always a lively event, bright in colours and full of imagination, and the Gulf Mask Festival is no exception.
The exquisite traditional Gulf masks come in different styles, shapes and colours, typical to their clans and tribes. Many masks are made using cane framework covered with bark cloth, known as tapa, with the painted design.
A group of women, dressed in grass skirts, are graciously swinging their hips to the beats of kundu, traditional drums of Papua New Guinea. Grass-skirts, often decorated with shells, are the pride of local women. They are made from young fibres of sago palms growing in profusion in Gulf province, as well as pandanus, banana, and other natural fibres. The collected fibres are soaked in the water for a few weeks and dyed with natural colours, such as tree roots and seeds. Attracted by bright colours, today many women use Chinese-made dyes.
Women’s mesmerising dances are followed by a group of young boys and girls, painted in bright orange colours and singing traditional songs that almost send you into a trance.
Men dancers, with giant and intriguing-looking masks, are performing a special dance.
Frightful-looking men are expertly throwing long spears.
A group of young girls shortly join the others.
We are literally hypnotised by the dancers and unable to take our eyes off. Several hours have passed without us noticing it despite the scorching sun.
The locals don’t miss the festival opportunity to come together to have fun, chew buai, or betel nut, meet friends and, of course, watch the performance. Some cheer up their family or friends, who are performing today. The performance is taken seriously, and the locals are helping meticulously adjust every single detail of the costumes and body paint.
The blue sea and the appealing sandy beach of Toare village, the venue of the festival, only adds to the charms of the festival.
The fascinating Gulf Mask Festival is now over but the locals aren’t in a hurry to put away their stunning traditional costumes and masks, and return to their homes. We aren’t in a hurry either. Wandering around the village, we quickly make friends with the locals, who show us around. “Come with me,” a guy makes us sign to follow him. It’s someone’s house. There is no light, and once our eyes got used to the darkness, we can see some beautiful old traditional Gulf masks and gope boards. The gope boards, the traditional wooden ritual objects of the Gulf people, vary in sizes but they are traditionally elliptical in shape, carved with abstract patterns and stylized figures and painted with white and red ochre natural paints. Depicting the ancestral spirits believed to protect the tribes from evil spirits, sickness, or even death, they were traditionally used in raids on other tribes and headhunting expeditions, were consulted as to which tribe to attack, were given to warriors for successful conquest and used to display the enemy’s skulls.
Bullroarers, used for communicating over greatly extended distances, are another traditional object of the Gulf people. Nowadays replaced by mobile phones, a few can still be found in the villages.Now we start feeling tired after this long and hot day. We are about twelve Westerners, all friends, and the hospitable locals are busy trying to accommodate all of us with the most comfort they can offer. Soon, our improvised B&B has been arranged. We stay overnight with a friendly local family in a typical Gulf house on stilts, right near the beach.
While we are settling inside the house, our friends, a couple with three kids, seems to be well prepared. We still didn’t finish hanging our mosquito net, when their giant tent is set up near the house. Looking like an extraterritorial object among the simple traditional houses, it becomes the centre of attention of curious local kids. They are shyly observing its set-up from the corner but soon they are getting closer and closer to it as if building up their confidence. One by one, they are now peering inside the tent and giggling, most probably trying to figure out how it would feel sleeping inside. Some locals join the kids in their discovery of all these modern amenities.
Sitting around the fire with our hosts, we are finishing the evening with the meal and cold drinks mysteriously appearing from our friends’ esky. We tell about our impressions of the festival, and they tell us about their life in the village and the Gulf culture. We find out that traditionally, men used to sleep in the longhouses, or men’s houses, while the women stayed in smaller huts outside. The men’s houses were the place, where men spend their time together and where they kept their weapons, the enemies’ skulls and important ritual and ceremonial objects. But today this tradition almost died out, and the husbands and wives now stay together.
In the morning, we are greeted with both sago and an impromptu dance. Sago, a staple food of Gulf people, comes from sago palm growing in profusion in this coastal province of Papua New Guinea. For some of us, it’s definitely a culinary discovery and an acquired taste. I wish I would have brought Nutella to go with Sago pancakes as I did in the Sepik.
We hardly finished our breakfast when we are dressed in the colourful grass skirts. Giggling women are insistent, and their dances are enchanting. Soon, we find ourselves dancing to the rhythms of dynamic sounds of music.
Joking in the beginning about the royal visit, we now realise we indeed had a royal welcome by these friendly, warm and kind people. Even though they don’t have much in terms of materialistic possessions, they have much more – they have their remarkable culture that they are determined to preserve.
Dates: The Gulf Mask Festival is a one-day event usually held in the beginning of June. The 2017 Gulf Mask Festival will be held on 16 and 17 June. To find more information, you can contact the festival organiser, Vincent Ehari, on + 675 70138410 or by email. You can also try to contact the Papua New Guinea Tourism Promotion Authority.
Location:The Gulf Mask Festival is held in the Gulf Province located on the southern coast of Papua New Guinea, in a small village of Toare.
How to get there:
Toare village is only a few kilometres away from Kerema, the capital of the Gulf Province, located 300km from Port Moresby (about 4h drive).
Although Kerema can be easily reached by PMVs (Public Motor Vehicles) from Port Moresby, PMVs don’t go to Toare village. But the festival organisers can arrange the short ride to Toare village.
However, the most comfortable, the easiest and the safest option (but more expensive) is to organise the transportation directly to Toare village with the festival organisers. If you prefer to rent a car (prohibitively expensive in PNG) or you are an expatriate with your own car, the security escort can also be arranged by the festival organisers. The security escort means you will be driving in a convoy with another car belonging to some members of the festival committee. At least, this is what we had.
Don’t miss this unique festival, especially if you are an expatriate in Papua New Guinea with your own vehicle.
Where to stay and eat: Toare is a small village located right on the beach. Although there are no guesthouses available, a stay in someone’s house, with the local food provided, can be easily arranged. Staying with a local friendly family will be another highlight of the festival.
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Written by ANYWAYINAWAY
Olga and Errol are the Swiss-Russian couple behind ANYWAYINAWAY. Passionate about unique culture and traditions, they decided to take career breaks and explore the world with the intention to expand awareness and provide new perspectives to the understanding of ethnic minority people, customs, traditions and culture. They also show the beauty of our planet and try to find something interesting in the ordinary.