Papua New Guinea is remote, tourists are few, and tribes are plentiful, dramatically varying from mountain to coast. The word about the people wearing the most exotic attire went far away, and Mt Hagen Festival and Goroka Show became known worldwide. But many regions and festivals remain at the edges of the-off-the-beaten map such as the Gulf Mask Festival.
Papua New Guinea festivals: Gulf Province
With garlands of fragrant frangipani flowers on our necks and speeches in our honour, we feel like a royal family on the official visit to the Pacific islands. “Welkam tru”, the villagers, not accustomed to see tourists, warmly welcome us in Tok Pisin, one of the three lingue franche ofPapua New Guinea. Us, it’s a group of friends invited for a festival in a small village of Toare located about 300 km from Port Moresby, the country’s notorious capital.
Remote, tribal and off-the-beaten path, a short and accurate description of Papua New Guinea. As for the off-the-beaten, in the recent years some festivals, such as the Mt Hagen Festival, Goroka Show and Rabaul Mask Festival, became world-famous and are now firmly on the travel itinerary of tourists, photographers, and journalists. Other PNG festivals attempt to build on the success, and attract both tribes from different regions of the country and some adventure-looking tourists. But none of these festivals, known as sing sing, see the performers from the Gulf province.
While Gulf isn’t an entirely isolated province, it’s a remote region located on the southern coast of Papua New Guinea. Barely served by roads, river and sea remain the main means of transportation. But even with the sea access, small boats stay ashore for about half a year. The southeast trade winds blowing directly into the Gulf bring heavy rains, make the sea rough and the journey dangerous. This remoteness has contributed to the uniqueness of the Gulf culture.
Toare village, with its blue sea and white sandy beach, is an idyllic location. But the growing rhythmic drum beating is a signal to start, and swimming idea is abandoned. Proudly wearing the best of their exquisite traditional attire and elaborate masks, the dancers enter the improvised showground.
In PNG, each tribe has its own distinctive attire and ornaments, or bilas. The Huli are known for the wigs made from their own hair. Large round hats made of moss, plants and hair are the identity of people from the Enga province. The Western Highlanders take pride in towering feathered headgear and vivid colours of the body paint. The Chimbus are recognised by giant headdresses made of bird of paradise feathers, an ornithologist’s nightmare. The Elema, the coastal people of the Gulf province, have the trademark too, their intricate masks.
With its stylised facial features, the Gulf masks show diversity in style, shape, colours and size. Ornate, large, tall or narrow, the masks are made of natural materials. Bark cloth, known as tapa, is stretched over a split-cane frame, sewn with plant fibre and painted with natural pigments. Although large, the masks are light-weighted allowing the men to wear them for long hours.
It’s a mid-day and the sun is restless. And so are the masked men, who don’t stop their frenzy dancing on the beach, with their eyes staring through masks’ tiny gaps. It feels ancient and tribal. Not so long after, the men representing characters from local legends make the public giggle and laugh with their blunders and silly gestures. I am capturing their comic performance, when suddenly one particularly enthusiastic dancer fixes his determined gaze upon me and jumps forward with a long spear in the hand as if to attack. In a second, I see nothing but his crazy eyes in my lens.
Besides the masks and clay, many men only wear bark loincloth and arse gras, a bunch of leaves stuck into a belt to cover the backside. The women aren’t more dressed up either. Bare-breasted, with big kina shells dangling on their chests and wearing colourful grass skirts decorated with small shells, they are swinging their hips to the beats of kundu, PNG traditional drums. Made from sago palms, the grass skirts are the object of pride of local women.
Soon, the frenzied affair starts winding down. I enjoy walking around barefoot, my toes sinking into the warm white sand, when a man makes me sign to follow him into someone’s house. Once my eyes got used to the darkness, I discern the precious treasures – old Gulf masks, fish-tail drums and gope boards, the elliptical ritual objects, which were used in the past in headhunting raids, for displaying enemies’ skulls and given to men for bravery. The man’s look is a mixture of pride and embarrassment. He’s a Christian now, and the artefacts are the reminders of his wild past.
The sky slowly gets darker before the night consumes the entire village. Travelling at night in PNG is a risky enterprise, even for the fearless souls, and that night we sleep in a thatched house on stilts. Besieged bypersistent natnat, a too lovely term for mosquitoes in Tok Pisin, we find refuge beneath mosquito nets full of holes. Lying on thin mattresses on a creaky sago palm floor, listening to geckos, screeching piglets and whispered voices of our hosts, we feel humbled to be welcomed into their home. Our “Airbnb” doesn’t feel uncomfortable after all.
The morning greets us with a blue sky and sago pancakes. In this coastal province abundant with sago palms, sago is a main staple food and building material. During the Hiri trade sago was even exchanged for clay pots and shells with the Motu people from the Central province. Sitting around the smouldering fire slowly baking our sago pancakes, I wonder if adding some Nutella on these starchy and bland flatbread wouldn’t breach the local etiquette. But I don’t have one anyway. We make an exchange – sago against rice and tinned fish, which are immensely popular across the country. “Easy to store in a hot climate,” some say. But I think it’s more because of the status associated with western food.
Soon, with gifts of grass skirts received from women with large, comforting smiles, we are set for a rough, potholed ride back to Port Moresby. I have time to reflect. Things change fast in Papua New Guinea.Active missionaries, discovery of oil&gas and arrival of Digicel, the Irish mobile phone company, have transformed the people’s traditional way of life. But tribal identity is still a strong source of pride as evidenced by efforts invested by Gulf Mask Festival’s performers.
Dates: The Gulf Mask Festival is a one-day event usually held in June. To find out the dates, contact the festival organiser Vincent Ehari on + 675 70138410 or by email.
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 (capital of the Gulf Province) located 300km from Port Moresby (about 5h drive). Although Kerema can be easily reached by PMVs (Public Motor Vehicles) from Port Moresby, PMVs don’t go to Toare. The festival organisers can arrange a short ride to the village.
The most comfortable, the easiest and the safest option (but more expensive) is to organise the transportation with the festival organisers. If you prefer to rent a car (very expensive in PNG) or you are an expatriate with your own car, the security escort can also be arranged with the festival organisers – you will be driving in a convoy with another car belonging to some festival committee’s members.
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 arranged. It 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.