Cultural festival in Papua New Guinea

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Experiencing one of the world's most magical festivals

It’d be hard to find a more off-the-beaten-path destination than Papua New Guinea.

Located about 100 miles north of Australia, PNG (as some call it) occupies the eastern half of an island, sharing its border with West Papua, Indonesia.

Each year, thousands of tourists (and even more locals) descend upon the Mt. Hagen area for an annual festival called the Mt. Hagen Cultural Show. This event, also known as a “singsing,” brings together more than 75 tribes from around the country in a cacophony of singing and dancing at the town’s main soccer field.

Over the course of my life I have had the privilege of witnessing this singsing in person numerous times. The event has moved me in ways I’m still understanding. Here are some pictures of the spectacle, along with my impressions of the scenes captured in each.

Up close with the tribesman

Up close with the tribesman

I travel to PNG yearly to attend the singsing. When I return, I bring photos of the locals that I took the previous year. I then make a game of trying to match the photo with its subject (who may or may not be wearing his festival attire).nnI had a stack of photos in my hand as these men were trying to get a better look to see if they were in them.nnI was surrounded on all sides as they laughed and cajoled each other until they found photos of themselves.

Dress reflects local environment

Dress reflects local environment

Members of each tribe dress similarly, utilizing items found in their local environments back home. This may include bird feathers, pig tusks, shells, bugs, hornbill beaks, or items they’ve been able to trade with other tribes. Notice this gentleman wearing a shell necklace and a knit hat with grass placed in the front and sides.

Tribal drummer

Tribal drummer

While some are attracted to PNG’s few cities, many Papua New Guineans far prefer to live a subsistence lifestyle in their own villages. These men don’t need gyms where they’re from. They stay naturally fit from all the physical exercise required by simply living in and with nature.

Woman with red clay

Woman with red clay

Women also participate in the festivities. This woman is wearing a seeded headband with woven moss and grass in her headpiece. She’s also adorned with red clay, which is traditional for her tribe.

Asaro mudman

Asaro mudman

As legend goes, the men of Asaro were at war with another tribe. To escape, the Asaro men jumped in a river. When they emerged, they were covered in thick mud. Their enemies thought the mud people were evil forest spirits, so the enemies ran away.nTo this day, the men of Asaro wear these headpieces (weighing as much as 35 pounds apiece) and cover themselves in mud for special events.

Huli wigman

Huli wigman

Wigs like this one are made from human hair and sculpted into a variety of shapes. The Huli wigmen are from the Tari region of PNG, where they spend 18 months at “wig university” growing their hair. Every six months the hair is shaved off (carefully) and made into wigs that are worn at singsings.

Getting ready for the show

Getting ready for the show

At one time, paint was made from wild plants and tree bark. Now, the tribesman need only go to a store to find a wide variety of colors. Arrive early enough to a festival and you’ll likely find the tribesmen and women applying paint, dressing, and practicing their singing and dancing.

Fierce tribesman

Fierce tribesman

Papua New Guinea is known as a warrior culture. But the truth is that those who take part in these festivals are quite kind and love to have their photos taken. Though this gentleman looks fierce, he’s actually posing for the camera. Once photos are taken, the tribesmen usually go back to being jovial with their mates, smoking, and practicing for the festivities.

Paint close up

Paint close up

Individuals within a given tribe wear similar paint, clothing, wigs, and animal parts (as part of their costumes), so it’s relatively easy to determine to which group someone belongs.

Women singers

Women singers

Few experiences in PNG are as as magical as standing in the middle of the showgrounds on festival day. Thousands of tribespeople sing and dance at the same time in an effort to outperform each other.

Author with Huli wigmen

Author with Huli wigmen

I lead a yearly trip to PNG. In addition to attending several singsings, we visit the small village of Tari, where the Huli wigmen live. Mining, timber, and oil industries threaten to encroach upon the traditional lifestyle of the Huli. Their slowly emerging tourist industry is one reason for them to maintain some of their traditions.

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Beth Whitman

Beth Whitman finished her tenure as an Expedia Viewfinder blogger at the end of 2015. She is the founder and CEO of Wanderlust and Lipstick and WanderTours. With 25+ years of solo travel, she writes for the women's travel market to encourage women to travel and live out their dream journeys.

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