I have no sooner arrived in Papua New Guinea than I’m chewing betel nut. I hadn’t planned on doing it; in fact, I’d always found the red-mouthed, spit-inducing habit rather off-putting. I’m well aware that it destroys the country’s environment with litter and blood-red spittle, and contributes to tuberculosis and cancer. Yet here I am, grinding the stuff up between my teeth as my four travel companions and I motorboat across Matupit Harbour in the East New Britain province, which is part of the Bismarck Archipelago located off the east coast of mainland. But this is the thing about PNG – it makes you do strange things. It brings out the adventurer in you, which could be the reason this exciting new frontier is drawing visitors in increasing numbers.
“You put your fingers like this,” instructs our guide Valerie, holding two fingers in a V-shape to her lips, creating a tightened aperture through which she squirts the red juice a body-length away into the water. She turns to me expectantly; I’m up. I make the V with my fingers, purse my lips, gather the bitter juice — and dribble it all over my hands and white T-shirt.
I’m distracted by our boat drawing up to the shore, black with the volcanic ash sifting down from Mount Tavurvur. “You keen to hike up?” asks one of my travel companions, tossing his head in the direction of the steaming cone that is one of the country’s most active volcanoes, the same one that wiped out East New Britain’s old capital, Rabaul, 20 years ago.
Off we trudge through the ash, getting increasingly warm with each unsteady step. Ten minutes pass, then 20. The 30-minute mark heralds a realisation we’re again doing something we’d normally consider too risky. We contemplate turning back, but experience a surge of FOMO and push on.
By the time we reach the summit, our shoulders are neon with sunburn and the thick ash and sulphur fumes are making it difficult to breathe. Of course, we forget all of this the moment we peer over the crater edge and into the mouth of Tarvurvur. Inside, the ashen pit smoulders, accompanied by the alarming roar of the lava surging beneath. It’s terrifyingly beautiful.
We only stay for two minutes, but they’re two minutes we’ll never forget. Not only because of the magnificent views, but also because in a week’s time, when we’re safely back home, we will discover that Tarvurvur has erupted once again.
Within minutes of our return to the base of the volcano, we are travelling by boat to the nearby bubbling Rababa hot springs. As we jump onto the black-sand beach, clouds of sulfur-scented steam waft towards us, followed by a small group of giggling kids. Each of them holds out a tiny cupped hand, creating a fleshy nest for eggs that are about three times the size of a chicken egg. The eldest of the group, who looks to be in her early teens, motions for us to follow her to the edge of the springs where she gently places the eggs in the water. A few minutes later we’re all cracking shells and munching the yolky goodness. Our snack comes courtesy of the megapode, or New Guinea scrub fowl, a bird that buries its eggs in the warm volcanic ash to incubate them, and which these kids then dig up and sell to travellers.
Wiping the yolk from our mouths, we wave goodbye to the kids and climb back into our boat, which whizzes us at bottom-numbing speed over to Duke of York Island, about 30 kilometres east of Rabaul.
We draw up to a picture-perfect cove of pure gold sand and crystal-blue waters, with only local fisherman in dugout canoes as company. Soon we’re snorkelling over a flat coral bed filled with glittering tropical fish, globs of magnetic blue starfish and chunks of technicolour coral. We can’t imagine nature putting on a better show, but then we’re back on the boat, circling Blanche Bay and we spot a dolphin leaping from the water in a silver wave. Within minutes there are half a dozen of them, twisting through the air and playfully racing our boat.
After the show we head to our hotel, the aptly named Kokopo Beach Bungalows Resort, in East New Britain’s capital, Kokopo. As we’re sipping G&Ts on the tree-fringed deck, the ground starts to shudder. It’s subtle – not enough to faze the local staff, but an earthquake all the same.
The following morning we’re awoken by great pellets of rain splashing down on the windows. The downpour doesn’t bode well for the annual National Mask Festival, the reason we’ve come to PNG. The event, which runs from 15-19 July and celebrates its 20 anniversary this year, is meant to start with a sunrise performance on the beach.
Fortunately, the rain eases by 8am and we make our way down to Kokopo Beach for the Kinavai ceremony, which signifies the landing of the Tolai indigenous people on the shores of East New Britain. A crowd of tourists stand on the beach, gazing out towards the horizon. To one side, local men in red and black sarongs stand waiting, strands of local shell money strung around their necks and their faces encrusted with paint.
These men are from the Tubuan society, a secret men’s organisation that has existed since the 1700s. As we wait, I strike up a conversation with the chairman of the society, a rotund, mustachioed man named John Robbins.
“Some people reckon it’s a cult, but it’s not a cult,” he says, his eyes fixed on the shore as he thoughtfully chews his betel nut. He says the Tubuan society pre-dates the arrival of Christianity on the island and that, according to a recent census, it has some 190,000 members.
As for what the men actually do in the society, all Robbins offers by way of explanation is, “If you do something wrong here you might think, ‘Who saw me?’ But us Tubuans have secret eyes everywhere.” And with that he’s off, grabbing his feathered spear and jogging down to the shore. There he awaits a dozen canoes filled with chanting, dancing elders, initiated young men and duk-duks – tall spirit dancers in conical headdresses, their torsos covered in leaves – all slowly moving towards the beach from Matupit Island. Robbins and his fellow Tubuans send a guttural battle cry out towards the boats, and the whooping and dancing becomes increasingly feverish until the men reach the shore and disembark in a heaving, shrieking, spear-waving mass. It’s primal and tribal and part of a society that, as a woman, I know will remain an intriguing mystery.
The festivities continue that afternoon at the Kokopo Showgrounds, where a series of song and dance performances by groups from all over the country will be staged during the next two days. En route we visit the open-air Kokopo Market, where we peruse row upon row of stalls – some just a simple sheet on the ground – run mostly by women dressed in loose floral-print dresses. They’re selling everything from fruit, vegetables and smoked fish wrapped in banana leaves to betel nut and its accompaniments (mustard stick and powdered lime), as well as brightly coloured string bilum bags used by locals to carry babies, shopping, woven palm leaf mats and more. We try our best to negotiate with the friendly stallholders, then decide it’s time to escape the oppressive afternoon heat and head for the showgrounds.
As we enter, the dancers jump into the arena in an explosion of colour and rhythm, accompanied by the beating of dozens of kundu (lizard-skin drums). We watch the frenzied fiesta from a shaded grandstand as the dancers use their feathered and painted costumes, towering headdresses and intricate sacred masks to weave ancient ancestral tales.
The highlight of the festival, however, comes the following evening. As night closes in, we take a bus into the mountains, disembarking at a forest clearing in Kainaguna village. Seated around a bonfire, we wait. Soon dancers start arriving, wearing grass capes and painted masks half as big as their bodies. One by one, they run barefoot through the fire, chanting hypnotically and kicking the embers as they go, sending sparks flying.
These are the Baining people from East New Britain’s Baining Mountains, said to be the original inhabitants of the Gazelle Peninsula. Legend has it that they were driven into the mountains when the Tolai people migrated to East New Britain. Tonight’s fire dance tells this story. We sit, entranced by the throbbing chants and flickering firelight for two hours. When our eyes start to flutter closed, we know it’s time to leave. The dancers, however, will stay all night until the fire dies out.
Mount Tavurvur’s 1994 eruption flattened most of Rabaul’s buildings, but Rabaul Hotel was one of the few left standing and has since become something of a local landmark. Stop for lunch at the Phoenix Room restaurant and visit the on-site Japanese bunker. Afterwards, drive up the hill to the Rabaul Volcano Observatory for frangipani-fringed views over Simpson Harbour. Mango Ave, Rabaul; +675 982 1999; www.rabaulhotel.com.pg.
Gazelle Peninsula Tour
Rabaul was captured by the Japanese during the Second World War and the town became their main base in Papua New Guinea. Explore the old Japanese barge tunnels which disguised the Japanese forces from Allied detection, check out war relics at Rabaul Museum, visit underground bunkers and more on a tour of the Gazelle Peninsula. Bookings at www.kokopobeachbungalow.com.pg.