I first met Lisa Pagotto, founder of one of my favourite boutique travel companies Crooked Compass, three years ago through Instagram. We immediately bonded over our shared loved of off-the-beaten-track destinations and exotic cultures, and quickly decided we needed to collaborate. It wasn’t long before Lisa had organised for me to tag along on Crooked Compass adventures to Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley and Peru’s otherworldly Rainbow Mountain for travel writing assignments, and I was so impressed by the truly unique itineraries Lisa crafted in both places.
Lisa is an incredibly inspiring woman who, in her early 30s, has already travelled to 99 countries, with number 100 coming up in December. So you can imagine how hard it was for me to decide on which of those destinations I wanted to chat to her about! I ended up landing on Papua New Guinea, where Lisa has travelled four times so far. It’s a destination that stole my heart when I travelled there myself a few years ago, and one that we both felt is so often misunderstood and underappreciated. Hopefully my chat with Lisa about this fascinating country, which is home to some of the world’s most unique tribal cultures and festivals, fantastic diving, lush jungles, pristine deserted islands and so much more, will help get you there sooner rather than later.
Lisa, hello! We have so much to cover in such a short space of time but… if you could pick three favourite destinations in PNG, where would they be and why?
First, I’d say Kavieng, the capital of the New Ireland province. It’s all turquoise waters, rich coral and marine life, laid-back island attitude and super fresh seafood. The markets are friendly and safe, and the locals make you feel really welcome. There’s so much to do in New Ireland province generally – natural swimming holes, fishing with the locals, diving, hiking, and meeting the traditional artisans of the Milligan Masks. Also, witnessing the unique Shark Calling festival where the local men rattle coconuts in the water to attract small reef sharks to their boats.
In the Western Highlands is the Jiwaka province near Mount Hagen town – culturally deep, undeveloped, raw and authentic. The tribes here aren’t influenced by tourism and traditional practices still take place. There are villages in this region that still haven’t seen white man in the flesh. There are spectacular hikes, coffee plantations, fresh streams you can drink from and locals who’ll welcome you into their villages to show you their organic farms. It’s also a great base for the Mount Hagen Cultural Show, outside of Mount Hagen town itself.
Only accessible by water, the Sepik is a world away. Spirit houses loom in clearings where traditional initiations still take place. These include skin cutting, where boys become men and are scarred to look like the crocodile, a reptile that’s so significant to life on the river. Motorised canoe is your mode of transport and the bird watching in this part of PNG is second to none. Accommodation is basic, but this means tourism hasn’t meddled too much with the natural environment. Intricate wooden carvings are everywhere – from ladders leading into the stilted houses, to carved masks hovering over doorways.
Papua New Guinea is a country composed of thousands of distinct tribal groups, each with fascinating traditions. Have you learnt about any of these from your travels?
I had the privilege of spending some time with the Asaro Mudmen at the Mount Hagen Cultural Show earlier this year where I asked about their masks, their traditions and their practices. Ben, one of the mudmen, explained that his great grandfather was one of the original mudmen. He told me that tribes used to rival and fight over women, pigs and land. One day, their village was raided by a tribe and they were chased down the steep hills to the river. Some of the men fell into the mud and emerged covered in clay. When the enemy arrived, they thought they were evil spirits and retracted, never to hassle the village again.
After this, the men started taking the mud from the river and rubbing it on their skin to keep other tribes away, and eventually started hand-making mud masks to wear over their faces. The masks don’t get fired in a kiln, they simply dry in the heat of the sun. They each have their own facial expressions – some have pig’s teeth and husks to make them appear more ferocious.
Recently at the Goroka Festival I ran into Ben again, and the following day he brought me some mud from the river to show me how they make their masks. He also gave me his original mudmask, which now sits proudly in my kitchen.
People are often scared to travel to this part of the world, because of tribal disputes and high levels of crime and general lawnessess in certain areas like Port Moresby. Have you ever felt unsafe there?
I travel to PNG several times a year now and not once have I ever felt unsafe. There’s a huge stigma around Port Moresby which is unjust. The city has cleaned itself up so much in recent years. Last year, the government introduced an initiative to remove all the razor wire in Port Moresby and those who didn’t pull it down were fined. Even just this action alone has transformed the face of the city. Of course, like in any large city there’s still crime, but your guides and hotel staff will point you in the right direction to ensure you avoid any areas that you shouldn’t venture through.
I once experienced the mask festival in Rabaul and was blown away by it. Have any of your visits coincided with the tribal festivals there? Can you describe them for us?
The Rabaul Mask Festival was the first festival I experienced, and the Bainings Fire Dancers were the biggest draw card for me. The men dance effortlessly through the fire, kicking up embers as sparks fly whilst holding these giant masks in front of their faces to hide their identities. This is an initiation of young men entering into adulthood. Their silhouettes against the flames are hypnotising and it almost seems like the dancers are in a trance as they chant through the crackling fire and the kundu drums thump in the background.
Mount Hagen Cultural Show was a completely different experience. Hundreds of tribes from the Western Highlands gather once a year to put their tribal animosities aside and celebrate their unique culture and traditions. What I loved was that the tribes all got ready in a large field outside the festival, and you could walk around and chat to them as they painted their faces using car rear-vision mirrors, pressed exotic feathers into their headdresses, and slapped on some pig oil to make their skin and leaves shiny. No-one asks you for money to take photos and they are happy for you to sit with them and watch while they prepare. The great thing about Mount Hagen is there are very few tourists.
Goroka Cultural Show, on the other hand, is huge. Celebrated each year on the Independence Day weekend, it draws crowds well into the thousands. There are stages, local bands performing, food stalls, exotic flower awards, greased up poles for you to try and climb to win the prize at the top (this year there was a doona and a chair) – it really has more of a carnival type feel to it and the crowds can be overwhelming.
There’s some pretty incredible wildlife in Papua New Guinea too. Can you tell us a bit about that, and where your favourite areas are for wildlife encounters?
PNG has incredible wildlife and a lot of it is endemic. The most well-known would be the bird life. I remember on my first PNG visit I saw their Victoria Crowned Pigeon and said to a local, “check out that bird!” The response was “That’s just a pigeon.” I thought back to our pigeons at home and how unimpressive they are compared to these beauties.
The underwater world of PNG is also extremely rich. The reefs are still largely intact, and you’ll find sea snakes, coral trout, parrot fish, and for those into the macro underwater world, nudiebranchs and pygmy seahorses.
Cuscus (a possum-like animal) and tree kangaroos are two animals you can still find in the wild if you venture into the jungle. You’ll also often see locals who have cuscus either on their shoulders or on a branch they’re carrying as they walk through town.
For a first-time visitor, what would you suggest for a one-week itinerary?
I think first-timers need to tread softly. PNG can be quite confronting even for the most experienced travellers and I don’t mean that in a negative way, just that people often don’t prepare for how basic it can be.
Rabaul is great starting point – it’s well developed, the hotels are decent and there’s plenty to do, including volcano hikes, swimming with dolphins, local markets, WWII history and the best sunsets in PNG. If you stay at Rapopo Plantation Resort, the fishermen bring in their catch as the sun starts to set and you can choose which fish you’d like them to cook up for you.
From here, I’d suggest taking the 20-minute flight to Kavieng for a few nights. The place to stay here is Nusa Island Retreat – just a five-minute boat ride from Kavieng city, you stay in open thatched bungalows with vast decks and inviting hammocks. The atmosphere is chilled, the food is plentiful and delicious. There’s a ladies jewellery market on the island run by the nearby village and the water is turquoise and safe to swim in.
Then, back to Port Moresby for two nights. Most people write off Port Moresby but it has changed so much in recent years. For those with family connections to PNG from WWII, a visit to the Bomona War Cemetery is a must. Be sure to check out the handicraft markets and the fish markets, and the incredible National Museum of Port Moresby that provides so much insight into the different cultures and provinces of the country. A visit to the Hanabara (Big Village), a village that lives on stilted houses, untouched and uninfluenced by the growing city around them, is also fascinating. For dinner, venture to the waterfront where there’s a strip of brand new alfresco dining options along the water.
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