From my fenced car window, I see barbed wires everywhere. I watch kids on the streets carrying machetes bigger than themselves. I have just landed in the deep mountainous interior of Papua New Guinea’s Southern Highlands—a place that has long on my bucket list for a long time.
In our local guide Thomas’s car, we head from Tari town to Tari’s countryside, in the centre of the Huli country in the Hela Province. I’m aware of Papua New Guinea’s reputation for being especially dangerous, overrun with gangs of hoodlums, terrorised by violence. However, I’m also mindful that the place is without a doubt among the most culturally intriguing frontiers left on the planet. I am travelling in a place that both frightens and excites, with endless possibilities of how my trip will unfold.
The island of New Guinea is the world’s second-largest island, located in a region southwest of the Pacific Ocean and north of Australia. It is an incredibly long journey from anywhere.
Nineteenth-century colonial history divided it; the western half, formerly known as Irian Jaya, is split between West Papua and Papua and comes under the jurisdiction of Indonesia. Since 1975, the island’s eastern part—Papua New Guinea—has been independent after 60 years under Australian rule. Here is where I am, in a Southern Highlands valley, Tari, one of the last places discovered by Western civilisation around the 1930s.
Papua New Guinea’s Highlands is a chain of mountain ranges and intermountain river valleys that support thriving agricultural communities. It’s abundant in mining, oil, and gas reserves. Highlanders live in clans and are comprised of several different tribes scattered across the Highland plateau surrounded by impenetrable mountains. Here, more than 200 languages are spoken and it is home to the highest concentration of tribes in the country—tribes that have kept little contact with each other.
It’s also in these mountains where aggression is more prevalent, owing to the isolation topography. I hear stories of cannibalism still running deep in this part of the world and that tribes fight mainly over three things: land, pigs, and women—in that order.
After a short drive from Tari town, we arrive at Lawanda village, which is home to the local Tura tribe. In this pocket of the Highlands, there are no hotels, but they offer “village stays.” So, we spend the following nights at the only available accommodation in the province—Thomas’s Guesthouse, where my husband and I are the only foreigners.
Later that evening, after we join Thomas’s family for dinner, I noticed all the females leaving the place to spend the night elsewhere. “The women sleep in a separate hut,” explains Thomas. “We can’t share the bedroom with any woman, even if they are our wives,” he goes on, “They bring us bad luck.”
For the next couple of days, we hiked the nearby mountains in the early mornings. We went through deep gorges, crisscrossed by vine bridges, where waterfalls plunge through the triple-canopy forest and heard rare species of birds in a distance. We visited the surrounding villages and came across fortune tellers who use skulls of their ancestors to foretell the future. Then, we met the Huli wigmen—the largest tribe of the Highlands, and who have lived in the Tari region for more than 1,000 years.
“Huli traditions are as old as these hills,” says Thomas, as we approach one of the central locations of the wigmen. The Hulis are famous for growing ornamental wigs from their hair as a ritual of initiation into adulthood. “Young Huli boys from 15 to 25 years old enter the bachelor school for up to three years,” says the wigmaster. “They come here to learn the processes of becoming a man and the fundamentals of Huli traditional costumes: from growing their hair to collecting feathers and making armbands. During this period, the boys are forbidden to have any contact with women. Not even their mothers,” he says, “We only accept virgin boys in the wig school.”
In the process of growing their wigs, the boys must wet their hair with holy water three times a day to keep it soft. Certain types of food should be avoided. Besides, they must adopt a special sleeping position on a neck rest with a wooden bar that can be raised as the volume of the wig increases. As the hair grows, it is gradually shaped using a circular band of bamboo, into a shape resembling a mushroom. After eighteen months, the hair is cut away and woven into a traditional Huli wig by the wigmaster. Additional adornments, such as parrot feathers or red ocher, are usually added to the wig. Some are for everyday use, others for ceremonies known as “singsings.”
As I talk to the wigmen (Thomas translates the conversation), I learnt that the human-hair wigs are not only a critical symbol of strength for the Huli tribe. It is also an essential component of their culture and an element of resilience. “It gives me a sense of pride and joy when I see that the boys from the bachelor school have finally learned what discipline is,” says the wigmaster proudly. “It means they have become men.”
With their bright yellow-painted faces, grass skirts and homemade drums, it’s obvious that the Highlanders have a talent for personal adornment. I am aware of larger “singsings” held in Mount Hagen and Goroka, in the Western and Eastern Highlands, where we find most of the travellers in Papua New Guinea. There is something in Tari that makes it feel raw and authentic, like a land lost in time. In its isolation, I see its value—not as an exotic spectacle to be watched, but the heart of the culture it represents.