A smoky mist hangs on the surface of the lagoon near Wagu in Papua New Guinea. The prow of our canoe pushes through tall reeds, which in the early-morning light are a vibrant lime against the water. We forge deeper, landing the boat where the riverine lagoon rises into jungle. The leaf mould crackles with insects; bees burrow into trunks tightly corseted with vines. In the highest trees, where the whooping call is distinct and haunting, a bird of paradise flashes across a narrow window in the leaf cover. Paradisaea minor is one of the island’s 38 species of bird of paradise, with a yellow crown as bright as a ripened lemon, repeated in long tail feathers fading out to a smoke-coloured plume. No wonder the 18th-century milliners of Paris were so enamoured; flamboyant hats were the height of fashion, and New Guinea shipped up to 80,000 feathered skins to Europe annually.
I watch three of these birds through the canopy above my head, while our canoe’s skipper stands beside me. Now it is the boy, not the bird, who transfixes me. His face is that of a young child, suffused with a complete and consuming sense of wonder. He says this is the first bird of paradise he’s seen, and that it’s the most beautiful thing on earth. He lives nearby, yet not once has he been to this swath of forest, where the birds are known to gather. He sticks to the area where his clan resides, a 45-minute canoe journey downstream.
The two weeks I spend travelling round Papua New Guinea exhaust and enthral me with their spectacular intensity, from witnessing the initiation ritual of the country’s “crocodile men” (they scarify their bodies to look like the creature they revere) to choppering over forest ridges used by fruit-bat hunters (they catch their quarry in nets strung between openings in the trees). I see villages scored out of impenetrable hills, and spend an afternoon talking with the Mother of the Mountain – a “ghost woman”, so called because of the ghoulish faces her tribe paint on their bodies with charcoal and powdered limestone. She only stopped wearing traditional dress in the 1950s, with the arrival of American missionaries; her grandson, who translates for me, sits in a sweet-potato field reading a 2012 edition of the music magazine Mojo.
If you turn up in Papua New Guinea expecting a first-contact experience, then you’re half a century too late. “What you’re seeing now are the last remnants,” says Malcolm Smith-Kela, an English-born helicopter pilot, naturalised Papua New Guinea citizen and former provincial governor of the Eastern Highlands. He has been flying here since 1969, and tells bizarre stories of tribal encounters when he was pioneering his way through the wilderness. These days, however, the common garb is T-shirts, not pig fat and “arse grass” (pidgin for traditional costumes).
Tourist cameras are few and far between, mostly belonging to surfers, birders, divers and hikers. According to the national tourist board, they amounted to just 41,343 arrivals in 2013. That’s less than half the capacity of Wembley Stadium. Yet it is mostly for the outsiders’ benefit that tribes in more visited areas adorn themselves with ochre, bones and feathers – which makes it no less authentic, says Dr Robert Fisher, an eminent Australian anthropologist I bump into in the Eastern Highlands town of Goroka, home to the cultural Goroka Show. “They have the costumes to hand and use them for their own traditional rituals.”
This understanding changes everything – more specifically the integrity of the belief systems, initiation rituals and sorcery that still motivate Papua New Guinea’s tribal cultures. It removes suspicions of touristic tackiness from the “singsings” that villages put on as we crisscross the country by plane, canoe, boat and helicopter, navigating not-always-logical lines forced upon us by a land without effective infrastructure. We fly low over alluvial plains, velvet grasslands and spongy, moss-green swamps, cresting ridges illuminated with a line of light where the treetops graze the clouds. We talk to a tribe of mudmen who adorn their fingers with chiselled bamboo talons, and find necklaces strung with human fingers, in an exquisitely interesting museum in Goroka, that commemorate the dead. Yet in spite of this assault of otherness, it’s the simple, intimate encounter with the boy and the bird of paradise that sticks like a forest burr.
Only later do I understand why. The boy’s limited world, or rather the isolation of his community, speaks to the alluring strangeness of Papua New Guinea, a young, independent country occupying the east and southeast regions of the world’s second-largest island, after Greenland (the western half – formerly known as Irian Jaya, now West Papua – comes under Indonesia’s control). Papua New Guinea is home to more than 850 of the world’s almost 7,000 languages. Villages we visit within a few miles of each other cannot understand a word of their neighbours’ first language. These small-scale societies – in large part a result of the extreme topography that cuts communities off from each other – might run to a few dozen or 200,000, and for centuries have operated outside effective state control. Papua New Guineans have traditionally kept to their ancestral clan lands, only venturing off territory to steal a pig or a woman, or to wage tribal war in retribution for the last pig/woman theft. Even since the country gained independence in 1975, the isolation of each group has remained more or less intact, although in recent times there’s been a dispersal of young economic migrants to the cities. This means there’s little cultural homogeneity and a precarious sense of national identity, which expresses its fragility in the violent episodes besieging Papua New Guinea’s main population centres.
Still, there is no reason to be scared of the country, even if I don’t doubt the claims that its capital, Port Moresby, is among the most dangerous cities in the world (I don’t try to investigate, when its two best hotels, the Gateway Hotel and Airways, provide easy, sun-drenched respite from all the travelling Papua New Guinea demands). Nor do I discount the advice I’m given by a Lutheran missionary on my flight in from Singapore; he suggests I remove my jewellery or the “raskols” (pidgin for criminals) might catch sight of it.
But in the right hands, Papua New Guinea takes you to the core of extreme privilege – or rather, the luxury of access – when enabled by an expert who has put time into unravelling a destination no one else much bothers with, on the basis that the challenges are too many. There are easier sells, concedes Justin Wateridge, managing director of Steppes Travel, with whom I am travelling. Unlike other operators I talk to that feature the country, Steppes Travel doesn’t try to hide the realities, but instead loads up the warnings, including the “canned” tourism industry orientated around a few overvisited tribal festivals in August and September and centred upon the Highlands’ Goroka and Mount Hagen. As for why to go, Papua New Guinea is without doubt among the most ravishingly beautiful and culturally intriguing frontiers left on the planet, which is the reason it’s so exciting that there are new ways of exploring it in relative comfort.
Expeditionary cruising is among the more straight-forward means. With a boat it doesn’t matter how remote you go, as each night you return to pressed linens, massages and Baron de Rothschild wines. In Papua New Guinea, such a model is on the rise. This October, Silversea’s Silver Discoverer builds Papua New Guinea into its cruise schedule for the first time. Residential vessel The World is already dropping in, along with North Star Cruises’ True North – a 36-berth expedition ship out of Australia, with a Eurocopter EC 130 helicopter on board – while Princess Cruises has upped its visits from one to 11 for 2014.
But the boats miss out the Highlands, where the greatest concentration of tribes resides. Hence my interest in Steppes Travel’s new bespoke helicopter safaris, which prove much the best way to go for luxury travellers, mixing off-the-map communities – including the “cane swallowers”, whose initiation ritual involves forcing a bent, metre-long cut of bamboo down the throat – with remote beaches and volcano hikes, each trip supported by experienced pilots steeped in the topography’s challenges from decades of work in oil search and mining. An AS 350 B2 Squirrel costs around £1,800 an hour to charter (plus fuel); with the itineraries Steppes Travel designs, that works out as roughly £10,000 a day for a group of four people covering relatively significant distances, including the Highlands and coast. As proven by the booming helicopter safari trend in east Africa, it’s a very seductive offering; it also works in Papua New Guinea almost better than any other country, not least because there are so many machines in operation. “Lots of people in the Papua New Guinea hinterlands have seen helicopters before,” says Nicole Demosky, a Canadian in Goroka, “but they’ve never seen cars”. So impenetrable is the interior that there’s not even a road linking Goroka to Port Moresby.
Helicopters, however, don’t change the fact that accommodation I experience in Papua New Guinea generally isn’t yet of a convincing luxury calibre. There are plenty of places that are comfortable, and a few that have real character, including the exceptionally pretty Tufi Resort on the country’s north coast and the buzzy Pacific Gardens Hotel in Goroka, which is a hub for all the heli pilots based out of the Highlands. But in remote areas, it’s village homestays. Admittedly, the roll mat and bucket-shower experience in local villages isn’t for everyone, but I do it for three nights on a canoe safari and, while permanently sweating and besieged by mosquitoes, I learn more about tribal culture by being immersed in daily life than from anything I’m told by guides (this remains an issue in Papua New Guinea; the guide tends to change as you move about in order to ensure the person you’re with can speak the relevant local language). I watch the women cook fish and sago. I see a six-year-old disembowel a baby crocodile. I join men in the spirit houses – the haus tambaran, which local women are forbidden to enter – to see rituals performed to the beat of hollowed logs and drums stretched taut with lizard skins. Were my own skin any darker than Caucasian, I’d be stuck outside these sacred meeting houses with my Papua New Guinean sisters. Because I’m pale, I’m considered a spirit (“the white man”, as they call outsiders in pidgin, reminds them of how their bodies turn grey on death). My guide, Richard, who has a back puckered with cuts to make him look like a reptile, says – and thinks – that the colour of my skin renders me inhuman. I smile, because of all the men I meet in Papua New Guinea, he’s easily the most charming.
But then the light and dark sit close to each other in Papua New Guinea, which stops me short of exoticising all this otherness into some kind of forgotten Eden. Except, that is, for Tufi on the north coast. The blues are impossible, the high-walled, fjord-like rias filled with tongues of inky ocean in peacock, jade and cobalt. We snorkel reefs that bloom with balls of coral. We paddle into a mangrove forest, which is tall and ancient, where green parrots call to each other in the darkness. We look in vain for the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing – the world’s largest butterfly, with a wingspan of up to 30cm (the first specimen, brought down by a European with a shotgun, can be found in London’s Natural History Museum). We collect shells on blazes of white sand with local children whose parents are gardeners and fishermen. The families harvest just enough for themselves, going about their business silently, with sailcloths stitched together from sacks and old clothes, to power their shallow outriggers. All this can be accessed from the luxurious Tufi Resort, where lobster, sashimi and WiFi are on the menu, along with music at the bar and smart Australian wines.
It’s also here that I find Uramana – a 25m-high waterfall at the back of a deserted “fjord”. The water into which the river plummets is soulful in its stillness, shifting from blue to green to black with the changing light. Vines hang off the cliffs. There are orchids gripping trunks, and trunks gripping rocks, with roots like melted wax spreading down the precipice’s blackened flanks. We swim under the spray, nourished by its coldness. “Papua New Guinea isn’t the end of the earth,” says my Tufi guide William Keghana, “but sometimes I think you can see it from here.”