The whistle blew piercing sharply through the babble of voices. The pulsating rhythm of hundreds of bare feet pounding on the ground increased as the beat of the kundu drums slowly crescendoed. This was going to be spectacular.
It was 1968 and I was at the Mount Hagen Sing Sing in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. My girl friend and I had begun our overseas adventure starting in New Guinea as a stepping stone to add to our financial well-being before heading further afield.
The Sing Sing is a tourist attraction today but back then it was in its infancy. Australian Patrol Officers posted in the region decided to bring different tribal groups together for what we would loosely call “a meet and greet.” However it took a great deal of explaining and negotiation to encourage the “greet” aspect as many of the tribes were used to meeting in raids and conflict.
Only men were able to attend these early Sing Sings and they arrived clad in traditional tribal dress- each specific to their local villages.
The scene was mind-blowing to a recently arrived Melbourne girl. Hundreds of men, grouped in their regional areas, spread across the vast cleared valley in the jungle. When the whistle blew it signalled different groups to commence their dance. Gradually groups broke rank and mingled across the grounds.
The ornate head gear was fascinating with its intricate detail. Many displayed the colourful plumage of tropical birds including the magnificent long feathers of the bird of paradise with its iridescent blues and greens. Others used white cuscus fur from the native possum or had heavy wigs of woven human hair in unusual shapes. Boer tusks and the mother of pearl shells were prized possessions and these were used as facial adornments through the nose and ears while some hung around their necks signifying the owner’s wealth. The vibrant colours were sourced from local material- not a sign of western culture anywhere. Faces were painted largely in geometric shapes using ochre from the clay or scarlet from the berry juice especially the betel nut, which was chewed and spat out leaving stained orangey-red teeth and lips.
Animal fat was used freely to cover the skin and it glistened against the dark bodies. Seeds and smaller shells had been threaded into necklaces and often these were in many layers, dyed to add extra colour.
During the dancing the swishing long grass skirts sent waved patterns along the ranks. Others used large leaves or small branches held with plaited reeds and vines as the only form of lower covering.
Strangest of all though were the Asara mud men. These men were quite small in stature and their bodies were totally covered in a ghostly grey powder sourced from the muddy banks of the Asara River. Legend says that the villagers hid in the reeds of the river during a raid and then rose from the river banks coated in mud looking like departed spirits. They have continued this tribal tradition. Their heads were totally covered with large clay masks that rested on their shoulders. The features of these masks were deliberately grotesque to continue to send fear into the enemy ranks. Their only adornment was a large seed pod or a couple of banana leaves strategically placed, and not replaced, if they were lost during the day. Over their fingers they had hollow bamboo cane which elongated their hands. Their movements were slow and deliberate with their hands circling out around them. It was an eerie sensation to watch amidst the other energetic rituals.
No weapons of any kind were allowed and Patrol Officers wandered amongst the groups and remained watchful. A couple of shots were fired into the air when tensions rose and at times groups were separated during the two days and nights of festivities. The stamina to continue the music and dance was remarkable. After the event the men began the long trek back through the jungle tracks taking several days before reaching their villages. Roads didn’t stretch far from the township.
Whilst our curiosity was obvious and our cameras clicked continuously the curiosity was mutual. Some of the tribes had not had exposure to white women so two young pale skinned girls with their long blonde hair were intriguing and we had to contend with our hair and skin being touched- maybe wondering if my freckles were adornments and could be rubbed off!
It was a wonderful experience to witness this gathering with its amazing tribal customs and traditions. It was a highlight of the years I spent in New Guinea.