With more than 80 per cent of Papua New Guineans living in rural areas, culture still plays a major part in everyday life. Rituals from thousands of years ago are still practised and handed on to new generations.
PNG’s cultural festivals are fabulous opportunity to see these ancient practices when tribes wear their traditional face paint and costumes, known as bilas, and gather from across the province or the country to perform their tribal dances. It’s a mass of colour, wide smiles, shell necklaces, ornate feathered costumes, dancing, and hypnotic drum beats.
The largest and best known – about 500 foreign tourists attend each year – is the annual Mount Hagen Show in the Highlands, where around 100 tribes from across PNG gather in arguably one of the most colourful spectacles on earth. Held every August, it is a photographer’s dream.
Ambunti, a small community on the Sepik River, holds the Sepik Crocodile Festival each August. More than 20 tribes gather to celebrate the important role this revered reptile plays in their lives. Prepare to see crocs of all kinds – including live ones!
Another festival linked to wildlife is the Shark Calling Festival on the island of New Ireland, 500 miles east of mainland Papua New Guinea, held in June.
The Madang Festival in early June features cultural groups from the six districts of Madang, including the Simbai people of the province’s interior highlands.
The National Mask Festival, held in Kokopo – just near Rabaul – in July, is another cultural extravaganza, featuring traditional masks from East New Britain, New Ireland and various other parts of PNG.
Rivalling Mt Hagen for colour and diversity, the Goroka Show is held in September in the Eastern Highlands. Goroka also attracts more than 100 tribes to perform wonderful displays of traditional song, dance and ritual.
Port Moresby’s big event is the three-day Hiri Moale Festival, celebrated around September 16 to coincide with Independence Day. Motu people race giant canoes and celebrate the shift in trade winds that traditionally brought traders home from the Gulf region where they exchanged earth-fired pots for food. There’s a Miss Hiri Queen contest. The festival location is Ela Beach.
The Kenu and Kundu Festival, celebrating canoes and kundu drums, is held in Milne Bay each November. The colours and patterns of the decorated canoes reflect the area’s people and traditions.