Unforgettable Adventures in a Lifetime of Traveling

Kermit Holt, Chicago Tribune Travel Editor

For the media to present a story, it must be r-e-a-l-l-y entertaining. Often the truth is embellished or the sensational is emphasized. But with Papua New Guinea’s Cultural Festivals there’s no need to exaggerate – these cultural pow wows are what The Chicago Tribune rightfully calls “one of the 12 travel wonders of the world.” Those who venture to this dance competition and gathering of the tribes say it’s one of the most memorable travel experiences available.
One recent traveler said he was going to have to begin a 12 step Photographers Anonymous group, he couldn’t stop taking pictures. Not only can you photograph the most exotic, colorful tribes people imaginable, the tribes people beckon you to take their picture for free. Friendly villagers are so proud to display their finery and culture. They recognize you have traveled all this distance to see them as rare human birds in their beautiful habitat. During the festival, the best pictures are as you watch face paint, feathers, shells, seed pods and other traditional decorations applied as body adornment.

The Cultural Festivals in May, June, August and September each differ. Though I have visited all the Shows in the locations over the decades, the newer, but more traditional Tumbuna Show is my favorite. It’s smaller, with easier to access photo opportunities, there are no fences separating visitors from participants, and there are no interminable political speeches inflicted on everyone in the midday sun. There’s convenient access to the groups; they are in a close-by oval area with shade. Best of all, there are only about forty or so travelers from the “outside world.”
Does Size Matter – Does it Make it a Better Fit? The Goroka Show in September is usually the biggest. However, for crowd control the tourists and visitors are kept from the parading tribes people by a barb wire fence. Entrance for those cherished close-ups might be limited to an hour or two, after the energy and film have been spent. Hotel space in town is scarce during this show – and a written confirmation can mean nothing. I saw front desk personnel look at the hotel confirmation as a meaningless piece of paper. No matter how many letters, e-mails, and phone calls one has made, sometimes one is shifted to a less desirable hotel, far, far from town, with possible delays in getting to the Show. Or one takes charter flights for day visits to the festival, not the most desirable option for this renowned event. Also, the Goroka Show has on rare occasion been changed in date or canceled on short notice.

The mid-August Mt. Hagen Show is popular and dependable for the wow factor. Flights, however, especially on the day after the Show can be delayed, creating havoc on one’s itinerary. There are only are only about 180 overseas visitors privileged to attend this two day celebration. This show is combined with a county fair type gathering. My frustrating experience related to the Mt. Hagen Show involves airline delays and complications. Since there are overseas clients gathered for this event, they all depart for international or domestic flights the day the show is over – so expect delayed flights or overbooking complications. It isn’t fun, spending all this time and money to be sitting at an airport for four to seven hours or having to stay an extra overnight because airline priorities are other than what one the overseas visitor might need.

In my 28 years of experience I have seen competing travel companies promise much, and deliver a mixed experience. Some print exciting colorful photos of Papua New Guineans as a brochure cover piece, but don’t travel anywhere near the area where these tribes can be seen. There are many fine honed details which can make a substantive difference to the Highlands Show trip. Verify if the trip is guaranteed to operate, if there is a trip escort and how long the escort has experience with PNG. Choose a trip with an experienced trip escort who can substantively enhance your understanding of the intricacies of this country which has 750 different languages. Does the Sepik River component to the trip have 15 or 45 travelers. Is there a day spent in transit on the open sea?

If visiting Papua New Guinea, make certain to include three days in the most colorful part of the country – the Huli Wigmen area and stay at Ambua Lodge with access to exciting jungle hikes, bird watching, and probably the most authentic, accessible traditional tribes people in the country. Most PNG travelers are experienced , but for this country it’s more important to be well prepared. 
Most of the festivals are in the Highlands, with a 5,000 to 7,000 ft. elevation, so the air is temperate and conducive to touring. Accommodations are comparable to the great wilderness hotels in Africa. The Cultural Shows substantively add to the cost and the quality of a Papua New Guinea trip. In a world of cultural travels, however, to attend one of these exciting, colorful festivals is to be immersed in sensory overload.

The destination is not value laden, but these tribal “Sing Sings” as the celebrations are called, are surely a worthwhile peak travel adventure. Now when travel has become a big business with hype and sizzle so common, the Highland Shows deliver an authentic travel experience. You will dine out on your stories and photos of the Mudmen, of the famous fierce Huli Wigmen and other tribes people competing in this dance competition. It’s a photographers paradise and armchair anthropologists thrill to the cultural immersion. It’s like being in a “National Geographic cultural documentary” but having nice accommodations and good food at the end of the day. 
Despite the adverse publicity about rascals, headhunters, cannibals, crime, and malaria, if one chooses an itinerary with a reputable tour operator, one will enjoy a dependable adventure in this ‘land of the unexpected.” Realize travelers and the media frequently embellish the adventures, the hardships, the arduous treks, and the sensational. The stories depict more daring and dangerous adventures than what actually occurred. Since so few people travel to PNG (approximately three to five thousand a year) these stories are seldom refuted. Traveling with a reputable PNG tour operator substantially reduces the risk of a spoiled trip. Note to intrepid travelers: This is a country one does not visit on one’s own.
Also, prepare yourself for post trip letdown; one can scarcely find a comparable exotic travel experience. When friends gather for a list of the top travel experiences, you too will will rightfully join the Chicago Tribune in calling the Highlands Show one of the twelve travel wonders of the world. Be ready to edit a huge kaleidoscope of many dazzling photos and travel memories.

Even after a lifetime of travel , after logging more than 2 million miles while visiting 130 countries and island groups, the task of compiling a personal list of a dozen of the world’s most memorable sights is relatively easy.
Listing more would be much harder. If one must stop to think about a certain travel experience, weigh one series of impressions against another, debate in one’s mind whether a particular trip belongs on the list, then obviously neither is truly unforgettable. Each chosen here is so outstanding that this list of 12 all but compiled itself. Choosing the 12 took three or four minutes, putting into words the reason for each inclusion, considerably longer. Here, then, is one traveler’s choice, not necessarily in order of preference, of 12 of the world’s most unforgettable travel experiences:
#3. Papua New Guinea’s Sing-Sing:
Only a few fortunate travelers have witnessed it, but among those who have, this tourist has yet to meet one who would disagree with this statement: Attending the Highlands Sing-Sing, in the now independent country of Papua New Guinea, is one of the most exciting experiences left on Earth.
The gigantic dance ceremony is a home movie fans dream come true: unforgettable color and spectacle and action on a color scale that even the late moviemaker Cecil B. De Mille couldn’t have conjured up (much less carried out) in his wildest fantasies.
And yet there it is, this unbelievable wild show, an experience of a lifetime, going on before your eyes: At least 2,000 – yes, 2,000, sometimes as many as 3,000 – paint-smeared, spear- and battle-ax-carrying tribesmen just steps away from the Stone Age, beplumed and bewigged in the most outlandishly beautiful headdress imaginable, performing in or viewing a 500-ring circus that goes on day and night for 48 hours.
Even the most blasé traveler literally shakes with excitement, finds it difficult to hold his camera steady at the spectacle unfolding before him – sometimes as many as 40,000 warriors performing in the arena at the same time, each in traditional dress of primitive war paint, often in incredibly beautiful bird-of-paradise plumes, each carrying out his own tribe’s highly stylized ritual, swaying and dancing and wailing and chanting in scores of different tongues to the beat of drums.
The ground literally shakes as thousands of feet stamp to primitive rhythms. Lines of warriors rise and dip and plumed headdresses and decorated bamboo frames sway to a sound like that of a locomotive chugging out of the station. Then they let out fierce war cries and stage mock battles with a realism that is positively frightening.
The site alternates between the frontier towns of Mt. Hagen and Goroka, in Goroka in mid-September and in Mt. Hagen (always the larger and more colorful of the two) in late August. Space often sells out nine months in advance!
But whether or not there is a sing-sing going on, a trip to Papua New Guinea at any time is a travel experience long to be remembered.

Although there will not be tens of thousands of tribespeople there, and the ground will not shake, the Highlands Sing-Sing is still one of the most colorful, exciting spectacles imaginable.
Riverboat down the Sepik River, mingle with tribes that create world-famous art, a “haus” tambarans” (spirit houses), bargain for unusual artifacts, and luxuriate at the Karawari and Ambua Lodges, two of the world’s great wilderness hotels amidst exciting “primitive” culture. You will experience a feeling for the land and its peoples, and sense the excitement and exotic colorfulness of a land untouched by mass tourism.
Your escort has years of experience and first hand familiarity with Papua New Guinea and you will join the ranks of those who say these trips provide one of the most exciting, memorable travel experiences in the world!