Birds of a Feather
Words by Rachael Kinley, executive summary by darmansjah
Visit Papua New Guinea to witness the spectacle of a Sing Sing
Amidst the pelt and plumage, they help each other apply make-up
Tribesmen paint their faces in readiness to celebrate their cultural heritage, making use of old car mirrors. Shells, the leaves of plants from the forest, marsupial skins and the plumage of birds of paradise help each tribe to reinforce its identity.
The people of Papua New Guinea (PNG) refer to the glorious mating displays of male birds of paradise as ‘sing sings’. Fittingly, they use the same phrase to talk about their own elaborate cultural performances. At the Mount Hagen Cultural Show, amidst the pelts and plumage, the Sing Sing performers help each other to apply bright, primary-coloured make-up, their bodies oiled in pig grease. Any reflective surface serves as a mirror, from old car parts to the lid of a child’s dressing-up box.
It’s only 9am, but a hot sun beats down. A slight breeze carries loud music and strong smells: paint, fragrant crushed leaves and animal fat turning rancid in the heat. The show is in the vicinity of Mount Hagen, PNG’s third largest city, but any traffic sounds are drowned out by the voices of throngs of people. Two thousand people are here to perform in the two-day festival, and tens of thousands more are gathering to witness the spectacle.
Jungle-covered mountains looming behind him, Geling, a man in his seventies sporting a baseball cap and a shabby suit, is absorbed in his task. Carefully taking his feathers out of their bamboo tube, he arranges them into his girupeng, a type of headdress worn by men from the Wahgi Valley. Today, his headdress contains the plumes of more than nine species of birds: including 13 long, quil-like specimens from the tail of a kaimek; seven iridescent breast plates from the superb bird of paradise; and two feathers from a raggiana, PNG’s national bird.
Geling is a Kondika tribesman, and together with people from the Konumbuka and Ngeneka tribes has formed the Gol Goi Cutural Group. Once they were in conflict with each other, but these tribes now dance and compete as a team. The Mount Hagen Cultural Show begin in 1961, established by missionaries to encourage competition between cultural groups without resorting to war. Now the Sing Sing is about celebration – helping to keep the cultural heritage of the tribes alive.
As drumbeats sail over from other Sing Sing groups ready to perform, it’s time for Geling and his troupe to transform themselves into magnificent male courting birds. As Geling removes his suit and puts on his mighty headdress, the years fall away and he becomes a surprisingly lither mover. He has three kina shells around his neck, a cuscus (a marsupial common in PNG) fur toupee, a selection of ‘ass-grass’ adorning his behind, and a cigarette hanging from his painted mouth. To complete the display, he pushes a green parrot feather through a hole in his septum. Grabbing his traditional kundu drum, Geling’s transformation is complete.
Hs headdress is the culmination of over 50 years of hunting, collecting and trading. In the Highlands of PNG feathers are highly valued, and showing them off has its rewards. As with birds of paradise, the most resplendent male attracts the most attention. Geling has seen plenty of Sing Sings, and plenty of women.
‘Today, when I came into the Sing Sing, I was on the first row,’ he says. “I could see a lot of people admiring my headdress an could see a woman pointing to my feathers, saying how I looked really handsome. During my lifetime, doing this Sing Sing, a total of 100 women have come to me.”
Gelling’s group take their place in the snaking line of the parade. His girupeng joins the sea of headdresses shaking to the rhythmic of the drums, their proud wearers bearing a striking resemblances to the birds from which their feathers came. Over 100 tribes from across the country are taking part, and the groups swirl through the streets in an unpredictable motion, all shimmering plumage and extraordinary vocal cries.
The adrenalin is palpable as the dancers are pushed together into the ever expanding queue to enter the stadium. Some of them have travelled overland for days to reach this Highland city for a change to perform. The groups are now incredibly close to each other, but there’s no taunting or goading. The dancers’ eyes are alert, but distant – focused on their performance and the competition to come.
As the announcement comes that the Sing Sing will soon begin, tourists make their way to the sheltered stadium seating. Thy look out onto a swathe of brightly coloured umbrellas, beneath which local spectators sit on the grassy bank. Visible beyond is the jungle, where the birds themselves live among the trees.
As the gates open, each troupe files in to perform, every one displaying its own unique style. The strong Enga women, with their black circular headdresses, grass skirts and bare painted breasts, shout out battle cries as they beat their drums. The notorious Huli, with yellow faces, red bodies and raggiana plumage, jump so that their feathers move as if in the courtship display of the male birds.
One thing unites the different groups. All have decorated themselves with treasures from the natural world and, for the main part, bird of paradise feathers. The Sing Sing groups wear their jungle plumage with pride and, like the birds themselves, they dance to attract attention.
‘When I see the birds displaying in the trees, I really like it,’says Geling. ‘I hunt for them, to bring the feathers back so I can put them on my head and dance like I see the birds doing.’ As he dances, Geling’s thoughts are in the forest. His group sings about the birds of paradise and their desire for the feathers:’They wanted the kongrak and they wanted the kaimek. We took the kongrak and it’s here with us. See that kongrak, our special bird.’
The show continues for several hours. As the stadium swells with performers, the singing and dancing overlaps. Eventually, all the groups are packed together, playing out their Sing Sing routines concurrently. By the end, the dancers’ painted faces are melting, the pigment rubbing away, but underneath the smiles are still bright. Their feathers will be carefully packed away until next year, tenderly preserved until their next proud display.
Filming At the mount Hagen Show
Rachael Kinley is a researcher for BBC One’s Human Planet, which took her to PNG. She has a degree in archaeology and anthropology from Cambridge University.
When first saw the location for the Mount Hagen Cutural Show a few weeks prior to the event, the rugby stadium was being plastered in Coca-Cola sponsorship and my hear sank. I thought that all the promises the tour company had made were just glorified propaganda, and what remained of this much-hyped cultural spectacle would be an over-regulated, corporate monstrosity.
However, after spending the following three weeks speaking to the dancers and seeing how important this event it to all the participants, my fears were allayed.
The people who make up this fantastic gathering want to share their traditions and heritage, to protect themselves against the threat of globalisation. Even with a backdrop of Coca-cola branding, this event is unique to the people of PNG.
Having watched several anthropological films about the country’s Highlands, it was an utter pleasure to be enveloped into one of the world’s most memorable and fascinating cultural shows.
Surrounded by jagged mountains, Mount Hagen sits in the lush Wahgi Valley in the heart the Papua New Guinea Highlands, The city’s annual show is a riot of body art and regalia, and a cultural highlight of any PNG itinerary.
further information : This article is about the city. For the volcano which the city named is after, see Mount Hagen (volcano).
|Elevation||5,502 ft (1,677 m)|
|Time zone||AEST (UTC+10)|
|Main languages||Melpa, Tok Pisin, English|
The Highlands Highway is the main arterial route to connect Mount Hagen with the coastal cities of Lae and Madang.
The city is named after the old eroded volcano Mount Hagen, located about 24 kilometres (15 mi) to the northwest. The volcano was named after the German colonial officer Curt von Hagen.
Getting there – Most people fly into Australia before heading on to Papua New Guinea (PNG)’s capital, Port Moresby. In Australia, depart from Brisbane, Cairns or Sydney with Air Niugini or Airlines PNG (airniugini.com.pg, apng.com), and connect with a 90-minute, daily service to Mount Hagen (from US$215 return). The airport is six miles from town.
Getting Around – Mount Hagen is easily navigated on foot or by taxi. Tour operators (see three of the Best Tour Operator: orion expedition cruises – departing from Cairns in Australia, Orion operates two luxury vessels – 11 nigh cruises, from US$8,150; orionexpeditions.com – Paiya Tours;run by local man Pym Mamindi, Paiya Tours offers four-to-six-day Mt Hagen Show packages based out of the Magic Mountain Lodge, near the Nebilyer Valley, from US$975; paiyatours.com) provide four-wheel vehicles with guides. Avis (avis.com.pg) is at Mount Hagen airport, and hiring a 4x4 will cost around US$85 a day. Local buses (PMV’s) congregate around Mount Hagen market.
When to Go – The Mount Hagen show is in mid-august. This is generally the cooler, drier time of year in PNg. The wet season is December to March.
Further reading – Bob connoly & Robin Anderson’s First Contact, is a companion book to their film chronicling the arrival of Europeans.
Easy Steps to Experiencing the mount hagen show
Make your arrangements at least eight months to a year in advance, as flights and accommodation do tend to get booked up early. Tour operators and agents buy out hotel rooms in Mount Hagen then sell them on in package deals, so often you’ll find the easiest way to secure a room is with an agent, such as Trans Niugini Tours – the oldest and biggest inbound tour operator is Trans Nuigini Tours. It offers a luxury, 12-day itinerary including three days in Mount Hagen for the show, from US$5,110 (pngtours.com).
Tickets for the Mount Hagen Show (two-day pass US$115) can be purchased through Trans Nuigini Tours (pngtours.com). there is a cheaper ‘general admission’ at US$1.50 but it restricts access. Preparation begin a few weeks before the show, and the market is stocked with kina shells, paint, feathers, boar tusks and pig fat used for body decoration.
If you arrive early on show days, around 8am, you can wander through the staging area behind the main arena. Here you can see people being made up, dressing and donning their headdresses. Vigorous improvisations and spontaneous performances here are often more powerful than the formal displays in the stadium.
Independent travel in PNG is quite doable, although tourist infrastructure is poor and costs are relatively high. Hotel Poroman in Mount Hagen is the pick of the mid-range places to stay, with decent amenities and an excellent restaurant. There isn’t huge difference between the budget and standard rooms, except for a television. Deluxe rooms come with a fridge and verandah (from US$120; hotleporoman.com.pg).
Alternatively, the upmarket Rondon Ridge, eight miles southeast of Mount Hagen, is the newest of Trans Niugini tours’ luxury widerness eco-lodges. It has modern bathrooms, electric blankets, continental quilts, and a cosy fireplace in the common lounge. At 2, 1k64 metres on Mount Kum, you’ll sleep among birds of paradise and rare mountain orchids (from US$805 for two; pngtours.com).
Mount Hagen is a great to try street food. ‘Kai-bars’ (food stalls) are a feature on PNG cities and sell fried chicken, boiled eggs, burgers and smoked fish ( dishes around US$0.80). excellent food is also available from the central market, on the corner of Wahgi Pde and Kum Rd.
Kumul Lodge, 40 mintues west of town, makes a great overnight excursion. Geared towards bird-watchers (you can see birds of paradise – in the lodge grounds), the self-contained bungalows are built from bush materials and have balconies overlooking the surrounding forest (from US$54; 00 675 542 1615
PNG to Explore
Why Go? Madang is among the prettiest towns in South Pacific, sited on a headland surrounded by islets with dazzling white-sand beaches, rivers, lakes and waterways. The scuba diving and snorkeling are world class: featuring soft corals, dramatic drop-offs, pelagic fish, turtles, countless shipwrecks and planes that ditched into the sea during WWII.
Stay with its exquisite gardens filled with orchids and endemic plants, the Madang Lodge is probably the country’s best moderately priced hotel. The lodge has an excellent restaurant in a seafront hasu win – a thatched, open-air building (from US$54; madanglodge.com).
Getting there Air Nuigini has flights to Madang from Port Moresby (airniugini.com.pg).
Why go? Kavieng is the capital of New Ireland, the northernmost large island in PNG. It’s a sleepy, seaside fishing town with a lively market. Kavieng is a great launching pad for explorations of nearby islands such as Lavongai, Lissenung and Nusa Lik, where you can kick back on a beachfront hammock or surf an excellent reef break.
Stay the kavieng Hotel has long been a favourite for yacht lovers, and divers in search of rays and barracudas. It’s not flash (book a room in the newer rear wing), but it’s comfortable with a good restaurant. Old-timers frequent the bar and tell stories, both tall and true (from US$38; 00 675 984 2199; email@example.com)
Getting there Air Nuigini flies daily from Port Moresby to Kavieng, via Rabaul or Manus island (airniugini.com.pg).
Why go? The Sepik River region is a remote and vast area on the banks of one of the world’s great rivers. Its people produce the most potent art in the pacific, worship crocodiles and have sacred notations for boys moving into manhood. Travel is by canoe, and the experience of staying houses is unforgettable.
Stay Villagers welcome visitors and provide lodgings in homes. Normally a fee is levied (about US$20 per night) and the giving of gifts is appropriate.
Getting there air nugini flies from Port Moresby to Wewak. From Wewak you can take PMVs (local buses; 4-7 hours; around US$15) or flights (around US$110; maf.org.au) to the main river villages where canoe trips depart from. The luxury tour boat Mv Sepi Spirit also offers a three-day tour package (from US$1,700; pngtours.com).
Will I Be Safe? Sensible precautions will help prevent opportunistic shake downs and petty crime.
Is Malaria a risk? Malaria is rare in PNG Highlands and mosquitoes are few. Covering up at dawn and dusk, and wearing insect repellent, should be enough. Risks are far higher around rivers, lakes and coastal regions.
‘New Guineans living high in the mountains’ valleys had already developed intensive agriculture.. when my European ancestors were still chasing woolly mammoths across the tundra.’ By Porofessor Tim Flannery , biologist and environmenl activist.