Papua New Guinea is a land that boasts a unique cultural heritage. The South Pacific nation is home to 600 tribes, whose traditions and customs have been passed down through generations. Each year, the tribes gather to present their customs and traditions in some of the most fantastic festivals on the planet. Here are the ones you shouldn’t miss.
The people of Papua New Guinea (PNG) have a rich cultural heritage as varied as the country itself. Local tribes are spread out across the nation, from its highland hills down to its tropical islands. PNG’s colourful tribespeople draw inspiration from the region’s incredible landscapes and wildlife, and their unique traditions and customs have flourished over centuries because of their remoteness from one another. Known as sing-sings, festivals are a riot of colour, ornate outfits and beating drums. Here are some of the top festivals in Papua New Guinea that visitors to this magical nation will not want to miss.
The Goroka Show is one of the famous cultural festivals in the country. Set against the raw beauty and rolling mountains of the Highlands Region, this impressive festival attracts visitors around the world, and for two days in mid-September, the town’s population swells to almost 150,000 people. They gather at Goroka’s National Sports Institute on the country’s Independence Day weekend to watch performances from the different tribes. Performers decorate themselves in feathers and body paints, all unique to their tribes. Many also wear headdresses that would make an ornithologist blush – the plumes from birds of paradise are packed proudly alongside those from other rare species of birds.
There are many lodges and guesthouses for visitors, but be aware that the two more luxurious hotels, Bird of Paradise Hotel and Pacific Gardens Hotel, book up months in advance.
This festival in northern PNG is held in Abunti, on the banks of the Sepik River. It pays tribute to the revered salt and freshwater crocodiles that swim through these waters. In the Sepik region, crocs are of huge cultural significance to the community, so much so that one of the coming-of-age initiations in these tribes is to cut the skin on their back to resemble a crocodile.
“Men and crocodile share a special bond,” said Jacob Marek, secretary for the Crocodile Festival. “The crocodile symbolizes strength, power and manhood. Many boast scars cut into their skin during initiation. The scars run from the shoulder to hip.”
The cultural traditions, beliefs and legends based on these ancient animals are celebrated in the Sepik Crocodile Festival in August every year with canoe racing and spectacular performances.
The Morobe Agricultural Show is the country’s longest running cultural show, making it probably the most famous sing-sing in the country. The event takes place each year in late October, usually on the full-moon weekend, and is held at the showgrounds in Lae, PNG’s second-most populated urban area. The festival is split over two days, with the first 24 hours primarily dedicated to agricultural displays, and the second given over to the festivities most often associated with PNG sing-sings. Traditional dance performances, archery competitions and horse riding displays are on the agenda, and you can expect plenty of colourful outfits.
This festival is a tribute to the culture and people of PNG’s East New Britain province – the Tolai, Baining and Pomio tribes. Celebrating their fascinating mask cultures in the coastal town of Kokopo in July, the event is an extravaganza of dancing, ritual performance and story-telling. The celebrations at the Ralum showground begin when traditional Tolai shell money is exchanged, and at night, Baining fire dancers come from their mountain homes to perform, walking through flames in huge masks. Rare masked dance performances are also put on by the the Pomio and Sulka people, who reportedly travel for miles across the region to participate in the festival.
“Aside from the astonishing landscape of lush jungles, volcanoes and crystal clear waters of East New Britain, there are also hundreds of different cultural groups that have developed in virtual isolation to each other,” says Yolli Rado, Intrepid product manager for Oceania. “The Mask Festival is an opportunity to see some of these groups come together in a spectacle of rhythm and colour.”
This tremendous event has been celebrating the fascinating customs of local tribes for over 60 years. Founded in 1961 before PNG’s independence, the festival was designed as an annual gathering to unify the local tribes. To this day, the Melpa-speaking tribes of the Western Highlands celebrate with up to 50 other tribes from the provinces of PNG’s Highlands region, including the Jiwaka, Hela, Enga, and Chimbu. This mid-August sing-sing is a festival of costumes, crafts and colours. Traditional dances, singing and ritual performances are all staged, and there is also feasting.
“It’s the uniqueness of our cultural heritage and geographical locations that define our festivals,” adds Jacob. “Our 600 different tribal groups and different languages all contributed to make cultural events unique.”
Living in a bay that is home to some of the most spectacular marine biodiversity in the world means that the locals have developed a rich connection with the water.
Scuba divers from around the world also flock to Milne Bay to see the area’s underwater treasures. And to celebrate their close affinity with the sea, the locals put on a canoe festival in early November every year. The festival kicks off with a conch shell blown at dawn, accompanied by the rhythmic banging of kundu drums, and the small town of Alotau comes to life as people pack the shore to watch the famous canoe races.
Costumed warriors stand upright in the long, carved dugout canoes and paddle fiercely, their colourful crafts flying across the water against the mountainous backdrop of PNG’s mainland. Between races, visitors are entertained with tribal dancing and live music.
Enga, in the western Highlands, is PNG’s highest province. Each year in August in the province’s capital of Wabag, they put on a festival showcasing dozens of cultural performances from tribes all across the province. Discover the Engan’s famous sand painting, which is unique to the area, or watch one of the many dances and performances displayed nowhere else except for this region. These include the Engan dancers with black-painted faces and unique headdresses.
Tania Nugent, who helped organise the 2015 Pacific Games in Port Moresby, says: “In the 1930s, Enga Province was the last of PNG’s provinces to be contacted by the outside world. Traditional customs, rituals and ways of living are still practiced daily here.
“In the face of modernisation, the Enga Cultural Show was established to preserve and celebrate traditional knowledge. Here you can really immerse yourself in one of the world’s last frontiers of continuous and surviving indigenous culture.”
Held in PNG’s capital city, Port Moresby, this vibrant festival in September celebrates Motuan culture. The Motu live on the southern coast of PNG and historically would go on dangerous trading missions to distant parts of the Gulf of Papua. Although the Motu’s annual hiri, or trade, expeditions no longer take place, they commemorate their history in an annual festival. Spectators can easily imagine their epic sea voyages in their iconic vessels, known as lakatoi, when they watch the canoe races at the festival.
Traditionally they needed a crew of 30 men to sail these boats, constructed out of large logs and sails woven from coconut fibre. Most of the festival’s events take place around Ela Beach and the Sir Hubert Murray Stadium, and highlights include singing and dancing, arts and crafts displays, and the crowning of the Hiri queen.