Danger they said. Driving over rough road, bushy humps undulating into the distance, the atmosphere is edgy. Moody-looking men carrying metre-long machetes wander on the roadside, mouths stained crimson. The city streets are rambling, the place anarchic, made more intense under the blistering sun. It seems there could be violence.

I’m in Mount Hagen, capital of Papua New Guinea’s Highland region, arrived on the early flight out of Port Moresby. “They eat people,” said my taxi driver on the way to the airport. “Who do?” “The Highlanders. Savage people. Cannibals, man.” Cannibals, savages, headhunters—I’ve heard the tales before.

The stories of the Papua New Guinea’s savagery abound. It’s a warring culture they told me, full of tribal conflict and darkness. And sure, the city of Mount Hagen—described to me earlier by an Australian expat as a shithole—doesn’t do it any favours. And then, a few minutes on, as the bus leaves the city, the scene changes. And not as I expected. 

We’ve moved from urban disorder to pretty, ordered countryside and suddenly everyone –and everything—seems to be smiling. There are coffee plants, sweet potato and peanut crops flourishing by the roadside. The bushes drip with red heliconia looking like Chinese fireworks. Each person stops and waves. Those basilisk faces are suddenly replaced by dimpling smiles. Even the air is so much cooler. My driver, Joe, beeps and waves at them in return. It’s an incredible contrast. “The Port Moresby people said you’re angry folk,” I venture. “The people from Port Moresby have never been up here,” he replies and goes on waving. “The countryside is not the city.” Indeed, I guess they’d feel the same about Moorgate at rush hour. 

Melting pot

Papua New Guinea lies in the eastern part of a long island off the north of Australia. Its geographical distance means it has so far escaped the grip of “civilization” and still has this raw, untamed spirit about it like few other places in the world.

In this island is a melting pot of humanity and wilderness—jungles atop beaches, volcanoes looking over paradisiacal seas, oily brown rivers winding through filmscape forests, ash-covered towns, fire breathing men, shrunken heads, incredible birds of paradise, dolphins, hogs, huge spiders as big as your head and well-tended gardens.

Getting a grip on this country in one go is pretty impossible. The landscape and culture is extraordinarily diverse—850 tribes, and as many languages, some so ancient and remote that few Western eyes have seen or heard them.

When I arrive at my residence, Rondon Ridge, high above the Wahgi valley, I’m hit by the beauty of the landscape. My room faces out across the valley and has a view that is lushness personified, an awesome green canopy sprouting over the mountains below.

Down in this valley I visit villages where huts and neatly tended gardens with lush plants and bright, blooming flowers housing cobwebs as big as a man, sit under the tropical sunshine. The people welcoming us are fierce-looking, carrying bows and serrated arrows. But, before I get too cowed, I’m told it’s for a ritual ceremony called a “sing-sing”—a spectacular show where men wearing oversized clay helmets dance to the beat of the drum while calling upon the spirit of their ancestors. Each tribe has its own sing-sing, drawing on ancient customs and rituals filled with meaning.

Getting a grip on this country in one go is pretty impossible.

Though I’m fifty-odd years too late to be a proper explorer I can see why PNG still holds a fascination for adventurers with its wilderness and remote tribes and ageless culture. Some of the most remote tribes live in the East Sepik province, 43,000 square kilometres—about twice the size of Wales—of thickly forested, mountain-blocked land north of the Highlands and my next stop. 

We land via this wobbly chartered plane—pretty much the only way to get to these places—that sways and swings until it drops perfectly into a grass strip in the forest. My new lodge, Karawari, was built on a high ridge in the jungle above the Karawari river. It’s another treat for the senses, stuffed full of colonial relics—black mahogany tables, tribal masks, drums and dark wooden statues with giant phalluses—and wildlife, like the friendly Toucan which flies to greet us and won’t leave until you give it some fruit. 

The river that flows below us is majestic and mysterious winding through the jungle like an oily snake. We take a steel-bottomed boat to explore as herons and multicoloured lorikeets glide by. It feels very very remote.

At one point the captain switches off the motor and I hear strange, eerie noises—hollow echoes around us sounding like a metallic howl. The skipper says it is the fish moving under the boat but it feels more ominous to me. A great, mystical presence in the water. Or maybe I’m just a little pickled by the sun.
There is need for disclosure here. PNG is not a walk in the park. If you’re expecting the Lake District you will be disappointed. The country is dismally poor—35th in the poorest countries list—and medication barely makes it to the isolated tribes along the river. And there is inter-tribal conflict. Wars. Headhunting once happened here too.

When I visit the tribes along the river we are taken to an old “man’s hut”—a place for the men to gather, dark and oily and steeped in some kind of ancient smoke. At the front of the hut are these tiny shriveled heads lined up in a row. It’s a sight to keep you enthralled and glad to be in possession of your own noggin. But it has also done a lot to skew the perception of the country. Certainly, it was no surprise to see the Western world react with shock and outrage when explorer Benedict Allen disappeared here in 2017 looking for the remote Yaifo tribe. He must have been eaten by cannibals, they said. But then he turned up a week later, thanking the two brothers who’d walked miles over forested mountains to get help to him.

Bird of Paradise

In truth there is vast beauty here. Including wildlife. PNG has 38 of the world’s 43 birds of paradise the most concentrated diversity in the world. Explorers believed the birds lived in heaven—hence birds of paradise—and could only be seen when they dropped dead onto the ground.

Ambua Lodge in Tari in the Highlands is gotten to by another single engine charter plane that lands you in the middle of the rainforest. I’m told I should seek out Joseph who, they say, is the Mozart of ornithologists and will help me to find birds.

So the next morning there I am. It’s six am, raining and we, myself and two globetrotting companions Michael and Ali, are waiting for the man they call God.
The wait is a long one because, like the birds, Joseph seems a little shy to engage today. Finally a figure emerges from the rain, dressed in a purple cagoule and drooping green beanie and not looking very happy.

“Joseph, I’ve heard all about you,” I cry, ignoring the signs and bounding up to him like an excited puppy. “To see the birds!” He stares at me with a cross expression and says: “No chance in this rain,” before getting up and walking off.

A few hours in and Joseph is persuaded to accompany us on a bus going up the hill to look at birds. He sits quietly at the front while outside the rain pours down getting heavier by the minute. There are certainly no birds about. Not a squawk. After an hour the bus turns and begins driving back down the hill.

Cascading white tail, dancing and flirting in the branches, it’s a second bird of paradise.

Seeing no birds I’m pretty depressed. Is this really the legendary Joseph? The one they said would find us the pageant of paradise? Where’s the man’s heart? Even as I’m thinking this Joseph has unexpectedly called for the driver to stop. He’s peering into a canopy of trees by the roadside. “In there,” he points. “Come.”

We quickly follow. Joseph bounds into the thickness and suddenly he’s all catlike, hopping through bushes and trees, down one turn and the next, weaving like a panther. Down in the thick of it he raises his hand for quiet.  “There,” he whispers, handing me his binoculars. “In the tree.” “Where?” “There you fool!” He points.

My eyes narrow and I see it—a bird of paradise! Not just any bird of paradise, it’s only the bloody King of Saxony. And it’s doing a display—head cocking like a chicken flapping this huge plume of feathers at some imagined lover. “And there,” Joseph shoots his arm to another tree. “Ribbontail.”

Yes! Cascading white tail, dancing and flirting in the branches, it’s a second bird of paradise. And there are more—tiger parrots, black sicklebills, astrapia, dropped down from the heavens, indeed. The trees are teeming with them as if Joseph arranged it for us. And suddenly I see the poet behind the facade. The genius behind the wall. And that’s PNG all over. A miraculous, mysterious face and a beautiful, smiling soul.

Getting there

Get to PNG on Air Niugini which flies daily from Singapore to Port Moresby. Wildlife Worldwide offers a twelve-day tour package around the Highlands and East Sepik provinces for £7595 pp which includes charter flights and lodge accommodation. Rondon Ridge, Ambua and Karawari lodges are operated by Trans Niugini Tours.