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A quiet, contemplative mood came over me as I sat in the Rababa Hot Springs, gazing upward at two active volcanoes: Vulcan and Mount Tavurvur. Nearby, my guide found a much hotter thermal spring and began to boil a pair of megapode eggs, which we got for about $2 from the local Matupit people. These locals had dug through 6 feet of volcanic ash to uncover the bird’s ultra-rich, football-shaped eggs — a primary source of food and income for the community. When the eggs were just right, we peeled them and took a bite, letting the buttery yolk drip over our hands and onto the ground.
This was not a typical experience that could happen anywhere else in the world. A day like this could only happen in Rabaul, a town in the East New Britain province of Papua New Guinea (PNG).
Famous for its volcanic eruptions, scuba diving sites and World War II relics, Rabaul remains one of the most compelling, authentic and safe destinations to visit in a country plagued by high crime, rape and murder rates.
Fortunately, problem areas such as Port Moresby — the largest city and capital — can be avoided via a same-day connection to the recently opened Rabaul Airport.
According to the U.S. Department of State, organized tours booked through travel agencies are the safest way to explore the country, and they include a local guide to be by a client’s side every step of the way. My trip was arranged by Travcoa, which was one of the first tour operators to escort groups to PNG some 30 years ago.
“With tourism to PNG still new, the unstainable aspects that have occurred in other destinations are not apparent here,” said Joshua Smith, associate director of private travel for Travcoa.
In fact, he cites the destination as one of his favorites in the world.
“With more than 800 languages and tribes, the diversity is endless,” Smith said. “That access to one of the last remote places on earth provides the adventure our clients seek and desire.”
The adventure I sought was spending time with local tribespeople and speaking with them about their customs, daily life, aspirations and feelings about the outside world. For that reason, Travcoa suggested I attend the 21st annual National Mask & Warwagira Festivals, which ran July 15-19 in Kokopo.
The event kicked off with The Kinavai, a sunrise ceremony on the beach that was performed by the often-feared Tolai people. When I asked my guide about the significance of the ceremony and what the dances and chants represent, a look of terror came over her face, and she motioned for me to be quiet. Here, women are not allowed to know anything about Tolai’s secret society, Tumbuan, which is made up entirely of men. They sing in a language understood only by men, and if a woman knew these sacred customs, it is believed that tragedy would strike for her and her family.
There were, however, many tribes that I was able to interact with, including the Baining people. The Baining were pushed out of their coastal home in the Gazelle Peninsula by the Tolai and now reside in the Baining Mountains.
In conjunction with the festival, the Baining treated us to a traditional fire dance in their village. This was a deep honor, as the dances are typically reserved for funerals, weddings and other significant community events.
As the Baining charged through the flames and kicked smoldering wooden sticks with their bare feet, chunks of burning branches and ashes soared toward us. While elders sang about their ancestors or battles between clans, other tribesmen danced in gigantic Kavet masks, conical caps called Lingen and long, rectangular Vungvung masks, each symbolic of spirits found in the forest.
“Masks generally represent the fruits of trees, leaves of wild taro, grasshoppers, moths, butterflies and so on,” said Inna Yaneva-Toraman, an anthropologist who has been living with the neighboring Kairak Baining people for the past five months. “While these are the most frequently made masks, new ones may be constructed — new designs usually appear after they are seen in a dream.”
During the rest of festival, I watched as men dressed like lizards and birds worked the crowd. Piled out of the back of modified pickup trucks, tribe after tribe arrived, announcing their entrances with startling cheers and high-pitched chirps. They chewed (and spat out) betel nuts; traded shells as a form of money; and sang their hearts out for the crowd.
This was a perfect example of life in rural Papua New Guinea — and you can bet there’s no other place in the world quite like it.
Both Qantas and Virgin Australia airlines fly nonstop from Los Angeles to Brisbane, Australia. From there, take Qantas, Virgin or Air Niugini to Port Moresby. Same-day flights to Rabaul are available via Air Niugini.
WHERE TO STAY
Kokopo Beach Bungalow ResortLocated on Blanche Bay, Kokopo Beach Bungalow Resort offers snorkel excursions, morning dolphin cruises and cultural tours of the Gazelle Peninsula.
Papua New Guinea Tourism Promotion Authoritywww.papuanewguinea.travel/usa