Lost in the mist of the Papua New Guinea’s highlands; one of the world’s most culturally and geographically diverse yet least explored countries, a raucous display of cultural pride and merriment awaits you at the world-famous Mount Hagen festival. But what is this celebration?
The Mount Hagan festival first took place in 1961 to unify tribes from all across the island. The history of each of these tribes dates back thousands of years and their cultures are fiercely and proudly maintained. Once a year, over the course of three days, hundreds of these tribes congregate in Mount Hagan, Papua New Guinea’s third largest city, in a celebration of music, dance, arts and crafts.
Each tribe is strikingly different, from the monochromatic skeleton men to the distinctive reds, blacks and yellows of the Foi tribesmen. This event is an opportunity for them to showcase their customary dances and traditional dress, as one of the largest sing-sings of the year.
Entering the festival is like entering another world. Hypnotic chanting and rhythmic drumbeats guide spectators through the untamed jungle into the arena, where you’ll instantly be overcome by the infectious electric atmosphere. Everywhere you look is a sight to behold, from bold body paint to carefully woven grass clothing; from heart-stopping masks to elaborate feathered headdresses; from artfully crafted bone jewellery to intricately decorated instruments. Many of the performances celebrate the individual tribe’s history, often paying tribute to their ancestors and worshipping their gods.
The mudmen of Pogla village coat their bodies in mud and fashion clay masks with demonic features, as a re-enactment of a legend in which they were forced off their land by the Kuli tribe and dressed as demons to scare them off and reclaim it. The Kaip tribe’s Spirit Dance has been passed down for generations and is used to call upon their ancestors to help them in times of trouble. The Chimbu people paint themselves as fearsome skeleton warriors, shuffling jauntily to add to the effect. The eponymous wigs of the Huli Wigmen are expertly sculpted as they are grown before being clipped and woven by the wig master, a tradition perfected over generations of practice. Naturally, the best is saved for last, as the Waipa dance, or ‘big jump’ dance, takes place on the final day of the festival. This mass dance is a truly sensational sight, and unique to Papua New Guinea.
Little is known about many of these tribes, but during these days they are happy to put on an incredible spectacle and interact with foreign visitors. Sample some local meat and vegetables cooked in a dug earth oven called a ‘mumu’, unique to the highlands area.
Trek through the jungles and scale the mountains of the Mount Hagen highlands, taking in the breath-taking views of the Wahgi Valley and keeping an eye out for the stunning local wildlife such as the beautiful birds of paradise and bizarre cassowaries and echidnas. Visit a witch doctor and watch a young boy’s initiation ceremony. Truly immerse yourself in these fascinating and colourful cultures and you can gain a profound understanding of Papua New Guinea’s customs.
The Mount Hagen festival is an exhibition, competition and celebration all rolled into one event that must be seen to be believed. Diverse in every sense of the word, the wealth of Papua New Guinea’s culture cannot be described, it must be experienced. Discover how Papua New Guinea earned its title as ‘The Land of the Unexpected.’