Goroka, Papua New Guinea
The highland jungle is eerily quiet. A shroud of dense fog rolls over the lush mountains, not even a bird of paradise can be heard. Its as if the jungle knew that the warrior spirits of the Asaro were looming in the distance. As they draw closer, the fables come true. Fear takes hold, and your consciousness becomes a haze. That’s when the first Asaro Mudman breaks through the fog. Equipped with a club, his movements conjure up the feelings that he really could be a spirit from long ago. Fixating closer on the haunting movements of the Mudmen you realize that he was only a distraction, as now there are over a dozen Mudmen around you. Luckily for me, these Asaro Mudmen were just displaying their warrior feats and had no intentions of taking me to the spirit world. Papua New Guinea could not be more enthralling.
Who are the Asaro Mudmen?
If there is one thing that the tribes of Papua New Guinea can agree on, it is their fear of spirits and ghosts. The tribes are very superstitious and perform rituals of cannibalism and sacrifice to fend of these pesky spirits.
Legend has it, the Asaro were defeated in battle by another highland tribe and were forced to flee to the Asaro River. Falling into the river, the Asaro warriors were covered in thick white mud. When crawling out from the mud, the highland warriors that were chasing them believed that the spirits of the fallen Asaro had come back to fight them. The highland tribe ran for their lives back to their village to perform special ceremonies.
After this, the Asaro began to create terrifying masks of mud and created movements that spirits are said to have. Whenever enemy tribes would come, the Asaro would adorn their spooky outfits and scare off any threat once again.
Getting to Goroka, Papua New Guinea
Goroka is one of Papua New Guinea’s most pleasant towns. Situated in a lush green valley in the center of the Papuan Highlands, Goroka makes for a great stop for any would-be traveler to Papua New Guinea.
Goroka can be reached in a few different ways depending on the direction you’re coming from.
From Indonesia – coming from Indonesia your first port will be Vanimo. Here you can take the long overland boat and bus trip to Madang, or you can get a flight to Goroka. Most of the flights stop over in Wewak or Madang, but you can easily get to Goroka the same day.
The road from Lae and Madang – The sealed paved road from Lae or Madang is a very pleasant way to get to Goroka. You can hop on any of the Bus/truck transports heading this way. The journey varies but takes around 5 – 6 hours depending on weather, and the type of transport you get on.
Flight from Port Moresby – There are no roads from the capital city Port Moresby to Goroka. Your only option is to take a very pricey flight. There are deals, however, so make sure you check Papua New Guineas Airlines Air Niugini and PNG Airlines. PNG Airlines tends to be quite a bit cheaper.
The road from Mount Hagen – This stunning road snakes through the highlands and passes by some of Papua New Guineas most stunning scenery. If you’re lucky you can ride on top of the bus to get the best photos!
Goroka is one of Papua New Guineas safest and most pretty communities. The leafy streets are full of colorful markets, and plenty of accommodation opportunities. There are even a few tourist shops that sell unique handicrafts from tribes around the area. Here’s a quick guide for Goroka, Papua New Guinea.
Where to Stay in Goroka
When my bus first arrived into Goroka the accommodations looked bleak. Papua New Guineas tourism infrastructure is lacking, to say the least, but the budget travel is almost nonexistent. After exploring the town for a bit, I found that Goroka was one of the first places in Papua New Guinea, that did happen to have a few budget places.
I stayed at the Good Samaritan Lodge, I do believe its also known as the GK Lodge. Regardless the area around here had a few other options as well. I had to wake up the owner in order to get a room, but hey, five of us shared a 50 USD room!
If you want luxury there are a few lodges and hotels near to the center. I checked out the Bird of Paradise Hotel as it had a pizza restaurant, and the rooms looked great. They did start at over a 100 USD though.
Food Options in Goroka
Like almost everywhere in Papua New Guinea, the food options are not great. Most travelers opt for buying food in the supermarkets and self-catering. This is great when you have a kitchen, but you’ll have to get creative as the supermarkets don’t have great options either. One night I whipped up a masterpiece of instant noodles and corned beef.
Goroka has the standard fried chicken and fish restaurants, but it’s also the only place in Papua New Guinea that had Pizza! The Birds of Paradise Hotels serves classic flatbread pizza at an overpriced (yet totally worth it) comfortable restaurant.
Keeping safe in Goroka
There is no way around it, Papua New Guinea does suffer from a high crime rate. The reputation it has been given by the travel community is somewhat unfair though. As long as you practice the obvious measures like not going out at night, not flaunting your wealth, and being respectful, you should not run into any issues.
Goroka has had violent muggings in the past, but these situations can be avoided as long as you play it smart. If you must go out at night, ask the hotel to send one of their staff with you, and be wary of any unofficial guides as they may ask for more money when you least expect it.
Goroka is safer than other cities in PNG. Do remember though that this is still PNG and tourism here is not commonplace unless the Goroka Festiva is in town.
Hiking Mt Kis with our Spirit Guide
The next day after arriving in Goroka from Mount Hagen, my friends and I found a small tour company downtown that offered escapes to the nearby tribes. We booked our tour same day and would visit two tribes in the area. First would be the Spirit tribe of Namasaro located at the foot of Mt Kis and in the afternoon the Mudmen of Asaro.
Tours in PNG -Taking tours in Papua New Guinea is almost the only way to see the tribes. Just showing up at the villages is not always taken kindly. The Asaro definitely need notice if you are coming as it takes time to prepare themselves for the mud ceremony. Make sure you negotiate as prices start high!
The tour started with a quick van ride to the outskirts of Goroka where we walked to a small hut village. Here our “spirit guide” approached us. He was painted in black and white with his stomach reserved for the image of a ghoulish spooky face.
He explained to us the mountain path ahead has many spirits, and we will have to follow his lead, or else suffer the consequences of what the spirits were capable of.
Near the summit, we entered a cave in which a special fern leave is needed to be carried. This cave was used for cannibal ceremonies, and the fern leaf tells the eaten spirits that you are with a spirit guide.
Kuru – Dubbed the laughing disease as it left the victims with a grin when they died, Kuru is a disease that affects the central nervous system and can last years before death occurs. It was rampant in the area of Goroka until it was studied in the early 1900’s. The cause was linked to people who practiced cannibalism, more specifically those who ate human brains.
Atop the cave is the summit of Mount Kis. The Christian community desecrated this traditional Papuan spirit sight with a large metal cross placed right on the sacrificial rock, a sore sight indeed. From here, you can see all of the Goroka Valley, the view is spectacular.
Namasaro Spirit Ceremony
Returning back to the villager at the foot of Mt Kis we found that the elders had assembled the Spirit Guides all together for a Sing Sing.
Sing Sing – Anytime Papuans get together to feats, dance or prepare for war they have what’s called a Sing Sing. Attending a Papuan Sing Sing is essential to any trip to Papua New Guinea. Unfortunate with independent travel to Papua New Guinea this can be a very expensive thing to do. It can seem like a game of chance if one is happening when you arrive in a village but for more certainty, ask tour companies if they know of one happening anywhere.
This tribe particular dance is very unique. They cover themselves with white mud and the leader wears a creepy mask made of tar and leather. All the partakers wear a belt made from tied rope and feathers, and apart from the leader wear a mask made from cassowary feathers. Wielding their spears, they stand in a line and bounce up and down imitating a bird of paradise.
Most Papuan tribes have a war cry, but the tribe here in Namasaro use more quite humming noises to resemble a bird spirit. The dance was amazing and when it finished the dancers explained how this dance can ward off spirits and also summon warrior spirits to help them succeed in battle.
The Asaro Mudmen
There is no tribe in Papua New Guinea quite like the Asaro Mudmen. Coming to PNG I was destined to see the authentic Mudmen in Asaro. I attended the annual Mount Hagen festival where the Asaro were said to be coming, but another “Mudmen” tribe had come. These ones had much smaller masks and didn’t meet the Mudmen quota I was searching for.
Getting to the Asaro Mudmen
Another short van ride fro Goroka brought us high up into the hills North of town. From here it is a pleasant 30-minute hike to the village. Finding the place without a guide would be very difficult as there are no signs to get you here. The village also looks like any other Papuan Village, accept Mudmen live here.
Asaro Mudmen Ceremony
The village elder escorted us to the creeping jungle on the south side of his village. Here we waited for the Mudmen. A horn sounded in the distance signifying that the Mud Spirits were coming. When the first Mudman broke through the fog wielding a club it was like a frenzy of Mudmen had barraged us from every angle.
From behind a Mudman with sharp long orange fingers grabbed me and, well scared the living crap out of me.
When the Asaro Mudmen/warriors were done immersing from around us they took off their helmets to greet us in the regular Papuan manner, a long drawn out handshake.
Many of the Mudmen were actually quite young to our surprise, their grandfathers were teaching them the ways of Mud. After we talked for some time we shared a drink and of course, were dressed up in Mud as well. To my surprise, these Mud helmets were extraordinarily heavy!
Useful Asaro Mudmen Information
Location: Goroka, Papua New Guinea
Recommended Guide: Lonely Planet Papua New Guinea