Mount Hagen, Papua New Guinea
In the middle of it all, I pause. The hypnotic, rhythmic tribal war calls, the impossibly vibrant tribal warriors adorned in paint and birds of paradise feathers, and the incessant heat of the midday sun. In this moment of calm, you realize where you are, amidst this dazzling spectacle unfolding around you. I am so happy in this very moment. I spend my life in search of moments like this. As I begin to smirk, the pause ends and I am brought back to the present. Maybe you understand this, maybe you don’t, but all I can tell you is that at that very moment, in the middle of the tribal Mt Hagen show, I have never felt so happy to find such a raw example of human nature and being, here in Papua New Guinea.
How to Cross the Indonesian/ Papua New Guinea Border Guide
With four days until the Mt Hagen show was to begin, I sat in an overpriced, dirty hotel in Jayapura, a city in Indonesia’s West Papua region. The plan was to fly here, get a visa at the PNG consulate, and cross to Vanimo, the border town in PNG. From there, I would find transport to Mt Hagen. The only problem was that the consulate hadn’t guaranteed when my visa would be processed, and I had no idea what the transport situation from Vanimo would be like.
Two days before, I went to the PNG consulate in Jayapura. I filled out the form, paid the fee, gave two photos, and provided a letter describing why I didn’t have an ongoing flight out of Papua. The women at the embassy said this would be sufficient and that the visa would be ready in two or three days.
PNG Embassy: PNG Embassy is in Jayapura, Indonesia, JL Kelapa Dua Entrop, Ruko Matoa Blok 6/7. TELEPHONE (+62) (967) 531 250. The visa service is open Monday-Thursday 0900-1200 and 1300-1400, Friday 0900-1200.
Lucky for me, when I checked in at the embassy after two days, my visa was ready and I was on my way that same day to PNG. From the hotel, my travel companions and I arranged transport to the border for 40 US dollars. Considering it is almost a two hour drive, the price wasn’t bad.
Crossing the PNG/Indonesia Border
Upon arriving at the border, we were ushered through an iron gate into Indonesian Customs. The Indonesian guards here are very intrusive and search your bags. The customs officers were also a delight. They threw the customs form at me and refused to let me use one of their multiple pens. After crossing into PNG, we instantly felt calm. The constant beeping horns and pollution of Indonesia lay behind us. In front of us were swaying palms, white sand and friendly smiling Papuans. We had to wake the border guards up from their nap to check our bags and stamp our passports.
Outside of customs, there were multiple mini vans waiting for people on their way to Vanimo. The bus cost $4 US and took about 45 minutes to Vanimo. The bus crossed many rivers while following the stunning coastline. Our fellow local passengers offered us beetle nut and were delighted to see travelers coming to PNG and riding the bus with them.
Vanimo, Papua New Guinea
Arriving to Vanimo from Indonesia is a bit of a shock. The hustle and bustle of Indonesia’s chaotic streets is replaced with the slow paced, chilled out South Pacific vibes of Papua New Guinea.
Vanimo is famed for its surfing, but for majority of the year there isn’t much going on. Apart from an outdoor market, grocery store, hardware store, airport (which is only a shack and landing strip) and a few seriously overpriced hotels, there isn’t much here.
We went directly to the airport to find out what our options were to get to Mount Hagen. A friendly Papuan worker at the airport named Marco explained we had two options. The first would be to go overland. If we were to choose this option we would definitely not make it in time, as it would involve bumpy long roads, multiple banana boats, and the chance of possibly getting stuck at any point of the journey.
The second option was to wait two days in Vanimo and pay $300 US for a connecting flight to Mount Hagen through Wewak. Because of the show starting in a few days this was the option we had to choose.
Tip: The bank in Vanimo is very unreliable; it took us almost the two full days to withdraw the money for the flights form the ATM. You can only pay in cash for the flights here.
Marco showed us to the Lutheran Church guesthouse which he ran with his son. The guest house costs $50 US per night per room. Each room comes with two beds so if you’re traveling with someone you can split the price.
There isn’t much to do in Vanimo outside surfing season. If you happen to be stuck here for a few days, as we were, don’t worry. There are a few hotel bars, a local SP beer dispensary, and a lovely little beach where you can drink the beer.
Getting to Mount Hagen
Two days relaxing in Vanimo was plenty. The day of our flight to Mount Hagen had finally come. Marco woke us up at 4am to get ready. We had coffee in the Lutheran guest house with the workers before Marco lead us down to the airport.
Here we waited until 7 am until our flight arrived. Waiting for our flight was quite the experience itself. Local Papuans piled Billum bags full of potatoes, and leafy greens on top of heavily taped cardboard boxes on the runway. There was no security, only a scale to weigh the luggage. After your bags are weighed you can stand on the runway and watch the plane arrive.
Our first flight was aboard an old twin prop plane which took us to Wewak, another coastal city a couple hundred kilometres east. We had six hours until our Wewak – Mount Hagen connection flight, so we decided to head into town for something to eat.
Wewak is much busier than Vanimo, but its still relatively low key compared to any other city in Indonesia’s West Papua Province. Wewak also has a lovely strip of white sand right in front of the airport. It’s a great place to chill, have a beer and go for a swim while waiting for your next flight.
Mt Hagen and the Highlands
From Wewak, our next flight left the emerald blue coastline and climbed higher into Papua New Guinea’s remote highlands. Flying over any other mountain chain you usually see signs of civilization, but in Papua New Guinea all you see is dense forest- covered mountains. Not until you enter Mount Hagen’s remote valley do you see deforestation and roads.
During the flight, two Papuans who had never flown before sat beside me. They asked for help with their seatbelts, and I had to calm them down during takeoff. It was incredible to see these humble people peer out the window with excitement as they experienced this for the first time.
Finally, after two flights and a six-hour layover, we arrived into Mount Hagen. Mt Hagen’s airport is much more developed than the other communities we had visited. Hopping into a shared minibus with four other travelers to the downtown of Mt Hagen also revealed how much more developed and busy it was here.
The streets were covered with people. Women carried vegetables, babies and pigs on their backs with string Billum bags. Men wielded machetes and pushed their livestock through the streets. The air is also quite smoky from all the houses burning wood, as the climate here is much cooler than the coastal towns.
Our mini bus dropped us off at the main market in town. It was incredibly busy, and many of the locals took notice of us. Large groups of Papuan men approached us and followed us around, making many in our group of travelers a bit on edge.
At this point, a white 4x4 pulled in front of us. A Papuan man exclaimed that it was not safe for us to be walking around town, and he would take us to a cheap guest house as he worked for the Mt Hagen tourism council. We were a little leery about this man as well, but decided to take his advice, as walking around with it getting dark did seem like not the best idea.
The Papuan did in fact bring us to a cheap guest house nearby which had 24hr security, and only cost us $15 US per night. Unfortunately, I do not know the name of the guest house, as it was unmarked and, for the most part, only available during festival times.
The Mount Hagen Highlands Show
Early the next day, we hitched a ride with a truck full of Papuan dancers heading to the festival grounds. The Mt Hagen show takes place 8 km outside of town centre, so you must either arrange transport or easily hitch a ride, as we did.
The outside of the festival can be visited without a pass. Here you can watch the Sing Sing dancers paint themselves, and warm up with their war dances. If you have not purchased your VIP entrance tickets you can do so at the main gates. Beware that there are fake officials going around at the main gate who will sell you a fake pass for a reduced cost that will in fact not allow you access to the festival. Make sure you buy the original pass which will cost 300 kina, which is about 100 dollars.
At the entrance to the grounds there is a open field on which the tribal dancer groups enter in a confusing order. Most of the time the dancers just come in when they please and there can be up to thirty different ethnic groups dancing at once. With your VIP pass you can enter the field and photograph as you please.
Many of the tourist treat this beautiful spectacle as a photo shoot. Don’t get me wrong, I took my fair share of photos, but if you spend time watching the dancers and talking with them you will learn so much more than just taking photos. Because I took the time to learn about each individual group, they would welcome me in to dance and talk with them. Many of the dancers offered me cigarettes and even food at times. It was a great experience to be a part of.
Two of my favourite tribes were the Enga and Huli tribes. Both tribes hailed from Papua’s highland region. They also have some distinctly similar features. They both create giant wigs made from human hair, which they wear as a proud decorated hat. The Enga dance in a uniform line, beating their drums in a hypnotic rhythm. The Huli are much more colourful, imitating the famed Birds of Paradise that are indigenous to this region. The Huli also have a much more war like cry to their call. Its masculine scream can be heard over many of the other tribes.
The Mount Hagen Festival truly is one of the most stunning and incredible sights I have ever seen. Papua New Guinea is very remote. Seeing the tribes here is a difficult process, but the Mt Hagen Festival allows travelers to witness all of them at once in their most glorious state.
The festival itself also brings up Papuan pride. The dancers compete with one another. This is an amazing thing unto itself, as many of the tribes, still to this day, participate in inter-tribal warfare with one another.
I spent the entire day listening to the chants, beating drums, and cheerful calls of celebration. Many times, I had to pause to take in the absolute beauty and serenity of these people, and the far-flung country of Papua New Guinea!
Mt Hagen Show Video
Location: Mount Hagen, Papua New Guinea
Daily Costs: 50 USD per day, plus up to 200 USD for Entrance.
Tips: Papua New Guinea is not a cheap destination due to the remoteness, and lack of infrastructure. Travel with friends and ask locals where local guest houses are. Eat at the fried chicken and sausage booths on the streets to cut costs. Avoid faux ticket sellers at the Hagen Show.
Recommended Guide: Lonely Papua New Guinea
Official Mount Hagen Show Website: https://www.papuanewguinea.travel/eventscalendar
Airline to get here: https://www.apng.com/en/bookings/