The Sounds and Colors of a Papua New Guinean Sing-sing

Posted on January 30, 2014 by

Wayne assured me that I would be in the company of real tribesmen and witnessing a truly authentic and unique sing-sing (celebratory festival or dance). I’d come all the way to Tufi, a remote  settlement in northeastern Papua New Guinea, to do just that — yet I still didn’t truly believe it could happen.

The Korafe tribe that I was due to visit must be one of those cultural groups organized by the resort for touristic purpose, I thought. After all, a 40-seater plane had brought me here and nothing at my comfy abode, the Tufi Dive Resort, implied primitive living.

But, as we paddled through the waters of McLaren Fjord flanked by acres of lush jungles and nothing else, I had to admit that there was no tourism industry here to speak of.

Paddling on outrigger canoes

In today’s fast-moving world, Papua New Guinea is modernizing but it’s in no rush to catch up with the rest. This giant Melanesian island (shared with Indonesia) is almost within touching distance to Australia, yet its rugged geographic terrain has made it into one of the most unique and challenging travel destinations in the world.

Colonial efforts never really reached PNG’s 820 tribes (each speaking a different language from another), spread across a wild geography of mountains, rivers and impenetrable jungles. Headhunting and cannibalism are long things of the past, but these days news of tribal clashes and violent crimes have unfortunately kept many travelers away.

But as I quickly find out a few days into my journey to this far-flung land, and every rumored story I’d heard about it was morphing into fantastical reality.

In today’s fast-moving world, Papua New Guinea is modernizing but it’s in no rush to catch up with the rest. This giant Melanesian island is almost within touching distance to Australia, yet its rugged geographic terrain has made it into one of the most unique and challenging travel destinations in the world.

Tufi, Papua New Guinea

Into Rural Papua New Guinea

Considered one of PNG’s best kept secrets, Tufi is a remote coastal area tucked in the stunning rias (fjords) of Cape Nelson in the Oro Province of rural Papua New Guinea. For first-time visitors like myself, it makes a great introduction to PNG with world-class diving at its doorstep, excellent treks across the ridges and rias, and vibrant, traditional tribal culture still very much alive.

To visit the Korafe tribe, our group of five – a diving couple from America, a Kiwi businessman and his Papua New Guinean wife, and myself – skipped over the green water of McLaren Fjord on a 21st-century speedboat before jumping onto outrigger canoes to navigate the narrow Kofure River.

With a young girl piloting our canoe in the front and a boy who looked no older than 12 years old at the back, we made our way upriver, heading deeper into the wilderness. The sound of the engine was long gone, and its in place was soothing silence — interrupted by the occasional Papuan hornbill flying overhead, the sounds of their flapping wings resembling that of a helicopter engine.

Hopping onto an outrigger canoe

As the stream got narrower and narrower, we found ourselves closer and closer to the mangroves that grew on the banks in the midst of tall coconut trees, pandanus, and bamboo thickets that spilled onto the water. Wispy clouds hung low on the top of the ridges, setting a scene that resembled that of Jurassic Park.

15 minutes of paddling later, the river widened and we headed for the bank. We had arrived.

The Tribal Way of Life

“Oro!” Welcome. We were greeted by a man decked out in shells, armbands made of grass, and an ochre-dyed tapa cloth around his loin. He introduced himself as William, a representative of his clan (one of the five that make up the Karafe tribe).

With William in the lead, we threaded through the thick jungle in the drenching humidity. Walking on the muddy track, we found ourselves slipping and sliding while our strong and tough guide was breezing through the forest despite being barefoot.

William explaining their traditions to us

At a clearing, two teenage boys dressed in grass skirts and green camouflage body painting suddenly exploded into the scene. Using bow and arrow as their armor, they antagonized us with ferocious expressions and loud voices. William explained that this was where ferocious tribal warfare took place centuries ago and today the tribes re-enact those days to celebrate their victory.

Deeper into the forest, we found several villagers seemingly going about their business. Men made fire on a long hardwood, a boy made fishing net out of the pandanus fibers, a woman chopped up sago palm and a woman was getting her facial tattoo (that the Korafe tribe is famed for) done with lemongrass thorns and charcoal ink.

Korafe women doing facial tattoo

I questioned if these were today’s Korafe culture — to which William replied, “No, we no longer do permanent tattoos nor make fire using such primitive methods, but we still hunt with bows and arrows, visit witch doctors and worship our pigs.”

“We are just adapting — just like we have for centuries.”

I questioned if these were today’s Korafe culture — to which William replied, “No, we no longer do permanent tattoos nor make fire using such primitive methods, but we still hunt with bows and arrows, visit witch doctors and worship our pigs.”

Another singsing dancer

Celebrations of Glory

It’s time for the sing-sing, William announced.

A sing-sing is a gathering of people from a tribe to celebrate major events like weddings, the ascension of a chief, or the initiation of a young boy or girl through dance and music. Some may take months to prepare and involve hundreds if not thousands of people, while others happen almost spontaneously. When I’d first read about the sing-sing in Papua New Guinea on National Geographic years ago, I was deeply fascinated. It was what brought me here.

The singsing begins

A troop of young, robust men and colorfully dressed girls emerged with rosewood drums and tall instruments made of grass in hand. The girls wore grass armbands, long shell necklaces that hung over their bare breasts, hibiscus flowers in their hair and tapa cloths made of tree bark and ocher dye. The men, with their toned bodies and tanned skin, each adorned a massive headdress made with layers of multi-colored bird feathers, strings of seashells around their necks, and tapa cloth.

When I’d first read about the sing-sing in Papua New Guinea on National Geographic years ago, I was deeply fascinated. It was what brought me here.

The leader of the singsing

As William explained, these feather headdresses and costumes are extremely valuable and rare heirlooms passed down from their fathers.  These feathers were collected over the years, from the parrot, cockatoos, and even the elusive national treasure, bird of paradise. Each feather can fetch around 50 to 300 Kinas (US$20 to $120).

The leader of the group started a beat with his drum and the group followed along, swaying and singing to his rhythm. William explained that they were singing a welcome song, that was often used at events where people outside of their tribes are invited. The drums they used are made of rosewood and lizard skin. Honeybee wax is rubbed onto the lizard skin to make that deep, hollow sound. The music was hypnotic and eerily haunting.

It was a radiant display of their culture and a truly captivating sight. I had no more doubts on the authenticity of it all — after all, how often do you see a 100-year-old headdress that’s been passed down from one generation to the next?


How to:

This McLaren Cultural Tour can be organized by Tufi Dive Resort. The half-day tour leaves at 8.30am and returns around 2pm after a BBQ lunch on Komoa Beach. This activity costs US$150 per person. You can also book this tour along with your resort stay through US based travel company Fly and Sea Dive Adventures.

Disclosure: This experience was made possible by PNG Tourism Promotion Authority and Tufi Dive Resort but all opinions expressed above are my own.

 

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About Nellie Huang

Nellie Huang is the co-founder of WildJunket. As a professional travel writer with a special interest in offgrid destinations and adventure travel, she scours through the world in search for a slice of undiscovered paradise. In her quest, she's climbed an active volcano in Guatemala, swam with sealions in the Galapagos and built a school in Tanzania.

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