PAPUA NEW GUINEA HIGHLANDS

'Papuan Wonderland'

 

The Southern Highlands is an area of Papua New Guinea that was described in 1935 as the 'Papuan Wonderland' by explorer and patrol leader J. G. Hides, one of the first 'outsiders' to
have contact with the main groups living in the area. The description fits; the geography of the area ranges from steaming lowland rain forest to alpine tundra; classical volcanic cones, alluvial fans, gorges, glacial land forms and magnificent lakes.

One such lake is Kutubu, the unspoiled location of the major on-stream oil and gas fields operated by Chevron Niugini. Much of Mendi's development has been as a result of the comparatively recent mineral activity in the area, but in fact the first patrol station was set up in 1937 on Lake Kutubu, serviced by seaplanes, and it was the base from which almost all exploration of the Southern Highlands took place before World War II.

However, economic development of the area only became possible in the 1970's when the Highlands Highway was extended into the province, reaching Mendi in 1974 and Tari not until 1977. Until this time the entire area was cut-off from the outside world so it is one of the least developed and culturally rich areas in the country.


As a tourist destination it offers jaded 'westerners' the unique opportunity to step back in time and develop an understanding of the culture which is attuned to the land and its fauna. Mendi, the Provincial administration center, is little more than a small town surrounding a large airstrip, where, if an uninitiated tourist had been a fellow passenger on board the 19 seater aircraft when we landed, it would not have been a surprise if he suggested an immediate return flight. Even before the plane came to a standstill we were surrounded by thousands of people, many men waving bows and arrows and covered in mud, shouting and screaming; while one lone policeman looked helplessly on. This frightening scene as described was actually nothing to worry about - unless you happened to be the body in the coffin on the plane! Papua New Guineans do not hide their emotions when a wantok (literal translation 'one talk' or member of the same clan) dies, and none more so than the people of the Highlands areas, where a death precipitates the wearing of 'mourning mud' and much use of the vocal cords. Each area has many individual customs concerning death, but the body must always be buried in the traditional way on traditional land and on this occasion a young university student had died and was being brought home.







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PAPUA NEW GUINEA EXPEDITIONS