It takes eighteen months for a Huli wigman to grow enough hair to make a metre wide ‘everyday’ wig head-dress. It takes two ‘everyday wigs’ to make a ceremonial wig.  Wigs are lovingly decorated with flowers and feathers. The men are real peacocks.
There are many nations where painful tattooing, circumcision or scarification is part of the rite of passage from boyhood to manhood; Papua New Guinea – the most culturally diverse nation in the world – has a tribe where initiation involves elaborate hairdressing.
Nearly forty thousand Huli live in the cool, fertile ‘highlands’ valleys in the world’s tallest island. It is a remote part of a little-visited country. The tribes here had remained uncontacted by the outside world until gold prospectors ventured over the mountains in the 1930s. The highlands’ interior was just too rugged to explore for the sake of it. No-one expected there to be lush grassland plains in the mountain tops. That up to a million people lived a ‘stone age’ existence there, was even more remarkable.
Today, as well as the newish imports of iron and the wheel, the ancient Huli tribe has tourism. Ambua Lodge is an African style lodge of round, grass-thatched houses, seven thousand feet above the tropical seas in the Tari valley where it rains three hundred days a year. There is no telephone service and no television or heating in the rooms. An electric blanket keeps you toasty in bed at night and the large, splendid restaurant house has a central open-fire, underfloor heating and a high ‘kunai’ grass roof. The view from the rooms – of clouds rising from the jungle below, mountain-tops poking through, like islands in the sky – completes the picture of cool isolation. Wealthy and adventurous tourists visit to appreciate the unique and colourful culture, the jungle orchids, the dinner plate sized moths and the birds of paradise upon which the Huli men model themselves with their feathered wigs and bobbing dance routines.
While the men lead a bird’s life – preening, dancing and occasionally fighting; the woman’s lot is a harsh one. They are ‘bought’ with a ‘brideprice’ of thirty or so pigs and thereafter treated – by many men – as little more than possessions, not the most prestigious of ones at that. A fact belied by our guide on a day-trip to visit some ‘bachelor boys’ and their ‘wig school’. “Huli people live off pigs, the land and women,” said Peter. “They’re the most important things to us.” It was no surprise to learn that when people in this area first saw the gold prospectors, they thought the rucksacks carried by their porters contained the white men’s wives, shoved in upside down.
Seclusion from women is the norm for the bachelor boys in a ‘wig school’. During eighteen months or more of a monastic existence, the novices perfect their physiques, make their ‘aprons’ and arm bands from local bush materials, and learn legends. But perhaps the most important lesson is how to grow their hair so that it can be made into a wig. The ‘headmaster’ or haroli teaches the ‘students’ elaborate hair care routines: sprinkling with rainforest water three times a day; sleeping on a special wooden head-rest; not running (it would spoil the coif).
A stay at Ambua Lodge involves early morning outings spotting birds of paradise; walking through the jungle, surrounded by wild ginger, moss-covered trees and bamboo; or crossing a river on a suspension bridge made from wood lashed with vines. There are also day-trips in a rickety old bus, travelling along rough dirt roads to visit family compounds of low, grass-roofed houses heated by smoky fires within. The people have no electricity (nor even kerosene lamps) and no plumbing. Men and women live in separate houses. Often women and pigs live in the same space. It is the women’s job to tend the pigs.
The lodge has a good programme of visits worked out with four clan groups surrounding its premises. One family does a ‘Sun dance’, another allows you to peer through the black smoke inside their homes, another enacts a mock wedding, Huli- style, complete with a violent row over the distribution of the squealing porky brideprice. There’s a demonstration of hair-dressing and wigs by a bunch of ‘bachelor boys’ and their ‘headmaster’, Kubunu, who also goes by the very untraditional name of Kevin. All four of his ‘students’ looked to be over thirty, some had been growing a succession of wigs for many years. Perhaps this is the calling for men who ‘are not the marrying type’ in Huli culture?
But the most spectacular show is the ‘sing sing’ where glistening, warrior-like men dress up in their finest: pig-tail aprons, woven cummerbunds, cassowary quill, pig-tusk and hornbill beak necklaces, yellow and red face-paint, all topped off with wig head-dresses, decorated with splendid plumes and flowers. The men then dance – a simple, rotating line-up with eerie, squawking cries. Birds of paradise must invest more in looks than they do in song and dance routines.
Although these are all tourist shows, complete with souvenir artefacts, there is nothing slick about them. The dances are raw and authentic and still happen in every day life. The artefacts – bar the miniature wooden warrior dolls – are all items of clothing, jewellery or weaponry still made and used by the Huli. A handful of men take pride in wearing their regalia (minus face paint) to the market, wandering among the crowd, displaying their importance to the local community. Wig school novices always wear traditional dress. Weddings, funerals, compensation payments and an annual cultural show in the town of Mt Hagen – eight hours away by road or forty five minutes by air – are occasions where more or less everyone dons feathers and wigs. The occasional clan war – with bows and arrows – is also a chance for traditional dress, but thankfully there hasn’t been one of those for a couple of years. The Huli are proud of their warrior status, but they are quick to point out that a taste for human flesh has never been part of their culture.
Perhaps because of its history of tribal warfare, but more likely because of the imbalance of wealth in modern society, Papua New Guinea – especially the capital of Port Moresby and the Highlands – has a reputation for lawlessness. However my stay of three weeks was untroubled. Everywhere, people were kind, generous and welcoming. The same experience was shared by other tourists with whom I travelled. It is not a destination solely for the young and fit. Many of my travelling companions on a Trans Niugini Tours itinerary were elderly, including one remarkable woman of 89, collecting countries as if they were stamps. She scrambled up muddy paths and stepped across rickety bridges like the rest of us, with the helping hands of guides. Children were mesmerised by her diminutive frame, bright red outfits and, especially, her shocking white hair.
I went back to see Kevin, the wig headmaster. I was curious about this initiation rite. What if the bachelor ‘boy’ was bald? His hair would grow back, said Kevin, through an interpreter. As long as he was unmarried, celibate and followed the headmaster’s training routine, within four to five months, he’d have a full head of hair. I’ve booked my place.
Tips: Luggage allowance on small domestic flights is sometimes as little as 10kg. Pack lightly.
Bring an instant camera and plenty of film so you can give away pictures as a thank you. Many people never have the chance to see a picture – or even a full mirror image – of themselves.
Other things to do in Papua New Guinea:
Stay with families in their homes and learn about village life. Ecotourism Melanesia organises homestays in remote locations. Conditions can be basic but the experience is unforgettable.
Dive and snorkel over some of the most pristine coral gardens in the world. Live-aboard dive boat MV Chertan offers superb diving and hearty meals.
Cruise down the ‘Amazon of the Pacific’. The banks and tributaries of the Sepik river are home to tribes who still practice ‘crocodile scarification’ and build spirit houses. Visitors can buy fabulous carvings and basketware. ‘Sepik Spirit’ is a comfortable floating hotel which cruises down the river with side-trips to visit remote villages.
Paul Miles was a guest of Audley Travel.
Tel: 01869 276200