The Highlands are made up of fertile valleys and rugged mountains which form the backbone of Papua New Guinea. This is the most densely populated area and is divided into five separate provinces. Tari was in the Southern Highlands and that is where we were headed. Europeans didn’t discover the Highlands until 1933 when Michael Leahy (an Australian gold hunter) led a series of prospecting expeditions into the Highlands. (More about that later.)
The Southern Highlands is home to the Huli Wigmen, the largest ethnic group. The Huli are famous for their decorative wigs made from human hair, donated by wives and children. There are around 200,000 Hulis living in the Tari basin and are some of the last native people on earth to have had white-skinned strangers step into their lives.
Tari is about 7,000 feet which gives it a pleasant climate and few mosquitoes. Our plane landed at the little airport, surrounded by chain link fence with people pressed up against it and a Huli warrior standing beside the Tari sign! ex-Marine and I just looked at each other, stunned in disbelief. After all, this wasn’t a theme park…
…and Highland women wearing their colorful, bilum bags on their heads. Bilums are natural string bags, very strong, used for everything, from storing food to carrying a baby.
Still in culture shock, our guide loaded us into a 4-wheel drive for the drive to Ambua Lodge for a two-night stay. Driving along, men appeared running down the road wearing feathers, outlandish headdresses, warpaint on their faces, carrying knives, axes and bows and arrows. I turned to the guide and naively asked..”are they having some sort of parade?”…he answered…”no, they are going to war. someone in another village stole a pig, but don’t worry..they won’t kill you. The war is just between them and the other village.” ex-Marine instantly offered to pay for the pig on the spot…but no…we were not part of their war. It’s called “Pay-back”! All righty now….and then he went on to explain Huli customs.
“Any death, injury or insult has to be paid for by a pig. Payment of pigs is compensation. It could be 100 pigs to compensate for the death of a senior warrier, 10-15 for an arrow wound. Stealing someone elses pigs is an extremely serious offense.”
The Huli also use poison and fight to destroy. They show no mercy to their enemies and burn houses, kill pigs, destroy gardens during open warfare. A major war could involve 1,000 screaming Hulis all carrying bows and arrows. Now I was getting nervous and ex-Marine was giving me filthy looks and muttering under his breath…but, we were here…too late to do anything about it and there was a sign for Ambua Lodge……View image…
Ambua Lodge had Highlands architecture with a main building and guests accommodated in individual little huts. Both Karawari and Ambua Lodges are booked through Trans Niugini Tours.
It was a beautiful setting. Mountains, mist, all accompanied by every amenity possible. The guests were having cocktails when the eerie sound of a bagpipe echoed through mountains. One of Ambuas’ guest always travels with his bagpipe and was piping a tune on the lawn in the dusk. This trip was becoming curiouser and curiouser.
A young couple was managing Ambua Lodge and added to ex-Marine and my discomfort level when they told us how some “raskols” had broken into the lodge one night and held a HOMEMADE SHOTGUN to their heads. AND, as she calmly explained, the worst part was because the SHOTGUN was homemade, you never know if they are going to go off by themselves or explode! The sense of calm instilled by some wine and good food suddenly dissipated….