Papua New Guinea tribal and photography capital of South Pacific

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Long ago, Papua New Guinea was known for cannibalism, but today it’s a safe country to experience colourful culture, and unique tribal traditions. “The headhunters of the past have become tourist hunters of today. And, they are eager to share their unique customs and cultures with you!”

The tribal diversity of a country with over 700 languages cannot easily be summarised. Though in Papua New Guinea it is the tribal life that is most fascinating to the visitor. 

When Belgian photographer and photo tour leader David Van Driessche sought new locations for his photo trips, he decided to explore Papua New Guinea.  Little did he know that his travel to this country would evolve into a life-changing adventure. As he developed close friendships with tribal members he found new colourful models for his photography tours. But, more importantly, Van Driessche successfully encouraged the tribes to build living quarters in their remote villages, where tourists and photographers could reside for a few days.

This because, currently “Travel agencies book tourists in hotels located in faraway cities (like Goroka or Mount Hagen), requiring long hours of travel to the tribal villages. Unfortunately, this allows visitors only a few precious hours with the tribes before having to return the same day,” says Van Driessche. “With these new cottages, I can take groups of tourists and photographers from one tribe to the next without having to leave the area and go back to the city. This means the clients get a ‘full immersion experience’ with the tribes, and their way of life.”

  • Papua New Guinea 
  • The explorer 
  • Who are the Mudmen and Skeleton Tribes?
  • Community based tourism
  • Birds of Paradise

Papua New Guinea 

Nature and wildlife are deeply connected with culture and tradition. The two cannot be separated in Papua New Guinea. Forests and islands represent sacred areas, with traditions passed down through generations.

Papua New Guinea is blessed with incomparable levels of diversity. The forests are recognised as one of the most significant areas of intact forest in the world. They are significant for their role in absorbing greenhouse gases, and regulating regional weather patterns to benefit all life.

The mainland and larger islands are rugged, but divided by fertile upland valleys. Fast-flowing rivers from the highland descend to the coastal plains. And, a line of active volcanoes stretches along the north coast of the mainland. Mangrove swamps can also be found to the north and south of the central mountain range. 

Offering the greatest variety of terrestrial ecosystems in the South Pacific, including:

  • 5 types of lowland forest
  • 13 types of montane forest
  • 5 varieties of palm and swamp forest
  • 3 different mangrove forests

Two thirds of the entire word’s species of orchids comes from Papua New Guinea. And, birds include 38 species of the birds of paradise. Also found are tree kangaroos, wallabies, bandicoots, and in coastal waters the dugong.

The United Nations Development Programme, in Papua New Guinea, is implementing a national project that aims to strengthen the management of protected areas.  Supporting Government and local communities to expand numbers and size of Wildlife Management Areas, and Community Conserved Areas, the project works to reverse decline of wildlife species, and degradation of natural ecosystems

The Explorer

About two years ago Van Driessche had the good fortune of meeting Randy Hanna, also a professional photographer and photo tour leader who is based in the United States. Together they collaborated on ways to help generate income for ethnic groups in Papua New Guinea. With the cooperation and financial support from Hanna, Van Driessche started building eco-lodges with two of the most famous, colourful, and exciting cultural groups in Papua New Guinea – the Asaro Mudmen and the Mindima Skeleton tribes.

According to Van Driessche, the best part of Papua New Guinea is the road between Goroka and Mount Hagen. Located here is The Asaro Mudmen Tribal Eco Lodge with ten rooms and more under construction. From this location, photographers can experience six different cultural events ranging from the Moko Moko Victory dance of the Asaro Warriors to the Burning Heads of Gimmesave.

Just a two-hour drive from the Asaro Mudmen lodge is the Omo Bruglgamo Skeleton Tribe Eco Lodge. This lodge has five budget rooms and three deluxe rooms, with more under construction. Found next to the Skeleton tribe are the Insect Hunters and Dusk Shaker cultures, as well as the famous Chimbu Bila with their long-feathered headdresses.

However, Today, several tribes are building small cottages and rooms to accommodate tourists and photographers. Construction is primarily with wood collected from the surrounding forests. 

The units are artfully designed and include the amenities of home, such as a comfortable bed, shower, toilet, dresser, and clothing rack. Air conditioning is unnecessary because of the mild mountain climate.

Who are the Mudmen and Skeleton tribes?

Van Driessche, who now lives in Thailand, spent months exploring the tribes of Papua New Guinea. He worked most closely with the Mudmen and Skeleton tribes and was thrilled when they agreed to build lodging for his photography tours. As they have worked together, Van Driessche has learned many of the legends and history that make each tribe distinctly different. Each tribe has unique ceremonies and festivals which require masks or body paint to create special, colourful appearances.

The Mudmen from Asaro pay tribute to their ancestors by covering their bodies with mud and wearing heavy masks also made of mud. Centuries ago, the Asaro were known as shy jungle-dwellers. Legend has it that one day they were attacked by a powerful tribe and fled to the nearby Asaro River. When their assailants reached the river, they came upon figures coated in white and gray river mud. Believing they had met the ghost spirits of the Asaro they had just killed, the aggressors panicked and quickly fled from the ghosts. They never returned!

Members of the Skeleton Tribe from Mindima use white paint on their bodies to appear as skeletons. As the story is told now, a few villagers went hunting in the mountains but never returned. A search party found a small cave containing numerous human bones. They believed a big monster (probably a bear or wolf) had killed the hunters. To get rid of the monster they painted themselves as skeletons and laid next to the bones. When the monster returned and had his back to the living skeletons, they killed it. To this day the Skeleton Tribe continues to paint their bodies like skeletons to ward off evil and honour their ancestors.

Community Based Tourism

Van Diessche has two more eco-lodge projects underway:

One is in the Jiwaka Province with the Sekaka Tribe. Known for their elaborate headresses made of colourful bird  feathers as well as the Forest Skull Kids of Koskala, this ethnic group is building the Koskala Gerupeng Lodge near the town of Banz. The village is only a one-hour drive from Mount Hagen Airport and an hour’s drive from The Skeleton Tribe Eco Lodge.

The other project is in Enga Province with the Black Faced Tribe of Suli Muli. This small group of people, known for using distinctive black face paint, is one of the most isolated in Papua New Guinea.  They live in small, scattered communities throughout the mountains, and their way of life has remained largely unchanged for centuries.  The Suli Muli people have recently started building their first eco lodge units. “Because this area has had no tourism, the experience is truly amazing,” says Van Driessche. “To be with a tribe that has experienced very few visitors has always been my dream. It’s like going back in time and learning to appreciate how our ancestors lived – but it’s real life now.”

Birds of Paradise 

Near Mount Hagen is another phenomenon that lures photographers to Papua New Guinea: the birds of paradise. Legend informs us that these birds were forever in flight, never touching the ground nor resting in trees. Whether true or not, the birds of paradise are among the most beautiful and colourful flying creatures on earth.

Of the 42 species of paradise birds, all but two are found in Papua New Guinea. Although most male birds of paradise have spectacular plumage, there are a few species where the male and female have almost identical, generally modest-looking plumage. Coloring and type of plumage vary drastically among species.

Finding these magnificent birds amidst dense foliage can be extremely challenging. However, with the help of local tribesmen, who know the habits of the birds and the environments in which they live, these gorgeous birds can be readily located.

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Tracy Burrows114 Posts

    Tracy Burrows is the founder of the Out There Global platform featuring both cost effective and luxury best cultural vacation ideas & experiences from around the world. From Jan 2014 – Dec 2016 she managed the blog (a United Nations World Summit Award Winner: Culture & Tourism 2016 & National Geographic partner). She was also consulting editor at MOZambique Magazine, and a contributing writer at Sawubona Magazine (South African Airways inflight magazine), and Africa Geographic. Prior to her career she obtained a tourism research, and marketing degree, and also graduated from a 2 year ‘Management in Development Program’ in San Diego California. She also acquired a qualification in journalism and media and since it’s been all about culture, adventure and multi media! Her nourishment comes from all those who have impacted her, including: family; friends; and strangers alike. Thank you for joining our journey, and we hope you enjoy finding an immersive experience and the culture & adventure in the destination! Aside from Out There Global Magazine, Tracy has also run a Public Relations, and SEO business since 2010 for small business.


    • Ben Reply

      August 22, 2023 at 11:54 am

      I am speaking on behalf of all photographers here but I am fairly certain it’s every photographers dream! Wowie

    • Sue Reply

      August 23, 2023 at 8:35 am

      What a beautiful part of the world that hasn’t been westernized as yet. Would love to spend time doing cultural travel here and of course hone my photography skills!

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