After a mammoth 3 day journey (LHR/Singapore – 10 hour layover + 7 hour delay on Singapore to Port Moresby sector, missed connecting flight to Tari so overnighted in Port Moresby and got 09.45 flight next day) we finally arrived at our first PNG stop, the Tari Valley, Southern Highlands. Our guide, Thomas, dressed in full Huli wig man traditional dress greeted us at Tari Airport (more a shack next to the market than a terminal building). The first of many surreal encounters.
Slightly shell shocked but excited, a 45 minute drive along one of PNG’s better, but still bumpy, roads took us to our home for two nights, Ambua Lodge. Arriving is tantamount to breathing a sigh of relief – from the obvious poverty and ramshackle rural scenes we passed en route, turning in to the secure gated environment of Ambua provided a sanctuary of relative comfort.
Set in the hillside and enjoying the most staggering views across the entire valley, there are two styles of accommodation. There are the original round individual lodges, built in the 70s (and seemingly not updated since) the style is simple, faded but comfortable enough. The lodges are particularly popular with birders wanting to be away from the main building and more at one with nature. Alternatively there is a more modern wing built to accommodate conference and business guests – they have less ‘character’ than the lodges but generally offer a higher standard of facilities and with the advantage of balconies with valley views. The attractive main lodge houses the restaurant and has a comfortable lounge area. There is also a small gift shop selling a variety of handicrafts from both local and other regions.
The lodge is your base but the point of being here is to get out and about and explore the area and a programme of guided activities is included. Tourists here fall in to two camps – those who come for birdwatching and those who come for the culture (or both).
Birders need to be up early (5am starts) to stand any chance of sightings of the Birds of Paradise this area is known for. Unfortunately the chances have been further diminished as a result of the new road that runs by Ambua to the LNG project – the traffic noise from construction vehicles has frightened them away in recent years. Nevertheless, during a late afternoon drive up the spectacular Tari Gap (20 minutes drive further up the hill from Ambua) even though we didn’t spot any birds, we certainly heard them.
On the cultural front, sightings of this areas most famous tribe, the Huli Wigmen are happily guaranteed. Adorned with colourful face paint, pigs tails, leaves and feathers, performances of the traditional Huli ceremonial dance, to the beat of a drum and mimicking the movements of the Birds of Paradise is quite a spectacle. Given their warrior status, initially they seemed intimidating but, as these days their income comes predominantly from performing for tourists, they are only too happy to pose for photographs and answer questions via the guide.
You will also visit the Wig ‘School’ where the foundations of those famous head-dresses are grown. It was quite hard to follow my guide’s explanation but essentially to achieve the correct length and softness of hair that after 18 months is shaved to create the wig, the students must water their hair 3 times a day from a stream where the ‘teacher’ has imparted a magic spell.
Hiking from Ambua is another option – just down the road, a short walk through the rainforest leads to a spectacular 80m waterfall and there are much longer hikes up in the Tari Gap. Anywhere you go though, you really do need to have a guide with you – all the land in the area is communally owned and, even if it’s not obvious, you are effectively walking through someone’s garden. Given the size of the machetes they all carry around here, going it alone would not be advisable! That said, practically everywhere we went (with or without the camera) the local people seemed delighted to see us – smiling and waving as we passed by in the van – they are genuinely welcoming. The stories you hear about domestic violence and tribal clashes are not without foundation, but any aggression is certainly not directed at tourists. It takes a little while to unwind in PNG but that’s not surprising – the culture is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered and so wildly different to our own, it takes time to absorb.