The wall clock in the domestic departure lounge at Port Moresby’s Jacksons Airport was 20 minutes slow – a sure sign we were in PNG – and the announcements over the fuzzy PA system were unintelligible. We nearly missed our flight, but the Dash 8 propeller plane put down at Goroka an hour or so later.
The airport is the biggest thing in Goroka, and the main road and a neighbourhood of residential streets run parallel to the airstrip. The mountains rise green and tangly on the other side of the airstrip.
A bus from the National Sports Institute (NSI) was waiting to pick us up. As we drove the dusty streets behind distressed mini-buses and wonky flatbed trucks spewing diesel smoke, memories flooded back of this Highlands town I’d visited before. Goroka was a crush of people – thousands of them – milling about, walking and talking in the golden glow of late-afternoon sun.
We had come to see the Goroka Show – the most famous tribal gathering and cultural event in Papua New Guinea and something I’d wanted to see since my first visit in 1988. In those days older men wore traditional clothing in and around the Highlands towns – an arsegrass of tanket leaves and feathered headwear. Not any more; everyone in PNG wears secon han klos collected in charity bins in Australian supermarket carparks.
It was the day before Independence Day and on the streets people were selling little hand-held flags, T-shirts and caps, and tiny mirrors for people to use when applying their face paint and decoration (bilas) for the weekend’s big singsing festival.
Our digs were in the NSI – a Government-funded campus compound used for training athletes and rugby players. The show would be on the playing fields next door. The tiny rooms were like monastic cells, with a single bed fixed to the wall, and a chair. The NSI grounds had handsome gardens of crotons, hibiscus trees, frangipanis and jacarandas. A voluble group of affluent Italians – a dozen or so – were speaking loudly and soberly.
As night approached, Stuart and Jane, the photographers with whom I was travelling, walked to a store to buy tonic or soda water for our duty-free liquor. They came back with a warm bottle of pineapple Fanta and we enjoyed the cool of the Highlands evening under the stars, mixing Pikinini gin slings and Highlands highball martinis in tiny plastic cups. Revolting – although slightly less so after the first.
At dawn the next day a soupy mist eased off the mountains to the east. We walked north up the main road, through a throng of people playing darts and selling individual cigarettes, past stores and minivans in a cloud of roadside dust. We walked through the market to a string bag and skirt (bilum) exhibition at the Raun Raun Theatre. Later, we visited the JK McCarthy Museum and saw the necklace of human fingers among many fine exhibits.
Friday was the first show day and the bilum sellers, carvers, painters, stone-axe salespeople and spear and shield makers had staked out places next to the NSI gates. By afternoon there was shouting at the arena gates and the first of the Highland singsing groups demanded entry, singing and beating kundu drums, their feathered headdresses visible above the iron arena fence. They came in slowly at first. Groups of 40 or so danced and swayed across the broad field and stood in formation at some chosen space. The man on the PA system kept saying, “Ol singsing grup kam lo fron. Nau tasol.”
Like the samba schools of Rio’s Carnival, each group has its own dance, song and body art. The preparations are steeped in the oral history and ancestor stories of these linguistically disparate tribes, each from a village of one large extended family. Some had walked through the bush for days to be here.
From a timber grandstand, we watched a dozen or so groups practise. A primer for tomorrow.
On the Saturday morning we watched the teams assemble and practise on the streets. Locals lined the roads in their thousands. Each group was led by elders and wantoks singing ancient songs and beating drums.
By mid-afternoon the 83 singsing groups in the arena were making an incredible din as they sang and danced. We walked among the many thousands of performers – at every glance there were more elaborately costumed dancers, more drums thumping, more fierce chanting, more powerful line dancing. The acoustic and visual power of these proud 50-member groups was physically confronting, menacing, exotic and visceral.
The regalia was often understated and exquisitely detailed, incorporating treasured bird of paradise feathers next to simple grass reeds, kina shells and cloth, enormous layered bilum skirts and tankets, everlasting flowers and foliage gathered from trees. Some women wore lengths of Job’s tears shells hundreds of metres long, their skin rubbed down in coconut oil, their face paint vivid in the searing midday sun.
The show broke up just before a sudden deluge of rain made people scatter like cockroaches. The downpour pinned everything to the ground, and those who had not escaped the performance arena huddled under canopies and sponsored marquees. We watched the rain – relentless for 45 minutes – from the balcony of our accommodation.
Then came a burst of late-afternoon sun that sparkled on the wet lawn and the frangipani trees. The houseguests came out to bask on the lawn. The Italians took a position under an airy grass shelter, talking passionately and demonstrably. I sat on a bench gazing across the mountains aglow in the fading sun – I didn’t care the seat of my pants was getting damp.
Stuart came up to me sodden and beaming. There was to be a ball that night and tickets were 200 kina each – the annual fundraiser for the following year’s show. Stuart reckoned we could get in with the band. A Bougainville pipeband as it turned out. They played thongs across the mouths of PVC pipes, making a catchy plonkity-plonk sound.
The Goroka Show Ball was held at the plush Bird of Paradise Hotel where tuxedoed white men had paid K2000 for each corporate table. The women wore evening dresses; the drinks waiters and chefs wore extravagant hats.
The Bougainvilleans played and later there was dancing to the house cover band – Solitary Man by Neil Diamond. There was a massive buffet, most of which didn’t get eaten. I wondered how much the local staff were being paid as the corporate bosses bidded for sets of limited-release car number plates that the house was auctioning (one reached K1700).
The singsing groups came again on Sunday and sang and danced all day in the merciless sun. Handsome Mt Hagen men sold Highlands face-painting for K10 to women in the grandstand whom they charmed and flattered. There were pony rides and an agricultural pavilion. The din never stopped, the dancing went on.
It was sad to leave, but we felt elated to have been among a few hundred tourists witnessing something that only happens in PNG.