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Coastal Papua New Guinea uncloaked

Press AssociationPress Association 25/04/2016 Sarah Marshall

Squealing children crowd a log jetty festooned with scrap fabric bunting, as our skiff boat, flanked by dugout canoes with fluttering palm fronds for sails, floats into a flooded caldera.

Bleary-eyed but excited, the residents of Garove Island have been awake all night celebrating an important arrival.

We're not the guests of honour - that privilege has been afforded to a statue of the Virgin Mary, currently touring the islands by helicopter.

Adorned with a necklace of pig tusks, she sits at the head of a wooden church, where worshippers kneel piously on pews beneath heart-shaped mobiles fashioned from chicken feathers.

Beyond being a religious icon, she represents something arguably more powerful: contact with the outside world.

Apart from religious missionaries, this remote coastal village in Papua New Guinea's Witu Island Group rarely receives visitors.

I'm travelling with Australian-based Coral Expeditions, one of the few cruise companies that lead tours along the coastline of this culturally and biologically diverse southwest Pacific country, made up of a mainland and several islands.

There are more than 800 recorded languages, tribes and political systems in Papua New Guinea (PNG), all equally colourful and exotic.

Over 10 days we'll visit 16 locations from the comfort of the 72-person Coral Discoverer, offering a higher standard of accommodation than is currently available on land.

Missionaries no longer pass by the remote village of Bun on Tolokiwa, part of the Bismarck Archipelago, and our 7.30am landing on the black-sand beach is the first by any foreigners in two years.

Beating kundu drums herald the start of a classic sing-sing (a typical ceremonial performance of song and dance), played by chanting men with glistening, muscular bodies. A procession of Siassi women sashays through the dust, pig tusks curled around their naked breasts and rainbow-dyed palm fronds splaying from rears like tail feathers.

Of course, villagers don't spend every day dressed in grass skirts and war paint, but dance and music is still a vital part of their culture.

More unusual shows greet us when we arrive in Bien, a 400-person village set amid sago swampland on the mighty Sepik River, back on the mainland.

A girl with a squawking parrot on her shoulder takes my hand and leads me to the village centre.

While singing about hornbills and geckos, a group of sniggering schoolchildren performs a bizarre slapstick dance, waddling under the weight of giant rice sacks daubed with pictures of fat westerners.

"I think that might be about you guys," smirks our expedition leader, Steve.

Further demonstration of the PNG sense of humour is a cross-gender comedy sketch, where most laughter seems to stem from a young man with lopsided, cone-shaped boobs.

Oddly, it's the first of several similar shows we witness on the trip, leading one amused passenger to remark: "This is the only place where I've seen more men in bras than women."

According to our guest lecturer Dame Carol Kidu, who was once leader of the opposition party in PNG, slapstick drama has been used extensively as an educational tool.

An Australian who married a Papua New Guinean, Carol provides a fascinating insight into tribal society.

"I not only married a man. I married a whole clan," she confides.

A self-described "minister for odds, sods and lost causes", Carol is now retired from politics but still works hard to improve women's rights in a place where the birth rate is unfeasibly high (nearly half the population is under 18) and contraception is still considered taboo.

A tattoo of three bands around Carol's wrist is a symbol of her continued commitment to the culture.

Along with fire-starting and sago-making, we watch a traditional tattoo demonstration in a rainforest clearing at MacLaren Harbour, in the Tufi Fjord. These are all customs which would likely disappear were it not for tourism.

Sat on outriggers, we drift through a tunnel of tangled mangrove roots.

Soon after disembarking, we're ambushed by a group of "savages" painted head to toe in black with acid pink tongues. ("Brian", one of the lead actors, later poses for photographs.)

It's an ironic reminder of the misguided prejudice many outsiders have about Papua New Guineans being uncivilised.

Tufi people are famous for their headdresses, and villagers have clearly pulled out their finest feathers for our arrival. One elderly man has six different plumages on his crown, many taken from the celebrated birds of paradise. The headdress is a 15-year-old heirloom, carefully dismantled and wrapped away after each ceremony, and passed down through generations.

In a bid to make customary practices sustainable, the government has banned all shotguns and hunting is only permitted with spears.

Papua New Guinea is just as vibrant underwater, as I discover on diving and snorkelling trips along the pristine fringing reefs.

Offshore from Dobu Island, close to the Dei Dei Springs, I snorkel through bubbling hot vents in the clearest water I've ever seen.

It's a magical experience, which befits the region's reputation for sorcery and hocus-pocus.

Although essentially rows of simple shacks, streets are immaculately clean, with not even a toenail clipping or globule of betel nut spittle carelessly discarded, for fear they might be used in casting spells. I'm left wondering if it's a clever government ploy to keep the place tidy.

Gardens are meticulously well kept.

In a place so far removed from the modern world, it's all surprisingly familiar and, contrary to popular belief, rather civilised.

* The writer travelled as guest of the Papua New Guinea tourist board and Coral Expeditions.

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