Scouting Report: Papua New Guinea

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Huli warriors, Mt. Hagen Cultural Show, Papua New Guinea.

It’s a hot, sunny afternoon on this tropical island in the Pacific, and it appears as though I’m in trouble. I’ve been sitting peacefully on the ground in a field near Mt. Hagen, loading new cards and doing a bit of “chimping,” when a marching phalanx of native warriors, warming up for a cultural show, wheel around and head right for me. Linked arm in arm and carrying large stone axes, they let out a bloodcurdling series of strange war whoops that sound like those old Tarzan yodels. But I’m stuck sitting down, smack in the path of this jungle juggernaut, and there’s no way I’m going to get out of their way in time.

As the bellicose crew bears down on me, the first row of painted warriors raise their axes and I, in turn, raise my camera and then…their lines part slightly as they march around me, lifting their arms to pass over my head like square dancers. As I shoot away with my wide-angle zoom, I catch the eye of one of the warriors passing right over me and, yes, he throws me a little smile and a wink!

As recent as 40 years ago, a similar scenario might have ended tragically, with me possibly being the main course of the midday meal for these highland warriors. But Papua New Guinea, one of the most remote and exotic cultures in the world, has gradually opened its doors. Today, a growing number of visitors travel thousands and thousands of miles to witness one of the world’s most interesting and colorful cultures and certainly one of the prime destinations for travel photographers.

Papua New Guinea is located on the eastern half of the island of New Guinea, about 100 miles north of Australia. Irian Jaya, the western half of the island, is a province of Indonesia. Papua New Guinea is made up of the main island and more than 600 smaller, offshore islands.

Although Papua New Guinea isn’t quite as wild and remote as it once was, travel within the country can be difficult and expensive. For that reason, it’s best to go with an organized tour. Most tours offer segments that bring you to the most interesting regions of the island: the highlands of Tari and Mt. Hagen, and a journey along the Sepik River. If you’re lucky, your trip will coincide with one of the semiannual Highland Cultural Shows, where tribes from all over the island assemble to parade in their fantastic costumes and makeup (and occasionally scare the living daylights out of visiting photographers!).

There are a few key points to keep in mind when preparing for a trip to Papua New Guinea. On many domestic flights, there are strict weight limitations for baggage. On some flights, this can be as little as 18 pounds! So pack as lightly as possible.

First, pare your clothing down to an absolute minimum. If you haven’t already discovered the wonders of high-tech, quick-dry “performance” clothing, now is the time. I got by for three weeks with only two sets of pants, shirts and underwear, which I’d wash out every other night. A windbreaker and photo vest were the only other clothes I brought.

I have several equipment “modules” that I can resort to, depending on the demands and restrictions of the assignment. For a trip like this, where luggage weight is important, my current “lightweight” module includes two Nikon D90 bodies, 16-85mm and 70-300mm VR Nikkors, a 35mm ƒ/1.8 Nikkor for available light situations, as well as an 18-200mm VR Nikkor as a backup. I picked my lightest tripod, a Gitzo with a Really Right Stuff ballhead, Nikon SB-800 Speedlight and 32-inch, five-surface folding reflector.

As for the computer, well, there is none, just two Epson P-7000s, a 320 GB WiebeTech hard drive with an AC adapter, a few Nikon battery chargers and AA lithiums for the flash. With my camera bag, clothes bag and “computer,” my outfit tilts the scales at about 30 pounds, still too high, but manageably over the limit.


The Tari Highlands, smack in the center of mainland New Guinea, are a must-see. Here, the concept of payback exists to this day, and the “eye for an eye” mentality often sets villages at one another’s throats to extract payback for someone accidentally killed in a road accident or other incidents.

The main draw here are the Huli Wigmen. The Hulis, indeed most Papua New Guineans, are very amenable to being photographed, and it doesn’t take much to persuade a warrior to sit for a tight face portrait. Although I often use fill-flash shooting portraits in harsh lighting conditions, I prefer the big, broad source that the reflector can provide, and I’m able to enlist the aid of one of my fellow visitors to act as “reflector jockey” while I make portraits of these proud warriors with a short telephoto lens.

Nearby Kara is a Huli bachelor’s village where young unmarried men spend time growing their hair for the fantastic wig headdresses the warriors wear festooned with bird-of-paradise feathers. I was in deep woods in this small village, and the light levels are low and overcast. Here, for added mobility and to make sure I got detail in shots of the bachelors tending to their growing hair, I boosted the ISO to 400, sometimes 800, and used the SB-800 in Balanced TTL mode. The resulting pictures have a natural look with plenty of color and detail.

Not everything goes on in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. The Sepik River, back at sea level, is another major draw. It’s reached via a short flight on a small airplane. Whenever you’re on a small plane for a domestic flight in Papua New Guinea, it pays to try for a window seat in front of or behind the wing. Although heavy airplane window glass isn’t the most optically clear, you’d be surprised at what you can get through a relatively clean airplane window.

I got some good views of the highlands as we climbed out of the area, but the best aerials came as we descended into the steamy lowland jungles near Timbunke on the middle Sepik River. For this, a lens in the normal range (like the 35mm ƒ/1.8 Nikkor on the APS-sized chip in the D90) will allow you to get interesting compositions of the serpentine river wending its way through the dense, low forest.

Although the Sepik is about 700 miles long and starts in the mountains of central New Guinea, it only covers about 200 miles as the crow flies, so that gives you an idea of how serpentine it is. Traditional dugout canoes travel the river, as people trade in the villages lining its banks. The architecture here, the tamburan, or spirit house, is unique with its soaring gables and carved posts, and the area is also known for the great carved wooden masks, statues, story boards and basket hangers.

Most tours will base on a river-going ship like the Sepik Spirit. As it cruises down the river of this remote region, stand on deck with a telephoto zoom and be ready to capture the scenes of river life—carved dugout canoes gliding past, women preparing manioc on the banks, children frolicking outside straw houses on stands. Try to be out on deck for sunset and the next morning’s sunrise as well.

There’s something a little incongruous about traveling one of the most remote rivers in the world in an air-conditioned boat, but I confess that I don’t miss sleeping in the steamy conditions. Ordinarily, coming from a cool, air-conditioned cabin into a steamy jungle river environment wreaks havoc on your equipment in the form of moisture condensation, and many of my fellow passengers wait for 15 minutes or more for their cameras to defog when they bring them outside.

If you’re lucky, your trip will coincide with one of the semiannual Highland Cultural Shows, where tribes from all over the island assemble to parade in their fantastic costumes and makeup (and occasionally scare the living daylights out of visiting photographers!).

But I learned a long time ago to travel with a mini-hairdryer (mine weighs less than six ounces) in the tropics. If you spend a minute or two going over your equipment with a hairdryer before you leave your air-conditioned room, you’ll warm it up to the point where condensation isn’t a problem. You’re able to start shooting the minute you hit the top deck and make the most of the beautiful early-morning light.


You’ll spend a few days on the Sepik visiting villages, touring spirit houses and buying crafts. The latter make for great detail shots, and you can isolate a series of masks using the long end of your telephoto zoom. The interiors of the spirit houses are pitch dark, and rather than lose the ambiance by using a big pop of direct flash, hang the 32-inch reflector on a wall, white side out, (or ask one of your group to hold it) and bounce the strobe for a more natural-looking light.

Another must-see occurs in August and September, when all the clans gather for a large show, or “sing-sing,” in Mt. Hagen or Goroka. The Highland Cultural Show remains my most memorable as a travel shooter—I’ve never made more exposures in one four-hour period!

Besides taking plenty of cards and batteries (there are no camera stores up here!), there are a few other things to keep in mind should you be lucky enough to attend a Highland Show. (If you can’t make one of the main two, there are several smaller ones throughout the year.)

A tripod will only slow you down, but take the folding reflector. The 32-inch size folds down to a third of that diameter and slips in the back pocket of many camera bags. If you travel with a companion, he or she can be the reflector jockey, providing much needed fill light in the tropical sun. You also can recruit other visitors and even other tribesmen as “instant assistants.” If no one is around to hold a reflector, you always have your Speedlight to do some fill-flash.

You’ll be out for hours in the hot tropical sun, so sunscreen and a hat are needed, as is a bottle of water (there are soft drinks for sale at the event if you need more). Arrive several hours before the actual show time because that’s when the groups apply makeup and rehearse, and are at their most approachable.

You can shoot during the show, of course, but I found my most successful pictures were taken during the makeup and rehearsal period, when the groups are more relaxed and approachable.

Photographing the Highland Cultural Show is guaranteed to be one of the highlights of your traveling career. You’ll expend more pixels and energy here in one day than you would have thought possible. But one final tip: Even though you’ll be on your feet for hours on end, avoid the temptation to sit down on the job to relax and reload. As I learned firsthand, you don’t want to be sitting in between a group of Papua New Guinea warriors and their adoring public!

Scouting Report is an occasional series to appear in Photo Traveler, covering popular destinations for outdoor and travel photographers and how to plan and photograph a trip.

Visit Bob Krist’s website at www.bobkrist.com. For more information on planning a trip to Papua New Guinea, visit Trans Niugini Tours at www.pngtours.com.

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