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January 2010    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 36, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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One of PNG’s Last Great Cultural Events

from the January, 2010 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The annual Mt. Hagen Cultural Show was first organized by the Australians in 1964 as a way of furthering contacts among the remote clans and hopefully getting them to stop slaughtering each other for a few days. Times have changed. Now, cash prizes are awarded and competition is a matter of both pride and profit. Last year, the festival was billed as “The 2009 Coca-Cola Mt. Hagen Show.” This sad fact aside, it was three days of sensory overload at 5,500 feet under a crystal sky, like Woodstock for Wig-Men. In 2008, 68 clans attended. When I attended last August, 107 clans arrived at the soccer field just outside the airport, where they burned off the surrounding fields and camped overnight. At daybreak, the 2,000 performers began applying make-up and adorning themselves with feathers, shells, cus-cus fur, flower, grass, you name it.

At noon, the 250 tourists wandered past the food stalls, face-paint vendors, artifact peddlers, HIV information booths, and yes, the reggae band, to find seats at the dilapidated grandstand or in grass huts thrown up for the purpose. One by one, each clan entered the stadium and marched to their spot on the field in full dress, carrying spears, bows, feathered totems, carvings and drums. After local plenipotentiaries made welcoming speeches, and a Christian minister presumed upon the Deity for 20 minutes, it was announced the contest would begin. With 107 clans performing, I thought we’d be there until 3 a.m. But at a given signal, they all cut loose at once. Look up “cacophony” in Webster’s Dictionary. Five minutes later, the guards opened the gate in the fence and we were allowed on the field, mingling with the dancers and compulsively snapping hundreds of photos. This went on for four hours and resumed the following day.

One of PNG’s Last Great Cultural EventsI booked through the dive travel agency DiversionOz ( and stayed at the Highlander hotel, got a smarmy but adequate room, breakfast, dinner, box lunch, transfers, and admission to the show for roughly $550.00 a day. Steep? Yes. Worth it? Absolutely.

This year’s show will be held August 14-15. There’s no official Web site, but contact Papua New Guinea Tourism Authority ( for details, or a dive travel agency that does PNG trips.

--- D.L.

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