Founder of La Coqueta, Celia Muñoz and her family travelled to Papua New Guinea to discover a different way of life
Ask me why I fell madly in love with my husband and I will answer – we both shared a passion for adventurous travel. We first got to know each other on our travels in Syria, where, with little more than a rucksack, we visited the ancient cities of Aleppo, Damascus and Palmyra.
When we had our first daughter, Flavia, I remember our friends laughing, saying that our adventure holidays were over and welcome to the world of resorts and baby clubs. But despite the fact that both my husband and I love babies, we are sort of allergic to anything that has to do with entertainment specifically designed for children that doesn’t include adults.
Now we have five children aged between five and nine years, our holidays don’t always take us to the most comfortable places, but wherever we go, we immerse ourselves in a very different way of life, which has a great impact and changes us in one way or another.
It is possible to travel with children to exotic and rural areas (as a family we have been to Guatemala, Peru, China, Indonesia, Nepal, Cuba, South Africa and Thailand), and we have found the experience of exposing our children to new cultures extremely gratifying. They may not remember some of these experiences as they started travelling at a very young age, but we feel they will help to shape them into open-minded young adults.
It is somehow difficult to recommend a place to travel to when most of the usual ingredients for a great vacation aren’t there: gastronomy, customer service, comfortable hotels and architectural sites to visit. You won’t find these elements in Papua New Guinea. However, I can still say it is one of the most stunning and remarkable places that we have ever visited and where we have spent by far the most quality of time together as a family; discovering a way of life like our ancestors used to live.
Papua New Guinea has been on the top of mine and my husband’s list since we were young. We decided to go last year, and the experience changed us forever, not only because of the beauty of the land but also because the culture is dramatically different to anything we have ever seen or experienced before.
As a country it may appear fairly inhospitable because it is true – most people who travel there do it for professional reasons. However, if you scrape below the surface you get to discover an extraordinary place that has barely changed for thousands of years, where in some places currency doesn’t exist and being a pig owner is your biggest asset.
The capital was our first stop in Papua New Guinea. It is easiest to travel there from Indonesia so the jet lag isn’t too bad, but although these countries look quite close to each other, it is still a seven-hour flight overnight from Java. We stayed in Java for one night at a hotel close to the airport because the city is quite dangerous. My husband and I did venture into the market in the centre of town, though, and purchased some hand-carved wooden pieces, which now decorate our living room.
MOUNT HAGEN FESTIVAL
Mount Hagen is the capital of the Western Highlands province and is the gateway to the smaller Highland towns, the Sepik River and the North coast. The areas surrounding the township of Mount Hagen consist of mountain ranges covered with lush tropical rainforest. The town comes to life during its annual festival in August, when all the tribes and clans of the Highlands collect in a display of dress, dance and song.
The Mount Hagen Festival is the most famous cultural show in Papua New Guinea amongst locals and brings together sing-sing groups from all over the country in an amazing display of colour, beauty and culture. The Mount Hagen Cultural Show was first staged in 1964 by many different tribes from the Western Highlands Province. The show was for the purpose of sharing cultural experiences with each other, calming the ever-present tribal animosities by bringing together all tribes in one cultural event to expose the positive side of life and to celebrate the diversity of cultures amongst the natives.
At first, our children felt quite intimidated by these highly decorated faces, who looked at us with the same curiosity as we looked at them. It took our children a good half day to get used to the costume and the nudity of people, but in the end, they did not want to leave. Because they were the only tourist children at the festival, they got to dance with many sing-sings (The Hulis and The Kalulis to name a few). The movements were all focused on the body’s expression in a way we haven’t seen before and they all sang as loud as possible in the contest. In the end, everybody wins, so that tribal fighting is avoided when back home.
We stayed at a beautiful eco-lodge called Rondon Ridge that boasts the most incredible panoramic views of the Wahgi Valley below. This is one of the most luxurious places in Papua New Guinea, although expect it to be very basic, with limited access to electricity and warm water. It is a wonderful place for bird watching (our children got to see hundreds of birds of paradise) and the garden is a fully grown rainforest that hosts the most incredible species of orchids. We enjoyed sitting as a family on the hotel’s terrace until late, watching the stars and listening to the wildlife that surrounded us.
TOP TIP The ceremonial mud-men dance is one not to be missed!
A tribute of the mighty Sepik River, the Karawari riverbanks are home to lush tropical rainforest and an amazing array of birdlife. Butterflies the size of dinner plates flutter between trees and often decided to rest on our children’s heads or chests. The peacefulness of the place is often interrupted by the call of water birds or crocodiles slinking into the river. The tribal villages of the area are dotted along the river, and the locals make a living from fishing and wood carving.
The Karawari Lodge is the only place to stay in the area and is comprised of a set of eight huts that overlook the breathtaking views of the Sepik River; nestled in the rainforest they give little indication of human habitation, putting into perspective the vastness of nature. The walls of the rooms only rise halfway so you get to experience sleeping in the middle of the jungle, an immersive experience at its best.
We visited a few villages around the river, and to our surprise, most of them knew about the existence of other villages but haven’t visited each other before. I remember asking: “Where do you store your food?” And the answer was simple: “We are hunter-gatherers, we don’t store our food, we hunt and eat what we get on the day.” There is no notion to collect rainwater or agriculture, and it was heartwarming to talk to people who live by the day without worrying about what happens tomorrow – a great contrast to our lives.
One thing that struck me was the number of children who live in one single village, making it the best playground for kids, including ours.
It is a very remote location – you are two hours away by light aircraft from the closest city, hospital or supermarket. In essence, our real fascination with the Sepik River was the people. They live as they have for generations – sing-songs, storytelling, food gathering and preparation. The excursions were taken by riverboat and visiting the villages allowed us to be able to observe and participate in their life and customs, and for this, we feel very grateful.
TOP TIP At the Karawari Lodge, every morning you will be greeted by a giant hornbill at your doorstep!
Next, we were excited to head towards one of the most remote places in Papua New Guinea. Lake Murray is the largest lake in the country and home to an abundance of wildlife; reptiles, big fish and home to the Papuan equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster. Only 5,000 people live and work on the banks of the lake in Western Papua, helping to keep traditional tribal customs alive.
Lake Murray has only recently become accessible by light aircraft. Our children were fascinated by the birds of paradise – they saw pelicans, eagles and hornbills – then there are the inhabitants under the water – sawfish, black bass and barramundi.
We visited a lot of the villages around the lakes; to our surprise, most of them had never seen white children before and the chief of one tribe told us they believed white people didn’t have children.
We spent one morning in a beautiful village where an army of children greeted us with a sign saying: “Welcome Visitors.” They showed our children how to use their bows and arrows – a privilege you get from the age of four years, when you start looking for your own food. We found this tricky to comprehend.
TOP TIP The lake is full of crocodiles, but where you see children swimming, it is safe to do so due to the nets the villagers have built.
The Highlands are the most densely populated and agriculturally productive region of Papua New Guinea, and were first explored by western missionaries and gold prospectors in the 1930s. Even now, the area is thought to inhabit undiscovered tribes. Many tribes still maintain their cultural traditions and individual languages, and clan and tribal loyalties are everything. Most of the settlements exist at over 20,000 metres high, perched over a serried range of rugged mountains and fertile valleys.
The Huli tribes that dominate Tari have been living there for 600 to 1,000 years, and have been of great interest to David Attenborough. We spent our days exploring the Huli way of life. The Huli men take pride in their appearance, and cultivate everlasting daisies and collect bird of paradise feathers to decorate their wigs. It was fascinating to learn about the process of growing a wig and to visit special schools that focus on teaching this dying art.
We stayed at the Ambua Lodge, which sits in the middle of the rainforest. It is, again, the only place to stay in the area.
TOP TIP Your children will be fascinated by the visit to the Huli wigmen – students who live a monastic lifestyle in the jungle, where nurturing locks is a real obsession to turn them into wigs that look like hats.