In the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, hair stylists dictate the jungle fashion, just as they have done for thousands of years.
The Spartans of ancient Greece knew a thing or two about hair. Lycurgus (800BC – 730BC), the founding father of Spartan society based on equality, fitness and austerity wrote: “A fine head of hair adds beauty to a good face, and terror to an ugly one.”
Just as the Spartans recognised a good “do” when they saw one, so do the Huli Wigmen of Papua New Guinea.
The Huli Wigmen are a regular hit at the annual Mt Hagen Show in the Western Highlands, a Papua New Guinea (PNG) singsing and cultural festival which has attracted tens of thousands of tribesmen every year since the 1950s and more recently, adventurous tourists.
It is something of a multi-cultural miracle. PNG has a population of around 5.5 million people, with 850 tribes speaking 800 different languages.
Beyond Western influence and Christianisation, tribesmen are still potently proud of their cultural origins.
The Huli are the largest tribe in the Southern Highlands, with nearly 300,000 living in clan and family compounds, their vegetable patches and sweet potato fields separated by bamboo picket fences and trenches, which the roving pigs often ignore. In the enclosed gardens, women still do most of the work.
Huli boys live in the women’s hut with their mothers until the age of eight, when they move into the men’s house to begin training for manhood.
At the age of 12, the boys are taught the secret men’s ways of the Huli by a wigmaster, who is paid for his tutelage in cash or pigs.
In their teens, the boys spend months at a time in the jungle with the wigmaster, learning the spells, diet and rituals of growing the perfect head of hair.
The young men must grow their wigs before they marry and may grow three or four before a bride is purchased. The wigs are highly prized, and can fetch hundreds of kina at the Tari market, which little more than a generation ago, had never been visited by a white man.
The PNG highlands were hidden from the world until 1933, when Australian gold prospecting brothers Mick and Danny Leahy trekked over a mountain ridge, expecting to find an inhospitable, rugged central mountain range with a few scattered villages.
What they saw was the subject of the famous documentary film First Contact — more than a million people living in huge, flat valleys of rich, volcanic soil who had never met a European. On first sight, they thought the Leahys were ghosts.
Today, large areas of PNG are still unadulterated by the encroachment of tourism. And that’s the attraction of the Tari Valley.
The drive to Ambua Lodge, nestled on the mountainous rim of the huge valley, passes a tapestry of clan compounds. Villages have Christian churches, and traditional burial sites along the roadsides are marked by small, decorated huts, for the comfort of family spirits. A woman walks along the side of the road carry a litter of piglets in a string bag on her back. A big, black sow follows obediently behind.
The view from Ambua over the Tari Valley is spectacular.
At dawn, shafts of light from the rising sun cut through the moving mist and glisten in the droplets of water clinging to the leaves. At 2,743m above sea level, the early morning air is chill and thin in the lungs.
The lodge, near Rondon Gap, is a bird-watcher’s paradise. There is no TV, radio, room phone or internet, just the gentle, wet rustle of tropical rain dropping on thatched roofs.
At night, Atlas moths as big as a man’s hand land on the wall around the lodge lights or flutter softly away into the jungle darkness.
Come back tomorrow night, Wednesday, May 26, for Part 2 of Vincent Ross’ fascinating story of the Huli Wigmen of Papua New Guinea.
All photos © Vincent Ross, 2009. All Rights Reserved.