Papua New Guinea's culture on display at Goroka Show

Papua New Guinea's culture on display at Goroka Show

Papua New Guinea's culture on display at Goroka Show

Updated 7 October 2014, 9:05 AEDT

Papua New Guinea correspondent Liam Cochrane travels to the country's Highlands to witness a spectacular display of culture.

More than 100 groups from across the country recently descended on a field in the Eastern Highlands for a two-day frenzy of face paint, feathers and photos.

The Goroka Show is PNG's biggest sing-sing, the name given to a gathering of tribes or villages where they show off their distinct cultures.

The shows were started in 1957 by Australian patrol officers known as kiaps and began as competitions to see which district was the best organised.

Since then they have grown to be a major event on the country's tourism calendar.

This year's Goroka Show started slowly on a Saturday morning, with a group of around 20 performers quickly surrounded by keen international tourists, many of whom flew to PNG especially for the Goroka Show.

One by one, more sing-sing groups filed onto the field, where a large area was roped off for VIPs who paid 120 kina ($60) for a morning's unfettered access.

Photography was a big focus and performers were incredibly patient, holding poses and enjoying the attention.

Many of the groups were from the Highlands around Goroka but others flew from as far as Manus Island and Bougainville.

At noon the VIP privileges ran out and the field was swamped by people who paid $2 for a general admission ticket.

The songs of the different sing-sing groups created quite a cacophony across the grassy green field.

The traditional dress seemed to get more and more exotic as the day went on.

The Butterfly Sing-Sing Group from Goroka had woven cane wings strapped to their backs which they flap by pulling on ropes; half their face painted black, the other half white.

The Asaro mud men, with their pale clay masks and white-painted bodies, crept slowly around with bows and arrows looking like apparitions.

By far the weirdest dance was by the Junife group from Henganofi in Eastern Highlands province.

The leader wore a balaclava-like hood and looked like a bank robber crossed with a horror movie monster.

Two rows of men lined up shaking rectangular boards they had strapped to their backsides, and at the end of the line-up stood two men with their bodies inked head-to-toe in black paint.

They stood facing apart, bent at the hip and sort of rubbed their bottoms together for about a minute at a time, only straightening up to dance to a new spot on the field and recommence the rubbing.

As festival-goers walked back to their lodgings after many hours in the baking heat, they passed a local policeman - known as Plastic - directing traffic with stylised robot moves.

Sunday was more of the same, with thousands of foreigners and Papua New Guineans snapping photos and taking in the amazing spectacle.

It wasn't all smiles though.

I was pick-pocketed and lost some camera accessories, and others had similar stories. By mid-afternoon, the crowds outside trying to get in were getting a bit rowdy.

On Sunday night I took a drive to a lookout to get another perspective on Goroka, with its air strip running right through the centre of town.

Suddenly from below at least 12 shots rang out. I later learnt that police had fired warning shots in the air and a bit of tear gas to try to control the crowds.

It reminded me of a story by a local journalist published in the daily paper in June.

The article began: "The fifth Melanesian Festival of Arts and Culture in Mt Hagen ended in the traditional Highlands way with clashes and destruction on Friday afternoon."

Despite the police action, Goroka is considered a relatively safe town and thousands of foreign tourists make the trip every year.

The show is an incredible event that I would highly recommend. But it's not a night out at the ballet and travellers do have to take care with security.

The Goroka Show is touted as "the most colourful show on Earth".

It would have to be one of the richest displays of cultural diversity and it is on Australia's northern doorstep.