drummers on Naunu

Drummers in action on Naunu.


Costumes were often quite elaborate. Village Chief is in yellow shirt on right.

home on stilts

Traditional PNG home on stilts.

ladies dance

Tingwon ladies’ performance.

Chief on Baluan

Chief of Mouk Village on Baluan Island.

launching outrigger

Launching the outrigger for the race. The kid amidships blows his conch during the entire race.That’s the CLIPPER ODYSSEY drifting offshore, as the waters are too deep for anchoring

ochre faced dancers

Dancers at Rabaul.

KWB and camera

Kathryn plays back video to the kid’s fascination.

Fire Dancers

Dukduk fire dancers jump in and out of coals. The mask is used just once. Note the fancy penis ornament.

More drummers

Drummers enjoying the dance performance.


Fancy head gear is used only once and then discarded or sold.

Kula Ring Canoe

Big outrigger canoe used for Kula Ring trading voyages between the islands.

March, 2006 found us island–hopping aboard the CLIPPER ODYSSEY, through the Coral Sea, the Solomon Sea, and the Bismarck Sea, calling at nearly a dozen islands. A ship provides just about the only good way to explore this part of the world, given the oppressive heat and humidity and the almost non–existent infrastructure for visitors.

The islands, most of which are quite steep, are generally covered with lush, dark-green rainforest. No one seems sure of the right number, but there are more than 800 ethnic–language groups in PNG. So, although the pattern was the same everywhere, i.e. we were greeted at the beach landing by the whole village who then put on a cultural performance involving dancers in traditional dress and paint hopping to the aggressive beat of hollow–log drums, each place proved to be quite different from all the others.

Some villages survive by fishing, while others grow crops –yams, taro root, bananas, sweet potatoes, sago palm – and don't fish at all. Some villages had quite impressive schools (an indirect source of wealth since those villages tend to produce literate workers who emigrate and send remittances home). Some villages maintained very modest styles of dress, while others performed in only skimpy grass skirts and loin cloths. Some villages had densely-packed homes, some of which are of quasi–western design, while others have widely-separated thatched huts, with a special house reserved as sleeping quarters for the men of the village. Many of the villagers enjoy chewing betel nut, giving them a special crimson smile.

Beyond the variety of unique dance and singing performances, highlights of the trip include watching fishermen catch needlefish from outrigger canoes, using kites to drag spiderwebs in the water, an outrigger canoe race, a ritual fire dance for initiation into the Dukduk secret male society. A group of islands maintain the "Kula Ring" trading system, in which delegations aboard large canoes periodically make a complete circuit of the islands, some clockwise and some counterclockwise, and exchange bracelets and necklaces as tokens of mutual recognition and obligation, and as marks of prestige.

Totally unexpectedly, we learned of the importance of New Guinea as the place where the tide turned in the Pacific during WWII against the Japanese Imperial Army –the Coral Sea Naval Battle, the battle for Guadalcanal, and the fight over the Kokoda Track in New Guinea itself. We called at Rabaul, now mostly covered with ash since the volcanic eruptions of 1994, and formerly the HQ for the invading Japanese forces. I went down into "Admiral Yamamoto’s Bunker" and quickly got claustrophobia. The visibility given the success at the battle of Midway has tended to overshadow the strategic role played by very hard-fought battles in this area.

Kathryn was able to make ten SCUBA dives on a variety of pristine reefs, seeing only one shark the whole time. PNG waters used to teem with sharks, but the lucrative markets in China and Japan for shark fins have caused a complete wipeout of the local shark population.

This was a Stanford–Zegrahm trip, combining our two favorite travel⁄expedition groups. This was our fourth expedition with Expedition Leader Mike Messick and with Peter Harrison, Shirley Metz, and Geoff Renner all of Zegrahm. And, we finally met Jack Grove, the Zegrahm ichtyologist, with whom we are planning to visit the Galapagos.

We can usually count on an outstanding faculty member on the Stanford trips, and this was no exception: Scott Pearson, a food, agricultural and development economics professor for 30 years gave several extraordinary lectures, and provided numerous observations and insights during our village visits.

circumnavigation track

For the record, we left from Port Moresby, called at Haleoia, Fergusson, Dobu, Kiriwina, Gawa, Tingwon, Tsoi, Naunu, Baluan, and St. Andrew islands before disembarking at Wewak.