The medicine man's bare feet are wide and leathery, and they're not ticklish. I can tell they're not ticklish because, when a spider emerges from a gap between his fat toes, the medicine man doesn't react. Perhaps he's so engrossed in his bamboo firelighter that he can't feel it making its way up his leg.
Half an hour later, a man in a grass skirt is pointing a bow and arrow at me, walking backwards up a muddy path that leads to his home. My surprise quickly gives way to nervous laughter when I realise this is a welcome to his jungle.
Such is life in Papua New Guinea (PNG). I'm on the outskirts of Mount Hagen in central PNG, following an itinerary comprised of cultural visits to remote communities. It is showcasing a way of life only discovered by white men in the past century or so.
To me, PNG is remarkable at least partly because of what I don't know about it. It's right next to Australia yet feels a million miles away.
Its capital, Port Moresby, is a carbuncle by the sea. It's not safe or advisable to spend any amount of time there but it's impossible to come into the country without at the very least transferring through Port Moresby's airport. Much of PNG's modern ill-repute comes from its ugly capital, which is a shame because the further into the jungle you disappear, the quieter and gentler it becomes.
Of course, it wasn't always that way. Part of the contemporary country's challenge is about marketing and Papua has more to overcome than most. It's barely 50 years since Michael Rockefeller disappeared in West Papua while on an expedition to gather indigenous art. The best guess of Savage Harvest author Carl Hoffman is that Rockefeller was killed and eaten by a tribe seeking revenge for a massacre by colonial Belgians several years earlier. Cannibalism absolutely was a thing here and there's a good chance that among the communities such as those along the Karawari River, the people old enough to be your grandparents may well know what people taste like. They may even have a favourite dish.
None of this is taboo. When my small group visits Yimas village, a short boat ride from the Karawari Lodge, our second stop, we witness a victory dance that, just a few decades ago, would have taken place in the wake of a successful head-hunt. There's little in the way of large fauna in the Papuan jungles – even the feral pigs were introduced by Spanish conquistadors on their way to the Philippines – and so other people would have represented an excellent source of protein. A successful raid meant a grand feast and so the dance recreated for us is a rhapsodic affair.
The entire village turns out for it, resplendent in head-dresses with bird-of-paradise feathers and vivid face paint. Across the river, friends or relatives stand at the water's edge to see what the fuss is about. For them, the view across the heavy, chocolate-coloured river is a look into their past. They are dressed more practically, in raggedy clothes which I presume have been donated. I've never seen more old Australian rugby and soccer jerseys than on the banks of the Karawari, their golds stained by the red clay soil.
Unsurprisingly, accommodation options are limited this far into PNG's interior. Trans Niugini Tours operates a number of lodges that allow guests to reach the heart of country and meet tribes that would be otherwise inaccessible. My itinerary, organised by Cox and Kings, takes me to three of its lodges via small planes: Mount Hagen, then Karawari and, from its grass runway, we fly to our final stop near Tari, where we transfer to the Ambua Lodge.
More than 850 languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea. Here, ambua means yellow. The most vivid ambua in these parts is the paint on the faces of the Huli men, the dominant tribe. . They, too, put on displays and shows for visitors, and watching them – the overt confrontation, the hyper-masculinity – it's easy to understand why early Australian prospectors tended to freak out when confronted with such tribes. If diplomacy was attempted, it was often abandoned soon after. When the Huli were first discovered, for example, the Fox brothers, illegal gold prospectors, killed 50 of them with the first guns the Huli had ever seen.
Today, the Huli are amazingly welcoming and their colourful communities around Tari receive increasing numbers of visitors each year. Caucasian people, however, remain objects of curiosity. Driving through one town, I lean out the window to take a drive-by photo, but almost drop my camera in surprise when a local kid pinches my pasty Celtic skin in disbelief.
For the most part, however, my arms are not free because they are busy waving. The people of Papua New Guinea's interior wave like no other people I've encountered.
The Huli's spectacular wig-men are wearing flamboyant wigs made of human hair, adorned with more wonderful feathers, as well as that unforgettable yellow paint. They may project a stone-age existence, but they certainly know how to work the camera. If I had any doubt that PNG is the best country in the world for taking portrait photographs, the last ember is extinguished with this visit. Reviewing my photographs, it's hard to shake the feeling of exhilaration.
In almost all walks of life, Huli men and women are kept quite separate, including when it comes time to deal with the inevitable business of death. Over a week in PNG's interior our small group visited healers and warriors, elders and children. Throughout, I was confident that what I was witnessing was theatre: the warrior was no more likely to shoot me with an arrow than the medicine man was likely to cast a functional spell. It's impossible to tell with the stony-faced widows at our final stop, however, if someone has actually died or if they're sitting there – faces painted with a cracked white, their clothes similarly anaemic – solely for our benefit. And that, I suppose, is the point – you have to see it to see if you believe it, and even then you might not be sure.
Jamie Lafferty travelled as a guest of Cox and Kings and the Papua New Guinea Tourism Promotion Authority.
FIVE PNG CULTURAL DISPLAYS
THE MUD MEN OF POGLA
Perhaps the most unsettling show in Papua New Guinea, the mudmen recreate an ancient tale for a modern audience. The story goes that having been routed in battle, the surviving members smothered themselves in mud and made hideous clay masks, then scared away their enemies, rather than fight them again.
THE SPIRIT DANCERS OF KAIP
Located just outside Mount Hagen, Kaip is a tiny settlement where the dancers are adolescent boys. With faces painted black and white, their energetic dancing is designed to placate the jungle spirits as they begin their coming-of-age ceremonies.
THE HULI WIG-MEN
To be a wig-man in Huli culture is a great honour – and one that doesn't come easy. The apprenticeship lasts 18 months, during which the trainee cannot see his family. Most of that time they are growing and cutting their own hair, then learning the complicated process needed to make their sensational headdresses.
THE WOODSMEN OF THE KARAWARI
Deep in the jungle, the tock-tocking of stone-age axes hitting wood carries far and wide. The Karawari and Sepik regions are known for their handicrafts and fine wood-carving. Some of it is available for sale, but many of the idols are transported into spirit houses to honour the forest gods.
THE HULI MEDICINE MEN
Modern medicine is more readily available than ever before in PNG, but that doesn't mean people have given up on the old ways. The medicine men near Tari are all of a pensionable age, and the huge feathered headdresses they wear (mostly made from birds of paradise feathers) are almost as old as they are.
Air Niugini flies to Port Moresby from Sydney, Brisbane and Cairns. See airniugini.com.pg
Cox & Kings has an 11-night private tour to Papua New Guinea that includes accommodation with full board and excursions throughout, transfers and domestic flights. See coxandkings.com.au or call 1300 836 764.