Innocent Eyes and Head Hunters: Tawali, Milne Bay, PNG

Close-up portrait of a Tawali child, Milne Bay PNG

Tawali Child
Big, serious eyes and solemn expressions were a feature of many of the Papua New Guinean children that I met on my recent travels.

Papua New Guinea is not the easiest place in the world to get to.

I was starting from Australia, a near neighbour and – for almost 60 years – the former administrative head of PNG. Even so, limited flight options into and out of the capital Port Moresby are only available certain days of the week, making travel planning difficult.

It is also not the easiest place to get around. In spite of intense investment from the World Bank and targeted international foreign aid (e.g.: Construction Begins on K89), much of the country is not well served by roadways. Many of it’s centres simple do not connect to each other, except by way of isolated and dangerous walking tracks, waterways, or expensive internal flights.

And the scheduled domestic flights – as our group of twelve travellers under the guidance of photographer Karl Grobl from Jim Cline Photo Tours discovered to our dismay – are dependent on weather and visibility, mechanical repairs and replacements, and resolution of pilot disputes. We were stranded in Mount Hagen for a full day and grounded in Port Moresby Airport for several hours, cutting a day and a half off our planned time in the beautiful Milne Bay.

Papua New Guinea is also a difficult place to get one’s head around: it can be hard to reconcile the contradictions between the idyllic surrounds and the gentle-eyed people on the one hand, and a history of head-hunting, stories of cannibalism, and ongoing tribal warfare on the other.

And yet, on the ground in the country – whether in the down-at-heels city of Port Moresby, stranded on the Sepic River in a broken boat, rubbing shoulders with tribal groups at the Sing-Sing in the Mount Hagan highlands, or visiting a Skull Cave in the coastal Milne Bay area – I never once felt unsafe or unwelcome. 

The light can be as unforgiving as the old tribal ways: the inky-dark jungle contrasts with the streams of burning brightness that sneak through the canopy. Light bounces wildly off the clear waters. Art photographers don’t like “hot” patches in their pictures; I sometimes don’t mind them, because they tell some of the story of what is: glaring light and darkened shadows co-existing in a balanced patchwork of extreme contrasts, rather than a smoothly blended hegemony. 

To try to sort out these contradictions, I’m starting at the end of my trip – sharing a selection of the photos I took across two idyllic days spent based at the remote and lovely Tawali Resort, which sits on a limestone bluff, high over Hoia Bay, about two hours east of the Alotau Airport.

Of course, getting there was in keeping with the theme: we were already a day behind schedule because of a pilot’s dispute. We arrived at the Port Moresby airport early to check in for our flight to Alotau, but (with no explanation) the plane itself was hours late arriving. So, we spent all morning in a spartan domestic terminal, not sure if we’d ever get off the ground.

That was only the start of the adventure!

Spinner Dolphins - Stenella Longirostris - leaping, Milne Bay

Spinner Dolphins – Stenella Longirostris
After a bumpy and harrowing 90 minute bus ride along dirt roads with holes the size of small craters and over bridges that were little more than rough planks, we were pleased to transfer ourselves and our luggage onto one of the boats that are the only mean of accessing Tawali Resort. We were even more happy to find a late lunch on board, as we’d been stuck in an airport terminal without food for several hours. The scores of dolphins that came out to play with the boat wake were a bonus.

Spinner Dolphins - Stenella Longirostris - leaping, Milne Bay

Spinner Dolphins – Stenella Longirostris
It is impossible not to smile watching the dainty dolphins cavort.

Spinner Dolphins - Stenella Longirostris - in blue water, Milne Bay

Spinner Dolphins – Stenella Longirostris
The waters below us are so clear that it feels like we can touch the bottom.

Dinghy landing tourists at Skull Cave on Milne Bay, PNG

Dinghy on Milne Bay
To compact our planned activities into our shrunken time-frame, and to take advantage of the the remaining daylight, we over-shot the resort and took the dinghies ashore for a short walk into the jungle.

Elderly Papuan man in a canoe on Milne Bay, PNG

Canoe on Milne Bay
A local man, going about his business on the turquoise waters near shore, watches us with a smile.

Foreshore under a mangrove tree, Milne Bay, PNG

This is an area of limestone karst caves; the foreshore is rocky and shaded by mangrove trees.

Piles of human skulls in the dark, Skull Cave, Milne Bay, PNG

Skull Cave
The limestone caves are pitch black, with uneven floors and rough walls – – –
and are piled full of countless human skulls; a macabre sight in the torch light.

Piles of human skulls in the dark, Skull Cave, Milne Bay, PNG

Skull Cave
One story we were told to account for these skulls was that three neighbouring villages of head-hunters were in competition to collect the most trophies. Just over 100 years ago, missionaries arrived in the area and prohibited the custom of headhunting and the practice of cannibalism, driving villagers to hide their prized skull collections underground in these ‘secret’ caves. Some credence is given to this story by the fact that all the skulls seem to show spear injuries in the same place.
The other explanation is that when revered people died, they were buried upright with clay pots placed over their heads. When the body decomposed sufficiently, the head was removed and placed in the cave as a show of respect. Apparently these skull caves are relatively common across the country.

Baby in on mother

Baby in Arms
Back outside in the dappled jungle light, local villages sit with their beads, wooden carvings, and shells for sale to the tourists.

Shells for sale, Milne Bay, PNG


Family in the Jungle, Milne Bay, PNG

Family in the Jungle
The people seem quite shy, and although they must be used to tourists, …

Two Papuan children, Milne Bay, PNG

Beauties in the Jungle
… they mostly just watch us.

Portrait: Tawali Girl, Milne Bay, PNG

Tawali Girl

Portrait: Tawali Girl, Milne Bay, PNG

A Shy Smile

View through a boat windsceen: Papuan man and Milne Bay coastline, PNG

Boat in the Spray
We ride the boats a little further up the coast, …

Coastal Papuan woven houses on stilts, Milne Bay PNG

Village Life in Hewiia
… where we take a short walk through a simple local village, …

Waterfall in Hewiia, Milne Bay PNG

Waterfall in Hewiia
… and back into the jungle to a lovely waterfall.

Papuan girls in school uniform at the Hewiia Waterfall, Milne Bay PNG

Schoolgirls at the Waterfall
Local children follow us, …

Papuan girls in school uniform at the Hewiia Waterfall, Milne Bay PNG

Schoolgirls at the Waterfall
… and watch us with curiosity.

Portrait: Papuan girl, Milne Bay PNG

“Little Beauty”
This solemn-faced young woman was wearing a t-shirt that read: “This Beauty doesn’t need a Beast.”

Bird Eating Spider, Milne Bay PNG

Bird Eating Spider
The jungle is full of surprises.

Tourist Boat, Milne Bay PNG

Tourist Boat

Papuan woman on a boat, Milne Bay PNG

Simple Grace
As the day closes, we finally head to the resort, where we once again discover how ill-prepared Papua New Guinea is for tourism: the bar has plenty of tonic and lime, but no gin!

Ferns in the Jungle Tops, Milne Bay PNG

Ferns in the Jungle Tops
The next morning, we were up at 4am for a short boat ride and a long walk (straight up!) to see the indigenous birds of paradise. Unfortunately, our group was too large and too loud – or perhaps it was the drizzly weather – and, although we could hear the male, high in the trees over our heads, calling to his mates, all the birds remained hidden.

Rainbow over East Cape, Milne Bay PNG

Rainbow over East Cape
As if apologising for the early morning start and the lack of bird-sightings, the Bay threw up a lovely rainbow as we motored back to the resort for breakfast.

Old Papuan man and two children in an outrigger, Milne Bay PNG

Outrigger on the Water
After breakfast, we headed back out onto those richly coloured waters to dock on a sandy tropical island for lunch under the mangroves … 

Reef Fisherman,a Drone and Snorkelling Tourists, Milne Bay PNG

Culture Clash
… and snorkelling on the reef under the watchful camera of a drone. (iPhone6)

Reef Abstract, Milne Bay PNG

Reef Abstract
Leaving the cameras safely on dry land, I played with the iPhone over the coral reef while I kayaked on the crystal waters. (iPhone6)

Young Papuan boys with spears, Tawali Resort, Milne Bay PNG

Young Warriors
The rainy evening pushed the muu-muu (ground-baked pig, wrapped in banana leaf) and the sing-sing (a cultural gathering of costume, music and dance) indoors. Young boys with spears …

Young Papuan girls in feathers and grass skirts, Tawali Resort, Milne Bay PNG

Little Birds of Paradise
… prepared to surround and ‘kill’ birds of paradise. Looking at all the bird feathers used in the intricate headdresses, it is no surprise that the birds remain elusive in the wild.

That children’s performance says it all: wide-eyed innocent dancers telling the beautiful but gruesome story of a hunt that ends in the death of a rare and exotic creature. 

Text: Happy Travels

Papua New Guinea is, indeed, a study in contradictions.

But, a fascinating and beguiling one.

Until next time,

Happy Travels!

Pictures: 23-24August2017

  • Karl Grobl - August 31, 2017 - 2:21 pm

    Excellent post and photos Ursula. I anxiously await each and every one of your blog posts. Thanks for taking the time to share this!ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - September 1, 2017 - 12:44 am

      Thanks so much, Karl! Your trips are always full of highlights; I always enjoy travelling to new places with you. I’m looking forward to the next time…ReplyCancel

  • Diane Rosenblum - August 31, 2017 - 3:58 pm

    I loved the post and your pictures. You got the dolphins! And your children are lovely. (Really like the cropping of the first child image). Now I know why Karl waits to see your blogs to find out where he’s been and what he’s done!ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - September 1, 2017 - 12:46 am

      Ha Ha Ha!! I wait to get home to see where I’ve been and what I’ve done. 😉 I am looking forward to all the tribal portraits, but they still seem a little overwhelming…
      It was lovely to meet you – there WILL be a next time. 😀ReplyCancel

  • JEANNE LEWAND - August 31, 2017 - 4:06 pm


    • Ursula - September 1, 2017 - 12:40 am

      Many thanks, Jeanne! It was great travelling with you. 😀ReplyCancel

  • Jan Lively - August 31, 2017 - 10:57 pm

    Yet again Ursula, you have come through with pictures and words that so artfully tell the story of our amazing time together in Papua New Guinea. And when friends ask me about our trip, I am going to suggest they check out your blog, for indeed, you are a master story teller. It was great to travel with you again too.ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - September 1, 2017 - 12:42 am

      Thanks, Jan, you too kind! It’s always a joy to travel with you and the Handsome-Lew-Man. 😀ReplyCancel

  • Kat Miner - September 1, 2017 - 1:47 am

    Wonderful, Ursula! Such fun to read about your experience! In spite of all of the bumps along the way, it sounds like you made the best of it!ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - September 1, 2017 - 2:21 am

      Nice to have your visit Kat. It really is a different – albeit beautiful – world!ReplyCancel

  • Jen - September 6, 2017 - 2:59 am

    Beautiful! Thanks so much for sharing, very well done!ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - September 6, 2017 - 11:35 am

      Thank you, Jen! Looks like you enjoyed the rest of your trip. 😀ReplyCancel

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