I feel incredibly privileged to have travelled to East New Britain, the northern island of Papua New Guinea, in October 2019 as a guest of Intrepid Travel.
The tour revolves around the Baining Firedance Festival which, along with the already well-established Mask Festival, offers a unique opportunity to experience the tribal culture and breathtaking coastline of the north-eastern regions of PNG.
Only about an hour’s drive from Rabaul the festival takes place over two full days, with 57 tribes coming from the surrounding villages. Every tribe proudly showcases their traditional costumes and masks, performing dances of tales and legends of their villages to the rhythm of hypnotic chants.
It’s hard to put into words what it’s like to be there, people from the villages are curious, they want to interact with us and tell us their stories. The children especially take a great interest in our presence. The atmosphere is simply joyful all around.
Once the sun starts disappearing behind the surrounding thick forest, the villagers start a bonfire and keep it fed with logs and branches until it’s time for the Fire Dancers to come out and present themselves in the guise of spirits of the forest. This dance is normally reserved for occasions such as funerals and initiations, so it really feels like an honour to be able to witness it.
It’s dark all around and the fire only sheds lights on the showground. No one speaks, the only sound is the rhythmic chant that has every single person hypnotised.
Once the fire is at its peak, the spirits start scattering around, kicking and stomping on the fire and creating a game of lights and shadows breaking through the surrounding deep darkness.
The crowd start cheering at the first hit and an overwhelming wave of excitement takes over the entire showground; suddenly we are all part of the Fire Dance.
There is something magical about this dance for the local villagers. For most people, it still remains a mystery how the dancers approach the flames and the burning logs barefoot without any protection other than a few leaves covering a limited part of their bodies.
Intrepid Travel’s Papua New Guinea Firedance Festival not only offers the opportunity to experience the colourful dances and glimpse of the tribal life, but also the opportunity to snorkel in one of the most amazing reefs around the Pacific Ocean, experience the laid-back island lifestyle and visit the war history sites that have shaped the identity of Rabaul during World War I and II.
The day after the festival, it’s time to leave the highlands behind and immerse ourselves in the paradisiac beauty of the Duke of York Island.
After a 40-minute boat ride from Kokopo Beach, we are welcomed by a squad of golden-haired cheerful children ashore of the Maira village. This is our home for the next two days and it’s all about relaxing, snorkelling and meeting the people of the village.
Our accommodation is very basic, the guest stable is divided into single rooms with a thin mattress covered by a mosquito net. Even so, it’s hard to miss amenities back home in such a beautiful and peaceful place.
During our homestay we get to experience the warm hospitality of the island, along with a taste of the temperamental nature of the Papua New Guinean tropical climate; with a blink of an eye the perfectly blue sky turns into torrential rain and we learn very quickly that any attempt to stay dry is going to be in vain, so we give up and carry on with our plans for the afternoon.
The rest of our stay here is filled with exploring remote corners of the island, scouting war artefacts hidden in the jungle, snorkelling and appreciating the laid-back island rhythm, all topped with a taste of the traditional food and a dash of the local rum.
We leave the island in the morning, a little more relaxed and excited about the next few days ahead exploring Rabaul and its history. We are looking forward to learning about the role that the bay played in World War I and II and getting up close with Mt Tavurvur, the active volcano which erupted in 1994 and left a catastrophic mark on the area.
One of the most amazing experiences is left for our last full day. It’s an early rise today, we get ready and embark once again from Kokopo Beach to reach the spot where dolphins are known to gather. Once we arrive, two nets come down the sides of the boat and we get to lie on them while the boat reaches the dolphin’s swimming speed and our snorkels give us the chance to get a glimpse of what life is like beneath the surface. To preserve the wellbeing and natural habitat of these dolphins, the local operators limit the number of boats and tourists to be out at any one time, which gives us the opportunity to enjoy this unique experience in almost complete isolation.
This afternoon, we explore the local markets at Kokopo, a great place to shop for billums and little souvenirs and have our goodbye dinner with the crew who have taken such great care of us over the past week.
East New Britain is not only home to stunning untouched landscapes but also a home of incredible legends and rituals.
The local hospitality is simply moving. Over the entire length of our stay, every person we came across showed a reciprocal mix of curiosity towards us and pride in including us in their country’s customs and traditions.
Papua New Guinea is still a widely undertouristed destination, and Intrepid Travel’s Firedance Festival Tour provides a unique opportunity to experience this stunning tropical paradise. East New Britain is truly a place to fall in love with.