A Helicopter Ride in Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea is one of the most interesting places I have ever visited, but our trip there was not without challenges. In 2002, they year of our visit, there had been an election which had caused violence and chaos throughout the region. John and I had booked a pre-arranged but unescorted trip which included the Mount Hagen Sing-Sing, held in the highlands of PNG. A sing-sing  is a gathering of tribes where groups display their individual cultures through dance and music and peacefully share their distinct traditions. 

The sing-sing was definitely a highlight, especially for me as a photographer, but there was more to come with a planned visit to the beautifully-set Ambua Lodge. Out scheduled itinerary was to  fly from Kalawari to Mendi, then continue by a small plane to the Tari Airport, the gateway to Ambua. The Tari Airport however had been taken over by “rascals with guns,” who held up some tourists, stole the one existing police car and left the area lawless.

This was actually our good fortune because once we arrived in Mendi, we found the tour company had arranged for us to fly by helicopter to Ambua. Looking down at the beauty of the verdant hills of the PNG Highlands as we hovered low over them was breathtaking, probably the most beautiful short trip by air I have ever taken.

Once there we hiked, did bird watching and enjoyed a dance performance by Huli Wigmen. The Wigmen, who wear distinctive wigs, a one-garment traditional dress, and lots of body adornment, are very colorful characters. This tribal group has interesting traditions which include boys living with their mothers until the age of seven then living with their fathers who teach them necessary cultural skills.

When we were ready to depart we were told we could fly the traditional route, because the previous violent situation had been abated. That wasn’t exactly the case. When we arrived in a mini-bus with an ancient Wigman clutching a machete as our protector, we found the burned-out and looted town was eerily deserted. Our plane was circling overhead, waiting to see that we had arrived safely at the dirt landing strip before touching down. Once it was on the ground, we ran for the open door and scrambled in, our Wigman-guard following behind, flailing his weapon. Safe on the departing plane we reflected on the experience; our exciting and somewhat perilous visit to Ambua Lodge was never to be forgotten.

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