As published in Vacations and Travel Magazine: Issue 58
Seduction and Sorcery
The art of influence in the uninhibited Trobriands
Words and pictures by Roderick Eime
“DUM DUDDA DUM DADDA DUM DUM DUM!”
We heard the pounding of the drums over the buzz of the outboard motor as the tiny zodiac came to deposit us on the beach at Kiriwina Island. Clearly something was afoot.
We knew from our lecture on board Oceanic Princess that the Trobriand Islands possessed the fabled reputation as the “Islands of Love”, but what was taking place on the pearl white sands as we approached struck us something much more forthright!
Two lines of lean, well-oiled men, obviously chosen for their physical prowess, greeted us with the most overt gyrations. Even some of well-travelled and worldly ladies were clearly blushing at this unmistakeably masculine display. The drumbeats became even more excited and were now interspersed with a shrill umpire’s whistle. Frenzied motions of the men’s hips were leaving absolutely nothing to the imagination. And then… stop.
A man in a comically chosen shirt and tie combo approached clutching a bull-horn and quickly shook the hand of Jamie, our gob-smacked expedition leader, and welcomed us heartily into his community. Then he turned to the several hundred villagers now assembled behind the dancers and proceeded to bellow a torrent of distorted, pigeon English instructions into the crowd. A small group of uniformed but unarmed, “community police” stood casually between us and the feverishly curious inhabitants now straining for a view of the unusual arrivals.
On cue, a small corridor appeared in the crowd and from it emerged half a dozen golden-skinned nubile young maidens clutching vivid and intricate flower constructions which were delicately placed over, or onto, our wide-brimmed hats. As in ancient Trobriand tradition, we were being welcomed by the most attractive, eligible members of this little community.
“The Trobrianders have made seduction an art form,” Nancy, our resident anthropologist, reminds us, “it’s all a part of the matrilineal (female based) society of this region.”
Dr Nancy Sullivan is our cultural interpreter and, without her, we’d be floundering in this complex multi-layered ‘kula’ culture that trades in chattels, food and favours. Kula is a benign, yet highly involved game of strategy and influence that has been the basis for inter-island relations in the Milne Bay region over many centuries.
“This gorgeous shell jewellery,“ announces Nancy whilst selecting a girl who is probably the equivalent of a princess, “is a very clear sign of her status in the community.”
Nancy delicately cradles and admires the weighty assembly of mother-of-pearl, spondylus and crocus shell strung together to form a magnificent ceremonial piece.
“This piece of kula is probably over one hundred years old and is full of legend and magic”, Nancy announces, her eyes widening behind dark glasses as we peer in wonder at the polished baubles.
For my part, I am completely entranced at the intricate decorations applied to our hostess. Her flawless skin is dusted with stigma from lurid yellow flowers, while around her neck are garlands of tiny, painstakingly woven flowers. Dark armbands with shell adornments match the cluster of hand-fashioned red shells cascading from her petit earlobes, while a similar strand encircles her subtly painted forehead, which in turn is topped with a tiara of bird feathers. Each girl is similarly bedecked, but infinitesimal differences declare her family’s ultimate status with in the community.
The dainty troupe turn to escort us up the short hill to a parade ground where hundreds more spectators await, their coquettish banana fibre miniskirts waving seductively in unison. The sun and spectacle were stating to make my head spin!
The entire morning we were treated to the most elaborate and breath-taking dances performed by men, women and children of all ages. From slow, sensual, Polynesian-style hula dancing to the legendary and hilariously ritualised Trobriand cricket, the vibrant and unashamedly sensual culture of the Trobriand Islands were there on show.
Prior to our return to Oceanic Princess, we embarked on some ‘kula’ trading of our own and wandered among the many artefacts laid out for our inspection. Beautiful ebony carvings inlaid with mother-of-pearl, masks and shell jewellery were all on show.
Back aboard and relishing the air-conditioned comfort of Oceanic Princess’ Top Deck Bar, our conversation barely veered from the intoxicating entertainment we’d just witnessed. Nancy threaded amongst us, handling a myriad of questions, all of which were handled with her seemingly inexhaustible enthusiasm.
The Trobriand Islands make up but a small part of Oceanic Princess’ new itineraries in Papua New Guinea and Melanesia. The D’Entrecasteaux Group, home of witchcraft, sorcery and, until relatively recently, cannibalism are next on the list along with mystical New Ireland and Nissan Island in the newly revitalised province of Bougainville.
Papua New Guinea, one of the most colourful and tribal destinations on the planet, has suffered from more than its fair share of bad PR. True, Port Moresby and some of the Highland regions are somewhat unstable. But our explorations in the Solomon Sea were marked, not by heavy security and armed escorts, but by broad welcoming smiles and hordes of delighted children hopping and yelping about us as we toured, as honoured guests, their spotless little villages.
We traded handshakes and schoolbooks and were rewarded with reverence and kindness. To a man, our band of world-savvy travellers were humbled by the genuine hospitality and downright good manners of these proud and resourceful islanders. Prime green coconuts overflowing with cool juice were proffered us as we stepped ashore at the tiniest, most remote villages. Some of these outposts only see white folks perhaps once a year and I’m sure to a good many of the children, we were their first.
On this over-commercialised, globalised planet of ours, there are very few genuine cultural experiences left to be savoured. Those here in the sprawling archipelagos of PNG are undeniably on that list. Even though, in most communities, a tincture of Christianity is evident either as an on-going practice or as a recent memory, traditional culture is still very strong. Paradoxically, a surprisingly good command of English is evident alongside ‘tok pisin’ (pigeon English) and the 800-odd tribal languages in this incredibly diverse land.
Several Australian-based expedition cruise operators are lining up to capitalise on this otherwise overlooked region. In 2006, True North and Orion will follow Coral Princess Cruises’ brand new Oceanic Princess into this largely unexplored region – but hers will always be a hard act to follow. Superbly equipped for exploring the tight and narrow waterways that yield such rich discoveries, the purpose-built Oceanic Princess carries not only the ubiquitous zodiacs, but also a glass-bottomed boat and a ‘secret weapon’; Xplorer, an 80-seat, high-powered, aluminium-hulled excursion vessel complete with awning and restroom!
Coral Princess Managing Director, Tony Briggs, was one of the many awe-struck expeditioners aboard Oceanic Princess for her maiden international voyage.
“Xplorer is one of the things that really sets us apart,“ proclaims Tony, “ we load every single passenger while its still on the launch platform, lower it into the water and away we go!”
“Every passenger gets the benefit of the most informed guide, everyone gets a dry, comfy seat in the shade and there’s no white-knuckles getting on and off.”
So unlike Dampier, de Torres and Bligh whose journeys in the region were fraught with a myriad discomforts, our explorations were in air-conditioned comfort and private cabins the size of motel rooms.
This infinitely multi-faceted region of Papua New Guinea continues to exude the rich charm and glamour that drew both scoundrels like Errol Flynn for its 'pleasures' and eminent anthropologists like Bronislaw Malinowski and Annette Weiner for its complex societal structures. As for inquisitive travellers like myself, it is simply one of the most fascinating and truly enriching regions I've ever visited.
Coral Princess Cruises operate the brand new 76-passenger expedition yacht Oceanic Princess on a range of 10-13 day itineraries that include the islands of Papua New Guinea, Melanesia and New Zealand. All meals and excursions are included.
Prices start at AU$6950.00 twin-share.