Visit to the country of the headhunters

by Frank Nicholson

Papua New Guinea


Just returned from Papua New Guinea (PNG) are a group of six experienced divers from the New Horizons Dive Society in Macclesfield. They spent three weeks in PNG, mostly diving, but also investigating the country and its culture.  Papua New Guinea is one of the last countries where headhunting and cannibalism were practised, and whilst it is now mostly peaceful, inter-tribe violence did flare up in the north of the country whilst they were there.  Fortunately everyone they met was extremely friendly and welcoming. 

The first night in the country was spent in a hotel in the capital, Port Moresby, where the national rugby league team, the PNG Kumuls, were also staying, and Eileen Furr and Mo Collins enjoyed spending some time with them in the hotel pool!

1 Eileen (left) and Mo with some of the Kumuls

Several of the group had a particular interest in education so visited three different schools during the trip.  The first was a basic literacy school in Port Moresby run by the ‘Buk belong pikinini’ charity (see for children whose parents cannot afford to pay for the state schools.  Later they visited an elementary and junior school in Tufi, and learnt that most children in the countryside have to go away from home and stay in a town in order to attend secondary school.

2 Tufi elementary school

The first part of the trip was spent at sea, on board a purpose built luxury dive boat sailing the waters around Milne Bay at the extreme east of the island and completing up to 5 dives per day.  The waters in this part of the world are teeming with unusual marine life, and the group was astounded by both the number and variety of fish and other marine life.  Some of the creatures, such as the lacy scorpionfish (rhinopias), are extremely rare, and can only be found in this part of the world.  Many of the group are keen underwater photographers and captured hundreds of images of everything from minute nudibranchs and shrimps up to large creatures like barracuda, sharks and manta rays.  A total of seven different species of shark were seen during the trip.

3 Wobbegong shark – camouflaged but still dangerous!

Whilst sailing around Milne Bay the group landed on one island to investigate several caves where the natives store large numbers of skulls thought to be the war trophies of their ancestors hidden from Western missionaries in the 19th century.  On other islands the boat crew bartered with the locals, exchanging dried goods from the mainland, such as rice and noodles, for fresh fruit and vegetables. 

At the end of the sailing trip the group visited the Alotau Canoe Festival, one of the major events held to preserve the historic culture of the country.  This included canoe races as well as singing and dancing competitions and was an opportunity for the group to see traditional costumes. 

4 Traditional war canoe


5 Traditional tribal costume

The second part of the trip was spent at a dive resort in Tufi, Oro Province, in the north east part of the country.  This is located in an area of volcanic lava flows, reaching like fingers into the sea, with deep fjords between them.  In addition to more diving on the outer coral reefs, the group took the opportunity to explore the countryside, trekking through the tropical rainforest, and visiting local villages to see how people live and grow their food, and then the local market where they sell it.  They saw much of the local wildlife including parrots and hornbills, beautiful butterflies and moths, and many large spiders, one of which was not so welcome when it got into Mo’s hotel bedroom.  The local policeman, named Frank, was fascinated to discover that one of the group, Frank Nicholson, had the same name, and seemed to pop up wherever they went!

6 The two Franks

A cultural tour is organised every week by the dive resort to allow guests to see traditional crafts such as facial tattooing, sewing mats from banana leaves, extracting and processing sago from the sago palm tree, all demonstrated by locals in tribal dress.  The group travelled on outrigger canoes to see this, and were initially shocked by men dressed in warpaint with spears who leapt out to challenge their intentions in visiting the area.

7 From the right Mo Collins and Steve Auty plus other hotel guests

The group also took the opportunity to learn more about the country through dialogue with Europeans and Australians who are living and working in PNG, principally involved in exploration for, and the extraction of, the rich mineral and gas reserves.  These resources are transforming the country from stone age to modern developed country within two generations. 

The New Horizons group have previously travelled to the globe, but this proved to be one of the most interesting and varied trips they have made, both from the quality of the diving, and the opportunity to explore the local culture and wildlife.

8 Andrew Hawkesworth


9 Trevor Williams

The group consisted of Eileen Furr and Frank Nicholson, from Macclesfield, Mo Collins from Bollington, Trevor Williams and Andrew Hawkesworth, from Hayfield, and Steve Auty, previously of Macclesfield but now living in Rochdale.

10 l to r – Steve Auty, Trevor Williams, Eileen Furr, Andrew Hawkesworth, Mo Collins, Frank Nicholson