By Correspondent, Great Escapes
updated 12/3/2004 4:20:55 PM ET 2004-12-03T21:20:55

On my last trip to New Guinea, in 1990, I was riding a lorry down the Highlands Highway when suddenly we braked to a stop. A group of shrieking feathered warriors raced across the road, tossing spears at another tribe retreating to the north. One spear hit its mark, and an older man went down. The advancing tribe moved to the downed man and finished the job.

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A Kiwi in the vehicle with me recorded the incident on his video camera, and when we got back to the hotel he replayed the episode and we watched in horror. What we had witnessed was the age-old cultural system of payback, which has evolved and manifested itself in ghastly ways.

Today we head east down the Highlands Highway to visit the Chimbu Mudmen, a tourist enterprise that reenacts a tribal war legend. As in such matters, the story begins with a bad tribe who takes over the land of a smaller village. The defeated retreat to a nearby river, cover themselves with ash-colored mud and large mud masks, and return to frighten the raiders away, who believe the Mudmen are spirits of their dead ancestors returning to do justice.

Once they were warriors
While in the village of Mindima, where the Mudmen show is presented, I meet a white-haired John Wamugl, who stands behind a mat displaying painted shields, spears, bows and arrows, stone battle axes, bamboo breast plates, and penis gourds for sale. I ask in pidgin his age, “How mani Cristmas belon you?” He replies he doesn’t know, but he fought as a young man in WW II, where he took his bush knife to Japanese who parachuted into the jungle. He has fought in many tribal wars since then, and he swings his axe in a fast chop to show how he would bring down the foes.

He also says he helped escort the first tourists to visit the Highlands, in 1962, where they witnessed several battle reenactments in his village, including the Mudmen. The tourists tipped the players generously for the show, a cultural purchase that could not be refunded. When the tourists showed their photos around at home, demand began to grow for Mudmen recreations and they became a mini-tourist industry. I first saw the show when I visited New Guinea in 1976, and was duly impressed, and so began to organize adventure tours that floated the Wahgi River and stopped to witness a Mudmen performance.

Throughout the 1980s cultural tourism in New Guinea grew, and thousands from around the world came to the Highlands to witness vivid simulations of clan warfare. Air Niugini began direct air service from Hawaii, and chain hotels and eco-lodges cropped up. In 1990 and 1991 one of the local tour companies sponsored the “Mudmen World Tour.” The villagers performed in Australia, Holland, England, France, Japan, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Korea.

But then tourism began to crash. The intertribal violence that tourists had come to see crossed over into the towns and cities, undertaken not as specific revenge or payback, but for random robbery and rape. New Guinea, which had been marketed as a new paradise for world travelers, sank into apocalyptic chaos, and the tourism spigot turned down to a trickle.

Variations on a theme
As we file into the village we are ushered passed mats of carvings and trinkets for sale, a tribal variation of the Disney creation of making sure every ride and performance funnels through a gift shop. We sit on slim wooden benches, and the Mudmen skulk out of the trees, and do their ghostly show.

Two women are covered in ash, dressed as war widows, who must mourn for months. In one reenactment a boy is caught stealing some food, and a villager spears him to death, whereupon the Mudmen emerge to take him away to become one of their own. We watch several ferocious battle scenes, and in between the players seem to find some glee in scaring their guests by making blood-curdling cries and hefting their minatory weapons at thin pink skin. But then it starts to rain, and they hustle away: without shelter they will quickly become the Oozemen.

We also watch more mock battles, all with the same theme of a small crime of theft, such as of a stalk of sugar cane, progress into payback and then full-scale tribal war. In this culture there is no forgiveness, despite the missionaries’ best efforts. If someone hits you, hit him back. It is a progressive spiral of socialized violence that once started can find no end, a crocodile eating its own tail.

Image: Mudman archer
Didrik Johnck
A Mudman demonstrates the solution to tribal differences
With the performance done the headman urges us to do what we can to bring more tourists. It used to be some 50 or more foreigners a month would come to see their pageantry of interclan conflict. Now but a fraction make the trip, repelled by the modern version of the very violence they once came in numbers to see.

Francis Ambai, the official Mudmen interpreter, wears a Rebel Yell baseball cap and a t-shirt that says “I’m the boss and I don’t take shit from anyone,” yet he gently warns we don’t want to drive the Highlands Highway at night. That’s when the “rascals” come out, the modern version of tribal warriors, who now use guns instead of spears and axes. So as the light slants to late afternoon we rush back to the vehicle and roar down the rutted road, passing peaceful fields of sugar cane, bananas, cabbage, coffee and tea.

Some archaeologists think the Highlanders were among the world's first horticulturists, and they have discovered evidence of gardening here 9,000 years ago. But because populations grew to numbers that could not support the yields in isolated valleys, a warrior system developed that would raid and steal from the next valley, and the payback system emerged.

Now the payback seems to be for introducing the sins of civilization to an edenic garden. There are no rascals in the remote rainforest, only in the municipalities, such as Port Moresby and Mount Hagen, where the ancient fabric has unraveled, where unemployment is rampant, and temptations plentiful.

As we speed back to our hotel we pass vehicles completely covered in protective metal grids. Every window we drive by is barred, every cinder block building topped with razor wire and fronted with armed guards. Even our hotel, considered the most secure in the Highlands, was breached three weeks ago when a band of rascals got over the high walls and robbed the place.

But, in some sense, the tables have just turned. In 1876 Italian naturalist Luigi Maria D’Albertis sailed up the Fly River, to the southwest of here. En route he fired rockets at the villages he encountered. When the terrified villagers, who had never seen a white man, ran off into the jungle, D’Albertis came ashore to ransack huts and steal artifacts, including sacred objects and skeletons. D’Albertis wrote: “Exclaim if you will against my barbarity. I am too delighted with my prize to heed reproof!”

So we sip G&Ts in the dark windowless bar, decorated with war masks. Tomorrow we begin our journey upriver towards what we imagine is a softer citadel of the island, one that has yet to bleed the heart of darkness.

Great Escapes is exploring Papua New Guinea in search of the Digital Village, filing daily dispatches along the way. If you have a question or comment, mail us at  greatescapes@msnbc.com.

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