Written on 31 October 2018
Take the path less travelled sometimes.
Travelling is a fun way to learn new things. An experience off the beaten path in Papua New Guinea can offer deeper, richer and more fulfilling appreciation of our traditions and cultures that makes PNG so unique.
The Kutubu Kundu and Digaso Festival is like no other – it is a smorgasbord of traditional cultural dancing in all its authentic glory and an array of activities that range from bird watching to legend storytelling.
The kundu is used all over Papua New Guinea in traditional song and dance and I often wondered why the Kutubu kundu was different so as to have a festival named after it.
A kundu is a general name used for an hour-glass shaped drum. Parchment of dried snake or large lizard skin is stretched over the two hollowed ends to produce sound when it is beat.
Sheer curiosity prompted the Kutubu Kundu and Digaso Festival to be on my ‘to do’ list. I decided to get away from the dusty and hot Port Moresby and bask in the glorious beauty of the rich culture of the people of Kutubu.
Kutubu, in the Southern Highlands Province, is geographically diverse. It is warmer than the rest of the Southern Highlands Province and rainfall is frequent. Kutubu borders the Gulf Province to the south and the variation in the vegetation is testament to this change in altitude. Even coconuts grow here.
It is a region that is rich in minerals such as crude oil and natural gas. The companies who have operations in the vicinity provide most of the funding support to host the annual event.
The Kutubu Kundu and Digaso Festival also features the biodiversity and ecological significance of Lake Kutubu.
Lake Kutubu is PNG’s highest freshwater lake at 800 metres above sea level and is the second largest lake in PNG after Lake Murray in the Western Province.
The lake is home to a variety of species of flora and fauna and in 1992, an area of 24,000 hectares was gazetted as a Wildlife Management Area (WMA).
I learnt from pamphlets at the Lake Kutubu Wildlife Management stall that Lake Kutubu is part of the Kikori River Basin, into which it eventually drains and is one of the most biologically rich areas in PNG. For example, the basin consists of over 2,000 moth species, over 200 butterfly species, more than 100 freshwater fish species, around 250 bird species, more than 60 species of frogs and 103 mammal species have been found to live in the area (D’cruz 2008).
The lake is beautiful. The reflection of the blue skies on the calm waters fusions with the greenery of the wetlands, creating a backdrop for Instagram-worthy photos.
A lodge is perched on one of the islands in the middle of the lake. I could see myself returning to the lodge someday, turning off my phone and shutting down from the rest of the world for a week while I recharge the battery and rest. Tubo Lodge overlooks the majestic lake and other smaller islands.
The sunshine shone warmly on the first day of the festival.
The chanting and feet stomping of warrior dancers clad in black and white face paint, armed with stone axes coalesced easily with the rattle shakers and soft singing voices of the women dancing in a straight line.
The people take pride in show casing their culture. The dancing groups from Mt Bosavi had walked for two days following a bush track to get to the festival.
A small hut purposely built near the arena served traditionally prepared lunch of pork, sweet potatoes and bananas cooked in underground ovens of hot stones (mumu). Platters of watermelon and pineapple and cold mountain water stored in thin bamboo provided water for drinking while a stack of neatly packed leaves served as plates.
Creations of tapa (stretched and beaten parchment of tree bark) painted in checked hues of brown, orange and yellow bush paint were prominently worn by the women from villages near Lake Kutubu. Tiered necklaces of red and white-greyish seeds from the forest and bilum (hand woven bags created from twisted bark of trees) accessorised the rest of the look. They performed the rattle shaking dance and sang ritual songs of mourning.
I loved the vivid colours and patterns and I felt a sense of pride being a PNG woman.
Traditionally, our PNG women had been slaying their intricate designs, colours and styles for generations before the runway was invented.
The singing and dancing of women dancers from Hegeso told stories of the tedious beating of sago palm pith that begins the process of extracting flour-like starchy sago.
The men from Ibutaba and Fiwaga danced the fish tail kundu dance. The dance featured one of the Kutubu kundu drums – the fish tail kundu. One end of the kundu is hollowed out while the other is carved in the shape of a fish tail, representing fish found in Lake Kutubu. After each song and dance, the fish-tail kundu is put over the heat of a small fire as if to tune it. I have never seen a fish-tail kundu before.
The second type of Kutubu kundu is the short headed kundu drum. This kundu is hollowed out on both ends and is shorter than the fish tail kundu. This type of kundu is typically found in the New Guinea Islands where I come from and other parts of the country.
Held over three days, the festival is gradually becoming a photographers’ mecca for the growing number of tourists who are treated to an authentic display of traditional culture and unique flora and fauna of Lake Kutubu.
Held annually in mid-September, tourists and visitors travel by road from Mendi or Tari to Pimaga government station and stay at a lodge in Daga village, a stone’s throw away from the main arena where the festivities takes place or in homestays with the local community. I stayed at a homestay in Daga and the local people were very friendly. The lodge was abuzz that night with happy tourists as they retold the day’s events.
“We have never seen anything like this (Kutubu Kundu and Digaso Festival) and we’ve travelled quite a fair bit around the world. This is so much fun and there is so much authenticity,” said one.
The excited tourists finally when to sleep when the last glow on the ember flickered and died at 3 am.
Day two of the festival began with more dancing and singing by the different groups. This gave tourists and photographers another chance at taking any photos they missed the previous day. Several string bands also performed some numbers. Before lunch time, a demonstration on the process of producing sago was displayed near a creek.
A short play illustrating the healing benefits of the digaso oil ended the day at lunch time. The thick oil has a suffocating stenchy smell and is extracted from the digaso tree. For the Kutubu people, the digaso tree oil has a long history for treating wounds and is usually the go-to first aid.
A range of fun activities was the order of the third day at the festival. Tourists and visitors could choose from a range of activities such as visit the skull cave at the lakeside, a tour to the local orchid farms and bird watching. Bird watching has proven to be popular, I was told – where a Bird of Paradise in the wild could present itself.
Other activities included bush trekking near the ridge at Tubo lodge, canoeing on the lake, a barbecue at Ibugesa Island (one of the island villages in the middle of the lake) and visits to the long men’s houses and women’s houses.
A canoe race on Lake Kutubu between men and women’s teams clad in traditional attire, ended the festival.
The Kutubu Kundu and Digaso Festival is quite different from other cultural shows in PNG because it also promotes sustainable tourism.