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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Scouting Report: Papua New Guinea

Preparing for South Pacific photo opportunities

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Huli warriors, Mt. Hagen Cultural Show, Papua New Guinea.
It’s a hot, sunny afternoon on this tropical island in the Pacific, and it appears as though I’m in trouble. I’ve been sitting peacefully on the ground in a field near Mt. Hagen, loading new cards and doing a bit of “chimping,” when a marching phalanx of native warriors, warming up for a cultural show, wheel around and head right for me. Linked arm in arm and carrying large stone axes, they let out a bloodcurdling series of strange war whoops that sound like those old Tarzan yodels. But I’m stuck sitting down, smack in the path of this jungle juggernaut, and there’s no way I’m going to get out of their way in time.

As the bellicose crew bears down on me, the first row of painted warriors raise their axes and I, in turn, raise my camera and then...their lines part slightly as they march around me, lifting their arms to pass over my head like square dancers. As I shoot away with my wide-angle zoom, I catch the eye of one of the warriors passing right over me and, yes, he throws me a little smile and a wink!

As recent as 40 years ago, a similar scenario might have ended tragically, with me possibly being the main course of the midday meal for these highland warriors. But Papua New Guinea, one of the most remote and exotic cultures in the world, has gradually opened its doors. Today, a growing number of visitors travel thousands and thousands of miles to witness one of the world’s most interesting and colorful cultures and certainly one of the prime destinations for travel photographers.

Papua New Guinea is located on the eastern half of the island of New Guinea, about 100 miles north of Australia. Irian Jaya, the western half of the island, is a province of Indonesia. Papua New Guinea is made up of the main island and more than 600 smaller, offshore islands.

Although Papua New Guinea isn’t quite as wild and remote as it once was, travel within the country can be difficult and expensive. For that reason, it’s best to go with an organized tour. Most tours offer segments that bring you to the most interesting regions of the island: the highlands of Tari and Mt. Hagen, and a journey along the Sepik River. If you’re lucky, your trip will coincide with one of the semiannual Highland Cultural Shows, where tribes from all over the island assemble to parade in their fantastic costumes and makeup (and occasionally scare the living daylights out of visiting photographers!).

There are a few key points to keep in mind when preparing for a trip to Papua New Guinea. On many domestic flights, there are strict weight limitations for baggage. On some flights, this can be as little as 18 pounds! So pack as lightly as possible.

First, pare your clothing down to an absolute minimum. If you haven’t already discovered the wonders of high-tech, quick-dry “performance” clothing, now is the time. I got by for three weeks with only two sets of pants, shirts and underwear, which I’d wash out every other night. A windbreaker and photo vest were the only other clothes I brought.

I have several equipment “modules” that I can resort to, depending on the demands and restrictions of the assignment. For a trip like this, where luggage weight is important, my current “lightweight” module includes two Nikon D90 bodies, 16-85mm and 70-300mm VR Nikkors, a 35mm ƒ/1.8 Nikkor for available light situations, as well as an 18-200mm VR Nikkor as a backup. I picked my lightest tripod, a Gitzo with a Really Right Stuff ballhead, Nikon SB-800 Speedlight and 32-inch, five-surface folding reflector.

As for the computer, well, there is none, just two Epson P-7000s, a 320 GB WiebeTech hard drive with an AC adapter, a few Nikon battery chargers and AA lithiums for the flash. With my camera bag, clothes bag and “computer,” my outfit tilts the scales at about 30 pounds, still too high, but manageably over the limit.

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