A Guide To PNG's Sacred Baining Fire Dance - Rabaul - Vikingess Voyages

Thursday, July 26, 2018

A Guide To PNG's Sacred Baining Fire Dance - Rabaul

The sacred Fire Dance of the Baining tribe - the first settlers on the Gazelle Peninsula
Photo: Anette

Papua New Guinea is a country that consists of thousands of smaller tribes, all with their own unique culture and often even language. If you visit the country a stop by one of their local festivals where you can see some of these tribes by yourself can provide a unique cultural experience and an excellent memory from your trip. During our visit to PNG my hubby and I traveled by local plane from Port Moresby to Kokopo to experience the National Mask Festival, and one of the biggest highlights of the festival for me was the trip into the jungle to see the sacred Baining Firedance.

The unique and captivating Fire Dance ceremony took place in a small village up in the mountains around 45 min drive from our hotel in Kokopo and was conducted as a part of the National Mask Festival. Our trip had been arranged in advance through the local travel agency South Sea Horizons, with a 150 kina fee per person for the transport and entrance. We left the hotel on a bus with a group of other travelers, and before long we found ourselves in the middle of the pitch black jungle.

The Baining people got their name from the mountains where they live. While they are believed to be the initial inhabitants of the Gazelle Peninsula one theory has it that the Tolai people, who had later migrated to East New Britain from New Ireland, forced the Baining to retrieve deep into the mountains. Their base deep in the jungle also earned them their Tolai nickname - "bush people".

Arriving at our destination - in what could correctly be described as "the bush" - we found ourselves surrounded by trees and in complete darkness. Fortunately, we were among the first tourists to arrive, and although there were chairs in place for the tourists we chose a spot on the ground just a couple of meters from the bonfire in the middle of the field. We had to keep a certain distance from the bonfire, as we were warned that both ashes and pieces of flaming wood might fly our way.

We waited in a silence only broken by the sound of the crackling bonfire and chirping insects. Then, out of the darkness appeared some large bird-looking creatures; it was time for the dance to begin.

The burning fire and the star-filled night sky was a magical backdrop for the chanting crowd and the Baining dancers - a sight only a few get to witness. This dance is only performed on special occasions such as the commemoration of the dead, as a celebration of childbirth or after a successful harvest. And indeed it is an exclusive sight - Traditionally even Baining women and girls were kept from watching. The fire dancers are wearing masks that represent forest spirits, and these were believed to bring harm to women and girls.

Known as “Kavat”, these masks are created by the Baining men using leaves, bark, cloth, and bamboo in a process that not even the local women are allowed to witness. Although the size of the masks is almost as large as their bearers the masks are relatively light-weighted, making it easy for the dancers to move gracefully across the field surrounding the bonfire.

In the beginning, the Baining would keep a distance from the fire, but as the dancing got wilder and wilder some of the brave men would run up to the bonfire and kick it so that both flames and sparks would rain around them. It felt just as if is the spirits of the forests were coming to life around us!

The dance went on for hours and hours until the beating of the drums finally calmed down, and it was time to snap back to reality. But although the dance came to an end the memory of the Baining and their magical dance will always remain with me. 

Thank you for reading! Please feel free to leave any comments or questions below
- Anette

 ◆Basic Info

  • The Baining Fire Dance
    When: During the annual Papua New Guinea National Mask Festival
  • Where: In the Baining MountainsHow to get there:  Local tour operators can arrange the trip from your hotel
    Cost: around 150 kinas

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About Anette
Anette came to Japan as an exchange student in 2010, met the love of her life and got stuck. From her base in Tokyo she writes about her experiences as a full-time worker in Tokyo and about her travels in Japan and abroad. She's a free-spirited adventurer who enjoys both the great outdoors and her urban lifestyle.

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About Me

Adventures ofAnette

A modern day shield-maiden who loves to explore the unbeaten paths of the world. From her base in Tokyo, Anette takes on both rural and urban challenges, and goes by the motto "No challenge too big, no adventure too small"!
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