10 Tips for Visiting PNG's National Mask Festival - Kokopo & Rabaul - Vikingess Voyages

Friday, August 3, 2018

10 Tips for Visiting PNG's National Mask Festival - Kokopo & Rabaul

You can see a large variety of exotic and colorful masks at PNG's National Mask Festival
Photo: Anette

The National Mask & Warwagira Festival is an annual event taking place in East New Britain where the local tribes gather to display their traditional attires and dances. In July I had the honor of seeing the festival first-hand in Kokopo, and have gathered 10 tips for those interested in visiting Papua New Guinea for the National Mask Festival.

10 Tips for Visiting PNG's National Mask Festival - Kokopo & Rabaul

1. The festival dates often get announced last minute

The National Mask Festival has been carried out annually in July since 1995, but they still haven't agreed on a logic for picking the date of the festival. You might experience that the announcement of the dates is made less than a month in advance of the festival, and in many cases even changed multiple times before the festival date. It is advisable to be flexible with your dates so that you can change the stay period of your hotel in the case of a sudden change in schedule - and you better book a hotel with a flexible cancellation policy.

2. The best day to visit? Definitely the first day!

The mask festival lasts for 3-4 days (the latter part includes some music festival elements), but if you’re limited on time and can’t stay for the whole period you should make sure to prioritize the first day! The opening of the festival is marked on the first day at dawn with the arrival of the Tolai Tubuans by boats known as the ‘Kinavai’, and in the evening of the first day you can catch the Bailing Fire Dance (although the fire dance is also held on the second day of the festival if you’re not there on day one) These are without a doubt the biggest highlights of the festival, and if you’re going all the way to PNG you wouldn’t want to miss out on these.

3. Most of the festival is carried out in a set area 

The venue of the festival does apparently alternate between Kokopo and Rabaul, but if it is scheduled to take place in Kokopo there is an arena close to the city center where most of the festival takes place (the only exception being the Kinavai and the Bailing Fire Dance). The nearest hotel is Gazelle International, which is situated right outside the gate to the festival area. There’s no other hotel right by the arena, but 15-20 min away by foot you find the much more comfortable Kokopo Beach Bungalow Resort hotel. 

4. Alternatives for accommodation are limited

Accommodation is as a rule of thumb expensive in PNG, and unfortunately, you often get little bang for the bucks. This is particularly the case if you're visiting one of the countries festivals because of the relatively large number of tourists that are visiting. We tried searching on AirBnB too, but pretty shabby-looking accommodation would still set you back around $100 a night. In the end, we had arranged a package with plane tickets + hotel, but I imagine that finding a good place to stay is one of the hardest parts about visiting the mask festival. As already mentioned, the nearest hotel to the event is Gazelle International but if you don't mind the 15-20 min walk I would recommend the Kokopo Beach Bungalow Resort hotel as a more comfortable alternative.

5. Patience is a virtue

Although the festival has an official program it seems that it is barely followed. The dancing groups are traveling from remote villages, and often just start their performance upon arrival. You thus have to be prepared to spend a lot of time waiting for performers who are on their way to the festival, and sometimes don’t show up after all. Patience is a virtue if you want to enjoy the Mask Festival. This festival runs on PNG time, so if the schedule says that the starting time is 9am you can probably go there around 9:30 and still be just in time for the opening (although you might not want to bet on it).
Be aware that the professionalism of the dancers varies

6. You can see the masks and dances of many different tribes

People from the tribes of Tolai, Baining, Pomio, and Sulka present their local dances and attires during the festival. Apparently, there are some tribes that appear every year, and then there are some rare ones that only make their appearance once in a few years. It is possible to get your photos taken with the dancers if you wait by the area where the dancers enter the arena, and most of the dancers are happy to get photographed with you.
A rare appearance at the National Mask Festival

7. You can come and go as you want

My best advice to get the most out of your time in Kokopo if you visit for the whole length of the festival would be to spend some time in between doing other things as well; you could always do a trip somewhere in the morning and come back again for the afternoon part of the show, and vice-versa (we did, for instance, do a trip to the active Tavurvur volcano in the morning of the third day). If you’re not more than average interested in seeing all the different masks and attires you might also find that one or two days at the festival can be satisfying enough. The ‘Kinavai’ is performed on the first day of the festival, so if you want to watch this unique performance you better be there for day one. If not, it is possible to see the Baining Firedance on both the first and the second day.

8. You can try out cheap local food 

While a lunch at the hotel would set you back around 40 kinas you can get a simple but sufficient meal at the festival area for as little as 10 kinas ($3). Dining is expensive in PNG so one is better saving those kinas while the chance is there. It is also a great time to try out something local. If you walk a bit further (approximately 15 min) from the festival area there is the local Kokopo Market where you, for instance, can buy cheap fruit.

9. The festival is sponsored by SP Brewery, but beer has to be brought

While the National Mask Festival is sponsored by PNG’s biggest brewery SP Brewery (The name of the festival even includes the name of their beer: South Pacific Export 24th National Mask Festival & National Gaming Control Board Warwagira Festival) it is not possible to buy any beer inside the festival area. If you want to enjoy a cold one while watching the dancers in the heat my best advice would be to buy some with you from the local supermarket. 
"What do you mean by no beer?!"

10. It is burning hot!

Inside the festival area, there’s a stage where tourists are allowed to sit to get a better view of the dances. Luckily it has a roof so you can sit in the shadow - but you probably want to move around taking pictures and not staying in the same spot all day.  The sticky heat and scorching sun can be hard to bear, so at least don’t forget to bring your sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat.
Don't forget to bring a hat to avoid sunburns!

That’s all for now, thanks for reading! If you have any questions or comments you can leave them in the comment section below. And if you want more, you can find all my posts about Papua New Guinea here.

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

 ◆Basic Info

  • South Pacific Export 24th National Mask Festival & National Gaming Control Board Warwagira Festival
    When: Annual event taking place in July
  • Where: Takes place either in Kokopo or Rabaul.
    If in Kokopo, it takes place at an arena right next to Gazelle International Hotel 

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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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