Papua New Guinea is a megadiverse place both naturally and culturally. With landscapes from densely forested mountains to tropical islands, volcanic fjords to coral gardens, with more than 850 languages spoken and 1000 distinct traditional tribes, this is a country that fascinates.

Each tribe has different cultural attires, dances, and music, just imagine how colorful a tribal gathering can get. PNG has several cultural festivals throughout the year to promote tourism, though it’s also possible to find truly genuine traditional events not arranged for tourists, and you are welcome to join (for free). You just need to ask around in town.  I was fortunate enough to watch one of these tribes performing in their traditional attires while in Rabaul: Whip Dance, which is only done by the Tolai men of East New Britain Province.

Whip Dance Papua New Guinea, Rabaul

Tolai Whip Dance

The whip dance is a spectacular male-only ceremony, which involves boys and adult men being whipped by canes around the arms and legs by their fellow tribesmen as they chant their sacred traditional songs. Although the ceremony is male-only and the details remain a secret of men, women are allowed to join as spectators.

While there may be several other reasons for conducting a whip dance ceremony. the one I joined was organized to commemorate an important member of the tribe who passed away a few years before. The ceremony is open to everyone. People from neighboring villages and tribes, and foreigners like myself are all welcome. Once the guests gather at the venue, the ceremony starts with a prayer and continues with the whip dance.

One dancer kneels down and raises his arm, whilst his partner, facing him, swings the cane in a brief, sharp snapping motion. This action results each time in a loud crack as the tip of the cane suddenly bounces back, wrapping itself around the wrist. 

This cracking sound of the whip creates the desired effect to duly transfix the audience. We might never find out whether the whip dance is as painful as it appears, though I can tell that my bare skin hurt badly when a piece of broken cane hit me accidentally. I had the privilege of experiencing the pain women are not allowed to, and yet the secret may lie in the colorful chalk on the dancers’ skin.

After the dancers get dusted off, the guests gift them with shell money. And eventually comes food consisting of banana and pork.

Banana and pork meat being prepared for guests
Guests giving shell money to dancers

Here is the short video clip (https://youtu.be/yGiUjyEkT_8) from my visit to the traditional whip dance event in Rabaul, July 2018. Among hundreds of villagers, I was the only tourist, for most of them the first they had ever seen. It truly is an experience of a lifetime. For all.