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Thursday, 23 October 2014

FIRE - Walk with me! The Baining fire dancers of East New Britain in Papua New Guinea.


The Baining people are among the earliest and original inhabitants of the Gazelle Peninsula of East New Britain, Papua New Guinea
Thought to have been driven there by the Tolai tribes who migrated to the coastal areas in comparatively recent times and the major volcanic activity that took place over centuries. (As recently as 1994, the nearby town of Rabaul was almost completely destroyed by two volcanoes, Tavurvur and Vulcan). The Baining tribes get their name from the Baining Mountains which they inhabit. Their language is also called Baining of which there are a few different dialects.

The Baining people's artworks are usually produced for limited uses only. The masks are laboriously made from bark cloth, bamboo and leaves and used just once for the firedance ceremony before being thrown away or destroyed. The origin of these firedance ceremonies was to celebrate the birth of new children; the commencement of harvests and also a way of remembering the dead. The Baining firedance is also a rite of passage for initiating young men into adulthood. The fire dance is a men-only event.

FIRE - Walk with me!

It's well after dark when we arrive at the Baining village somewhere in the mountains near Rebaul in East New Britain and the milky way is resplendent above us, there are no lights except a few torches in the hands of the village attendants. 

We sit a little bemused but expectant on a viewing bench next to the village musicians, as piles of firewood are heaped into a huge bonfire and set alight - we know little of what is about to happen - just that the Baining men are famous for their fire dance in masks that resemble a 'Daffy Duck' type character on acid, with huge painted, startled eyes. 

The Shamanic figure appears from the darkness to lead out the spirits of the night.

As the fire is stoked higher and hotter a shamanic figure appears at the edge of the fire sporting an extremely long feather in his conical hat-mask - his purpose is to lead out the spirits of the night - we are in no way prepared for what is about to happen...

Already in a semi trance like state the spirits are led into the fire circle.

One by one the fire dancers appear on the edge of the clearing and one by one they are led into the light of the flames. They seem to commune with the shaman and the musicians - as if to introduce themselves to the dark and to draw strength from the chanting, rhythmic music, then they depart to the far side of the conflagration awaiting their kindred spirits. 

Dancing around the fire in preparation for the test of fire.

When all are assembled and to the accompaniment of much chanting and beating of drums they start to dance around the bonfire in ever more frenzied circles - all the time village attendants heap more and more wood onto the fire until it is illuminating the whole clearing in vivid reds and yellows. One by one the ever more frenzied fire dancers run to the edges of the blazing fire in a kind of dream-like challenge, kicking at the edges of the bonfire as if testing the heat, deifying the flames to burn them. As the music reaches fever pitch something clicks within the dancers - they are as one with the night - they are exalted in the mystery of the ritual and the spirits of the night have joined with their mortal flesh, now instead of kicking the burning embers, their strength is at it's zenith, they take it in turns jumping into the heart of the fire, casting white hot sparks all around - with nothing to protect them but the magic of the ritual they continue to stamp on and decimate the fire for what seems like an age until it is nothing but scattered embers and night reclaims the clearing. 

As the dancers are consumed by the ritual the fire is entered and destroyed by the dancers.

Some time has passed - it's hard to say how long - we have been transported to an earlier time - perhaps a dream time - for the westerners it is time to depart, our minds are a-fire with questions, we try to assimilate, to process somehow the spectacle that we have just witnessed. You cannot help but be aware  of the gulf between cultures in time and knowledge, we in the west have gained much compared to the Baining men but one cannot help feeling that we have also lost something... 

With thanks to Food and Travel Magazine for the commission to PNG and with many thanks to Judy Feller and Cecily Barton from PNG Tourism for arranging the trip!

Thursday, 9 October 2014


Jade Mountain Resort, St. Lucia
April 2014 - A dream job to St Lucia in the Eastern Caribbean is a trip down memory lane. 

I was first there in 1980, aged 22. A keen amateur photographer back then and armed only with my trusty Zenith Camera and 135mm Zeiss Jena Lens (That's the east German one) & a few roles of Kodachrome 64 and Ilford FP4 - (ah, I can almost smell the chemicals...). In many ways it kick-started my love of both travel and photography.

If only I could have my beach body back... Me in 1980.

In the 1980's package holidays to the Caribbean were in their infancy and St Lucia was definitely considered a luxury destination, so what was a poor boy from Lancashire doing there you might ask? Well, like most things in life, I went on a whim, the other reason was to annoy my boss at the time who had just enjoyed a luxury all-inclusive holiday there with his wife. I just thought if he could do it then so could I...

My experience of St. Lucia however was very different from his - where-as he didn't leave the hotel at all (it was too dangerous - he told me), I stayed at a small guest house in Soufrière called Home Hotel - I remember ringing them on my mum's phone with a stop watch by the phone so we could calculate how much the call cost. 

Set down in the then small town of Soufriere late one night by our taxi driver, it was a culture shock, to say the least! Soon enough though we were hanging out with the local Rasta's along the harbour and watching the tourists come over from the near-by luxury hotel, Anse Chastanet. We were in fact something of a phenomenon in sleepy Soufriere, as most people only got there on day trips to the Volcano from their exclusive and reclusive, 'all-inclusive' resorts.

Which brings me to the present and my recent trip to this small gem of an island. This time I'm staying at Jade Mountain/Anse Chastanet - the premier hotel if not on the whole Island then certainly in the South of the Island.

They say you should never re-visit a place you fell in love with all those years ago but I just couldn't resist - my curiosity just got the better of me and this time I was doing it in style! Home Hotel is still there by the way!

Soufriere in the shadow of the Pitons - from the road to Anse Chastanet 1980.
That was then - this is now...

It's remarkable really that St. Lucia has changed so little from my memories of 1982 but then again with a population of just 150,000 maybe not.

Iconic views of the Pitons from my room in Jade Mountain/Anse Chastanet.

Although larger now with extended suburbs Soufriere still retains many of it's old colonial charm.