Papuan plumage preening so spectacular

In the second and final part of his adventure in Papua New Guinea David Tipling goes to a sing-sing, a social gathering, where bird of paradise feathers are used to flaunt wealth.

Bare-breasted, glistening with oil, their faces painted red white and blue they sway to the beat of drums. This is entrancing enough, but my attention is drawn to their headgear, not just on these women gyrating in front of me but all round groups of tribal dancers. Some weighed down with shell necklaces, others clutching spears, share spectacular fountain-like plumes taken from some of the most beautiful and seductive avian inhabitants of our planet – the birds of paradise.

The vast island of New Guinea has few ground predators and plentiful food for birds, this allows a female bird of paradise to rear a family unaided. This lack of predation has allowed males to develop spectacular plumes for display, this had not gone unnoticed by the diverse tribal communities inhabiting New Guinea's western half – Papua New Guinea (PNG). These birds and their feathers have been the centrepiece of ceremony and myth for thousands of years. These same birds also have a deep allure for western audiences because of their combination of inaccessibility, fabulous beauty and extraordinary courtship dances.

Plumes have been traded between New Guinea and Asia for at least 5,000 years. The first seafaring traders reaching New Guinea's shores were offered bird of paradise skins as gifts. The early recipients of these in 16th century Europe believed the birds lived by passively floating in the air, an assumption made because their legs had been removed before being sent, this remarkable myth fueled yet more fascination and remained until the early 1600s. Women's fashion would drive the hunger for bird of paradise feathers in Europe. Between 1904 and 1908 a staggering 155,000 bird of paradise skins were sold through the London auction sales alone. This harvest had little effect on the population though as most species have always been relatively common.

Sing-sings, are the equivalent of a barn dance or a ball – a social gathering. But this was no ordinary get-together. No carnival I had ever attended had come close to the spectacle I was now witnessing. Traditionally they have been a way for wealth to be flaunted by personal adornment of feathers and shells. For single males and single females they are the classic 'disco' for sex-hungry youngsters to show off their plumes and thus prowess as hunters, but equally show your ability to have contacts and influence people as many of the feathers are borrowed. Bride-wealth, the payment traditionally made by the man to his proposed wife's family, has comprised primarily of bird of paradise plumes, shells and cassowaries – large flightless birds from which feathers, meat and bone are used. This negotiation still includes such gifts, but is more likely in modern Papua to embrace pigs, perhaps cash and other assets. So while plumes may not be the important currency they once were, they still carry a deep resonance within Papuan society.

This was clear as I stood among a dancing throng. I was attending the Paiya Show, a new sing-sing event started by Pym Mamindi, a larger-than-life Papuan who is blazing a trail among the tourism business in PNG. Pym's Magic Mountain Lodge would be my base for the next few nights and here at the Paiya Show he had gathered from across the highlands some of the country's best-known tribal groups. The famous mask-wearing mud-men from Goroka in the eastern highlands strutted, a tribe from Chimbu district, painted as skeletons, walked death-like into the arena, but the undoubted highlight came from the Huli wigmen I had first encountered during my stay at Tari in the southern highlands. They lined up facing each other, rising and dipping to a repetitive chant, projecting a formidable force. The morning became a colourful blur – this was a photographic feast.

Back in the cool mountain air at Magic Mountain Lodge, I walked through a garden dripping with mountain orchids, ferns and creepers. A red-collared honeyeater, a stunning black and red bird of the mountains, probed flowers for nectar. Pym's guests this weekend had come from across the world, during dinner on his large dining table as we devoured typical Papuan offerings of pork, sweet potato and many other familiar vegetables we exchanged travellers' stories of our adventures in PNG.

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Cloud hung in the valley below at dawn next day, as we set off down the mountain to the showground at Mount Hagen. Established in 1961 the Mount Hagen Show is the most spectacular sing-sing event in PNG's calendar. Hundreds of performers from more than 90 cultural groups attend.

Tribes were starting to prepare, applying paint and building head-dresses. Valuable feathers were carefully unwrapped from newspaper. Each group had its own small area in which to get ready. Those who had travelled far had built long houses in which to sleep. Brightly-coloured women peered into mirrors making final touches, others massaged oil and pig fat into their skin.

The showground is surrounded by an earth bank allowing local people to view proceedings. On the far side sat a compound reserved for foreign tourists and VIPs. As soon as the show started we were permitted to walk among the sing-sing groups. The sound was extraordinary – more than 1,000 performers from more than 90 tribes sang, beat drums, blew whistles in an area not much bigger than a football pitch. A sea of feathers swayed to the beat as each group came into the arena, conducted a circuit and then took their place in a line, to be admired by the crowd that included about 300 international tourists.

My last day in the country came all too soon. It was appropriate that the last performance should go to a bird that I had longed to see. Now at dawn in Varirata National Park just an hour's drive from the country's capital Port Moresby, on a bough above, with exploding firework-like plumes a raggiana bird of paradise danced. Paradise found.