Simbari, the valley hidden by clouds

Main Stories, Weekender

THE Simbari Valley is an isolated region at the border of the Eastern Highlands and Gulf provinces. Although within the Eastern Highlands the people have cultural ties with those living in the northern parts of the Gulf province and with those in adjacent valleys in Okapa, Wonenara and Marawaka areas.
The Simbari people were, until 30 years ago, an entirely traditional society, relying on subsistence agriculture for their livelihood and traveling  infrequently to surrounding valleys. 
The first European to enter the valley was Carlton Gajdusek in about 1960 and thereafter only a handful of outsiders have traversed its steeply sloping mountain sides and crossed its’ raging rivers. 
The New Tribes Mission has a base at the northern end of the valley, initially at Kurumanji and later moving to Nolambe, where there is a new airstrip.
The southern part of the valley is served by the airstrip at Yo’ongeri where the school and health centre are located.  An SDA mission is adjacent to the airstrip. 
Villages are scattered along the Puruya River which runs the length of the valley.  The multiple tributaries of the Puruya River offer an abundant supply of fresh water to villagers and ensure prolific gardens and abundant wildlife.  To the west there is a smaller population at Muniri, along the Kupbinga River, and to the south the Malari group of villages is separated by a mountain range and very remote.  All these groups share a common language with the central Simbari villagers and there is much exchange across the intervening ranges.
Throughout the 1970s and 80s improvement in walking tracks, a new primary school and health centre and improvements to airstrips enabled people to enter the modern age.  They now travel far and wide, have access to health and education resources and can afford some limited export of coffee and spices.
People of the Simbari Valley are part of the Anga ethnic group, which includes the Barua and Yagwoia Anga to the east and the Wantekia Anga to the north.  There are other Anga groups including the Menya, Langimar and Aiwomba Ampale of Morobe province and the Kapau of Gulf province.
All these groups have certain features in common; they traditionally wear grass sporrans or pulpuls and live in tall, grass houses, raised from the ground.  Males from mid childhood spend their time in the men’s house and females accompany their mothers throughout their childhood.  Males go through complex and prolonged initiation ceremonies over a number of years characterised at one stage by piercing of the nose and insertion or either a bamboo stick or a long, white stone.  This gives the males a particularly fierce appearance which overlays their gentle, warm nature.
Over the past 25 years much of traditional dress has been replaced by western clothing and there are now some permanent house constructions, but much of the traditional village architecture and way of life remains.  Subsistence agriculture still predominates with only limited access to trade store goods.  Some children travel away to high school and there has been some semi-permanent migration to cities; even for those who travel away, there are strong ties to the village and many consider their time away as only temporary. 
Village security depends on an absolute respect of others property and the concept of rascal activity is completely foreign.  In the past 30 years, I have never had any concern over personal safety or security in Simbari.  In fact, I feel safer in Simbari than most Australian towns I visit and certainly in any other PNG town.
A fledgling tourist industry enables visitors to walk through the valley, appreciate the traditional village way of life and spend time admiring the wildlife.  A guest house offers basic accommodation at Nolumbe but people traditionally will welcome any visitor, anywhere. 
Visitors to Simbari are likely to be a hardy breed; stiff walks along valley and mountain paths, basic living and a complete absence of televisions, mobile phones and internet may not be for the faint-hearted.  You will not find the traditional tourist facilities in Simbari; no artifact shops, no highly organised tours, no rigid schedules, not even any electricity.  Those who cannot cope without these facilities are going to have a tough time.  But for those who want to appreciate how PNG villagers used to live and some of the hidden delights of the PNG Highlands, a trip to Simbari is well worth the effort.  The people will welcome you and involve you in their lives in an entirely informal and gentle way.
MAF and SDA operated small planes fly to Simbari from Goroka and SIL operate out of Goroka and Aiyura, near Kainantu.  Rex Wendaji is the local contact for trips to Simbari (72804462, 7659937).


 Paul Crouch-Chivers is professor of public health at the university of Papua New Guinea