DANIEL SCOTT | The Age (Melbourne)
At the front their chief stares impassively, issuing a challenge to the mostly Papua New Guinean spectators.
The chief wears a Jesus-like crown, made of animal teeth, around his red dreadlocks. His face is painted black with a white stripe running down his forehead and along the bridge of his nose.
Chanting rhythmically and holding shields aloft, the Kusare break into a trot, scattering onlookers. They stop, turn and split into opposing groups, then charge and countercharge, bellowing war cries, emulating an inter-tribal battle.
Their ferocity leaves no doubt that the Kusare, from Kandrian in West New Britain province, would emerge triumphant from any stoush.
It's a sticky July afternoon at the Kokopo sports field on the Gazelle Peninsula. The Kusare are the first group I see at the annual National Mask Festival, a gathering of tribes from throughout PNG.
Though it has been staged since 1995, the festival is yet to attract the international attention focused on the longer-running Mount Hagen and Goroka shows. I'm one of a smattering of foreign visitors.
Aimed at preserving and showcasing indigenous rituals, the National Mask Festival proceeds languorously for four days in the PNG humidity, sporadically bursting into life with performances by visiting tribes.
The showground is full of cultural curiosities. As I dawdle around the perimeter of grass-built refreshment huts, sponsored by Coca-Cola, I come across Daon Toupai, a witch doctor and storyteller from the inland village of Tamanairik.
With his shock of white hair, spidery eyebrows and betel-nut stained lips, the 76-year-old is an arresting sight. I'm happy to pay a "gate fee" of two kina to listen to him recount legends from East New Britain's Tolai people.
The storyteller is winding up when, at the far end of the showground, a cry goes up, flushing everybody from the shade of the refreshment huts. Three elderly women are disinterring a python from an earth oven. The two-metre snake is the centrepiece of a celebratory mumu.
Unearthing it from a bed of banana leaves, the women whoop and dance, holding the limp body aloft, kissing its head triumphantly and distributing pieces to the throng. My first taste of steamed python has the oily consistency and salty flavour of an ocean fish.
In the arena a group from the nearby Baining mountains is ready. With faces hidden by cone-shaped yellow-fibre headdresses and wearing skirts and capes of long grass, they form a tight-knit circle, twirling around each other like spinning tops.
I'm struggling to keep up with this blur of movement when I catch up with John Robin, the chairman of the festival's organising committee. "The festival is growing all the time," he says. "And there has been much more enthusiasm from villages in East New Britain and from neighbouring provinces this year."
The National Mask Festival is not the only spectacle on the Gazelle Peninsula. Puffing steadily in the background is Tavurvur volcano, active year-round. Its small, dark cone is one of four calderas on New Britain's northern tip. There have been several significant eruptions here in the past century, the most recent in 1994.
That eruption engulfed much of nearby Rabaul, a town prettily laid out beside Simpson Harbour and once the capital of New Britain. Remarkably, only five people were killed when the town was buried in four metres of volcanic ash, forcing the relocation of the capital to Kokopo, 20 kilometres away.
I join a boat tour to Tavurvur run by the Kokopo Beach Resort. Led by guide Thomas Vinevel, who was 13 at the time of the eruption and lost his family home, it's a chance to get as close as is sensible to an active volcano.
The ascent from the foothills to the volcano's rim takes half an hour on dune-like, ash-covered slopes that have the appearance of a battlefield. Steam hisses from tiny fumaroles; gusts blow clouds of smoke and gas from the caldera across our path.
When we reach the rim, the sulphurous emissions are so intense they make us retch. But the views, into the belching crater and across the entire peninsula to the nearby Duke of York Islands, compel us to linger.
Back at ground level we visit the wasteland left when Rabaul was inundated. A white cross stands out against the silvery-black ash, marking the location of a church. We walk across a former lava flow where the airport once stood, hop over broiling hot springs beside the ruins of an old school and pose for photographs on knolls shaped like mini volcanoes.
On a bus tour of the Gazelle Peninsula the next day, we find that Tavurvur's eruption is not the only event that has left scars on the region. Rabaul, built beside one of the south Pacific region's finest deep-water harbours, was embroiled in both world wars.
During World War II, after a period as the capital of German New Guinea, Rabaul was taken over by the Allies and placed under Australian command. In 1942, the town was captured by the Japanese and used as a base. More than 100,000 Japanese troops were stationed here; residents and prisoners of war were forced to build 100 kilometres of coastal defence tunnels.
We see the outcome of their slave labour in the submarine and sniper tunnels dug deep into the pumice cliffs around Rabaul.
In Kokopo, we take in the Bita Paka war cemetery, holding the graves of Australians killed in World Wars I and II, and visit the town's museum, the grounds of which are littered with military equipment and downed World War II aircraft. Inside, exhibits include the Australian flag that was lowered in Rabaul in 1975 when PNG gained independence.
When we return to the showground that afternoon, the mask festival is in full swing. In the Pera Pera dance, from the East New Britain province, dancers carry statues of the Virgin Mary on their heads and hop around like frogs.
Then the Asaro Mud Men appear. These tribesmen, who have travelled from Goroka in the Eastern Highlands, immediately cause a stir. Dusted white from head to toe with their heads encased inside heavy mud masks, they look like the jungle spirits their enemies once feared them to be.
Though it's broad daylight, they move stealthily into the arena, wooden bows and arrows flexed. In the watching crowd, adults back away and children cower behind their parents. Then, when the show is over, the Mud Men don sunglasses and pose, smiling, as visitors try on their masks.
Event organiser Robin is a happy man. "There've been nearly twice as many people at the festival this year and we hope it will continue to grow," he says.
Daniel Scott travelled courtesy of the Papua New Guinea Tourism Promotion Authority.