Firewalking in New Guinea

Sydney Morning Herald, January 11, 1992

Denis Dutton

Denis Dutton recently travelled up the Sepik River in New Guinea to study tribal carving. He has a story to tell.


It was another oppressive, lazy night on the Sepik River. As usual I was sitting in the men’s house in the village of Yentchenmangua, smoking (strictly as a social courtesy) a cigarette rolled in pages of the Sydney Morning Herald. The Herald is the newspaper of choice when it comes to rolling cigarettes in New Guinea. The local rags, they say, just don’t have the same fine flavour. 

I could never quite get the hang of rolling a proper cigarette. Mine were always too tight to draw or so loose they fell apart. But the guys would help me, and the pungent smoke did keep the mosquitos at bay. 

It was fun to read your cigarette before lighting up. I often had smokes wrapped in the arts section. Once some unlettered local handed me a cigarette that said “Rosenkavalier” along the side; another time I found myself puffing on a review of a new biography of Kafka. 

One particular night the guys were unhappy. It has become generally too dangerous for tourists to travel the Sepik alone, and only one tourist boat still comes up the river. If there could be some way that it could be persuaded to stop in Yentchenmangua. Maybe they could sell more of their carvings. . . .

“Why don’t you try firewalking?” I suggested. The men were incredulous. What did I mean? 

I explained we could build a big fire and I could teach them how to walk across it with bare feet. No magic; once they knew how to do it, they could incorporate firewalking into their traditional sing-sings and perhaps attract money-laden tourists to the village. 

As I spoke, it began to dawn on me that I was perhaps biting off more than I wanted to chew. I was new in this remote village; maybe there were risks in trying something so unusual in New Guinea. 

“In a couple of weeks” — I was beginning to sound more tentative — “we’ll try it out, maybe.”

A couple of weeks, nothing, they shot back. We’ll have you show us tomorrow night! I was in up to my neck, or at least my ankles.

I had lived two weeks in Yentchenmangua, but I had not the seen the place so alive as the next day. Leo Sangi, an expert carver, and the village school teacher, Albert, eagerly helped to dig a shallow pit about three meters long and cut down a dead tree. Children helped us collect wood, and we located some disused oil from an outboard motor to give the fire an even start.

Twilight falls swiftly in the tropics, too swiftly that night: I was nervous. An enormous crowd had gathered around the fire as it burned down. Where had all these people come from? 

I was naturally to lead the way. The flames had disappeared, but the coals were so hot no one could stand next to the pit. Cool and confident in my exterior bearing, inside — as always standing before a fire pit — I was scared to death.

Finally, I stepped off and went over the coals. This was greeted by total silence from the assembled villagers.

“Boy,” I thought to myself, “not much fazes these people.” 

It was just another instance of cross-cultural confusion. The next person over the coals was Albert. When he stepped back onto the grass at the end, he was met with wild cheering and clapping. My own walk, it seems, had so stunned them, they were unable to react.  (I remembered reading about Maria Callas, who gave a performance of a Verdi aria that reduced her audience to dazed silence. Callas thought she’d done something wrong. )

After that there was much elbowing to get on to the fire. People who wear shoes have little difficulty firewalking; New Guinea villagers who often go barefoot find it completely harmless. I’m certain an eight-metre pit would have left them unburned.

When the last man had gone over, someone cried out, “Sampella meri!” — Some woman! — and it was the ladies’ turn.  They too crossed the coals with alacrity and the evening ended in a buzz of laughter and animated conversation.

Five weeks later, a few days before I was to leave Yentchenmangua, I sponsored a sing-sing and firewalk for my birthday.  A pig was killed and we invited four other villages to join Yentchenmangua in dancing and feasting. Chanted music and dancing began about three in the afternoon and reached its highpoint at dusk, when the the costumed performers marched across the coals. The crowd was ecstatic.

Yet I was surprised when, after only about a dozen dancers had crossed the fire, the villagers poured buckets of water on the coals, bringing the proceedings to an abrupt halt.

It transpired that visitors from the other nearby villages want to walk on the coals as well. Yentchenmanguans, in typical Sepik fashion, were keen to keep firewalking as an exclusive copyrighted ritual, and so doused the fire before anybody else could try.

I have informed the tour company of the amazing Yentchenmangua firewalking — unique in New Guinea! — and I certainly hope they drop in on the village. My letter told no lies, but it didn’t reveal every detail of the story, either.  

Before leaving, I asked the men what they’d say if an anthropologist ever came by the village and wanted to know about the the mythological origins of Yentchenmangua firewalking.

“Oh, easy,” they said. “We’ll just tell them our grandfathers learned how to do it from a white god.”  The locals, I found out, have for years been amusing themselves by telling academic visitors cock-and-bull stories about Sepik history and mythology.

The people of Yentchenmangua gave me some marvelous insights into their carving art. I was happy to return the favour in small part by teaching them how to have fun firewalking — and leading anthropologists down a garden path of hot coals.