First Contact Tours

The latest issue of Outside Magazine has an article about the new thing in adventure vacations: a First Contact tour. On these tours, run by guide Kelly Woolford, you get to trek into the rainforest of Papua New Guinea and make contact with a 'Stone Age' tribe that has never met people from the outside world before. Apparently such tribes do still exist (though obviously they won't for long if these tours get more popular). Michael Behar, author of the article, decides to go on one of these tours and see what it's all about. So in September 2004 he joins the tour and they set off on a boat down a river in Papua New Guinea. After cruising along for a few days they finally get off the boat and start trekking into the jungle. Four hours from the river they make contact. Unfortunately it doesn't go well. The tribesmen they meet (who are wearing black headdresses made from cassowary feathers), end up attacking them, and the tour flees back to civilization. But once he's back home Behar starts to doubt whether he really experienced a 'first contact'. He suspects that the entire encounter was staged for his benefit. Maybe Woolford had arranged beforehand for the tribesmen to be there. Anthropologists whom Behar tells about the contact support this suspicion, noting that the tribesmen appeared to be suspiciously free of skin diseases for people living in the jungle. Plus, why were they wearing those ceremonial headdresses? But Woolford insists it was all real, arguing that the tribesmen were free of skin diseases because they lived near a source of fresh water in which they could bathe, and that they were wearing the headdresses simply because they enjoy dressing up. So Behar is left not knowing what to believe. It does sound an awful lot like a Stone Age Tasaday scenario to me. But even if it's not, the idea of a First Contact Tour is somehow very depressing.


Posted on Wed Feb 09, 2005


as an anthropology student who has learned a bit about the people of New Guinea, I am inclined to disbeleive, at the vey least, the claim that this encounter was a "first encounter." Here are a few reasons-

-the headdress thing ceremonial attire tends to be time consuming and expensive to make, the investment it represents isn't something you risk "because you like to dress up"

-most of the tribes in the region have been contacted by either anthropologists or government officials (warrent officers etc...), and the easier their territories are to access, the more contact they have had. (next to a river=easy access)

-just because a specific village hasn't been directly contacted by westerners (if there are any anymore), dosn't make them "stone age savages." at the very least, certain western trade goods (metal axes for example) have certainly reached them (second or third hand).

-cannibalism has been forcefully eradicated from the region,

hope this wasn't too long-winded
(though I know it was)
Posted by mormagli  on  Wed Feb 09, 2005  at  11:54 PM
god the idea of a first contact is very depressing, all those idiots with more money than sense go out to find something untouched by the world... not realising that they are actually destroying it in the proccess, they are probably the same people who became buddists because it was fashionable
Posted by joeodd  on  Thu Feb 10, 2005  at  05:25 AM
As another anthropology student, I also highly disbelieve this story... First Contact is a big deal, it's something that anthropologists have been creaming their jeans over for the last 200 years. It's not something that would be left in the hands of some yuppie vacationers.

In one of my classes, we watched a video called First Contact that was made almost 100 years ago, with a tribe in New Guinea. I remember mye teacher explaining that the tribe shown in this film was one of the last to not have made contact with the Western world. So big thumbs down from me. 😛
Posted by Kat  on  Thu Feb 10, 2005  at  09:36 AM
This has to be a scam, Woolford somehow knew exactly where this "unreached" tribe area was located, and made his way there within hours. I call BS. If some sap pays for that, they shouldn't have had the money in the first place.
Posted by sbnature  on  Thu Feb 10, 2005  at  10:05 AM
For the sake of New Guinea and its people, I fervently hope that this thing is a complete hoax.
If it is real, it is a horrible, even criminal practice, for more reasons than I have time to write.
"First-world" peoples, and especially North Americans, need to get over the idea that the rest of the world is an amusement park existing for our entertainment.
Posted by Big Gary C  on  Thu Feb 10, 2005  at  11:19 AM
Also might I add that the article itself is a really bad one from an althropological perspective, with its heavy use of outdated and racist terms like "primitive", "savage", etc. 😠
Posted by Kat  on  Thu Feb 10, 2005  at  12:58 PM
I operate a similar service called Worst Contact Tours. You camp out in my field in a 1984 Plymouth Voyager, back seats removed. Myself and other local idiots will chase you with paint ball guns from sun-up to sundown, and shoot you in the ass. $1000, nonrefundable
Posted by Hairy Houdini  on  Thu Feb 10, 2005  at  02:47 PM
This is retarded - how would they know where to look for a tribe that has never made contact with the outside world? You just wander a forest and hope to bump into one? Yeah right. I second the BS call.
Posted by Saribellum  on  Thu Feb 10, 2005  at  03:20 PM
There's no doubt in my mind that its a hoax - just how much of one.

I'm thinking that the only person who knows for sure is Woolford, and he'll deny it.

More than likely Woolford made arrangements with locals to provide the First Contact tribe. At $8000 USD per person, that's plenty to work with. The porters, the guide, are all not privvy to this - which explains their genuine fear and reactions.
Posted by Venture  on  Thu Feb 10, 2005  at  04:15 PM
These days, you're probably more likely to find people who've had practically no contact with Westerners somewhere in central Asia than in New Guinea.
The old joke about New Guinea is that the average extended family there consists of a mother, a father, a couple of grandparents, several kids, and an American or European cultural anthropologist.
Posted by Big Gary C  on  Thu Feb 10, 2005  at  05:36 PM
I made the previous comments before I looked at the article. I just skimmed it, and I find it so full of holes I kept looking to see if it was from the April 1 issue of the magazine.
To point out all errors, inconsistancies, and gaps in logic would take too long, since nobody's paying me to write a review, so I'll just say I strongly doubt that the author ever went to New Guinea at all.
For one thing, the Indonesian half of the island is called Irian Jaya or West Irian. For some reason, Behar keeps calling it "West Papua," I term I've never seen or heard before.
Posted by Big Gary C  on  Thu Feb 10, 2005  at  05:55 PM
Some of those pictures look an aweful lot like pictures I'm sure I've seen in National Geographic! This definitely has to be a hoax. If it isn't, it's a travesty! It reminds me of these rich a-hole, pseudo-explorers who pay thousands of dollars to climb Mount Everest only to end up putting everyone else's life in danger and not to mention the tax dollars that are spent to rescue them.
I totally agree with Big Gary C where he said ""First-world" peoples, and especially North Americans, need to get over the idea that the rest of the world is an amusement park existing for our entertainment."
Hairy, I have some people I'd love to send on your "Worst Contact Tour" as a surprise vacation! I think they'd just love it! 😉
Posted by Glamcat  on  Fri Feb 11, 2005  at  05:19 PM
For answers, contact the Summer Institute of Linguistics at:

I can already tell you it staged because the area he describes is the Sepik River and all the tribes have been contacted in that area. However, there are tribes in the deep rain forest of PNG that havent been discovered.
There are 800+ known tribes, and only 150 have been translated. So 650+ tribes dont know its illegal to eat eachother!
Posted by Rob  on  Sun Jun 12, 2005  at  05:24 AM
ex new guinea resident just completed manuscript about British new guinea in the days of I have continued interest in what I call the Last Unknown.
Posted by arthur ramsay  on  Fri Sep 16, 2005  at  09:45 PM
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