Upper Sepik, Papua New Guinea
The Sepik River might be the closest thing people imagine of PNG: hard to access, tribal and traditional, spirits inhabiting nature, and a slow, remote way of life. It’s considered one of the signature spots of PNG identity and culture; in a country with few tourists, a place that a large portion attempt to visit despite the hassle. Even PNG’s national parliament building in Port Moresby is modeled after a Sepik spirit house. It’s those very houses that I first saw on TV years ago that planted the seed for this trip, and so the Sepik is the centerpiece — one that almost didn’t happen.
Being stranded in Kavieng is one thing. There’s an annual festival in the Sepik I was aiming for, and if I couldn’t get out of Kavieng in time to get to it, I told myself I would just give up and fly back to Australia early. After all the previous troubles, it felt appropriate to not be so hard on myself and provide an out, but I’m glad I didn’t have to resort to that in the end.
But the other big thing is cost: visiting the Sepik is seriously expensive due to the price of petrol. It would have been too much for me to go alone. I had company, however — I actually have for nearly all of this time in PNG. This entire trip started as a solo affair. But on day 2 at the National Mask Festival, I met Stéphane, another solo traveler from France. On a lark, as I had already been in contact with guides for the Sepik, I proposed that we pair up at the end of the month and split costs to visit together. He gave what seemed like a tentative yes — understandably so, for such a big request from someone he met for a minute.
We’re doing that now. What we didn’t intend was to travel together the entire month: despite making different plans, we simply got stranded together in the same places and festivals at the same time, made separate plans B, C, D, E… but they dovetailed so much that we were consistently only apart for a day or two at a time. Perhaps without that experience of shared suffering and built trust, we would not have stuck together for the Sepik. I’m grateful for his company, not just to make this journey possible, but as a new friend.
It’s an incredibly long journey for our guide, Johannes, to reach us in palm-fringed, coastal beach-lined Wewak all the way from Ambunti on the river. Regional centre and provincial capital Wewak may be, but geographic centre it is not. With hired private transport, it was over 4 hours on the road, half of it pretty rough, just to get to Pagwi, one of the few riverside villages with land access. It would have been far cheaper but longer to go by PMV as Johannes had, and a bit riskier as well: this formerly safe road has seen raskol holdups of PMVs more than weekly in the last year.
The scenery change is an interesting one — from the gorgeous palm-lined coast, up and down the green mountains, then down to the flat plains until the river. Once we got on the water though, it didn’t stay flat: it took more than an hour in a powerful boat to get to Ambunti, located at the base of a small mountain in the distance!
As soon as Pagwi disappeared from view, the realities of the Sepik’s remoteness made themselves apparent. Villages are few and far between, too far and with too strong of a river current to practically paddle a canoe between, mere blips breaking the densely forested landscape populated mostly by sea eagles, cormorants, egrets, and herons, along with occasional trees full of deafeningly loud but hardly visible crickets. The villages themselves are small but surprisingly tidy, but the further we got from Ambunti and Pagwi, the higher the figures on the rare signs advertising petrol, the rarer the shared PMV boats, the spottier the cell phone reception, the fewer the signs to top up phone credit… If you need to reach anybody or anywhere, it’s going to take some serious effort. If you need medical care, the nearest clinic is in Ambunti, and the bigger ones all the way out in Pagwi or Maprik halfway. Deaths from malaria are not uncommon.
As we made stops in the Upper Sepik villages of Wagu, Yambun, Maliwei, Mino, Tongwinjamb, and Johannes’ home village of Urumbanj, all several hours away by boat, Johannes always had some relative in town or someone to greet. People intermarry with people from other villages, which Johannes also did, but with the long distances and the price of fuel, visits are infrequent: even Johannes, who gets to travel with tourists who pay for petrol, sees his mother only about once a year. As this region’s tribes are matrilineal, most couples move to where the wives are based, or in Johannes’ case, they might move together to somewhere more central like Ambunti.
Despite centuries of life along the Sepik, its population is sparsely spread out! Tribes still expand to new areas primarily once one area’s been fished out. The Sepik runs all the way to the Indonesian border, far beyond what we’re seeing. The many tributaries along the Sepik are hardly visible: we made our way to Wagu Lake, which I did not see the turnoff for until we took it. It’s now a primary tourist stop (well, a few dozen people per year, hardly Paris we’re talking about here) to see the local lesser bird-of-paradise, and so Wagu village has expanded to a population of 50 or so. In the 1990s, there was just one family. Now there’s even an interloper of another tribe, squatting on the land of others.
As for the birds of paradise — it may be a whole lot easier to see them in Port Moresby’s Nature Park, but seeing them in the wild is really quite special! They tend to favour one tree, and it was mesmerizing to watch around six of them flit around, the decorated males doing their displays by puffing up their feathers, all vying for attention from one drab-looking female bird. On TV, you see it in slow motion. In real life, it happens quite quickly and is hard to see, even if they’re in full line of sight. These birds had a pretty unique cry too, that stuck out amongst the countless other species singing in the forest: “rrrr, rrraaaa, wak!”
Aside from fish, the Sepik River is full of one other creature: crocodiles. (It’s also why people don’t swim or bathe in the river.) Unfortunately, just like the fish, a tendency to overhunt has drastically reduced numbers, another reason for tribes to expand to new areas. It’s with conservation in mind that the Sepik River Crocodile Festival was started in 2007 in association with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a three-day event that brings singsing groups from tribes all across the vast Sepik River, each with different cultures. This is the festival I timed my visit for.
Fast forward to 2023, and well… in practice, I’m not so sure the WWF would be happy with the many muzzled and disoriented live crocodiles dangling like necklaces (in addition to actual necklaces of crocodile teeth), bouncing up and down as people dance: baby ones and giant adults alike! It’s their culture though, and mesmerizing to watch though, as several tribes performed singsings in such a manner. Crocodiles (or “pukpuk” in Tok Pisin, as many songs mentioned the “pukpuk festival”) are revered not just as spirit carriers and a cultural cornerstone, but also as a source of food. Their reverence is reflected by several Middle Sepik tribes’ rather intense and painful practice of scarification: when young men come of age, they have hundreds of incisions made on their torsos, left to scar with an applied oil and clay mixture such that the scars form raised patterns akin to crocodile skin.
Culture here isn’t just limited to crocodiles though. While this may have been my third festival of the trip, everything felt quite different — regalia and body decorations share virtually nothing in common with East New Britain or New Ireland. Rather than dancing in formation, groups danced around a pole or in a circle. Rather than the male-dominant singsing groups, here it’s everyone all at once. Women often fan giant bilums — decorative versions of the woven bags they carry with their heads day to day. Some groups literally strapped dead birds of paradise on their heads. Sacred tubuans vary wildly: cassowaries, strange figures adorned with decorative fruit, demons. One group even carried giant, heavily decorated yams in their singsing, later presented as gifts to dignitaries and festival organisers. Instead of singing and dancing, some groups performed skits. For everything else, maybe it’s best to let the pictures do the talking: lots more in the next entry.
The coolest thing though: singsing groups were full of endless enthusiasm. We’d watch them prepare costumes and paint each other on the sidelines. Once done, whether or not they were scheduled to perform in the main area, they’d be exuberantly performing their singsing on and on and on, paying no mind to their song clashing with anyone else’s. Far more informal than their stage performances, you could see how much joy the singsing provided. Days after the festival, up on the hills far away from the festival grounds and in front of Johannes’ house, his village’s singsing group prepared for their boat journey home by throwing one last singsing for themselves, which Stef and I were honoured to witness as the only outsiders around. Once they get home, they’ll do another one.
Urumbanj, Johannes’ village, is one of many also on a hidden waterway, covered in hyacinths, but with a half hour walk further island from Tongwinjamb. (During dry season, it means an additional muddy walk of half an hour through those hyacinths when the river’s low.) We saw and heard snippets of life so far away from the rest of civilization: Johannes’ literal birthplace on the ground just behind the trees, his daily two-hour walk to and from school in a neighbouring village (obviously much faster but more expensive to get to by boat), the climb up the mountain to visit his mother, the many missionary-established health clinics, schools, and churches that have converted virtually everyone in these far-flung areas to Christianity, yet also the daily role spirits play, inhabiting humans, masks, or animals — like the angry river spirit that led locals not to step in for a period of time, or the previously resident mountain spirit that seems to have disappeared. If a human is deemed possessed by a spirit, they’re forced to either perform singsings as the tubuan or be offered to the river!
Daily life is a grind of subsistence. No matter where we went, we could see someone preparing sago: chopping the trees, grinding it into a pulp, and many cycles of washing and pressing out the toxins. It’s basically the only filling carb readily available, prepared as chewy cakes. The only protein? Fish and crocodile. Vegetables, only in harvest time. All things not grown or fished has to come in by boat. Life here isn’t easy. There’s allure to this kind of life, but there’s also ennui — it’s altogether more impressive and surprising how many with the means to do so don’t just up and leave for the city, and a testament to what’s here that binds people to this place. Yet every time we passed by a village, I’d see a similar sight: groups of people just sitting and staring, eager to see us and wave hello — they’re either all somewhere overlooking the river, or at the lone store. Looks like that’s all there is to do once the chores are done. There’s no running water, and even having a bucket shower filled from a rainwater tank is a luxury — in most places, you have to find a clean mountain stream to bathe or fetch drinking water. Of course, there’s also no electricity other than solar chargers or the rare generator. As soon as night falls, dinner is had, and device batteries extinguished, there’s nothing to do but either watch the fireflies or go to bed at 8 pm.
But Johannes’ village is also home to a haus tambaram inaugurated just a week ago, and we were the first tourists to visit. It’s a marvel to walk into one: from the outside it may look like a rudimentary sheltered meeting space, but inside they’re completely covered in art, from simply cool designs to depictions of local legions, some even a little lewd. Most paints come coloured by the local soil, as artificial colours need to be bought in stores hours away and brought back by ship.
They’re not the only village with a haus tambaram — a spirit house where singsings are performed, but which traditionally only men can enter. Each village, even along the same waterway, has different legends to depict, different masks and totems hanging, and other concepts they deem sacred or spirit-possessed. Maliwei’s has coconuts hanging by the ceiling, only consumed when a wild pig is hunted. Mino’s is done by a single artist, Simon Goiyap, whose art is now so renowned that he was invited for an exhibition in Brisbane.
Tongwinjamb has large ancestral statues outside theirs, along with depictions of local legends of the Eagle Clan and the cassowary woman. Their haus, the largest that we saw, was a collaboration of 36 different artists. It was clear which parts were drawn by younger ones – their more modern, more literal pieces showed outside influence.
As Johannes and others told us though, this crucial part of their culture seems under threat, which seems at odds with the exuberance of the crocodile festival. Various villages have left their haus tambaram in a state of disrepair, with no youths interested in learning to rebuild or create new ones. According to the locals, they’d rather spend their endless time smoking the rather abundantly growing marijuana or drinking their moonshine. While this seems to be commonly cited in the cities as a contributor to crime (and perhaps here too, as one village we showed up at was devoid of people, who all happened to be at a village meeting for a sexual assault), here it seems mostly to deepen a lack of motivation to carry on their traditions. Tongwinjamb seems to have a willing group in their new generation. There may be concern, but I wonder if it’s overstated, since there’s clearly also still a spark. Like everywhere else in PNG, Sepik people are proud!
Another threat to the local way of life: foreign-owned resource extraction. Mines and logging operations are popping up further and further along the Sepik, not only destroying habitats for humans and animals, but potentially polluting the river itself. Yet it’s also an economic lifeline: during the country’s prolonged covid lockdown, with no tourists to guide, Johannes’ income all but vanished, save for the occasional groups of Australian miners he would shuttle from Pagwi.
If anything, I think this week in the Sepik was the most apt way to end a PNG trip full of questions…by not really providing answers. In a constantly modernizing world, this country, one that retains its many proud aspects of indigeneity, isn’t immune, even as it shows the world both the tensions between the two ideas yet how they are not incompatible. But how do they keep it going? And how do they balance that with economic reality?
I’ve seen a country with endless patience, in a trip that tried mine. Boats cancelled for days? Flights cancelled for days? People grumble a little, but about as much as they would for a traffic jam, and with a shrug. On the Sepik, people make a long weekly journey to Maprik and back by boat and van, risking holdups, just to sell smoked fish or vegetables. If they’re going anywhere else, they’ll wait days for a PMV boat. Johannes and his wife head to Wewak from Ambunti every month! It takes them six hours each way, and it’s not a big deal. They’ll stay barefoot from home to river shore to pavement road to city supermarket and back, arms loaded with extra comforts.
More than anything else though, I can see why Papua New Guineans — no matter which part of the country, despite their vast differences — are proud people, what they’re proud of, and why. They should be.