Travel deep into the heart of Papua New Guinea on a new expedition cruise along the Sepik River, to discover ancient rituals, repentant headhunters, and tribal villages frozen in time…
Back inside the spirit house in Kanganaman, village elder Vincent Yarme lifted his T-shirt to reveal rows of 2cm-long welts cut during one of the world’s most extreme initiation ceremonies. His crocodile hide scarifications contoured all the way up his back, over his shoulders and then down his chest to circle his nipples like a pair of eyes.
“It took 45 minutes of cutting by razor blade,” Vincent recalled. “My uncle put tree oil and white clay on my cuts to ease the pain. I felt heavy from loss of blood.” The night before the initiation, the young men had evoked the crocodile spirit by chanting. “The crocodile is a symbol of power on the Sepik. After the pain I felt ready for anything in life,” he added.
Spirits and creation myths taking animal form are commonplace along Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) Sepik River, but no animal is more totemic than the crocodile. During a week on the river I saw crocodiles depicted in the art and cultural performances (‘sing-sings’) of this far-flung northern region. Ironically, the closest I got to seeing a crocodile in the flesh was a sautéed entrée served one evening on board our expedition vessel.
The Sepik’s unique crocodilian obsession epitomises how PNG’s myriad cultures have evolved in isolation, influenced entirely by their surroundings. No roads exist between the peoples of the coast and those of the highlands, and of 832 national languages spoken here, around 250 belong to the Sepik Basin. When I flew into Madang Port to join my 25 fellow passengers on board the catamaran Coral Expeditions I, I’d been reading about a devastating earthquake that had occurred in the highlands. Yet the coastal people I asked about it looked at me blankly, as if I had been talking about another country. I was about to enter a world within a world.
The Sepik is Papua New Guinea’s second-longest river, stretching some 1,126km in length. It tumbles out of PNG’s Central Highlands and settles into a silted, sticky-toffee-coloured flow that oscillates wildly into contorted meanders that often resemble snakes attempting to consume their own tails. German colonialists first explored it in the mid-1880s and named it Kaiserin Augusta, then the Japanese occupied the Sepik region during the Second World War until the US army arrived in force.
I’d actually travelled here in 2012 by dugout, fascinated by the crocodile initiation ever since meeting explorer Benedict Allen some years before, one of the few outsiders to have undergone the scarification. But it had been a hard trip. I’d existed on sago and rice while the local insects devoured me. This time I returned on a 35m-long catamaran with air-conditioned cabins that enabled me to venture further along the Lower and Middle Sepik and save a fortune on antihistamines.
To reach the river, we traced the volcano-studded southern coastline of the Bismarck Sea westwards from Madang until the Sepik’s mouth between the capes of Franseski and Girgir. Out to sea, Kadovar Volcano belched yellowing steam, having just erupted in January 2018, and the water ahead promised hundreds of riverside villages that had only relatively recently abandoned headhunting and remained wedded to the river’s natural resources.
We were in search of the Murik people, who were proving hard to find that first morning. After two hours upriver, the captain’s GPS located a barat (water channel) cut through the spiky sago palms. We launched a shallow-draft tender to navigate it, nudging aside drooping fronds and surprising startled egrets and herons.
All 300 inhabitants of Mendam waited on the shoreline to greet us. This is one of seven Murik villages arranged around an oxbow lake that has detached from the main channel. Stepping ashore, the sodden land revealed the villagers’ fragile waterborne existence, living with floods and tides. They inhabit wooden, palm-thatched huts on stilts and fish from dugout canoes with crocodile-carved prows. They also harvest sago, which they trade with inland communities; pink-coloured pulp hollowed out of the palm’s trunk and filtered with water to make a viscous sediment that, when dried, forms a starchy flour.
Every community we visited arranged a ‘sing-sing’, and Mendam’s proved especially memorable for the four male dancers baring rouge, betel-nut-stained grins, who danced like a drunken boy band and drew hoots of derision from the howling villagers. Applying greater finesse, the women sashayed rhythmically in sago grass skirts, singing of their initiation into womanhood; necklaces of cowrie shells and wild boar tusks rattling like chattering teeth.
Softly spoken headman Francis Kepak watched approvingly as my fellow passengers snapped up finely carved ceremonial wooden masks embellished with crocodile features. Francis seemed emotional when I asked how our presence would impact his community.
“We do not live in the ‘money world’ but must find money to pay for school fees and medicine.” He grasped my hand. “You are so welcome.”
We passed Angoram village in the late afternoon, the administrative centre of the Middle Sepik. As in all the riverside villages, youngsters on dugouts shot out like darts exhaled from a blowpipe to ride in our catamaran’s wake.
The next morning, Moim village marked the point where the local language switched to Iatmul. Its 1,400-strong community has a wood-planked Catholic church with hand-painted Christian icons. But the power of the river villages lie within the Sepik’s unique haus tambaran (spirit houses), which host men initiated into clans and who identify with particular animals. Beneath its pointed thatched roof, Moim’s spirit house is richly adorned with motifs of crocodile, pigs, eagles and cassowaries. Clan membership of these is passed down from father to son. The initiated men idle the days away inside, lighting fires to deter mosquitos; they also store sacred artefacts, such as the ceremonial flutes that no women must ever see being played.
“We go to church but spend more time in the spirit house, our first belief,” said Ishmael Forova, a chatty local with the gift of Tok Pisin – the nation’s pidgin creole. Moim’s sing-sing commenced with a thunderous beating from within the spirit house of the garamut, a wooden drum shaped like a sarcophagus and tapering into a crocodile head.
“It’s our bush telephone,” said Ishmael, “and used during the initiation rituals.” In Moim, this involves male circumcision. “The drum helps the boys forget how painful their penises are,” he added.
Moim’s sing-sing proved a feast for the eyes, and I never felt these displays were tourist-driven spectacles; they represented living cultural practices. Four different dances erupted in unison. The young women, wearing necklaces of glittering kina shells shaped like half-moons, sang of approaching womanhood while men donning cassowary feather headdresses paraded a giant decorated fish.
“This dance marks a death. It represents the sacred journey of our ancestors to here from the Murik Lakes,” said Ishmael.
Downriver, beyond the immense Karawari tributary, the distant Bismarck Hills were on fire at sunset. I downed a margarita on the viewing deck, ate barramundi for a tasty dinner and settled in for the night, my thoughts filled with drums, dancing and the crocodiles to come.
By morning, we’d entered Chambri Lake’s scrambled waterscape of swamps and tributaries. The freshwater lakes shone like a mirror, so every tree had a pristine reflection. A creation myth attached to Chambri tells of how a human born to a crocodile killed his reptilian father, then shed remorseful tears that spawned the Sepik River. Back in the corporeal world, I saw garrulous sulphur-crested cockatoos and shape-shifting murmurations of starlings.
The Chambri-speaking villages perch on the solid bedrock of granite outliers. At Wombun, we moored in front of a magnificent spirit house with pointed eaves rising like hypodermic needles and topped by guardian white crane birds. Schoolteacher Simon Kemaken told me that the people from the hills populated Wombun in the 1950s.
“They came down because they were no longer worried about losing their heads to headhunters,” he said, my eyes widening at the prospect of all this happening so recently. “The missionaries stopped this practice in about 1943. At least they did some good,” he added dryly.
Inside Wombun’s spirit house, I found clan carvings of eagles, flying foxes, cockatoos and, of course, crocodiles. The older men showed off their crocodile hide scarifications – the first village upriver in which I’d seen this. Simon said few youngsters follow this tradition now because of the cost of the ceremony and pressure from the church.
The clan houses are very male-orientated, yet on the upper-floor of Wombun’s are two striking murals on pillars depicting female guardians in a very sexually charged posture. “Women in these societies do have power but it’s a private power in the home,” said Dame Carol Kidu, a former PNG parliamentary MP who accompanied us on the voyage, giving lectures on board. “If they are not happy, they will refuse to make food or withdraw sexual favours.”
I remained baffled throughout at the lack of crocodile sightings. Later that afternoon at Kamindimbit village, we browsed the ubiquitous handicrafts. One man offered a polished clamshell fashioned into a coin once used to pay a bride price by the groom’s relatives, while others sold woven penis-gourds, to be worn like codpieces. It was hard to resist the “Do you have them in a larger size?” gag – it always brought hoots of laughter. Among the souvenirs was a huge crocodile skull decorated with cowrie shells. The man selling it said the reptile was four meters long. I still wondered about the amount of actual crocodiles on the Sepik, particularly after seeing village children swimming without a care in the world?
“They are definitely around,” assured Christine Kuso, head-teacher at Kamindimbit elementary school. Christine said two of the children at the school had been bitten recently. I asked the children if they’d seen big crocs? “Yes!” they all chimed in enthusiastically, holding their arms aloft as wide as they could stretch.
We sailed onwards, deeper into the territory of the Chambri’s former bête noire, the headhunting Iatmul. Near Kanganaman, where I had met the scarred Vincent Yarme, we disembarked onto the opposite bank and hiked inland in drenching humidity, passing sweet potato and sugarcane crops on the way to Parambei village.
Local ‘spirits’ were in full flow. The fumes of home-brewed alcohol prevailed, as the men had been drinking the night before. Parambei hosts two large thatched spirit houses, both rebuilt around 60 years ago but the artefacts inside date back generations. “There used to be three houses but the Americans bombed one during the war, believing the Japanese who occupied our village were inside it,” said Aaron Malingi, a village councillor. Decaying wood pylons marked the destroyed house’s location and remained pockmarked by Japanese bullet holes.
All young men here undergo scarification at mass ceremonies. The men will show their markings but may ask for a donation of about £2 for photos. “A fence is put up during the cutting to seclude them,” explained Aaron. “The boys are taken by their uncles and remain in the spirit house for several months, learning about sacred rituals, carving, fishing and how to look after their family. The spirit is very strong in Parambei and we want to maintain this tradition.”
Other traditions have luckily fallen away. I discovered two angular rocks outside the house where the severed heads of the village’s enemies were displayed. “The head’s flesh was cut away, mixed with pig and dog meat and fed to the children to make them strong,” Aaron revealed. As another sing-sing struck up, he took me upstairs into the second spirit house to view a knotted rope hanging from the rafters. “Each knot demonstrates a head taken by the house.” There were dozens of knots.
After four days travelling against the current, I felt at ease with the Sepik’s soporific flow. Before turning around, we stopped at one final village, Korogu, and were showered with petal confetti like marrying couples. I was touched by the generosity of this poor community.
The village’s lofty stilted houses snuggled among coconut palms. Pigs roamed free beneath them and the drying hides explained where all the crocodiles had gone. In a haus tambaran, given over to the pig clan and marked inside by a woven wicker hog, two men blew a captivating harmony on sacred flutes, controlling the pitch with intakes of breath like a didgeridoo rather than using finger holes. “They play this when the men are being cut, to soothe them,” said cultural leader, Hendricks Sambin.
Korogu’s main crocodile clan house had collapsed. Hendricks pointed to the prone pillars waiting to be re-erected. “We will build a new one but it is expensive and we need government funding. When we do, four pigs will be sacrificed and hung on each post,” he said.
Hendricks told me some 40 boys were due to be scarified in a big ceremony later this year. “Our young men still want to feel the power of the crocodile,” he said. “It gives them energy for life.” In the remote world of the Sepik, you can understand why. As we turned downriver and made for its mouth, I watched this country within a country drift by, realising how precious life in the jaws of a crocodile truly was.
The handicrafts along the Sepik are exceptional and very well priced. The money you spend is also appreciated by the families offering the crafts. Look for…
These string bags, woven from sago palm thread, are found in every village and tend to range in design and size from smaller handbag proportions to some that are large enough to hold vegetables and even babies.
I found beautiful carved flutes in Kamindimbit that were made from bamboo and had animal totem heads.
These are found in all villages along the Sepik. Some are more oval, some are more rounded in design, and it’s common to see a crocodile motif incorporated.
I found these wood-carved statues (with pepperpot-shaped bodies and pinched heads) in several Iatmol villages. They are representations of the full-body spirit masks that appear in ceremonies.
The village of Aibom in Chambri Lakes is famous for wood-fired pottery adorned by animal motifs. Aibom pots are only made by women and are traded all over the Sepik.
The author travelled with Discover the World (01737 218802). 2019 dates for his itinerary are yet to be confirmed, but the 12-night Frontier Lands of Papua New Guinea cruise is available, including an exploration of the Sepik River and coastal highlights such as the fjords at Tufi and remote Trobriand Islands. Price includes one-way charter flight from Cairns to Madang, all meals, guided tours and access to marine and national parks; departures are on 5 Nov 2018 and 12 Nov 2019.
The author stayed at the Pullman Reef Casino Hotel either side of his stay in PNG. The rooms are very modern and the entertainment goes well beyond a small casino and five Asian-themed restaurants; there’s even a glass skydome that hosts a menagerie of local wildlife that can be accessed by a zip-line course.
The scenic Madang Resort is fabulously located on Madang harbour and has rooms of all grades and a good restaurant. Try to get something located on the waterfront, so you can watch the flow of harbour traffic.
If you find yourself in and around the capital in between flights, the Airways Hotel offers a really beautiful hillside location that has the most contemporary design in PNG, including a full-sized Dakota plane as part of its rather unique décor.