The first stage of the Sepik adventure was a gruelling forty eight hours of hard traveling. My birthday was spent on a boat from Madang to Wewak, crammed on the deck with a hundred other Papuan’s, armed with a case of SP beer. As night time fell the conditions slowly became more and more cramped as people settled into their sleeping positions, occupying every inch of deck space. Sleeping with some persons feet or ass in your face became something you were forced to endure. Taking the inevitable piss after a number of beers became an ever harder affair. An obstacle course of bodies had to be negotiated, climbing over chairs and railings while trying to maintain a delicate balance amidst the rocking of the ship, all in the name of finding a clear path to the toilet on the deck below.
We arrived in Wewak around eight in the morning, tired from the fitful sleep on the boat. We caught a PMV to the market and connected on another one into the hills and towards Ralf Stuttgen’s house. A crusty old German expat, we read in the guidebook he had rooms he hosted travelers in, but on arrival we were shown an old, dirty room in a cobweb and spider infested home that hadn’t hosted a traveler in years. There in his toilet I saw the biggest spider I’ve seen on this trip so far, a creepy ground crawling monster the size of my hand. After seeing the conditions, the spider, and Ralf’s reluctance to host, we decided to find accommodation in Wewak town. Ralf was kind enough to offer us a ride and a lot of useful information about our upcoming Sepik River tour.
Ralf dropped us at an old, run down guest house run by an old Yugoslavian lady. Upon finding out we were backpackers, she lowered the rate of the room from one hundred Kina to a budget happy thirty five Kina, the first discount I’ve ever received for simply being a backpacker. There we met a guy, Roy, who was from the Middle Sepik and the son and brother of professional guides. We discovered our original plan of taking a PMV to Pagwi (the jump off point for the river) on Friday was flawed, as public river boats do not operate Friday through Saturday, and we would have been stuck in Pagwi, which is known for its roughness and not a place to hang around in. Now, after hardly any sleep or a decent meal, we were going to have to spend the whole night in a truck and then more subsequent hours in a canoe up the Sepik river. This triggered my grouch button with force.
Simply jumping into two weeks in a very remote area of Papua New Guinea with a guide we hardly knew and no food for the trip (it was too late by then to buy some) gave me a bad feeling, as if we were heading into hardship. With no other options present, we jumped on the PMV. The driver was kind enough to spare us from another cramped night in the back of an open air truck jammed full of cargo for the river villages, instead putting us up front with him. His name was Richard, an expert on negotiating a highway that looked like it had been bombed by fighter jets, and at avoiding dogs humping in the middle of the road. The system they have figured out is to leave at night and time the ride so they arrive at the river at the crack of dawn, just as the river canoes arrive from various points on the river. This makes for a lot of stops in the middle of the night, where to try to find a comfortable position to grab an hour of sleep, including laying on the highway.
We arrived in Pagwi just as the first light of the day made its appearance. Roy immediately found us a public canoe heading the Ambunti, our destination where we would base ourselves for the next two weeks and home to the Crocodile Festival that was scheduled for the 9th and 10th. We jumped in the dugout canoe, a long, black fifty foot spear shaped vessel carved out of an Erema tree and powered by a forty five horse outboard motor. Loaded chalk full of people and cargo and experiencing problems with water in the fuel pump, the trip up the river that was supposed to take two hours doubled into four. The sun shone down on us and the birds flew overhead, giving a visually pleasing ride. It felt like a scene from Apocalypse Now, cruising up a muddy river that snaked through the jungle with no idea what laid in wait for us upstream.
After arriving in Ambunti we checked into a lodge there and started to devise a plan for our near future. Another bout of bad news was what came. It would be difficult to catch both days at the Crocodile Festival and make it back to Wewak in time for out flight to Mt. Hagen on the 11th. It was obvious we would have to fly out, the two options being either fly out mid day on the 10th and missing some of the most important day of the festival, or fly out on the morning of the 11th and risk a very tight schedule to make our flight at 12:40 to Mt. Hagen the same day. We left our money with the flight operator with a promise of finding out within a few days our flight date, which in reality we would not find out until two days before the actual flight.
That day Roy met an old man, Jonathan, a clan chief in the neighbouring village of Bangus, just across the mountain from Ambunti. With an invitation to stay at his home, we departed Ambunti the next day to trek to the village. It became a steep mountain climb in oppressive jungle temperatures, making my body temperature climb to near heat exhaustion levels, triggering my body to sweat buckets, sweat like I’ve never sweat before. After descending from the peak we then had to negotiate the muddy and water logged trails of the jungle swamps. A walk that normally takes two hours took us four and a half. We arrived in the village with warm welcomes and a refreshing coconut, fell from the tree right before our eyes. We spent the rest of the day meeting the many members of Jonathan’s family and sharing stories.
The next few days were spent being toured around the village, meeting and talking with other residents. We were well treated to hearty meals of yams, sweet potatoes, jungle greens, fish, and infamous sago. Sago is the staple diet of the Sepik River Region. The process of harvesting sago starts with cutting down the tree and stripping off the bark and the vicious thorns that defend its resourceful insides. With the bark removed, the pulp is shaved off with the precise swings of an inverted club-like tool made specifically for the task. The finely mashed pulp is then put into an angled chute made out of a hollowed palm trunk, where it is soaked with water and squeezed through a screen that strains the flour into a another horizontally placed trunk, where the flour settles to the bottom and the water drains. The refuse is then thrown into a pile where sago mushrooms will grow to become the tastiest mushrooms I’ve ever eaten. Even the grubs that eat the sago trees are harvested and eaten for protein. They tasted much like sago but the texture is undesirable.
Much of the ten days also included walks around the jungle, all done barefoot in the spirit of living like a local. The trails there are some of the worst I’ve ever hiked. The dense, clay based mud creates slippery conditions comparable to ice, and lubricates the feet even after you’ve passed through. Some sections are completely underwater, making foot placement a precarious affair. Sago thorns present another hazard, waiting in the mud to bury itself in the foot of a poor sap who happens to step in that area. They are a bitch to dig out of your foot, too, and often result in an infection. Luckily I never had one that made it to that stage, unlike Matt who had a couple infections in his foot that plagued him even after we left the area.
After a few days in village we were starting to be treated more like family than guests. We worked with the boys, hauling logs out of the jungle to be used for building a house for Rex, one of the young sons of Jonathan. Every day we bathed and washed our clothes in the cool, fresh jungle river just down the hill from the village. Three times a day we ate what the locals ate: sweet potato, sago, bananas, and some form of protein, usually fish. One day we were served bandicoot, which one of the ladies killed in the garden that morning. I have to say it was pretty tasty. I’ve also eaten more bananas in those ten days than I have my entire life. On the Sunday we joined teams and played soccer with the locals, doing the same thing the following Sunday, that time slightly intoxicated from the home jungle brew we drank that afternoon. I’ll address that in the next paragraph.
One aspect of life in Papua New Guinea is home brew. Many people brew it and everyone drinks it as a very cheap alternative to beer. It’s usually brewed out of coconut, banana, sugar cane, papaya, sugar, and yeast. Even though it’s a jail sentence if you’re caught brewing, most people have the equipment and know how to brew their own. Rex and Simion, the two young men we spent the most time with, had a “kit” which includes a two gallon gas tank, a hose, the brew mix, and several empty Coca-Cola bottles. They set up in a homemade fortress in the swamp, a hideaway protected by a grove of thorny sago trees. While brewing it’s necessary to hide, not from the police, but from the rest of the village members, who if are made aware of steam, will show up in large numbers to drink it. This is an apparent problem in PNG, much like the problem that was introduced to Native Americans hundreds of years ago. Until white men showed up, nobody in PNG had ever tasted alcohol, and now it’s an epidemic. It’s common to see many drunks on the street during the day, and a lot at night (one of the reasons not to go out at night in this country). And when people here drink, they drink hard. A bottle of steam is not sipped causally. Instead it is passed around in shots and doesn’t stop until the supply is exhausted, usually ending up in everyone getting really, really drunk. Due to everyone wanting alcohol so badly, there are many fights over it, a lot of them very, very violent. So after brewing steam that morning, by 2pm we were pissed and entered in a soccer game, this time playing for the local Bangus teams. Matt became the first white man to score a goal in Bangus.
After the ten days were up we departed the village, headed for Ambunti and the Crocodile Festival that was taking place the next day. Our walk out of the village was through a mud hole of a swamp with many members of the family. And that’s not an understatement either, I sank past my knee a few times. Thankfully the village women carried our backpacks for us. I felt like a pussy compared to these village women, but after seeing that, I’ve concluded they’re stronger than most Western men. After negotiating that hell hole we arrived at the lake to catch a motorised canoe. We cruised the lake under sunny skies, soaking up the rays and taking in the beautiful scenery around us. After a quick stop off in Maruwai, a lakeside village, we arrived in Ambunti where we stayed with at a house owned by Paco, who’s wife is from Bangus.
The next day we sorted out our flight and waited for the festival to start. And waited. And waited. Another classic example of things running on PNG time. Purely by dumb luck we happened to meet some people from the PNG Tourism Agency while looking for a phone book in the Ambunti Lodge, and were invited to come along on a canoe trip to see some other villages along the river. It was another sunny day on the canoe, enjoying yet more amazing river and lake scenery. One highlight was taking a river shortcut through a narrow, jungle lined canal, chasing Heron’s out of their resting places and marvelling at the canoe handling skills of the guide.
If a free canoe trip wasn’t enough, the PNG Tourism people invited us to hitch a ride with them back to Wewak after the festival the next day, which allowed us to cancel our flight and ended up saving us over a hundred dollars. The first day of the festival not much went on, and by the morning of the next day the rain was pouring and the hopes were looking grim. However, by 11am the rain stopped and things started rolling. We were front and center by the time the sing sing groups started marching in, me snapping away with my camera as always. The groups consisted of people from many villages from all over the Sepik, all decorated and coloured in different designs. After the main march we wandered around the grounds, viewing the still performing groups. Instead of just walking around like every other tourist, we did as we always do and jumped right in to interact with the groups, Matt kicking it off by jumping into a sing sing group and becoming furnished with a palm frond and a live baby crocodile slung over his chest. We took many more pictures of us goofing off with the groups, making a rainy day into a great experience. We departed Ambunti after a sad and happy goodbye with the family, all of us feeling rewarded by our time together.
The journey back to Wewak really isn’t worth talking about in detail. An ok boat ride, followed by a turbulent and stomach wrenching drive back to Wewak. The steak dinner (another gift from the PNG Tourism people) was definitely a nice bonus. All in all, my experience in the Sepik was nothing short of amazing. We were taken in by a family of village people and treated like one of their own. I have never in my life seen hospitality like we were treated to in those ten days, and I shall never forget it or them.