Spellbound on the Sepik

The Sepik River is awash with cultural experiences, from sing sings to spirit houses.

Twirling and spinning like grass-skirted dervishes, the dazzling women run the show up here in Kambaramba on the lower Sepik River in Papua New Guinea.

We’ve travelled a full day upriver aboard Coral Princess Cruises’, Oceanic Discoverer, something very few cruise ships will do, even the more adventurous ‘expedition’ vessels.

The ceremony we are witnessing is steeped in ancient tradition and sorcery, an intricate and intimate part of the rich culture that exists all along the river. Barely concealed by shreds of river grass and rough shell necklaces, their pendulous breasts swing in full rotations as they yelp wildly and throw their arms ecstatically in the air. They stop and leer eerily into my camera as the energetic circle dance progresses, but the significance of their bold attention escapes me – for now.

“While PNG is recognised for living culture that takes you back in time, it’s not that easy to simply find yourself immersed in that environment,” says Austronesian Expeditions’ Justin Friend, “the Sepik gives you that opportunity.”

“In some ways the whole Sepik River, from top to the bottom, is a little bit like a compressed version of the whole country. The diverse blends of culture and language groups that make up the whole country are almost mirrored in a slightly more compact version along the length of the Sepik.”

Some of us might remember the momentous 1956 Chips Rafferty film Walk into Paradise which introduced the blockbuster scenery and mystical culture of the Sepik to goggle-eyed cinema audiences back in the day. This sometimes comical adventure movie tracing the length of the river sparked interest in PNG as a travel destination that continues to this day.

The dark waters of the Sepik, one of the world’s great waterways, carry a rich blend of silt and vegetation, both important for replenishing ecosystems downstream and further afield. Although the straight-line distance from source to mouth is barely 500 kilometres, its wide channel twists and turns in a serpentine course that, if stretched out, would cover over 1100.

Europeans were first introduced to the mystical wonders of the Sepik when German colonialist Dr Otto Finsch brought back tales of crocodiles, wild tribes and unfathomable ceremonies after a 50-kilometre journey upstream in 1885. Today, journeys aboard modern vessels like the 76-passenger Oceanic Discoverer or the 36-passenger True North easily exceed the pioneering German’s historic penetration and reach at least as far as the village of Kambaramba, a genuine frontier community that wholly reinforces Dr Otto’s 120-year-old observations.

Nancy Sullivan is an anthropologist who has lived and worked in PNG for a quarter of a century and without someone like Nancy to decode the otherwise unfathomable rites and rituals, any visitor would be completely bewildered at the sensory onslaught.

“The people in this ecologically diverse region speak more than 250 languages, which is some indication of their sociocultural variety,” says Nancy, “and even for all their differences, Sepik people share many broad cultural themes.”

One of the classic Sepik cultural features is the so-called ‘haus tambaran’ or spirit houses, which are a focus of male life in the village. These often highly decorated structures are where the initiated men of the village will often spend their days and where young men are prepared for initiation with counselling by the elders.

In the Middle Sepik region, for example, these houses can often be as long as 50 metres and rise up to 30 metres on tall stilts. They are formally divided into sections and sub-sections organised by clans. Nancy goes on to tell me how hand-carved storyboards are often a feature of these magnificent shelters

“There is a young man named Michael in (the Lower Sepik village of) Chimondo whose skill is seen everywhere inside the haus tambaran. He has carved beautiful tables and house ladders and totem poles and figurines, as well as storyboards. These are distinctively charcoal-darkened carvings with dramatically etched lines of white lime. They have humour and charm that sets them apart from the norm.

“Here there one finds graphics of a pig-faced man, from a local Chimondo legend. The story goes that a woman bore a pig-faced son in the bush and was so horrified she ran off, never to return. The child was raised by the village and slowly grew angry at his mother’s abandoning him. So he took to killing people in revenge.”

At either end of the haus tambaran the main posts meet crossbeams in fantastic gable paintings much like the one that presents itself on the outside. These graphics, so much like the storyboards they look over and seem to protect, are at once funny and scary and riveting to the eye.

Traditionally the haus tambaran has been a strictly male-only club but more recently women in tourist groups may be permitted to enter. Just to be safe, make sure you have permission to enter the haus tambaran and take off your shoes and hat.

The word ‘Sepik’ is also synonymous with the distinctive handicrafts and carvings that emanate from the many tribes and clans that dwell along its banks. Intensely symbolic and richly carved, these ornate pieces are highly prized by collectors worldwide and all but dominate the Melanesian art market. Centres like Angoram, Kaminabit and Timbunke are great for art shopping.

Commercial expedition adventures along the Sepik, begun about 30 years ago, were driven mainly by ethnological dilettantes and enthusiasts of primitive art. Not a great deal has changed except for the quality of watercraft now plying the wide, turbid waters meet the expectations of modern 21st Century travellers.

Trans Nuigini Tours is another well-established operator with lodges along the Sepik. Owner, Bob Bates, has run tours from his base in Mount Hagen since the 1970s and regularly flies guests in his own plane from there to his Sepik properties.

Landing at any of these villages we were greeted by a typically boisterous, exuberant crowd clearly excited by our arrival. At Kambaramba, children sprint sideways along the shore, hopping and waving, trying to anticipate our beachhead. Once ashore, we disembark into the midst of a swelling throng toward a muddy path into the settlement proper, made up by a simple array of grass, reed and wood stilt huts arranged along the bank of a very minor tributary. The single AUSAID rainwater tank, a solar panel and tattered secondhand NRL rugby tops are the only clues to contact with the outside world.

We are treated to an obligatory ‘sing-sing’ at almost every village. Each portrays the unique local cultures and rites significant to the respective region through a choreographed performance of dance, music and costume. Some are more easily interpreted, like the muscular, well-oiled men who paddle invisible canoes, chanting musically with each empty stroke. But this display, deep in the seldom-visited backwaters of the mysterious Sepik River speaks of darker, more sinister things.

As the circular frenzy continues, I look to Nancy for some interpretation. But she too seems mesmerised as these ash- and ochre-smeared banshees ramp up their routine. My camera, still clicking constantly, is capturing all manner of bizarre gesticulations when suddenly one particularly enthusiastic member catches my eye. She fixes her determined gaze upon me and crouches forward as if to attack. With eyes ablaze and arms and legs flapping every which way, she moves in until all I can see is nothing but her crazy gap-toothed grin in my lens. Then, with an explosive demonic yelp, she wheels suddenly back and rejoins her stomping troupe.

Surrounded by highly amused villagers convulsing with obvious delight, Nancy too was beside herself, laughing and clapping almost as wildly as the locals. Clearly it is me who has become the unwitting star of this macabre comedy. As the performance winds up to rapturous applause, Nancy approaches me in some haste, a puzzling smirk across her face.

“I think we’d better get you out of here,” she says earnestly through a clenched grin, “she was putting a bit of a spell on you.”
Bypassing the few remaining carvings laid out for our inspection, I make a polite but purposeful beeline through the crowd to our waiting transport, all the while a disturbingly vivid image of my mud-splattered enchantress persists.

“You’ll be okay,” Nancy reassures me, squeezing my arm, “… eventually!” •

Photography by Roderick Eime, David Kirkland and PNG Tours


Getting There
Air Niugini and Qantas operate non-stop flights between Port Moresby and Sydney, Brisbane and Cairns. Rather than overnighting in Port Moresby, it is possible and advisable to take a connecting flight to your final PNG destination the same day.


Further Information