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Into the heart of the Sepik

The Great Escapes team journeys up the Sepik to a remote village

To hide the screams, the men play long bamboo flutes and pound lizard-skin drums. When a boy reaches manhood in the Sepik Valley he must fast for a week, then retreat to the Haus Tamburan, the men’s Spirit House, where, as he sits on the back of his uncle, he is beaten with stinging nettles. Then his back and shoulders are ritualistically cut, using a bamboo razor, a fresh water mussel shell, or often these days, a shard of broken bottle.

Ash is then rubbed into the wounds until the pattern of raised welts resemble the ridges on a crocodile's back. The ritual suggests the boy is swallowed by a crocodile to emerge as a man, with the power of the reptilian enemy.

The culture of the Sepik is a crocodile culture. The prow of every canoe is carved to represent a puk-puk (crocodile); the drum handles, footstools, figurines, shields, the masks and totems feature slithering, grinning reptiles, often engaged in something indescribably erotic; and we see the orgy of scars on the bare backs of boys who have undergone initiation.

Snaking through croc country
We’re on the brown and serpentine Karawari River, a major tributary to the Sepik. As early as 1616, Dutch sailors spotted a muddy stain on the sea and presumed it the effluent of a large river, but the mouth was not seen by blue eyes until 1885. Not until 1927, 69 years after John Hanning Speke stood at the source of the Nile, were the headwaters of the 700-mile-long Sepik discovered.

We turn north into a tangled, tapered passage, and head up the Kangrimei Barat (a barat is narrow jungle waterway that often leads to secreted villages). The water turns black as we paddle precarious dugouts against the current, and we flush snowy white egrets from the reeds. The rainforest is so thick, its vines so ubiquitous, it seems we’re sailing through the entrails of a massive beast. Wild sugarcane nods back and forth as though breathing. Branches and tree trunks float just below the surface of the water, like waiting crocodiles. The place feels haunted, as if spirits are watching our every move.

We glide past pitpit grass, breadfruit trees, hardwoods dripping with epiphytes, and palms of pandanus, coconut, nipa and sago. We pass women fishing in their canoes as smoke rises from a small fire in the stern to ward off bugs; naked children swim out to greet us.  Then we uncoil a corner and the water licks the stilts of a storybook village, Kaiwaria. It is late in the day, so we pull in to spend the night.

Now, after several days of ritual greetings, we are met with a new ritual. A line of bare-breasted Yarawongi women in grass skirts place hibiscus leis around our necks, then lie down between our moorage and the village entrance to create a living path. This, we’re told, is how the women would greet their warriors upon return from a headhunting raid. So we follow instructions, step between the legs of the supine women, and make it to the high-fibered halls of the village of Kaiwaria, where the chief, blooming with cassowary feathers, calls a sing-sing.

The aesthetics of battle
It is a ceremony not without taint. We are actually the fourth group of travelers to come calling in the last year, and though this village is leagues from electricity, running water or anything digital, it smells the touro-dollars. The men paint their faces, don the kina shells and feathers, place a couple of masks and carvings out for sale, and begin to dance.

The dance is simple yet expressive, dignified but provocative, a war poem of subtle arm movements, genteel turns and graceful swoops, a ballet full of politeness to a drum that beats like a giant heart. It reminds me of a scene from the Roland Joffe film “The Mission,” in which an eighteenth-century Jesuit priest, trying to convince a papal emissary that the South American Guarani Indians are more than savage heathens and deserve to have their mission preserved, has a group of native boys perform a lyric cantata with a soprano that is so clean, so celestially beautiful, that no further argument as to the elevated humanity of these people need be proffered. 

These traditions, in New Guinea as elsewhere, were almost wiped out by warriors of the cloth. The first German missionaries arrived in the early 1930s, and were promptly killed and eaten. But then more waves washed ashore, and by the end of the decade the Roman Catholics had outposts throughout the Sepik region, and were on a campaign of pacification and salvation, persuading indigenes to abandon their spirits, their rites and mystic beliefs, their head-hunting and cannibalistic ways. Sometimes their persuasions were less than pacific: the Spirit House in this village, we’re told, was burned to the ground by the missionaries.

Now cultural tourism is creeping this direction, and for all its ills it encourages and celebrates age-old traditions. We’re thrilled by that the villagers have rebuilt their sway-backed Haus Tamburan, but as we’re spending the night here and want to keep our heads, we hope not all the discarded customs are on the return.

We have some time before dinner so we have a look around. As at all villages in the region, life is dominated by the sago palm. The women weave skirts, baskets, rope, thatch for roof eaves, and fish traps from its fibers; they pound the pulp into sak-sak, the dietary staple, used in pancakes and stews that tastes to the Western palate like lint.

“Let’s go grab some grub” has an entirely different meaning here. A couple of the village men cut into the skin of felled sago palm and pull out several fat, wriggling sago grubs. One man bites into one of the pudgy worms and swallows it whole, satisfied as though he has tasted ambrosia.

The Vampire Look
Several in the village look as if they drink blood. It is the unsettling effect of chewing the nut from the areca palm, the betel. Mixed with coral lime powder and mustard pod, betel stains the mouth a brilliant scarlet and turns the teeth black. It must be a sign of the nut's narcotic effect that devotees consider the vampire look beautiful: when Didrik chews a plump nut and flashes a blood-red betel-juice smile, the women gather around and giggle, as though in the glow of a movie star.

In the last lozenge of daylight a man emerges with a big-eyed fuzzy orange creature about his neck, a cuscus (Phalanger maculates), the nocturnal marsupial rarely seen in the wild. It is cuter than a kitten, and the owner lets it crawl onto my shoulder, where it promptly wraps its long prehensile tail around my neck and releases its bladder down my back. Didrik, his HP Photosmart drawn, is quick to catch my expression, and the village children roar with laughter when he shows them the captured image on the camera monitor.

At dark we climb the wooden ladder to a shaggy thatched-roofed communal house, safely above the crocodiles and snakes, and sprawl along the sago-mat floor, next to a shrine to the Virgin Mary. Tomorrow we head over the sharp mountains to the cloud-wrapped Tari Valley, the hidden redoubt of the Huli Wigmen, who we hope, will lead us to a place less touched than even here, a place where time is the only thing that has changed.

Great Escapes is exploring Papua New Guinea in search of the Digital Village, filing daily dispatches along the way. If you have a question or comment, mail us at