Deep in the Jungles of Papua New Guinea

Returning from the hunt in the Papua New Guinea jungle.
Villagers in Papua New Guinea return from a hunt. Kent St. John photos.

The Sepik River Basin, Papua New Guinea Jungle, A World Away

By Kent E. St. John

The thick air stirred a bit under my netting, the sounds of jungle echoing through the grounds of the Karawari Lodge on the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea.

The prow of a crocodile boat
The prow of a crocodile boat

Voted Top Story of 2010 by GoNOMAD's Readers. Congrats Shelley!As I sipped a cup of coffee I watched the fog follow the ribbon of the river and the staff busily prepared breakfast for our small group, the Finnish gent sipping a cup of Joe turned to me and said, “I envy you. You are just starting out.” That certainly was a promising beginning.

The Sepik River Basin in PNG is a visit to a world far away, hard to do these days, authentic and true, things unfound elsewhere. On the Karawari part of the river, life is unchanged for centuries, except for the Karawari Lodge.

Out of all my explorations in Papua New Guinea, this visit to the tribes and clans of the region was the most powerful, a National Geo trip of my own.

High Above the  Papua New Guinea Jungle

At Mt. Hagen we boarded the little prop for our trip to Karawari; the only other way was a many day trips by boat up the Sepik River. After passing some steep peaks the panorama below turned to deep shades of green sliced with brown rivers.

An hour and a half later we approached a dirt landing strip. As we touched down locals approached from the bush. Soon our gear was stacked in a small boat and we pushed off into the muddy waters, villagers waving as we chugged upriver.

Karawari Lodge is 300 feet above the river and an ancient Rover does the lifting of guests and gear uphill. Both the boat and Range Rover were helicoptered in. Everything is flown in; there are no roads to the lodge.

The first building we came upon was the Spirit House “haus tambaran.” Every village has one to hold the treasures and skulls, a place where male village residents meet to decide events.

At the Karawari, the main lodge is filled with artwork, a small bar and a place to meet and eat.

The cottages on the property are built of local materials and have two twins beds each with necessary mosquito netting. During normal hours the generators push the lights and power.

After the generator is shut down, lights are provided by limited fluorescent spots. I wrapped the netting and listened to the latest jungle combo playing.

A Typical Day Far Away

The fog lifted slowly on our first early morning departure via a steel pontoon type boat. Out of the mist a dugout silently approached, standing in it was a man bare-chested; below him sat two children.

The bow of the dugout was carved into the face of a crocodile. Indeed, our guide informed us, salt-water crocs were local residents.

A village welcome in Papua New Guinea
A village welcome in Papua New Guinea

The croc carvings were perhaps the one thing that the villages we visited had in common. In PNG there are more than 800 different languages spoken and numerous clans and villages all with their own. Literally a village a few miles down the river would have its own language and customs. A guide is certainly needed in this part of the world.

Soon we approached our first village, Amboin, greeted by cheering naked children and bare-breasted women approaching after.

Soon the painted face of a grass skirted elder approved our entry. Warm smiles prevailed as we went to watch the preparation of the sago palms in making a flour-like staple used throughout the area, not an easy job.

While you may not be the first outsider, it is obvious that you are a curiosity to the villagers as much as they are to you. That certainly was the case in every village entered.

Net fishing in Papua New Guinea
Net fishing in Papua New Guinea

Down the Water Way

As we headed further up the river we passed numerous stilt villages and locals gathering the things needed to survive.

A primary food staple in the area is fish, and we happened upon a group of women in their small dugouts doing just that, fishing, plumed and feathered and using various methods such as nets and poles.

Each boat had a small fire going to ward off mosquitoes and in some cases to cure the catch. It became apparent over the course of my visit that women do much of the work.

After our interaction, we were invited to their village and into a longhouse. Several families shared the stilted house and the only signs of Western Civilization were metal pots and utensils.

Ritual scarring is intended to resemble the skin of a crocodile.
Ritual scarring is intended to resemble the skin of a crocodile.

Ritual Scarring

While some western clothing was worn, naked and natural was the norm. Also evident was the ritual scarring on the backs of males. Apparently cuts are made then covered with white clay.

The youths are then sat near a smoky fire to infect the cuts that soon turn into hard knobby bumps. It is done to honor and resemble the crocodile’s back.

As fate or perhaps our guide’s influence would have it, we encountered a singsing in a village up a small tributary of the river.

The painted faces and tribal decorative clothing was an amazing sight to see. Flutes and kundu drums provided the soundtrack to one of the most surreal travel experiences I have ever had.

On our last village visited for the day, we had the honor of being allowed into the Haus Tambaran (Spirit House) the center of social and ritual happenings.

It was filled with carvings, masks, and amazingly several skulls passed down from fighting not so many generations ago, a reminder just how far from the modern world I was.

Sacred skulls
Sacred skulls

Thunder in the Jungle

We were a pretty animated group back in the main room of the lodge that night. The sights and experiences of the day were gone over time and time again. We all felt like intrepid explorers.

The question was soon put to our guide about how much was put on just for our trip. We were assured that while some were, most are just living out there and getting permission for us to visit were the part played by the company.

A huge thunderstorm soon passed over us and the skies darkened, occasionally brightened by huge bolts of lighting. It was special as our little group were the only guests.

Under my netting that night I wondered how my visit to the Karawari could ever be equaled. Luckily I had one more stop in PNG, the Highlands. PNG never disappoints.

Collecting Treasures from the Sepik and its Tributaries  

This part of Papua, New Guinea is well known as the place to purchase artwork and crafts such as spirit masks, penis gourds, and cassowary-bone daggers. Almost every village sold some sort of art, though for the life of me I have no idea what the money goes to.

Village Children at a singsing in Papua New Guinea
Village Children at a singsing in Papua New Guinea

Wealth is gathered for giving away in this culture. The prices were amazingly low and the income gathered was appreciated. The high cost of shipping things back is the staggering block.

I chose not to ship and because I flew through Australia to get back, it was costly for a different reason. I breached Australian Quarantine Law and the customs official wasn’t to keen about it.

My bag was ripped open and received a cavity search like a degenerate junkie. I did answer the customs form correctly, yes I did have wood and shell objects in my bag.

That declaration got me sent to the x-ray line no problem so far. I gave the guy my bag containing a wooden statue and pulled the wooden carved snake from the other bag. So far so good. I was then asked if I had any more stuff, I did and said so lifting my bag up to the table.

I quickly lifted up some clothes as if to say here you go. Not good enough. Soon clothes were flying out into the air. Oops, there was that bead necklace I forgot all about. Pissed off guy digs deeper, damn that knife made of bone decked in beads popped up.

Naked and natural is the norm in Papua New Guinea
Naked and natural is the norm in Papua New Guinea

The penis gourds were next. That is embarrassing, on its own, but a trip to PNG just isn’t the same without buying the dinner table conversation pieces.

The guy was truly pissed now and I was sweating. The end result was I got served a form saying I breached section 70A and regulation 58. That could have been a fine of up to $AUD 60,000 or ten years.

I read the brochure also given to me about the importance of just what can be brought into OZ. I now fully understand. My advice is to ship all those goodies found in the PNG jungles home from there.

Luckily I was allowed to keep many of the treasures once tempers cooled. I apologize to the AQIS.

Further Information:

PNG Tourism

It isn’t an easy job to fit in all that PNG offers but Tourism PNG does a fantastic job showing the fascinating options a traveler to PNG can experience. The site’s pictures alone will titillate. Now is the time to go!

This portion of my trip was planned by Trans Niugini Tours. Experts at travel throughout PNG, the company also owns the unique Karawari Lodge. The job they did was outstanding and they have been in the business for over twenty years.

Papua New Guinea Art: gourds as phallocrypts, cassowary bone knives, and Bila ornaments

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