Story and photos by Kevin Davidson
Headhunters, warriors, spears, bows and arrows – ready for something different? Then join me on a trip up the river without a paddle (although you can buy one from the locals).
I have been fortunate to work on expedition-style yachts in the past decade and the M/Y Qing, a 145-foot Cheoy Lee private expedition yacht, is about to travel up the Sepik River to the village of Ambunti, home of the Crocodile Festival. This colorful festival is a celebration of the importance of the crocodile among the lives of the people in Papua New Guinea, attracting tribes from the highlands and along the river.
The Sepik River winds its way in a serpentine fashion, starting on the northern coast of Papua New Guinea. A Google map shows the twists and turns this river takes as it heads inland. Places like Cape Franseski and Cape Wabus mark the entrance to the 700-mile waterway.
It’s no small task to navigate the M/Y Qing, with its 5-foot draft, upriver. At times there is no more than 350 feet from one side to the other, and the navigable area is no wider than the boat. Most of this meandering tributary is only a few feet deep with a single trench that guides the current 6 feet deep. Quick moving currents at the hairpin turns in the river keep us on our toes, and the depth in these areas can drop to 40 feet or more as the flow of water carves the trench deeper in these tight areas.
A guide boat with years of local knowledge travels ahead of us to mark the path, taking note of the floating tree branches and leaves, and observing how they drift through the water to guide our way. Flat-bottom houseboats, being easy to manage and navigate in shallow waters, would be the optimal way to travel up and down the river, with the added benefit of providing a place to sleep while in transit.
Along this tributary are myriad villages and some of the most talented wood carvers in the Pacific Islands. Craftsmen can be seen everywhere producing wood carvings and weaving. It’s overwhelming at times, the amount of souvenirs available for purchase.
The yearly tradition of Crocodile Festival involves beautifully dressed sing sing groups, traditional drums, bows and frenetic dancing. Dancers decorate their bodies with crocodile teeth, cassowary feathers and shells that transform them into a fascinating sight seemingly from another world. It’s quite rare to see such elaborate local dress in many of the Pacific Islands, and the people of Papua New Guinea do not disappoint. It may be one of the last places on Earth where locals embrace their culture rather than a cellphone. Although, don’t get me wrong – the people of the Sepik are connected and there are cell towers scattered along the river.
We use caution and travel slowly, taking five days to arrive at Ambunti. The entire venture is truly a sight to behold. At each village there is a slightly different culture or dress style. Spirit houses are a form of a men’s meeting house and become centerpieces of the larger villages, and always we are met with friendly faces and smiling children.
At each stop, we find ourselves invited to sing sings and tours of the villagers’ homes. At one stopover, the girls in our crew are treated to a detailed and ornamented face-painting session, and we purchase a 25-foot canoe (which later leads to the daunting task of getting it through customs in Australia). A small fortune is spent on ornamental pieces, clothing and wood carvings; each visit produces a new variety of garnished decorations, so the answer seems to be just buy everything.
Another goal of our trip is to provide some of the villages with potable water filters, which work in conjunction with buckets or larger plastic drums, making the Sepik River water less hazardous to drink. This project has worked well for people living on a freshwater river with questionable safety factor for drinking water. Since the water is muddy, we are unable to operate our watermaker, which causes our water supplies to dwindle rapidly. I do my best to conserve, and have fun filtering water in a 5-gallon bucket to bathe on the back deck and wash my clothes.
As we start to make our final approach to our destination, some 168 miles upriver, a welcoming party in the form of a large canoe filled with men and women adorned in warrior dress beat their drums to let us know we have arrived in Ambunti. We find space easy enough to anchor in front of the village.
On shore, we are greeted by another extravagantly dressed welcoming party, and I am able to get some excellent images of the locals with the boat in the background. With so many people meeting in one place, combined with a couple of tropical rain storms and no sidewalks, it does not take long to turn the dance field into a mud bath. We are encouraged to wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts to help minimize mosquito bites – and for a little bit of etiquette – and I soon find myself tramping around in the mud and enjoying the view.
Different tribes meet in the surrounding area to practice their skills. Crowded together and giving it their all, they each try to outdo their neighbors with dance, chanting and the resonance of their drums and hypnotic flutes. Many groups all chant at once, and I do my best to capture the images as quickly as I can. I feel extremely overwhelmed, excited and happy to be a part of it all.
Our journey back downstream is uneventful except for a few close calls in the sharp turns of the waterway, making it necessary for the bow thrusters to stay on during the entire trip. Returning to the waters near Madang, we find dive sites rich in marine life and enjoy some time underwater. The reefs of Papua New Guinea are part of what is known as the coral triangle and the global center of marine diversity.
The Crocodile Festival takes place over three days in August each year. Reaching Ambunti by land is not possible. Local airlines will get you as close as Port Moresby, then Wewak to Pagwi, located on the Sepik River. After that, 75 miles in a motorized dugout canoe will get you to Ambunti. I advise those willing to undertake this worthwhile adventure to seek a skilled travel agent.
Kevin Davidson is a photographer who specializes in underwater images and works in the yachting industry. He had nearly a decade of experience on M/Y Bluestar previous to a year and a half on M/Y Qing. Comments are welcome below.