Meet the vil­lage peo­ple

The best way to ex­plore Pa­pua New Guinea is to head to the re­mote reaches of the Sepik

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - JOHN WRIGHT

IT is 8am and the ceil­ing fans at Karawari Lodge in East Sepik are spin­ning in an­tic­i­pa­tion of the heat and hu­mid­ity of an­other per­fect au­tumn day in the trop­ics.

Lodge man­ager Au­gus Kaiem is star­ing west, smoke from vil­lage fires be­low drift­ing lazily out of a dense rain­for­est canopy that ex­tends in a mo­saic of greens to the far hori­zon. He’s won­der­ing, he tells me, why he has wel­comed just a hand­ful of Aus­tralian guests in the past six months. Groups of Cana­di­ans and Amer­i­cans are reg­u­lar vis­i­tors, ap­par­ently; and the in­ter­na­tional clien­tele in­cludes in­trepid Ja­panese and Euro­peans.

‘‘I don’t know why more Aus­tralians don’t come,’’ he says. ‘‘Per­haps they look at [me­dia cov­er­age of] Port Moresby or Lae and think it is risky ev­ery­where in PNG. [But] it is safe out in the vil­lages. Peo­ple want to see tourists and they re­spect them. When vis­i­tors come here, they sup­port lo­cals by [con­tribut­ing to] a cash in­come.’’

Karawari Lodge, a rus­tic and at­mo­spheric haven dom­i­nated by a tra­di­tional haus tam­baran, or spirit house, sits on a com­mand­ing j ungle ridge above the re­mote Sepik River trib­u­tary from which it takes its name. North of the lodge, the Karawari deep­ens and widens as it flows past the vil­lage of Am­boin to join the Korosameri River and, even­tu­ally, the 1126km­long Sepik River, one of the world’s great wa­ter­ways.

This re­gion of the Lower Sepik, part of the largest tract of in­tact rain­for­est out­side the Ama­zon, is as re­mote as most tourists ever find them­selves in PNG. It is a one­hour jet flight from the cap­i­tal, Port Moresby, to Mt Ha­gen in the Western High­lands, and from there a 40-minute light air­craft char­ter flight through dra­matic moun­tain scenery to a grass strip in the jun­gle, which is a few min­utes’ boat ride from the lodge.

This is not mass tourism ter­ri­tory. On this part of the re­mote Sepik sys­tem, there is Kaiem’s lodge and, be­low, on and along the river, tra­di­tional PNG vil­lage cul­ture. That’s it.

Be­yond the thatched, sagopalm vil­lage houses and the dugout ca­noes that are the more vis­i­ble sym­bols of lo­cal cul­ture, there is lit­tle from the out­side world that in­trudes, apart from the fa­cil­i­ties pro­vided at the lodge.

Which is just as it should be. Sim­ple guest cab­ins are set in a lush gar­den above the river; the com­fort­able lodge is dec­o­rated with ex­otic arte­facts; the staff is at­ten­tive; and the bar, where guests can en­joy sun­sets over the river, is ca­su­ally dec­o­rated with croc­o­dile skulls.

Af­ter many vis­its to PNG, I am still struck by the vast con­trasts that Aus­tralia’s for­mer colony and near­est neigh­bour presents even to the most ca­sual of ob­servers. But it seems Port Moresby has cleaned up its act a lit­tle in re­cent years. Un­for­tu­nately for PNG, me­dia re­ports in Aus­tralia about law­less­ness in the cap­i­tal and other ur­ban ar­eas have pro­duced a fear in the minds of tourists that in­flu­ences their im­pres­sion of the en­tire coun­try.

Only about 18,000 Aus­tralian tourists visit PNG ev­ery year, and com­par­a­tively few are ad­ven­tur­ous enough to look be­yond the Kokoda Track, char­ter-boat dive hol­i­days and pack­aged niche ex­pe­ri­ences.

If you want to learn some­thing about PNG’s rich and end­lessly fas­ci­nat­ing ru­ral-based cul­ture — a tribal so­ci­ety com­pris­ing more than 700 lan­guage groups — you must leave pre­con­cep­tions at home, travel into more re­mote ar­eas and let the peo­ple show you their way of life.

Vil­lages along the Karawari on the Lower Sepik, plus oth­ers that see tourists along the Mid­dle Sepik be­tween Pagwi and Am­bunti (ac­cessed from We­wak), have a wholly tra­di­tional feel. Am­bunti, in par­tic­u­lar, has ramped up its tourism ac­tiv­ity in re­cent years by play­ing on its fas­ci­nat­ing, croc­o­dile-based cul­ture.

On my first af­ter­noon on the Karawari, the lodge’s river punt fer­ries a group of guests to a nearby vil­lage, Kundi­man, where lo­cals are wait­ing to show us how they source food and ma­te­ri­als for clothes and build­ings from the sago tree, which they call the ‘‘life palm’’. Pan­cakes, gluti­nous sago pud­ding and fried river fish are the sta­ples here, sup­ple­mented with vil­lage- grown veg­eta­bles and fruits.

Day two starts with a riot of ex­otic bird­song, the cries of roost­ers from across the river and the ag­i­tated flit­ting of gi­ant drag­on­flies un­der the eaves of the cab­ins.

Af­ter a thick mist on the wa­ter has cleared, the punt takes us up­river through the grow­ing trop­i­cal heat and dense jun­gle into a trib­u­tary, the Ara­fundi, where, at a place called Yi­mas No 2, vil­lagers are ready with tra­di­tional danc­ing, an ar­ray of arte­facts and a gen­uine wel­come.

Karawari Lodge’s boat vis­its lo­cal vil­lages by ro­ta­tion, which seems a sen­si­ble way to spread the tourist dol­lar around these oth­er­wise largely cash­less, sub­sis­tence farm­ing com­mu­ni­ties. The arte­facts you will find in these vil­lages, of­fered mod­estly for sale with­out a hint of hard-sell, are some of the best in Me­lane­sia and of­ten the cheap­est. There are beau­ti­fully crafted bilum bags, snake skele­ton and pig’s tooth neck­laces, and carved, two-di­men­sional wooden wan­leg, or cult hook fig­ures, and other dec­o­ra­tive carv­ings unique to the Sepik.

The vil­lage ex­pe­ri­ence con- tin­ues fur­ther up­stream with an as­ton­ish­ing Heart of Dark­nesslike en­counter at Yi­mas No 1, where at least a dozen dugout ca­noes, pad­dled by vil­lage women in colourful dresses, move to­wards and then around us in a silent greet­ing be­fore the en­tire flotilla goes about its rou­tine daily busi­ness of catch­ing fish. We watch, en­thralled by such sim­ple beauty.

It is hard to put down your cam­era at such times, even though you know these colour­fully staged vil­lage ac­tiv­i­ties are as much about tourism as tradition. But, com­bined with the wild and ex­otic beauty of the Sepik and the warmth and charm of its peo­ple, they rep­re­sent a face of PNG that is far re­moved from its less at­trac­tive but sadly pre­vail­ing im­age.

Ur­ban drift and its at­ten­dant prob­lems in Port Moresby and Lae ob­vi­ously don’t help that im­age, and Mt Ha­gen, the cap­i­tal of the Western High­lands and venue for

a spec­tac­u­lar cul­tural show ev­ery Au­gust, comes as a bit of a shock, too. It is a pro­foundly squalid town, and its ap­pear­ance con­trasts sharply with the stun­ning beauty of its set­ting be­neath high sur­round­ing peaks and the su­perb Wahgi Val­ley.

But even in scruffy Mt Ha­gen there are worth­while travel ex­pe­ri­ences, in­clud­ing that stun­ning an­nual show, which takes place this week­end and at­tracts vis­i­tors from across the world.

Madang, my last port of call on this re­cent trip, has an at­mos­phere that is be­nign in com­par­i­son with Mt Ha­gen and a re­sort­style tourism base that makes it one of PNG’s most pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tions. It is a lovely, trop­i­cal town, colonised by the Ger­mans, and an­other re­minder that in this land of great con­trasts, the good far out­weighs the bad. Gen­er­a­tions of vis­i­tors have been cap­ti­vated by Madang’s beauty and am­bi­ence, and there are nu­mer­ous ac­com­mo­da­tion op­tions, such as the rus­tic, some­what run-down but very friendly coastal re­sort Malolo Plan­ta­tion Lodge, about a 45-minute drive out of town.

A beach­front, beau­ti­ful grounds and great views of vol­canic Karkar Is­land, first vis­ited by English buc­ca­neer-ex­plorer Wil­liam Dampier in 1700, make for a mem­o­rable short stay.

The guide who shows me around town says, ‘‘There is a big dif­fer­ence be­tween Port Moresby and Madang. Port Moresby is city, but we are town.’’ But the way he pro­nounces city sounds like shitty. No one in our group blinks at first, be­cause un­for­tu­nately seems a rea­son­able de­scrip­tion.

PNG’s tourism mar­keters have be­gun at­tach­ing to the coun­try, with a flour­ish of hy­per­bole, ep­i­thets such as a land of ‘‘a mil­lion dif­fer­ent jour­neys’’ and ‘‘land of mys­tery’’.

But it’s no mys­tery why I would re­turn here — there’s al­ways an­other sur­prise in store. John Wright was a guest of the PNG Tourism Pro­mo­tion Author­ity, Air Ni­ug­ini and Trans Ni­ug­ini Tours.

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PIC­TURES: (MAIN AND BE­LOW RIGHT) DAVID KIRK­LAND/KIRK­LAND­PHO­TOS.COM; (BE­LOW LEFT) TRANS NI­UG­INI TOURS

Clock­wise from above, young­sters row a dugout ca­noe on the Sepik River; a vil­lager in tra­di­tional adorn­ments; and the at­mo­spheric Karawari Lodge

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