Meet the village people
The best way to explore Papua New Guinea is to head to the remote reaches of the Sepik
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.
Clockwise from above, youngsters row a dugout canoe on the Sepik River; a villager in traditional adornments; and the atmospheric Karawari Lodge