Day #10 New Guinea Adventure

Watam Village/Sepik River, Papua New Guinea

We wake to find ourselves in Broken Water Bay just south of the mouth of the Sepik River. There’s quite a large rolling swell going on and the ship’s stabilisers are working to keep us from swaying too much.
Orion anchored at the mouth of the Sepik River with the island of Bam in the distance

Last night’s sailing from Madang has taken us past some of the most active volcanoes in Papua New Guinea and in the distance we can see the Island of Bam. Bam is located 37km northeast of the mouth and is the conical summit of one of western Papua New Guineas most active volcanoes, with the most recent eruption taking place in 1960.
Map of the region showing our headingGoogle map link

The Sepik region is an immense grassland reserve, surrounded-d by one of the world’s greatest rivers which runs 1,126 kilometres from the mountains to the sea. The history of the Sepik region reflects the influence over the years of the missionaries, traders, labour recruiters and administrators. Parts of the Highlands remain untouched just as they were when first discovered in 1933. In fact some villages have yet to see a white man.

The Sepik River has long been world famous for the quantity and quality of its wood carvings and for the imposing architecture of its Haus Tambarans – Spirit Houses. Spirit Houses were lined with shields decorated with the faces of ancestors, whose likenesses appear also on the masks.
Shield masks on sale in Watam

The first expedition today, after breakfast that is, will be to the village of Watam. So Kelly and I head off to breakfast negotiating the corridors and walking in time with the swell.

We’d only been on the back deck for a few minutes, Kelly had her breakfast and was looking for a table, I was just getting some cereal, when the ship really started swaying from side to side.

In a second it was mayhem, tables and chairs, with people in them starting sliding on the steep deck, plates were falling off tables and smashing on the deck. From where I stood there was a small gas fired hotplate on my left hand side and large bowls of yoghurt and fruit to my right. Trying to keep my balance I kept and eye out on each side to avoid being burnt by a flying hotplate or slimed by the yoghurt!

After a minute or two Captain Frank made the decision to up anchor and move to a more settled spot to reduce the sway but by that time the damage had been done. Later we found out that most of the glasses in the bar had been damaged but fortunately no one onboard had suffered any injuries. We were especially concerned for the guys in the galley as that must have been a dangerous spot to ride this out.

Our first disembarkation starts at 08:30 this morning and everyone will be disembarking at the same time. It will be a wet landing at the village and we need to stay as a group as the welcome will only start when we are all together.

Justin Friend, is an honorary chief of the village, having been crowned so in 2008. There’s an article and pictures on the occasion in the NZ Herald. Justin gave us the low down on what would happen. After we land there is a processing into the village led by a ceremonial dragon, we need to follow behind this procession and wait until the ceremony is finished before moving out into the village itself.

Our fleet of zodiacs head toward the shore and there’s a bit of manoeuvring to get past a line of waves breaking off the shore, in the distance we can see a low lying boat filled with locals.
Welcome boat

As we get closer they are singing and welcoming us to their home. I hope that the boat doesn’t sink as there are lots of people singing and moving about in what is a pretty small boat.
Dancers and singers on the boat

Once ashore we form a group and follow the ceremonial dragon and dancers up into the village.

Head of the Ceremonial Dragon

It’s another hot sunny day and the village looks beautiful. The village is built on a large flat area of ground with a very wide promenade through the centre of it. On each side are the Spirit Houses and other village houses and lining it are ornamental poles made from local plants.
Ornamental Poles

Once again the dancing, singing and costumes of the villagers are spectacular and we follow along as they move further and further into the village. The age of those in the ceremony varies from the young to the old.
Old warrior

No matter the age they are all dressed in magnificent costumes of feathers, shells, and leaves.
Dancer with feather headdress

Even the kids are dressed up.
Young girl taking part in the ceremony

After the ceremony we are free to walk around the village, meet the locals and view the artefacts they have for sale. One side of the entire length of the promenade is full of beautiful carvings, bags, shields, masks and many other bits and pieces layer out on rugs or hanging off rustic fences.
Selling artefacts

We had a great time in the village, we met and talked to a number of villagers, walked around and had a good look at the houses they had built.
Typical village house

Of course we did some shopping and purchased a number of items made in the village including this intricately carved wooden drum.
Carver with our drum

It was a great opportunity to shoot some photos and Kelly had borrowed the 5D and the 50-500mm lens to try it out.
Kelly shooting with the big lens

Now it wasn’t only us shooting pictures of the village and villagers but at one of the men’s houses they were just as interested in taking pictures of us as we were of them.
Here we are on the other side of the lens

Stopping by the stalls gave us the chance to meet and talk to those selling items and they were very friendly and happy that we would visit them. Some of the women had beautiful tattoos on their faces.
Young woman with t-shirt hat

Everyone we met were happy to have their photographs taken, once we’d asked them and loved to pose for shots.


Older women with flower umbrella

When buying some of these artefacts especially the wooden ones you need to be careful that there are no borer holes in the wood. If there are you run the risk that Australian customs may require the object to be fumigated upon your arrival back into Darwin. Fortunately we had Mick Fogg on hand to give our objects his trained inspection.
Mick checking for borers in a sculpture

Just before it was time to head out I saw the Orion chef walking up through the village. The villagers were wrapping hundreds of freshly caught crabs in string pulled from local plants and he was going to buy the majority of them for a BBQ on board Orion this evening.
Freshly caught crabs

All too soon it was time to return to the Orion for lunch and we all headed for the beach saying our farewells to the villagers before boarding the Zodiacs. Once we were all on board Captain Frank up the anchor and relocated Orion in the mouth of the Sepik River. As the Sepik River has no delta the water comes rushing down to the sea and stains the sea brown for up to 50 kilometres. So even though we are anchored, when you look over the side the water is rushing by so fast it feels like you are still moving.

At 13:30 the first of the Sepik river expeditions left, we waited until the second one at 15:00 to give us a bit of down time between the village and the river.
We made sure we arranged it so that we would be in Mike Moore’s zodiac as he’s so knowledgeable about the area especially the bird life.
We head off upstream against the rapid flow of the river. The first thing you notice is the large amount of vegetation flowing down the river. There are huge islands of water hyacinths.
Clumps of hyacinths floating downstream

Its dramatic blue flowers and shiny green leaves make it highly prized as an ornamental plant. However its beauty is deceptive. Wherever it has been introduced, particularly into tropical climates, the plant spreads so rapidly that it is now regarded as the world's worst aquatic weed.
Hyacinth flower plucked from the river

The introduction of water hyacinth into PNG more than thirty years ago, has had drastic results. It now grows prolifically in more than 200 locations throughout the country, clogging many of PNG's most important waterways. Its impact disrupts human activities and threatens entire ecosystems. In some areas such as the Sepik River region, its growth has had a huge impact on the health and activities of the local people. Yet people continue to collect and grow it as an ornamental plant.

Another interesting fact about the Sepik River, due to its age and changing course, is that there are no stones or rocks within 50km of the river’s banks. Villages have ‘sacred stones’ that have been carried in from far away and placed in front of village Spirit Houses.

As we head further up river we see a number of bird species, unfortunately I can’t remember the names of them so if anyone wants to comment I’d appreciate it. I’ll see if I can send them to Mike to identify. I think the first one might be a Harpy Eagle.
Harpy Eagle
Bird 2 in a tree
Same as Bird2 but by the waters edge

Mick also pointed out in the trees you could see these strange bulbous shapes (caudex) hanging off branches. He told us that they are the homes for ants! Apparently these ants climb the trees and form a symbiotic relationship with the tree.

The Ant plants provide habitats for ant colonies high up into the forest canopy, protecting them from the elements and also predators because of the spines. Hollow, smooth-walled tunnels form within the caudex with external entrance holes, providing an above-ground home for ant colonies. Ants likewise provide defence for the plant and prevent tissue damage, swarming to defend their home if disturbed. Ant colonies also provide nutrients to the plants by leaving wastes within the tunnels inside the caudex. Special glands lining the tunnels then absorb nutriment for the plant. This symbiosis allows the plants to effectively gather nutrients (via the ants) from a much larger area than the roots ever could cover.
Caudex on an Ant Tree

At a certain point it was time to turn around and head back down the river toward it’s mouth and back to Orion. To this point the rivers edge we had been navigating near had been completely wild with the jungle growing right to the edge.

As we turned to head home we moved toward the far bank where we could see the huts of villages lining the shore.
Sepik river village

As we motored past there were lots of children running along waving to us, excited as we were to see them they were to see us.
Two kids playing on a log in the river

It was interesting to see that the villages had motorised water transport along with the traditional dugout canoes.
Young girl leaning on the outboard motor

Back on Orion it was time to chill with a cold beer, hop in the tub for a bit of relaxing as the sun set.

Sunset on Sepik River

This evening we had a fantastic “Aussie” BBQ and ate so many of the crabs bought this morning in the village that I could hardly walk. We ended the evening sitting on the back deck with friends listening to Fran sing while Gus played the piano and saxophone. Yes we even got up for a dance or two, or three!

Tony Redhead

93 Maud Street, Unley, SA, 5061, Australia