We initially discovered this tour operator through previous reviews on Trip Advisor. My wife and I just returned from a trip up the Sepik River with this company, followed by a brief hiatus at the Wewak Boutique Hotel; and then on to Mt. Hagen for the big Cultural Show/Sing-Sing. The latter was handled by Paiya Tours, and I wrote a separate review on that experience. I would say, however, that my time on the Sepik River was my favorite part of the trip - even though it was an afterthought arranged around the big event in Mt. Hagen. My wife and I called this trip “arduous and awesome.”
The agency is owned by a Brit, Sue Baker and a native of a Sepik River Village, Chris Karis. We almost cancelled because we had heard so much about the dangers of robbery and inter-tribal violence. I’m glad we didn’t and I would credit Sue’s many emails back and forth with us so I felt fully informed about what we were getting into. Actually, we found the people, particularly on the River, to be very friendly - constantly waving to us, shaking our hands and greeting us wherever we went.
Another thing Sue did well is prepare us for what to expect in terms of staying in local villages, and eating their diet. Paiya Tours, on the other hand, didn’t sufficiently lower our expectations about accommodations. This trip is not for everyone, as you average four hours a day, sometimes longer, in a dugout canoe (bring a folding chair from REI for back support, and an umbrella for shade).
We both lost 6-8 pounds on this trip with a steady diet of sago, fresh pineapple, papaya, bananas, soda crackers and canned meat. We slept in villages where we had a pad and a mosquito net, sometimes in a large room with everyone else; sometimes in separate rooms with thin woven palm walls. There was no plumbing, no electricity, no Internet, and although generators were used for a few hours a fellow traveler fried his battery charger using it. We washed in the River, and were constantly soaked through our clothes with the heat and humidity. It’s harder for women with an outhouse, sometimes with a seat, sometimes with a slit trench; whereas for men it’s culturally okay to pee anywhere.
So here is the awesome part: we were in a village when the Chief (or “Big Man”) returned from a hunt with seven crocodiles. The whole clan clambered to the riverbank, and then laid out palm leaves, and proceeded to skin and dress the crocs to prepare for a feast. It was quite an experience. Because we’d given the chief coffee and sugar, and sandpaper for his mask making (as Sue’s suggestion); he gave us a crocodile tail which our cook prepared for us over a small fire inside the hut where we stayed that night. It was the best meal of our time on the river. The Chief also showed us a carved board that once held skulls, and told us a story about how his grandfather tried to defend the village and killed four men from a neighboring clan. He and six other men were arrested, and convicted of murder. They spent seven years at hard labor, and then were publicly hanged. Inter-tribal warfare, and paybacks was a part of the culture until then; and the hangings were an effort to stop these practices. So we got a fascinating first-hand look at their cultural history.
We also visited several spirit houses and were told about the initiation of boys and young men which involved ritual scarification on their chest and back to simulate crocodile skin. To see photos of this go to my blog at: http://papuanewguinea2015.blogspot.com. Then to prepare them to be fully men they are instructed in tribal lore, as well as how to build a canoe and a house. Men could have more than one wife, if they could afford the bride price, and build her a house separate from the first wife. Men in one spirit house drummed for us, and at another we attended a small sing-sing organized by Chris in his village. It was a highlight, particularly men dressed in elaborate masks as forest spirits (see video on my blog).
We also attended the Crocodile Festival - which I ended up enjoying even more that the big Mt. Hagen Sing-Sing. It is much smaller, attended by only a few dozen tourists. I was able to photograph at will, and was sometimes ushered through the crowd of locals so I could get a better vantage point to film the action (see my blog).
So if you can put up with the primitive immersion it is a rich cultural experience. And going with a tour group that didn’t put you in villages would shield you from the people to a greater extent. Yet my wife and I being a group of two, we were accompanied by our own guide, a boat driver, a cook and a bowman. There were times we were doubled up with other guests, but Sue made an effort to give us a more personal experience with the locals by not having us be part of a large group of tourists.
We also got personalized attention when we decided to ship our souvenirs from the River villages back to the States. We were wrongly advised that Australian customs would be particularly hard on us, so we shipped a number of “artifacts” home. Chris was particularly helpful in this endeavor, taking us around to stores to find tape, & wrapping paper; and helping us get a certificate verifying the items weren’t contaminated. The package arrived at our house the day before we did with no breakage. We subsequently bought other things as well and had no problem with customs either in Australia (where we stayed overnight), or the United States. Just don’t try to bring back animal products (feathers, skins, etc.) or seeds.
But to be prepared for the “arduous part,” I would recommend you bring the following:
1. Fold-up chair for back support in the dugout.
2. Toilet paper (yours will be the only you see).
3. A small air mattress (their mattresses are pretty hard).
4. Mosquito repellant (Consumer Reports says the best contains Picaridin).
5. Sun block, and an umbrella for shade.
6. Small plastic animals from a party store as gifts for kids.
7. Gifts for adults: sandpaper for mask makers, Tylenol, coffee, sugar & cheap headlamps (and bring a headlamp for yourself - especially if you plan to go to the outhouse after dark, or look in your suitcase for something).
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