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“Wonderful experience! (everything you need to know below)”
Review of Sepik River

Sepik River
Attraction details
Reviewed 29 December 2015

My wife and I went to the Sepik River last spring (2015). It has been one of the best trips we have done so far. The Sepik River is a remote part of Papua New Guinea where you can observe nature and have cultural encounters hardly found elsewhere. Even considering the huge amount of money it cost to visit the Sepik River (see below…), we were really happy to be there for 5 days!

This post is quite long, because we had read a lot before our trip to understand how to visit the Sepik River, and even with that, we had struggled to find some information. We hope this post will help and convince other people to visit this beautiful place! It is a charming and untouched place that deserves to be discovered off the beaten tracks.

Regardless of the way you choose to visit the Sepik, do not expect to have a busy schedule with plenty of things to see each day. The purpose of a trip to the Sepik is to observe the nature, meet people in the villages, see local art and discover the particular culture of this part of Papua New Guinea. But just being in this area and see their way of life worth definitely the trip.

Even for those who have visited developing countries, the Sepik River will be probably the remoteness place you would have visited. There is no road between the villages (only the river), no electricity (except for few houses that start a generator for few hours in the evening) and the housing condition are at least basic. But you don’t need to be adventurous to be delighted by this place.

During our trip, we: 
—visited spirit houses: houses were men meet. They show you (and sell) carved woods that they do. Prices are quite affordable.
—discussed with locals about their village and their way of life.
—walked into the forest to see paradise birds (we haven’t be lucky though…)
—saw a theatrical representation for the construction of a spirit house.
—and even went to see crocodiles!
(all of that being more amazing to experience than we can describe it here!)

We went there in March which is the end of the wet season. There is an upside and the downside of visiting the Sepik during the wet season. The downside is that there is less cultural event at that time. We were lucky to see the inauguration of a spirit house, but that’s it. I think there are probably more events later in the year. The upside is that, if you take a private guide, it can be less expensive than going there during the dry season. The reason is simple: the level of water is a lot higher and there is more shortcuts to reach the villages. Our guide told us that it would have been twice the amount of fuel for the canoe if we would have been there during the dry season (see below for the cost of fuel).

And weirdly there is not really more rain in the wet season. During the 5 days, we had no rain at all, but it was always cloudy.

There are basically 3 ways to visit the Sepik: an organized tour, a private guide or by your own. We choose to have a private guide, which happened to be a good choice. We cannot comment the organized tours, but with the quality we had with a private guide, it definitely didn’t worth paying more to have an organized tour. (And we don’t like that much being in a big group…)

For those who want to visit the Sepik on your own, just be aware that it’s a very remote place. There is no cash machine, no other tourists, markets are rare and public transportation intermittent. If you are courageous, able to easily meet people (you cannot enter in some villages if you are not invited by someone) and ready to stay stuck in villages for few days, that might be for you. If not, choose one of the two other options. And with the difficulty of travelling from one village to another, if you are on your own, you would need at least two weeks to be sure to see few things (the public canoes only run few times a week). We had only 5 days, so we choose a private guide. Of course, it is more expensive, but it is nice to have someone who can introduce you to people and knows where to go. There is absolutely no tourist infrastructure on the Sepik River (no hotel or restaurant), so alone, you would need to rely on resourcefulness.

Hiring a private guide happened to be a really good choice. We contact two of them by text message after landing in PNG. We found their name on Internet forums… We ask them for the price and what they planned to visit. We finally choose one of the two after reading better comments on him on the Internet.

When looking for a guide, do not expect them to be good sellers. Papua New Guineans are generally shy of selling their beautiful country. Even with the large amount of money they charge you, with the crazy price of everything on the river, they do not make a lot of money with you. And they all charge around the same price (but make sure to ask what is included).

We choose to hire Johannes Tevens, a guide from Ambuti. We had read good comments about him and we have not been disappointed. He his very welcoming and know a lot of people around the river. He has been doing tours for the past 15 or 20 years. He understands the difference of lifestyles between Papuan New Guinean and tourists (e.g.: sleeping under a mosquito net at night, drinking bottled water, etc. My wife is allergic to sea food, and even though they probably never heard about that, Johannes was very understanding about it). His level of English was sufficient. He could have been more talkative, but that is probably a characteristic of all Papuan New Guinean. He charged us exactly the amount we agreed to by text message.

Johannes organized everything: he found a canoe, hired a driver for the canoe, planned the trip, etc. He was helped by one of his friends, Nelson, so they were three of us with us.

You can reach Johannes at this number: 7363 7760 (add 675 before if you are calling outside Papua New Guinea).

We landed in Wewak and stayed a night there to buy the things necessary for our trip. The day after, we took a Public Motor Vehicle (PMV — the public transportation in PNG) to Maprik and then another PMV from Maprik to Pagwi. Do not leave too late from Wewak, because there is less PMV in the afternoon, and you need to find a transfer in Maprik. We choose that way instead of taking the direct PMV from Wewak to Pagwi which runs only by night… Even if we never felt unsafe in PNG, during all our trip we tried not to be outside at night (which afterwards was maybe too fearful, but we had read conflicting advice about PNG).

Given the few information we had about the Sepik, we didn’t have any expectation about where to go or what to see. And that was fine. As only advice, we would strongly suggest you to follow your guide suggestions. It is always better to go to places and villages he knows so you are going to be more welcome.

There was our itinerary:
—Day 0: Arrived in Pagwi from Wewak. We quickly meet Johannes (our guide) in the evening.
—Day 1: Departure from Pagwi. Bought food. Visited Palembei and Kaganaman and their spirit houses. Slept at Palembei.
—Day 2: Bush market. Saw Aibum village and slept at Wonbum on the Chambri lakes.
—Day 3: Lots of canoeing to reach Wagu for the night. Great and really welcoming village. Crocodile hunting at night.
—Day 4: “Hunt” to find paradise birds near Wagu. Visited Tomgagamb and saw a theatrical representation at Mariwai. Slept at Ambuti.
—Day 5: Back to Pagwi early enough to take a PMV to Wewak. 

We had only 5 days to spend at the Sepik. And that was the most we could afford, but after all, that was perfect for us. It was enough to feel immersed and to see the Middle and the Upper Sepik. Of course, if you want to go further on the Upper Sepik, you would need few extra days. Remember that we went there during the wet season so all the transports in canoes were easier (see “When to visit” above). 

That’s the rub of visiting the Sepik River… It is so expensive! We were unsure of going there when we planned our trip in PNG because of the price. And we thought the guides were trying to rip us off. But on our first day there, we quickly understood that it was not a scam. Everything is so expensive! It is especially stunning when you think that people need to pay these prices. Moving from one village to another takes expensive fuel, every process food needs to be carried from Wewak and then by the river, etc. So there is not really a way to avoid that annoying part. Just save up until you’re able to go! It’s worth it!

The usual price to visit the Sepik on a private guide is around 600 kina per person per day. So it cost us around 6,000–6,200 kina for our trip of 5 days and 4 nights (which at that time was for us around 3,100 Canadian dollars (or 2,400 US$)). It can be a little less expensive if you are more than two people (probably around 500 kina per person per day for a group of 4).

Johannes gave us a breakdown of the costs. We don’t remember exactly, but it was around 3,500 kina for him, the captain and the canoe. The fuel was around 900 (which would be the double for a trip during the dry season). The balance was the food, the accommodation and the entrance to the spirit houses and other activities (paid during the trip).

We gave at the end 100 kina to our guide and his helper. We don’t think it was expected.

Be aware that you are kind of responsible for all the expenses of all the crew for the whole trip. It doesn’t really mean more than what is listed above, but we had to pay for some extra food during the trip. We also offered Johannes to pay for his way back from Pagwi, etc. In total, it didn’t involve more than 50 to 100 extra kina.

And remember: there is no cash machine on the Sepik! You will need to bring all the money before leaving Wewak! So bring some extra money in case! (by the way, we never felt unsafe on the Sepik, even with that large amount of money with us for all the trip…)

We were a bit uncomfortable when we planned the trip by text messages with Johannes, when he asked us to bring the food from Wewak for all the trip for everyone; he told us he would cook… Not knowing what and how much to bring, we asked him to buy the food with him at Pagwi, instead of ourselves at Wewak. It was a good and a bad decision at the same time. Good because we bought with him what he was able to cook. He knew more than us what was possible to cook and what him, his helper and the driver liked. The bad side was that it was a lot more expensive than at Wewak and they were less choice. The two markets at Pagwi are tiny (really tiny, just little counters…) and there are not that many things… We were scared when we saw that they had no more bottles of water (Johannes finally managed to find some elsewhere).

In short: buy things you absolutely need at Wewak and try to buy the more you can, you will save money. As part of the 6,200 kina for the trip, it probably cost us around 350 to 500 kina for all the food.

There’s an approximate list of what we bought at the tiny market at Pagwi before leaving for the trip. Do not expect to find other stores during your trip on the river. If you want to buy things at Wewak, it can help you to figure out what people cook and eat for a 5-day trip with 2 tourists and 3 staff:
—20 small pack of noodles 
—5 kg of rice
—5 to 10 cans of meat (corned beef, spam, tuna, etc.)
—3 bread loafs
—lots of crackers
—8 litres of water (just for us; the three others drank rain water)
—12 eggs
—chocolate cookies (the guys loved them)

(as you see, fruits and vegetables were not really an option at this market. We found some fruits in a bush market the second day)

A thing we found weird was their relation with us about food. After one evening, we understood that one of the three was hungry even if we had plenty of food. We probably forgot to offer him, thinking he would take what he wanted.

Remember that the life condition is not luxurious. You are not going to stay in five-star hotels. Even not a one-star… There’s only pit toilets, rustic houses made with bush materials (but it’s impressive what they are able to do!), no electricity except few hours in the evening, etc. And during the wet season, all the lands are marshy… We brought all the basic things you would need to visit a developing country. There are few things that you might not want to forget:
—During the wet season, everything is… wet! Think of what to wear in your feet when you disembark from the canoe and walk on wet soil (or you can do it Papuan style: bare feet for all the trip!)
—Money (there is no cash machine on the Sepik. And try to bring small notes if you want to buy things in some villages. We went in a bush market where a two-kina was a big note…)
—We brought our mosquito net. It was optional. They had some in all the houses we went to, but few of them were not in perfect condition.
—Antimalarial medication. It is endemic on the river.
—Insect repellent
—Toilet paper
—Flashlight or headlight (when you are few at kilometres of electricity, it can be dark at night…)
—Pictures of your country (always good to start a discussion during the evening. We didn’t bring some, but just showing them pictures of their country in our book guide was nice)

Just send us a message! It will be a pleasure to convince you to go to the Sepik River! Even if it takes a bit of organization, it was definitely worth the trip. Learning about a completely different lifestyle and discover the unique relationship Papuan New Guinean have with this river was wonderful! Do not hesitate to go!

28  Thank vinetlo
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
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Reviewed 22 December 2015

Dear Travelers,

Please be informed that a guide from Papua New Guinea named Caspar Dama is a Scammer!

He organized a tour for our family in August 2015.

He always lied to us, behaved absolutely unprofessionally, took a lot of money but gave the least possible service, often refused to give accommodation, services and food already paid for. Thus we, having paid to him huge money, lived in the cheapest lodges, ate very poor food (often paying for it ourselves) and missed a lot of activities mentioned in our program.

More to that, he made no reservation and no payment for the last several days of our stay. No one met us at the airport, we had to go by taxi to the hotel but no one was waiting for us there, so we had to find another hotel and had to pay a lot of money additionally for it and for food for these days.

Please keep that in mind and think twice before arranging your tour with such a "guide".

A. Ilinskiy
Ph. D (Economics)

Prague, Czech Republic

10  Thank A_Ilinski
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
Reviewed 30 September 2015

I didn' go on a tour for this, so if this page is for a tour company this has nothing o do with them.

I love adventure and did whirlwind world trip to many amazing countries.. PNG had been at the very top of my list since I was a child.

On on part of my adventure there I hired a dug out canoe and ventured up the Sepik River (not as far as I would have like as I quickly realized that I was not carrying enough cash to cover all of my expenses as it is quite costly and obviously the further ou you go the less access you have to ATMS/banks).

I really loved i out there, the 3 stilt villages of Kumbarumba 1,2 and 3 and the lovely hospitable, smiley faces of the families that inhabited the 3 villages was just amazing. Such a cool experience to see how people are able to live out here like that!

Be really careful travelling solo (especially) as there are many people who will target travellers for ifferent reasons (I had a few close calls of different descripions, but normally can handle myself) in one way or another in PNG which can sometimes be a little scary, but for the most part the people are overly friendly and treat you as they would their little sister.

The PMV drivers out there took me under their wing and let me sit in the front wih them and taught me many thiungs, told me many stories and were just lovely, and I really appreciate it.

I travelled a lot around png by PMV and had only good experiences (although the roads that they DO have are pretty terrible!).

Oh, and beware the street food on the way there, I have never been so ill in my life and thought I had caught Malaria for another two weeks after leaving the country in Hong Kong! Scary!

4  Thank AquariumRescueUnit
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
Reviewed 29 August 2015

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).

21  Thank TravelingDenverMike
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
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Reviewed 13 August 2015 via mobile

Recently, I was traveling around Papua New Guinea for three weeks and had Sepik river on the agenda. As a single female traveller, I was looking for a guide who could organize my transport from Wewak to Sepik and around the Sepik River. I checked with a few guides including Mathew Alois who is recommeded by Lonely Planet. The price for a single person was consistantly high by all of them. I ended up using a guy called Mathew Kaku, who is the head of the village at Wagu and owner of the guesthouse there. Unfortunately, after I got there and asked around, I realized that the price I paid was ridiculously high and almost double what it could be (i paid 4500 kina for three days two of which was spent on transportation!!!) and didn't get to see any of the places that I was promissed to. If you want to see Wagu lake and upper Sepik, which I highly recommend, stay away from using Mathew Kaku as a guide but rather organize your own trip (and to the ladies out there: don't worry about public boats they are just as secure as private ones and your can hire a private boat on the spot if you prefer a private boat). If you decide to do it all on private transportation, the cost of a private car from Wewak to Pagwi is around 600 kina and private boat from Pagwi to Wagu around the same price. So a private transfer from Wewak to Wagu, round trip should not be more than 2400 kina while I paid 4500 Kina!!! Ouch!!!!

10  Thank ParisMTameh
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.

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