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!)
WHEN TO VISIT
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.
HOW TO VISIT
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.
HOW LONG TO GO
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)
—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.
WHAT TO BRING
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.
—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!
Own or manage this property? Claim your listing for free to respond to reviews, update your profile and much more.