Papua New Guinea’s Sepik River Region

Sepik River Region

Papua New Guinea’s (PNG’s) Sepik river basin has been popular with Europeans since the mid-19th century when hunters discovered a large population of Birds of Paradise, whose feathers were all the rage for aristocratic European women’s hats. German explorers began exploring the river by steamboat in 1886, which brought traders, plantation labor recruiters and missionaries into the inland. The area remained under German control until WW II when the Japanese controlled the area.

The muddy river seemly flows in endless circles and spawns tributaries that end in swamps. In the dry season, grasslands, it brought traders who introduced metal tools and textiles, sugar cane plantation owners who both employed and exploited the natives, and missionaries who converted them to Christianity. These people also brought guns that killed some and intimidated virtually all.

To get here, our eight-person chartered plane climbed above the steep peaks and deep valleys of the highlands, over a huge, open pit gold mining operation whose tailings and chemicals have turned a portion of the river pink. Then after passing the cloudbank trapped by the mountains and the foothills, the landscape flattened. The river that originated in the high peaks widened and turned muddy brown and the forests changed into tropical rainforest. Indeed, this is the second largest tropical rainforest in the world, after Amazonia.

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We landed at a remote airstrip, with only a small crowd cheering the landing. From there, a cruise down the Karawari River, a tributary of the Sepik) on a flat-bottomed speed boat (which periodically slowed to a crawl as we approached and passed the river’s numerous dugout canoes. (These remain the overwhelming primary mode of transport, with motor boats being still quite rare.)

The river banks, as determined by the ever-changing curve of the river, varied. On one side, the continually flowing water eroded the banks, resulting in steep sides whose trees had fallen or were in the process of doing so, many ending up penetrating or just below the surface of a river. On the other side, where the fertile soil is being deposited, the banks are shallow mud. While they are occasionally bare, and sometimes used as swimming beaches, most have been populated by large expanses of wild sugar cane (known as pitpit) whose massive tangle of roots push closer and closer to the water and trap more and more sediment.


While the river itself is populated by a combination of endemic (including turtles, eels, shrimp and catfish and moonfish and introduced seafood (tilapia, piranha, paku, silver carp, etc.), the forest canopy and the skies are home to many species of hunting birds, especially cormorants, kites, egrets and most impressively, white-bely sea eagles. The forests themselves are populated by more than 20,000 species of fauna, 1,000s of species of insects, including snakes, foot-long centipedes and moths that are 12-inches in diameter. And that is not to mention 13 Bird of Paradise species.

Sepik River Cultural Tours

Within about an hour, we reached our floating hotel, the Sepik Spirit.


After a fast lunch and orientation, we reboarded the speedboat for the type of staged, Disney-style, edu-tainment cultural tours that we experienced in the Hill Country that were based on the river culture. As in the Hill Country, village visits and even the pre-packaged entertainment provided lessons about the cultures of these very different peoples. Three differences took center stage:

  • First, while highlands place the greatest value on land, women and pigs, in that order, river people have very different priorities. Women are still critical (even more so here since they fish, as well as have children, mind the home and tend vegetables). However, land is much less valuable. While they do grow vegetables and fruit (such as sweet potatoes, yams, squash, beans, salad greens and watermelon), the people here rely overwhelmingly on fish. And since they don’t require pigs to dig into hard soil (the soil is very soft), pigs are valued only as food and are much less valuable (about 300-500 vs 3,000-5,000 kina). Water and fish, versus land and pigs, are kings in this region;
  • Second, unlike in the Highlands, which is typically segregated, with men and women in separate villages, lowland, Sepik families (including men’s multiple wives and children) tend to live in the same houses.
  • Third, while individuals, clans and tribes have disputes, they very seldom erupt into long-standing feuds, fights and killings. Virtually all are settled peacefully via negotiation. We, in fact, got an excellent (staged, but very informative) demonstration of one such process around the Mindimbit tribe’s “Orator Chair”.

Subsistence on the River: Yokuin Style

Our first visit was with the Yokuin tribe. We began by passing a row of dugouts on which natives demonstrated the various stages of the regions fishing culture. Native ladies (fishing is women’s work) fishing from their canoes (each pulling an already dead or dying fish out of the water as we passed—remember, this is all staged for us and the fish were caught earlier that morning, which is when the real fishing is done) and on subsequent canoes, even scaling and cooking fish in banana leaves (tasks that are typically done on land).


We approached a neighboring village of the same clan via a walk through the forest, where our guide identified various plants and trees and explained how different parts of them are used in the natives’ subsistence lifestyle.

We passed a large, loosely-packed dirt mound that was (or at least supposedly was) created by a pack of megaphone birds who laid and covered their eggs, allowing them to incubate and hatch in the heat of the mound. A bunch of village boys were digging in the mound looking for (and miraculously discovering and proudly displaying) an odd, elongated oblong egg. A nearby pen held a handful of baby crocodiles which, when grown, the village would use for meat and sell the skin. A portion of the forest, meanwhile, had been cleared and burned in preparation for planting sago palms, the primary of the region’s crop from which the tribe uses leaves for skirts, trunks for canoes, fibers to bind wood into buildings and fruit to make a range of edible products.


In the village the women were pounding sago fruit into flour (from which they make pancakes) and making a pudding (the core ingredient in curries and other dishes). They also smoke the fish that the village does not immediately eat. Given that there is no refrigeration or ice, and little salt, smoking is one of the few ways they can preserve the fish long enough to get it to market and sell them for the cash they need to buy those goods they cannot themselves produce.


Homemade hunting weapons including spears for crocodiles, pigs and cassowary were standing next to a hut and shrimp traps were in the river. And yes, this village had a solar panel to power lanterns and the village cell phone.


Although the women did the fishing, food preparation and the making of crafts such as string bags and shell necklaces, men had their own tasks. These include making tools, hunting, felling trees, building and wood carving. It would be great to say that children’s job was getting an education so they could escape this village-based life of subsistence fishing, hunting and farming. This, however, is not the case. Given that the closest school is about an hour motorboat ride away, and that motorboats are rare, only about five percent of children even have the opportunity to go to school. Most, therefore, are relegate to lives in their own or nearby villages, living the same lives as their parents and their grandparents.

As is the case with the Hulis, most marriages are still arranged and most are still within the clan, the village or among neighboring villages. And men, depending on their wealth, may have two or three wives. Unlike the Hulis, however, men, their wives and their children often occupy the same house. Also unlike the Hulis, this region sees very few fights among clans, villages or the roughly 15 regional tribes. Disputes are more likely to be resolved amicably, or at least by the courts.

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