Papua New Guinea has, in many respects, barely advanced from its primitive past, and though that is changing fast, PETER HUGHES discovered a way of life rarely encountered by even the most seasoned of travellers. (part 2)
THE Sepik is on one of the farthest-flung frontiers of travel, never mind tourism.
In my days on the river I met one backpacker. The only other white people I saw were missionaries, nearly all American.
Every village of any size had at least one missionary station, easy to spot among the stilt houses of bamboo and thatch, with their new concrete buildings, septic tanks and satellite dishes.
They have God-given generators and big 4x4s.
Swagup is among the very few villages to have shunned missionaries. In doing so, it has probably denied itself a school and health clinic. At the same time it has earned a fearsome reputation for the uncompromising way it maintains ancient tribal customs.
Even Johannes was uncharacteristically edgy. “If a woman uses the men’s lavatory they will kill her,” he whispered.
George berthed the canoe beneath the village spirit house, a long, dark barn of a building raised 15ft on timber pilings.
The only access was up a notched pole.
Every clan has its own spirit house. They are where the souls of the ancestors live and are immersed in mystery.
They are also strictly men-only.
From the age of about 12 to 15, boys leave their families to live in the houses during their long, and sometimes painful, initiation into manhood. What exactly that entails is virtually impossible for outsiders to discover, but the instruction comes from the village elders, prepares them to fight and hunt and brooks no association with girls. “They teach how to catch crocodiles at night,” Johannes offered.
The Swagup spirit house contained no clues, except the end of the building is supposed to resemble a vulva.
There were a dozen rattan mats spread under mosquito nets and a selection of gonging garamut drums, elaborately carved from wood and the size and shape of kayaks.
A drummer’s individual rhythms are said to be as distinctive as a telephone number.
As we left, we passed a group of men building canoes in a grove of palm trees. No one suggested we should join them.
The next day we went in search of the icon of PNG tourism, the bird of paradise.
We left just before 6am, George, Johannes and I, interlopers in a monochrome world.
It was as still as a print. A bleary moon peered through a skein of shifting cloud, silhouetting the canoe. There was the smell of wood smoke. The air, not quite chilled from yesterday, had that delicious coolness that augurs the heat of the tropical day. The river lay in slabs, shiny as ice.
Our speeding canoe was the only thing moving on earth.
Around us, all was etched in high-resolution clarity. Trees stood up to their knees in floodwater, nothing ruffling their reflections; curds of mist lay motionless across the face of the Hunsteins.
It was a morning to live for and one I never expect to see again.
As it grew lighter the river narrowed and the scene became more intimate. The banks now were no more than 100 yards apart and the trees close enough to catch the sweetness of their scent.
We passed through a threshold of reeds and small tufts of floating grass to enter an inky lake. “Swamp water,” Johannes said. Between July and September it would be dry.
George ran the canoe into a bank of orange mud.
Skidding up a muddy hillside latticed with tree roots, I reached a stand of tall trees.
A backpacker and his guide were scanning the treetops. Only then was I aware of the sound.
Deep woodwind notes resounded through the forest like the boom of someone blowing across the top of a large bottle.
The guides were pointing animatedly to the canopy.
Far above me I could just see, amid the foliage, the tip of a feather duster, a delicate spray of white and yellow plumage. “Lesser bird of paradise,” the stranger’s guide whispered. “The tail.”
“Very special,” Johannes nodded.
Human life on the Sepik is run by canoe. Like corpuscles in a bloodstream, they bear the river’s sustenance. They carry its folk, food and fuel. For the Sepik villagers, canoes are bicycles, cars, buses and trucks.
The largest are 65ft long and can carry 1100 gallons of oil in 25 drums. That’s a cargo of two tons.
Their simplicity and functionality endows them with grace rather than beauty, although as pieces of mega-carpentry, strong and true, they possess colossal integrity.
Few are decorated, neither painted nor named, yet from the moment a tree – cedar or, better still, what the locals call mapo – is cut from the forest, hollowed and launched, it is as much a part of the river as its water.
A canoe has a life of about 10 years.
No canoe is quite the same, as no two trees are identical. Some are little more than logs on which a man can balance with a wooden paddle. Others are family-size, big enough to take a man fishing or his wife to market, to collect firewood and deliver the children to school. Children themselves learn to handle canoes from the age of five.
In the dry season, boats are useless in villages up the Sepik’s smaller tributaries.
From Yerika it takes three or four hours to paddle to Ambunti when the rivers are full.
Between May and October, it is a day’s journey on foot.
Yerika, prosperous from gold, has arrived at weird “no-man’s land” between the ancient logic of the jungle and the inexplicable ways of the 21st century.
In the spirit house men showed me first their mobile phones and then their spears. They use them to hunt wild pigs. They brought out stiff little bows made from palm, and quivers of arrows. Originally whittled from bamboo, the arrowheads today are filed from steel taken from window security grilles.
I chatted to a man called Crosbie. He was in his thirties and had a bushy beard and wide-brimmed hat tilted on the back of his head. I asked what he did. “I am a subsistence farmer,” he replied disarmingly.
His questions to me were revealing. How many languages do you speak? (PNG has around 800) Do you grow coconuts? What religion do you have? And the Queen? Does she give grants?
Next week: Onto Goroka, Madang and Milne Bay