Cultural Heartland and River of Art
Long a lure for anthropologists, naturalists, and adventure seekers, the mysterious Sepik River inspires the same reverence to Papua New Guineans as the Congo does to Africans and the Amazon to South Americans. Today an expedition up the river is an exploration of one of the world’s last unspoiled reservoirs of nature, culture, art – and even humanity itself.
Some native peoples here are only just emerging from complete isolation, and their riverside villages are so unique in their customs and artistic traditions that many collectors consider the Sepik Basin one of the world’s best sources of primitive art. Unlike Papua New Guinea’s Highland tribes, who express themselves in face and body painting, the proud Sepik people’s contact with the spirit world is through their creative wood carving – their sacred tambaran spirit houses, embellished with intricately carved wooden posts and gables, are living museums of their tribal past.
River trips are available on the expeditionary, nine-cabin MV Sepik Spirit, launched in 1989 as the first vessel bringing visitors to much of the Middle Sepik. For a more grounded experience of the area, the handsomely rustic Karawari Lodge is located on the jungle-fringed Karawari River (a tributary of the Sepik and the only way to reach the lodge), in the middle of Arambak country, one of the most remote and unspoiled parts of Papua New Guinea.
Dugout canoe is still the favored means of transportation (shades of the European adventurers who first explored this area little more than 100 years ago), but the lodge’s canopied motor launch also makes forays to nearby villages, where you can see firsthand the collision of ancient and modern cultures. A young bare-breasted woman recently bought as a bride for five pigs may be wearing a digital wristwatch.
The birdwatching alone makes a late-afternoon boat ride unforgettable: cormorants, cockatoos, hornbills, kingfishers, and parrots are regularly sighted on the otherwise quiet waterways. Breakfast on the open veranda and listen as the Sepik Basin comes alive.