Dugout Canoe On The Mighty Sepik River

Trip Start Aug 06, 2011
Trip End Oct 06, 2013

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Where I stayed
Airport Lodge Wewak

Flag of Papua New Guinea  , East Sepik,
Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Some scene-setting is required if you are to fully understand the joys of spending a night at the Airport Lodge in Wewak. The front reception area has been long abandoned in much the same way a retreating army gives up it's more vulnerable territory in favour of the more defensible high ground- in this case locked offices in the back. In a prelude of what was to come we were shown to the Margaret room, which presumably was the best of the bunch named, as it was, after the owner herself. All of the rooms bore the names of the owners family which must have been endearing at one time but, given the current dilapidated condition of the rooms, must have been somewhat insulting at present. The rooms surrounded an enclosure that was billed as a 'zoo'. In addition to a handful of caged birds, there was a pond, complete with crocodile that just stank of rot (the same odour we got to enjoy in the room). We actually got to meet Margaret whose people skills were on a par with the long-suffering croc.

It wasn't the worst place we have ever stayed at but it set off enough alarms that I should have taken my cue from DH and not eaten anything. Meal time was always a bit of a surreal experience in PNG and when we asked if they were serving dinner, apparently that was interpreted as us wanting whatever the cook thought we should have. Sure enough, the next morning (and the start of our Sepik River journey) food poisoning was my parting gift from the Airport Lodge. Our new German friend, Uwe, was in even worse shape- certainly not the way we wanted to start what promises to be the toughest part of our adventure.

We never did see any turkeys in PNG so I'm not entirely sure what that meat-on-a-bone dinner special was but fortunately it just seemed to make the long drive to the banks of the Sepik hugely uncomfortable and then it dissipated. Uwe also seemed to recover. Now came the difficult chore of securing fuel for our motorized dugout canoe. PNG is an expensive country to travel through and, somewhat perversely, the price seems to go up as the standards go down- as a result, a river trip in a dugout canoe while staying with locals in straw huts, all the while under constant attack by squadrons of hungry mozzies, was going to be the most costly section of our adventure. That said, a big reason we wanted to spend time on the Sepik was the sense of authenticity that you get from a road less travelled. It's tough to get to, tough to make travel arrangements around, and expensive to support- the result, not many people do it and certainly not the way we were going to do it.

Back to the fuel- a 45 gal drum (much of which we knew we were never going to use) at close to $3/litre was no bargain but it was almost worth it as we got to see the circus act involved in getting a full drum into a canoe. Once it was in, the four of us, Ronny the boatman, Justin our guide as well as assorted supplies all piled into this hollowed out tree trunk. I'm pretty sure Amnesty International is working hard at having extended travel in a rock-hard dugout canoe banned as 'cruel and unusual punishment' and we were all walking a little funny as we stopped for our first village visit.

I'm not sure how many villages we stopped to visit during our days on the Sepik but it was always fun to see a small welcoming committee waiting on the banks. There was a sameness about the villages, even the requisite spirit house, but the warmth of the locals always made for a pleasant experience. Justin wasn't the most knowledgeable guide we've ever had, but the locals always seemed to jump in to explain anything that was happening around us (talented linguists, everyone spoke their local language as well as Pigeon, and most spoke at least some English). These are people that are living life in much the same way as they have for hundreds of years; from our perspective, it would be an extremely difficult life with only the bare minimum of creature comforts that we take for granted. And yet, during our visits, it would be unusual to pass anyone without some sort of greeting, wave, or handshake.

We stayed with one such family while we toured different sections of the Middle Sepik and, during mealtime, learned even more about the culture, diet, and challenges of the various Sepik tribes (there was a surprising concern that many people were starting to shed the teachings of the various Christian groups in the area, and were returning to a constant state of tribal warfare that had predated the missionaries- a microcosm of the world at large??). One of the comments that I will remember most (not said with any malice- just stating a fact), came from the eldest daughter, Louise, when we were talking about the problem of malaria in the area. She said that if the family had money, you could travel to Wewak for treatment, and if the family didn't have money, you died. Talk about worlds apart!

Sleeping in a community area, on palm tree floors, and under a mosquito net wasn't a Four Seasons experience (and neither were the meals of Spam sandwiches we lived on- remember those cans with the key on the bottom- I thought this had been banned years ago for being an unrecognizable food product?) but we got so much more out of this hospitality than we could have hoped for. It was tough to say goodbye but DH was jonesing to go diving so we had to find our way to Madang.
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