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Papua New Guinea: Sepik River the Last Frontier

Papua New Guinea’s Sepik River region is truly one of the last travel frontiers. There are parts of PNG that made first contact with Europeans as late as the 1930’s. It’s a wild country of dramatic scenery, active volcanoes and subsistence lifestyles. Spirit houses and tribal ceremonies (sing sing’s) are common place. Beyond the urban centres, people still hunt for their food and cultivate bush gardens. Their contact with the western world even now is minimal. As you might expect with this society there is much to experience and you don’t have to do it from a dug out canoe or under 20 kilograms of backpack.

Papua New Guinea history

PNG was one of the last civilisations to emerge from the stone age culture and into the western spotlight. It’s estimated that humans first arrived around 45,000 years ago and was one of few areas in the world where people independently domesticated plants… and one of the last to be dabbling in cannibalism.

Europeans first noticed the island in the 1500’s although there were no real attempts to colonise or “Christianise” until the 1800’s. Missionaries from Germany and later Australia both made an impact in various regions as the island was divided by several European interests. It was eventually declared by the League of Nations as an Australian territory following World War 1 and after hosting some fierce campaigns during World War 2, PNG eventually gained it’s full independence from Australia in 1975. Today Papua New Guinea is largely dependant economically on mining but tourism in the form of diving, surfing and eco cultural tours are ripe for the picking and offer a unique tourism experience.

Travel Papua New Guinea Sepik River old school

I was born in PNG. In an ex-military hospital on the northern coast. My parents were missionaries, stationed just inland from the mouth of the Ramu River. Cheryl and I were lucky enough to journey back with them some time ago – it was an eye opening experience. We have done a lot of travelling but witnessing people wading in crocodile infested waters with prawn nets in front of a backdrop of stilted huts,  palm thatched roofs and notched log stairways will make you pay attention. It’s “other worldly”… exotic and disturbing, places like this really do still exist.

What we did was extreme, even for us. Cheryl had recently been diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis, the doctors advice was not to go. But it was her first chance to send a firm two finger salute at the affliction that had confined her to a bed for the past six months so she decided to go for it.

My parents were visiting a mission near their old stomping ground some thirty years on from their adventure in the late sixties. It was nestled somewhere close to a tributary that could get us onto the Sepik River. We left Madang via four wheel drive for a days drive up the coast, we then took a motorised canoe up the Ramu River. Eventually we parted ways with my parents and charted a “tinny” for a two day ride across to the Sepik River. It was a bit of slog and that’s coming from the one that doesn’t suffer from a chronic illness. We meet a very warm and good humoured people that know only a hard life, but to summarise by stealing a cliche, it was magical. Only next time we’re doing it in style!… I’ll let the images do the talking.

Travel Papua New Guinea & Sepik River in comfort

Whilst Japan and Australia are screaming comfort and good times Papua New Guinea offers an experience that few can imagine and guess what… it can still serve up a fair amount of comfort and there’s no shortage of good times!

Tour Operators

I’m just going to mention Trans Niugini Tours, who were kind enough to offer some additional images but also because they have been operating in PNG for over 35 years and have an excellent reputation. They manage a selection of award-winning Wilderness Lodges along with a fleet of aircraft, vehicles and boats. Through them you could do a high end Sepik River experience on the “Sepik Spirit” – this is how I would like to explore the Sepik River! The boat has been specifically designed for inland waterways, there are a variety of packages on offer, best to check out their extensive website for yourself.

Like us… go on you know you want to!

When to go to Papua New Guinea

May through to October is the most pleasant, especially for the hotter Sepik River regions. Although generally drier in these areas than the highlands of PNG, the Sepik River will rise dramatically as it receives the run-off from the highlands rainfall which makes its way down to the coast.

Vaccinations

Mosquito born diseases are a concern in PNG, you should put some thought into your clothing and sanitation but obviously seeking medical advice in regards to Malaria, Hepatitis and Typhoid in particular. Check out this site for more information and read on for some clothing and accessory recommendations.

What to take to Papua New Guinea

Although I’d be going the luxury route there’s still some considerations that you may find useful both in terms of personal comfort and preservation of clothing and accessories.

Clothing

  • Hat – wide brimmed or one that has a drop down to protect your neck, you will get burnt even on the most overcast of days (especially the pasty guy in khaki).
  • Clothing – Long sleeves and legs to protect from the sun and insects. Preferably light colours… mozzies love dark colours/objects (and sweet smells apparently).
  • Poncho – Waterproof would be nice 😉 – it’s a quick way to keep the rain off or out.

 

Accessories

We did a lot of video work but I wish we had taken more stills. Remember you will be venturing into the wilderness with few modern resources so you need to think ahead in terms of autonomy and preservation.

  • Batteries – We found err… finding a power source was our main concern for recharging so I’d be taking multiple spares or a larger capacity like a battery grip or you could get fancy and introduce some solar recharge capability into your box of tricks.
  • SD Cards – large capacity and multiples.
  • Waterproof luggage or camera covers.
  • Lens wipes – for when you don’t use your waterproof luggage or covers.

Costs & Logistics

PNG is not cheap. Much of the produce and many commodities are imported. I’ve put some Agoda banners in to give you an idea of accomodation but getting around can be a little more complicated and costly, I’ll go into transport in the next section. There really are huge benefits in dealing with seasoned operators in PNG, they’ll run at around 2-3k for a week long experience per person and would take care of all of this planning for you but if you’re hell bent on going it alone it’s certainly possible and very rewarding. The hotels are your best jumping off point for contacts if you want to organise logistics, rides and guides etc. As a ball park, we chartered a boat down to the Sepik through contacts within the mission that we stayed, it was a 2 day journey and it cost us 300 Kina.

Getting around Papua New Guinea

PNG has a PMV system. Kind of poetic when I write it like that. The “People Moving System” is basically small vans that follow basic routes and times but in reality will go anywhere, anytime according to who’s asking and more importantly who’s paying. There are bigger trucks that will ferry you across country, these are basically a flat bed system with benches and a tarp. The fun part expires after 30 minutes or so.

I wouldn’t hire car. The roads are terrible and if you have an accident you’ll likely find yourself on the wrong end of a tribal “Pay Back” system. The good news is that if you opt for the high end experience you’ll be picked by the hotel and be on a boat heading for the Sepik before you know it.

Where to stay in Papua New Guinea

Madang

Although you’ll likely be flying into Papua New Guinea via Port Moresby I wouldn’t stay there. Fly on to Madang, it’s a pretty town by PNG standards and offers some good accomodation alternatives and can be a great starting point for a Sepik River experience. Below are some options from Agoda.

Mount Hagen

Your other option (and much cooler), is to fly up to the gateway of the highlands, Mount Hagen and join a tour there.

Resources

Try this link for coordinating your trip with some of the big events on PNG’s calendar.

Map of Papua New Guinea & Sepik River


 

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Papua New Guinea Sepik River the Last Frontier