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This article was published 20/8/2010 (3999 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
PAPUA NEW GUINEA -- Papua New Guinea, a wild and mysterious land off the north coast of Australia, is known in the civilized world as the last frontier. With its islands, coral reefs and atiolls, it ranks among the world's best diving destinations. Its wild interior is equally fascinating.
Not too long ago, headhunters roamed the island and, until recently, there were tribes living in the remote Highlands who had never seen their neighbours and oft times didn't even know they existed. A jungle-clad chain of mountains like the jagged appendage on the back of a mythical dragon stretches almost the entire length of its land mass. Sorcerers, spirits, strange rituals and dark secrets are all part of its culture.
Disembarking from a bush plane in the village of Timbunke, we six travellers were ready for a journey that would take us to places few westerners have ever seen.
Our exploration was to be the central part of the Sepik River watercourse that twists and winds for about 1,100 kilometres to the Bismarck Sea.
The Sepik Spirit -- a flat-bottomed riverboat -- was to be our nighttime stopover. Each morning we boarded a tagalong jet boat to explore villages, meet the people and stock up on Sepik art: masks, hand drums, shell jewelry, carved spirit figures and feather-trimmed headdresses.
Nestled among other less expensive trinkets laid out on a banana tree leaf on the river's edge that morning was a beautiful opalescent clam shell. Eight cuts on its side showed that it had been used eight times in the past by lovelorn males as bride price. Papuan brides don't come cheap and this shell was a precious find. Recognizing its value, it was quickly snapped up by an Italian collector.
Speeding away from the market, engine full throttle, hair flying in the wind and a frothy spray jetting skywards on each side of the boat was a deliciously cool way to travel.
The jet boat slowed to a crawl as it approached villages or neared a dugout paddled by a Papuan.
Naked boys scrambled into tree canopies and dive-bombed us as we passed. A thumbs-up and our cheers precipitated an avalanche of rocketing bodies.
Along the river, women wearing traditional dress fished from dugouts, luring their prey with no more than string and a baited hook. Smoke spiralled upwards from small fires in the bows of their rough-hewn dugouts. Pancakes made from the starch of a palm tree simmered in frying pans. Piranhas (not the voracious variety) and prawns captured in wicker fish traps were wrapped in banana leaves and steamed.
Fishing on the Sepik, we discovered, is a more civilized affair than fishing in the ocean.
David Kirkland, an Australian photographer and one of our companions on the boat, had first-hand experience of that dangerous undertaking when he joined a novice shark caller in a flimsy outrigger canoe on a photographic expedition. In deep waters, the Papuan lowered a coconut shell and bamboo rattle into the water to attract sharks. Upon success, he panicked and tipped the canoe, unseating Kirkland, who landed four-square on top of a looming monster.
"I shot off that bloody shark like an Exocet," said Kirkland. "My camera equipment... sank to the bottom."
Back in stilt villages along the river, we met people whose lives had changed little from their ancestors thousands of years ago.
Surprisingly, in a land where 800 different languages could cause utter chaos, the difficulties of communication have been solved by an English derived universal language called pidgin (Tok Pisin).
For example: the bunch of grass or leaves worn to cover the buttocks of the male Papuan is called arse grass.
A cinema on the island is a piksa haus. Something a little more obscure is the pidgin word for helicopter -- a mixmaster biltong Jesus.
Coconut and sago palms, wild hibiscus bushes, strangler figs, breadfruit trees and gigantic rain trees with lianas dangling from their branches, surround the villages.
Sepik Blue orchids, discovered by Captain Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, trail from overhanging branches.
Villagers cultivate gardens growing taro, bananas and papayas while their children splash happily in the river, unaware of the ubiquitous cellphone, MP3s and Internet games.
In the Women's House (men and women live separately along the Sepik) young girls, their mothers and grandmothers -- bare-breasted but bejewelled with necklaces of shells and pig tusks and wearing grass skirts -- danced for us.
In the Men's House we listened enthralled to the beat of a voluminous drum and the haunting primeval music of flutes drifting in the sultry air.
As evening approached and thunder rumbled, a man paddled towards us with a yellow-crested cockatoo and a pigeon balancing on the edge of his dugout.
Lightning and a thunderous boom sent the cockatoo skittering along the edge of the dugout. Hopping onto its owner's lap, the bird burrowed under his arm; the pigeon dropped like a stone into the bottom of the dugout.
Later, in conversation with the villager -- cockatoo and pigeon sitting on his shoulder -- he told me proudly, "You see this beautiful little cockatoo, he talk. He call me Papa."
At night, the Sepik Spirit was moored against a riverbank where snowy egrets nested in tall feathery grass and glow worms twinkled in the darkness.
We dozed to the sound of crickets and cicadas trilling their appreciation of unabated heat and humidity.
Nearby, the lusty croak of bullfrogs acted as an enticement to interested female frogs.
Along the river we were to see many Sepik people who had undergone scarification during an initiation rite.
The tribe believes a prehistoric crocodile is their distant ancestor. Their ritualistic skin cutting leaves a pattern similar to that of a crocodile's skin on a man's back, chest and buttocks.
John Fearfull, our captain aboard the Sepik Spirit, is one of the few white men to undergo this initiation.
On a steamy night as our boat rocked gently, Fearfull told us of his ordeal.
"I was to spend one month in a Spirit House, representative of a woman's womb. It was required that initiates remain celibate during that period. To spill our seed would be to lose power."
After a month of sleep deprivation and numerous painful and frightening rituals -- many of which he would not reveal because he'd been sworn secrecy -- Fearfull explained: "At dawn, to the beat of garamut drums, hundreds of incisions made with ultra sharp blades were cut into my body. At this stage I was out of it," he said.
Secret elements had taken place the night before.
For days afterwards the incisions were opened then packed with mud to cause infection, making the resulting scars more prominent.
In Fearfulls words, "Initiation was a serious commitment for me. I felt strongly about it, I still do, but the cutting and what followed, made for the worst pain I have felt in my entire life. At one point the elders thought I would bleed to death."
We spent our last night at the Karawari Lodge.
Sitting on an elevated veranda overlooking jungle, mountains and a stunning tropical garden crammed with wild ginger, bougainvillea, palm trees, hibiscus bushes with scarlet flowers and huge New Zealand tree ferns, I closed my eyes and breathed in the exotic scents.
Out for a stroll the following morning I discovered a semi-tame cassowary named Robert Bob enjoying a hand-delivered breakfast.
The juvenile bird, already impressive and almost as tall as a fully grown adult, pecked daintily from a china bowl on the lawn.
Exploring the Sepik region in Papua New Guinea was a step back in time.
As we left Karawari, I couldn't help feeling like a 19th-century explorer as we slithered and slipped along a muddy path through the jungle, followed by a line of Karawari men carrying our luggage on their shoulders.
We headed for what must be the smallest airstrip on the planet. In a jungle clearing its only structure was a rustic departure lounge, three metres by three metres, open on four sides, with a roof of dried reeds.
A tongue-in-cheek sign welcomed us to Karawari Airstrip: one arrow pointed left, said 'Gate one Arrivals', and just one metre away another pointed right, 'Gate two Departures.'
On a patch of flattened grass, a chartered plane, like a giant dragonfly, awaited our pleasure.
-- Canwest News Service
IF YOU GO
-- Air Niugini is Papua New Guinea's national airline with flights from Brisbane, Australia to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. For flight information, destinations and timetable visit www.airniugini.com.
-- Trans Niugini Tours is an ecologically responsible tour operator. They specialize in adventure travel with accommodation in their wilderness lodges in remote but spectacular parts of Papua New Guinea. Their lodges are as follows: Malolo Plantation Lodge near Madang on the coast, Ambua Lodge in the southern Highlands province, Karawari Lodge in East Sepik province and Rondon Ridge near Mount Hagen in the western Highlands. They operate their own buses, boats and aircraft.
For information about tours contact Trans Niugini Tours, P.O. Box 371, Mount Hagen, Papua New Guinea, telephone: 675 542 1438, email: service www.pngtours.com.River tours range from three to five nights on the fully air-conditioned and very comfortable riverboat Sepik Spirit.
-- Accommodation in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea and the arrival point on the island:
-- The Airways Hotel, Jacksons Parade, Jacksons International Airport, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, telephone: 675 324 5200, email: reservations www.airways.com.pg. The Airways Hotel is Port Moresby's leading hotel.
-- Ela Beach Hotel, Ela Beach Road, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, telephone: 675 321 2100, email: elabeach www.coralseahotels.com.pg. The Ela Beach Hotel overlooks the popular Ela beach.
-- For more information about Papua New Guinea visit www.pngtourism.org.pg