Sojurn up the Sepik – Expect the Unexpected.

September, 2019.   Ensconced in a comfortable hotel room in Cairns after an exotic Thai meal, a hot shower and with a suitcase full of wood carvings and dirty washing, Brunyfire’s PNG sojourn with Mr TN (aka Aaron Smith*, editor of Torres News)** already seems far away. But it was only two weeks ago that the Intrepid pair set off – he from TI (Thursday Island) and Brunyfire from Tassie (Tasmania) to meet up for a jaunt in the jungle.

Organised through PNG Frontier Adventures, a trip up PNG’s Sepik River has been a Brunyfire bucket list item for a long time, primarily to call in at the pottery making village of Aibom on the Chambri Lakes. This latter mission is driven by Brunyfire’s passion for collecting traditional clay cooking pots of the world whilst they are still being made and before the traditions of their production and use dies out.

The research for this trip therefore, was driven by Margaret Tuckson and Patricia May’s definitive work, comprehensively presented in their book:

Any response to an announcement to friends of a trip up the Sepik seems to be greeted by aghast gasps and proclamations of ‘why’ and ‘it’s so dangerous’!!!! Most travel to most places can be dangerous – and PNG has had its fair share of bad publicity – all the more reason to make up ones own mind. Undaunted, and with the best laid preparations as possible – such as an open mind, an acknowledgement of how to treat the locals respectfully and a ‘good sense’ attitude, Brunyfire met with Mr TN in Cairns to fly to Port Moresby.

(Cocktails at the Gateway Hotel bar, overlooking the airport – Port Moresby)

The schedule was tight and the pair were keen to check out the renowned National Museum and Art Gallery, which was only down the road from the hotel and enroute to the airport before our departure for Wewak.

The PNG National Museum and Art Gallery (NMAG) was built in 1975 and opened to the public in 1977. It houses artefacts from 19 provinces of the country that range from a full size canoe, traditional woven fish baskets, carving, headdresses and of course, pottery. (Sago pots from Aibom) 


Cooking pot and double necked water pot from Lahapau Village, Manus Province.

We had an hour at best before heading to the airport to check in for our flight to Wewak, and are grateful to the attendant, Andy, for turning off the gallery TV monitors so that we could photograph the exhibits! (Below: Andy and Mr. TN).


Anxious moments at the Air Niugini desk as we can’t seem to get our boarding passes – we remember to keep breathing and to expect the unexpected – until finally we’re on board. As we fly into Wewak, the Sepik snakes away below us.

Wewak town is grimy and full of people – all of whom press the pleasures of eating betal nuts on us…….

…….but the In Wewak Boutique Hotel is great, and we team up with Helen Dennett, (an ex-Pat Aussie, highly knowledgeable on the crafts of PNG), her daughter and friends for an informative and riotous evening.

The next day, we’re off early in a clapped out bus with a couple of policemen riding shotgun up front………

……and another vehicle following, heading for Pagwi – a bone jarring 4 hour drive along the most potholed roads in the country. The armed guard is necessary as hold ups are not uncommon. We stop off briefly to stretch our legs and buy some local produce before reaching Pagwi, a pretty desolate place, but a vital launching off spot that serves some of the remote villages that exist along the river.


(Pagwi and motorised dug outs full of 44 galleon drums of fuel). The Sepik River is the longest river on the island of New Guinea, and after the Fly and the Mamberamo, the third largest by volume. It flows 1126km through swamp and the majority of the river flows through the Papua New Guinea provinces of Sandaun and East Sepik, through tropical rainforests and mountains, with a small section flowing through the Indonesian province of Papua, but we are concentrating on the middle Sepik region. 

We pile into our motorised dugouts and head downstream…….

………to the village of Kanganaman where our guest house for three nights awaits.

The facilities are rustic – mattresses on the floor (with clean sheets, pillows and mosquito nets), a long drop loo, a bush shower – or a dip in the river. We’ve all brought our head torches, for night time loo visits, but inside, we have power and can even charge our devices. The meals are simple, cooked in the traditional clay gugumbe or fire hearth…….

………and once the ashes cool, the house kitten claims a spot to sleep in.

The following morning we’re all up early and headed to Kamindimbit, a large complex that is actually made up of three villages with a Catholic Church as well as the Haus Tambaran and a well known art ‘gallery’ run by a carver named Ronnie.

We explore the village having first made a presentation to the chief of the village in the Haus Tambaran – we do this another six times during the course of our trip.

Distances between villages is long and it makes us all realise just how remote these communities are. They are totally dependent upon the river, and if their dugouts don’t have motors, or those motors fail or run out of fuel (as can easily happen) it’s an arduous effort to reach one’s destination. So we’re all glad to get back to the comfort of our guest house back in Kanganaman, just as the sun sets.

The following morning, after we’ve had a close look at the young croc we captured the previous evening, we are introduced to Shaun, a young man who has recently undergone the extruciatingly painful crocodile cutting initiation. Young men of a certain age prove their manhood by undergoing this painful ritual, accompanied by their Uncle, in the spirit house of their village.

Having released the young croc, we are packed and ready to take off for an overnight visit to the Chambri Lakes. This venture can’t be undertaken if the water level is too low, as happens in the dry season, as the swamp lands become clogged with logs and water plants as the water drops. It’s a two hour ride from Kanganaman to the Chambri Lakes……

………and the scene changes with the appearance of mountains in the background. Frustratingly, we pass Aibom pottery village as we’re headed to Chambri village where our next guesthouse for the night awaits. We make our presentation to the Haus Tambaran and get treated to a flute and drum playing session and this time we’re treated as guests of honour at a farewelling of a young priest from Indonesia who has been staying here. The villagers bring us chairs to sit on and a feed of rice, sago and chicken.

We finish the day with a glorious sunset.

The next day, it’s raining – so much for seeing a firing at Aibom!!! Nevertheless, we brave the inevitable soaking and head to Aibom – here Brunyfire meets Alexssia……

……who Helen had mentioned and her sister Martha, the better known of the Aibom potters. There is a fabulous gugumbe but it’s just too big so Brunyfire settles for a cooking pot, unusually with a lid made by Alexessia and a small pig faced beaker by Martha.

We head back to Kanganaman for lunch and to explore the village which we haven’t really checked out. Kanganaman has two spirit houses, the first treats us to a cassowary dance……….

…….and the second spirit house, one of the largest and oldest in the region, puts on a show of forest spirits.

The following morning, we’re packed and ready early – we farewell Jack and his family who have hosted us for the past three days, and head back to Pagwi……

…….but then have to hang around for a couple of hours for our bus to arrive. We make the gruelling 4 hour trip over the appalling roads in good time and return gratefully to the luxury of hot showers, clean clothes, comfy beds and some great tucker of Sepik River prawns and curried croc……

………mi laikim tumas dispela kaikai.

*Queensland Clarion Awards, 2019 – Regional And Community Feature Article or Opinion Piece. Awarded to Aaron Smith, Torres News and Cape York News, ‘Birds of a feather’

**Feature article in Australian Geographic,  Sept-October 2019, ‘Strait Talking’.

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