About a decade ago I read an account of a young woman who traveled alone up the Sepik river in Papua New Guinea, the eastern half of the world’s second largest island. I was so taken with her story I decided to go there one day. I had the pleasure of joining a photo tour in August 2017 to explore not only the Sepik, but the Highlands at Mt. Hagen, the wetlands, and the coastal area in Milne Bay with it’s pristine coral reefs. I am delighted that we visited these three distinct regions – even though no roads, bridges, or land based infrastructure connects them (which made for much adventure, delay, and fortitude!)
After flying to the town of Wewack, we rode by bus for four hours to Pagwi and then boarded motorized, long, dugout canoes sitting on cushions on the bottom for a two hour boat ride to the village of Kanganamun on the Sepik River. The Sepik is the longest river in the country producing a tropical rainforest climate. People live in remote villages along the banks where until very recently their lifestyle has changed little for thousands of years.
We were to be living in the village for two days. After arriving, we walked to the guest house – 3 rooms on a second floor of a building on stilts. Women in one room, men in another, sleeping on mattresses on the floor placed side-by-side under individual mosquito nets. The shower was a rain-barrel with a bucket and the toilet was an out-house. (Lots of Deet, sunscreen, and sweat for two days!) After settling in we walked through the village to the Spirit House.
The Sepik people have unique customs and traditions, building large and elaborate spirit houses to house the good spirits. Women are not allowed in the spirit houses but that doesn’t apply to tourists. In the spirit houses we found very old artifacts along with intricate, gorgeous modern carvings made to ward off evil. The spirit house is where important village decisions are made and where boys are initiated in ceremonies involving painful scarification which resemble the river crocodiles representing strength and power. Head hunting was also a cultural practice—young men could only come of age in these regions by taking a head!
People of the village are aware that tourists offer a way to improve their lives and they are anxious to make us feel welcomed. We know that tourism is a double-edged sword and hope that these people can maintain the best of their traditions as they gradually increase their infra-structure, health-care, and safety. Everywhere we walked, people said good-morning or hello. When I thanked them for allowing me to stay several people responded with – “my village is now your village too”.
The next day about fifteen groups arrived by dugout canoe for the sing-sing – a peaceful gathering where they demonstrate their distinct culture, dance and music. Each group proceeded to assemble their costumes by harvesting leaves and feathers from the forest. They sewed flowers together, painted each others’ faces and graciously allowed us to photograph them. Most of my photographs below are from the group at Balum Bay, which is the mother village to the 1st generation village of Kanganamun where we were staying.
After about three hours of preparation the dancing, singing and drumming began. It was hot, probably in the 90s with 90 % humidity, yet the performing continued for hours, with each group outdoing the others. I missed the speeches but again we were greeted and told how glad the people were that we came so far to meet them.
I am grateful to have gone on this trip and seen this country when I did. I am very interested in when the natural world, cultural legacy, and ancient traditions collide with the various forces of modernity. And I am pleased to continue to experience that despite our different cultures, people are more alike than different.
Some more background on Papua New Guinea:
Papua New Guinea is one of the world’s least explored, culturally, and geographically diverse countries in the world, having more than a thousand indigenous ethnic groups speaking over 850 different languages. Most of the 7 million people live in traditional rural communities with less then 20% living in urban towns or cities. Two-thirds of the population lives below the poverty line. Villages are based around farming and there are strong traditional animism religious practices combined with modern organized religions.
Papua New Guinea has a reputation for being a violent place. Cannibalism by one tribe has been reported as late as 2012. Tribal friction is not necessarily seen by tourists but is not far below the surface. We were accompanied by security except when we were in rural villages. It is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a woman. The country is often ranked as the worst in the world for violence against women, where 41% of men reported raping a non-partner and over 2/3 of the women have experienced domestic violence.
Beautiful set, Ivy. What a fascinating place it was!
Thank you Ivy, for saying it oh so much better than I ever could. Loved the pictures and loved how you told the story of our “great adventure”.
Thank you Jan – so great to have traveled with you!
YOU MAKE US ALL PROUD – GREAT PHOTOS.
Thanks Jeannie 🙂
YOU are one amazingly, stunningly, talented lady. Perfection !
So glad you liked it Gary 🙂 🙂
They really are amazing, professional quality pictures!
Thanks so much Diane!
Your insight and laser-like focus into less-developed parts of the world continues to be inspiring. And I love your balanced approach in recapping the society. You would make any journalist proud!
Thanks Karin – high praise coming from you – much appreciated!!
Wow! What a fantastic adventure, Ivy, and such wonderful photos! I so admire your interests and your work.
Thanks Bob! Hope you and June are well!
Wow! I appreciate a chance to see a bit of Papua New Guinea through your lense and words. Wonderful. BTW, I met your friend Eleanor in Cardiff today during a walk that Jeff & I took. See you soon! xo
Thanks Ginger- see you soon 🙂
Ivy, these are exquisite photographs! What an incredible trip, thank you for the commentary as well as the photos. Karen
Thanks Karen – appreciate your viewing it 🙂
Amazing adventure. Beautiful pictures of beautiful people.
Thanks Mark – it was my version of the Iron Man – LOL
Just stunning and beautiful
Thanks Omar 🙂 🙂
Love the stories along with the pictures! Sounds like. Quite the adventure!!!
Thanks Peter! One of the memorable adventures and combined with photography a great experience!!
I was in PNG 30 years ago and all these people look the same. So fascinating that these traditions continue in for years and years. Glad you enjoyed. Nice work!!!
Wow – 30 years ago! You are a pioneer! I imagine the infrastructure, poor as it was, might have improved a bit!
Fascinating and revealing trip back in time, with lessons for today. Thank you. And your photographic skills never cease to amaze me – kudos!!!
Thanks Dave! Yes, definitely a trip back in time!!
These are just so spectacular. I feel like I stepped into that world from just a few moments from these photos and your stories.
Thanks Marty! It is a past world 🙂
Wonderful post, Ivy of an amazing trip & experience. A great chance to give me/us a feel of what PNG might be like through your beautiful photos. Curious- what do the local men dress like when they’re not dressed up for the sing sing festival?
Thanks Janet 🙂
T-shirts,pants, hoodies. Probably many get their cloths from aid organizations from the stuff other countries recycle.
Ivy, you are very talented. You captured the essence!! Colors are so rich, as well. Xo
Thank you Hannah 🙂 🙂
Beautiful portraits of these fascinating people. Thank you for your post which included educational commentary. I traveled there 24 years ago and was in awe how these people manage to survive in a time which is endeavoring to destroy vestiges of tribal customs and dependence on natural resources. I remember seeing a series of 4 movies depicting how this area was thrust into the modern world beginning with the Germans in WWI era.
Thanks Sandy. Did you travel with a group? Infrastructure must have been even slimmer 24 years ago. Do you remember the names of the films? Love to see.
I continue to follow your fantastic travels and watch you grow to an extraordinary talent. I’m interested in how you gave such wonderful lighting to you individual portraits.
Thank you Ross. The light was extraordinary – I didn’t do much. In my up-coming post about the Mt. Hagen sing-sing, it was even better. Sometimes it just happens 🙂
A wonderful set of images, Ivy and thank you for sharing about your experience visiting PNG…I feel like I’ve travelled there with you. Still hoping to get there one day to see it all for myself. The men certainly have strong, handsome faces. Do you also have many images of the women? Would love to see some of those too, if you’ve got some to share. Keep up the great work!
Thanks Joyce. I have more of the men in the Sepik than women. But in later blogs there will be more women!
This is my mothers village.. I was doing a random search on Kanganamun village and this came up. You have beautiful photos, I saw a few of my uncles…. Thank you for visiting ????
Noreen, thank you for letting me know. I am delighted that you saw your relatives. I enjoyed your mother’s village very much and was made to feel very much at home.