We have been sailing on the Sepik river for a few days, sleeping in the most idyllic villages and meeting the most interesting people. We hear exciting stories around a campfire as we pluck hand-baked fish. From crocodile hunters to woodworkers and from headhunting to cannibalism. Everything will pass.
Also read: Information and first introduction to Papua New Guinea
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The Sepik people
The Sepik are a people living along the river of the same name in Papua New Guinea lives. They are different groups of hunters, gatherers and woodworkers. More than 250 different languages are spoken on the banks of the Sepik River. Headhunting and cannibalism played an important role in the life of the Sepik. In recent years it is almost non-existent, except for a few cases. According to the older generation, the head of the enemy was boiled and thus stripped of the flesh. Then it was painted and hung in the spirit house as decoration. The human flesh was eaten and, according to the people here, it tastes a bit like chicken.
The spirit house is the place where the water spirit, the crocodile, is worshipped. Important decisions are also made here and ceremonies such as tattooing take place. This tattooing is an extremely painful ceremony. The young men are then cut in their backs, the flesh under the wound is removed so that the skin resembles a crocodile skin. A symbol of strength and power.
Thousands of crocodiles in the Sepik River
Thousands of crocodiles live in the Sepik River. We don't see one. But that's because they're scared and that's not surprising. Despite the fact that they are revered in spirit houses, they are hunted a lot. Many crocodile farms can be found along the Sepik. They remind me of mega stables in Europe. The cubicles are too small and animal welfare is not to be found there. Japanese and Chinese love these Sepik crocodiles. The hides are used to make shoes, jackets and bags. The meat is eaten by the inhabitants of the village and, like human meat, tastes like chicken.
More is not always better, however. A crocodile that is too large cannot be sold. In that case, the crocodile is eaten by the villagers, beautiful necklaces are made from the teeth and the skin serves as a decoration for, for example, the toilet.
Thousands, “no millions” according to our guide Lesley, are in the river, but after not seeing one for four whole days on the river, I start to doubt these numbers.
Eating fish and sago
In Kamanibit, the village where we stay for the night, we receive a necklace with a crocodile tooth as a souvenir. I think it's cool but wear it with a double feeling. Yes, I'm a carnivore, but I'm not a fan of mega stalls or animals for decoration. I can't resist the crocodile tooth though. It is a gift. Honestly, it's no different than a nice piece of meat on your plate, right?
Crocodiles are hunted and fish are caught. We see dozens of women and children in boats that frequently bring in fish. Hundreds a day, our skipper tells Pieter. The fish vary in size, but they all taste the same. That will come through the cooking; the fish is cooked on the fire and you remove the meat by hand. More often with than without bones. I wonder if this river will ever be fished out. After all, we are doing a good job of over-fishing the oceans, so why should the Sepik River be left behind? At the moment no trawl nets and bycatch, because everything here is done by hand.
Fish and sago is the daily fare here. Sago comes from the sago palm. It is mixed with water before being cooked on fire. Then it is kept in a sago leaf for a month before it can be eaten. It looks like a kind of rubber pancake and doesn't really taste like anything. Here they eat it every day. They don't have anything else (except fish and some fruit). Sometimes caterpillars are added for protein and flavor.
Our last day on the water goes to Chambri Lake. We have lunch at the village of Ibom. Our lunch of dry bread and peanut butter is complemented by Pawpaw; a local piece of fruit, orange inside, greenish outside. You remove the seeds with your hands and then eat it like a melon. It also tastes a bit like it, more like Papaya by the way. According to Lesley, it's really different. I doubt it.
The village where we have lunch also has a small crocodile farm. That means: three very (read: way too) small cubicles where a lot of crocodiles are pressed together. They let them grow bigger here and then these skins are also sold to the Japanese and/or Chinese. I think it just looks pathetic.
Besides breeding a few crocodiles, they also make pots here. These pots allow them to cook inside instead of outside on a fire. They look nice but we decide not to buy one. Our gas burner in The Hague is still fine.
We continue our way over the water where we sail through a shower of fish. They jump so high that many end up in our boat and I even get a few against my head. There is no easier way to gather our supper together.
The Crocodile Hunter
The village where we spend the night is called Palembei. We sleep with a real crocodile hunter. He also offers this as a tourist activity. You then go out with him at night to hunt crocodiles. Sometimes they bring in as many as eight in one night. If one is killed, they eat it. He locks up the live crocodiles.
He says they are stupid animals. To catch one you throw a spear in its back, the crocodile then wraps itself around it and you can grab it with your hands and throw it in a cage. I listen with interest, but also find it pathetic. If it was done to satisfy the hunger of the local residents, then fine. But to catch crocodiles because they want to walk in Japan with a nice bag, that is not an option for me. We therefore kindly decline this tourist activity.
The next day we leave early. At 6 o'clock, so it's still dark. The best chance to see crocodiles. Sure enough, one after the other has emerged. Everywhere we see eyes light up when we shine on them. I don't see them very well, but I'm glad to see that there are still a lot of them swimming around. Free, however long.
Our adventure in Papua New Guinea is almost over… But not quite yet and you will read that in a next blog!
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