200 Miles Along the Sepik River

Sophy Roberts traveled on Papua New Guinea's longest river for one of the last great adventures on earth.

When the boatman cuts the engine, the air is thick and hums with heat and the whine of insects. He stands on the prow of our canoe, which measures about 30 feet in length, three and a half feet deep and four and a half feet wide and was hollowed from a single trunk. With a paddle he navigates a slim vein of water through the feather-headed papyrus.

His back shows every sinew, his skin burnished with a film of sweat that accentuates his tribal scarification: From the top of his shoulders down into his shorts are stippled humps. The pattern, mirrored to the left and right of his powerful spine, follows the fluid lines of a crocodile’s hide. There is nothing more beautiful—or strange.

I am deep into New Guinea’s Sepik River because of my friend Mark Shand. In 1987 the writer, adventurer and resolute conservationist took a canoe of exactly this description to find the island’s elusive Orang Hutan tribe. The resulting book was Skulduggery.

Mark told me New Guinea—“any bit of it; it doesn’t fucking matter”—would reveal to me everything about travel he thought I’d lost sight of in pursuit of easier gains. I mentioned new helicopter safaris that could take me. And how expeditionary cruise ships are going into the Sepik’s mouth. He smiled, poured more whiskey and lit another cigarette. “Darling girl,” he said, “take the fucking canoe.”

So that’s why I am following a crocodile man into the heart of the Sepik, which, at 700 miles, is one of New Guinea’s most dominant geographical features—and is navigable almost the entire way. I wanted to prove that I was worthy of Mark’s friendship, that I had the tenacity to write his biography and travel to places where you don’t quite know what you’re getting into, even when you’re there. Then Mark went and died—at an after-party celebrating the successes of his latest New York fundraiser for his charity, Elephant Family—ten days before my flight.

The island of New Guinea is an extraordinarily long way from home: 24 hours from Los Angeles, six hours from Singapore, five hours from Fiji and two hours from Cairns, off Australia’s northern coast. Nineteenth-century colonial history divided it. The western half, formerly known as Irian Jaya, is now split between West Papua and Papua—this is where Mark traveled, with the British war photographer Don McCullin—and comes under the jurisdiction of Indonesia. Since 1975, the island’s eastern part has functioned as an independent country called Papua New Guinea, or PNG for short. This is where I am, in the Middle and Upper regions of the Sepik, which on a map loops and coils west over the Papua border, then travels north before dropping back into PNG. It is fed by watersheds in the central mountains, a roadless wilderness of vine-throttled jungle and brackish lowland swamp.

For centuries in PNG a continuous low-level anarchy has existed among tribes with little contact; in the mountains aggression is more prevalent, owing to the isolating topography. Unlike the tribes in the Highlands, the natural flow of trade that goes with river territory seems to have softened the Sepik peoples’ attitude toward outsiders. Still, during our four-day trip, we encounter three radically different groups less than 60 miles apart. A few speak an English-­based creole called Tok Pisin—PNG’s second language—but otherwise these communities cannot comprehend each other’s tongue.

There’s enormous pressure on PNG to adapt quickly from this traditional way of life and develop the wealth-management skills required to make the most of an extraordinary repository of natural resources, including oil, copper and gold. Representative of this brave new world is the planeload of my flight into PNG’s capital of Port Moresby. The foreigners are helicopter pilots from Australia, seismic specialists from North Sea rigs and Americans working on a 435-mile pipeline for ExxonMobil, which, a week after I leave, delivers its first shipment of liquefied natural gas in a project with the potential to double the country’s GDP. One woman on board, a Seventh Day Adventist missionary from Ohio, is returning to the Highlands; a four-month-old baby suckles at her breast.

For missionaries, PNG’s impenetrability is manna, helping to protect the tribes from influences that might compete with the Word of God. I come across one group armed with Cessnas, which afford considerable advantages since there’s not a single bridge over the Sepik. The only asphalt in vague existence makes for rough going, with the road into the Middle Sepik taking five hours to travel; it links coastal Wewak, where commercial flights arrive from Port Moresby, with Pagwi, a riverside settlement. Pagwi is also where we board our motorized dugout canoe. Besieged by natnats—“mosquitoes” in Tok Pisin—I find myself wishing the boat were a helicopter.

But then I force myself to remember Mark’s admonitions about the “grease” of luxury travel—how ease of access is directly proportional to a journey’s loss of intensity—and recommit to the principle of why I’m here: New Guinea’s attractions are derived from the island’s impenetrability, which in turn accounts for its compelling cultural diversity. Not unlike Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, where the likes of Donna Karan can be found trawling Africa’s painted tribes for inspiration, PNG thrums with off-the-map exoticism. It is home to an entirely disproportionate 12 percent of the world’s indigenous languages. The Highlanders, with whom first contact was made only in the ’30s, are as alien to the Sepik River people as cannibalism is to me. In New Guinea, however, it was until only fairly recently that the taste of human blood was more familiar than the Eucharist’s bread and wine. In the Sepik River Basin, one tribe’s god is a crocodile. For another, god is a praying mantis. As far as I understand it, symbolism doesn’t seem to go beyond the simplest imaginative exchange: Life is life, death is death, blood is blood, and flesh is flesh. God is a creature you see every day lurking on the riverbanks or hovering with laced wings above the reeds.

Mark told me to go in deep and sleep in village homes, which is why I spend a night in Swagup, where only 300-odd members of the praying mantis tribe remain. The houses have bamboo walls and wooden stoops; to keep mosquitoes at bay, fires burn through the night. I play soccer with the kids. I take in the river life as it curls round the oxbow and catches the last sun. There’s a soporific beauty to this place, but it’s also sticky as hell.

Even when the moon is up, the humidity doesn’t back off. I force myself to resist more obvious lures. There’s a comfortable hotel, Karawari Lodge (rooms, from $1,260; Karawari River; 675/542-1438; pngtours.com), where most travelers stay. There’s the Sepik Spirit (from $795 a person per night with a two-night minimum; 675/542-1438; png tours.com), a nine-room boat, and expeditionary cruise ships, like True North (from $15,630 a person for an 11-night trip; 61-8/9192-1829; northstarcruises?.com.au), which bring in travelers with heavy wallets to buy up the river’s tribal art—masks, sacred icons, woven bilum bags—in what is considered PNG’s most culturally rich region. (Mark’s New Guinea shopping spoils, on the other hand, included two headhunter skulls called The Twins and a G-string made from cassowary feathers.) Silversea’s new boat, Silver Discoverer, floats in next month (from $11,050 a person for a 14-night trip; 877-276-6816; silversea.com). Aurora Expeditions joins the new wave with its 72-berth Oceanic Discoverer doing a 13-day Sepik voyage in March 2015 (from $8,820 a person; 800-637-688; auroraexpeditions.com.au).

Whether such air-conditioned means allow one to see tribal life unfurl in the same lingering way, I’m less sure. Only by sleeping in the Swagup chief’s stilted home do I learn how the insect tribe hunts for crocodiles at night. (The chief pinches my torch, claiming his family will starve without its bright beam to pick up the reptiles’ eyes.) I meet a schoolboy who is so determined to learn that he walks two days and three nights through the jungle to attend his lessons. I listen to old men remembering Japanese bombs that were dropped on the Sepik’s villages in the Pacific War. I hear women singing to their infants and watch others throw shy smiles—not at me but at the man I’ve relied on to pull off the complicated logistics.

Justin Wateridge is an enigmatic Zambian-raised adventurer who used to run Abercrombie & Kent in the UK. He now heads up Steppes Travel, a company that for 25 years has made an art of navigating lesser-known territories, from the Sepik to Samarkand. Not unlike Mark, Wateridge pulls off the wilderness thing with elegant ease. Aside from books, he travels lightly; he dresses in Jermyn Street shirts and flip-flops that have seen better days. He’s cycled along the Mekong from mouth to source, traveled the Niger in Mali and journeyed most of the Zambezi by boat, ferry and canoe. “I like rivers,” he says. He wheels and deals as we go, upgrading our canoe’s outboard motor from 40 to 70 horsepower while instructing villagers how to fix up an African-safari-style bucket shower. “Rivers immerse you. Life moves more slowly. I like the arbitrary lines.”

But the Sepik isn’t like other rivers. Rather than a single thread of silver stretching from the mountains to its mouth, the Sepik is a huge network of lagoons and lakes and grass islands, of tributaries and veins that change with the coming and going of seasonal rains. The high-water marks, which appear January to May, show on the stilted homes; lines blacken the trunks of palms. Where the current is bullying, the water flows a ferrous brown. In the lagoons, it is a night blue, with the horizon so confusing, the water appears to be spilling off the edge of the Earth. We can’t swim; the crocodiles in these waters grow to nine feet long.

Instead we move slowly, meditatively, fighting off the heat by drenching our skin in river water. There are ibis, which pick through leggy mangroves, and iridescent kingfishers. We skim the edge of lakes where jungle rises out of the water and emerald fronds turn the stillness into pools of jade. Nature’s jewel-like colors are outdone only by the tribes’ adornments, including charcoal that’s so black it’s blue, white from clay and yellow sap from mangoes and limes, the body paint worn with sculpted shells, smoky feathers and polished bones. They dress up for singsings—traditional gatherings that they perform for visitors—and their own private rituals, which continue behind closed doors.

It is one of these sacred events that the crocodile man is paddling us toward as he noses our dugout into a still lagoon. Smoke is rising from the village. The spindled legs of homes are wrapped in a low-level mist.

In the village of Palambei, an initiation ceremony is under way. We know about it because while the tribes might not have televisions, they do have cell phones; there was some chatting the day before. As to whether I’ll be allowed to see the ceremony, our guide is still unsure. Local women are kept out of the spirit houses, or haus tambaran. White women, on the other hand, are considered ghosts; for this reason, my guide says it is possible I won’t be subject to the same rules.

The glade in which the principal spirit house stands is a dew-drenched, otherworldly green. The roof—completed in 1967 as part of a replacement for an 18th-century spirit house bombed by the Japanese—extends into two soaring high-tipped wings. Our approach is accompanied by drums: a dark, hollow beat performed by two men. The initiation cutting, we discover, has already taken place, during which the young crocodile tribesman imbibes a sorcerer’s juice made from coconut leaves, which dulls the inevitable pain. The cutter—revered like a priest and paid in chicken, betel nut and mustard—works with a razor blade on the chest, back and thighs; he stops only when the initiate passes out. The great cutter is the one who works fastest, and the best initiate is the one whose body carries the most scars. We enthusiastically buy up carvings, and money is exchanged. (I’m suspicious that this is more persuasive than my spectral English pallor for ensuring access to the haus tambaran.) Then I’m led into the “crocodile’s nest,” in another spirit house, which is enclosed by a fence of dried-out fronds. Inside, the most recent initiates, aged 18 to 25, sit on stools; they wear thickets of grass to protect their modesty but otherwise are naked with their wounds daubed in clay. This is where they’ll stay until someone—no one can tell me who—deems them ready to pass back into the world.

Already it’s been six weeks. The men are bored; they swat the flies on their backs. Among the onlookers is Joseph, who has peculiar silver eyes. He says that the more scars a man carries, the more attractive he is to women when he emerges from the nest. We’re both smiling when he notices that I notice he is one of the most densely decorated of all.

On my iPhone I pull up a picture of Mark—the last one he sent me. He is inside a New York tattoo parlor. As I look at the image of his forearm under a cruel tungsten light, I recall his irascible Peter Pan–ish charm. Mark never wanted to grow up; now he is dead. He chose mischief over convention, adventure over aristocratic ease. The only subjects he was ever serious about—deadly serious—were his sister, Camilla Parker Bowles, about whom he would never talk with a loose tongue, and his beloved Asian elephants.

I tell Joseph how one of the tattoos on Mark’s arm is of Tara, the elephant Mark rode across India in 1988. I try to explain a little of his story but get only so far. Two days before flying to PNG, I’d watched Mark’s wicker coffin pass down the aisle of a small Dorset church. In the eulogy, Don McCullin spoke simply about the friend he’d lost, remembering their escapades in a canoe exploring a part of New Guinea much wilder than where I am now. In 1961, Michael Rockefeller—the privileged 23-year-old son of then–New York governor Nelson Rockefeller—had disappeared in the same region. The official story was that he drowned. Rumors circulated that he’d been eaten by Asmat headhunters. The Rockefellers never managed to uncover the facts. (A new book, Savage Harvest [William Morrow], claims his death was a revenge killing by the Asmat.) To Mark it didn’t matter. Truth and fiction were always winding in and out in his stories that silenced rooms.

Joseph nodded, understanding nothing of my world just as I was failing to understand much of his. Still, Mark would have liked this tribe. I suspect he would have asked them to scarify his back. He would have liked the Sepik, even if he would have raged about the signs of tourism beginning to emerge. Mark wasn’t quite a snob—his most likable trait was an ability to slip between mahouts and maharanis—but there was no person more elitist about how one should travel. It was as if he believed the earth’s truly wild places belonged only to those who were prepared to take journeys at an elephant’s walk.

I also like to think Mark would have been amused—a little envious, perhaps—when, after four days of moving slowly, feeling deeply and absorbing it all from the canoe, we don’t retrace our river journey in New Guinea’s blistering humidity. Instead we chopper out, following the Sepik’s widening skeins of silver until they bloom in the turquoise Bismarck Sea, where the East is behind us and the South Pacific starts.

Justin Wateridge at Steppes Travel (855-203-7885) arranges PNG tours, including Sepik explorations by canoe, helicopter or expedition cruise ship. A ten-night trip, including the Sepik, coast and Highlands, starts at $8,130 a person, excluding flights. To make a donation to Mark Shand’s charity, Elephant Family, please go to elephantfamily.org.