The great Sepik river flows through the imagination leaving traces in the collective memory and artefacts in museums around the world. Like the Congo in Africa and the Amazon in South America it dominates the hearts and culture of PNG and the provinces through which it flows.
East Sepik Province is the second largest province in PNG It has a land area of 42,800 square kilometres and a population of over a quarter of a million people – 90% of whom are rural dwellers. It is largely undeveloped. It is isolated from the rest of the country. There are no road connections south to Madang and the roads north to West Sepik are earth-formed and subject to flooding. It is highly dependent on air transport. But it is the most visited of all PNG’s provinces. At present 60% of all visitors to PNG go to East Sepik – to the river.
The Sepik River is 1,126 km long and navigable for almost the entire distance. It starts in the northern mountains and winds gradually down to the sea. It frequently turns back on itself and has often changed its course leaving dead-ends, lagoons, oxbow lakes or huge swampy expanses which turn into lakes in the wet season or dry up to make grassland when the river is low. There is hardly a stone or rock within 50km of its banks. If a stone is washed down villages treat it as sacred and place it in front of the village haus tambaram (spirit house). At the end of the wet season water tears great chunks of mud and vegetation out of the river-banks and these floating islands drift downstream often with small trees and animals aboard. When it meets the sea the river stains it brown for 50 or more kilometres from the shore. Islanders claim to have drawn fresh water straight from the sea.
From the Sepik’s mouth the province’s 190 km coastline ranges over the Murik lakes delta to a narrow shelf west of Wewak. There are very few coral reefs but there are beautiful beaches with proper swaying palm trees and plenty of white sand. Wewak, the provincial capital is an attractive town with neat and tidy housing, lush tropical vegetation and gentle hills.
The newly appointed Governor Sir Michael Somare and the provincial government of East Sepik want to develop Wewak as a tourist hub. But while they think mass tourism might be alright for Madang they believe it would destroy the Sepik. There is a delicate balance between bringing in much needed development and destroying the livelihood and culture of the indigenous people. One solution under consideration is to preserve the Upper Sepik and encourage small numbers of elite tourists to use Wewak as a base from which to explore the Middle Sepik. However to achieve this more limited objective, they would need to extend the Wewak runway, seal more roads (sealing the road from Wewak to Pagwi would cut the journey time in half) and upgrade hotel accommodation. Sir Michael Somare would like to attract more tourists from South East Asia using northerly air routes.
There has been a constant stream of visitors from Japan to Wewak to pay homage to their war dead from World War 2. The Japanese held the Sepik region for most of the war but the struggle was bitter and long. It was May 1945 before Wewak fell and the remaining Japanese troops withdrew into the hills. It was not until September 1945 that General Adachi finally surrendered with the surviving 13,000 out of 100,000 troops. At Mission Hill there is a Japanese War Memorial to mark a mass grave, though the troops buried here were exhumed and returned to Japan. It is a quiet, reflective place with a fine view out across the headland and islands just off the coast.
Most visitors to East Sepik to go to PNG’s cultural treasure house – the villages of the Middle Sepik. The provincial government intends to develop a village guest house network. They also need to safeguard health (by ensuring safe water and sanitation) and security (by more reliance on two-way radios). They are aware that they must oppose logging where it comes into conflict with tourism. The river must be kept free of the dreaded water hyacinth and some attempt will have to be made to regulate the expansion of river cruises.
River cruises have been the backbone of Sepik tourism and in general they are very well run. But large boats can swamp canoes whose occupants in turn ask exorbitant compensation. Visitors can be rude, obnoxious and disruptive. Bad feelings and jealousies have occurred in less favoured villages. And there is a question whether performing traditional ceremonies for tourists weakens their spiritual significance and power.
Somehow the art of the Sepik has survived. Traditional carvers stayed in business because insects and borers attacked the wooden masks, hooks, stools and door-posts and they had to be replaced. Now it is tourism which keeps carving skills alive. 90% of the men are skilled wood-carvers. And deep below the surface old myths survive. The crocodile which features in many ‘airport’ or tourist carvings also appears in the Iatmul people’s stories about their origins. In the beginning there was the salt water crocodile. It helped the land to rise above the water. Boys are scarified on initiation to produce patterns of crocodile skin on their backs and arms. Iatmul men keep the skulls of saltwater crocodiles in their cult houses.
Haus tambarans (spirit houses) are common to both river and hill tribes. Architectural styles vary but the high forward leading prow of the Maprik area is the most well-known. Some are huge, standing on great carved piles. They can be 40 to 50 metres long stretching 25 metres into the air. It is a men’s house where men meet and store their sacred masks and musical instruments. Once the missionaries burnt them down and destroyed the idols but since one of them was successfully charged with arson the practice has been discontinued.
When the current provincial government took over they found services in a parlous state. District offices are falling apart. Health services are quite inadequate with a high infant mortality and maternal morbidity. Sir Michael Somare recognises that there has been an almost total reliance on the Churches, particularly the Catholic Church, to provide health and education services. He wants the government to collaborate with these agencies to help the people to health and prosperity.
East Sepik has a rural economy of subsistence agriculture and cash crops of coffee, cocoa, copra and rubber. The new provincial government is determined to improve the system of agriculture to encourage cash earning and wage employment for rural households. They have encouraged farmers to diversify, supplying seeds for the production of spices: chillies, pepper, nutmeg and vanilla. Already 17,000 farmers have engaged in the project and 15 tonnes of chillies have been produced.
East Sepik was the first government to realise the need to register all customary lands. It passed a Provincial Act that enabled the government to assist customary owners to register their land. It is a system which allows for group ownership and should inspire confidence in investors. The people of East Sepik are self-reliant they support themselves from their own gardens and grow cash crops to supplement their income. All coffee and cocoa is small-holder produced. They are being helped by a number of feeder programmes to introduce new varieties of hybrid cocoa or with livestock. The provincial government imported some big pigs to begin a breeding programme for pork and bacon production. It was similar thinking which persuaded the extension services to provide feed, pens, solar panels and freezers to encourage small-holder crocodile breeding. The East Sepik river system is a natural habitat for crocodiles. More than 50% of crocodile skins harvested from the wild come from Sepik. But farmers have been less successful raising them in captivity.
The future for the people of East Sepik will depend on it’s governors’ ability to bring investment, tourists and services to the backwaters of the great river.