Kalibobo Spirit: Sepik Expedition by Dame Carol Kidu

SEPIK EXPEDITION (27.12.2016 – 2.01.2017)

Reflections by Dame Carol Kidu DBE Dr (Hons)

(Part one 27-28 December 2016)

 The mighty Sepik River – that’s how I described it before embarking on the Kalibobo Spirit for a Sepik Expedition (an item on my bucket list) with MTS Services, under the captaincy of Sir Peter Barter.  By halfway through the adventure, it was no longer the mighty Sepik to me but had become the Mighty, Majestic, Monumental, Mind-blowing, Mysterious and Mystic Sepik.  But words cannot describe the experience for a genuine adventurous traveller; it is something that must be on every adventurer’s bucket list – young or old.

 26th December 2016

Our adventure began with our afternoon arrival in Madang on Air Niugini – along with Bruce Davis, the Australian High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea, soon to become Bikpela Bossman bilong Australia insait long Papua New Guinea, and his “tribe” (his words) – Alaister, Georgia and Kate, plus Dr Jo English and myself.  At dinner, I met our other travelling companions, Bruno and Gerda Mueller, all the way from Switzerland but not new to Papua New Guinea. I asked them why they keep coming back for new adventures – “Because we like it” was their simple answer.

 27th December 2016

There was a 5pm departure for the beginning of our shared adventure to explore just a small part of the river that supports over 70,000 people.  We travelled between the off-shore islands and the mainland and reached Alexishafen Mission Station before dark.  Our afternoon tea when we boarded ship was accompanied by biscuit treats that the Catholic Sisters had baked for Sir Peter for the Festive Season.  Opposite the Mission Station, on the other side of the harbour, we slowed to observe the tuna fishing vessels.  I was horrified by the immensity of the nets which drag everything from the sea as well as the tuna, and by the sight of the mother ship waiting to take the bulk of the catch back to the Philippines for processing, with only a fraction of the catch being processed on shore.

We had taken our Kwells (travel sickness pills) and settled down for a night of travel to reach the mouth of the Sepik.  I was fascinated by what I thought was a baby change table attached to my cabin wall.  When I mentioned the next day that I was disappointed that I had no porthole in my cabin, Bruce enlightened me that what I thought was a  baby change table was a cover for my porthole!

28th December 2016

Soon after dawn we were close to entering the mouth of the Sepik.  Two mother ships were at anchor waiting for the log barges to arrive from upriver.  Mixed reactions and emotions tempered the discussions as we pressed on against the powerful outwash of the river. Our first stop on the river truck was at

Kopar Village.  As always on the Sepik, we were welcomed with a mixture of shyness and then smiles and laughter as interaction began and Councillor Kelly answered questions while I went off to nurse babies (typical politician), knowing that the first nurse of a baby had an expectation for something in return (a custom common in many parts of PNG). It was a good ice-breaker with the mothers, which can become expensive if  there  are too many babies to be nursed!

Walking through the village, I noticed a new hausman building under construction so enquired at the nearby hausman and found that there are four such buildings in Kopar – one for each clan.  Our men climbed the ladder steps to sit with the elders for photo opportunities but as the hausman was not one constructed with tourists in mind, the rest of us stayed on the ground with the women to be the photographers.

Canoe, Chambri Barat

Canoe, Chambri Barat

Kopar village was not expecting our arrival, but Councillor Kelly informed the villagers to quickly set up their markets and so began the market-mania element of our expedition.  Choice-dilemma and compassion for the craftsmen and women meant that some of us were perhaps not the best of shoppers but we aimed to spread our shopping to benefit as many as the sellers as possible.  As we moved upstream, the same issue of the impact of the depressed tourism industry on the artefact business was told with concern in every village. The concern actually goes much deeper than the loss of cash income alone.  A vibrant tourist industry is a basic catalyst to maintain cultural skills and knowledge.  With no tourists, there is no reason to maintain these skills.

As we were departing Kopar I was approached by a friendly young woman and immediately regretted wearing my favourite bandana on my head. Her eyes were fixed on the bandana not on me. “Mama, mi laikim headscarf bilong you!” I knew that the subtleties of her admiration were much deeper and it was a very strong hint for me to give it to her. So that was the end of my favourite bandana. She sent a young child off to get a string bag from her house for me but it was time to board the river truck, so the usual reciprocity was a massive smile and laughter from the new bandana owner.

From Kopar the river truck headed upriver passing seemingly endless stands of wild sago. Although wild, they are of course all owned by clans, and to take anything would be stealing (as a village boy informed me). We passed a sak sak camp that houses a temporary community who migrated from their homes in Murik Lakes for fishing and shell fish collection along the main river for family food and selling.

The river truck suddenly headed off the main river along one of the many barats (small streams) and headed to Mendam Village on the banks of Murik Lake. En route, we met a solitary young man who had been to his family’s section of the sago swamp to chop down a massive, mature sago palm and was floating it back to the village for processing into sago flour – the staple food of the Sepik River people.


Kopar Village Mai Mask

Kopar Village Mai Mask

The Councillor was out, but others welcomed us and answered our many questions as an instant market of carvings appeared.  Mendam has a population of 365 but no functioning clinic or school.  The Marasin Meri (medicine lady) was called and was clearly respected as a bossmeri in the village.  She travels upriver regularly to Marienberg Mission Station to get basic essential medications for the Aid Post which is unstaffed. For education, we were informed that the villagers had built a classroom and had been to the education authorities to request a teacher to teach Grades Prep., One, and Two in 2017.


Infant, Kambaramba Village

Infant, Kambaramba Village

Sadly, at this stage there was no opportunity for the children to progress to Grade 3 because the primary school at Karau had closed down because the teacher had left.

A young pre-teenage boy was pounding the flesh of a cut-out sago palm which was then squeezed and strained by an older woman to extract the flour starch from the sago pulp and wash it through the strainer down a chute into the collection dugout hollow tree trunk ready to be collected and dried for storage. 


Boisa Island Kids

Boisa Island Kids

If well stored, sago flour can last for months and is prepared into a wide variety of dishes – fried into pancakes, boiled into a porridge, made into dumplings, wrapped in leaves and steamed – either alone (which is filling but very bland) or mixed with a variety of different foods to add flavour and nutrition. Sago itself is certainly not my favourite food but when it is mixed with ripe bananas and coconut cream, wrapped and steamed then covered with lashings of boiled thickened cream of coconut or coconut oil, it becomes my favourite traditional food!!

Carving shopping led to another inspiring discovery.  I noticed that one display was manned by just young men and it was explained that they were the trainee carvers who had decided that they were students in traditional crafts and lack of Western education would not define their future.   

Bossman Buying Carving,
Mendam Village

Bossman Buying Carving, Mendam Village

 The quality of their workmanship was certainly way above what I would expect of a trainee. As we left Mendam and travelled back through the barat against the current of the inflow into the

Murik Lakes, I reflected on the resilience and determination of people in remote villages in PNG, something that we would see everywhere we went on the Sepik, both in villages and at the mission stations.

Murik Lakes is where Sir Michael and Lady Veronica Somare’s ancestry is traced to – perhaps that has impacted the stoic determination required to lead a young nation through Independence and beyond. I am privileged to have visited Murik Lakes when an era in Commonwealth parliamentary history is coming to its end, with Sir Michael’s retirement in June as the Commonwealth’s longest serving parliamentarian and as a founding father of the nation of Papua New Guinea.

After lunch on the Kalibobo Spirit we headed back on to the river truck for more village explorations.

Bien Village spreads along the bank of the Lower Sepik and we went ashore near the school ground. The school children and teachers all welcome visitors during the school year with drama performances and inspections of classrooms. This was quickly replaced with an impromptu soccer match as friendly school children arrived from the village. A market (mainly of string bags or bilums of all shapes and designs was quickly laid out on the side of the school sports field.  The Australian High Commission bossman and I seemed to enter an unspoken bilum buying competition, trying to ensure that every artisan made at least one sale. I think Bossman won that competition!!

Village leaders took some convincing to allow people to walk to the village because of concern for our safety crossing the log bridges which were already flooding, as was also happening under some houses. It was interesting to note the change in house styles and architecture from village to village as we travelled up the Sepik – a study in itself with the common feature of stilts (or sometimes huge trunks of the garamut tree) as posts. For the next four months, village life would adapt to water lapping around house posts as the Sepik floods its banks and village life adjusts to the rhythm of the river.

Back on to the river truck and we headed further upstream to visit Tawai Village. Tawai is a large village with neatly manicured lawn pathways – one of which we followed uphill to the St Brian Catholic Mission Primary School.  Our younger and older but fit travellers kept up with the village pace and by the time I puffed and panted behind them and arrived, they were well into discussions and discoveries inside a school classroom – lessons that I cannot record but are in the memories of our team of adventurers.

After Tawai village we headed back to the Kalibobo Spirit, which had pushed on upstream to the night anchorage, and another delicious three-course dinner. Our chef from the Trobriand Islands with 30 years’ experience with Melanesian Tourist Services worked tirelessly and always happily to ensure that we left the Kalibobo Spirit heavier than when we entered – I soon discarded my resolution to lose weight on the expedition.




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