Papua New Guinea – Chapter 5: Ambunti Crocodile Festival Day 1

_MG_4634-13Tuesday.  August 7, 2012.

Before breakfast the next morning, Pomat and Steven went for another bath in the pre-dawn light.  The rest of us were too lazy, even if we were already sweaty and could have used the cleansing.  Breakfast included pancakes made from tasteless Sago palm flour which had been mixed with fresh bananas and coconut that turned the dish into a real taste treat.  We also ate eggs and fresh fruit from the nearby trees.   While we were eating breakfast, the crew fixed another typical light lunch of fruit and some tinned meat and fish on crackers.

Shortly after dawn, we got on the river and headed upstream past Pagwi, the village at the end of the Wewak road where we first got into our canoe two days earlier, and continued into the Upper Sepik on our way to the Crocodile Festival at Ambunti.

_MG_4657-17Walking from the river to the Ambunti festival grounds, we were approached by two young men who wanted to illegally sell us a tree kangaroo joey for $15.  Pomat explained it was likely they had killed the mother for meat and were now trying to sell the baby, although it was probably too young to survive on its own.

This was the fourth year of the festival and it attracted about 20 performing groups from villages along the length of the Sepik, with groups coming from as far east as the coast and as far west as the mountains on the border of PNG and Indonesia.  We had timed our trip to be able to attend both this Sing-Sing, and the biggest Sing-Sings in PNG at Mt. Hagen a few days later.  Conducted on a large athletic ground, each troupe was assigned a covered stall in which to prepare their costumes and make-up and to lounge in the shade while waiting to go on.  But there wasn’t much waiting.  Once adorned in their traditional dress and makeup, the groups immediately started singing and dancing all over the grass field adjacent to the “official” performance arena, which itself was just a roped off corner of the field.  600 to 800 audience members had come from villages all over the Sepik to see the festival and support their performing groups, along with about 20 foreigners from France, Italy, Australia, America and elsewhere around the world.  The first day of the Sing-Sing was even more than we had expected.  Here’s the formula:

Bright make-up + Organic costumes + Enthusiastic drumming + Endless dancing = Spectacular photos

At the end of the first day, we got back in the canoe to head further up the Sepik and into a side channel leading to Lake Wagu and the village of Wagu where we were to spend the night.  Because Roy, our boatman, expected the most direct route to have been too shallow to be passable in the dry season, he took an alternate route and got lost, just before the motor broke down.  It had been acting up earlier in the day, but Roy had always been able to restart it.  This time it was no-go.  We poled over to a four-foot diameter fallen tree in 18 inch deep water and Pomat and Roy climbed out of the canoe to work on the engine.  I climbed out too and started wading away through the water to “use the facilities” at a bushy spot not far away.  Pomat stopped me and gently insisted I not wander off, saying that the water got deeper in the direction I was headed, and instead had me climb up on the fallen tree and walk to the far end to take care of business.  The urgency with which he said it, reinforced with something we learned later that afternoon in Wagu, led us to believe that the real reason for his concern was that Pomat actually suspected there might be large crocodiles nearby.

There we loitered, literally up the wrong creek without a paddle.  Sitting silently, listening to bird sounds, spotting nests, peering into the black waters, we began wondering about those crocodiles.  Local fishermen in a smaller canoe approached from nowhere to see what the matter was.   A woman in another canoe paddled past, her friend cleaning and scraping the scales from freshly caught fish.  After Roy had spent upwards of half an hour trying to fix the engine by wiping off the spark-plugs, Pomat told him the only way to clean the crud off the electrodes was to burn it off, and suggested setting the plugs on the fallen tree, pouring gasoline on them, and lighting it.  It worked like a charm.  Pomat pretty much knew everything that was needed for life on the river.

We made our way back to the turn we’d missed and continued up a progressively narrower and shallower channel before shooting through a narrow, brush-choked opening into the swamp-like margins of Wagu Lake.  We continued to navigate narrow gaps between submerged treetops and boulders before reaching the deep water of the lake proper, and then headed up the lake to the village of Wagu ahead of a rapidly approaching downpour.  Nevertheless, the wind and chop created a huge bow spray, and soaked those of us in the front of the canoe despite efforts to shield ourselves with umbrellas and tarps.

_MG_4899-36A small village wrapped around the foot of a mountain, Wagu extended along the shore at the far end of the lake.  The few buildings included the guesthouse where we were to spend the night with the local dogs, cats, chickens and ducks.  Talking to David, the owner of the guesthouse, we learned he had been to England some years earlier.  Another PNG traveler!  In London, what he like best was the privacy and anonymity of city life, which he found liberating compared to village life where “everyone knows your business.”  But he was greatly disturbed by the homelessness and neglect of the elderly that simply doesn’t exist in PNG because of the close ties within families, clans and villages.  We got into a conversation with David’s friend, Pastor Mike.  He told us that 80% of villagers go to church.  Wagu, small as it was, had three churches.  Pastor Mike had just returned to Wagu after 10 years travelling as a pastor all over the Sepik and said he didn’t recognize the village because it had grown and changed so much. It sure looked small to us, and it would have been interesting to have seen it 10 years earlier.

IMG_9015A duck wandered by with broken wing.  a cat kept rubbing against everyone and jumping up on the benches for attention.  Between downpours in the gathering twilight, Steven and I dove into the lake for a swim… before being told that big crocs came to this area at dusk to feed.  Later that evening and off and on throughout the night, a deluge poured down… and this was the dry season!

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