Jurassic-size mosquitoes whine around my ankles as I stand on the balcony of Karawari Lodge. Below me snakes the silty Karawari River – ink black in the fading light. A fine mist slithers along the treetop canopy, like a giant spider dragging a cobweb, and the endless swathe of trees is broken only by smoke rising from home fires; the silence snapped by drumming somewhere across the water.
We’re deep inside Papua New Guinea’s East Sepik Province. Accessible only by plane, we’d caught a lift yesterday aboard Aussie bush pilot Harold’s eight-seater. Pulling down the hatch door, he’d handed me a map of the area. Just to the left of where we were headed it read: ‘Relief Data Incomplete’ — it might as well have said ‘Here Be Dragons’. Puttering into the air, we’d left behind the tilled brown earth — divided into allotments like rows of brown bourbon biscuits — and out across a mass of green, completely undivided by roads.
Papua New Guinea remains one of the world’s least-explored countries. Only colonised by Europeans in 1920s, most of the interior is still unknown territory. Images of its tribespeople’s wizened faces pierced with feathers and bones have been capturing travellers’ imaginations for decades. But what’s it like to actually meet them and spend the night? We were about to find out…
Early the next morning, we clamber aboard a canoe carved from a single sandalwood tree and forge upstream for two hours, until we reach Wamut village — home of our boatman, Sixtus, of the Yamandin clan. Handfuls of leaves, torn into confetti, are sprinkled over us as we’re cheered up the softly sloping sandbank like a jubilee parade. We’re the first visitors they’ve had since 2006. Some of the children have never seen white skin before and their faces crumple into tears when we come close to say hello. “Welkam tru (welcome)” they chant in Tok Pisin — the Creole pidgin English spoken throughout the island.
Faces are smeared with white river clay and heads adorned with red hibiscus flowers. An old man standing in the centre of the group starts to pound a garamut (hollowed-out log), marking the start of the ‘sing-sing’ welcome dance. The women sway their hips, swishing the long grasses tucked into their pants and loincloths, and dance in a circle, singing. Earlier in the trip, performances like these had seemed a little forced or fake. Not this one. But still, I want to break the barrier of politeness that has been drawn, so pick up strands of grass skirt that have fallen to the floor, tuck them into my shorts, and join in the dance. Whoops of laughter erupt from the women and the babies’ tears dry mid-cheek as they gape at me wide-eyed.
When the festivities subside, Pilmush — one of the villagers — ushers us towards his house where we’ll sleep for the night. It sits on high stilts and we have to master the wide bamboo steps and creaky sago-palm floor. We lie on our simple mattresses beneath mosquito nets listening to geckos barking in the rafters and the comforting sounds of whispered voices from neighbouring homes. “It’s just like Airbnb!” jokes one of our group, Anne. In a way she’s right: it doesn’t feel uncomfortable at all.