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Crocodile Clan Male Initiation Ceremony & Sepik River Expedition

Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea is like no other place on Earth.

Indisputably the most culturally diverse country in the world, it is a land of stunning mountains, spectacular wildlife and one of the world’s last intact systems of tribes, clans and rituals.

In many remote villages across the country, first contact with the outside world is well within living memory and visiting today is like stepping back in time to witness cultures that defined native peoples for millennia. This expedition takes you to perhaps the most interesting part of Papua New Guinea… the Sepik River.

At 1,126 kilometres, the Sepik River is Papua New Guinea’s answer to the Amazon. It is the country’s longest river and is often referred to as Papua New Guinea’s ‘cultural heart’ because it is so rich and varied in its tribal cultures. During this 12-day trip, we travel by canoe to the Upper Sepik and Middle Sepik to visit villages with ancient beliefs and rituals. We will meet the famed crocodile men, known for their intricate crocodile-skin scarification marks, and we will be allowed to observe an initiation ceremony. We will visit many varied Spirit Houses and discover the Iatmul tribe’s mythologies of wayward spirits and how an animalistic culture still hold sway over traditional village lifestyles.

During our journey along the Sepik River, we will have many bird-watching opportunities (with good chances to see several birds of paradise). We will visit numerous villages for artefact buying opportunities and may be allowed to go out with the crocodile men to observe their traditional livelihood of hunting crocodiles at night.

During this expedition, we will visit many (varied) villages along the Sepik River that offer opportunities to purchase crafts and artefacts, including spectacular masks, stone tools, shields figures and axes!

WE ARE OFFERING AN ALL-INCLUSIVE COST/PERSON OF US $4,750 for 12 days/11 nights (all-inclusive from start to end points). This includes economy airfares from Port Moresby to Wewak return.  Standard accommodation with meals for two nights in the “In Wewak Boutique Hotel”. All transport costs, all food and accommodation on the river, an English speaking local initiated guide, bedding and mosquito nets, private chartered bus with AC from Wewak to Pagwi return and airport transfers.

NOTE: this trip includes an essential 25,000 Kina (approx US $7,580) donation from our group to the Iatmul community as a gesture of friendship to help the lives of old and young people. This cost is paid out of your fee and not additional. This is essential to enable our access to these fascinating villages and witness the Iatmul way of life and the initiation ceremony.

DEPOSIT POLICY: US $1,680 to reserve your place (non-refundable, unless we can find a replacement to step into your booking). The balance is due 30 days prior to departure.

START POINT: Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

END POINT: Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

DATES: Monday November 5th to Friday November 16th, 2018 [Note: these dates minimise the number of weekdays required as participants will be able to catch outbound flights to PNG on Saturday November 3rd and return home on Saturday November 17th) – just 10 working days needed!].

ACCOMODATION: In Wewak at the “In Wewak Boutique Hotel” twin share. Single supplement (private rooms) available at extra cost.

GROUP SIZE: 10 plus staff

Email us for more information and to make bookings.

ITINERARY

November 5th – Day 1: We meet at Port Moresby airport for flight (approx at 10.00 am) to fly to the town of Wewak. We are met at the airport and transferred to the “In-Wewak Boutique Hotel” where we overnight and have a group dinner. At 7 pm we have a detailed briefing meeting held explaining the itinerary of our expedition.

November 6th – Day 2: After breakfast, at 8:30 am, we drive to the small town of Pagwi on the Sepik River (about 5 hours driving time). We break the journey on route for a cold drink and sandwiches break.

At Pagwi, we meet with our canoes and canoe men who will transport you up river to visit Wagu Lagoon in the Upper Sepik and check into the guest house there. Overnight and dinner in the guesthouse.

November 7th and 8th – Days 3 and 4: Awake early and visit birds of paradise sites to (hopefully) see Raggiana birds of paradise performing their dawn chorus. Sightings cannot be guaranteed, but we have a good chance!

After birding, we return to the guesthouse for breakfast. We then continue up river to visit Yambon village to visit the Haus Tambaran (Spirit House). We continue further up river to the villages of Yessan and Maio, which follow a Yam culture (as can be seen in their carved artefacts). We dine and sleep in village family houses in the Upper Sepik  for the nights of days 3 and 4.

November 9th – Day 5: Today we journey by canoe to Tongujam to visit the distinctive (and very different) Spirit House of that village. Afterwards, we begin the return journey down river stopping off at a few other villages and overnight and dine in a family house near Ambunti.

November 10th – Day 6: Today we canoe down river to Korogo Village fishing lake. There we start a 2-hour trek inland through the tropical rainforest into the delightful village of Yumuk. We visit some of the 6 Spirit Houses within Yumuk which are beautifully and distinctly decorated with painted beams and rafters from natural clay colours of ochre, grey, white and black sourced from the Sepik River. This style is unique to Yumuk. We dine and sleep in the Yumuk village guesthouse.

November 11th – Day 7: After visiting any remaining Spirit Houses, which we did not see yesterday, we trek back to the canoes at the fishing lake and travel further down river to the Middle Sepik region, which is the Iatmul tribe’s area. The Iatmul are famed for their ‘Crocodile Clan Culture’ and occur across this part of the Sepik River. We visit Kanganamun village, which has the largest Spirit House on the entire river. We dine and sleep in Kanganamun village guest house. An opportunity to go with the villagers crocodile hunting (their traditional livelihood) may be possible in the evening.

November 12th – Day 8: After breakfast, we visit Palembei village (also the Iatmul tribe). The village is home to two spectacular Spirit Houses filled with artefacts, some of which are for sale.

Note: our team in PNG have built a uniquely close, longstanding relationship with the Iatmul tribe, and we have been invited to observe a male initiation ceremony. It is extremely rare for outsiders to be permitted to watch this intimate ceremony (see explanation on the following pages).

Late in the afternoon, we travel to the initiation ceremony location, and make a base camp in the village guest house and / or family houses nearby.

From early evening the already initiated men will start their traditional chanting, and marching round and round, each calling out to their own ancestral Crocodile Spirits for support and guidance for the following morning’s ritual. We have the option to stay with them all night listening to the mysterious, hypnotic chanting (though there will be accommodation should anyone wish to sleep).

November 13th – Day 9: At the first light of dawn, we arise and gather outside the Spirit House where the initiation ritual will commence. The, to be initiated, young men are taken in behind the leaf fence into the Spirit House. In an age-old tradition, the Iatmul tribe cuts the skin of their young men to initiate them. The skin cuts cause scars in patterns that resemble the scales of a crocodile. We may be allowed to witness this ancient custom from start right through to completion inside the Spirit House. The highest respect is required from all visitors during this very private and intimate ritual. After lunch, we travel by canoe to visit the village of Kimindibit where the village ladies will demonstrate daily village tasks of grass skirt making, weaving, sago making/cooking. We then travel onto Aibon (a clay pottery centre) and visit the Chambri Lakes. We dine and sleep in a local guest house.

November 14th – Day 10: Today, we visit a series of villages of the Chambri Lakes, then travel back up river to Kanganamun village. We dine and sleep in Kanganamun village guest house. We may have a second opportunity to observe the villagers crocodile hunting (their traditional livelihood).

November 15th – Day 11: After breakfast the next morning, we motor upriver, stopping off at Korogo village before we return to Pagwi. We say goodbye to the boatmen, transfer into a private charter bus, and are driven back to the “In-Wewak Boutique Hotel” where we will have a group dinner and overnight. We will hopefully aim to arrive in Wewak during the early afternoon so if you wish to walk around the town market that would be possible.

November 16th – Day 12: After breakfast, we transfer from the hotel to Wewak airport for a flight to Port Moresby. We should land at Port Moresby airport by 5 pm (possibly earlier) in time for 7:30 pm departing flights. Depending upon the schedule of flights, we may be able to arrive back at Port Moresby early enough to visit one or more art and artefact traders, and a shipping agent (to send back any items as required).

Please note: all journeys to the Sepik River depend upon the level of the water during the time of the visit. The water level may impact the speed at which we can travel and which villages we can visit. While it is our intent to visit all of the villages listed above, participants on this expedition must specifically understand that changes to the itinerary may arise. If any changes to the plan are necessary, all adjustments will be discussed openly with the group.

On the Sepik River the accommodation is basic, and you will be staying in our guesthouses or village family houses. There are only basic washing and toilet facilities available.

DETAILS ON THE MIDDLE SEPIK CROCODILE CLAN MALE INITIATION

Very few outsiders are allowed to visit the male initiation ceremony of the crocodile clan (Iatmul tribe). Our visit during this trip is only possible because of a longstanding relationship built on trust between the tribe and our team working in Papua New Guinea. In return for being allowed to observe the tribe’s ancient ceremony, we (as a group) will be donating 25,000 Kina (approx US $7,580) to the village as a gesture of friendship (very important in Papua New Guinea for building trust). This money will be given to help the lives of old and young people.

The male initiation ceremony is performed only by the Iatmul people in the Middle Sepik villages, and traditionally, once every 7 to 10 years. It involves many months of preparation, and a tremendous amount of effort and work from the whole village community.

This intimate and secret ritual is fundamental to Iatmul culture and traditionally welcomes adolescent boys gaining their status into manhood together with gaining highly respected warrior status by obtaining their ancestral crocodile powers. The Iatmul people of this region do not worship the crocodile; instead they co-share living together on the river and revere the large reptile for its strength. To the Iatmul, the crocodile is central to many ancient traditional myths from creation of their people through to power and spiritual guidance.

The traditional initiation procedure comprises of a succession of rituals designed to test the physical strength and moral fibre of the young “man to be”, as well as remove him from the influences of his mother.

The village Spirit House is where the initiation ritual is performed. Prior to the ritual event, a high leaf barrier is built to surround the traditional structure so that non-initiated males, women and children cannot see what will be performed inside. This temporary fencing barrier represents the crocodiles nest.

The night before the initiation the traditional flutes and drums are played throughout the night together with the initiated men chanting for calling upon their ancestral crocodile spirits. Other mysterious sounds are made to ward off evil spirits.

Early the following morning the initiates will be pulled into the Spirit House by their maternal uncles and made to lie down. These uncles will calm and comfort the initiates whilst the boy’s bodies are being cut as it is imperative that no sound from the “man to be” is made. They have to endure the difficult procedure without omitting any noise or cries, or their initiation becomes invalid.

The skin is cut on the back, shoulders, upper arms and chest of the “man to be”. After the cutting, the cuts are then washed with water, then painted gently with traditional lotion of bush antiseptics oils. A few days later the scabs are scraped off and a thick lotion, based from fire ash and natural oils, is rubbed into each mark so that the scars will heal to be raised and dark in colour. Then river clay is painted over the initiates’ bodies and face as a barrier over the wounds, representing the crocodile egg, with potential hatchlings inside it. The initiates then remain inside the Spirit House with the Chief and older initiated men to recover over a period of weeks or in some villages for many months. The mothers, sisters or wives are not allowed to see the recently cut men in the Spirit House during the following six weeks or more.

During this time of seclusion, the women of the village cook their sons/brothers the very best village food and place the bowls near the entrance to the Spirit House, as it is strictly taboo for any un-initiated people to see the young men. Inside the Spirit House, as they recover, the Chief will give each young man his secret Crocodile name and teach the initiates secrets and powers of their Clan. The chief will also instruct them as to their new responsibilities, and expectations regarding marriage and living within the village community.

Only when the Chief is fully satisfied that each of the young men has fulfilled his passage into being a Crocodile Man with high warrior status, does he allow the men to finally emerge out from the shadows of the Spirit House and enter back into village life.  This conclusion is marked with a ritual bathing to remove the clay from their bodies, thus representing the hatching from the egg of a young crocodile. This is a time of great joy and pride within the village as the completed ritual has brought the young men into their fathers and grandfathers clan, formed tight bonds with their fellow initiates and the older initiated men together with the highest respect from all within the village and along the river. The Crocodile men wear their scar marks with great pride and honour for the rest of their lives!