Dug-outs Downstream in PNG
Story by Tony Robinson-Smith, photos by Nadya Ladouceur

Can a hollowed-out tree trunk get you down a crocodile-infested tropical river in Papua New Guinea? Two Canadians find out.

travel story papua New Guinea

Coated in sweat, chests heaving, we arrive at the village late in the afternoon. Nadya and I shrug off our packs and shake the hand of a sinewy man with a shaved head, a short beard wound into a spike, and tribal scars resembling crocodile scales corrugating his back. His hut with its stilt legs and sagging sago-palm roof is the one closest to the river. Beneath it, driven into the ground like spears, are three paddles with long shafts and pointed blades. Tom, Fice, Kingston, and Alex, the four local high school students accompanying us, have told the man what we want. Yanking out one of the paddles, he leads us down a narrow dirt path.

Naked boys are flinging themselves off the four-meter riverbank and shrieking as their bodies smack the churning, brown water below. One plasters himself from head to foot in mud before coming to look us over. The Dio, a tributary of the Sepik, is about fifty meters wide and bordered by tall grasses and a rich tangle of vine-throttled trees. I see a pair of seven-meter-long dug-outs with outboard engines nestled against the near bank. Not what we are after. The man tells us to take a seat on a log. Young barefoot mothers in flowery dresses join us, carrying babies on their hips. They are also looking to go downstream.

Papua New Guinea

Transportation in a Land With No Roads

My wife and I arrived in Papua New Guinea a week ago, hoping to paddle the length of the Sepik in a traditional canoe. It was our first time here, and we knew no one. But in Vanimo on the north coast, we met a headmaster willing to give us a ride to his school buried in the jungle a hundred and fifty kilometers inland. The students were about to return to their home villages for Easter, he told us, some of which were on the Sepik. They could help us paddle. I wasn't so sure. The ones going our way were in Grade 10, meaning they were fifteen or sixteen years old. What if the dug-out capsized or sprang a leak? Would they know what to do?

What if we ran into a hostile tribe on the way? PNG had a reputation for violence; pirates were active on the Sepik. What about fending off crocs? Once we started downriver, there would be no roads out for hundreds of kilometers. None of the teachers at the school nor a visiting electrician wanted to go with us. The only thing the students had, apart from their notebooks and pens, was a bush knife.

"Oscar, em kumup nau," whispers the bearded man. Oscar is coming.

canoes in Papua New GuineaPapuans paddle standing up, I note, watching a rangy man with coal-black skin pump a skinny, four-meter pirogue down the river towards us. As he approaches, I see that the paddle has a crocodile head carved into the handle. He pulls in and Nadya suggests I go for a spin. I slide down the riverbank and almost lose balance as I clamber in. The boat is nothing more than a hollowed-out tree trunk. I sit down quickly and brace my knees against the sides. Oscar stabs the bank with his paddle and shoves us out into the current. The pirogue rocks dangerously from side to side, and I cling nervously to the gunwales. How can he paddle while standing and keep his balance? I try to turn around to observe his technique, but turning means lifting my bum and the shift in weight threatens to tip us over. I face forward again and hunch over. With each thrust from Oscar's paddle, I find I need to lean to compensate.

Back on dry land, Oscar hands over his paddle and urges me to have a go. Nadya hops in the front with a short paddle she borrowed from someone. We push off, and my wife puts to use her considerable paddling skills while I, firmly seated in the stern, manhandle the oversized paddle. We manage a circle: into the current, upstream a bit, across to the far bank, into the current again, and back to where we started, the pirogue dancing about, barely under control and taking on water. We are both relieved to get out.

A Sturdier Way Down the Sepik River

I look at the river coursing by and shake my head. No way I could stand and propel this craft a thousand kilometers to the sea, especially in the rainy season when the water level is high. It would capsize on the first day, and our belongings would vanish into the soup. We'd be crocodile food. There must be wider-hulled, medium-sized canoes around for sale. Perhaps at Mockwai, the first village on the Sepik. Maybe we should ride with the mothers and their babies in a motor-canoe and make further enquiries there.

Another man turns up in a dug-out like Oscar's. Would we be interested in buying two canoes? One student could travel with Nadya, another with me. The remaining two could ride in the motor-canoe with the mothers. I shake my head. If one dug-out isn't going to work, how can two? Tom, the student wishing to travel farthest with us, has the answer. We should buy both canoes and tie them together to make a raft. The students disappear into the forest with their bush knife and return with two sticks, each as thick as my forearm. I shake my head again. How on earth are they going to make a raft without any nails or rope or planks? Off they go once more, this time into the tall grasses growing at the waterside. My wife and I return to the log.

canoeing in Papua New GuineaI recall reading about the challenges early white settlers faced navigating the Upper Sepik a century ago. One remarkable four-month journey saw two Australian patrol officers and forty-two Papuan policemen and porters traverse New Guinea south to north at its widest point, completing their crossing by raft down the Sepik. Unable at first to find hardy but buoyant duduye logs to lash together, they settled for a heavier wood. Five of their six rafts hit snags and disintegrated. Against his companion's advice, Ivan Champion persisted with the slightly more buoyant sixth and noted down his experience in his journal afterwards:

There was another and greater crash; one corner had hit a submerged snag and this time the craft did not swing clear. In a moment we had turned sideways on. I saw one side of the raft rise up; instinctively I flung myself across in a puny effort to bring it down but found myself under the water hanging on with both hands...

More recently, American adventurer Kira Salak paddled a leaky "pontoon boat" from Ambunti to Angoram, two villages on a less boisterous stretch lower down the river. Using a pair of dug-outs as outriggers, the Australian she was travelling with built a bamboo platform and erected a mast. When they were busy bailing water or had grown tired of paddling, they hoisted his rain poncho up the mast and sailed.

Boat Building Innovation on a PNG Riverbank

Our students return, dragging behind them a dozen two-meter-long canes. Fice, holding the bush knife by the blade rather than by the handle, peels each stalk and teases out the tough fibers within. Alex winds one around his hand, Kingston another. Tom fetches one of the sticks. While he and Fice hold the canoes steady, Alex and Kingston lay it across the two bows. Kingston ties the end of the twine to one end of the stick and loops the loose end under one hull and passes it up between the canoes to Alex. Alex takes it, wraps it twice around the stick, and pulls it taut. Under the second hull it goes and back to Kingston. Kingston tugs hard and ties a knot. They get another cane fiber and repeat the process in reverse. Nadya and I watch fascinated. I expect the thin cane fiber to snap, but it doesn't, despite getting repeated dunkings in the river. Next, the stern. It is Tom and Fice's turn. Alex goes off to peel more cane.

When they are done, they call us over. We climb aboard and test the new accessories. Solid. We can even sit on these sticks to paddle, or, now that we have a twin-hulled vessel, stand to do so. And our improvised raft is sturdy enough to give all four students a ride home. We pay 200 kina (CAN$80) for each pirogue and 20 kina for a paddle. I have no idea what the going rate is for a scooped-out tree trunk, but I don't care. The villagers only have one paddle to sell us, so Tom lops off a branch to serve as a second. We load up and set off in the last of the light. White cockatoos and green parrots bullet by overhead, squawking riotously. I scan the tarry riverbanks for crocodiles. These and piranhas are, apparently, plentiful in the Sepik and its tributaries.

Papua New Guinea village sunset

"Tenkyu tru!" we say, thanking the villagers as the current seizes us.

A couple wave, but most just stare. I wonder if what Nadya and I are doing is rash. We know nothing about dug-out canoes and only as much about the Sepik as our guidebook tells us (no info there on its upper reaches where we will join it). We have no idea whether foreigners are permitted to do this kind of thing, and our command of the local language extends little further than the words, Apinun. Yu stap gut? (Afternoon. How are you?) and Tenkyu tru (Thank you kindly).

I look at Tom with his hacked branch, poling like a gondolier; at Fice with the crocodile paddle, keeping our raft pointed downstream; at Alex crouching up front, looking out for submerged branches; at Kingston at the stern, bailing with a bark scoop. I try to relax. It may seem to us that we are breaking new ground and being uncommonly intrepid, but that is the waitman's illusion. For the Papuans, this is likely just another unremarkable day en route to the Sepik highway.

During our six-week voyage on the Sepik, we would learn that crocodiles retreat to the swamps in rainy season; that piranhas do not regard human beings as dinner; that traveling with villagers is the trick to staying safe from piracy. We learn that Papuans grow up fast, are knowing of the forest and its resources, and are adept at handling dug-out canoes.

Tony Robinson-Smith is the author of Back in 6 Years: A Journey around the Planet without leaving the Surface and The Dragon Run: Two Canadians, Ten Bhutanese, One Stray Dog, which tells of his 578 km run across the Bhutanese Himalaya to raise money to send village kids to school. He and his wife spent three months traveling in the Papua New Guinean interior, paddling dug-out canoes down the Sepik, scrambling up Mt. Wilhelm, and tracking down elusive Birds of Paradise. Check out his blog for more.

Related Features:
A Warriors' Welcome in Maikmol, PNG - Tony Robinson-Smith
Healed by Adventure Travel on the Way to Raja Ampat - Julia Hubbel
The Shape-shifter and the Architect - Tony Robinson-Smith
Rent a Real Man in Borneo - Bruce Northam

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