The Sepik Spirit was heading down the Middle Sepik River into the Blackwater Lakes area with a very old culture. The channels are only navigable during certain periods of the year cutting down on the amount of outsiders who visit. Even though the vessel was specially built for this river there have been times when the cruise itinerary is shuffled around because of the prevailing conditions. The conditions were favorable for us and we left Timbunke on the Sepik River, branched off into the Krosmeri River and finally onto the Blackwater River. As stated earlier, the water appears black from tannic acid caused by decaying vegetation. During World War II, Japanese occupation troops killed over 100 villagers in Timbunke.
Each day was spent traveling by river boat through the flat landscape with only sago-palms and elephant grass in the distance, visiting new villages, learning about their cultures and buying…buying…buying. The Middle Sepik has the most artistic villages in this region and even though I had never collected primitive art before, the handicraft was impossible to resist.
This outlandish (to us) couple greeted us in the first village and it was obvious, we were not in Kansas anymore. This was typical, everyday dress for them. The villagers collect feathers from birds for their ornate headdresses (the more colorful, the better), wear necklaces made of cowrie shells, beads and animal teeth. There are over 37 species of Birds of Paradise in New Guinea and it is the official national bird.
As soon as the group entered the main village, paths were lined with carvings, statues, masks, drums, bows and arrows – all for sale. After seeing how primitively the people were dressed, some carrying their bows and arrows, I was hesitant to bargain and usually paid whatever they were asking. Wouldn’t you? Only the men do the carving and another consideration for me was…how scary and/or frightening was some of this artwork. Some of their masks would have scared the heebie-jeebies out of me hanging on a wall (their intent). Their art pieces are derived from spiritual beliefs and serve ceremonial functions, including cult hooks…supposedly, to hang skulls of ancestors on. Every piece had a meaning.
This was our first purchase…a woven basket…shaped like some sort of figure…with lots of personality…and it is still hanging on a wall in our house… but it was definitely not the last. ex-Marine casually mentioned that he was interested in a used drum…and lo and behold…the next thing I knew…we had bought a drum… then, ex-Marine bought a used-and-abused villager’s bow and arrow set right off his body AND some spears. Fortunately, this was all before 9/11 and there were no worries about getting bows and arrows back to the U.S.
We passengers visited many villages. After going ashore, visiting the village and bartering for carvings, statues, masks, we’d head back on board the Sepik Spirit. All of the carvings are part of the village scene and used to decorate the Haus Tambarans.
Everyone’s purchases had to be left outside on deck for the staff to spray with heavy-duty insecticide before we could take the daily finds to our cabins.