Colourful Sepik River Crocodile Festival is a spectacular annual celebration in the heart of one of the most remote and isolated regions of Papua New Guinea. Attracting a variety of river tribes, very different from hill tribes of the Highlands region, this unique festival highlights the importance of crocodiles in lives of the Sepik people.
Papua New Guinea culture and traditions: East Sepik Province
At first, I think the crocodile strapped to the chest of an old man is fake but suddenly it opens one eye… It is small but alive. I look around and realise there are other men and women with this live garment, who participate in the Sepik River Crocodile Festival held in Ambunti on the shores of the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea.
For the last ten days, we have been travelling on the famous Sepik River, one of the largest rivers in the Asia-Pacific region, which unfolds like a snake for more than 1’000km. Located in East Sepik Province, it is one of the most remote and isolated regions of Papua New Guinea. It is a world, where time seems to be frozen in the past and where traditions, customs and culture still remain intact as evidenced by the Sepik River Crocodile Festival.
This small rural festival has started in 2007 to become an annual event and the largest festival in the region. It originated by the initiative of WWF Papua New Guinea to highlight the importance of conservation of wild crocodile population in their natural habitat along the Sepik River.
Each August the performers from different communities across the region come to Ambunti for this annual event dressed in their exquisite traditional attire, proud to showcase the unique Sepik culture. Some people from very remote villages spend two days and more traveling in canoes to reach the festival grounds.
Beautifully dressed sing sing groups keep coming for the first few hours. Soon, the showground becomes an exuberance of colours, beats of kundu, the famous Papua New Guinea traditional drums, stunning shields, bows and spears, frenzied dancing and enchanting singing, painted faces and exquisite traditional attire.
The local tribes proudly wear the best of their bilas, a pidgin term widely used in Papua New Guinea referring to the decoration of the body, which includes sea shells, crocodile teeth necklaces, grass skirts, and feathers of cassowary and bird of paradise. The traditional attire of Sepik people, with its intricate details, is unique and found nowhere else in the country. The crocodile motifs are omnipresent, and crocodile teeth are worn with pride by the locals.
The Sepik River Crocodile Festival pays tribute to crocodiles, the feared creatures considered sacred and known in pidgin as Pukpuk. The Sepik people are culturally and spiritually linked to these reptiles, who are featured in legends, beliefs, traditions and rites of the Sepik people. Crocodiles are the important part of the Sepik culture and the source of the Sepik people’s identity.
The Sepik River is home to some of the world’s largest freshwater and saltwater crocodile populations. It is the main transport route and the source of food. Although crocodile hunting is part of Sepik people lives, men and crocodiles maintain a close relationship, and the Crocodile Festival highlights a special bond between men and reptiles.
It is mid-day, and it is hot and airless. But it does not stop the local sing sing groups coming from different villages from competing with each other. It is surprising to see how traditional attire and dances vary from tribe to tribe along the same river. The dances are accompanied by the unmistakable sound of garamut, traditional drums of Papua New Guinea made of long hollow tree trunks and carved into the shape of totem animals.
Some fearless locals are dancing with live baby crocodiles, strapped to their chests. “This one is now too big. I will not use it next year“ confesses an old man, magnificent with his crocodile teeth necklace and a big crocodile resignedly hanging over his torso.
Walking around and mingling with the locals with wide smiles, I find myself chatting to a group of men. Then one young boy removes his t-shirt and proudly shows me his back with scars running from shoulder to hip, which resemble scales of crocodiles, a symbol of manhood, strength, and power. These scars clearly identify him as Sepik man.
The Sepik people are known for their crocodile worshipping and skin-cutting initiation ceremonies, which still continue among Sepik River communities. During the initiation ceremony, the young Sepik boys spend several months in seclusion in Haus Tambaran, the exclusively male domain, get educated in Sepik values, traditions and culture, get taught hunting, fishing, carving and other skills, and have their backs and chests deeply cut in a pattern that imitates crocodile scales. “Tree oil and clay are rubbed into the lesions both to disinfect and to ensure that the cuts heal as raised keloid scars, which mimic crocodile markings,” the young boy is sharing the Sepik know-how. “The initiation process is very painful but it makes men out of boys”. It is believed that initiated boysinherit the strength and fierceness of crocodiles.
Within a few hours, the showground is packed with exuberant performers with their stomping feet. All around, the locals and a handful of tourists watch, mingle with the performers, and even become active participants of the festival.
By the end of the day, traditional dances make space for some contemporary dramas.
When all the performers have left, the local string bands occupy the showground to the great delight of the public.
The Sepik people are not only known for their initiation ceremonies and spirit houses with soaring gabled roofs, Haus Tambaran, but also for elaborate wood carvings and clay pottery. There are improvised stalls on the ground selling and a wide range of crocodile-themed handicrafts such as carvings, necklaces, masks, canoe prows and many others. The sacred bond between the Sepik people and crocodiles is clearly seen in the carving made by local artisans, who are highly revered in their communities.
The Sepik Festival is winding down, and Ambunti reverts to a sleepy little town. We reluctantly embark on our canoe, with carvings and unforgettable memories. If the Sepik people have deep scars, the result of the skin-cutting initiation ceremony, we left with life-long memories, which remain deeply in our hearts. The memories of this unique festival held in a relaxed rural atmosphere, the untouched beauty of its surroundings, and especially the memories of friendly and welcoming Sepik people with their extraordinary culture.
Dates: The Sepik River Crocodile Festival is an annual 3-day event held on the first weekend of August. In 2017, the festival was held on 5-7 August. For more information, please contact
- Papua New Guinea Tourism Promotion Authority website
- Sepik River Crocodile Festival Facebook group page
- President of Sepik River Crocodile Festival: Mr. Alois Mateos email.
Phone: +675 456-2525 and mobile: +675 7265-6367
- Secretary of Sepik River Crocodile Festival: Mr. Jacob Marek email.
Phone: +675 456-1663 and mobile: +675 7063-9867
Location: The Sepik River Crocodile Festival takes place in Ambunti on the border of the Middle and Upper Sepik in East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea.
How to get there: Ambunti is only accessible by water on a motorised dugout canoe or by air. There are no roads in the area.From Port Moresby, fly to Wewak, the gateway to the Upper Sepik, with Air Niugini, Papua New Guinea national airline or PNG Air, ex-Airlines PNGFrom Wewak, go to Pagwi located on the banks of the Sepik River, and from Pagwi take a motorised dugout canoe to Ambunti. Distance from Wewak to Ambunti is about 120km. You can rent a car, also with a driver, to go from Wewak to Pagwi (about 3h). This is the most comfortable but very expensive option if you cannot share the costs.
The cheap and adventurous option is to take PMV (Public Motor Vehicle). Most PMVs leave Wewak for Pagwi around midday from the town center, which is the market, arriving in Pagwi at around 4pm. There are PMV departures from Wewak to Pagwi in the evening but security-wise, this is definitely not a good option. Travel by PMV takes a long time and they do not follow schedules – they depart when full. There are no PMVs on Sunday.
MAF (Missionary Aviation Fellowship) operates a light aircraft from Wewak to Ambunti (45min) on Tuesday and Thursday.
From Pagwi, you can charter motorised dugout canoe to go to Ambunti (about 1.5h), which is expensive given the high price of the fuel. You can also take a public boat in the morning to Ambunti. However, there is no departure schedule, and it can take a long time before the boat actually departs.
Where to stay and eat: Ambunti Lodge (expensive and mainly catering to the clients of Sepik Adventure Tours), Ambunti Catholic Mission, and Ambunti Hide Inn. The hotels in PNG usually have on-site restaurants.