Papua New Guinea Sepik River Crocodile Festival

Traditional sing sing groups at Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti, East Sepik province of Papua New Guinea


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.

Ambunti in East Sepik province of Papua New Guinea

Ambunti, a sleepy town on the shores on Sepik River


Ambunti in East Sepik province of Papua New Guinea

Getting to the showground of the Sepik River Crocodile Festival

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.

Traditional dancers at Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti, East Sepik province of Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea festivals: Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti in East Sepik province

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.

Papua New Guinea festivals: Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti in East Sepik province

Papua New Guinea festivals: Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti in East Sepik province

Sepik tribes at Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti, East Sepik province of Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea festivals: Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti in East Sepik province

Papua New Guinea festivals: Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti in East Sepik province

Papua New Guinea festivals: Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti in East Sepik province

Traditional dancers at Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti, East Sepik province of Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea festivals: Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti in East Sepik province

Papua New Guinea festivals: Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti in East Sepik province

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.

Performers at Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti, East Sepik province of Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea festivals: Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti in East Sepik province

Dancing with crocodiles at Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti, East Sepik province of Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea festivals: Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti in East Sepik province

Sepik tribes at Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti, East Sepik province of Papua New Guinea

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.

Traditional sing sing groups at Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti, East Sepik province of Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea festivals: Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti in East Sepik province

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.

Papua New Guinea festivals: Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti in East Sepik province

Traditional dancers at Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti, East Sepik province of Papua New Guinea

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.

Papua New Guinea festivals: Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti in East Sepik province

Sepik tribes at Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti, East Sepik province of Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea festivals: Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti in East Sepik province

Dancing with crocodiles at Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti, East Sepik province of Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea festivals: Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti in East Sepik province

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.

Papua New Guinea festivals: Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti in East Sepik province

Traditional sing sing groups at Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti, East Sepik province of Papua New Guinea

Traditional sing sing groups at Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti, East Sepik province of Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea festivals: Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti in East Sepik province

Papua New Guinea festivals: Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti in East Sepik province

Papua New Guinea festivals: Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti in East Sepik province

By the end of the day, traditional dances make space for some contemporary dramas.

Papua New Guinea festivals: Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti in East Sepik province

Papua New Guinea festivals: Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti in East Sepik province

When all the performers have left, the local string bands occupy the showground to the great delight of the public.

Public at Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti, East Sepik province of Papua New Guinea

Public at Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti, East Sepik province of Papua New Guinea

Public at Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti, East Sepik province of Papua New Guinea

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.

Sepik arts and crafts at Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti, East Sepik province of Papua New Guinea

Sepik arts and crafts at Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti, East Sepik province of Papua New Guinea

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.

Sepik tribes at Sepik River Crocodile Festival in Ambunti, East Sepik province of Papua New Guinea


Practical Information

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.

LOVED IT? PLEASE SHARE

Written by
Errol & Olga

Written by ANYWAYINAWAY

Olga and Errol are the Swiss-Russian couple behind ANYWAYINAWAY. Passionate about unique culture and traditions, they decided to take career breaks and explore the world with the intention to expand awareness and provide new perspectives to the understanding of ethnic minority people, customs, traditions and culture. They also show the beauty of our planet and try to find something interesting in the ordinary.

ALL PHOTOS
ALL PHOTOS
SELECTION
SELECTION
ALL PNG FESTIVALS
ALL PNG FESTIVALS
ALL PNG FESTIVALS

Papua New Guinea Sepik River Crocodile Festival

Colourful Sepik 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 diffe...

Papua New Guinea Festivals: Enga Show

Unique and still intact culture, extravaganza of colours, body and face paint, impressive headdresses, traditional songs and frenzied dances make Enga Cultural Show a spectacular event. Its off-the-be...

Papua New Guinea: National Mask Festival in East New Britain

Mysterious and feared Duk-Duk, Kinavai ceremony, impressively dressed dancers from West New Britain, New Ireland and other provinces of Papua New Guinea with their elaborate ancestral and spirit mas...

Papua New Guinea Culture & Traditions: Baining Fire Dance

Sacred and captivating Baining Fire Dance is unique to the Baining people living in the mountain forests of East New Britain Province of Papua New Guinea. Performed only on rare occasions, the initi...

Papua New Guinea: Bougainville Reeds Festival

The Reeds Festival, held in Arawa town on the remote Bougainville Island of Papua New Guinea, is the unique opportunity to experience the rich culture and traditions of the island. The festival is an ...

Papua New Guinea: Gulf Mask Festival

The Gulf people don’t have many opportunities to participate in sing sing, the traditional festivals organised in other provinces. Attending the Gulf Mask Festival is a rare occasion to catch a glim...

Related Posts
More Stories

Bushwalking in PNG: Hombrum Bluff Lookout

Papua New Guinea: Bougainville Reeds Festival

Hiking in Switzerland on top of Grande Dixence Dam to the Dix hut

Hiking in Switzerland to the Arpitettaz Hut

Travel to the afterlife, or Hmong funerals in Vietnam

Bushwalking in PNG: Bisianamu Rubber Plantation

Hiking in Switzerland in Grindelwald – Bernese Oberland

Bushwalking in PNG: surroundings of March Girls resort

Overland Track Day 8: Narcissus Hut to Lake St Clair visitor centre at Cynthia Bay

Overland Track Day 2: Waterfall Valley Hut to Windermere Hut

Hand-Made Nyonya Beaded Shoemaker in Penang

Bushwalking in PNG: Burns Peak

Overland Track Day 7: Pine Valley Hut to Narcissus Hut

Laos without elephants ?

Keeper of the art of Rattan Weaving in Penang

Papua New Guinea Festivals: Enga Show

Chingay ritual, a special ending of the Chinese New Year

Tofu making in Vietnam

Overland Track Day 6: Bert Nichols Hut to Pine Valley Hut

The last Songkok maker in Penang

Black and White: White Temple In Chiang Rai

The last hand-made Joss Stick Maker in Penang

Chinese New Year celebration in Chiang Mai

Traditional Coffee Roaster in Penang

Living an Illusion: Art in Paradise gallery in Chiang Mai

Hiking in Switzerland in Ticino to the Basodino hut

Bicheno blowhole in Tasmania

Can Cau Market, or where to sell your buffalo

Oysters, cheese and pinguins. Bruny Island in Tasmania

Overland Track Day 4: Frog Flats to Kia Ora Hut through New Pelion Hut

Overland Track Day 1: Ronny Creek to Waterfall Valley Hut

Bushwalking in PNG: Varirata National Park

Papua New Guinea Sepik River Crocodile Festival

Hiking in Switzerland to the Sassal Mason Hut in Graubünden

Papua New Guinea Culture & Traditions: Baining Fire Dance

Bushwalking in PNG: Mt Diamond waterfall

Ten kilos of roses please: Pak Khlong Talat Flower market in Bangkok

Dumpling syndrome, or Baba Nyonya food culture

Overland Track, A Journey Into Tasmania’s Wilderness

Bushwalking in PNG: Mt Erima lookout

Hiking in Switzerland to the Aiguilles Rouges hut

Hiking in Switzerland to the Louvie hut

Traditional Signboard Engraver in Penang

Behind the satin curtains of a Chinese opera

Mekong crossing on slowboat: from Thailand to Laos

Freycinet Peninsula Circuit: Hiking in Freycinet National Park

Papua New Guinea: National Mask Festival in East New Britain

Hiking in Switzerland to the Aletsch Glacier

Popiah skin maker at Chowrasta market in Penang

West Side Story. West Coast of Tasmania

Overland Track Day 3: Windermere Hut to Frog Flats towards New Pelion Hut

Water buffalo or “iron buffalo”? Sanpatong market in Chiang Mai

Heaven and Hell: Black House in Chiang Rai

Walk on the wild side. Maria Island in Tasmania

Overland Track Day 5: Kia Ora Hut to Bert Nichols Hut at Windy Ridge

Hiking in Switzerland to the Mont-Fort Hut in Verbier

Beginining of our project

Papua New Guinea: Gulf Mask Festival

Hiking in Switzerland to the Schönbiel Hut in Zermatt

Bushwalking in PNG: Taurama Barracks to Malaoro market

Bay of Fires in Tasmania

Co-working spaces and cafes for digital nomads in Chiang Mai

Hiking in Switzerland to the Orny Hut in Wallis

Bushwalking in PNG: Taurama Barracks to Sero Beach and Pyramid Point

Bushwalking in PNG: Koitaki Country Club

No Comments

Post A Comment


close-link

close-link

close-link