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Papua New Guinea: Keram river

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Keram river > Papua New Guinea > Oceania

[Visited: June 2016]

Originally, I have foreseen to sail down the Sepik river on PMV canoes, but when I studied this option more closely, I realized there were too many uncertain factors, and that I would risk spending all the time I had dedicated to visiting Papua New Guinea, to just the Sepik region. Taking a private canoe all the way down the Sepik is a costly affair, and I somehow imagined it would be hard to find others to make it a joint excursion. Instead, I decided to catch a PMV to Angoram, and then explore the lower part of the Keram river from there. A canoe, skipper and guide are quickly arranged, and we head west on the mighty river. Angoram now behind us, we see many huts on the river banks, most of them on stilts. The recent serious flood has shown how important it is to have some vertical distance to the water levels. My guide explains how they can raise the first floor using ropes, making sure there is a dry area to live on above the water. The reflection in the mirror-like river water gives a perfect upside-down view of river bank, houses, and clouds.

Picture of Keram river (Papua New Guinea): Cloudy sky reflected in the quiet waters of the Sepik river west of Angoram

The fellow in front of our canoe, who joined last minute without any explanation, now tells the skipper to turn left. Initially, this seems impossible, but then the canoe glides through high vegetation into a narrow natural canal: we have reached a shortcut to the Keram river. The next twenty minutes are a nightmare: we are attacked from all sides by waves of mosquitoes. Canoes going the opposite direction all have heavy smoke to deter the malicious insects. When we finally reach the Keram, I have killed more mosquitoes than in my entire life so far combined. But now, the best part starts. The Keram meanders through the lush vegetation, and we regularly pass small villages. When we come to Chimondo, we get off, and ask a local family if we can continue. We quickly gather a crowd who follows us in search of the haus tambaran, or house of spirits. We find the remains of it: only the wooden pillars are there, the house is gone. I ask if they have already built a new one, but this has not happened yet. The pillars turn out to be intricately carved from base to top, with mostly human figures and crocodiles. There are some explicit scenes as well; no one can explain me what they mean. It now turns out that my guide has never been here before. We cross the river, walk past some more huts, and another crowd follows us. People take their carvings out into the daylight, and show them to me. Some are rudimentary, some show talent. Not once am I asked to buy one of them: the artist is just proud of his work, and then carefully puts it back to where he keeps it. Most of the carvings show river village life: people, huts, boats, river, crocodiles. When we finally leave, the crowd on the river bank waves us goodbye. I now realize that the guy in front of the canoe has left: apparently, he had to go one village upstream and just got a free ride on my canoe. I wish I would have known: I would have joined him on his walk.

Picture of Keram river (Papua New Guinea): Carved wooden column, part of haus tambaran, in Chimondo on the Keram river

On our way down the Keram, I manage to convince the skipper not to take the shortcut anymore and avoid the aggressive mosquitoes. We reach a point where a black and white river meet, and a little downstream, reach the Sepik. Clouds are gathering in the sky, and we see rain fall in the distance, forming a rainbow over the flat landscape while we stay in the sun. We pass a small lake in the river, and then visit a crocodile farm. The owners have built a tall fence to prevent the animals from swimming away during the flood. The crocs are not very big, and even when they are fed fish, they don't seem too eager to eat. We are on our way to Kambaramba, or at least: one of the Kambarambas: my guide tells me that there are actually several parts of the village on the river banks. The weather is changing: heavy clouds lie low in the sky, and a strong wind stirs up choppy waves. To my surprise, our high and narrow canoe stays dry while the skipper steers us towards the village. After passing a small market, we soon discover that Kambaramba has been badly hit by the flood; the marks of the water can still be seen everywhere. People tell me how they were living with their kids, dogs, and pigs on the raised floor for months on end, their canoes tied to the poles of their hut instead of lying on the river bank. Here, too, big carvings are taken out for me to see. A half-crocodile half-man, and a garamut (a heavy wooden instrument once also used for communications) are the highlights. It is getting dark, and time to get back to Angoram. On the way back, we are treated with one of those sunsets for which the Sepik is rightly famous.

Picture of Keram river (Papua New Guinea): Houses on stilts with reflection in the Sepik river
Picture of Keram river (Papua New Guinea): Bird of paradise carving
Picture of Keram river (Papua New Guinea): Crocodile and man carved out of wood
Picture of Keram river (Papua New Guinea): Canoe on the wide Sepik river west of Angoram
Picture of Keram river (Papua New Guinea): Detail of haus tambaran in Chimondo
Picture of Keram river (Papua New Guinea): Cloudy sky over canoe and Sepik river
Picture of Keram river (Papua New Guinea): Proud Papua showing his carving in a village on the Keram river
Picture of Keram river (Papua New Guinea): Close-up of scene carved out in traditional work of art
Picture of Keram river (Papua New Guinea): Smoke on the water: canoe with people and smoke against the mosquitoes on the Keram river
Picture of Keram river (Papua New Guinea): Clouds over the river with a rainbow
Picture of Keram river (Papua New Guinea): Villagers showing a garamut, traditional instrument, in Kambaramba
Picture of Keram river (Papua New Guinea): View of a sunset over the Sepik river
Picture of Keram river (Papua New Guinea): Sago extractor in the Keram river at Chimondo

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