The Crocodiles of the Sepik, Papua New Guinea

Life on the Sepik

the canoe – the indispensible method of transport on the Sepik River, carved out of a single tree trunk

The atmosphere was tense in the boat. We were surrounded by silence and darkness. Every few seconds, a flying fish smaller than my palm would violently shatter the stillness, making my heart jump out of my chest and my imagination run wild at what might have been. An instant later the heavy silence was covering again the night and we would continue our search.

Nelson, our guide, was flashing his light in search of the red reflections. Now and then they would appear in the distance only to sink back down in the dark expanse of the water. The pupils of the crocodiles that inhabit the river reflect the red light off the beam that reaches them. On moonless nights, the crocodiles can be blinded by the flashlight so that the Crocodile Men can get close enough to hunt them. The hunt would consist of the man armed with a spear, going against an incredibly powerful animal that has the river and the night as its allies. I’m not sure if it’s a fair fight, but the Crocodile Men certainly treat it with the utmost respect.

the river is the highway, source of food origin of the stories and myths but also the one that isolates the communities from the outside world

Life on the Sepik depends on the river but is ran by the spirits. Nelson explained that his clan was created by the Sun Spirit. He would sometimes talk to the rain spirit to be good to us and not get us wet during the day. But the mighty spirit on the Sepik is that of the crocodile. It is a good spirit that gives men wisdom and strength, food (when the crocodiles allow themselves to be hunted) and protection.

The Crocodile Men

men sitting in their Haus Tambaran
a village has as many Haus Tambaran as it has clans. this one was just across the lawn from the one above

I am in one of the many remote areas of Papua New Guinea. Arrived in one of the villages, I walk into the yard of the Haus Tambaran. Each clan has its own “Haus Tambaran”, or Spirit House, that is a wooden structure dedicated to the spirit that created the clan. This one was dedicated to the Crocodile Spirit. A dozen young men were sitting idle on low stools, letting the sun bake the dry clay covering their skins.

waiting for the paint clay to dry

To get the crocodile’s strength and wisdom, young men go through a brutal initiation process that takes weeks or months to complete and is led by the clan’s head. The boys, in their late teens or early twenties, leave the family home to spend these weeks at the Haus Tambaran. Here, the clan’s head cuts their skin in a pattern that makes it resemble crocodile skin. To make sure the cuts heal with raised scars for a more dramatic outcome, the skin is rubbed with a mixture of clay and herbs.

future crocodile man covered in mud, sitting on a carved chair

While I was aware of this practice, it was a surprise to get a glimpse of it, as it is not something occurring every day. The men have already been in there for one month and had no idea when they would be out. It was the head of the clan that decided when they were ready. I asked them if it’s mandatory to do it. It’s not, but those who want to get married want to prove they are a strong provider for the family. Another obvious question was if this ever goes wrong. The response was prompt and matter of factly: “It sometimes does. Sometimes the young men die. That happens with those that are unworthy of the Crocodile Spirit”. And that’s how men get the crocodiles strength.

Jackson, a seasoned crocodile hunter, posing in front of the Haus Tambaran of his clan.

The spirits of the jungle

The next morning I woke up before sunrise and got in the canoe with the first rays of light. The river was calm, silent and the landscape a minimalists dream. We crossed it and got off straight in the jungle which offered a sweet assault on all senses. The humidity in the air, the rich fertile smell of the forest, hundreds of different types of plants, but most notable, the sounds. Life in the rainforest is most obvious to the hearing. Crickets, frogs, tens of different types of birds were filling my ears with nature’s music. It felt like every creature was happy to wake up and showed it by making some noise. And the noisiest of all were the birds of paradise. Asking for attention, but high up in the canopy where it’s impossible to reach them and extremely hard to even see them. Spreading their brick red wings for just a second before taking off to do the same in another treetop to show off to another audience.

egrets enjoying the rich and wide river. I’m sure the crocodiles were doing the same under the surface

From the boat, Nelson pointed his flashlight to a spot close to the shore. Maybe a dozen pairs of eyes shone their red light back to us from a corner of the night. But the confrontation wouldn’t happen that particular night. The moon was shining enough ambient light so that the crocodiles could see our boat and avoid us. I wasn’t sorry. Only knowing they were all around us was enough.

arts and crafts are heavy with crocodile symbols