Seven trips to PNG over 16 years and I've never made it to the Sepik, one of the world's great rivers. This time I won't miss out. My schedule only allows a few days - but it's enough for a taste. I've afforded myself this one indulgence - while tourists are snorkelling, touring hinterlands and visiting villages, guidebook writers are in towns and on duty, checking hotels, restaurants, flight schedules, banks and postal facilities - it's a bit tragic really.
In Wewak I contact a Sepik art broker about procuring a guide. She introduces me to Simon, and despite his limited English and my crude pidgin, we're friends within minutes. The Sepik is a powerhouse of Oceanic art, and I'm keen to purchase some carvings.
The next day I meet Simon outside a Wewak bank where I cash travellers cheques. It's expensive - guides, motor-canoe hire, fuel, accommodation - all in cash. Angoram, on the lower Sepik, is a five-hour ride from Wewak on a 'bus'. Mangi ('young men') is a 20-ton Isuzu flat-bed truck loaded with goods for the Angoram trade stores - rice, tinned food and 30 cases of bottled beer.
Within 15 minutes I'm very uncomfortable. The 113km dirt road is appalling, and we shake and bounce on the metal truck tray. Only 4¾ hours to go. The beer bottles jingle like Christmas bells, and I wince and grimace. Night falls. Fireflies twinkle by the road, but when we arrive in Angoram it's pitch black - there's been no mains electricity for 15 years. It's too late to take to the river, but all I care about is getting off the truck.
Early next day we have a motor-canoe (pronounced 'car-noo'): 20m long, a 25hp motor astern. We've also purchased 25 gallons of fuel, and bananas, buai (betel nut), peanuts and writhing freshwater prawns as big as my feet from the local market. My bum's still sore, so I sit down gingerly in the canoe feeling very unmanly. In moments we're off, into the vast brown waters of the Sepik ...
'Puk puk long river?' I ask Simon. 'Yes, crocodile' he says. I imagine the primeval malevolence lurking under the muddy water. We take the Keram, a lower Sepik tributary, to Kambot, home of the famous Sepik story boards, and later we go to Tambanum in middle 'big Sepik'. I sleep nights in village haus tambarans (traditional 'spirit' houses) bedecked with extraordinary carvings, and daytimes I doze in the canoe. Gangly white ibis take flight as we round each bend and eagles circle above. Riverbank trees hang with vines, exotic birds cry from the branches.
Four days later we rise at 3am to board the truck again . I'm filthy - I haven't washed since being on the river. The trip back to Wewak from Angoram is an abomination. I'm jammed among 60 people, I can't move or even shift my weight across my bum. The truck bucks and bolts, I'm in serious pain. I feel like I'm being sodomised by something huge and blunt ... like the back of a truck.
Finally we reach Wewak. I check into a grungy beachside hotel and bathe in the sea for the rest of the day. I glow with pleasure under the cold shower and in my clean clothes, but I walk kinda funny for a few days.