There are two major rivers in Papua New Guinea, the Fly - which runs from the mountains south to empty into the Gulf of Papua - and the Sepik - which runs 700 miles from the mountains to the Bismark Sea in the north. Our destination today is the village of Kopar, just in the mouth of the Sepik. In fact, the Sea Dream is the first cruise ship to enter the river, and the people will be excited to see us.
The overarching theme of the lower Sepik River is the crocodile. Estuarine Crocodiles, growing up to seven meters (23 feet) live in the salty, brackish water. The Crocodile Men of the Sepik go through an initiation trial which culminates in their scarification so that the raised keloids on the front and back of their torsos look like the "scutes" and scales of a crocodile's back.
Though we didn't see the religious long house for the men's rites, we learned from J.C., the anthropologist, some of what happens inside such a Haus Tamburan. A group of young initiates stays there for months with the elders and their sponsors, who are usually their maternal uncles. There is hazing and physical punishment with the goal of casting aside the weakness attached by being born of women. With the crocodile scarification the initiates are ultimately reborn in the Haus Tamburan as full men whose bird totems have dreamed them into being. Sacred flutes to play the totemic birdsong are also associated with the Haus Tamburan and hidden away in its rafters. In past times, if a woman entered the Haus Tamburan, or caught even a glimpse of a religious flute, she was instantly killed.
From Brad, the naturalist, we learned about the biology of these Salty Crocodiles. They have: "scutes" or raised scales that run the length of its tail to its neck; binocular vision from eyes raised and placed close together at the top of its head; and highly sensitive hearing from timpanic canals that run through the head from one ear to the other. Brad also told us about the four-chambered crocodile heart, which evolved over 240 million years ago. It has an extra valve that allows the croc to shut off circulation of oxygenated blood from certain areas like the digestive system so it can channel blood to its brain, allowing it to stay below water for up to 45 minutes at a time. The female crocodile actually has some mothering instincts: she makes a mud burrow for her clutch of 80-100 eggs; she opens the burrow when she hears the hatchlings cry; and she carries the tiny crocs in her mouth to the river banks where they can immediately start hunting for insects.
The village of Kopar is build just along the river bank on a thin clearing of muddy soil. There is very little food production, other than Sago, which is a starchy paste made from tree bark. We found craftsmen with many carved masks for sale and also some bowls, though not as finely finished as those we'd seen at Tamil Island. Kopar is becoming a cash society, but they aren't well versed in bargaining yet; when we started to negotiate for a mask, the artist lowered his price twice before Barry could counter with anything.
We were greeted by a group of school children who sang songs for flag raising. A village leader, Timothy, turned out to have an American accent, because, as a son of a missionary and a local woman, he had grown up in Wisconsin. Dancers performed a spectacular Dragon Dance and then sang and acted out a couple of dramatic stories. The villagers were just as much an audience as the ship passengers. A young Mexican girl from the ship started drawing in the sand and everyone had to crowd around to see her. Just before we left Kopar, we found a man who raises crocodiles. Brad told us that their white underbelly skins are highly prized by French designers like Louis Vuitton, though the villager will only get $50-100 for a skin this size. I was amazed by how soft and warm it was to the touch.