The Mighty Sepik River

Alex Rust

30 November 2010 | Papua New Guinea

Leaving the still erupting glow of Manam island behind we were in search of an old marine biology camp near Bogia. It was dark with no moonlight so we resorted to using a spotlights for navigation through the reefs but the water was milky due to runoff and after a love tap on the reef we decided to push a head against the wind towards the mouth of the Sepik river.

I had heard many tales of the Sepik (one of the great rivers of the world and navigable up to 1200 kilometers inland) but the most I had heard about it was that nobody really goes up there and the few other sailboats that dreamed it changed their mind upon reaching the waters of PNG. I learned that the mouth could spit out a current of 6 knots+ and the standing waves there could get over 10 feet both of which would make it impossible for us to get in with only a 50hp engine that could push us only 4.5 knots. We needed our rest but now were beating towards the mouth on little sleep.

After an exhausting night the winds quieted down and the mouth was in view. There were no sand bars to avoid and the standing waves were only half a meter although they looked quite strange after the seeing the moving waves of the ocean for several months. The current was only 2 knots and I grew excited knowing now we would make it in. Entering the mouth I looked back at the ocean to say goodbye with three volcano islands looming in the distance on the horizon. We rounded the first corner.. we were in.

The water was the muddy brown you would expect from a jungle river and if something floating in the water wasn’t sticking out of the water you couldnt see it. There were patches of drifting lilies and flowers by the dozens and you couldnt go a mile without seeing a huge log float by. It was over 100 feet deep and remained deep up the edges where reed grass would grow 20 feet tall . Many egrets lined the banks and numerous other unidentifiable birds filled the rivers airspace. We saw no structures or signs of human life yet we passed many wooden dugout canoes some with several people or whole families. We stopped and talked with one man asking him where he lived. He simply pointed into the reed grass.

After fours hours of motoring I looked at the GPS and noticed we were only a mile from where we had started even though we had covered 12 river miles. The snake-like winding of the river had brought us nearly back to the mouth with only a narrow strip of land separating us from the ocean. As we rounded the next bend and with the sea breeze on our rear quarter we were able to kill the engine and sail the next 5 miles up the river going faster than we were under motor power.

As night fell I decided to push forward up river rather than be become a sitting target for two foes we would undoubtedly encounter – pirates and mosquitos (dont know which is worse). The Sepik is infamous for its mosquitos and the pirate stories we heard in Madang were both real and recent. With one man on the bow with a spotlight and one on the wheel we crept up the river also using the countless fires we could see on the riverbanks helping to guide us through the darkness. We could see figures moving on the river and I held the loaded flare gun in hand to use if any go too close. We also had machetes on hand ready to do battle if need be.

Around midnight the river got wide, very wide, and even with the 5 million candle spotlight we couldnt see a bank on either side. Then the water got shallow, really shallow, going from 70 feet to 20 then 5. I tried turning every direction but it got shallower each direction I turned with nothing in site but blackness we had no bearings. Then came the familiar lurch forward of Bubbles running aground. I called for all hands and as we turned our torches to our surroundings we found more bad news- massive logs sticking out of the water and an island of lilies at the bow. It was like we had somehow taken a course off the river and into a swamp. We dare not get off the boat to move the logs for fear of the many crocodiles we had already seen. We began maneuvering the boat with large sticks forward and backwards hoping we werent digging ourselves deeper in the mud. After multiple times gunning it in forward and reverse with the rudder hard over we somehow managed to free ourselves and find deeper water.

By 3 am we reached the river town of Angoram and with a crowd gathered at our arrival under the only light in town we anchored and pulled down the mainsail. Ben played the role of security until sunrise when we readied the dingy for our first landfall in the Sepik.

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