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.