My first sight of the Sepik was from the air. It looped across the land in great festive bows. Around it, glinting in silvery puddles, were strewn dozens of oxbow lakes, bends the river has discarded. New Guinea - after Greenland the second-largest island in the world - is in Oceania, where the Coral Sea meets the South Pacific. The river is on one of the farthest-flung frontiers of travel. In my days on it, I met one backpacker.
With most of PNG's attractions close to the coast and, for visitors, the interior largely inaccessible, the most practical way of seeing the country and its islands is by ship. Those that visit tend to be small expedition ships carrying teams who lead forays ashore in Zodiac inflatables. On one sortie to Ambunti, baggy clouds the size of small countries ringed the horizon. Around us stretched a great green panorama of river and reed. Engine buzzing, we skimmed across water as flat and polished as marble.
Villages that can be reached only by boat were betrayed by smears of smoke, their houses withdrawn in the bush. The Sepik slithered between cliffs of vegetation, reeds on one side, forest on the other. We saw herons, parrots, kites, cormorants and kingfishers. Maybe there were crocodiles too, though they retreat to the swamps when the river is high. And ducks.
Ambunti's "lean-down" market - so called because you have to lean down to see it - is spread on the earth in the shade of trees. It trades not only in the commonplace, such as vegetables, fruit, home-baked buns, sago powder and cakes of violet Was Was soap, but also river fish (still twitching), smoked pork, and small, gasping freshwater turtles. Men and women, their teeth rotted and lips and gums scarlet from chewing lime and betel, sold little piles of bananas, taro and maize. There were coconuts, bundles of spring onions and long twists of tobacco like sallow dreadlocks. The market also sold money. Not the notes and coins of kina, but shell money, still used as "bride money", or dowries. The amount is usually negotiated with the bridegroom by the bride's brothers who, it is fair to say, are just as likely to accept cash, pigs or beer. Here, though, the shells - small cowries - were woven into mats worth 20 and 40 kina (a word for shell) roughly equivalent to $8.80 and $18. "Money is nothing," said my guide loftily. "You can find it anywhere. This is special."
Papua New Guinea is the world as it was, a chance to travel as our fathers travelled, to go, not just off the beaten track, but to the edges of the beaten map.
The Silver Discoverer visits Papua New Guinea on its Port Vila-to-Cairns cruise departing October 25. Fares start $15,000pp.