European contact on the river began in 1885, when the Germans explored the area. Tourist trips up and down are possible. It is best visited in June to November when there are less mosquitoes. For the truly adventurous it should be possible to rent dugout canoes with outboards and boatman at the river villages closest to the province's capital, Wewak. The people living along the river are noted for their carvings and elaborate manhood initiation ceremonies. Many villages use garamut drums, which are long, hollowed-out tree trunks carved into the shape of totem animals. Many villages have a Haus Tambaran which is a traditional ancestral worship house. The most recognizable forms of this are found around the village of Maprik. The Sepik people are renowned for their superb artistic ability in painting and carving, which is often exhibited in these religious structures. Papua New Guinea's first prime minister, Michael Somare, came from the Sepik region and it is perhaps no coincidence that the design of the country's parliament building in Port Moresby was based on a Haus Tambaran.
The capital of West Sepik is Vanimo, which is a stopping off point for those heading for Indonesia and for expats in Indonesia wanting to renew their Indonesian visas. It is also becoming a popular destination for expert surfers. Also on the coast is Aitape, a town developed around a catholic mission. Close to there is the Sissano Lagoon which was devastated by a tsunami in 1998, killing 2000.
The Sepik has the highest concentration of languages in all of Papua New Guinea (and therefore by extension, in the world). Many people speak Tok Pisin (pidgin) to some extent, few speak English. It facilitates your stay quite a bit if you try to learn some basic pisin words and phrases (locals will be all too pleased to help if asked, and will take great delight in teaching you). When traveling away from Wewak, it is very worthwhile to get a guide to help you in the villages. Conflicts between villages and different language groups is common, and it is a good idea to quiz your guide about current events, his origins and affiliation with the villages you intend to visit.
It is possible to travel overland from Jayapura in Indonesia to Vanimo over PNG's only land border crossing. See the main Papua New Guinea article for information on the border crossing.
There's a weekly (or twice weekly) ship between Wewak and Madang that costs 205 kina. There's a student discount. It takes one night. Alternatively, you can take a PMV to Angoram on the Sepik river (20 kina) from where the famous buai boats (see the Get around section) run to Bogia, from where a PMV to Madang costs 20 kina. This is a long journey but the trip down the river (usually at night) is magical. If your boat is overloaded, at Watam (the last village before the sea) the cargo and passengers will (hopefully) be split in two boats before the short ride on the sea to Bogia. Although most people refer to these boats as "boats to Bogia" most of them will drop you off in Borai (the first village of the road to Madang) or Awar (the second village). Bogia is the next (and bigger) village. It is possible to find PMVs to Madang in all three of those. Most boats carrying betel nut will have a truck waiting for them at where they arrive anyway. Doing this trip in reverse (from Madang to Angoram) might be a bit trickier, in the sense that buai boats depart from Bogia, Awar or Borai and it's virtually impossible to know from where the next boat will depart. In whichever direction you make this trip, prepare for long waits, long travel times and spending at least one night on the way. This is however a popular way to travel. The trip from Angoram to Bogia usually costs 100 kina. In Angoram the buai boats usually refuel on the eastern bank of the river (the other side from where the PMV from Wewak will drop you off) where there is a small community of settlers from Kambaramba. Getting a ride across the river should not be a problem but keep in mind that, being the biggest settlement of the Sepik, Angoram has also its share of petit crime, as most towns or transit points in PNG.
The provinces depend heavily on Mission Air Fellowship (MAF), which operates twelve planes throughout PNG both supplying mission stations and supporting local communities. It is sometimes possible for tourists to fly with MAF.
From Vanimo there is a road to Aitape that involves a few river crossings that can cause delay or travel might prove impossible after rain. If you find a land cruiser PMV that is going that way, the going fare is 150 kina. Most people choose to travel by banana boat over the sea. There are departures every day (100-150 kina). Prepare for a rough ride and don't forget the sunscreen. It takes at least five hours, no matter what you are told.
From Aitape to Wewak and v.v. there are almost daily PMVs for 50 kina - the road is mostly unsealed and you travel in a cramped Landcruiser PMV for 50 kina per person - it takes 5 - 6 hours.
From Wewak there are at least three points on the Sepik river accessible by road. Angoram on the lower Sepik is the biggest river station (town). A PMV ride costs 20 kina. Pagwi on the upper Sepik is a 40 kina PMV ride away from Wewak or 10 kina from Maprik. Timbunke on the middle Sepik has a road connection that gets flooded in rainy season. If it's possible to travel, the PMV from Wewak charges 20 kina. There is also a logging road to Kanduanum (further downstream from Timbunke) that is however the least popular access point and not always possible.
From Maprik there are PMVs going west to Nuku in Sandaun province from where it is also possible to travel to Aitape. Despite the general lack of good roads in this part of PNG it is thus possible to make a circle through Aitape - Wewak - Maprik - Nuku - Aitape. Travel by PMV takes a long time and the driver might wait or drive around the streets for hours before actually departing (when full).
Most tourists come to the Sepik river on organized tours, flying in or on chartered boats. This is by far the most expensive option and it is perfectly possible to organize travel independently if you are flexible with time and you are on a budget. There are motorized canoes that operate much like PMVs to some areas. From Pagwi it is possible to travel almost every day upstream to Ambunti for 25 kina, 2-3 hours. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays (market days in Maprik) you might be able to get a ride all the way from Pagwi to Kaminabit or Chambri lakes (40-50 kina, 3 hrs) with locals who take their fish to Maprik for sale. Regular traffic further downstream gets very scarce. You will get many offers to charter a boat, but this is much more expensive than sharing. On the lower Sepik, there's regular traffic between Kambaramba and Angoram (less than one hour, 10 kina). The so called buai boats (banana boats carrying betel nut from the Yuat river down to Angoram, the Sepik estuary and over the sea to Bogia from where the betel nut is transported by road to Madang and the Highlands) sometimes stop in Moim on their way down to Angoram where they refuel and continue down the river.
For the truly adventurous, it is possible to buy a decent canoe and paddles for 50 kina in most villages.
It is also perfectly possible to travel on the Sepik river independently, by PMV boats, chartering, or for the adventurous - paddling (downstream of course). Most villages will have basic guesthouses (in most budget 25 kina per night) or someone will host you. Bring rice. You can get fish and sago locally.
Since good maps of the Sepik river are virtually non existent, here is a list of most (if not all) villages (stations) from Ambunti all the way to the estuary in order:
Ambunti (river station established by the Germans and home to the annual Crocodile Festival (pukpuk show) in August that is a less crowded and cheaper alternative to the Goroka and Hagen shows.
Pagwi (road access) - market, guesthouse for 50 kina. There's a school and church a few km inland that charge 25 kina for a night.
Palembei - has one of the best preserved Haus Tambaran in the area.
Kaminabit - big village
Timbunke - road access in dry season. Airstrip
Tambanum - has a couple of simple Haus Tambarans
Kanduanum 2 - logging road to wewak, might be possible to travel
Moim - big village
Kambaramba - big village that extends from the river bank to the swamps behind it, where floating houses (build on rafts) can be seen.
Angoram - biggest town on the river with a big market and good road access to Wewak.
Watam - this village is not actually on the river but on a saltwater lagoon that is to the east of the Sepik estuary. Since the Sepik makes a couple of huge loops before it reaches the sea, as a shortcut there is a man made canal from the river to the lagoon from where the boats travel to the sea. The village is where the lagoon meets the sea.
As elsewhere in PNG most people will be very friendly and protective of independent travellers. Street crime is more of a concern in Wewak and to a certain extent on the river settlements that are bigger or accessible by road (Ambunti, Pagwi, Timbunke and Angoram).
See also the main Papua New Guinea article.