12th July 2018
Stole to bed on a rainy night black as black and rocked to sleep by the ocean’s rhythm; awoke to a bright morning gushing into the cabin of a mysteriously still boat. Popping bleary eyes out the forehatch I find before me land basking in sun-soaked beauty as Blue Eye slices through planes of turquoise. There are few sweeter things for the sailor, particularly after a week spent on open waters found distinctly wanting in comfort and oversupplied of rain.
The Louisiades. A smattering of exotic islands reaching off the south-eastern tip of Papua New Guinea’s mainland. Curious that it should carry the air of an English Dartmoor to it: pale green fields unfurl for miles across high and sloping hills, betraying their tropical nature only by the occasional palm tree and the emerald waters lapping at the foot of them. We motor Blue Eye toward Yuma Passage, the wondrously deep channel that snakes three miles through the reef to permit entry to these seldom visited lands. With shallow, shallow waters only a stones throw either side, we float above the winding gorge that nature has carved down to depths of 60-metres. It is probably the most astonishing channel we have ever seen.
Into Papuan waters and life abounds: flocks of low-flying birds patrol to and fro, schools of fish frenzy at the surface, and fleets of canoe-going fishermen watch with learned eyes, reading the signs. We track one down, and are amazed by his English. His name is Barrett. His clothes are filthy and his teeth mysteriously red (a trait, I recall, that once led the bold James Cook to hastily evacuate another island in the Pacific, Niue, fearing cannibalism); but after a thousand-miles of ocean he’s a pretty sight to us. Pleasantries complete and it’s on to business. A swap: some of our fishing line and hooks for a brace of the red snappers piled around his bare feet.
Later, anchored alongside a little island called Nimoa, wafts of baked coconut fish emanate from the oven as darkness descends on the sweetly still bay. A woman from the village rows by singing softly to her child in the canoe, filling the crepuscular air with a voice as ghostly as it is beautiful. We stop to listen, then we drink to another long passage under our belts with cheap, boxed-red wine we loaded up on in New Zealand, and feel kingly as we tuck into a rice and fish supper before falling into deep slumbers.
13th July 2018
The first sleep at anchor seldom disappoints. After nine hours of rest I step outside to greet the first light of day. A fresh one, with strong gusts sweeping down Nimoa’s hill from the east; but palm trunks stand vivid orange against a hazy morning sun and surrounding greens glint their morning dew, to make it a handsome beginning.
Breakfast and then weigh anchor to head west. With only a week to spare here we want to make ground to some spots we’ve heard of further along the chain. The poorly charted waters won’t help such endeavours. Until not so long ago, sailors were still using the first charts ever made of the Louisiades, way back from the nineteenth century, and as such we will only be able to sail by day. But even then the sun won’t shed a lot of light on the mysterious currents that rip between the islands every which way. Not that we even have sun: the haze has firmly settled low over the Louisiades, and we set off into it.
The beauty of the archipelago, we realise, lies not only in what it has, but also in what it does not have: no power lines, no concrete buildings, no cell towers. Well, not many cell towers. We curse and spew as we see our first one at the end of a headland.
A mercifully uneventful journey brings us to Homo Bay, a wide concavity certain to bring another flat night of sleep. Peering ashore James remarks: “It’s like looking back in time.” He isn’t wrong. Women walk back and forth along the beach with impossibly large baskets on their head; naked children run in between them whooping and shouting. In front of a beached wooden ship and a bamboo hut, men stand bare-chested and strong. They haul in piles of wriggling fish by some method traditional and genius, and it completely alludes us: since we entered Papua all we’ve hooked is a rock that the forgotten fishing line snagged on as we came to anchor at this time warp.
Homo Bay, needless to say, is stunning.
14th July 2018
The day emerges from behind the palm-topped hillside, and it requires conscious effort to remind oneself that amongst this innocent splendour lurk crocodiles and malaria. The blissful life the natives appear to lead is no doubt fraught with danger, but other than Barrett we haven’t met any of them yet, so up again comes the anchor and Blue Eye’s bow points westward to her first desired destination: Panasia.
The sun has finally managed to burn through the haze, illuminating sheer limestone cliffs that loom closer over the course of the day. Soon we are weaving through a menacing fringing reef, which is made all the more dangerous by the challenge of keeping eyes off the sumptuous scenes before us.
Once safely anchored, we simply ogle it: this might be one of the most stunning islands the world has shown us. Light grey cliff faces as intimidating as they are idyllic run down the length of the mile-long island, topped by verdurous forests that touch the sky, and bottomed by honeycomb beaches that melt into a turquoise shore line.
But we are saddened to find nobody home. The handful of huts nestled into the foot of the cliffs are empty, and our wait for natives continues.
15th July 2018
Makeshift sails carried two canoes down the length of Panasia’s dominating cliffs this morning. People, at last. Three male figures grow bigger and soon they are sitting across from us in Blue Eye’s cabin. Their clothes are tattered and they stare around in wide-eyed wonder. With no small degree of embarrassment, I realise that what I had thought of as minimalist levels of materialism dotted around our home – some clothes, a few books, galley equipment, so on – for them must be the equivalent of walking into a shopping centre. At the stern their wooden canoe is tied up alongside our PVC, engine-furnished dinghy: a picture of change right there.
Justin, Sam and Sam’s son gleefully climbed aboard with glowing red smiles, promising we could “tell each other stories”. Well, Sam did: he’s the one full of them and it’s not clear the other two can follow his quick and fluent English.
But what stories he told! Stories worth sailing a thousand miles for: of him condemned to his deathbed with malaria but for the grace of the Lord who saved him; of the men lost at sea after never returning from routine sails to neighbouring islands; of Justin’s brother who lost an arm to a shark, but who is alright – don’t worry – he can still play the ukulele and climb for coconuts. (I doubt I could do either of these things even with three arms.)
They are charming company, but there are awkward silences. Two cultures sat staring across a table of coffee and biscuits, at worlds they can only begin to imagine. Sam breaks the engulfing quiet: they have brought things from the village they would like to trade with us. We are only the fourth boat here this year, and as such are one of their very few means of attaining certain things.
Justin’s mother has sent him with some beautiful shells, requesting clothes in return, for which we happily delve into our trading bag to oblige her with. Sam’s wife sent some bananas, which we part with a bag of sugar and some biscuits for; and his daughter has sent some chicken eggs, for which we can bestow her with hairbands, notepads and pens.
Sam leaves an address with us to post a particular version of the Bible to; he is the pastor and will be able to read it easier in his sermons than the traditional text. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the address amounts to no more than: Sam, Panasia, Papua New Guinea. Simply, really.
It is a revealing request. That the English language and Christianity are in full swing amongst the most isolated and basic community we have ever come across speaks more of the influence the British Empire had than any book I’ve read, or map I’ve seen.
16th July 2018
Morning plans to set sail to Nivani Island are delayed by the arrival of another villager and his son. McKenzie and Cedric clamber aboard, and coffee, biscuits and story telling tumble out again. McKenzie also has some corkers, not least the explanation for how he earned the gruesome scar eternalised down his shin: he was sawing into a gas tank when it had exploded and broke his leg. Not a smart move by any culture’s standards, he acknowledges now. Were it not for the cell tower than enabled the village to call the main island, the speedboat would never have arrived to take him to hospital, and things could have been a whole lot worse. We immediately forgive the cell towers.
The explanation for the scars on his hand are perhaps even more shocking: they were etched into him by the years of rubbing sticks together to make fire. They are always running out of lighters, he says. This blows us away, and we ply him with matches and lighters immediately.
With stories told and items traded, we bid McKenzie a fond farewell and leave the vistas of Panasia in our wake. An afternoon motoring through calm, hazy waters renders us positively baffled as to how anybody can find their way through these reefs with boats deprived of both GPS and engines. “Local knowledge passed down from our fathers and grandfathers” Sam had explained, somewhat mysteriously.
Come afternoon, our hi-tech chartplotter and rumbling motor deliver us to the anchorage tucked between Nivani Island and it’s larger neighbour, Panapompom, which is the nicest name for any island I know of. Either we inadvertently anchor on the highway between the two islands – given the volume of canoe-going, red-teeth bearing, Hello Mister!-hollering natives streaming to and fro – or the highway had been relocated on account of our arrival.
As the sun goes down, Venus, Jupiter and a full moon emerge in a clear, cooling sky, and some men on the beach light a fire. It’s easy to imagine them sat around the dancing flames with an abundance of stories to tell, fish to barbeque and coconuts to drink. There are no huts on Nivani for them to sleep in: only a bed of sand and a ceiling of stars. We really are off the beaten track now.
17th July 2018
As the sun raced over the horizon this morning, with that eagerness it has in the tropics, the Papuans were well into the swing of their day. As was the birdlife: an eagle could be found circling the green and golden mass of Nivani, and gleaming white parrots (adorned with amusing Jonny Bravo hair-do’s) emitted a relentless commentary.
The wind was up: a morning for kiteboarding. Hoards of boys and men gather around us on the sandspit as the kite is prepared: it is a fascinating procedure for them. James launches it and takes to the water, racing back and forth to the cheers of enthralled locals.
Later, whilst I’m out butchering all attempts to follow James’s lead on the board, he talks with a mousey little man called Martin, who agrees to show us how to make coconut milk in the afternoon. A few hours later we sit in the shade of a palm tree on the beach, watching Martin grate the flesh from a halved shell. A large crowd gathers to watch too, but only to glimpse the queer folk who do not know how to make coconut milk. For the Papuans this is bread and butter, in every sense. And by the time Martin’s squeezing the milk through a strainer, there have been many whispers and giggles of “dim-dims”, the local word for white man.
This is all in good spirit, and one of them – a young man called Michael – joins us as we circumnavigate Nivani on foot. His English is excellent: he is one of the lucky ones who stayed on at school into his late teens. But Michael has just been expelled for fighting, which is surprising because he is unmistakably sharp and curious (the type that teachers lose most of their hair over, no doubt). He is particularly curious about our own country.
“Tom and James. I have read that there is a tunnel under the sea between England and France, but I do not believe it.” James puts him out of his misery and confirms it’s true, he’s been on it. Michael doesn’t seem convinced. I don’t blame him: if I lived amongst this beauteous simplicity, I’d think it absurd too. But nowadays most of the world would find it harder to believe that people can make fire with their hands, than there being underwater trains.
18th July 2018
The horizon is seldom without a sailing canoe upon it as men take to the ocean for tuna, and occasionally something else. As we arrive ashore for another day of kiteboarding, wafts of meat come over from the small shack on the beach. We go to investigate and find huge steaks cooking. “Shark,” says Michael. “The men pulled it in accidentally this morning”.
We set about the kite preparations again to the delight of the crowd, which has grown since yesterday. Apart from those who occasionally sleep by the shack, they all row or sail over from the villages of Panapompom each morning. To get away from it all perhaps, or to catch some fish. A group of men take to knee-deep water with a net spread out between them, and whilst splashing the sea they chant, hoping to lure some dinner into their trap.
The wind remains all day and as we’re both having success with the kite, so do we. Breaks on the beach are filled with conversations with locals, and often they have the same thing to say: “Those lines must be so strong!” They’re referring to the lines from the kite, to the man on the board. In a place where shark meat spits on the fire, a fascination for the practicality of things justifiably trumps the leisure they can be utilised for, and it dawns on me that they have always been more interested in watching the kite preparation, than the actual kiteboarding.
Mousey Martin comes by and I try to get my head around how he uses a rock, a palm leaf and a feather to catch fish. I fail. Whilst James takes time out, a gaggle of children gather around him and laugh at the silly dim-dim applying a strange white cream to his strange white face. Suncream is not a thing in this part of the world. And we solve the mystery of the red teeth: the betel nut. A seed they habitually chew – partly for the mild stimulant effect, partly for the flavour – and it stains their teeth over time. James spits it out immediately after biting into it: an acquired taste apparently.
19th July 2018
It’s our last full day, and Michael has offered to take us crayfishing. Armed with his Hawaiian sling, he moors his father’s dugout canoe on the reef and takes to the underworld, two dim-dims in his wake. We are no strangers to the water, but to keep up with the young Papuan (who spends more time scouring the sea’s floor than breathing above it) is a challenge in itself. Michael is practically a fish, zipping between reefs and nipping in and out of nooks and crannies, searching for the illusive crayfish.
The hunt ends fruitlessly, but to see a local in action amongst the healthy coral is a better reward anyway. The memory of the chase will last longer than the pleasure of the catch, but I know such a perspective comes with privilege: for the dim-dim, time amongst a coral reef is for pleasure; for the Papuan, it is also a matter of survival.
With such morbid thoughts in mind we go in search of what makes Panapompom famous: the Japanese fighter plane that crashed into the sea in World War II. When at last the relic emerges through the murkiness, sitting just two metres below the water, we find it devoid of wings and with coral growing all over. It has been here over seventy years, after all. James’s attempts to sit in the cockpit are initially headbutted away by a particularly territorial fish, but he soon shoos it off and fulfils his boyhood dream of being a pilot. Sort of.
A fond farewell to Michael this afternoon. We give him the most English book we could find on board to nourish his fascination with our country of birth: a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. Whether he’ll make head or tail of it we’ll never know, but he seemed very pleased nonetheless.
Venus, Jupiter, and the moon shine bright again tonight, as we reflect on what has been the most extraordinary and fulfilling destination of our circumnavigation so far.
Tomorrow we make reluctant way west to the mainland, painfully aware of the odds against finding anywhere else quite like the Louisiades again. This is also, of course, precisely what has conspired to make this week such a special one.