Sailing in the Louisiades, Papua New Guinea


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Oceania » Papua New Guinea
May 17th 2008
Published: May 17th 2008
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Papua New Guinea is a crazy place. I've seen dogs swim half a mile across the harbour to escape the torment of their owners. We've tied our boat up to a jetty and had wizened old men and women with black teeth try to sell us gold and parrots. And when I took a local boat to Alotau I experienced the genoristy of the wantok system and was treated by the owner as well as if I had been one of the family. This is a record of the 4 month journey we took in the Louisiade islands of PNG on our sailboat in 2003.

We arrived in Budibudi, first landfall in PNG, in February and were greeted by a pod of pilot whales, happily swimming and puffing around 'Moet'. Budibudi is as picture perfect a coral atoll as you could imagine. The lagoon is 3 miles wide, with a horseshoe shaped string of 8 small islands around the edge. The water is unbelievably clear and turquoise coloured and full of fish, mantarays, and dolphins. As soon as we dropped anchor we were surrounded by canoes full of people wanting to trade with us - there hadn´t been a cargo boat for a few months, so effectively we were the floating store. We traded T-shirts and fish hooks for fresh lobster, coconuts and limes, and were given gifts of shells and handmade baskets and necklaces. The people of Budibudi are pretty isolated from the outside world, and most people here have never seen a car or a television before; or a white person that didn´t live on a boat! Their houses and canoes are made almost entirely from bush materials and their lifestyle seems uncomplicated and idyllic. Complete self-sufficiency.

While I was dressmaking with our oldstyle Butterfly sewing machine, Frans went spearfishing with the local boys. The spears are about 2 and a half metres long and the boys are very efficient hunters. They can freedive to at least 15 metres without flippers or weights and sit quietly on the bottom, waiting for the fish to come out from their hiding places. Then they load their spears and shoot. They came back from the reef after sunset with all sorts of fish and even a turtle. That evening we took the guitars to shore and sang island songs sitting on mats on a warm beach. The men and women sang soft harmonies, and the children danced along the shore, silhoutted against the lagoon from the light of a full moon. Budibudi is a magical place. And Frans must have learnt something from the Budibudi boys, because since then he has been spearfishing many times and nearly always comes back with enough for dinner, and for breakfast the next day. My spearfishing talents have yet to materialise, though I give it a try every now and then. It gives a whole new angle to snorkelling when you dive down with a spear and become a predator in the water.

By the time we officially checked in with the customs officers of PNG it had been 1 month since we cleared out of the Solomons, and we had thus been effectively in no-mans land for the last four weeks, legally neither in one country or the other. Technically you are supposed to go straight to a customs port on a designated island before stopping anywhere else, and since the Solomons is only 200 miles (48 hours sailing with good winds) away, it was obvious to the officials that we hadn't followed these rules very carefully. 'No wind' we explained, 'we don't like to use our engine too much' 'Mmmm, mmm' nodded Graham, the quarantine officer, as he drank his tea in Moet's cockpit. ´Never mind that' he said. 'Come to my house tonight, we'll have some beers, have a barbeque. I have plenty of foreign friends from the yachts, they all know me, they all come to my house' The bureaucracy here is incredibly laid back.

As we were the first yacht of 2003 it was just us at the barbeque plus some of Grahams friends and wantoks (relatives). The wantok system is strong in PNG, and in essence it means all family members share what they have and help each other when needed. In the villages this can mean looking after your sisters children if she gets sick, or helping a distant cousin while he builds his house. But in the towns where there are wage earners it has come to lead to a dependancy of poorer relatives on their richer wantoks. If you have a job, then you can expect your wantoks to ask for help to pay for their childrens school fees, or to buy the weekly rice and flour. And the wantok system is so engrained in PNG culture that it is socially impossible to refuse. Graham, an educated man, had several wantoks living with, and off, him, and didn't seem too happy about the benefits of the system. 'It's too hard. I'm the only one that works. Everyone is always asking for something. I just hope they give it back some time.' Because that is the other side of the system, reciprocity. Mutual help and gift exchange. It is a good system in a moneyless society, in the islands, where no one person is that much richer than any other, and where communities all work together for each other anyway. But in the towns it gets mistreated, the essence of genorosity is lost, and wantoks become a burden.

PNG is a country of contrasts. The towns and cities are surprisingly modern; the people intelligent and proud of their identity. But in the islands tradition remains strong. Compensation for wrong doings (especially adultery) is severe. It can range from a fine of a few pigs to a severed finger from a sharpened bush knife. Custom marriage is still the norm, whereby a couple either get found out that they are seeing each other, or the girl gets pregnant, and from then on they are known as 'married'. But a married couple do not always live together, the girl may stay with her parents or grandparents who will help her raise the children. A man may often have no special feelings for his child over any other and a couple will often give a child away to a relative and in turn adopt another child from someone else. But we saw European-style nuclear families as well, all sharing the same house. Diversity of family arrangements is the key, and though adultery can carry a heavy punishment it is not unusual for a married man to have several girlfriends.

We've made some good friends here and often had people for dinner on 'Moet' or been invited to dinner with a local family. But if we ask how long a couple have been married or questions about family the women normally starts giggling like a schoolgirl, and the man answers as quickly and quietly as possible, clearly embarrassed to talk about such matters. And when some friends come to dinner they often bring with them children who are not their own.
The distinction between adults and children here is not a divisive one. Adults laugh as much as children and children learn to be responsible from a young age. By 4 years old they are paddling their own canoes to go fishing, climbing coconut trees and handling small bush knives. And communication between the ages is good. The young clearly have a great respect for the elders, and the elders let the young be. They are rarely told 'no' 'don't do that' 'be quiet' or 'go to bed' and are free to come and go as they please. The islands are safe places (bar the occasional falling coconut) and children do not need to ask permission to go anywhere. You see them playing in the water or on the beach with a handmade football or guitar until all hours.

It is an idyllic life in many ways, especially when seen at a glimpse and from the outside. The air is warm, the water is clean, the fish and fruit are plentiful. There is no pollution or crime or stresses or taxes. People need not worry about finding a job or earning money to buy a house. You want a house? You go to the bush and gather your materials. And most likely the entire village will help and it will be built in a matter of a few weeks. You need food? You go to the reef to fish, or to the gardens in the bush. And the rest of the time? Spent resting in the shade, playing, laughing, telling stories, chewing betel nut. Work and play are interrelated and not separate commodities. Groups of people, young and old, will sit on mats under the shade of a few palm trees. The men may be making spearguns for fishing or carving betelnut pounders, the women may be preparing sago, or weaving baskets, the younger children playing with crabs or trying to imitate the adults. But no one is hurried or pressured, and the sound of chatter and easy laughter prevails throughout the day. When we took our new sail to shore to stitch it to fit (a gift from our Swiss friends on 'Summertale' which is a bigger yacht and so the sail needed a good two metres off the foot) we were immediately assisted by 2 friends, Noino (who, incidently, had a massive scar from a shark bite across the whole of his upper thigh. First shark bite the islanders could remember, he said, and outside the lagoon in deep water, so not in the waters where we would be swimming, but still it got me worried!) and Joe who sat down with needle and thread to help us handstitch the reinforcement panels on to the corners of the sail. It was slow work, as the material was so thick that in places a nail had to be driven through with a hammer to make the hole for the needle to go through, but with 4 of us we got the job done over a lesuirely 3 days, with numerous rest breaks for conversation, and to drink coconut. The day of completion coincided with Good Friday, and one man was roasting a pig for the village feast. In return for a bottle of sauce from Moet's stores he gave us a generous slab of meat, so we shared it with Noino, Joe and family as a treat for the help they had given us with the sail. The notion of sharing and giving gifts is so commonplace here that whilst we are in the islands we rarely use money at all.

At Motorina island we found a bit of surf. Naturally, it was the other side of the island from where we were anchored and open to the SE swells. So we took the dinghy to shore with Frans's longboard and my bodyboard and set out to climb the hill to cross the island. We had already walked around the island quite a bit, and grown accustomed to the many excited children waiting to accompany us on our walks, but this time, with our dimdim toys in our hands, they were even more happy to see us. 'We carry them for you,' said one girl who was not much more than 8. So, she and her friends picked up the boards and balanced them on their heads, one in front and one at the back, and set off up the hill, barefoot, scrambling over the rocks. Frans and I almost struggled to keep up! The waves were good, though the water was very shallow with coral heads sticking out at various spots. We were joined in the water by several young boys and their planks of wood which they rode like bodyboards in the smaller waves. I let them all try my bodyboard, which they loved, and then one of the braver ones joined Frans and sat on the front of his longboard while Frans rode a big wave. The boys eyes looked ready to pop out of his face and he held on supertight, but after the end of the ride he still went back for more!

The Louisiades have been a highlight of our adventures so far; though the sailing has been the most frustrating we´ve encountered. The first month we had barely any wind at all, and a 100 mile passage between islands which would ordinarally take us 24 hours, took us 6 days! Then we were holed up while cyclone Erica passed south of us and delivered 60 knots of wind, shaking the rigging like a fury. And the rest of the time the innumerable coral heads, and lagoons with strong and confused currents have kept us in navigational battle mode. But the islands are definitely worth the struggle. The people here are some of the most friendly and genuine we've encountered, and we've discovered many beautiful anchorages.

In the three months that we have been in PNG we have seen only 2 other yachts but probably over 100 local sailing canoes. Traditional outriggers designed to travel distances of a hundred miles or more, these are well built and well designed craft, and beautiful too. It is good to see the traditions being passed on down the generations, and it is a proud man who has built his first sailing canoe. The canoes are used daily to get to the reef for fishing, or for gathering beche-de-mer (slimy sea cucumbers, sold to the Japanese as an exotic delicacy), or to go to the larger villages to trade or visit relatives. These are the biggest canoes we've seen in the Pacific so far, and the most carefully built, with intricate carvings on the bow and stern. At Panapompom island we had the chance to sail on 'Rinno' our friend Justin's canoe, and together with Martin and Teresa on 'Summertale' he and his friends Okaribe and Joel took us to Panniet island to see where some of the largest canoes of the Louisiades are made. The wind was a good 15 knots, and 'Rinno' took off, going much faster than 'Moet' would have done. The angle of the mast is adjusted beforehand for each particular course and the mainsheet of the sail is held in the hands of the sailor; who eases it out and pulls it in as the canoe passes through the waves. The steering oar is a huge paddle slung over the stern, which needs considerable muscle power to hold with the force of the water rushing past. Sometimes the boys steering the canoes are smaller than the paddles themself! Tacking is an interesting business whereby the sail is swung round from front to back, Justin hanging backwards over the edge of the canoe with the bamboo boom in his hands and scuttling along the boat; Okaribe rushing to the other end of the boat with his paddle, and the bow becoming the stern on the new tack. So while I had a comfortable position at the back of the boat on one tack, it became a very wet and spray filled ride on the next one! Great fun though, flying along with the outrigger a good few inches high of the water, just like any racing catamaran. At Panniet island we were greeted by heaps of happy children 'Dimdim, dimdim!' they cried (dimdim being any white person) and rushed to hold our hands and say 'hello goodbye' and laugh continuously.

We saw one canoe being built with the finishing touches being put on - caulking the seams with a local made putty from the roots of a bush plant. Many men in the community had come to help with the work, and as a thank you a pig was being slaughtered and a feast prepared in return for the work done. As money is rarely used in these islands, those who work on the canoes are treated to a pig feast when the work is complete in exchange for their labour. If a canoe owner wishes to sell his new boat he may sell it to a family on another island in exchange for about 10 pigs and a few metres of bagi (red shell neckace). Or alternatively, he can use the canoe to buy a bride for one of his sons. Pigs and bagi are great symbols of wealth in these islands, and a man with plenty of pigs is highly regarded, a 'big man'

On the way back to Panapompom Frans had a try at steering and holding the mainsheet, which much amused Justin and Okaribe. 'Ooh Francis!' they laughed, 'first dimdim to try our canoe!' After Justin took us home we promised to let him try our windsurfer the next day, and we presented a gift of our old genoa sail as a thank you for the trip.

These islands are just amazing, and all the more so for the traditional ways they retain, and for the isolation of them. While a comparable area in Fiji is now overrun by speed boats, package tourists and island resorts, there are no such things in the Louisiades. It is easy to get lost in time, and there are numerous uninhabited islands. Only eagles and parrots flying overhead, and fish and dolphins playing in the coral gardens. But while to us, as children of Western society, village life in the islands seems truly wonderful, a simple and harmonious existence, some of the younger generation here have different ideas.

They may have never left their island but a glimpse at a few magazines and contact with a couple of yachts shows them tantalising images of another life. And as we often only see the charm of their life and not the hardships, they only see the glamour of ours. (But boat life is far from glamorous, I can assure you!) We have tins of fish and coconut cream on board 'Moet'. Even this they see as a great luxury - so much more convenient than grating and pounding coconut and gutting and preparing fish. The magazines that they get in return for trading with some of the yachts show beautiful men and women in fine clothes, happy and having a great time. There are adverts for cars, CD players, and a host of other exotic looking things that island children start craving for. And this leads to discontent with their own life. But this feeling is not too strong, and most islanders are happy with their lot. Especially when we explain that many Europeans cannot afford to own their own house, do not even have a garden to grow food and work such long hours that they have little time to spend with their family and friends. Then the people here shake their heads and say, 'oh, sorry, sorry'.
In all of the travel guides we have seen there are pictures of PNG men and women in traditional dress, images of colourful costumes, penis sheathes, barebreasted women, fabulous headdresses and other such finery. It is the same with the glossy picture books about the country, all gleaming with exotic pictures of the islanders. But, sadly, this is simply misrepresentation. Islanders no longer wear traditional dress except for festivals, the same as we in England no longer wear Victorian outfits except for costume parties.

Islanders have had contact with Europeans for 500 years or more. They speak English fluently. They practice Christianity. They wear shorts and T-shirts. They know about the internet and the war in Iraq, and while many have never seen a car or television before, they are not as remote and traditional as the travel photos led us to believe. European influence has penetrated and eradicated much already. Its gadgetry is far more immediate than many of the islanders aternatives, and has in many cases replaced the old way of doing things. A painkiller works quicker for a headache than the incisions made into the forehead that the the islanders previously used. So here, old and new rest together side by side. I wonder what the future has in store for these islands, and whether the beautiful sailing canoes will soon be replaced by outboards and fibreglass boats as has been the case in Fiji. I certainly hope not, and the general attitude of most islanders is skepticism towards modern inventions. 'If I have outboard' one man called Tom from Budibudi told us, 'then every time it breaks, I need to earn money, to buy parts to fix it. But with canoe, I need no money. I get all spare parts from the bush.'





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22nd July 2008

Mostly but not quite.
Loved the blog. Your last paragraph is completely true in most coastal areas and most islands in most of the world but in the more remote parts of Papua you'll find people that have never seen a white person or a magazine, still wear traditional dress and follow the traditional way of life. Although I'm sure they've heard of the western world. Same goes with the Amazon, there are tribes there that shoot arrows at planes still. Thankfully those tribes are being protected.
6th January 2009

sail with us!
we often take crew on board when we are travelling, if you want to know more send us a message of visit our site: oceannomads.org happy travels!
3rd August 2009

Great writing!
Hi, Really enjoyed reading this. I hope to go to Papua someday and will keep the Louisiades in mind when planning. As regards your last paragraph, I think people still using traditional modes of transport in remote parts of the world will continue to use them, as they have worked for thousands of years. In the Sahara, nomads who had bought trucks in the past decades to transport salt from mines deep in the desert are now returning to using camel trains, as the cost of upkeep is much less, and they're more suited to the local environment. I hope islanders will realise the benefits too.
12th January 2010

you write very beautifully. i loved reading the entry. hopefully, i get to visit such a place and meet such people someday. :)

Tot: 0.058s; Tpl: 0.023s; cc: 8; qc: 60; dbt: 0.0159s; 1; m:saturn w:www (104.131.125.221); sld: 1; ; mem: 1.4mb