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Published: September 6th 2012
Travelling is usually easy, occasionally challenging, and rarely difficult, but on this particular morning it was diabolical, and is the only instance throughout my entire travels that my life felt in genuine danger. The thickly brooding clouds on the horizon augured poorly as the Express Pelican II
with approximately 150 passengers chugged from the harbour for the intended 2.5 hour journey from Honiara in Guadalcanal to Auki on Malaita.
I secured a seat on the upper deck and was working on my previous blog for approximately an hour when our passage became increasingly turbulent. I looked outside the adjacent window to sight the distant Florida Islands fronted by increasing swells, and so thought it prudent to shut down my computer and focus on the weather.
Shortly afterwards, the boat commenced its exaggerated motions as it tilted from a 40 degree angle to the right to a similar angle on the left. The swells had now increased to a distressing size, whose peaks were often capped by breaking waves. Occasionally, the Express Pelican II
slammed onto a swell, and the tempestuous winds caused the entire boat to be enveloped underneath a spray of water.
I was thankful that a
kindly gentleman called Prema sat behind me, for he was an authority on open waters who explained the conditions, and he even provided me with a motion-sickness tablet. Prema calculated that every seventh swell was so immense as to be troublesome, but if these mountainous swells doubled in frequency the situation would become dire, for such a swell hitting a badly listing boat would cause it to roll to the point of capsizing.
The boat violently swept into a trough at an angle of at least 50 degrees and a chorus of screams echoed from the lower deck as the engines slowed in order to better traverse the treacherous waters. Though I was on the upper deck, the swells at times reached to near my window, a considerable height of at least five metres. Behind me the distinctive sound of someone vomiting reached my ears, which was followed by another further along my row.
For another hour, our anguished journey continued, but conditions became increasingly perilous, and the nervous faces of fellow passengers conveyed the communal fear. More shrieks emanated from below as we encountered a horrendous swell and the brave little ferry listed alarmingly. A sickening trepidation
gripped my body, so I pressed Prema for his current opinion, and in a calm, considered manner, he commented that “we should
be okay” instead of “we will
be okay”. He would not dismiss the possibility of a capsize, especially considering the colossal swells that saw the boat almost consumed within a trough of water before being disgorged.
I decided that the rear outside deck was safer in case of capsize since my current position was some distance from an exit and I would be surely trapped if the worst scenario eventuated. Whilst preparing to shift, I suddenly became bilious, and felt a blob of vomit rising from within. I gagged and forced it downwards, and urgently rummaged through my bag for toilet paper, but the feeling returned, again it was suppressed. Damn – where is that toilet paper! It was third time unlucky as there was no preventing the stream that flowed from my mouth and onto the floor, splashing my pants as it passed. Though exceedingly unpleasant, I was thankful that this irresistible surge occurred after I had stowed my laptop, and furthermore, that I had only consumed a light breakfast.
A gentleman handed me a
rubbish bin, and I concluded my business into that instead. The smell of vomit was awful, but relieving the contents of my stomach somehow made me feel better. Only five minutes after my rather memorable display, the conditions outside softened and the boat resumed its progress at full speed; a sign of more manageable conditions. The swells now attacked from behind, and though still dangerous, surfing down a swell felt more secure than a frontal or side assault.
After ninety minutes of excruciating tension, we passed into less threatening waters due to our proximity to Malaita Island. “We’re fine now,” smiled Prema, at which time he imparted that it was the worst conditions he had experienced on this route. As we pulled into Auki Harbour, a feat only possible due to the masterful skills of the ship’s captain, Prema recommended that I should board the Express Pelican II
for its sole weekly journey the following morning, as every other boat plying the route was even less suited to the current treacherous conditions. Thus, my intended three day stay at Langa Langa Lagoon, one of the few places that still use seashells as currency, was reduced to a single night.
I disembarked from the boat after a rather traumatic three hour voyage. It was a tremendous relief to feel land beneath my feet again. Usually, there are raucous sounds at transport terminals as family and friends reunite, but all passengers were subdued and wore a similar weary, dazed expression after the worst of travel.
The arrival in Auki immediately reminded me of Africa, a promising portent since I am particularly fond of that continent. People waved at me from their shops, and others approached to welcome me and to enquire about my travels. I was met by Thomas, who was my village stay host on the small Busu Island and boarding his small boat, we skipped across the thankfully calm waters of the beautiful Langa Langa Lagoon. It felt as if I had been transported from Hell into Heaven, from the diabolical to the divine. This was the best of travel.
Heavy rain clouds moved across the Malaita’s mountainous interior, but they only delivered a drizzle as we passed small islands fronted by wooden houses and people paddling in elongated wooden canoes would enthusiastically wave upon sighting our craft. Under leaden skies, we arrived at Busu, an
The Express Pelican II safely in Auki - the swells were regularly above the red line.
The video was taken from the top window, and it shows how close the swells came to that level.
artificial island built on a base of coral. Home to the Baekwa people, these 400 residents maintain an enduring bond with the marine world. According to Baekwa legend, they are direct descendants of the pioneers who arrived from New Guinea with the aid of protective octopus named Biaqua – and the octopus is now a protected totem. The same status is granted to the stingray, but most important is the shark, for in this society, sharks are revered and not feared.
Sharks play an integral part in Baekwa rituals. Prior to a difficult boat journey, a coconut is mounted on the boat to attract the shark and its protective powers, and once the journey is complete, the shark is provided with a cooked pig as a sacrifice that is either carried on the boat or procured at the destination. Sharks are also seen as prophesiers, for their unannounced appearance foretells the death of a resident.
Possibly the most important role for sharks surrounds the acquisition of shells used for currency. The holy man calls the shark to provide protection from various dangers, including wild sharks. After providing the required swinish sacrifice, he enters the water, and upon sourcing
the first shell, returns to the surface, and whilst holding it aloft, prays to the sun for both protection and a bountiful shell harvest. With devotions discharged, all able men gather shells, and once completed, another pig would be sacrificed to express gratitude to the shark.
Langa Langa Lagoon is famous for the making of shell money, which is used for several purposes: sale, barter, compensation, or as a dowry gift for a bride. The idea of shell money emanated from their New Guinea descendants, and the process of making this currency is lengthy, for shells are cracked or ground (not time consuming) but drilling the hole within a single piece can take an hour, and smoothing a string of shells into round discs requires two days of repetitive effort.
Shells are becoming scare, so they are also imported from other parts of Solomon Islands. Fishing likewise is becoming more difficult as the population increases – and these are just two challenges facing the gentle people of Langa Langa. Being a male, I was granted admission to the sacred area of the island where the skulls of holy men from generations past lay slowly decaying amongst trees. There
used to be a temple building but that has long since collapsed, since some practices have been discouraged by the arrival of Christianity. The sole church on the island is home to two small Virgin Mary statues oozing blood from their chests, and bells are often rung to signify different prayer times. I enjoyed wandering around the island as the more curious (who could speak English) approached me, but a torrential downpour that lasted the entire evening saw me retire to my room.
An obvious characteristic of the Baekwa people is their contentment. I reflected on the journey from my Brisbane apartment in Australia to the airport. I boarded a train filled with people concluding their daily commute to their employment, and gazed at a most pathetic gathering. Vacant expressions revealed a body slowly seeped of its soul, a life consumed with responding to the hectic demands of a modern society whilst negotiating the concrete maze of a sprawling city. By comparison, the faces of the Baekwa sparkled, a characteristic emanating from a less materialistic society strongly connected to nature.
That evening I lay on a bed underneath a draped mosquito net as I listened to large rain
drops tapping the roof or splashing in the lagoon directly outside my door; it was a glorious conclusion to a tumultuous day. If one wanted a psychological description for travel – then today would be designated as bipolar – it was indeed the worst and best of travel.
The following morning, I returned to Honaira on the Express Pelican II
and was most pleased to meet Prema again, who had secured a seat beside the exit door – just in case. Though this journey was less precarious, as evidenced by the absence of anyone screaming or vomiting, it still induced bouts of anxiety. As we arrived in Honiara, I photographed Prema and myself; he appears tranquil, whereas my face is akin to that of a kangaroo startled by headlights. I must have looked a most sorrowful sight the previous day.
I was sufficiently discomforted by these ferry crossings that I upgraded my accommodation and checked into a more salubrious (and expensive) hotel. For the following 36 hours, I remained in my room playing solitaire board games and listening to my favourite genre of classical music, Venetian polychoral of the 16th
century. The following afternoon, I observed a spectacular
sunset from my balcony, with those clouds that brought such calamitous weather looking positively delightful from this distance.
What future opportunities would I have been denied had another considerable wave struck our ferry whilst it listed in a vulnerable position? I would have missed a stranger’s smile, sunsets over newly explored lands, a cornucopia of cuisines, the aural tapestry of music, and most importantly, the ability to love the world and its people, and to receive that love in return. So has this experience dissuaded me from my yearning to travel? Definitely not, for it has inspired me to pursue this dream with an increased vigour.
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