Our boys, the local Dimdim celebrities

On our second visit to the local school last week, and having delivered large bags of books, pens and other essential aid, we chatted with the headmaster and floated the idea of our boys joining the school for a few days. This – dimdim children joining the local school – would be a first for the island so it was a bit of an experiment, and one we were very aware the headmaster could hardly turn down given the goodies we’d brought. But he seemed genuinely enthusiastic, so we sent Luca and Gabriel off on Friday morning for their first experience of PNG schooling. It’s a testament to how far they’ve come in self-confidence that they were both keen, albeit with the inevitable last minute nerves.

The school is pretty basic of course, but they have the necessities; dry buildings (most of them), desks and blackboards and some dedicated teaching staff, although not enough for one per classroom. Getting teachers out to an island this remote seems to be an ongoing issue for them. Classes are taught in English, so there was every chance of a decent outcome for our boys. We joined the morning assembly, where the kids sang the PNG national anthem and a few other songs while the flag was raised. The kids stood in rows by grade, and Gabriel looked horrified when he was instructed to stand by the grade 6 class with not a single boy in sight. “But they’re all girls” he cried in anguish, and slunk over head hung low. Thankfully a few boys soon appeared and Luca and Gabriel traipsed off to their respective classrooms, both visibly apprehensive.

But they needn’t have worried. By the time we caught up with them after lunch for Friday afternoon sports they were surrounded by new friends, raving about what a great time they’d had, both of them clearly enjoying a sense of celebrity. The teachers seemed happy with the experiment, so we’ve now enrolled them for at least the next week, if not longer. One local child from another classroom was heard to demand ” why can’t we have a dimdim in OUR class? Things have settled down a tad this week, with fellow classmates doing less staring aghast at these alien white boys and more interacting, and so Luca and Gabriel’s enthusiasm has continued. They’re now planning their afternoons during morning breaks as would any normal kids, and tearing off with their new local mates after school to go fishing, slingshooting birds, collecting coconuts or pursuing other rainforest shenanigans.

And what a joy it is for Rebecca and me to have a break from the role of onboard teachers, our weekday mornings are now filled with working through the many outstanding boat jobs, and giving Jacob some early lessons. This is proving to be a winner all round! Mind you, the school runs a fairly relaxed schedule, some kids sent home early due to teacher shortage, others because their classroom was leaking, or because a couple of the teachers have been invited to a church event across the bay. So I don’t think the boys have found the new school schedule too gruelling.

We were invited to join the church youth day, organised by a young man who’d befriended Gabriel with unsolicited fishing advice, and this took place yesterday. It turned out that we were one of the guests of honour, partly I suspect because we’d made a large donation of aid to the day to help with their fundraising, so we were led to the front of the church and sat on one of the few plastic picnic chairs alongside the counsellor, the parson and other dignitaries (all attendees sitting on the floor). I had a nasty suspicion that we’d be called upon to make a speech, and sure enough the organiser crept up to me and suggested exactly that, so I had a few minutes to prepare something suitably dignified. After speeches that seemed to last forever, mine no doubt one of the more lengthy and interminable in a tight field of competition, the assembled crowd heaved a sigh of relief as the talk came to an end and we could adjourn for the next event. Which turned out to be plate to plate, a formal custom of exchanging plates of food between guests. This hadn’t been properly explained to us, and we’d simply prepared a bowl of popcorn imagining that this would be quite sufficient, but finding that most others had been up all night preparing huge baskets of cooked food and fruits, decorated beautifully with flowers and cloth. Uh-oh. We both sensed a social faux pas looming! The women entered the formality with these baskets balanced elegantly on their heads, and we all formed a row facing our pre-selected exchangees, us being paired with the parson who, thankfully, we knew fairly well and very much liked. I say thankfully, because we felt we had to explain why our offering was so measly, and find a way to laugh it off. But as it turned out, popcorn is not something the parson and his family had ever experienced before and he seemed thrilled by it. Our credibility saved once again by cheap western consumer goods thank the Lord for them!

Mwago Ndogabi (“thanks very much”)

These guys insist on combining unmanageable consonants, their favourites being words starting with mw, mb or nd. We’re trying our best to learn smatterings of the local Rossel language here, spoken by no more than 2000 people worldwide and almost certainly never written down, but it’s not proving easy. We’re starting to realise that anything that on first hearing sounds simple invariably isn’t, and you can really only unpick the words with multiple slow-motion replays. Still, the people we’re meeting here seem happy to put up with our requests, thrilled and quite possibly perplexed that we’d bother. We’re starting to wonder about this ourselves. Every island or place name is hotly contested in its spelling, and so asking for directions or consulting charts with a local must first start with confirmation of what place we’re talking about. eg. a wee offlying island near us is called Wola Island on our charts, but locals here insist it is Ule.

On Saturday afternoon we walked to the local school playing fields to watch the weekly sports day, when several teams from across the island meet to contest soccer and netball. The pitches sit side-by-side, carved roughly into the steep hillside with wonderful views over the bay. When I say roughly, I mean with large rock outcrops in the middle of the pitch, the inland side as the retaining rockwall (no out of touch here), the other a steep drop-off down the cliff. So games require more than one ball to avoid long ball retrieval delays. The guys take their soccer pretty seriously though, and it’s not only balls that go flying off down the cliff. The first game started with a hard shot at goal that knocked off the goalpost crossbar, and the game paused briefly whilst two guys climbed on each others shoulders to whack it back in place. This level of farce was rapidly replaced with hard-nosed action as local men battled it out, some wearing soccer boots but most in bare feet. It’s beyond me how they avoid broken feet each week.

The many small villages around this bay are dominated by two churches, the parsons representing the senior statesmen and the Sunday services their soapbox. The churches seem to hold strong sway over the running of the community, working hand-in-hand with the elected counselor (chief). We’d already met one of the church pastors and helped out by dismantling the wiring on their old church, pending a rebuild. This weekend we’ll attend the other church service and offer aid and other assistance where we can. The people here seem a bit more motivated than in other Louisiades villages we’ve visited, fewer people completely zoned out on bettlenut and generally a more energetic atmosphere, and there seems to be no end of building projects underway.

Village and clan projects are common, whether building a new hut for a married couple, repairing a canoe, or transporting materials through the jungle for another village; and the strong Christian faith, supported by the two churches here, seems to back up the sense of community around the village, or at least the clan. Nevertheless, most people here haven’t really shed their customs beliefs, and stories of old customs, witchcraft and black magic are easily enticed out of willing storytellers. Today we entertained a lovely couple whose son we’d met in our previous island stop and carried a message to them on his behalf. They live in a small village up the mountain, and have six children with three of them already left home. This seemed hard to fathom, given how young and fresh-faced the couple seemed, and it transpired that the husband Rex had married his wife Hilda through an arranged marriage when she was 12 years old (he was 18), and she had their first child at 14. This custom is now illegal but still goes on here and in many other remote places.

We spent some time with the school chaplain at Rambuso Creek, who guided us through the rainforest to visit the elementary school, and he told us his wife had died the year before with a sickness that Rebecca later suggested sounded much like ovarian cancer. But he firmly attributed it to black magic, according to him the perpetrator a local villager who’d been upset by some obscure wrong their son had done and had administered poison to her. There are no police or other government officials in these islands, of course, so these matters are handled by the counselors and elders. But when asked why this hadn’t been addressed, our friend simply said that the perpetrator had denied it and there was nothing they could do. This must be the third or fourth time a family death has been told to us as attributed to black magic. I can quite believe the odd case, but when there’s an evident medical explanation, it’s hard not to think that there may be over-active imaginations at work.

Anyway, back at home today, after a year of remarkably reliable running with virtually no maintenance, our trusty outboard engine started to struggle, leaving me with the task of diagnosing a problem in the field of petrol engines one of my (many) knowledge weak spots. I’d put myself through a coastguard outboard engine maintenance course before leaving NZ, but had been left not much the wiser and still fearful of taking these machines apart. Rebecca asked what I thought the problem might be, and I waffled on unconvincingly. She said ?aybe you should change the spark plugs, isn’t that what men do when their engines go wrong? Clearly showing her ignorance, I scoffed loudly and went back to my user manual. After fiddling around for awhile, I did in fact change the spark plugs and lo and behold, the problem disappeared. I thought long and hard about inventing a more complicated fix that I’d thought up myself, but ultimately decided I had to live with the barely suppressed crowing that would inevitably ensue. Mwago ndogabi, indeed.

Finally, Rossel Island

Coordinates: 11deg21S, 154deg01E
We headed East from Hessessai Bay along the coast, aiming to make a short hop to a trading outpost to restock on fuel. All went well, despite a slightly hairy moment when we found ourselves hooning through a narrow pass between islands, assured by the chart of at least 9m depth but watching the depth gauge drop below 5m. Fortunately this was as low as it went and we passed through unscathed, but with me cursing myself for ignoring my first impulse to drop all sail and motor more cautiously through. When you’re sailing a 10 ton yacht flying plenty of sail in 25 knot winds, emergency stops are simply not feasible. It’s a tad depressing to think that with many thousands of seamiles under our belts, we’re still doing dumb stuff. Damn!

The trading post proved to be a very exposed anchorage; a spot with many young men from other islands hanging out and a less than friendly vibe, so we picked up what we needed and moved across the bay for the night, starting up again early in the morning to make the journey through the locally-famous Snake passage This is a winding maze of reefs that provide a safe pass out to the ocean, assuming you have sufficient local knowledge to follow the path. Which we did, helped by the enormously good luck of having a rare local supply boat enter the pass right in front of us, allowing us to follow her through the multiple switchbacks to open sea. If anyone reading this has access to Google Earth, you should check this out, it must be amazing to look at from the sky (coordinates at western end are 11deg22.6S 153deg20.1E, and at eastern end 11deg20.99S, 15323.14E). From here onto Rambuso Creek, a much-recommended village but one set in deep mangrove country, which meant both mosquitos and crocodiles, so we lingered only long enough to deliver some aid to the schools and pay our respects. Sensing that we weren’t going to be staying long, we were met with a barrage of canoes wanting to trade, some as little as two eggs or one small sweet potato, but all rewarded with something decent from our supply of books, pens, clothes and fishing hooks. For our last evening here we were treated with an impromptu chorus of schoolkids standing on the mudbank nearest to the boat singing the PNG national anthem to us, which is lovely in its own right, made lovelier by the two or three-part harmonies that come so easily to these guys. We can only have spoilt the show by responding with the New Zealand anthem. It seems I’ve heard the schoolboy mickey-taking version more often than the real one, and I struggled to avoid singing “hear our voices, tweet tweet tweet” etc.

And onto our ultimate destination, achieved via what we hope is our last upwind slog for some time to the far eastern island of Rossel. We’d chosen to sail out to Rossel Island on the recommendation of our aid-givers in Australia, who sold the place to us based on its remoteness and their specific request for us to deliver boxes of aid there. Once again we found ourselves battling 25 knot headwinds, but this time with just enough angle to allow us to motorsail through the vast lagoon, veering off to avoid the occasional uncharted reef, to arrive at Tryon Bay. Out of the three or four feasible bays for anchoring around this island, each one with several fringing villages, we’d selected this one as the only croc-free waters, blessed with sand/mud beaches interspersed between palm-fringed mangroves. There are three yachts that visit here most years, and otherwise it seems to sit outside the more popular yacht cruisers’ radar partly because it’s an easterly struggle to get there, and perhaps because yachting lore suggests mozzy and croc-infested waters. Not so, we’re pleased to report.

Yesterday a gentle drizzle developed into torrential downpour in the evening, dispelling our water shortage concerns and resulting in fevered water collection activity. The boys did their usual – stripped off and ran around the foredeck naked, collecting water and washing themselves. For some reason these downpours produce sheer manic madness amongst all three of them, and let’s face it they’re already pretty mad without it. They’ve been able to tear around like this safely all trip due to a broken decklight that I’d struggled to repair. However, little did they know that we’d finally managed to get it working whilst in Cairns, and so we waited until they were in full prance mode before illuminating the whole deck. Much shrieking and carry-on ensued. Walking through the village the following day, we met up with a new friend Matthew who mentioned to me that he’d been canoing back from his gardens through the rain in the dark that night, and suddenly had been handed the scene of a brightly lit yacht with three naked kids cavorting wildly on the foredeck. He thought it was hysterical. Of course I’d promised not to mention the affair on this blog through fear of embarrassing our kids. I wouldn’t do that to them, ooh no.

Church was canceled due to the church hut being washed out by the storm last night, so washing clothes in the creek became our Sunday morning job, watched on by several fascinated women, the fascination presumably less about the act of washing but more that it was being performed by a man. Aware that they’d be hunting for signs of incompetence, I felt it necessary to wash with furious vigour. On the way out, struggling under the heavy load of wet clothes, one of the women suggested I should carry it on my head like all women do here, and as much for their entertainment as anything I obliged, staggering along only a short distance with a severely complaining head and neck. Phew! I don’t know how they do it. On the way back to the dinghy, still struggling with the washing, one woman approached me and offered to carry it for me. “Oh no”, I cried “in my country it would be impolite for a man to allow a woman to carry their heavy loads for them”. The woman tells me that it is quite the opposite here in PNG, where the women carry all heavy loads. Hah! Have these guys ever got it sussed? How soon can I emigrate?
Anyway, I mentioned the ladies’ interest in my washing antics to the parson later that the day, and he confirmed that the women would have been amazed to see a man washing clothes, and would certainly have a good story, more likely a haranguing, to give to their husbands that evening. I may not be popular amongst the menfolk.

Rebecca wears island bling

Despite getting a warm welcome at Hessassai Bay we decided not to linger too long there, but to keep making our way East. Whilst we still have plenty of time up here, we’re keen to find a place that satisfies all the various family demands and we cannot ignore our aid mission, which if fulfilled in the way it was asked of us will see us sailing to the extremities of this island group – Rossel Island. This is PNG’s most eastern land and arguably most remote spot with it’s own surrounding reef and unique language; even the yachties don’t usually bother to travel out there. But being in the east, it also means beating into the tradewinds to get there. Our logic is that we’d rather do that soon, get the tricky sailing over with, and if we don’t find we want to settle there for very long then at least all our exploring will be downwind from there.

Hessessai Bay was a lovely spot, but the water was murky thus preventing us spearfishing, and we found some of the trading abit pushy. We made friends with one or two villagers here, especially Nathaniel who’s wife was from further east and could talk us through some of the tricky passages that lay ahead. In fact, we offered to carry a letter to her father as we’re very likely to call into his village over the next few days. Nathaniel organised our water collection for us, and in exchange for petrol and fishhooks he carved Gabriel an impressive sailing canoe model, complete with outrigger, sail and all. On our last morning he proudly presented Luca with a baggi necklace (see below) that he’d assembled the day before. Luca was ecstatic. We’re the first yacht that had visited this place so far this year, but despite this they seem quite savvy to us dim-dims. We didn’t deliver aid as such to this village, instead we gave gifts liberally, traded for fruit and veg at very favourable terms and donated a pile of books and pens to the local boarding primary school.

Dramatic though our newly born baby rescue at our previous stop Pana Numara may have sounded, the real developing hero here is our own Dr Starr, who has been quietly dispensing medical aid to villagers she spots or hears about with serious symptoms. She almost certainly saved a young girl’s arm and possibly an older lady’s foot at Hessessai over just the last three days – amputation here being the final but often inevitable end result of simple treatable infections but no antibiotics available. She’s firmly flying below the radar in doing this, not announcing her qualifications to anyone through fear of an onslaught of requests, which we both agree is the only sensible way to do it. But it’s wonderful to see the recoveries when they happen. No doubt word spreads quickly once she helps one person, but thankfully she has only been approached for serious cases and so far we’ve avoided a queue of locals complaining of headaches or other minor ailments demanding painkillers.

This is one of the many villagers where they make baggi: beautiful necklaces made painstakingly out of carved shells, which operate as a local alternative to cash. The villagers use baggi to buy land, canoes, pigs or other essentials, the relative value of each necklace seems well understood amongst them. We spent abit of time trying to figure out why individuals don’t simply make baggi all day and make themselves wealthy in the process, but having witnessed the baggi-making process it became clear that it involves several people, typically within one clan, so baggi is also collectively owned. A tad tricky for us to get our heads around, given the strongly individualistic society we come from. But this represents just one element of the collective living these people are used to, where the terms brother, sister, bubu (grandfather/mother/grandparent in law etc) are applied very loosely, and kids are typically raised by the wider clan rather than just one couple. Mind you, raised may also be a loose term when you witness the hordes of kids, many barely toddlers, tearing around the place completely unfettered and supervised! Anyway, we bought a necklace as trade from a young villager, and Rebecca now wears it proudly around her neck, unfazed by the fact she’s wearing local bling…she was always a classy bird, my wife.

First young dim-dim

Coordinates: 11deg12S, 153deg05E
We enjoyed a lovely sail along the north coast of islands that make up the Calvados Chain, most of the islands providing shelter from the ocean and offering us flat water and therefore fast sailing, with only the gaps between each island throwing up the usual ocean swell pushed by the tradewinds. Rebecca had spent almost two days making a hand repair to our torn mainsail, but despite her excellent work we’re now limited to using either our third reef (above the tear) or our first; the second reef simply isn’t strong enough to avoid further tears. But on this occasion the winds were still averaging over 20 knots so we could happily hoon along on our third reef, and we arrived at Hessessai Bay after a smooth six hour journey to anchor in a sandy bay tucked in behind Heva island, a small village just around the corner.

We’d followed a mud map to this anchorage, hand-drawn by a cruiser some 15 years ago, but since then the village here had clearly discovered the joys of outhouses and constructed a wooden thatched hut sitting out over the sea in the middle of the bay. We eyed the structure with suspicion, discussing amongst ourselves whether stilt outhouses were something known amongst these villages or not (certainly some villages in North PNG do this), and I went ashore to discuss further with the rapidly gathering crowd of interested islanders. I pulled into the beach to the usual warm welcome from about 20 or so local adults and kids, and when I asked whether the hut was a toilet their hoots of laughter confirmed it. No-one seemed surprised to see us move up to the next bay.

The small village on the island has a lovely warm feel to it, but we were surprised to find more, rather than fewer signs of affluence (expecting, as we’d been told, that the islands got poorer and therefore more in need of aid the further East we traveled). This is still the territory of wooden huts, bettlenut chewing, cooking over open fires and washing dishes and clothes by seaside creeks; but two new banana boats with brand spanking outboards sat proudly on the beach alongside their traditional sailing canoes, and corrugated iron sheets sat stacked by one house as a modern alternative to their thatched roofing. It transpires that both items were given to the village by the newly elected government, the timing of these gifts suspiciously close to the election. No-one was going to vote for any other candidate, that much was clear!

None of the villages here have chiefs, so the Fijian and Vanuatuan routine of asking permission and giving gifts on arrival isn’t necessary. There are counsellors who handle village domestic matters, but typically these are shared by several villagers and their’s died a couple of years ago and hasn’t been replaced. Nevertheless there is a pecking order of sorts, the elders clearly calling the shots, and most of the smaller villages comprise only 4 or 5 clans (extended families). Property and other matters are held by a clan rather than individuals, so you can imagine that handling issues at clan level simplifies things somewhat. Interestingly, marriage is carefully arranged across clans to avoid in-breeding, a risk in these small communities that everyone seems very aware of.

A couple of days into our visit here, and Rebecca spotted a young girl with an unattended machete cut on her arm that was going badly septic, and offered to help. She’s told that the girl’s mother has five children, but lost her husband last week to black magic. Further probing, and discussions with the mum, revealed that the man had been misbehaving with another village wife, and had been poisoned and subjected to black magic in response. No-one’s quite sure who the perp was and in fact the village has called a meeting next week to discuss the incident, but it seems that the man’s death isn’t viewed as utterly disproportionate to his crime. Rebecca certainly needn’t fear about me straying whilst here.

We were told by some of the men in the village that they have abundant water from creeks around the island, which was a great relief to us as we’ve had no rain for weeks and the tanks are dropping fast. So we arranged to refill our tanks by enlisting a couple of young men and fuelling their longboat. They’d chosen a tiny village on the other side of the bay to gather water, which turned out to be a one-clan settlement of only four or so houses with a creek flowing down their valley. On the third water gathering trip I took Jacob in with me, the two older boys having helped with the previous one, and the 20 or so villagers gathered round and watched entranced as Jacob tore around the clearing performing his usual nonsensical shenanigans. They were, quite literally, entranced; a fairly extreme reaction even by Jakey’s crowd-pulling standards. But our new friend Nathaniel explained on the way out that this is the first time these people have ever seen a young dimdim(white person). How cool is that?

Rubbing two sticks together

A couple of days after the mercy dash, the husband Lyndsa suggested a fishing trip to a nearby lagoon to gather crayfish and we spent a great day with him and a couple of others local guys exploring the nearby fishing ground. Whilst Gabriel improved his spearfishing statistics further, the guys stepped along ragged rocks and snorkeled through large surf, needless to say in bare feet, in search of crayfish. I’d suggested that I accompany our friends in their crayfish hunt, but was told in no uncertain terms that my soft white feet couldn’t handle it, and when I saw the guys at work I could only agree. I picked them up in the dinghy later in the day, and we sat by the lagoon eating coconut while they had a well-earned smoke. Although it wasn’t clear at the start, they had intended this trip as a thank you to us for helping recover the family from the outer reef, and the three crays were firmly ours to keep.

We’d announced our likely departure the following day, and arrived back in the bay to find a couple of local friends had come out to say their final farewells, so joined them for a last natter on the beach. We sat chewing the fat whilst a number of young men fished from the shore by throwing a bare hook on a line out as far as they could, and recovering it with sharp jerks. You’d think no chance in the absence of bait or lures, but amazingly they do catch fish this way. I’d regretted a (rare) moment of cockiness, when I’d told Gabriel that I knew how to make fire by rubbing two sticks together; and he challenged me to demonstrate this in front of our friends, a challenge that was forcefully encouraged by them (as who could resist watching a white guy make a pillock of himself?). Actually, my bravado hadn’t been entirely misplaced, as a young man had demonstrated their fire-making technique to me a few days before and I reckoned it didn’t look too tricky. So I sat there furiously rubbing away to no avail but much to everyone’s entertainment, until my friend Simon took pity on me and informed me I was using the wrong wood. Damn. This then became something of a race, both of us having selected branches from the same tree and with me determined to recover some semblance of credibility by beating him. Now you’d be surprised to hear that this was one race I won, wouldn’t you? Yes, well I didn’t, of course. In fact I was still rubbing away by the time Simon had a roaring fire going, no doubt deliberately lit immediately upwind of me to make a point. But while I didn’t quite managed to make a fire, I did get some smoke going and can attest that it is possible… just with a lot more rubbing!

We’d made a couple of good friends here at Panaumala. We took instant likes to most people we met, and it would generally only take a couple of interactions before we felt truly welcome. But it’s funny how every community has it’s characters, regardless of the circumstances, and here we came across one whose name we’ll leave out of the blog, but we renamed ALS (annoying little shit). Rebecca and I both spent time trying to avoid this individual, but sooner or later got trapped and subjected to a stream of self-satisfied, unsolicited haranguing and opinionated drivel that had us searching for a inoffensive exit. We’d tried to figure out whether this person is annoying only to us, or whether his fellow villagers find him so also, but Melanesian faces can be somewhat inscrutable and we couldn’t reach a firm conclusion. But Rebecca did manage to broach the topic with Simon and gleaned that his village colleagues had a local name for him, something akin to big mouth. Not just us then.

We’d had a great time at Panaumala, and departed with firm intentions to return on our way back to Aus (if only to find out which of us the couple did name their child after!). But it’s onwards for us, heading East during a rare lull in the tradewinds to seek a village with both drinking water (this will become urgent for us soon) and school-age kids for the boys to befriend. We have a place in mind, which should be only 6-7 hours sail away and hope to get there tomorrow.

Mercy dash to the outer reef

Yesterday morning Rebecca returned to the village to check on her patient, who had been showing good signs of recovery but sadly had stopped taking the antibiotics and seemed to be regressing, much to Rebecca’s frustration. A good talk with the accompanying women to try to get her back on the meds might help, but ultimately Rebecca’s done what she can, and it’s now up to the patient. A tricky situation, and one we can empathise with to a certain extent: after all, this is white man’s medicine given by a relative stranger, so some trepidation might be expected.

Meanwhile, Rebecca is told about another drama that unfolded the previous day. A boatload of villagers had set off in a sailing canoe for Misima, including a heavily pregnant woman heading for the port hospital to deliver her first baby. Apparently they got as far as the outer reef when she announced the onset of labour pains, and perhaps in something of a panic they decided to drop the woman and her husband off at a tiny island on the outer reef, before entering into deep ocean for the passage to the port. With no other women onboard with experience of childbirth, two of the men then made the difficult upwind trip back to the village, roused out a couple of experienced mothers in the middle of the night and sailed them back to the island to help. One of these mothers, incidentally, has a month old baby which she had no choice but to bring along. The outset was a group of people stuck on the outer reef with very little water or food and no medical help. Yikes. And of course no way of communicating, so no-one knew the fate of the baby or the mum.

I’d gone ashore after the boys’ morning school to help one of our village friends repair his canoe, drawing the inevitable attention of a small crowd of onlookers as we worked; and the story was retold to me, this time with a suggestion that we might be able to help. More details emerged and it became apparent that these people could really be in trouble. So we brought a couple of local men back to the yacht to study our charts and determine where the island is, and discover that this is one of many islands still uncharted. They assure us that, contrary to what our charts say, there is a feasible entrance and anchorage in the lagoon by this non-existent island. It’s clear we need to help, so off we set.

The trip downwind to the outer reef is an easy 2 hour hoon; we put the foot on the pedal to get there as quickly as possible, concerned about the slow trip back in possible darkness. The island became clear as we approached, no sign of their canoe but sure enough a small group of people sat huddled on the beach looking pleased to see us. We anchored off in some protection from the waves but still very windy and choppy – certainly not a place to stay any longer than necessary – and Rebecca took one of our local guides to the beach armed with a bagload of medical supplies. She returned some time later with a large tarpaulin stretched over the front of the dinghy, and as she came alongside revealed that under the tarp huddled two mothers and babies, one of them literally only hours old.

The baby had been successfully delivered on the island during the night, with the mum and female support crew huddled under a tiny makeshift thatched tent and the menfolk outside, not a single torch or light between them. Presumably the baby was delivered by firelight.

A couple more trips to the beach to pick up the support crew, remaining men and supplies, and we were ready to return. A palpable sense of relief emanated from these people, stranded as they were with no means of return, and the new mum Evelyne looked amazingly sprightly and cheerful given her recent ordeal. Rebecca would coo over the newborn, and Evelyne would respond by beamed at us with a smile that could tip the sun off it’s orbit. She didn’t speak much English, but she didn’t need to. Rebecca offered them biscuits and bananas which they wolfed down with much appreciation, and we began the slow and rough ride home. This took several hours as we were now beating back into 25 knots, and as the sunlight started to fade we finally motored our way into the village bay to find most of the village sitting around a large fire waiting to hear the news. Rebecca and I chewed over the day’s events in the cockpit after supper that evening, pondering on the precarious fate of these villagers in the face of medical dramas.

Unsurprisingly this event seems to have become the talk of the village, and the happy new father Lyndsa paddled his canoe to us this morning with a bunch of coconuts as a thank you. The new baby was a boy, yet to be named, and Lyndsa seemed quite serious in announcing that he wants to name the baby after one of us, happy to leave the choice to us. This isn’t the first time we’ve heard of this practice – a cruising couple we met who’d effectively saved the life of baby a year or so ago in the Louisiades were given the same honour – so it’s not unheard of. But who’s name to use? Rebecca is out of the running, it being a boy and all. And the rest of us are all being a little coy and pretending not to care whether it’s our name that gets picked, but deep down… Well, this is certainly a family decision none of us could have anticipated.

Doctor Starr to the rescue

We’ve discovered that the villagers here don’t recognise the name given to their island on all charts or books, Pana Numara, but instead call themselves Panaumala; a very good illustration if we needed it of the difficulties in writing a largely unrecorded language spoken by fewer than 5000 people. A previous yacht had attempted to capture some of the local language (Misiman) and we’d tried out some of these phrases to responses ranging from complete bewilderment to open guffawing. We suspect that even within the 5000 people who speak it there may be several versions, and when we head further East into the Rossel Islands we’ll transit to another language, this one spoken by fewer than 2000! However, many speak a little English, and we can get by. Which is fortunate, given the initial excitement we enjoyed back in Cairns when we finally managed to track down a phrase book for pidgin English and briefly basked in the anticipation of conversing widely in this language, only to discover that no-one speaks it out here. We’re told that pidgin is generally considered a bit too “worldly” for this remote area. “Too worldly?!” we quietly cry.

Getting to know people is a slow business, but then everything seems to be a slow business around here. There’s very little to hurry for. There’s a lot of sitting around, and joining a group on the beach or in the forest will sooner or later lead to conversation, albeit slow and stilted. Interestingly Luca has spent a couple of afternoons sitting with groups of villagers and chatting, and comes back armed with all sorts of revelations that suggest they find it easier to open up to our children than to us. Of course Rebecca intimidates all of us so I can understand them not opening up to her, but me?! Surely not?

We’ve met the head honcho in the village and offered some aid in the form of clothing and school books, but insisted that he distribute it rather than us which he seems fine with. He plans to ensure each household gets an equal share, presumably leaving it to the households to bicker amongst themselves. He asked whether we have any medicine to help his ailing sister, and Rebecca switches into doctor mode for a visit to the woman’s hut (donning superman cape and underpants on the outside as she goes). It seems the poor lady has a nasty urinary infection plus swollen kidney and Rebecca’s quite concerned about her. They have no medicine on the island, the nearest medical help is 30 miles away at Misima hospital, which services most of the 5000 islanders but is manned only by nurses. With a backdrop of PNG’s health statistics – apparently it has one of the world shortest life expectancy with few people growing into their 70’s – and no easy way for sick people to be transported between islands, you can understand Rebecca’s concerns.

Black magic and faith healing abounds here, but we recko ned this woman is beyond that and so offered to transport her to Misima hospital if Rebecca’s antibiotics didn’t show prompt improvement. We hadn’t planned to visit the port for some time if ever, but for us it is only 5-6 hours downwind sailing and these guys simply don’t have the vehicle to safely carry people across the open sea in the current 20 knot tradewinds. So Rebecca has paid daily visits to check progress, whilst we hold our breath in the hope that her medicine works. The trip to Misima won’t be a problem for us, but getting back against the trade winds will be, and we’re all quietly hoping that the trip won’t be necessary.

The weekend comes and goes with more progress checks in between meetings with elders, impromptu canoe visits to the yacht, jungle walks for the boys to cut down sugarcane, clothes washing at the waterhole, attending their Sunday morning church and various other interactions with these lovely people; and Monday morning shows marked improvement in our ailing friend’s fever. It seems she has turned the corner, and everyone heaves a wee sigh of relief.

This is the first time since our visit to the Feni Islands last year when Rebecca has revealed her medical expertise, and we await the potential onslaught of requests. At Feni she was bombarded with requests for painkillers and other drugs after she treated a friend’s ulcerated leg, and the situation became a tad tricky. This time she’s decided not to reveal her doctoring qualifications, so it remains up to the woman’s family to figure out whether she is simply displaying a normal yacht cruisers’ medical competence or something more. Hard to imagine they’d think the former though, after Rebecca has whipped out her urine test kit and donned her legendary no-nonsense “right, I’m here as a professional so stop buggering about” attitude. But who knows? This may only be legendary within our family.

Bush honey and bananas

Coordinates: 11deg 09south, 152deg 47east
Made the five hour trip from the Duchateau Islands without mishap, the winds maintaining their 20+ knot SEerly trade wind predictability and the seas still choppy. We rounded into the protected bay of Pana Numara island and dropped anchor in 3 metres of sand and coral bommies. We’d been advised to anchor in one of the bays along from, rather than immediately opposite, the village in order to avoid a deluge of canoes, but it seems that our bay is where they tend their gardens and so still sees a steady daytime visit of villagers, which is fine by us.
We arrived burdened down with one large Spanish Mackerel, who’s sad fate on the end of our line was made sadder by the hungry jaws of some predator who bit the thing’s tail off before we managed to bring him in. Given the size of the mackerel, it’s scary to think how big its assailant was! Anyway, this provided us with a welcome gift on our arrival, and a short walk along the beach soon revealed a gathering of islanders who we chatted to, eventually offering the fish to a lovely woman Gracie who’s six months pregnant with her firstborn. And so began a slow but steady introduction to the islanders, some canoes visiting us on the boat to trade fruit, veggies, carvings or woven baskets, others met along the beach as we explore the rocks or forage through the jungle in search of fresh water for washing.

It’s great to see how the boys’ confidence has built since our last PNG visit. Even Gabriel is keen to interact with the villagers, a development that we think must be related to the relatively tough time they experienced trying to interact with people in Indonesia. Luca is dispatched ashore to trade some kids’ clothes for fruit, and we watch from the boat as he negotiates. The infant child of the villager he talks to causes much hilarity as, during a moment when both his dad and Luca are distracted in their conversation, he climbs into our dinghy and tries starting the outboard, pulling on the starter cord with all of his 2-year old might. Dad looks down with horror and quickly scoops up the little chap, but the ice is broken. Gabriel spears a parrot fish and we send him to the beach in a kayak to offer this as a gift to someone, and watch on with great interest as he wanders up and down trying to find a suitable recipient.

Beetlenut chewing abounds here, so people range from the slightly laid-back to the downright horizontal, in some cases they seem so zoned out that the simplest conversation can take some time. The men seem to have figured out how to do the least amount of work, most of them sitting idly in the shade watching their womenfolk struggle on the hour-long walk back from their gardens to the village, each balancing huge basket loads of taro, sweet potato, bananas and greens on their heads. Facial tattoos are common amongst the women, many of whom favour the afro-style hairdo, presumably to help cushion the weight of their aforementioned loads. The men fish (so we’re told, although we haven’t seen much evidence) whilst the women tend their gardens. The gardens are located some distance from the village, and they’ve built day-huts there and light fires to cook food and get shelter. So each morning we see a steady stream of villagers walking or paddling past us to their gardens, most returning home late afternoon with the spoils of their work, in some cases carrying fire with them in the form of burning logs, presumably to save having to relight fires back home.

Yesterday we visited the village and met the counsellor (chief) and head schoolteacher, both lovely hospitable people keen to encourage us to stay as long as we like. The village has about 25 huts, maybe around 150 people, each hut raised on stilts for some reason we’re yet to fathom. “Flooding?” we suggest, but the counselor says No. “Snakes?” prompts a guffaw of laughter, so we’re none the wiser. Clearly something they wish to keep out of their homes that can’t climb a ladder, and until we figure this out I’m not overly encouraged to go camping.

Trading continues at pace, and we’re starting to have to turn people away at risk of overloading ourselves with food we can’t eat. A massive bunch of bananas swinging from the davits awaiting ripening. Earlier today we were offered bush honey, which took the form of large chunks of unappetising brown waxy balls, containing the most wonderful fragrant honey akin to something like a mixture of tart fruit juice and liquid sugar. We squeeze the wax to get the honey out, the yellow treacle sliding deliciously through our fingers. At the sight of something messy to do, Gabriel immediately insists on joining in and we spread the stuff liberally around the cockpit. The remaining wax they’re keen for us to return, as they use it to plug gaps in their canoes; gaps which appear to be numerous, given the equal volume of energy they appear to spend alternately bailing and paddling.