Townsville turtles

Interesting how each town develops to cater for its people. Cairns and Port Douglas were all glam reef tourism, huge yachts making daily excursions out to the barrier reef, whilst back on land there sat the beautifully manicured waterfront designed to cater for the beautiful people travelling through, long stretches of grass for long-limbed sun-worshippers to top up their vitamin D, waterfront pools for bikini-clad models, playgrounds for model mothers designer kids, and thriving shops selling expensive sarongs, artwork and decaf cappuccinos. We were a little surprised that they even let us in. Here it feels like Townsville Council took a good look at their northern neighbours and decided they fancied the same, but ultimately their clientèle had different needs. Rather than tourism, here mining and heavy exports are the dominant industries, and so the first impressions as you walk in from the seafront are down-dirty pubs and girly bars. This may be an unfair impression, and it’s entirely understandable for some cities to have sensibly positioned their red light districts close to the port to reduce travelling time for their most loyal customers. But the beautiful people here are few and far between, and the town has a more functional feel, shopping mostly confined to out of town malls, heavy industry dominant across a sprawling sector, and the inner town a demoralised collection of closed shopfronts and pubs.

Anyway, for us the Townsville stop is primarily focused on fitting our new mainsail, and getting all the customs declarations sorted. Rebecca and I share some nervousness that the new sail will fit, given that we had to complete our own measurements and exchange emails to order it, so fingers crossed for its arrival in a couple of days. In the meantime the boys are back to home schooling, poor things, probably a bit of a shock to their systems after the relatively lax regime of PNG schooling, where they were surrounded by raucous friends and the teachers seemed happy to close classes early on the slightest whim. There is an inevitable list of ongoing boat repairs, and otherwise the afternoons are spent exploring Townsville or catching up with a couple of yacht friends whom we’d met up north.

Luca celebrated his birthday here, the day after we arrived. Energy levels were still a bit low between Rebecca and myself, the recovery time for our offshore passages sadly taking longer than it might have a few years ago, but we’d found a water park on the seafront that promised a good few hours of boys’ fun, and parked ourselves there with picnic and treats whilst Luca and brothers hooned around having a ball. Many thanks to everyone who sent birthday emails to Luca, each one poured over and hugely appreciated. The unprompted announcement that “this is been the best birthday ever!” accompanied birthday cake, and the boy went to bed a happy young man.

We’d made friends with a yachting family on the boat Savannah whilst in PNG who’d offered us help in Townsville, and have been very kind to us this week – thanks Murray. Yesterday we visited their home on the beach and experienced a classic Northern Queensland BBQ evening. The kids completed mock battles in the pool, and after wolfing down a couple of sausages took off into the night armed with hockey sticks for a session of cane toad whacking. These toads are a huge pest in the neighbourhood, breeding like the proverbial, and toad whacking is a regular past time for residents bent on their depopulation, with I imagine the side-benefit of improving their hand-eye coordination. Murray proudly showed us their pet python, a huge 3 metre beast actually less a pet and more a mobile possum trap, that they’ve had for several years for that very purpose. It seems they can tell when he’s caught a possum from the possum-shaped lump in his coils. “Feel free to stroke him” Murray announced. Aaah, thanks.

Earlier in the week I had to make a violent turn in the dinghy to avoid hitting a turtle on the way out of the Townsville marina. And today we got a better look at him, a crusty old barnacle-backed turtle that likes to hang out in the marina entrance, checking out boats coming in and out. They’re known to use the beaches here for breeding, although I still didn’t expect to run into one so close to land. A big one too. Nice to be back in a country where turtles are treated with such care and affection. They are widely eaten across the South Pacific of course, and it was only a few days ago when we went ashore at Rossel to find our good friends Vagi and Margaret had caught one and were preparing to cook it. The thing was laid on its back for a day on their porch, but at one stage managed to right itself and took off with surprising speed, pursued frantically by an even faster Margaret who wasn’t about to let such a prized catch get away. Much hilarity ashore from fellow villagers. Vagi later told me that he regretted showing it to Rebecca, who reacted with predictable horror and sadness at the turtle’s plight, but he still seemed to get some quiet satisfaction from telling her in great detail how they caught it, and how they’ll cook it. Poor little thing (the turtle, that is). I understand that many species of turtle are classified as endangered, but they appear to still be plentiful in these waters. The flesh is supposed to be delicious, and though offered to us I don’t think any of us could quite bring ourselves to try it..  

Lighter boat makes for happier passage

Coordinates: 19deg14S, 146deg49E anchored in the “duck pond” off Townsville Breakwater marina.

We arrived in Townsville on Friday late afternoon, having completed the 640 mile trip from Rossel in exactly 4 days and nights, averaging just under 7 knots. This may not sound impressive, but our first 24 hours were pretty awful, the sea state such that we had to slow the boat right down to reduce the pounding, so the average was brought up in subsequent days with speeds of 7-9 knots, a few bursts up to 12knots. Woohoo!  Actually, we cheated a bit for the last 24hrs after receiving an email from a friend in Townsville warning us that Australian Quarantine charge extortionate fees for w/e clearance.  We calculated that if we didn’t put the hammer down we’d arrive Friday night.  We had hardly used any diesel so far, so figured we’d motorsail and try to make it in before end of Fri business hours… and we squeaked in at 4pm, hugely relieved that we didn’t have to make the choice between a second mortgage or stuck on the boat anchored off for the w/e sitting under a Q flag.

Rebecca and I both felt a lot more relaxed on this trip. There are always the low level anxieties that go with offshore sailing with a family, but we’d managed to eliminate some of the underlying concerns before departing.  We were determined to offload anything we didn’t absolutely need, so Rebecca and I went systematically through each compartment fishing out our inevitable collection of collectomaniac gubbins – “stuff we might just need one day”. And on the basis that if we hadn’t used it by now, it wasn’t going to get used, we traded or gave it all away to our Louisiades’ friends or the United Church. Along with many boxes of aid, we dumped two old sails including our broken old mainsail (that took 75kg off the boat immediately), surplus diving gear, clothes and other stuff.  We’d depleted much of our food supplies, most of our LPG, and had sufficient diesel and petrol to get us to Aus but no more. So by the time we’d finished, Tonga Moon was sitting happily above her lines, proudly showing off more than an inch of previously concealed anti-foul.

Catamarans are known for being weight-sensitive, and whilst Tonga Moon has more weight-bearing capacity that many, she’s no exception. On the way up from Australia we were heavily over-loaded, carrying as we were over three months’ worth of supplies plus all the aid, and this was probably one factor contributing to our torn mainsail and excessive pounding on that trip. The difference has been noticeable; mainly through less pounding, which means less force on the structure and rigging and less stress for all of us. Rebecca’s hand-sewn repair to the mainsail held up magnificently to the 25 knot winds until the last night, when another tear appeared just in front of the old one.  Haha! This time we laughed in the face of a further torn sail, safe in the knowledge that we could limp in on this one whilst a new sail awaits us in Townsville.

So we spent our first night tied up alongside in a marina, first time in a marina for the whole trip so far, and were all soundly asleep by 8pm. The following morning saw a whirlwind of showers, laundry, boat clean and the usual post-passage clear-up, and we were off our expensive berth and back out onto our (wonderfully free) anchor, bobbing away happily in the tradewinds.  Luca’s birthday was rapidly approaching, and fast footwork was needed to conjure up a suitably impressive day for him. He’d really wanted to celebrate his 12th birthday with his mates in Rossel, but as we pointed out to him the islanders don’t celebrate birthdays and the whole event might have been quite peculiar. This non-birthday celebration thing probably explains why the islanders struggled so much telling us their age.  We’ve had some spectacularly silly responses to the dimple question “how old are you?” (“30 years old” from a pre-teen, for example), all delivered with an entirely straight face after what is clearly several failed attempts at mental arithmetic. Strange how something so fundamental to the way we see ourselves (our age) can be so completely undermined by a culture where they really don’t know, or seemingly care.

As you can tell, we haven’t quite let the Louisiades go yet. We’re still retelling stories amongst ourselves from PNG, which had proved such a great breeding grounds for some great little adventures. So here is one more…

A few days before we left Rossel, we received a visit from our friend George. He was the CRC church parson’s assistant, a former badboy who’d turned his life around and was now dedicated to the church. He was also a self-taught mechanic, having dropped out of school young and spent several years working the harsh life of a ship’s mate on one of the beche de mer fishing boats, and he & I had spent several days conjuring up a method for fixing worn bushes on our outboard engine. He’s a lovely guy. Anyway, he’d paddled out to the yacht and was sitting having a coffee with us when he slipped into the conversation, with so little preamble that I almost missed it, that he had a boil he was worried about. This boil was on his inner thigh, which was probably why he insisted on addressing all conversation to me rather than Rebecca, who was sitting opposite and was very clearly the only medical authority around the table. If he wanted medical treatment then sooner or later he’d have to deal with her, so I made myself scarce.

Rebecca took one look at the offending boil, and in her inimitable ‘let’s not mess about here” style suggested that it needed lancing and offered to do it right there and then. George showed some hesitation, but was clearly smart enough to recognise a fact that us menfolk in the Nolan family learnt a long time ago, which is: Don’t mess with the Doc. So he agreed, and his yelps of pain and cries of anguish echoed around the bay as Rebecca got stuck in. It took him some time to recover his composure, and he left the yacht somewhat diminished. Of course it did cure the problem, but he later confided in me that he’d come to the boat expecting some pills, and had only agreed to Rebecca’s suggestion because he thought it impolite not to. Had he been in his village there’s no way he’d have let her cut him. Anyway, his story soon did the rounds of the village and has since been retold many times, each time with increasing hilarity among his clan, the pastor and all others who think it is the funniest story they’ve heard for a long time. He still visited us after this incident, but it was certainly the last time he sought medical care, bless him.

400 miles out but still back there

Coordinates: 17deg37S, 148deg51E
Mid-Coral Sea, we’re now on our 3rd day of this 5 day passage from PNG to Townsville Australia. The Rev Isaac, our good friend the Minister of Rossel, had offered to guide us out through the tricky southern Rossel passage for our departure, and so we left with his longboat alongside us loaded up with the men from Damenu village – Isaac, Matthew, Sai, Robert, Vagi and William. We drifted into the passage entrance over the initially shallow section with the depth sounder dropping down to 0.0m beneath the keel, holding our breath and putting our faith entirely in our friends’ local knowledge. They didn’t let us down and we coasted over without touching, and then through the multiple-switchback passage. Big hugs and handshakes as we offloaded our guides back onto their longboat, and we took off through the reef gap into the open ocean.

From there, the first 24 hours can only be described as truly crappy. And that’s saying something since Easter we seem to have become the king and queen of crappy passages. We struggled through a prolonged series of rain-drenched squalls with the wind bouncing between 25-35 knots, topping out at 40k for a time, and the seas throwing up an occasional 4 metre wave amidst the 3 metre swell that would dose the boat from bow to stern. Oh joy! Wet, miserable and seasick, these were probably the dues we had to pay for the wonderful few months we’d enjoyed in PNG. But thankfully the wind and seas started to abate on the 2nd day, and since then we’ve been bouncing along in 25knot SE’erlies making a fast, if not entirely comfortable, passage. So we have another day or two before reaching the glitzy shores of Australia and making the necessary re-adjustment to life back in a developed country, but our hearts remain back at Rossel. This passage gives us a stop-gap to understand the experience and indulge ourselves in what we remember. For the moment we seem to have all turned into sentimental old fools!

However sad we felt at our departure, I think we were quite astounded by the depth of feeling shown by some of our island friends. We knew Vagi would be sad. His wife had told us that after our previous departure he’d taken the day off and refused to work…. but he’s a musician, so we figured he’s probably a bit of a wallower! But there was Rhonda, who was so overcome with sadness that she simply sat by the wharf crying silently, and I had to grab her hand to get her to say goodbye to me. And Olive, who’d paddled all the way across the bay to bring us a pineapple, tears rolling down her cheeks as she shook our hands repeatedly. Marama Lisan, the Minister’s wife, whose strong bearing and imposing authority seemed to break down and she wept as our dinghy pulled away. And there were more.

It was all too much, and we’re still making sense of it. Sure, we’d brought aid to the island, and we’re hugely grateful to Mike and Marlene Derridge from the yacht Vision, who enabled us to make that contribution. But we weren’t the only ones doing that, so there had to be more to it. And vain as we are, we wouldn’t kid ourselves that the strength of our personalities alone was sufficient to warrant this response either, so what was it?

Mike and Marlene had visited Rossel several times before, and amongst the friends we made they were something of a household name, very much liked by everyone we met. I think their approach may have be similar to ours – they simply hung out with people. And strange as it may sound, this in itself meant a huge amount to them. By way of example, we heard from the islanders that Mike’s wife strongly disapproved of him smoking, and he’d make up bogus jobs for her to do on the boat so he could sneak away with his village mates for a puff, something the islanders thought was hysterical. It’s this sort of interaction that they so valued.

During the days before our departure, the church students had turned their attention to preparing their gardens for planting, and I’d asked if I could accompany them one morning. A good hour-long hillclimb took us to a steep half-acre section of cleared forest, where a party of 30 or so islanders had gathered for the working bee, the men digging the ground with digging sticks (metal pipe with a short blade on the end) and the women planting yam seedlings behind them. It was back-breaking work in the mounting heat, but the guys seemed to know how to pace themselves and several trips down to the neighbouring village to collect water enabled frequent breaks. Those who knew us cracked jokes and indulged in general banter, whilst it seems that those who hadn’t met us before looked on in great confusion, asking repeatedly what a dimdim was doing working in the garden. After a couple of hour’s hard labour I confess I was asking myself the same thing. But there was general astonishment and a great deal of pleasure at our presence, and for me this was part explanation for the depth of feeling at our departure.
The islanders have the phrase ahh, dimdims which they use to express either wonderment at how we live, or how astonishing or crazy our world is to them. A bit like Asterix’s these Romans are crazy sentiment perhaps. But it’s an endearing phrase, not derogatory. Whilst we worked the garden, several asked me whether dimdims have gardens like them? God no I replied, we go to the supermarket! and received the predictable ahh, dimdims response. I’d exaggerated for affect of course (not something I’d do in this blog, mind you), so went on to explain how some dimdims have small gardens by their house (hint…not five miles walk over the hill) and grow veggies and fruit. I also explained that I personally hate gardening, and after a hard week’s work could find any number of things I’d rather do than be grubbing around in the dirt. Great laughter at this.

Not only had Rebecca won much kudos for her medical rounds, but much to my (and her) amazement she found herself enjoying something of a reputation as a master chef, and spent hours teaching the village women how to bake banana bread, make mayonnaise and other goodies. Our meagre stock of cookbooks were poured over and recipes copied, amid much discussion about local ingredients. Now, here’s a thing: how do you bake with no oven, only an open fire? Here’s how they do it… they build their fire, balance a metal sheet over it on which is placed the cake, then suspend another sheet over this and build a fire on top of that. Simple! Even better, get their hands on a discarded 200 litre metal petrol container and build the bottom and top fires within it. Clever eh? Mind you, no-one was prepared to say how many baked items come out as blackened charcoal, but we thought the principle was pretty cool, especially given that our oven on Tonga Moon broke about two month’s into the trip, and Rebecca has now perfected the art of baking bread, cakes etc inside a pressure cooker.

Anyhow, all this is behind us now as we romp our way south through the Coral Sea. No doubt more stories from PNG will enter subsequent blogs, but for now the sea has settled and we’re enjoying average 8-9 knots and a likely arrival sometime tomorrow night, all of us looking forward to a good motionless sleep.

A final Farewell to Rossel

Rebecca and I’d had many discussions about the best time to leave. We’d been accused by a couple of yachts of growing a tap root at Rossel. We’d certainly loved the prolonged stay, and the thought of leaving wasn’t a pleasant one. But we needed to return to Australia mid-Oct to begin the slog down the coast to Brisbane, our jump-off spot for the Tasman crossing. Our supplies had held up amazingly well a huge credit to Rebecca’s provisioning skills. Never again shall I take the piss out of her tendencies to count out teabags based on assumed tea consumption rates prior to a trip. OK, she’d cry but it’s all about saving weight! No. In over three months without access to a single shop, we haven’t run out of muesli (my own greatest fear), early grey tea (her’s), or lollies (the boys’), although it must be said that there’d been some fairly brutal rationing on all but tea. Funny that.

We’d got lucky and managed to score a full LPG bottle off a neighbouring yacht, but one or two things were getting tight. We were down to our last gas bottle, we had just enough diesel to make it back to Aus if needed, and enough petrol for only one or two more outings in the dinghy. More importantly, Rebecca’s substantial medicine chest was being rapidly depleted as her Florence Nightingale fame spread wider across Rossel, and she was determined to keep her last course of antibiotics and other medicines for any family dramas on the way back, only too aware of the extent of hypochondria rampant in the Nolan family. So we had to go.

In our time at Rossel we’d all caught head lice, worms, headcolds and an endless array of minor foot and leg infected cuts, but thankfully nothing more serious. Tricky to avoid cuts getting infected in a place where it rains so much, and walking in mud is a daily necessity. Head lice, interestingly, are common amongst the islanders; and presumably because their hair is so thick and wiry the usual lice combs aren’t workable, so it’s an everyday sight to see kids and adults lovingly picking nits out of each others’ hair. Rebecca commented that introducing chemical headlice treatment could erode a vital form of community bonding, and you can see what she meant. We hadn’t quite got to that point ourselves, but the lice comb had become a regular evening entertainment, and Rebecca would quietly wince every time one of the boy’s village friends exchanged hats with them (woven hats and baskets being a common gift).

The previous week had seen a perfect weather pattern of light NE’erlies settle over the Coral Sea, and several other yachts had grabbed the moment and headed off. But we didn’t feel ready to go, and took the risk of staying knowing that we might get stuck with adverse weather for our trip south. As it turned out the forecasts weren’t great, but weren’t terrible either for the period when we’d planned to leave, so rather than wait further (or forever) for the perfect window to reoccur, we decided the time was right. This was against the advice of at least one of our friends back home who’d been pouring over internet-based weather forecasts on our behalf (sorry Dave), and who no doubt will point blank refuse to provide the same service in the future. But we’d been tempering the official forecasts with local knowledge from our PNG friends ashore, and they’d suggested that indeed we could be waiting until December for another period of light NE’erlies.

We knew the departure would be tough on all of us, attached as we’d become to many friends ashore. We’d elected to catch the afternoon high tide out over the reef, so there was plenty of time for painful drawn-out goodbyes. This time we insisted no formal kai-kai, speeches or the like we’d done that to death at our previous farewell but the rounds of goodbyes became increasingly emotional as the day went on. Several islanders paddled some distance across the bay to see us off, and the dinghy became increasingly loaded with farewell gifts of woven baskets and hats, passion fruit, coconuts and huge bunches of bananas to sustain us on our trip.

The boys had made wonderful friends with what we referred to as the four Js (Jeremiah, Jerome, Junior, & Jerry), who all lived in the hilltop village of Nalumbay and shared the same appetite for wagging school and encouraging their dimdim mates into high jinx. Jeremiah especially had spent a lot of time hanging out with us, regularly whipping us all at draughts. On the morning of our departure they paddled out at 6am to spend time with us, and got their first taste of sweet porridge as a reward. It transpired there was some question whether they’d been lent or borrowed the canoe (not the first time so accused), so they took it back and returned straddling two banana trees hacked down and joined together with sticks to make their own adhoc multihull canoe! These guys are beauts! But even their antics had the ring of last minute furious fun, and there came a break point for each of us. Rebecca managed to hold it together despite at least three of her female friends crying ashore, but one look at Jeremiah manfully trying to hide his tears set her off. Vagi had proved something of a role model for Gabriel and Luca, and they both found this parting tough. And much to my own surprise, I found myself getting choked up as my good friend George insisted on praying for me in a breaking voice as we stood on the hill overlooking the bay.

What’s happened to us? Whatever became of the hard-hearted westerners un-phased by separation? Even writing this makes me feel uncomfortable soppy, but it’s clear that something about these people had touched each of us in a very personal way, and our feelings at the end validated all the beautiful farewell comments made by our village friends. These shy, proud, strong, warm-hearted, fun-loving and gracious people. Seems we really had grown a taproot, and it was proving hard to sever.

Sleeping in the village

Rebecca beat her way up into the interior yesterday to pay a visit to a couple of friends in the hilltop village of Nalumbay. A 45 minute step class up steep, muddy and tree-rooted slopes brought her to a relatively flat jungle clearing where the clan had built their home, and she was greeted with the usual warmth that the effort created. Much sitting around, eating and chatting ensued, and during this time she was introduced to a child that had all the hallmarks of hyperactivity, perhaps ADHD. The mother expressed exasperation at the child, how it couldn’t rest and seemed to act on all impulses, and then explained how it had come to be. It is common practice for an elder to blow on their hands and place a spell on a chosen child, thereby bestowing energy and strength that will enable them to grow up to be good, strong workers. This is useful to them as adults, but as children most of them appear to become hyperactive post-spell. Dopey baby spell hyperactive child hardworking adult. Can’t argue with the causal link.

Back at our nearest village of Damenu, we’d been thinking…. It’s one thing making regular visits ashore and then retiring to our own floating piece of home with all the accompanying comforts, safe in the knowledge that if things are a bit tough on land, we know they’re pretty cruisey back on Tonga Moon. It’s quite another to live ashore and immerse yourself in the PNG lifestyle. Damenu village included a hut that had been vacated by a visiting pastor, and the Minister seemed happy to honour our request that we rent it out for a couple of nights and stay ashore. We figured that the boys would welcome a night on dry land, and we were all a little intrigued to see what the villagers actually do after sunset (other than fight off malarial mozzies). So we dosed ourselves heavily with insect repellent, loaded up on sleeping gear, torches and our trusty guitar and took the dinghy to land.

The hut was raised off the ground with long piles, divided into three or four rooms separated by flimsy bamboo walls, and kept dry with the usual sago leaf thatched roof. Flooring was simply sago strips tied down over beams, and the minister’s wife had surreptitiously laid woven mats down where some of these strips looked rotten. We camped out in two rooms, sleeping on basic mattresses on the floor. The evenings were spent playing guitar with village friends, or hanging around one of the cooking fireplaces our friends had set up on the stones outside their huts. We brought out a packet of sparklers and caused quite a hit, kids and adults all intrigued by yet another dimdim invention. The kids loved dancing around with them, as all kids do. After insisting that the Minister take one, he was later seen quietly lighting it, waving shapes into the darkness and chuckling to himself. The villagers drifted to bed any time from eight or nine onwards, the intervening darkness broken by firelight or the occasional solar torch which the more well-heeled locals possess. One of our friends’ sons, the 14 year old boy Justin, suggested that he sleep outside the hut to keep us safe- from what wasn’t ever specified but when the time arrived he came over all shy and retired to his home. Certainly plenty of bird noises and bush rustling were heard, but nothing scarier than the buzz of a passing mozzy.

You can’t fault Damenu for its religious commitment: after all, it does host the Minister himself. But I think our full appreciation for their fervour was still developing. Rebecca had been told by more than one person that God’s mission for her was to provide medical treatment for the islanders. Several people had told us they regularly pray for us, our photo nesting on top of their bibles. Along with the Minister, the village hosts the United Church school, a dozen lovely young men and women close to completing a year’s intensive missionary schooling. Most evenings these guys finish their day with a sing-sing, all clearly audible from the water. What we hadn’t appreciated is that they start each day with a 5am prayer, delivered at a sleep-breaking volume from the church (just up the hill from our hut). On our second night staying ashore, we heard loud shouting emanating from one of the village huts, and we’re told that the parson was healing some people who were scared in some unspecified but presumably spiritual way. Now that sounded scary!. But the biscuit was taken by a neighbour who woke us no later than 4am each morning with guitar strumming and singing. We enquired about this with some friends, who insisted that in fact it was probably an angel singing in the night (apparently a fairly common event here). I couldn’t help but comment that the singing we heard in the middle of the night was far from angelic. My suggestion that angels might have a better voice and perhaps a wider repertoire of guitar chords was met with a wry smile.

Jungle adventures to Pambwa

Some of the boys from the village of Pambwa on the other side of the island – the croc-infested place where Luca and I helped repair a longboat – had asked us if we’d come back for a visit. I was keen to see that they’d completed the repairs alright. No longboat trip around the island was available, and we’d be assured that it was a not so far fast walk over the mountain which the village soccer team does every Saturday for sports day. It sounded do-able. Someone suggested that we could avoid a longer walk through mangroved mud by arranging a canoe once across the mountain, and had been lucky to discover that some friends who lived up in the mountain had planned to make the trip on the following day to sow yams in their garden, and offered to include us.

With few visiting yachties venturing into the island interior, it’s understandable that many villagers are left with the impression that us dimdims can’t handle their jungle paths. So there’s something of a challenge resting here, and also the certain knowledge that any dimdim who attempts to venture beyond the waterfront generally earns themselves a huge welcome and instant credibility. It was a school day so the older boys were tied up, and the trip looked well beyond Jakey’s abilities, so I left the boat early one morning on my own. We’d all brought shoes with us on the yacht, but my footwear was limited to either jandals that became treacherous when wet, or a light pair of gym shoes that were hopelessly slippery on anything other than a squash court. Smart, eh? Watching the islanders treading so assuredly in barefeet, I’d decided to try to train my own and so undertook the journey with my own lily-white soft-skinned feet as transport.

The journey started with a kayak over to the corner of the bay, where I found our good friend Jeremiah, a cheeky 12 year old who’d spent many hours hanging out with the boys, waiting for my arrival in order to guide me over the island. He was joined by his regular partners in crime Junior, Jerome and Jerry (the 4 J’s), all of whom were determinedly wagging school to join the party. After some insistence on my part that they should be at school, it became clear that their folks supported their truancy so I gave up. A half-hour steep climb up the mountain brought us to their village of Nalumbay, where we joined the family party of several more and, after some early morning banter, began the hour or so’s trek over the mountain pass down to the riverbed. This was my first time exploring the interior of the island. Occasionally we’d pass a peak where the dense rain forest opened up wonderful views of lush green hills or ocean. Large white herons, red/green parakeets and other birds drew your attention to the impressive rain forest trees, massive old hardwoods interspersed with vines and angular aerial-rooted frond covered trees, and every so often a planted area of coconuts, pawpaw and banana trees. Ebony is still common here, and in fact huge ebony off cuts can be found lying discarded on beaches.

We descended down a steep path in single file with one woman Judy leading the way for me, nonchalantly balancing a child on one arm and a basket of yam seedlings on the other, down the the riverbed path that took us over fallen trees and through ankle deep mud to arrive at the stop where they kept their canoes. We then divided ourselves between the three outrigger canoes and paddled down the river and out into the bay, another breath-taking hour through winding mangroves with our friends singing custom songs from each canoe. In the end, the journey proved much more eventful than the destination, as we finally arrived at Pambwa to find the boat repair complete and not much needed, so we canoed and walked back up the hill to join the rest of the party at their gardens.

The island hills are covered with many cleared patches for gardens, but you need to look closely to see them through the bush. Land ownership seems complicated and rooted in long family histories, and for many villagers their gardens are up to half a day’s walk away. So they erect small shelters there, and often organise working parties such as this one to make the trip worthwhile. This is yam planting season, and there’s some hard digging and planting to be done to prepare for next year. I was greeted like royalty when we arrived, they insisted that I sat in the favoured spot under the shelter whilst one of the young girls leapt away to cut us some coconut. This was the first dimdim to visit them up here, and the family were in buoyant mood. My suggestion of a photo was greeted with great excitement and three of the young men immediately start to blacken their faces with burnt wood from the fire creating much hilarity amongst the older folk. My question of Why are they blackening their faces? was met by the obvious because you’re going to take their photos reply, and I was left none the wiser. But they made a great photo-op, the young men posing like crazed warriors, the elders grinning through betlenut-stained gums and the kids leaping around uncontrollable. Digital cameras are great in this situation, and we crowded around the little magic box as I played back their pictures. .

Most islanders are incredibly fit and tough, adapted as they have to long forest walks, hard daytime work, an adequate but far from excessive diet, and simple living conditions, sleeping on the floor on grass mats. And they leapt over these hills like mountain goats I was chuffed to be able to keep pace, but achieved this with sweat pouring down me where they were still looking fresh-faced and dry. Rebecca provided a hugely appreciated foot massage that evening, my tootsies still intact but telling me in no uncertain terms that their training has a long way to go!

Doctor Starr wears her underwear on the outside (again)

During our first stay here at Rossel we saw remarkably few people with obvious health problems, and so Rebecca’s expertise stayed silent for awhile. During the second fortnight she did treat a couple of villagers for minor cuts, and seeing her obvious competence our friends ashore assumed she was a nurse (being a woman, of course!). This was an assumption Rebecca was happy to perpetuate, fearing a deluge of requests as we’d experienced elsewhere but Luca unwittingly let the cat out of the bag in a moment of idle chat with the Minister, and her full doctoring qualifications were revealed. Fortunately we haven’t had a long queue of people demanding painkillers and other drugs, but everyday there are now one or two new patients, and whilst the medicine holds out Rebecca’s happy to help.

There is one resident nurse on Rossel Island, but none in this bay so anyone who’s sick needs to either complete the all-day walk over the hills to the health centre, or have spare cash to pay for the fuel for a longboat to take them around. So you can imagine that many health problems go untreated. Most of Rebecca’s requests are just infected cuts or persistent coughs, so she hasn’t been too taxed. The Minister himself appeared with a nasty infected area on his knee and Rebecca has been treating him for this, probably unconsciously giving him something of the VIP treatment knowing, as we do, that he and his wife are effectively the most influential people on the island. Yesterday one of the youth group appeared with a deep machete cut to her leg, and she was whisked away to Rebecca’s surgery (i.e. Tonga Moon) for local anaesthetic and stitches.

Within a week of the news of a resident dimdim doctor being spread, she had established a daily round of several patients, and some villagers are joking about setting up clinics for her. Or, at least we think they’re joking. Day by day you can see Rebecca’s mana in the community growing. Rebecca complained to me today that the school headmaster still refers to her as Mrs Fred something the rest of us find hilarious, needless to say – but at this rate I suspect that I’ll be relegated to Mr Rebecca before very long. Not that we’d indulge in any form of competition or anything… but patching holes in the odd longboat and glueing an occasional guitar just ain’t going to compete with Florence Nightingale’s work!

Last week Luca and I joined a longboat travelling to the other side of the island to drop off the pastor to his village of Pambwa. We’d hitched a lift as an opportunity to eyeball the pass through the outer reef that we’ll take when we depart, and ended up agreeing to fix two large holes in the village’s longboat whilst there, with the promise of a return trip in a couple of days’ time to finish. Before coming to Rossel, we’d been advised to stick to our bay (Tryon Bay) with warnings that most others had crocs and mozzies, and Pambwa turned out to be a good case in point. This village sits right on the seafront adjacent to a large mangrove-fronted river, and the crocs and mozzies are dominant.

The pastor had been reluctant to return with his newborn baby girl due to worries about malaria. Whilst working on their boat, I was hosted by a local couple who explained the rules for living alongside crocs here: kids are forbidden from swimming; no-one ventures into the mangroves at the back of the village after dusk; and because the crocs like to come up the beach in the evenings, anyone walking along the beach or between village huts at night carries a burning log (crocs are apparently afraid of fire and put off by smoke). Jeez! And to quell any residual doubts we had about their stories, they pointed to their three legged dog, explaining that it’s fourth leg had been removed by one of the many resident reptiles. “So when are you going to bring your yacht with your family here to visit us?” they then asked. Hard to find a polite way of replying “it’ll be a cold day in hell..”.

Return to Rossel

With customs and quarantine clearance behind us, we could sit back and enjoy our last few weeks in PNG before we’d need to make tracks South back to Australia and begin the journey down the Aus coast to Brisbane, our hopping-off point for NZ. So a family decision was required – what should we do with the rest of our time in PNG? We presented the boys with a couple of options, and despite the 3 or 4 day sailing required to get there, the unanimous view was to head back to Rossel. I think for all of us, we’d moved beyond the thirst for exploring new islands, and really just wanted more of what we’d had: the boys back to PNG school and playing with their local young mates, Rebecca and I luxuriating in weekday mornings not spoilt by the daily home schooling struggle, and over it all a collection of families in the village who’d become good friends. So we began the journey back East. This time we got lucky with the winds and made it back in three long sailing days, arriving back in Tryon Bay late afternoon weighed down with three large spanish mackerel and two tuna, most of it surplus to our fridge capacity and therefore giveaways to our friends. The huge send-off we’d been given by the school (for the boys’ last school day) and by the village (for all of us on the eve of our departure) had left us feeling a bit uneasy about returning. How would everyone react?

We needn’t have fretted. Several people had spotted our catamaran approaching from afar, and before most had identified it as Tonga Moon they’d seen us sailing all the way into the anchorage and figured out it must be us, the only catamaran that’s got to know the bay well enough to avoid the reefs with sail set. We were knackered but ecstatic to be back, and received a wonderful welcome back in the village when we went ashore, everyone poo-pooing our concerns about undermining their previous big send-off.

It was lovely to return, and all felt wonderfully familiar. Whilst we’d been away the Minister had distributed our aid drop, taking care to ensure each village received a share, the local pastors identifying the homes most in need (including, we’d specifically requested, non-church goers). We’d picked up more aid from the Australian rally in Panapompom, and so returned laden down with more of the stuff, now confident that the distribution was working. In fact, seeing as we’d be leaving from here to travel straight back to Australia, we planned to clean out each cabin over the next week, collecting everything we don’t really need and chuck it into the aid mix.

We arrived back on a Friday afternoon, had the Saturday (usually a long day’s gardening for the villagers) to catch up on sleep and sort out the boat, in readiness for the most sociable day of the week. Sunday is of course church, but it’s also a time when people congregate from villages all over the bay, traveling either on foot or by canoe, to attend the service and catch up on the goss. Church proper starts at 11ish, but is preceded by at least an hour of serious singing and prayer led by the youth group, and people enter the church progressively as they feel the urge. The singing is harmonious and loud, some of the congregation dancing and jogging on the spot without inhibition and each song trails into open prayer when everyone utters their own prayers audibly, creating a weird hubbub of noise that lasts several minutes, rising to a bit of a vocal feverpitch before gradually dying off. Coming as we do from a good Anglican background where prayers are definitely silent, this verbal praying sounds a bit like a rabble rousing themselves into action and we all found it a tad unsettling the first time. But we’ve got used to it now, and even quite like it (although none of us have the balls to do it ourselves, needless to say!). Inevitably there’s one lady who’s just that bit more fervent than the others, dancing wildly during the songs and uttering prayers so loudly she’s almost shrieking, and the boys can’t help but make googly eyes at us, conveying the time-honoured look at HER! signal that Rebecca and I do our best to ignore. . .
After a good hour or two’s hellfire and brimstone haranguing by the preacher, the service draws to a grateful close and everyone shuffles out for what for most we suspect is the main event of the day, the Sunday spinning. Sunday is firmly a day of rest, which for the villagers means no gardening, fishing, cleaning or building work, and so the kids run around playing soccer or netball whilst the oldies sit around chatting all afternoon. It’s a great time to get to know people, as everyone is open to chat and no-one’s got anything else to do. The four or five families whom we’ve got to know well are there, plus many others who’ve traveled in. We’re introduced to new people, and spend time talking to them to figure out which village they come from, where they live, and most importantly who their family are. The terms “brother”, “sister”, “bubu” (grandparent/child) are applied pretty liberally, but it still amazes us how closely related everyone here is, without apparently transcending the acknowledged rules of inter-marriage. And they love to tell stories about the island. We’re told about how Korean longline tuna boats took to fishing without permits just outside the Rossel lagoon, and the islanders responding by driving their longboats out at night and cutting their lines. I thought we’d seen some expensive-looking longline gear hanging in one of their huts! Or how a newly arrived pastor who built a very smart hut next to his boatshed to house workers rebuilding his boat, only to discover that he’d built on ground that carried evil spirits and no-one would stay there, people in adjoining villagers insisting on walking miles over the hills to avoid having to pass the place. Or how one local man had a vision from the Lord to build a boat for the island, and without any formal education or boatbuilding training he’d pulled together the 10 metre supply boat that is now Rossel’s primary vehicle to the outside world. They’re not short on stories these guys!