A short hop from Kavieng brought us to the islands of New Hanover, Papua New Guinea – we picked two stops in a lagoon with many islands. The first, Massoung Island, promised turtles and the odd visit from nearby villagers; we never found the turtles but we did get swarmed by locals from the nearby village. Many of the villagers want to trade their fresh garden produce. We always set out to make a good impression and the first few trades are always generous with the hope word gets back to the village that these are good people visiting. More and more visitors means the word is out! It can be quite hard when people start bringing the same thing, especially coconuts when we rely on keeping curious kids busy by fetching us coconuts in exchange for treasured biscuits. And Papua New Guineans can be quite pushy even arriving with nothing and asking for things. We never deny a sick person medicine or anyone who asks for paper and pens, but we know if we just hand things out it sets a bad example so we stress we have had to buy the things we have and we will happily trade. Our Pidgin English is coming on nicely and we’ve learned “keow blong kokaroo” which means chicken egg. This not only brings a heap of smiles and laughter but you know the next day there will be chicken eggs at the boat ready to be traded.
Our plans to go snorkelling to find the promised turtles are being thwarted by numerous visitors. Kids just like to hang out by the boat. We ask one dugout to get us some dried coconuts and before we know it five dugouts with kids are off getting coconuts. It gives us an hour break but soon they are all back and there are a lot of kids and a lot of coconuts. Fair dues they are all nicely husked.
Eventually with just a few kids hanging out on the nearby island we head ashore with snorkels and masks. The plan is to snorkel around the island but that means leaving Adina unsupervised which is not the best idea in a country with a reputation for security issues, despite reassurances from the locals that there are no so-called ‘raskols’ (young men that steal). We walk along the beach with a few children and a girl, Mary, who speaks good English – later we learn she is the chief’s daughter. Two young men go near the boat in a dugout. A chorus of shouts from the kids ashore and they paddle past. The men shout something back and we ask her what they said. She laughs, “They are telling the one young boy they are going to come and belt him for disrespecting them!”
We are shown where to get in the water and start to make our way looking for the promised turtles. Ten minutes later we have four boys with us, three wearing goggles, one happily without, two carrying spears and they are all laughing and smiling. They are joining us! We venture on, one sees a crayfish and in seconds it’s speared. Of course they want photographs and more laughing at some teasing that it is only small “smol-smol”. On we head and Mary has found some goggles and joins us too. They all dive down looking around or amaze us by simply walking on the reef.
Next more shouts – the boys have found an octopus hidden in a hole, their eyesight is amazing. In no time two spears are in the hole. Mary, who is way beyond her years in maturity, tells us “This one is going to take a while”. The boys seem to have no fear, putting their hands into the reef hole trying to pull the octopus out. We leave them to it but shouts let us know the octopus has been secured and it’s being displayed on a spear as the poor octopus tries to wrap its tentacles around the one boy’s arm. We’ve seen the technique for killing an octopus before, they grab its head and somehow turn it inside out and happily rip everything out. A few bashes of the octopus on the water surface and more shouts of victory.
Off we wander in search of turtles. Now they’ve learned our names – “Name blong me Tom” – and really know how to grab our attention. The latest shouts of “Tom, Tom, Tom” reveal that they have found a medium-sized clam. Clams are relatively common and in one Solomon Island village we were served clam soup. Many westerners are trying to protect clams but we try not to preach too heavily rather saving our support for not killing the turtles. Now the boys are taking turns trying to wrestle out the clam which has firmly clamped itself into its hole. Everyone is having a go and we even join in until Mary sighs and brings back a rock to chisel it out. Clam secured!
We swim off and realise their view on a reef is so different from ours. To us it’s sightseeing, to them it’s a garden with food to be sourced to feed empty stomachs. This is confirmed when Susie points out an anemone fish (clown fish) to Mary. She’s never seen one despite the fact we see them every time we snorkel here. It’s a fascinating insight. Tom does his bit and spots an octopus – spears are soon found and more food is secured. After a long hour and a half snorkel we all hop in dugouts and race back to Adina. To thank the kids we bring out juice and rounds of biscuits. They’ve had an afternoon of great fun, but not half the fun we’ve had! Shame we didn’t see a turtle.
We head on to nearby Ungalik Island and as we approach we hear the kids running onto the beach shouting and screaming – a real welcome party. The anchorage is tight and surrounded by close-in reef and it takes three attempts to secure the anchor before we are happy. The kids have clearly been told no-one is to disturb the yacht as they sit patiently on the beach waiting for us to come in. But three kids ignore their parents and break away swimming stark naked holding onto a bamboo pole for buoyancy.
Eventually we head in and meet the head man. We discuss the tight anchorage and he says we could drag and suggests anchoring outside his place where he believes our anchor will be more secure. That we will do. As we prepare to move two little boys swim out clinging on to a piece of polystyrene. We sit and wonder, do we tell them to go back or will they be thrilled to come for the short ride? Up they come and we ask them if they want to join us. “Yes” to everything. Off we head and their eyes start to pop open. We realise they are probably thinking we’re off and they are being taken with us. One boy picks up his piece of polystyrene pointing at his village. Fortunately a girl we had met ashore comes past in a dugout and we ask her to explain to the boys we’re just moving five minutes along the beach. It works and we wet ourselves with laughter as the one boy sees some friends in a dugout, puts his hands on his hips, wiggles them and sticks his tongue out!
We organise a dugout trip up a nearby river on the mainland of New Hanover. It’s stunningly beautiful, a clear river with sides of thick jungle mixed in with the island villagers’ gardens. We ask why they don’t live on the mainland. They tell us the mosquitos are bad and we soon discover that for ourselves when we disembark to explore.
No garden patch appears to be without a betel-nut tree. People here love the stuff, chewing it with lime and mustard stalks to make it a deep red colour. It’s not a pretty sight, a mouth full of red and rotten teeth.
In the evening we go in for kai-kai (food), some ‘sing-sing’ and ‘kastom’ dancing, giving in exchange large quantities of rice, tinned foods and fishing supplies for the many villagers involved, plus a few things for the little ones.
We spend our last day preparing Adina for a two day passage as we’re off to the Hermit Islands. We take delivery of a final treasured item – a local woven manbag for Tom! Now with our Pidgin English and manbag we can really blend in!
Our final evening we sit on the boat taking it all in, watching people paddle the 600m from their little island to the mainland river to wash. Slowly but surely the sun sinks turning the sky a wonderful glow of orange. Silhouetted against the sinking sun is a young boy paddling alone on his dugout, singing out loud and clearly enjoying his evening paddle. We love it, we treasure it, the Pacific islands are a special place. Darkness descends and we set to preparing our dinner. Then in the dark we hear the singing again; the boy was returning and close to the boat. So we called him over, told him we loved his singing and gave him a new t-shirt to wear after his river wash and thank him for the singing. A big white teeth smile – we hear him as he disappears into the dark of the night whooping away to himself.