Friday, 19 October 2001

"Happenings" Number 1 - 2001


A Glimpse of Paradise

Long standing RQYS members Bruce Vidgen and Audrey Napier, "Envy", set off for their '2001 annual cruise', and caught 'a glimpse of paradise'. The following is their story:

Towards the end of our cruise to the 'Whitsundays' in 2000, where we first met new club members Trevor and Joan Long of "Been A Long", it was decided that the following year we would both undertake a cruise to the Louisiade Archipelago, the remote eastern section of Papua New Guinea's Milne Bay Province.

Just the sound of the name evoked colourful thoughts of romance and adventure, and its location only 600 nautical miles from Townsville seemed a comfortable distance for our first offshore passage.

Trevor and Joan had recently joined RQYS and relocated their yacht from Sydney, to facilitate their annual cruising of the Queensland coast, and with Audrey and I also being members of 'RQ', this presented the opportunity to further our acquaintance and plan for the voyage ahead.

"Been A Long" is a Roberts Mauritius 44 and "Envy" a Swanson 38, and as time went by we heard of several other yachts that shared the same plans, suggesting there would be some good company along the way. The Long's had departed a little earlier, & "Envy's" lines were finally cast off from RQ Marina on 14 June, when "Adventure 2001" began.

"Envy" pranced up the Queensland coast like an eager seahorse, simply great sailing with generally ideal S/E following winds, stopping briefly at Lady Musgrave Lagoon, the Keppel Isles, Pearl Bay, Marble, Curlew & Brampton Islands before catching up with our cruising companions, 'the Been-a-Longs' in the Whitsundays for two weeks there.

Then it was off northwards again, stopping at Monty's on Gloucester Passage, Bowen and Capes Upstart & Bowling Green, enroute to Townsville.

After final provisioning and clearing Customs in Townsville, we departed Australia via Great Palm Island on Monday 30 July in company with "Been A Long" and three other yachts, via the Palm Passage for the crossing of the Coral Sea to the Duchateau Islands, our entry to The Louisiades.

Fresh S/E winds ranging 15/25kts, with gusts to 30, blew us across moderate to rough seas for a fast 4-day passage and our first sailing trip to foreign shores. "Envy" averaged 5.7 knots for the 98-hour crossing, quite a respectable performance for a yacht of its type, with "Been A Long" and "Alleena", as part of 'our threesome', all arriving early Friday morning within two hours of one another!

The feeling upon arrival at the Duchateau Islands (Kukulba Passage) entry point to the large Louisiades Lagoon was splendidly awesome; white sandy beaches lined with coconut palms and turquoise seas, simply superb, vividly contrasting with the majestic rocky cliffs and coral reef of the next landfall, Panasia Island, some 12 miles distant and our first anchorage since departing Australia.

"Envy's" log reads: "Being first in we choose the pick spot anchoring 100 meters off the small sandy beach in 5 mtr of crystal clear water. Paradise Found!" It was a gripping experience negotiating our way in through the coral maze to the anchorage in showery, overcast conditions, since "Envy" was leading the way, but, we were old hands amongst the coral by our departure time two months later.

After five days at Panasia Island, "Envy" and "Been A Long" sailed to nearby Nivani and Panapompom Islands in the Deboyne group, where we dived on a WW2 Zero in the shallow lagoon, caught our first fish, and made our first village visit. We could have, and perhaps should have spent more time sightseeing prior to moving on to clear Customs in tiny Bwagaoia Harbour at Misima Island, seven days after our arrival into PNG waters. It's a common practice among visiting yachts to spend some time cruising the islands before 'clearing in', thereby effectively extending their 60 day tourist permit time limit.

The Louisiades stretch for more than 130 miles encompassing clusters of small island groups, the Deboyne Group, Misima Island, the Renard Group, the Calvados Chain, and the much larger eastern islands, Tagula (known locally as Sudest) and Rossel Islands. The Calvados Chain are the archipelago's popular cruising grounds, comprising many smallish islands lying east/west for over 70 miles, most just a couple of hours sail apart, with lovely scenery and generous people.

The islands are quite remote from mainland PNG, with only one of them having any semblance of a township, Bwagaoia on Misima Island, the entry port, but both telephone (and therefore email) and postal systems were totally 'down and out' during our visit. Unbelievable!! But that's Papua New Guinea!

Strong (30kt) winds kept us holed up in tiny, dirty Bwagaoia Harbour for a week, where afternoon torrential rainfall half filled our tender in under thirty minutes, so we toured the island by local bus (a truck with tray-back bench seating), sightseeing several villages, mountains, valleys and beaches, together with the Misima open cut Gold Mine, the area's only major revenue source, which is due to shut down in 2004. This is the only place in the Louisiades where diesel fuel, limited supermarket provisions and bread, etc. can be obtained, plus hospital and dental care available. I had a tooth filling replaced for $3.60!

When weather conditions improved we sailed to Bagaman Island to commence our main cruising exploits within the Calvados Chain. Our entry through Wuri Wuri Passage with a developed 20+ kt S-S/E wind against tide gave us a truly wet and boisterous welcome back into 'the lagoon'. It was a new and interesting experience to be invited ashore the next evening to a feast of 'bush' pig, chicken & 'local' vegetables at Koroboseia Village.

"Been A Long" and "Envy" moved quickly along heading east, making the most of 'weather windows' when the prevailing fresh trades died for a few days, with relatively brief stops at Gigila Island (more crayfish, lovely people) and Pana Wina Island, maybe the poorest island in the chain, (but good mud crabs and prawns) plus another village feast and sing-a-long with Trevor "Slim Dusty" Long again doing his class act!

Wanim Island, locally known as 'Grass Island' because it is mostly devoid of trees, was the next anchorage; here we again saw young school children colourfully attired in traditional dress, a government encouraged weekly occurrence at most elementary schools to help teach and preserve their culture, traditions and dance. We also attended Church, enjoying the beautiful singing even though we couldn't understand their dialect. That afternoon we caught coral trout and coral cod trolling a small spoon behind the dinghy over the shallow reef, the most successful fishing of the trip. Fish dinner tonight!

The following morning we motor-sailed on to Nimoa Island which is another attractive anchorage amongst coral and home to a long established Catholic Mission, where we were very cordially welcomed. Other than Misima, Nimoa is the only island within the group that offers the services of a (very basic) hospital, a trade store and a large modern church. Since this is generally perceived as the eastern end of the popular cruising grounds, other than for really intrepid navigators amongst the un-chartered coral, we commenced our westerly run back through the island chain enjoying the comfort of following winds and seas, and at a far more leisurely pace.

Nearby Hati Lawi Harbour, which we had, by-passed on the way through, was the next stop. A magnificent though deep-water anchorage, with no adjacent villages, allowing us some quiet R&R.. Small picturesque Hobo Island sits at the harbour entrance, so inviting for a swim, and a stroll along its lovely white sand beach, and also reputed for its fishing.

Sailed back to "Grass Island" for another 'Trevor sing-a-long' with all the children joining in, under Andrew's high-set village house whilst another windless torrential downpour 'bucketed down'. But within half an hour the sun was out once again. There is an easy walking track up the treeless hill off the main beach affording panoramic views over the village, reef and surrounding islands, which are all close by. Such a lovely area!

Then on to our pick of them all, Hekampan Village, Hessessai Bay, Pana Tinani Island.
This sandy, coral free anchorage was good, the scenery pretty, and the people lovely. Plus, we enjoyed the great camaraderie of four other cruising yachties who arrived over the next couple of days to join with "Envy".

Unfortunately for we fellows, most of the local Hekampan men including their affable leader Leonard departed with 3 other sailaus (outrigger sailing canoes), after a visit aboard "Envy" the next day, for an extended trading safari to distant islands; but all the cruising ladies spent enjoyable hours chatting with the village women and witnessing their superb basket weaving skills. Thanks for the memories, folks!

Departing happy Hessessai Bay, "Envy" and "Been A Long" re-visited Gigila Island
with time to spare, and enjoyed meeting up again with some more cruising friends. We walked around the island, about 5km, visiting locals Pascal & Maria and Bernadette & Moksy at their homes enroute, watched the men make Baggi (fine shell) necklaces, such skilled, time consuming work, and traded for another 4 crayfish as well; more yum yum!!

Five days later, 11th. September, we sailed into lovely Hoba Bay, Pana Numara Island, having caught a magnificent King Snapper (or Green Job Fish) trolling enroute and traded for 2 more crayfish; we went ashore as usual but most of the locals were away at another island preparing celebrations for the 26th. anniversary of PNG's Independence on the 16th. September. Nevertheless, a further 2 crayfish were traded that afternoon, cooked and joined more of their mates in the freezer. We awoke early the next morning to the sad news on Radio Australia of the attack on the WTC in New York.

The Blue Lagoon is a very pretty anchorage a couple of miles west of Pana Numara and we called in here a few days later enroute to tiny Gilia Island, for an overnight stop before spending a couple of rolly nights back at Bagaman Island, where we traded with Army & Patricia Waiely for two model 'Sailau' canoes, some fruit & vegetables and 2 more crayfish. The locals here at 'Keiyu' and 'Koroboseia' villages were very friendly to us and we watched them prepare several pigs and other food for a very large feast at an adjacent village around the next headland.

Then it was on to Riman Bay at Motorina Island where we spent a few days getting to know Ms Nedulo Boko, MBE, a retired prominent PNG nursing administrator, who is the village chief and owner by inheritance of all the village lands. She is a well-educated and well-travelled bright lady who traded fruit, vegetables and woven baskets with us for clothing and fishing tackle on behalf of several other village women. We walked Motorina's steep hill track to the large regional high school, and returned there by dinghy the following day to watch an inter-island soccer match that ended up in a seriously huge brawl involving both players and spectators, but fortunately not us.

With time moving on we did too, to picturesque Utian Island, known as Brooker Island by the locals, with its somewhat scary if not challenging entry over the shallow shoaling reef. This very attractive island forms part of the western barrier reef of the Calvados Chain lagoon, and is renowned throughout the Louisiades for its fired clay cooking pots, since most islands have no suitable clay resources.

But Brooker cannot grow the widely used and much sought after 'Beetle Nut' which, though mildly intoxicating when chewed with lime and mustard, is regrettably carcinogenic and leaves the gums & teeth so terribly and unattractively discoloured as well, from a horrible dirty orange colour to ugly brindle black. So people travel from distant islands to trade 'beetle nut' for clay cooking pots, 'Baggi' shell necklaces for Sailau sailing canoes, plus articles infinitum, and these two trading examples are but a small sample of the many facets of Louisiades inter-island cashless commerce.

Our 60 days' stay limit was fast approaching and it was time to start heading back to Misima Island to 'clear out' Customs, so we decided to take a look at the lovely Kamatal Lagoon for an overnighter on the way. This is a pretty spot, as indeed most coral lagoons are, with coconut lined white beaches and crystal clear reef waters; well worth the visit.

Once more heavy rain fell whilst in Bwagaoia Harbour 'clearing' Customs, where a strong wind warning confined us again for a few days, similar to that at our arrival.

Fine weather on Monday October 1 prompted our return to Kamatal Lagoon for another overnight stay, before beating into a 20 kt southeaster across to east Bagaman Island, where "Envy" and "Been A Long" fell in with the company of other cruising yachts. Some of us paid a final visit of farewell to old 'Chief Gulo', arguably the Louisiades best-known 'identity', at his Osti Village quite adjacent to our anchorage.

Our imminent departure gave rise for reflection. Whilst the Louisiade people are poor compared with other South Pacific islanders, they are generally very friendly, polite, honest, and quite devout, and most speak English to varying degrees as their second language. Notwithstanding their piety, there is a surprisingly strong, if not contradictory, ingrained acceptance of their old voodoo/witchcraft beliefs, which are still occasionally practiced. Nevertheless they are a happy people with glorious singing voices and harmony to match the angels, and, most fortunately, do not embrace the same low values of some of their 'mainland rascal cousins' whose graft, crime and corruption are commonly degrading the nation.

Generally throughout the Louisiades, the islands are lushly vegetated and peopled by native Melanesians living subsistence lifestyles, who, though materially poor, all appear very fit, healthy, happy and well fed. The children were sometimes shy but always delightful, and the adults usually keen to trade with us for clothing, food staples, fishing tackle, tobacco, soap, hand tools, used sails and rope, … just about anything!

World markets have made Copra production virtually unviable, and apart from a very short but very profitable Beche de mer season, there is no cash economy as we know it; trading with cruising yachts and amongst themselves is standard practice, and these people's way of life. We traded clothing, fishing tackle, rice, sugar and flour etc. for crayfish, mud crabs, prawns, fruit, vegetables, coconuts & locally made handicrafts and, as is the custom, gave gifts of sweets, balloons, magazines, exercise books and biros to the children. Trading for seafood was our favourite and though crabs and prawns were relatively scarce, we absolutely pigged out on crayfish. Yum yum !!

Apart from Bwagaoia township on the main island, the people live in so-called 'grass houses' of bush material construction, (principally shingled sago palm roofs & thatched coconut frond walls on round bush-timber frames), within typical village environments; they have no electricity or roads, and often poor quality drinking water. Their only means of transportation is by sailing canoe, and they are very skilled sailors. Reef fish and crustaceans are plentiful, (depending on your fishing & trading skills!) and food gardens are farmed on the steep hillsides.

But it was time for us to leave. Five of us were attending final preparations for departure back to Australia the following morning, which duly happened at 0700 on 3rd. October, in a failing S/SE breeze that was right 'on the nose', and made for very slow going. All the other yachts headed off for Cairns but "Envy" maintained her Townsville heading for a solo return passage arriving at Great Palm Island at 0200 Hrs on the 8th, having motored much of the way in flat calm seas, as had the Cairns bound yachts.

Clearing Customs and Quarantine 'back in' at Townsville was a painless experience even with woven baskets, model 'sailau' canoes and all our unused food, etc., with only a few eggs and some fresh vegetables being sacrificed. Townsville also provided the added attraction of being able to top up with safe drinking water, clean diesel fuel and some necessary provisions, all fairly scarce commodities in the Louisiades, whilst preparing for the return trip back home down the coast to Brisbane, where we arrived after a leisurely uneventful cruise in time for Christmas.

Overall, it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, which we recommend, and we plan to re-visit The Louisiade Archipelago again in the future.