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Faces of Melanesia: Papua New Guinea, Soloman Islands, Vanuatu
Published on Wednesday, April 11, 2012
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Saturday, November 20, 2010 - Nadi, Fiji: An enthusiastic group of travelers from all points of the globe arrived in Nadi, Fiji, early this morning. At the Tanoa International Hotel we had the chance to rest before a welcome lunch and staff introductions. We then set off on a tour that included a quick photo stop at Melanesia's largest Hindu temple, Sri Siva Subramaniya, before a visit to the lush Garden of the Sleeping Giant, begun by Raymond Burr. The picturesque garden includes hundreds of colorful orchids and a sighting of cane frogs, as well as collared lorikeets, made for an interesting photographic stop. Our visit to Viseisei Village included a traditional kava ceremony and an informative question and answer session with our Fijian guide about local customs and politics. We had the opportunity to visit a Fijian bure (home) on a hilltop overlooking the lush landscape of Viti Levu where we were treated to delicious, fresh, local fruit. Our journey then took us to Latouka, also known as ‘Sugar City,' where we boarded the beautiful Clipper Odyssey.
Sunday, November 21 - Expedition Stop in Yasawa Islands: Our expedition leader, Jeff Gneiser, took full advantage of our ambiguously described ‘expedition day' by taking us to explore Fiji's volcanic Yasawa Islands. Out on deck we were greeted with views of uninhabited Sawa-i-lau Island on our starboard side and Yasawa Island off the port side, a picture-perfect start to our cruise through Melanesia. We disembarked in separate groups to explore either the beach or the underwater realm. Banded sea kraits, dusky anemonefish, nudibranchs, and long-nosed pipefish were witnessed over the corals. Being a Sunday, a small group elected to join the village for their church service.
In the late morning we took a Zodiac cruise along the shore of Sawa-i-lau for up-close views of the eroded limestone formations. Bridled terns were spotted flying along the white sandy beaches before we made our way to the village of Nabukeru on the island of Yasawa. Taking shelter from a sudden downpour under a large tropical almond tree, the rain soon passed and we made our way through the small village where the church choir kindly performed traditional hymns for us.
Once back on board and enjoying our lunch, the Clipper Odyssey set sail for Vanuatu. Will Howarth and Anne Matthews of Princeton University kicked off our lecture series with an overview of our Melanesia voyage and an introduction to the preceptorial concept that we would all share in over the course of our voyage.
Monday, November 22 - At Sea: It was nice to have some time to relax and acquaint ourselves with the ship during our day at sea. We enjoyed several excellent lectures with Giovanna Fasanelli introducing us to the fascinating language of fish. Jonathan Rossouw discussed Melanesia within the global context of biodiversity and endemism. A screening of the documentary film, Coral Sea Dreaming, was followed by an ice cream social. Our day was rounded out with the first of our precept discussions: Oceans and Islands.
Tuesday, November 23 - Ambrym Island, Vanuatu: This morning we anchored off Ambryma striking island dominated by two active volcanic peaks (hidden by a pink-hued cloud layer) and set off on a wide variety of tours. The birding enthusiasts set off on a short walk into the forested hills where collared kingfishers were sighted and megapode nesting sites were spied, but the bird remained elusive. On the black-sand beach everyone took advantage of the geothermally heated stream flowing into the ocean and soaked in the hot waters. Offshore we had the opportunity to snorkel over interesting and colorful corals which were a striking contrast to the black sand. The waters were especially warm and clear and our snorkelers spotted an octopus, Moorish idols, and nudibranchs. We then set out on a Zodiac cruise along the eroded volcanic cliffs draped in verdant foliage that included acacias, cycads, wild yam vines, beach morning glory, and a variety of ficus. Particularly eye-catching was a beach strewn with smooth scoria stones, including the red colored scoria which the people of Rapa Nui used in their distinctive moai statues.
After lunch on board, we were welcomed to the village of Ranon by the local string band right as an intense tropical rain shower descended. Ambrym is famous for its tamtams, or slit gong drums and we could certainly see why when the rhythmic, haunting beat of the Rom Dance began. This unique dance involves mountain spirits of long-dead ancestors and was originally developed by women. Legend has it that a man tricked a woman into showing him the dance and it has been performed by men ever since. The younger male dancers sported cloaks of dried banana leaves and elaborately carved masks and created an outer circle encompassing the older men crafting a rhythmic beat for the dance.
After an exhilarating day, the local string band entertained us on board during a BBQ dinner out on deck. As if by magic, the clouds parted for us and we were able to see the glowing volcanic peaks of Mt. Marum and Mt. Benbow as we sailed away from Ambrym Island.
Wednesday, November 24 - Rano Island: We disembarked the Clipper Odyssey at Rano, off the coast of Malekula Island, early this morning. We came ashore by Zodiac to the now familiar and welcome sound of the local string band and set out to explore the beautiful and well cared for village. As we were guided around the island, we witnessed an amazing variety of traditional activities set out in shady glens. Among the most memorable were the traditional dances performed for us first by women and later by the men, their dance depicting a journey to Ambrym Island to hunt for wild pigs. We also observed a ritual which involved capturing powerful spirits in bamboo tubes. With plenty of time to walk around and engage with our hosts, our visit here was truly special. Fruiting wild fig trees in the center of the island housed a colony of Pacific flying foxes, and Jonathan set up his spotting scope to allow us to see them up-close with their babies.
Rano is truly a garden island with huge banyan trees, striking hibiscus, and bright red ginger flowers. The afternoon activities included nature walks and beachcombing with several more good sightings of the Pacific fruit bats, as well as red-bellied fruit doves and New Caledonian flycatchers. Snorkeling, diving, and glass-bottom boat cruises were all on offer for those interested. Among the many sea creatures we encountered were long-nosed butterflyfish, long-fin butterflyfish, and a wrasse cleaning station. Divers enjoyed a fantastic wall dive on the outer reef, spotting a black-tipped reef shark, a large tuna, and a school of barracuda.
Thursday, November 25 - Luganville, Espiritu Santo Island: At Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu's largest island, we pulled in port-side at Luganville. In soggy weather, the birders set off early to explore the island's secondary forest and were rewarded with several good sightings of Vanuatu endemics. Among the highlights were the cardinal myzomela, buff-banded rail, golden whistler, and long-tail triller. Those interested in the island's culture visited Nekar Village, tasting exceptionally strong kava and enjoying several traditional dance performances, the most striking of which was the water music dance where the women immersed themselves in a pool of fresh water and produced a stunningly choreographed and percussive ritual dance, involving sounds made entirely by their hands slapping and moving the water. Once done with the interpretations of the various performances, the band began to play and we were invited to join the women, men, and children who danced jovially in the rain.
Snorkelers set out to see Million Dollar Point, the site of numerous underwater relics of war machinery that were dumped by the Americans to spite the French when the war ended. Among the wrecks, many undersea critters have made their homes and we spotted our first lionfish. Divers spent their time exploring in and around the President Coolidge wreck, finding old helmets and guns.
History enthusiasts set out to explore Luganville, the main staging area for all U.S. action during WWII in the Pacific. Quonset huts still exist in various locations, and rusted out piers are evident along the waterfront. At the former site of a military hospital, now being reclaimed by jungle vegetation, we could see some of the 66 concrete pads where hospital tents or huts once stood.
After an action-packed morning we were back on board the Clipper Odyssey by lunch time and set sail for the Solomon Islands. A highlight of our afternoon at sea was a lecture by Mike Moore on the ancient art of Pacific navigation.
Friday, November 26 - Tikopia Island, Solomon Islands: Our first stop in the Solomon chain was Tikopia, an exotic and remote island that was bathed in sunshine when we arrived. This twin-peaked island is just over five square kilometers in size, with white sandy beaches along its southwestern shores. A busy morning was spent snorkeling or diving over interesting topographical formations; the divers spotted an impressive Napoleon wrasse. A few local villagers paddled out to our snorkel site and invited us to climb into their canoes or snorkel alongside them. The nature walkers went ashore and enjoyed a morning exploring the island with Jonathan. The birders spotted the Polynesian starling, which makes its only appearance in Vanuatu on this island. They also scoped a variety of migratory shorebirds including the ruddy turnstone and the Pacific golden plover.
We did not let an intense tropical squall stop us from spending the afternoon exploring the culture, flora, and fauna of this beautiful island. Unlike the other islands on our itinerary, Tikopia is home to a distinctly Polynesian culture and the exceedingly friendly children swam out to meet each Zodiac and welcome us to their island. Dancers from three of the island's villages performed for us dressed in tapa cloth, adorned with flowers, and stained with turmeric. Unlike typical Melanesian dance, the men and women here danced at the same time, but with different movements and more intensity.
Energetic walkers set out across the island, passing several small villages, subsistence farming plots, and dramatic volcanic landscapes finally reaching a serene lake dotted with canoes. Mike led a walk through the village, observing tapa cloth making and viewing some of the most traditional houses seen thus far. We were invited into the home of the son of the chief, witnessing part of a ceremonial exchange associated with the wedding of the chief's granddaughter. Throughout our visit, the lovely children kept us thoroughly entertained, holding our hands, and accompanying us everywhere we went.
Saturday, November 27 - Nembao Village, Utupua Island: Utupua appeared this morning as a densely wooded, exotic landscape draped in dense vegetation. The island is surrounded by a fringing reef about two kilometers off shore and once safely inside the protected waters we launched the Zodiacs for our explorations of Nembao Village. Each landing party was met by warriors in traditional attire, whooping and hollering their greetingsthe small children often jumping into the Zodiacs with us. This was pure Melanesia and it was immediately apparent that this culture was very different from the one we had just visited. We were invited to wander around and get to know our hosts, visiting the school as well as the library, and many of us were also invited into homes. We learned that the island is home to two different groups of people, the local Melanesians and settlers from Tikopia who had come to Utupua due to overpopulation. All those that had come to Utupua were the second sons from families back on Tikopia and represented considerably taller people.
A Zodiac cruise to explore the mangroves was offered, but sudden heavy winds and rain descended on us and we made our way back to the ship to enjoy lunch and a relaxed afternoon hearing from our lecturers. Giovanna continued our education on the fishes we've been seeing and Mike spoke about the traditional plants brought by the Lapita people.
Sunday, November 28 - Port Mary, Santa Ana Island: Our Zodiacs were once again greeted by warriors and conch shell trumpets, but as we waded ashore in the village of Port Mary we were struck by how hard the villagers had worked to decorate and prepare for our arrivalscores of beautiful, spiraled hibiscus floral arrangements were placed along our path. Walking into the village we encountered a number of vendors selling beautifully carved artifacts and shell jewelry. Jonathan had found the elusive Melanesian megapode and we all had excellent sightings right in the village and several eggs were unearthed for us by our local guides.
We followed a path through the stilted houses to an open dance arena and enjoyed a variety of dances. The change in adornment was striking, with exquisite beaded necklaces and bracelets, and many tattoos. The finale was the Mud Dance, a mock battle between red mud men and men painted head to toe in black. The dance was said to represent the battle between the Melanesian and Polynesian people.
A hike to a hidden lake filling a volcanic caldera offered us the chance to cool off with a fresh water swim. We were accompanied by the local children doing summersaults for us into the water. Noisy colonies of metallic and singing starlings were spotted along the way. Meanwhile, snorkelers and glass-bottom boat cruisers enjoyed the marine environment while others soaked up the sunshine out on deck.
Monday, November 29 - Honiara, Guadalcanal: Soon after docking at Honiara, we were met with the festive sound of pan flutes played by a local bamboo band, or Kuvojo. Historical tours fanned out in groups to review the area's important WWII sites as this was where three major land battles, five large naval battles, and continual, almost daily aerial battles culminated in the decisive Battle of Guadalcanal in early November 1942. We stopped to view Bloody Ridge, the scene of fierce fighting between the Japanese and the allied forces over Henderson Field. Now an international airport, Henderson Field has several memorial plaques and we walked through the Solomon Islands Memorial Gardens, with row upon row of slender trees planted as silent sentinels to those lost in the war. After a brief stop at the U.S. Memorial, we took a stroll through the bustling local market.
The birders had an exquisite day, settling in at an African tulip tree covered in cockatoos, but the highlight was a buff-headed coucal. The divers had an early start and spent an exciting morning investigating the wrecks of the Hirokawa Maru and Kinugawa Maru, both Japanese freighters that were attempting to resupply their troops when they were sunk by allied forces. Along with a variety of soft corals, blue spotted rays and lionfish were seen among the wrecks.
Back on the Clipper Odyssey, we set sail to the sound of the fantastic local band. After lunch, we participated in a solemn ceremony at sea. Will read a moving tribute, and several travelers volunteered to toss a beautiful wreath upon the waves above Iron Bottom Sound to commemorate all those who lost their lives here.
Tuesday, November 30 - Kennedy & Ghizo Islands: We awoke to splendid weather as we anchored off uninhabited Kennedy Island. Time was spent snorkeling or diving around the reefs or strolling along the islands soft, white-sand beach. The tiny island is easily circumnavigated on foot and despite its natural beauty, it was sobering to consider the harrowing situation that JFK faced with his injured crew after the sinking of the PT-109.
The beachcombers spotted osprey and a couple of Melanesian megapodes as well as a casuarina tree with red cardinal lories and rainbow lorikeets. The snorkelers and divers enjoyed a massive increase in marine biodiversity and among the many sightings were blue-girdled angelfish, anemones, clownfish, and sweetlips. Divers enjoyed pigmy manta rays, moray eels, and vibrant corals.
In the afternoon we pulled into Gizo Town (spelled without the h, unlike the island itself) and set off on a variety of tours. Many walked down the main road through colorful food markets, stopping to taste barbequed fish and local bananas. Their end point was a lookout with views down to the Clipper Odyssey anchored offshore. Divers investigated the wreck of the Toa Maru, a Japanese passenger vessel that was conscripted into the war as a cargo carrier. They found various artifacts, including sake bottles. Birders took a bumpy road inland and were treated to spectacular views of the Solomon Island sea eagle, Pacific baza, beautiful claret-breasted fruit dove, and the Ghizo endemic splendid white-eye. A good size group went inland on the back of local trucks for an impromptu, but very engaging village visit where everyone was greeted with a hand-made, flower bedecked hat and pulled up to join in the dancing.
Wednesday, December 1 - Laughlan Islands & Bodaluna, Papua New Guinea: A beautiful morning greeted us as we anchored off an arc of islands that form part of the Laughlan Island chain. Water sports and beachcombing once again dominated our morning as we took in the fine weather and spectacular setting. Snorkeling and glass-bottom boat trips took place around a tiny spit of white sand that poked above the waterline. The beachcombers enjoyed postcard-perfect scenery and the divers explored massive bommies teeming with life.
Our arrival on the beach of Bodaluna, known locally as Budi Budi, was serendipitously timed to coincide with the end of their school year celebrations. The warm and gregarious villagers welcomed us and included us in their scheduled events. We enjoyed a range of dances and songs performed by women in unique dark and light grass skirts and fragrant flower leis. We also saw several lovely performances by the children, an a cappella song about an orphan, and young boys performed a war dance. The finale was a coconut picking demonstration and we were all invited to share in the delicious harvest. Unlike the other islands we had visited, vendors were not in evidence, and anyone interested in purchasing crafts had to cajole the locals to bring their wares out of their thatched huts. As we wandered through the village we saw open-air kitchens, unlike the interior versions we had seen along our journey. This was also the first place we saw kula canoes with the ornate splash-board carvings typical of this area.
Thursday, December 2 - Narutu & Kitava, Trobriand Islands: Narutu is a tiny, low-lying coral island remarkable for its diversity of plants and animals, reflecting its closer proximity to the Papua New Guinea mainland. The early morning chorus of birds was magnificent and throughout our visit we could see white-bellied sea eagles flying overhead. The snorkelers, divers, and glass-bottom boat cruisers were delighted with their day, enjoying the best underwater experience so far.
In the afternoon we visited the second, larger island of Kitava, where beautiful young ladies welcomed us with flower leis. The Trobriand Islands are known as the “Islands of Love,” and it's easy to see whyeveryone was smiling, uninhibited, and filled with energy.
Our hosts were elaborately dressed with unique facial painting and very short skirts on the girls. Groups of men, women, and children performed beautiful dances for us on the white sandy beach with the Clipper Odyssey anchored in the background. People from several of the islands had set up an informal market of goods to sell, creating quite the shoportunity. After the requisite buying spree, we hiked up into the uplifted coral atoll, passing subsistence crops of yams, taro, and various greens. Accompanied by the playful children we made our way to the picturesque village of Kumwageya, lined with huge frangipani trees.
Friday, December 3 - Fergusson & Dobu Islands D'Entrecasteaux Group: This morning an intrepid group of nature walkers went ashore to explore the other-worldly island of Fergusson with its bubbling mud and steaming geysers. The island comprises a distinctive habitat dominated by melaleuca (paperbark) and pandanus trees, and we spotted clubmoss, mimosa, and carnivorous pitcher plants growing among the hot springs. We also noticed several species of birdwing butterflies, a testament to the mega diversity of butterflies in this region.
Over lunch we repositioned near Dobu, where we took to the water. Divers reported a fantastic experience with an abundance of hard and soft corals, thousands of fish, and a giant sea turtle. The snorkelers were equally enthralled seeing all four corals (hard, soft, black, and hydra) along with big blennies, and neon blue damsels to name just a few.
In the late afternoon we stepped ashore on Dobu Island where Suzanne Noakes had learned that we were visiting on their end-of-year sports day. The island has a true sense of community and welcomed us with a singing of the national anthem. We immediately responded to their request to join them in a relay race against the school teachers. This turned out to be quite tough, but we were gracious losers.
Saturday, December 4 - Halioea Island: A perfect day greeted us as the ship sailed towards the volcanic Halioea Island Group. We anchored near Bonarua and Zodiacs once again whisked us ashore to the tiny village that welcomed us with singing and dancing on the beach. For anyone interested there were local canoe rides on offer and we managed to squeeze in one last snorkel, dive, and glass-bottom boat excursion. It was quite the action-packed morning!
We spent the remainder of the day getting ready for our departure, packing, and saying goodbyes. Captain Peter Fielding hosted a cocktail reception and farewell dinner, followed by a slideshow recap of our voyage presented by Jarda Versloot in the lounge.
Sunday, December 5 - Port Moresby / Disembark: We awoke to a sweltering day as we pulled into Port Moresby. We bid an early farewell to those going up into the highlands for the post-voyage extension and enjoyed our last breakfast on board the Clipper Odyssey. A small group set out to visit PNG Arts for one final shopping opportunity while the majority of the group did a tour in Port Moresby that included the Botanical Gardens and the National Museum. We had a quick lunch at the Gateway Hotel before heading to the airport where we said our final goodbyes and headed home via Brisbane.