Sunday, November 20, 2016 - Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea / Embark Caledonian Sky
Today, our Melanesia expedition began as three different groups came together in Papua New Guinea. Some had flown into Port Moresby the day before from home ports; some sailed from Indonesia; and a smaller group flew in from Mt. Hagen. The new arrivals met up with those from the pre-extension over lunch at the Airways Hotel, before an afternoon visit to the National Museum and the Nature Park. As the buses pulled up, we were greeted by an enthusiastic group of dancers from the Milne Bay Province.
We browsed through some marvelous displays at the museum including a Kula outrigger canoe from the Trobriand Islands and a newly opened annex, showing off some of Papua New Guinea’s most iconic artifacts. After a short drive to the Nature Park, we observed spectacled fruit bats, birds of paradise, parrots, and crowned pigeons among the foliage. Three species of cassowary were sighted, together with a number of tree kangaroos.
Those of us continuing on from the Indonesia voyage drove outside the city and up into the mountains, to Varirata National Park. We walked a beautiful forest trail to a ridge with a glorious view over the valley and the coastal plain below. Along the way, we observed at least a dozen gorgeous butterflies alongside the path.
All of us converged on the Caledonian Sky, where we embarked, met up with old traveling companions and made new acquaintances, unpacked, and prepared for our journey through the islands of Melanesia.
Monday, November 21 - Bonarua Island
The seas were calm and the ship rocked gently as we awoke to see the south coast of Papua New Guinea and the Owen Stanley Range clearly visible off the port side. Following breakfast aboard, we attended a Zodiac and snorkel briefing before collecting our snorkel gear. Shirley Campbell started our lecture series with The Art of Kula; an introduction to the cultures of the Massim (Milne Bay Province) and the renowned Kula exchange system.
Anchoring off Bonarua Island, we had our first experience of the underwater world, where we saw many blue linckia sea stars and watched as feather stars, perched on high points of the reef, reached up to strain tasty particles out of the water column. Tomato anemonefish and true clownfish entertained snorkelers with their protective territorial antics, while pairs of various species of butterflyfish danced around the reef. Divers had their first ‘check-out’ dive, enjoying a pleasant exploration down to 30 feet along the reef, with healthy corals extending towards the shore.
With outdoor temperatures cooled slightly we ventured ashore. As we approached, warriors advanced from the village, threatening with spears and shouts, while a young woman holding a banana-leaf skirt warded them off on our behalf! Placated, the warriors let us pass through a welcome line to the upper beach where we found three separate Christian church groups singing over each other to welcome us to the island in their own special ways. Formalities over, we walked through the tiny village, squeezed between the mountainside and the shore, tasted delicious treats of sago soup and sago baked into a kind of pancake. We also tried tapioca and pumpkin cooked in fresh coconut milk and seawater. The people of this island are matrilineal, tracing their descent through the female line, with an interesting pre-Christian tradition of burying their dead in an upright position with their heads above ground and covered by a basket.
A hardy group of trekkers climbed up to the hill behind the village, some taking it more slowly to observe bird life, while others sought to capture the stunning late afternoon vistas from a higher vantage point. The endemic Louisiade white-eyes delighted the birders as they flitted lightly through the trees.
Captain Hakan Gustafsson welcomed us on board over drinks on the Lido Deck where the senior officers were introduced. We enjoyed a welcome dinner as we sailed in the night through the curiously named China Straights towards the D’Entrecasteaux Islands.
Tuesday, November 22 - Fergusson & Dobu, D’Entrecasteaux Islands
We were greeted by a beautiful morning with picturesque views of steam rising from the many thermal vents on the nearby island of Fergusson. These islands are geologically recent volcanic islands with the last eruption occurring in the 14th century. Early risers left for a birding tour that took them along a coastal trail as cockatoos and eclectus parrots flew overhead. There were excellent views of curl-crested manucodes, and birds of paradise with a distinctive echoing call. Stopping to look at pitcher plants and volcanic pumice stone, the trekkers returned to the landing beach at Palagwa village as the rest of the group arrived. Here, we were welcomed by three traditional dances. The first told of the legendary Kasaibwaibwaileta who used magic to slough his black, aged skin for red, youthful skin so as to seduce his Kula partners and win for himself all the Kula shell valuables at the expense of his companions; out of jealousy he was left on a deserted island to die and the magic disappeared. The second dance recalled the cannibals of these islands, and the third dance re-enacted the voyage of a Kula outrigger canoe and the attempts of men to attract Kula arm-shells and necklaces. At the conclusion of the performances we followed a vehicle track constructed by a foreign logging company for extracting hardwoods from the primary forests. Veering off the track we walked into the thermal area where village women cook food in the hot water and wash clothes in a nearby river carrying warm water to the sea. We were invited to taste yams, sweet potatoes, cassava, and plantains freshly retrieved from cooking in the hot pools. Back at the beach we enjoyed our time with the villagers, where modern ‘island music’ was played to persuade some to dance before returning to the ship for lunch.
Repositioning a short distance to Dobu Island, we spent the afternoon snorkeling off the edge of a reef in the Dawson Straits, within the caldera of an ancient volcano. With crystal-clear visibility we spotted yellow-tailed fusiliers, bi-color parrotfish, and lots of Clarke’s, pink, and true clownfish all protecting their anemone homes. Olive green tunicates dotted the reef, filtering water through their vase-like bodies. Schools of plankton-eating anthias faced into the current as they plucked tiny creatures that drifted by. Divers saw shoals of flashing fusiliers flowing over the reef contours like long ribbons, and colorful feather stars loaded with symbiotic clingfish and camouflaged crustaceans perched at every possible edge.
A circular volcanic cone in Dawson Strait, Dobu Island was our afternoon destination. We were entertained by school children singing the national anthem and many other songs and dances. An impressive display of Kula arm-shells and necklaces demonstrated the importance and relevance of this tradition. As a Kula man tried to explain the intricacies of Kula exchange, the Zodiacs were loaded with excited children all eager for a ride. We wandered around the school precinct making new friends before returning to the ship.
Wednesday, November 23 - Kuyawa & Nakwaba, Trobriand Islands
After sailing north overnight to the Trobriand Islands, we arrived in the morning off the small coral island of Kuyawa. Not sure if the villagers were expecting our visit, we were delighted to find they were up and ready to meet us. A reception line of traditionally dressed children charmed us by their welcoming smiles as they sang and shook our hands in greeting. Men and women, all wearing banana-leaf skirts, danced in a circle around other men who chanted and beat a rhythm on their small drums. The dance recounted that the spirits of men visited the island one day and saw the women dancing so beautifully that they became jealous and created a new dance to chastise women. The spirits of these men returned to Kuyawa to teach the living people this wosi moiya, or ancient dance. Other dances reflected wars fought and won in the ancestral past; the rising sun over the island; and the harvesting of yams, a Trobriand staple. Some of the dances had traditional origins but were now treated in a modern way with an accompanying ‘string band’ to raise the tempo. The antics of some locals provided amusement and seemed to be appreciated by all. Dancing over, we explored the village, chatting with the villagers and purchasing a variety of beautiful Trobriand carvings and other knickknacks.
Over a barbecue lunch the ship repositioned five miles further north to Nakwaba, a sand cay emerging from the blue waters of the lagoon. We spent the afternoon lounging on the beach or snorkeling and diving along the surrounding reef. Birders had good sightings of a variety of terns, Pacific golden plovers, and ruddy turnstones. Underwater, Oriental sweetlips, red bass, bi-color angelfish, and scissor-tail sergeants were among the highlights. Divers explored a very shallow coral bommie at only 20 feet, yielding a few notable treasures despite the average visibility. Returning to the ship we enjoyed an ice cream social followed by a lecture from Rich Pagen, Drama Like Your Favorite Soap Opera: Competition, Adaptation, and Deception on the Reef.
Thursday, November 24 - Bodaluna, Laughlan Islands
It was another beautiful day as we sailed east to the remote Laughlan, or Bodi Bodi, Islands. Arriving at a tiny sand islet fringed by a rocky reef, we chose to either go ashore and relax, hunt shells and generally enjoy a quiet swim in the azure waters, or to snorkel and dive into the canyon-like underwater terrain of rock pinnacles and maze of channels and overhangs, hiding numerous sea creatures. The visibility was incredibly clear, with many giant clams and various types of algae to be readily observed. Leopard wrasses picked for food among the rock crevices, while tiny reticulated dacylus hovered in the protection of small branching corals.
We walked across the central village a short distance to the other side of the narrow island to watch dance performances. The first dances had been handed down from their ancestors, while newer dances with an island string band combined both traditional and pan-Pacific flavors. Women demonstrated basket making and the ancient form of mat making using pandanus leaves sewn together. We were offered an opportunity to ride on the large outrigger canoes, now propelled by black plastic sails instead of the heavier, but more robust, pandanus sails from the past.
With a bucket-full of ice, Michael Moore thrilled children and adults with the icy coldness of this freezing water. A treat for the locals and a reminder of just how remote we were and the rare privilege of being able to visit!
Back on board for a late lunch we set sail. Brad Climpson spoke on Coral Reefs: Rainforests of the Sea, followed by afternoon tea and Shirley’s presentation, Melanesia: A Cultural Landscape. As it was Thanksgiving Day in the US, the chefs prepared a delicious dinner to celebrate this American holiday.
Friday, November 25 - Ghizo & Tetepare, Solomon Islands
We stopped briefly at Ghizo Island to clear entry into the Solomon Islands, and to pick up Rick Hamilton from The Nature Conservancy. After breakfast Rich spoke on The Tropical Marine Ecological Fringe: A Transect from the Coast to the Blue Water. Rick followed with an introduction to the work of The Nature Conservancy in the Solomon Islands.
We arrived at Tetepare Island, the largest uninhabited island in the South Pacific at 46 square miles. About 150 years ago, the island was abandoned by its local inhabitants for unknown reasons, leaving it to regenerate into pristine lowland rainforests. Speaking a distinct Tetepare language, these people dispersed to neighboring islands where they were absorbed and little is known of their earlier lives. Today, the island is a protected conservation reserve, together with its surrounding reef; critically endangered leatherback and hawksbill turtles nest here together with green sea turtles, which were being tagged during our visit.
In the protected marine reserve, snorkelers saw black-tip reef sharks swimming amongst spectacular coral bommies. Snappers and emperors were also abundant, together with families of grunts.
On visiting the Ranger Station, warriors ‘threatened’ us with spears as we disembarked our Zodiacs. Many people of the Solomon Islands were once ferocious head-hunters, hostile to any stranger coming ashore and, although this has long been eradicated, people continue to respect their past and their fearsome reputations. Rich and a local guide led a long walk to Crocodile Lake and Vasara Peak. We met some of the island’s huge coconut crabs before heading out along a forest trail. The local guide demonstrated how to obtain drinking water from vines, and what plants can be used medicinally. Skinks scurried along the path as we climbed over the lattice roots of a massive fig tree. Others chose a more leisurely exploration of the area surrounding the station, while snorkelers continued to explore the underwater world.
Saturday, November 26 - Alite Reef & Busu Cultural Village
Sailing through the Solomon Island chain, we ate breakfast while enjoying the high volcanic islands slipping by on either side as Rick gave a lecture on his work in the Solomons and on Manus Island, Conservation from Ridges to Reefs. Later in the morning we dropped anchor off Alite Reef, eight miles from Malaita Island. In 2014 the Malaita Provincial Tourism Board urged the Alite reef landowners in Langalanga Lagoon to reopen the reef to tourism to help generate revenue towards the development of this impoverished province. Fortunately, we were able to plunge into these waters and enjoy some underwater time on a platform reef with steep walls. There were false clown fish and Clarke’s anemonefish in large numbers along the wall, together with extensive forests of the coralline algae, Halimeda. Caulerpa algae, often eaten by the locals and known as sea grapes, was also abundant.
Returning to the ship for a late lunch, we repositioned to Busu Cultural Village. As we came ashore we were ‘welcomed’ by hostile warriors before being greeted by the chief. We had our first panpipe welcome, young men vigorously slapping the end of bamboo pipes with flip-flops while others blew into their smaller panpipes. This outstanding display of musical ingenuity is centuries old in the Solomon Islands. Following dancing, singing, and considerable fanfare, we were shown shell money used for bridal exchanges while villagers demonstrated the entire, painstaking process of making this money. The villagers even put on a wedding ceremony to show us how they join two families together in marriage. We had plenty of time to explore and chat with the locals before returning to the ship, now surrounded by a large flotilla of small dugout canoes maneuvering to secure a good spot near the ship.
Sunday, November 27 - At Sea
A day at sea offered welcome respite from the busy days exploring the underwater world and visiting people in their home villages. No wake-up call meant we could wake at leisure and enjoy a calm breakfast. Brad began the day with his presentation, Tropical Reef Fish: A Who’s Who of Who’s Swimming with You, followed by Rick with videos documenting conservation work being carried out in Melanesia.
After lunch those who wished gathered for a ‘movie event’ in the Lounge, with popcorn and the screening of Mr Pip. The Captain and the Chief Officer, not simply content to steer the ship safely to our island destinations, decided it was time to treat us to Swedish pancakes for afternoon tea! Shirley finished the day with her lecture, The Tikopia, in anticipation of our visit.
Monday, November 28 - Utupua, Santa Cruz Islands
Those on the outer decks watched as the Caledonian Sky skillfully eased through the fringing reef of Utupua Island and into Basilisk Harbor, an ancient submerged volcanic cone. While we ate breakfast the staff took Zodiacs to scout for good snorkel and dive sites. Once set up many of us went out to take in the underwater world along the fringing reef. Divers and snorkelers experienced perhaps the best reef of the trip—there were thousands of anthias lining the walls! Rainbow runners, trevally, mackerel, and gray reef sharks were feeding on schools of juvenile fish, tens of thousands trying to hide amongst the coral. Large Oriental sweetlips and mangrove jacks also came out to feast on the abundance of food. Divers saw schools of bumphead parrotfish four feet in length cruising around feeding on the algae growing on dead corals.
After lunch, we cruised via Zodiacs across to Nembao Village, where we were greeted not by smiles and singing, but hostile warriors of all ages threatening to spear us for dinner! Luckily, we smiled, peace was made, and no guests were eaten! We had a spectacular welcome with the bamboo panpipe ensemble accompanying enthusiastic dancers; men and women of all ages, as well as children. The village is an interesting mix of people from Melanesian genetic heritage, and more recent immigrants from Anuta and Tikopia islands, the Polynesian Outliers.
We were told the story about a snake who, when it was small, was brought to the village by a young boy. It grew over the years and began to have a strong urge for blood. To satisfy its urge, the snake started eating the people of the village. The boy was told to take the snake away and kill it; try as he might, he couldn’t kill it because it was a ‘devil’ snake. Eventually they were able to banish it from the island, but it kept returning. The performance relating to the snake story was accompanied by the raising of a 12-foot pole painted with black and white stripes. Once secured in an upright position, women danced around the pole forming an inner circle while men danced around the outer ring. Pits in the dancing ground covered by wooden planks delivered a percussive effect when vigorously stomped on. The performance was spirited, providing dancers and onlookers alike with a fabulous experience.
Tuesday, November 29 - Tikopia
Our first activity of the morning was snorkeling and diving. We had great visibility today, described as ‘gin-clear!’ Incredible underwater topography kept us absorbed with divers exploring a lot of swim-throughs. There was a high predominance of the coralline algae Halimeda growing on the reef and strong, low-growing coral plates, designed to withstand heavy storms, were prevalent. The Matautu Village locals were playing a traditional spear throwing game called Tika, which attracted some to watch this enthralling event instead of snorkeling; they were not disappointed! A complex scoring regime had us baffled, but the intensity with which the Tikopian population played and watched this game ensured our own, bewildered participation.
After lunch we were welcomed with leis on the beach and school children singing under the trees. We were treated to tapa (barkcloth) and pandanus mat-making demonstrations; from the felling of the paper mulberry tree, brought from Taiwan by Austronesians over 3,000 years ago, to removing its bark, tearing away the inner bark, washing, and finally beating it into the thin tapa cloth, which is extremely valuable throughout Polynesian cultures. The demonstrations were followed by dances including martial arts, sticks, haka-like displays, and dances with synchronized arm movements. The Chief, one of four on the island, sat, head raised above all on a chair nearby.
After the performances we found children attaching to us, eager to hold our hands and to escort us through their village. We wandered along the sandy trails bisecting the reclaimed reef, past thatch houses whose slanting roofs nearly touched the ground. Small, crawl-through doors contained reclining figures peering out, watching us explore. Some went on a nature walk with Tom Hiney and Rich, through villages and beautiful forest trails to Te Roto, the brackish lake within the ancient volcano. Others were content to explore the school.
We returned to the ship to clean up for a Melanesian cocktail party in the Panorama Room, before enjoying a tasty Filipino dinner.
Wednesday, November 30 - Ureparapara, Vanuatu
Early in the morning we slipped into Divers Bay, an ancient volcanic lagoon, with the surrounding forest-clad landscape rising high above our tiny ship. We were now in the northern Banks Islands of Vanuatu. Ureparapara is the third largest of these islands with a population of just 437 living in three villages. With such a small population, it is surprising that two languages are spoken!
After an official welcome on the beach, we were escorted through the village to the ritual dancing area. Two dances began with women singing as they walked out of the forest. The next dance continued, this time accompanied by a male ‘orchestra;’ only men can play instruments in this culture! Three dances by men were designed to display their status within the island’s graded rankings. Men’s hierarchical grade systems are a common feature of Vanuatu cultures with 12 ranked grades on Ureparapara. We saw the dances of the first three, each grade showing off fabulously elaborate headdresses. With each succeeding dance we were impressed by the ever-increasing complexity of the headdresses. In the final dance, men were wearing various sea creatures as head decorations; turtle, shark, lionfish, barramundi… everyone spectacular! We were shown a special garden constructed just for visitors to display the large statues, traditionally carved from the rhizome of tree ferns. These each represent various spirits to which people in the past gave offerings to ensure good fishing, plentiful harvests, and good sailing winds.
After lunch we returned ashore to watch children shooting shells back and forth upon a sandy playing field. The objective was to knock out the opposing team’s shells. We watched men making fire before the finale of the day, women making music in the water! Following this amazing display, some of us tried to recreate the percussive sounds of water being ‘thumped’ together, but to no avail. This was clearly a talent that needed careful tuition! It was time to depart and enjoy some underwater time where we saw brain, staghorn and table corals, lobster, white-tip sharks, and a high diversity of parrotfish.
Thursday, December 1 - Varo Island, Vanuatu
We woke to a gray and unsettled morning. There was a disconcerting swell breaking onto the landing beach which, with its natural incline, made it impossible to get everyone ashore safely. We had to abandon our plans for a morning visit to Ambrym Island; instead we took our group photo on the Lido Deck with Ambrym in the background, before setting sail.
Tom spoke on Rebuilding Coral Reefs as we sailed southwest to Malekula Island. As we cruised, Michael and the captain searched for a suitable location, out of the weather, for us to anchor. They found what looked to be an interesting place, Varo Island in the Masculin Islands off Malekula Island. This beautiful little tree-filled island suggested a healthy colonization of what was once just a sandy cay. Although uninhabited, it is ‘owned’ by local people on a nearby island and used for fishing. A deputation came across to meet us and give permission to land on the lea side, out of the weather. A beach bar came ashore with a selection of drinks, including tropical rum punch, and we settled down to a perfect last day in paradise! While some swam or simply bobbed in the water, practicing their ‘Water Music’ skills, others fossicked for shells and other detritus washed up on the beach. Several storm fronts threatened but passed to one side of the island. We did catch the flank of one such front however, feeling the warm rain wetting an idyllic setting.
Back on board we began preparing for the end of our adventure with Zegrahm before dressing for the captain’s cocktails and a lovely dinner in the dinning room. Rich presented the slideshow he had worked on during our voyage together, before we spent our last night on board.
Friday, December 2 - Port Vila / Disembark / Brisbane, Australia
Anchoring early at Port Vila, our final day was beautifully warm and humid. Some of us went ashore before the general disembarkation to explore the little port town and capital of Vanuatu. A produce market was only a block away with all kinds of yams, taro, pumpkin, and different greens on display. It was a very busy, clean, and well-stocked market.
Our general disembarkation brought everyone ashore via Zodiac and onto buses for a short ride to the Cultural Centre. We were treated to a 30-minute demonstration of flute music, various aspects of Vanuatu culture, and sand painting. Afterwards we wandered around the display of Vanuatu’s many cultures before reboarding the buses and heading to a kava bar. A welcome dance was followed by a demonstration showing kava root being chopped, washed, mashed, and squeezed in water to make up the slightly intoxicating drink. Retiring to the burros we had an opportunity to sample the kava; it was quite peppery and spicy. Some found it not too unpleasant and had more! We noticed how it affected our mouths, stimulating a numb and tingling sensation. A delicious lunch was served with barbecued pig and vegetables.
Finally, it was time to depart for the airport and a long check-in before waiting for our flights. At the airport we said goodbye to some of our fellow travelers who were staying on in Port Vila, and to those who were flying to Fiji. The past two weeks had taken us to some of the more remote islands of Melanesia and our experiences would become cherished memories in the years to come.