Mortlock Islands, PNG

Our first stop in PNG was a tiny remote group of islands called Mortlock Islands just northeast of Bouganville. It would be the first of many remote village islands we’d visit as we stayed clear of mainland PNG and all the crime associated with the busy port towns there. Matt on SV Perry had been in communication with a professor from Australia who had studied this particular island community, documenting their unique customs and language. Scientists have also been studying the effects of climate change on this island very closely. In the emails, Matt also found out that the people here didn’t have access to medical supplies, so while we were in Honiara waiting for one of our many shipments, we stocked up on some medical necessities and are excited to hand them over to the chiefs here.

The pass into the lagoon was deep and wide. A fish nabbed our lure right as we entered the pass, so I jumped up to helm while Mark dealt with the fish. Unfortunately, it was a big monster with sharp teeth that sliced right through the steel leader and took all the tackle with it. Bummer. The sky was cloudy, but it was low tide, and the reef was above the water’s surface making it really easy to navigate through. In the middle of the lagoon the depth measured 82 meters, and we got another hit on our line. This time Mark reeled it in, thinking we’d caught a shark at first, but eventually realizing that the sharks were just feasting on the big tuna we’d hooked! By the time it got to the boat, only one third of it remained. It was a whopper, though, so we kept the head to gift to the village chief and were able to carve some hefty fillets off of what remained of the body. Elizabeth marveled at how cleanly those shark teeth had sliced through the flesh and hunted for shark teeth in what was left behind.

 Once anchored we were amazed that no one came out to greet us. It was like the island was deserted! A few other islands dotted the fringing reef, but this was the biggest. Elizabeth and Michael stowed the lines and I went to the galley to fix lunch. It was odd - not a soul was walking along the beach. No canoes were being paddled our way. Mark and I started making up possible reasons why we hadn’t had visitors yet.

“Maybe because it’s Sabbath. They might not be able to row their canoes out today.”

“Yeah, but that’s never stopped other villages we visit. I mean, how many boats come here? Surely us arriving is kind of a big event, right?”

“Hmm. Maybe they’ve all gone to the mainland for supplies or a funeral or something?”

“Or maybe they just figure we’ve come a long way and they’re letting us rest.”

Mark got out the binoculars and looked around. “Ah, the island over there has a couple long boats and I see people walking on the beach. Oh, and there’s a long boat coming our way.” Sure enough, five men from the village came over to let us know that we had anchored near the cemetery, not the village.

“This island has too many mosquitoes. This is where our dead are buried, “ one man explained. Oops - definitely the wrong place. We apologized and invited the guys aboard for coffee. They were thrilled to have been asked, and their curious eyes darted around like pinballs, trying to see and understand so much they’d never seen before. Four of the guys rode with us as we lifted anchor and the other man led us to the right anchoring spot in their long boat. I could see that the men riding with us were trying to figure all the instruments out, so as I sat at the helm, I explained what each dial and digital reading represented. When we set the anchor I explained why Elizabeth was calling out the anchor alarm distances and how we had to ensure the anchor was not dragging at all before turning off the engines. The anchor alarm on our AIS unit has alerted us on other occasions when we the anchor had lost its holding or even once when the mooring line broke free. We don’t ever anchor without setting it and it has saved us many times.

Once safely set, we enjoyed a few cookies before heading in to meet the rest of the people living here, about 300 in all. Children lined the beach, waving anxiously and giggling shyly. Their faces and features were reminiscent of the Polynesian people, and I learned later that these people’s ancestors were in fact Polynesian, rather than Melanesian or Micronesian. We did our typical introductions, and heard our names whispered amongst the kids and passing adults as we walked through the village. Our guide brought us to see the school and meet Chief Siwa. Gradually, the kids got braver and braver, and eventually they were pushing and shoving to get a better view or take a chance at asking a question.

Mark and our kids were ahead of me, and I was soon engulfed with a crowd of intrigued little ones with lots of questions. “Where you from?” “What your name is?” “What your son’s name is?”

I managed to answer and then shoot a few questions back at them. “Where is your school? Who is your teacher? Do you like to fish? How old are you?” They were thrilled to ask and answer, so excited to share with their new guest. One boy seemed to be the spokesman of the group, with well-spoken English and a personality that would put any emcee to shame. He trotted along beside me, basking in the attention and shushing anyone who spoke over him.

After walking around the small island, we came to a place with log benches and rested a bit. The crowd of children was very careful to keep a path open so that I could get the breeze from the sea. Obviously one of the parents had reprimanded them for crowding me and in their own words had told the kids to give me some “breathing room”. A green coconut was cut and handed to me to drink, and all the children stared as I lifted the huge nut to my mouth and took a big swig.

“Is sweet?” they asked, making sure I was satisfied with my refreshment. I nodded as I wiped the dripping coconut water from my chin.

Going ashore for the first time
They weren’t quite sure what to do with me. And their nervous excitement led to a lot of noise - shushing and giggling. I decided singing might be just the thing to quiet them down, and began to sing Jesus Loves Me. Within the first few notes, their smiling faces turned toward me and their voices joined mine in the familiar tune. After that, it was a full sing-a-long, as I mentally rifled through my rolodex of children’s songs to find more that they knew. Old Mac Donald, Deep and Wide, Jesus Loves the Little Children, Months of the Year Song, Days of the Week, and on and on it went until my voice was nearly gone. But, oh, what a beautiful moment it was to sit among all their sweet faces and sing together. I made sure to look into each set of eyes and show them how special they were. I could already tell, this place would wiggle its way into my heart in no time and I didn’t want to give one thought to how hard this goodbye was going to be...

Here is a short video overview of the Mortlocks.


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