The Ninigos Islands, PNG

Our Papua New Guinea home.  Funny how the first islands we visited and the last would turn out to be our favorites by far.  The Mortlock Islands in the east and now the Ninigo Islands in the west created beautiful bookends for our time in Papua New Guinea.  As we sailed into the pass and across the lagoon with a brisk 18 knots of wind, we saw in the distance an outrigger sailing canoe.  Its sails were tight and full, the wind on its beam, one hull lifting in and out of the water as it skidded along.  They were absolutely flying and caught up with us in no time at all, screaming past Field Trip to wave hello!  We hooted and hollered at them, egging them on as they zigzagged all around us, showing off those sailing skills that the islanders here are known for.  What a welcome!

MAL ISLAND

Sailing past Field Trip on a custom boat.
Puhipi Village on Mal Island was our first stop in this remote island group.  Thomas, the father and quiet leader of the familial village came out right away to meet us once we settled in.  He brought with him two things: a Seimat Language guide and the guest book signed by all the yachties who have visited in recent years.  His English was much better than he would take credit for, allowing us to glean more information than we had in other places and ask deeper and more detailed questions.  His unassuming, meek nature was refreshing and endearing as he made sure we understood that we were welcomed guests.  Usually, interaction with the people of the villages begins with a greeting followed by a request to trade for sugar, clothing, etc.  We had gotten accustomed to this initiation, so we weren’t quite sure what to do when Thomas told us there was no trading here!  In some ways this was a welcome relief, in other ways it left us unsure of how to acquire the produce we needed to stay in the islands for a while.  Turns out, we kind of did end up trading, but it was considered just a way we could thank them for their continuous generosity.  Never once did we return to the boat empty-handed!  Elizabeth, Thomas’ wife, treated us to ‘bol-bol’, a traditional Ninigo dish of cassava root grated and rolled into bite-sized balls, then cooked in fresh-squeezed coconut milk.  Delicious!  And somehow, fresh coconuts and papaya would appear magically in our dinghy by the time we needed to head back to the boat.

Thomas' brothers new house
Once the weather settled a bit, we brought the boat in closer to the village to shorten our dinghy commute.  Each day after the kids finished school, we would head in to visit.  A few rope swings that hung from the trees and a volleyball we’d brought them provided hours of interaction.  One of Thomas’ grandsons was coerced into showing us how to use the stilts that were propped up against a house.  He was quite shy, but eventually, he did a quick demonstration for us.  His father, Richard, was sitting nearby with his knee wrapped.  Turns out, he was a star player on the competitive soccer team in a recent tournament and twisted his knee.  Around his knee, there were multiple burns that seemed to follow a pattern.  When I asked him about it, he explained that their ancestors passed down this treatment for injured soft tissue.  It requires the systematic searing of the skin in certain points around the injured joint in order to encourage the body to heal the area.  Reminded me of the theory behind acupuncture!  Without formal medical care, Richard had few other options, but seemed very satisfied with the healing that was already taking place.  Soon, he said, he’d be helping the soccer team win again!

Thomas walked us around the beautifully manicured village to introduce us to his extended family and tell us about how much they all enjoy meeting so many cruisers from around the world.  Later, I leafed through their guest book, amazed at the international visitors they’ve hosted!  Some people came and decided to stay as guests for years, and I could understand why.  Thomas and his family were a delight to be with, whether sitting around a table learning their language, hitting the volleyball back and forth, or listening to their stories about life in the Ninigo Islands.

One of the sweetest pleasures we had while we were there was sending some emails from Thomas to some of the very cruisers that had become so dear to him during their stay in Mal Island.  He would carefully pen a heartfelt note and we would type it up and send it via our satellite mail.  Within a day or two, our inbox was littered with excited responses that we’d print out and bring ashore with us.  Each one brought tears to his eyes when he read them, and it was obvious how much of an impact these visitors had had on him and his family.

Thomas and family sorting through gifts 
Homemade stilts the kids played with while in village

Signing guestbook with family
Mark playing doctor on burned foot
Thomas' wife and grandchild

PATAKU ISLAND

Ride to Pataku Island
Surrounded by shallow reef, this island in the Ninigo archipelago with its own natural barrier is known among the other islanders as the most tightly knit and welcoming community.  We couldn’t imagine any place being more welcoming than Puhipi village, so right away we were intrigued.  Upon further inquiries, we found out that the island had never been visited by yachties before.  Many government officials and other visitors had been there, but due to the fringing reef, no yachts could anchor there and subsequently, no yachties had been ashore.  Eventually, we met Odeley, who offered to drive us over to Pataku in his long boat.  We’d have to leave early in the morning in order to get across the reef at the highest point of the tide, and even then, if the swell was too high, it would be impossible to get the boat safely through the crashing waves.  The weather was perfect.  We motored across the calm channel and over the shallow reef without any trouble.  As we pulled up to the island, we could see a flurry of activity and a large crowd gathering on shore.  The boat slid up onto the sand and immediately each of us were taken by the hand up to dry land where handmade hats adorned with fresh flowers were placed on our heads.  The crowd broke into a beautiful acapella song, welcoming us to their island.  Then, schoolchildren wearing ancestral costumes danced and chanted alongside us as we were led, parade-style, to a seating area that had been decorated and prepared especially for us.  Cool drinking coconuts were placed in our hands as the performers continued their custom show.

Pataku welcome ceremony with lots of food!
We would spend the whole day on the island, until the high tide came again, allowing us to cross the reef.  The community had organized the entire day for us, starting with a visit to the school and continuing with a ‘kai kai walkabout’ (a sort of progressive dinner).  A few members of the community had been chosen as our guides, and they led us throughout the whole village, stopping in certain homes along the way where the families had gathered and prepared a local dish.  As we went from home to home, I realized that each of the foods was different, obviously carefully coordinated in order to let us sample many of the local foods they ate here.  What a great idea!  By the third home, I was stuffed but kept on eating, knowing how much effort these families had put forth to host us.

Pataku school listening to Sarah's presentation
Soon, we had walked (and eaten) our way around the entire island.  I liked how this progressive dinner had given us personal time with many of the families who lived here.  Rather than putting us in front of a large crowd and making us feel very honored by, but disconnected from the people, we had been given the privilege of sitting down and eating with individuals in their own homes on a much more personal level.



Through these conversations we got the chance to hear their stories of life here.  They showed us their infamous racing outriggers and how they were built with such precision and detail.  We were able to meet the champion from the last big race and see his winning outrigger which was kept under a shelter near his home.  We were also able to sit and talk with a family whose father had recently suffered a stroke and could not move the right side of his body.  We laughed together, learned together, and by the time we had to go, we cried together.




Our time in Pataku felt sacred somehow.  Like we had been given this glimpse into how precious and beautiful the human race can be.

LAU ISLAND

 Francis, a senior magistrate from Manus, and his wife Rosalyn showed us amazing hospitality. We had simply anchored our dinghy here when we met Odeley to ride with him to Pataku Island. When we returned that day, Rosalyn and Peter had scrubbed the bottom of our dinghy clean!!! Such thoughtfulness! So, we decided to move the boat for a night’s stay with them. When we arrived, Rosalyn disappeared into her cooking hut and an hour later returned carrying a tray full of sago pudding and fresh coconut water with lime! Have I mentioned that we are never hungry in the Ninigos! The kids are instantly taken with the juvenile boobie bird that Francis is raising as a pet. When they tell him about the tagged frigate who has been hanging out on our bow chairs, Francis says it is his pet, too, named Paul Paul!

During our conversation, Francis shares with us his plans for building a new house here on Lau.  He points to the spot he’s chosen, and then paints a picture of a large home with many solar panels and a large satellite dish, so that he can have a big television.  Funny how the grass is always greener on the other side.  We have tried to step away from being constantly bombarded with tv and media, hoping to find quiet for our overstimulated souls.  Yet, here, where the quiet is abundant, it seems to be deafening for the people.  They stay up all night crowded around a laptop watching movies, tv series, or music videos.  Many have cell phones filled with western music and videos from YouTube.  And their dreams of building a house are motivated by how big of a tv they can power.  Simultaneously I feel humored and saddened by the contrast.  

LONGAN ISLAND

Remember the welcoming committee who sped by us in their sailing outrigger when we first arrived?  Turns out, the captain of that boat was Oscar, a friendly, outgoing man from Longan Island.  While we were in Mal Island, he came by a few times to visit with us, each time making sure we knew that we were welcome to come to Longan Island anytime.  He and his family were looking forward to hosting us.


Well, finally, we got there.  Two couples, Oscar and Karen and Campbell and Nellie, sure have perfected the hosting of cruisers like us.  Together, they carefully and thoughtfully planned a special welcome ceremony and meal for us and our friends on SV Perry.  The eight of us were lined up and presented with gorgeous flower leis and heaping bowls filled with fresh fruits and vegetables while they serenaded us with songs they had written specifically for visitors.  Tears involuntarily sprang to my eyes as I realized how precious this moment was and what a unique gift it is to be in this place with these people.  I had to force myself to stop thinking about it to avoid completely melting in front of them.  Somehow I managed to pull myself together, but when I looked up again at one of the women singing, I noticed that she had tears streaming down her face, too. This moment meant just as much to them as it did to us.

Later, we were treated to a brisk sail on one of their infamous outriggers.  Campbell’s son and another young man showed impressive sailing skill as we scooted across the turquoise waters of the lagoon and landed gently in the lee of a quaint secluded island. All of us went for a walk along the beach, looking for shells on the windward side, while one of the guys nonchalantly climbed up a towering palm tree and cut fresh coconuts for us to drink before heading back. I felt like Moana, sitting on that handmade canoe and seeing the hand hewn mast and forked boom!  As the wind picked up, one of the hulls began to skip over and then completely lift out of the water!  We all tightened our grip as the guy in charge of the sails skittered out over the bridge deck, using his weight to right us. This was the real deal!!  All the while we were sailing, a little girl who’d accompanied us was busy bailing out the bottom with a makeshift bailer, trying desperately to keep ahead of the leaking hull.  The three of them - the captain, the crew, and the bailer - took great care of us on our adventure, and that sail will be remembered by us forever.









Comments

  1. What an excellent Field Trip!! I just signed up to receive your blogs, but if you can see my email address, please write to me I have so many questions. We are currently laying in Papeete and are contemplating following in your footsteps (so to speak). You seem to be the most recent person I can find on line who has sailed through the Solomons and PNG which we are contemplating. Thanks in advance and keep on learning more stuff on your Field Trips!!

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