Papua New Guinea: Two tickets to paradise
The Admiralty Islands archipelago lie north east of the Papua New Guinea mainland two degrees below the equator in an isolated area considered to be a separate eco-region. At the beginning of this year, my family travelled to the islands to visit areas that my mum, uncle and auntie had lived as children when my grandfather was stationed on Manus Island in the navy. After unresolved attempts to contact childhood friends, much of our trip was ultimately organised through Lynne Shori, an Australian woman whose Papua New Guinean mother and family live on the nearby Rambutso Islands. After returning there in 2007 to meet them, Lynne set up Friends of Rambutso- an Australian based NGO that works in partnership with the 4000 villagers of Rambutso to help them improve their quality of life through sustainable and environmentally sound means.
Our family came well prepared with gear for the tropics. My dad had carefully selected three separate pairs of Blundstones boots along with four different varieties of portable fan, six head torches and eleven ocky straps; "unfortunately you can’t take everything”, he reasoned. Despite our diligent packing, navigating our way around unfamiliar cultural protocols and dealing with confronting issues such as a huge wealth divide, corruption and environmental degradation was challenging for us all. Traditionally, local fishing customs helped balance how marine resources were used, however today, fish are far more scarce and threats to the reefs are complex and growing, including the never imagined impacts of climate change.
“For me, spending time in Papua New Guinea made me realise just how much beauty we have on our doorstep, as well as the important role that Australians play as neighbours in ensuring the future of these delicate ecosystems and the people who depend on them.”
Bombed by the Germans during WW11, this Allied supply shipwreck now lies in shallow waters off Pak Island- a tiny outer island north-west of Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. In the 1960s my grandfather was stationed on Manus Island with the Navy and my mum, aunt and uncle as young kids, swam out to this wreck. Forty years later we returned there as a family and managed relocated it. There is a huge gaping wound in the hull of the ship where the bomb hit and because the wreck is in shallow waters we were able to swim almost down to the sea floor holding our breath.
The tropical rainforest is so thick it sweats with vegetation and the constant hum of insects and bird life hidden in the dense tangle of green. This rainforest makes you feel as though it is one single interconnected organism. The sun filters down through layers of leaves in patterns, spotlighting busy ants on the leafy floor.
I thought I could hold my breath for a long time until I started swimming with the locals in Papua New Guinea. For centuries they have relied on this well practised skill in order to find and collect beche-de-mer (sea cucumbers); however the impacts of overfishing are now causing significant reductions in the marine biodiversity throughout the region. Locals are forced to dive to increasingly greater depths and in the last ten years there have been a number of unprecedented drownings. After losing her brother to drowning, Australian woman Lynne Shori was motivated to set up Friends of Rambutso- an organisation focused on education and supporting sustainable development on the islands.
The local kids grow up learning to body-surf on old pieces of wood left over from traditional carved fishing canoes (lakatoi), that are no longer in use by the village. We swapped surf craft with the kids a number of times, and while they took to our boards with confidence and ease, we seemed to flounder on theirs. Like victims of a shipwreck, we retreated to the beach with our wooden remnants long before they did.
We came across this fanning coral on a section of reef that drops to 30 metres deep only metres away from the shore. The beauty and richness of the reef systems on these islands was overwhelming. The galaxy of coral beneath the surface was like the city at night, abuzz with life - fast rippling neon lights, tunnels and bridges of coral and darting fish moving in lanes of colour.
Whenever we drove down this road the local kids would suddenly appear from the jungle and jump into the back of the ute with us. Once we'd filled the back cab and the bumper bar was hidden under a line of small feet, the rest of the kids would chase after us shrieking. They followed behind our tracks for hundreds of metres until they could no longer keep up with us on the main road.
Island hopping in search of waves... On one of our boat trips we were told about a local legend of an untraceable 'drifting' island named Kau Patan. As the story goes, Kau Patan was unfaithful to his lover, and, admitting that he had done wrong, decided to separate himself from the rest of the island. Since then, he has endlessly drifted on the oceans, forever nomadic and pining for his long lost love. In conversations with the locals about sea level rise (which is already having huge and devastating effects on these low lying islands), this story of the nomadic island came up more than once. Although it was never made explicit, it seemed that people were making a link between rising sea levels and the prospect of being displaced like Kau Patan and scouring the oceans in search of a new home.
After getting permission from some of the landowners, we were able to surf a number of the local breaks that peel off the shallow reefs of many of the small islands. We accessed most of the spots by boat because the majority of islands are uninhabited and so dense with trees it is almost impossible to get far beyond the sand. After a surf one day, my cousin and I made sandals for ourselves out of big vine leaves in an attempt to cross to the other side of the island, but after a few metres it felt like we had been swallowed by the jungle.
The jockey surfer- ingenious use of leg rope as a whip for extra speed on small waves! Our local swimming pool in Sydney donated 50 pairs of lost property goggles to the kids on Rambutso. Once we had handed them over they weren't taken off for anything and became an essential additional surfing accessory.