Wildlife and War Canos
by Liz Light
It’s a perfectly still dawn. Drips twinkle on the ends of pointed leaves, fragrant frangipani trees quietly drop flowers and the sea and sky reflect each other in clear, pure blue. The day is beginning at the boat harbour in Alotau. People on boats wake up and stretch, the tea maker sets up his stall, open boats laden with fruit and vegetables from the islands are being unloaded and baskets of produce carried to the market.
Alotau, the biggest town in Milne Bay Province, on the eastern tip of mainland Papua New Guinea, has a couple of supermarkets, a high school, a hospital on the hill and this busy port from which boats to the outlying islands constantly come and go. It feels like a small town to me, but is bright lights and big city for a vast area mostly covered in jungle with thousands of tiny family-based hamlets dotted through it. ??A few hours later the market is a-buzz with folk carefully spending their hard-earned kina, the local currency, and a walk through it, past its luscious displays of fruit and vegetables, is indicative of the area’s fecundity and the local’s gardening skills. There are peanuts, papaya, pomelo, bananas, mangoes, star fruit and melons; rows of root vegetables such as taro, yam and kumara, and stacks of green vegetables, many of which I can’t identify. There are also sago cakes, freshly baked cookies and smoked fish of all sizes and shapes.
Milne Bay was a vital piece of geography in the Second World War with Japanese occupying the islands and mainland to the north, Australians holding Milne Bay and its three vital airfields and Americans arduously fighting their way north, island by island. ??Now it’s difficult to imagine a war in this serene place, where little waves gently ruffle the shore, dolphins cavort in quiet coves and smiling people say, “Goodie morn,” pigeon English for “Good morning”, when we pass on a path.
The war’s wrecks remain, though, hundreds of Japanese and American ships, bombed by each other’s aeroplanes, lie silently on the ocean floor, changed, now, into reefs of an extraordinary kind. The Coral and Solomon Seas, which meet at Milne Bay, are the world’s best dive destinations with thousands of islands and pristine reefs and the added attraction of sunken, twisted iron and steel.
Near Wagawaga village, an hour by boat from Alotau, the wreck of a coal carrier, Muscoota, mortally wounded in 1942, has a rusting bow protruding from shallow water and the rest of her slants down into the inky blue depths. It’s a terrific site for snorkelling because, after 68 years, the underwater world has transformed the ship into a glorious marine ecosystem. ??Giant clams with zigzag jaws cluster around the inside of the funnel, schools of angel fish circle the anchor in shafts of sunlight, iridescent blue starfish and sea eggs with extravagantly long quills cling to the deck, purple and orange corals hang onto the sides and the flower-like tendrils of sponges wave from the cabin top.
The land creatures are just as fascinating as the under-sea ones. At Ulumani Treetops Rainforest Lodge, a bumpy 4WD drive ride from Wagawaga, when, after dinner, I walk up a bush path to my cottage, I pass toads taller than coffee mugs, unafraid of my torch light, peering at me with googly eyes and giant snails with pointed shells crawl around looking for food.
Ambrose, whose family owns the lodge, takes our little group in his boat up the coast to the Dawadawa River. We slowly wind our way up-river passing hamlets sparkling after rain, surrounded by fecund gardens with tall virgin jungle on the steep hills behind them. Gardens flourish in this warm climate with its rapid changes from rain to brilliant sunshine and pineapple, taro, kumara, yams, sago, star fruit, and mangoes grow in abundance.
Pigs roam around; there is fish in the river and game in the jungle for those who care to hunt. ??Ambrose stops at an eddy where a stream joins the main river and, somehow, his bush telegraph has worked. Men each paddling an outrigger canoe arrive, people are introduced, “Goodie morn,” is said and hands are shaken. A young cassowary, a bird that looks just like a moa, stalks about – it’s a pet, belonging to the people in the house nearby, who enjoyed feasting on the giant drumsticks of its 55 kilogram mother.
The journey up river continues in outrigger canoes. I sit on a slab of timber straddling the topsides of the dugout as does John, my pink-mouthed mahogany-teethed beetle-nut-chewing paddler. Birds call from tall trees, hornbills fly across the river, making a whooshing noise with each wing beat, cicadas hum as if they are one and giant dragonflies helicopter by. It’s serenely beautiful with the soft dip of the paddle, sun on my back and unsullied nature all around me.
Back in Wagawaga it’s party time. Every year there is a big war canoe competition and cultural festival in Alotau and the Wagawaga teams – paddlers, dancers and musicians – are having a dress rehearsal, practicing for the big day. ??The 20 men in the war canoe are all rippling muscle as they power across the bay, chanting to keep time, pointed paddles digging into sea. The pencil thin canoe skims over water, around a distant marker and back. The body of it is black and white striped, like a sea snake, and the stern has a high, carved tail end incorporating images of a bird of paradise, a crocodile and a whale, all powerful creatures here.??On shore the whole community is out to support them, shouting encouragement and applauding their arrival back to land.
A team of women – faces painted, grass skirts and bands of decorative grasses strung across their bare breasts – dance to the beat of a traditional drum. The dancing is laid-back with some delicate footwork and sensual hand movements. Cute little kids imitate and get in the way. ??The warriors from the war canoe are standing in clusters under trees watching the dancing. I can’t help but notice that they are all wearing traditional costume, a minimal thong-type arrangement made of flax that covers their penis but their muscular buttocks remain exposed. These men all have bodies like Adonis. Even the older ones, grey haired and in their 40’s, are in fine form.
The simple life, uncomplicated by money, supermarkets, restaurants and bars, and regarded by some outsiders as poverty, visibly has its advantages.
Getting there – Fly Air New Zealand to Cairns. ?Overnight in Cairns and get the early Pacific Blue flight to Port Moresby. It connects to an Air Niugini flight to Alotau. ?Visas are issued upon arrival. Port Moresby is worth avoiding.
Alotau, in Milne Bay, is lovely and it’s worth staying a couple of days. Napatana Lodge (www.napatanalodge.com) and Driftwood lodge (www.driftwoodpng.com), both on the beach, are delightful. ?Treetops Rainforest Lodge email@example.com & www.pngbackpacker.com is charming. If there is a group of more than four Ambrose will arrange trip up the Dawadawa River. ?Tawali is a premier resort in the area. www.tawali.com. Someone from Tawali will escort you by bus and boat to the lodge. Dive trips on live-aboard boats can be arranged through this website.