Travel stories

In “Snippets” I extracted some stories from books I had read. They were about people in unusual circumstances. I do the same here with some stories from my own experiences.

The Adventure

Peter told me he wanted adventure. I knew him from the main office of the mining company in Melbourne. Somehow he had got a paid trip, for a week or so, to Bougainville, to see the operation of the mine. By chance, his trip coincided with a two public holidays in PNG. So we had four days to do something and so I asked around and there was a tramp ship going to some of the outer islands to collect the copra. It went every couple of months. This was the main income for these smaller islands and, as every island was covered with coconut trees, it was just a matter of husking and breaking the coconuts and putting the meat in hessian sacks. A small crane on the ship then hoisted these sacks into the hull.

Copra collecting produced only slim profits so the ships used were often near the end of their working life. On this ship we were to sleep for four nights. There were several other local passengers as this was the main form of transport between islands. We put our gear in the two-bed cabin and the captain looked with a smile at the box of food we brought but said nothing. No meals were served and you had to look after yourself. Transporting copra has its disadvantages in that the population of cockroaches on these ships was always enormous. As the ship had been empty for more than a week now, they were all starving. It was hot and humid below decks, the beds were uncomfortable and ship rolled excessively so we slept badly. As well, there was a type of rustling that we couldn’t place. In the morning we found that plastic bags holding bread and spaghetti and other foods were no obstacle to the cockroaches and all was gone except for the canned food. Fortunately, we did not feel like eating.

Our first stop was the Tasman Islands where we arrived in the morning. We found the gap in the reef and anchored. The main island was a typical coral island with white beaches all around. It was covered in coconut trees and all the huts were made from the thatched leaves of the coconut trees. There were lesser islands like a string of pearls in a half circle. While the loading was going on we were free to roam. The Tasman islanders were of Polynesian origin and their language was close to the Samoan language. We were told there were about a thousand people living there. The arrival of the ship was the reason for a dance to which we were invited. This was the adventure that Peter was hoping for and he was enjoying every minute. However, as dusk fell and the dancing started the men and women were separated. Peter and I were led to where the men were. There was an islander here who worked at the mine and although I did not know him this connection brought us together. I asked why the separation of dancers and was told that the worst thing that that can happen to a young man was to see the menstruation blood of his sister. I told him that we wanted to see both dances and that I had no sisters here. Later we had a discussion about the religious beliefs of the Tasman Islanders. Of course Christianity came but they still kept most of their old beliefs.

Next was the Mortlock Islands (Takuu atoll). It had only half the number of people as the Tasman Islands. There was an anthropologist living there, a long time resident, who was working on their language and habits. I think he was from New Zealand. We had a chat and he was desperate for any newspapers. We had been told before leaving to take some and with these he seemed delighted. He had had no outside news for months so he buried himself in them.

We wandered around and the girls and young women of the island took a great interest in us. They wore only a short grass skirt that seemed to get shorter as the day went on. We were both only twenty seven years old. Like the Tasman islanders, these Mortlock islanders were also of Polynesian origin. Their wood carvings reminded me of similar ones I had seen in New Zealand. There were no toilets on the island but of the many beaches one was nominated as a toilet and people just wandered out and squatted in a few centimetres of water and used the same water for washing. I suppose that when you have a tiny population in a vast ocean, pollution does not matter.

We stayed two days here and were shown seven ways to cook the flesh of the coconut. One unusual method was to allow the coconut to go to seed where all the white meat was absorbed and the shell now contained a ball filling the whole coconut. This was then dried and ground into flour. The other main part of their diet was fish. They also grew a few vegetables and had a few paw paws. With the money they got from selling coconuts they bought other foods, mainly rice.

The ship was now full of copra and so it was time to return to Bougainville. This was about two hundred kilometres away and would take the whole night. We tried to get some sleep but in the middle of the night the boat slowed and there were people running about on deck. We went upstairs to investigate. We had gone over a “long line”. These lines were kilometres long and this method was an illegal fishing method. The captain, a weathered New Guinean, said that by looking at the line it seemed Taiwanese. As no light could be seen in any direction I suppose the captain decided that it was an opportunity to make some money. As it was only a few hours to Bougainville any fish caught would still be in good condition when we arrived. The captain cut the line and the crew started hauling one of the halves. Every ten metres there was a hook and on some were huge tuna. Three tuna were soon landed and one must have been over a hundred kilos. It took four crew with gaffs to get it in.

Then all of a sudden a large searchlight came on a kilometre away. It seems the tables were turned and the Taiwanese ship had its lights off stalking us whereas our ship was brilliantly lit. The captain panicked. He knew these illegal fishing ships carried guns and could fire upon him. Now we turned off all the ship’s lights and steered by the white crests of the waves. The searchlight was going in all directions trying to find us. I admired the skill of the captain who seemed to be able to take the ship along the troughs of the waves and I wondered if he had done this before. In the early morning light as we approached Bougainville I asked why he had not contacted a navy gunboat and he said that the nearest was in Lae some thousand kilometres away and others were being repaired. He said that in these vast oceans you are on your own.

The next day when I saw Peter off he told me that he has had enough adventure for a while and would be glad to get back to Melbourne.

The Expert

The coral reef surrounding the island was broken in a few places allowing ships into the lagoon. One channel was more than a hundred metres wide and through it rushed a strong current. It was impossible to swim against and anyway there was nowhere to anchor the boat as it far too deep. The answer was a drift dive where a white marker was lowered from a boat and both boat and diver travelled at the same speed as the current. The idea was not to get too far from the marker, sit in the water at about twenty metres depth, and enjoy the hour or so that we had marked for this adventure. There is a certain exhilaration of being washed along by a current. Sometimes you might see a marlin or sailfish, a school of tuna, and, as well, the local sharks often came out and investigate. If a shark swims towards you front on it looks like a round disc that gets larger and larger. It’s not attacking but curious and you can be sure that when it is close it will suddenly turn side on and you see its full length. This can be a bit disconcerting at first but as we had all done many dives before we were acclimatised to underwater life in the tropics.

The mine occasionally got visitors from overseas and we had that day Steve from England who was keen to do some dives. On the boat ride out he told us that he had done countless dives and considered himself an expert. He talked about using a “dry” wetsuit where water does not get onto the body and that it was necessary for cold conditions. As Australians, we had never needed to use one. We listened to his stories. Maybe he was educating the colonials. As we got near the channel we started to talk of the dive plan. We said that anyone is free to return to the boat if they feel unwell. It was hard to get a word in. In frustration we told him just to follow us. We slipped over the side of the boat to the white marker. The three of us were about ten metres ahead and after a few minutes I turned around to see where Steve was only to see him hauling himself back into the boat. We had forgotten to tell him about the sharks. We were all grinning on the boat trip back and Steve seemed unusually silent. “That was a short dive Steve!” “I had a headache” he replied.

Protection

A favourite night dive was at Robo where there was a constriction between the mainland and a small island and the currents were strong. It was possible to start deep and travel with a current in one direction for twenty or thirty minutes and then for decompression come up to a different current and ride it all the way back. When underwater at night there is no horizon so if you get disorientated there was the risk of being swept out to sea. There was no backup if anything went wrong so we took compasses to guard against this. It was two o’clock in the morning and with no moon it was very dark and still. Joseph watched us disappear quietly into the black sea.

Leaving the landcruiser next to the ocean unattended for an hour or more was an invitation to theft and as security was poor in New Guinea it was necessary to take a guard for protection. Joseph worked at the mine and he was always willing to come with us on the twenty kilometre drive to the coast. He was from the highlands and so normally carried the fifty-centimetre machete. This tool was necessary as the jungle started as soon as you stepped off the road and most locals carried them. He sat in the car while we dived. During the drive we often quizzed him about highland life. He told us of the different tribes, their conflicts and their spiritual beliefs. Of course we were interested in cannibalism. What did it taste like? The last case of cannibalism was in about 1970 but as a child he had eaten human meat. When there was warfare any enemies speared were eaten, why would you waste the meat? I could see sense in his arguments. I met several of his friends and a more trustworthy group of people I could not imagine.

Decades later at a party in Australia I overheard some disparaging remarks about cannibalism and without thinking I interjected with “but some of my best friends were cannibals”. Everyone laughed and of course no one believed me. In 1980 Joseph was over sixty so he would be long dead now, but his memory lives on in me today.

The Mission Station

Buka Luma is a very small island sitting in a channel between big Buka and little Buka and the three constitute Bougainville. The channel between the two Bukas is narrow and the hotel on Buka Luma has in the front a long green lawn which slopes away giving a fine view over the channel. On the grounds sits a zero, the Japanese fighter plane. This hotel has at various times been the administrative centre of Bougainville. Around its walls hang pictures of the original German colonists, then the British administrators that followed, then the Japanese, followed by the Americans, then the Australians, and when I was there Bougainville was governed by Papua and New Guinea. The people who live there belong ethnically to none of the above groups and Bougainville is in fact the northern most island of the Solomon Islands of which it should have been part from the very beginning.

I went to stay at this hotel with three friends from the mine. We hired a boat and snorkeled on some of the zero aeroplanes that were in shallow water around the island. We had dive in the channel where the currents were quite strong. The direction of the current was dependent on the tides. We had the boat follow us as it is a poor dive plan that requires swimming against a current.

After a couple of days we had intended to go on to little Buka to the Catholic Mission there, where it was possible to stay. A small car ferry connected the islands. We phoned earlier and asked if it were possible. Now at the hotel we received the news that the priest was looking forward to our visit. This had us worried. All of us were scientists and so believed in evolution, but we resolved to go anyway. Travelling in Bougainville was hard on cars as the roads were rough and often corrugated and there were frequent river crossings. The jungle quickly reclaimed any clearing and in the coconut plantations constant slashing was necessary. But when we arrived at the Mission the grounds were immaculate. Well kept lawns separated the buildings. Here nature was tamed.

The jovial priest rushed towards us and beckoned us to the veranda of his house. Here we sat on comfortable lounge chairs made more comfortable when a few bottles of beer were produced. We spent a pleasant day there, leaving the next morning. We talked about politics, history, and almost everything except religion. The priest was the only European there and what he really wanted from us was good conversation. It made us realise how difficult it must be to go to far outposts where the way of life is so different from one’s upbringing. I got the feeling that he saw his life slipping away.

Chocolate Cake

Bougainville is on a fault line and has about four hundred earthquakes a year. Most of these are small but there is the occasional large one. The buildings at the mine are all made to withstand them. Next to the mine is a volcano that emits smoke and sometimes erupts. As the operations of the mine could be affected, a seismologist was employed and part of his job included the processing of data from several recording stations.

To check these stations it was necessary to visit and read the data. A technician was sent in the mine helicopter, and, with the pilot, this left two spare seats. Of course everyone wanted to go as a break from work. Of particular demand was a trip to a small island that was almost entirely covered with coconut trees. On this island the old colonial house, originally German, was set next to the sea and the background noise was only the quite lapping of waves. The tropical gardens that surrounded it were filled with colourful hibiscus and the presence of these flowers meant that butterflies were plentiful. A large veranda on the second floor overlooked the garden and sea. The Australian owner, living by himself, enjoyed these visits from the mine and I suppose he was always wondering who it would be in the two extra seats. The pilot led us up the stairs to the comfortable lounge chairs on the veranda. It was handshakes all round and then we were invited to afternoon tea. The owner explained that his cook had left and that he had employed a new one. As we were pouring the tea a large chocolate cake was brought out by a young Bougainvillian woman and placed on the low table in front of us. Her youth and beauty together with the warm and moist and cake turned a simple tea into a highlight. For a brief moment in time I was removed from everything that was happening in the mine.

Two hours later I was back at the busy office sweating over mathematical calculations. Single events of such contrast often lead to much reflection.

The Shell Collector

Moving to a country of such contrast is, for most people, exciting. Many took up diving and as the mine provided a club building and an air compressor from which we could fill our tanks at leisure. By subsidising the cost of this sport, as well as many other activities, the mine hoped people would stay longer. Their thinking was along the lines that happy people will make better workers.

One such person moving from was Australia was Paul, an engineer. He enrolled in a diving course (two people working in the mine were instructors) and in a matter of weeks was a qualified diver. Collecting is natural and I suppose in our evolutionary past storing food against hard times increased the chance of survival. Many divers collected shells with this desire varying in strength from the fanatic to the disinterested. At first almost any shell was collected but the common shells came quickly and after a few months these were ignored and it was only the rare and hard to find shells that were sought.

The two main groups of shells were cowries and cones. A book “Guide to Shells of Papua and New Guinea” by Alan Hinton lists ninety-two different species of cowries and one hundred and fifty-six different cones. Many people had a copy of this book and as a collection was made the shells were ticked off. I suppose it was similar to collecting stamps. A page of twenty stamps from an issue with gaps where one or two are missing is never as satisfying as a complete set.

Years went by and Paul had amassed a reasonable collection. One of the rare cone shells was Conus aculeiformis and Paul asked me if I had seen it. It was a rather small brown shell of about two centimetres long. Few people would look twice at this uninteresting shell but when needed to complete a set it was an object of great interest. He was desperate to add it to his collection. I told him I had got some in a valley between two islands but it was forty metres deep and that if we dived there we would only have ten minutes because of the necessary decompression. This decompression consisted of another thirty minutes going up a sandy slope to the shore.

He agreed and so we set off at midnight on a moonless night. We had large torches and the water was fairly clear. When we arrived we began to search in earnest. There were some beautiful vexillum compression and vexillum taeniatum shells, much nicer than the cone shell we sought. ( I add a picture of the two vexillums we collected on this dive, as well as two variations of Conus aculeiformis.) Just as the ten minutes finished we found the cone shell we were looking for. I did not need to look at Paul to know how excited he was.

Shells of New Guinea
Vexillum compressum and taeniatum with the brown and light variants of Conus aculeiformis

While we were looking for the shell we realised that we had company. A large shark, about twice our length, seemed to be taking an great interest in us. It was about three metres away and circling. In our obsession to find the cone shell we had completely forgotten to keep a look out. It was the strangest looking thing I had ever seen. It had a bell shaped head but it was not a hammerhead because the large eye was on the body and not the stalk. This eye was going around and around examining us. We must have looked very strange to it, especially with lights going in all directions, and particularly in its direction. It was probably just curious. We thought it should be curious somewhere else and slowly went up the sand bank in the direction of the shore. We kept looking behind us and it followed for a short distance but then turned and disappeared into the depths.

When we got to the shore we were both still shaking a little. “Well, at least you found your shell” I said to Paul. “Shell?” he replied. He had completely forgotten about it. After searching his pockets he realised that it must have been dropped when the shark arrived. I had to give him one from my collection. Despite searching countless books on sharks we never found the species we observed that night.

The Swiss Cheese

I couldn’t get rid of him. I had just walked through the gate of the Tokyo zoo and there was a group of people on my right all with large white tags attached. One split off and joined me and said that he was “assigned” to me. This group of retired Japanese was learning English. What better way than to attach to an English speaking person and spend a few hours in conversation? I told him that I had expected to wander the zoo in peace and contemplation and that he should choose someone else. I said something about consent. Here I ran into my first problem. His English was so bad that he did not appear to understand me. Well alright, I’ll just wander off and he won’t last. Past the giraffes and then the bison, we came to the crocodile enclosure. All the time, one question after another. What work did I do, where did I live, was I married, and so on? He held a sheet of paper so I assume that they were given a list of questions to help them in conversation. The crocodile enclosure was made like a Swiss cheese of eight triangular divisions. Each enclosure held one crocodile. There were a couple of small ones, then a caiman from Paraguay, and then… what! The whole triangle seemed filled with a giant Australian saltwater crocodile. It must have been over five metres long and it could not lie fully stretched and could turn around only with difficulty. It must have been put in there when small and had grown and grown. Now, I have no warm feelings towards these animals who manage to kill a few people every year back home but it was a bad look for the zoo all the same. I suggested to my companion that it was time for a new enclosure as some people might see a small pen for a large animal as cruel. He looked from the crocodile to me and back again several times. I could see from his expression he had no idea what I was talking about. I had just spent the most frustrating 30 minutes of my life and had another three hours to go. Several “go aways” with hand gestures had no effect. A person has rights. Now at school I was good at running and a hundred meter burst did the trick. I looked back and saw his small figure still rooted to the same spot next to the crocodile pen. Now, I actually felt guilty, and that I was the cruel person! This incident occurred in 1989 and I assume there is by now a new crocodile enclosure.

The Pool

At the end of high school, two good friends of mine, realising that we had not yet been out of Australia, decided on a trip New Zealand. This was a close country and an easy introduction to travel. It was 1972 and we only needed our driver’s licence as identification at the airport. As the driving age was sixteen we all had had our licences for over a year.

Having little money we travelled by hitchhiking and despite being three people more or less stepped from one car to another. People were very friendly. For accommodation we used backpackers hostels and as a backup we took a tent. We landed in Auckland and left from Christchurch. New Zealand was not too different from Australia until we got to Rotorua where steam issued from the cracked footpaths. It is a town sitting on geothermal activity with bubbling mud pools and a geyser at one end that erupted every few minutes. We went to see it and the water was boiling. Around this geyser were pools and, being Australian, we tested them with the intention of going for a swim. The pools further from the geyser were cooler and there was one about twenty metres away that seemed alright and so we had a very pleasant swim. We had forgotten to bring our bathers but this was not a problem.

Almost two decades later I was again in Rotorua and while anyone could walk up to the geyser for a small fee, the pools had large signs saying “extreme danger”. I was looking rather forlorn at my pool when a ranger approached and assured me that if anyone fell in, there would be no chance of survival. A nice hotel had been built on a hill overlooking the geyser where you could have tea and scones.  Again, a further fifteen years later I was in Rotorua. Now for a larger fee you could visit the geyser and all the surrounding pools. The signs had been removed and fences were in their place. Rather than pay fee I went to the hotel.

But on my last trip to this interesting city, about two years ago, I found that an “authentic” Maori village called “Whakarewarewa” had been built at the entrance to the geyser and through this village and its countless souvenir shops you had to pass to get to the geyser. The company that built the village charged an entry fee of 45 dollars per person and so 90 dollars for a couple. We thought this exorbitant for what was, after all, a natural phenomenon which should be free for all. So we drove up to the hotel but it was closed. “Ok, let’s walk around the back, we can see it from there.” But at exactly the spot between the hotel and the geyser a large fence had been built so nothing could be seen. The company was making sure that no one could see anything without paying.

I suppose if some natural feature of the Earth attracts enough people it will draw the attention of some enterprising person. Most likely this enterprising person will join the local council, gain influence, fence off the attraction and enrich him or herself through entry fees and selling souvenirs. Some people may call this progress but for me this way of thinking erodes the soul and one wonders what the purpose of life is.