Papua new Guinea (PNG) starts where Far North Queensland finishes, and the best safe cruising can be found not far away amongst the Louisiades archipelago to the southeast of the mainland; where Islanders lead a peaceful life and sail large traditional sailaus for fishing and trading between islands. We departed from Cairns September 2016.
Punawan Island Louisiades
We reached the Jomard Entrance and dug our anchor into a sandy bottom behind the small adjacent island of Punawan. We soon forgot our brain rattling three-day journey and sucked in the dreamy stillness. The water was seriously clear, and we were just 100m away from where lush vegetation leaned over an idyllic beach. Several native huts peaked through the greenness. A family group makes their home here much of the year moving to the larger volcanic island of Brooker 50km north when food and water are in short supply.
Soon a canoe appeared at the back of our boat. Chris (complete with Pineapples, bananas and the promise of crayfish) was there to welcome us and keen to trade. There went my spare diving mask, a bag of fishing hooks, an assortment of ladies things, and our big bale of children’s clothes from the salvos started finding its way to happy mums and delighted young ones.
Life in the Louisiades.
PNG Islanders still live mainly by their ancient ways of subsistence gardening, fishing and working with traditional skills of boat building, pottery, carvings, and making unique jewelry. They have very few means of making money or places to spend it, so trading is an essential part of their life. Western goods are in demand, and visiting boaties tend to be generous, so we quickly realised we needed to be a little more planned and disciplined before we went gaga, and our shop ran out of stock! Fortunately, people here are very polite and have a good sense of humour, so it wasn’t hard to strategise once we got our head around it.
Back here at Punawan We had made fast friends, and I had fun catching Crays with several lads. Before we left they insisted on cooking us a farewell dinner—we provided lighting, a movie on our laptop and an oversized box of chocolate. It was a good start to our adventure.
Panasia Island Louisiades
Next, we wormed our way into a lagoon at the volcanic Island of Panasia. The entrance was 500m North of where it showed on our Plotter. We found all of our charts of the Louisiades to be quite inaccurate at times. We anchored under a spectacular cliff where owner John lives on a tiny patch of sand. He dreams of establishing a yacht club or a homestay bungalow here; the islanders are never short of entrepreneurial ideas which never seem to amount to much. Johns daughter Dorothy guided us around to the south side of the island to where there were gardens and a cave. Grandparents, small children, and babies also somehow squeezed into our dinghy! But the bumpy trip was well worth it.
The cave turned out to be a giant surreal cavern with an underground stream which formed a delightful translucent swimming pool at the bottom.
Where’re the tourists
Hmmmm…no other tourists yet! In fact, we only met three yachts while cruising over six weeks in the eastern Louisiades. In its heyday 80–90 were normal, but once the Misima gold mine closed in 2009, the infrastructure fell away and so did the cruising yachts. This year only 20 odd boats visited.
Misima Island East
Cruising through navigation beacons and anchoring off a concrete jetty felt more like being back in civilisation. We were now in the township of Bwagaoia, population 3000, located at the east end of the Island of Misima. It is the hub of the entire region and provides essential infrastructure: a hospital, airport, four trade stores, bakery, bank, limited fuel and a guest house with wholesome meals for K56(A$28) each. The farmers market gave us an idea of values which was helpful when evaluating trading deals.
Checking into the Louisiades
John from the health department checked out our vessel and issued us with a Quarantine certificate for K50, which would suffice for clearing in and out if we didn’t make it to the official customs 250km away on the mainland at Alotau or Samari.
Misima island West
We came across a perfect little coastal indentation which found its way to a beach full of children. Louisiade children have got to be amongst the happiest and healthiest on our planet. And no wonder, a good part of their day is spent playing around the water with their friends.
We tied our stern to a convenient tree on the beach, so were almost a part of the Ebora village. After a fun time with the young folk we jumped in the water for a snorkel, soon we noticed we were being followed not only by a tribe of splashing nippers but a familiar looking dinghy full of laughing children! We donated a soccer ball and some educational material to the school, and I was asked to give a speech. It was a short one—what can you tell such well adjusted young folk.
p.s. Chris, the local school headmaster, has requested support from any boaties who may be able to drop off old encyclopedia.
Behind the village, school, and soccer field were steep slopes covered in rich volcanic soil.
We hiked to a beautiful patch of their gardens halfway up the mountain. It was a hard slog for a couple of hours and were glad of our entourage of children who helped us around waterfalls, through rough patches, and scampered up tall coconut trees to share with us tasty copra, washed down with the sweetest organic juice one could find.
Panapompom Island Louisiades
The Deboyne Group of Islands are well known for their skilled canoe building artisans, plus we were also interested in a WW2 fighter plane which sat in just three meters of water near Panapompom Island. Ishmael the Island councillor gave us an excellent carving to welcome us, and we opened our starboard berth trade store for the convenience of a steady stream of village canoes. He explained there are no chiefs in the Louisiades; elected councilors and committees of elders organise management and control law and order. Very impressive.
We met up with two yachts here; Hans from SY Seagoon who has been helping villages for 20 years by installing solar panel lighting, and SY Glidepath who were in the throws of repairing a community water tank. Australian yachties do a lot of good work here and are very well regarded.
Brooker Island Louisiades
After a sedate drift dive thru the Nibub South Passage, we continued a little further to Brooker Island. Another poorly charted entrance through a wall of coral, but once thru, the anchorage in front of the main village was excellent.
It happened to be PNG Independence weekend, so we were treated to many sporting and cultural activities. Syl was the official lollypop lady, and she soon had a queue 100m long of children waiting for their treat. We were guests at the official feast, made new friends, and met old friends from Punawan and Panasia Islands.
Northern Barrier Louisiades
Village people are very friendly; at times too friendly, too many, and we became too busy. It was time for a canoe free break. So instead of socialising our way east along the more obvious Calvados chain of volcanic Islands, we opted to explore the outer route along the northern barrier— coral reefs with prodigious drop-offs, sand banks, tiny uninhabited cays, and fast flowing passages. Our charts were of little value when it came to finding acceptable anchorages and tiptop diving, but fortunately, we had a bunch of Google Earth images which were more beneficial.
We found a few good sites, the most memorable being Siwai Wa passage and its pin head island, we were able to anchor in sand along the sheltered eastern side in just 8m. Plenty of healthy Coral and first class diving close by during slack water. But the biggest thrill was scuba diving the incoming tide from the passage entrance. Syl delighted in low flying at 6 knots while tied to our dinghy by a 30m rope. I preferred watching a speeding coral wall pass by whilst strung to a surface buoy. Both methods were exciting but still safe.
Sabara Island Louisiades
Another 16km and we reached the limestone island of Sabara. A string of craggy outcrops sprouted out from the main island providing a calm and picturesque setting. Pigs, dogs and naked children wandered the island in a casual way. Each morning sailaus zipped across to the volcanic Island of Panawina, where they worked gardens and brought back drinking water. George was our go-to man, and he organised Pawpaw, bananas, yams, and tomatoes, in return Syl, and Shelly (from the cruising yacht C’est La Ve ) put pants on small children, T-shirts on big children, and I chipped in with batteries and fishing gear.
The one cash product Sabara Islanders produce comes from the gathering of ocean coral, which is burned by a chaste woman using special wood then crushed to a fine white powder. If the lime turns black, it is said the woman has either slept with her husband the night before or been unfaithful.
This is one of the very few occasions we came across superstitious beliefs. Christianity is quite strong around the Louisiades, and we were often asked for Bibles.
Nimoa Island Louisiades
A 35km slog thru shallow waters and into persistent winds brought us to the Island of Nimoa. It’s a cut above its neighbours, thanks especially to the efforts of Melbourne Catholic priest Father Tony who worked tirelessly for 40 years to establish and operate the small meticulously clean hospital and a higher education facility. Pias is now the manager and expressed his gratitude for the support they receive from cruising boats. Simple things that are of little value to us like old meds, panadol, bandages, gauze, babies stuff, tools for their maintenance man, cleaning products, etc. are prized possessions for the hospital. His biggest need at the moment is a medical microscope to identify blood types when transfusions are required.
With persistent SE trade winds blowing it was a good place to relax in its sheltered bay. We enjoyed lovely walks round the Island and meeting village people. As is usual a visitors book arrived, in this case, compliments of John, who turned out to be a very friendly trader. If we did not require food then: woven baskets, legendary Baggi necklaces or wooden carving would arrive — just in case we may be interested!
Our highlight here was watching the grand final of the local Soccer and Netball competition. It was a big day for the Island, and the marvelous spirit in which the games were played and supported was impressive.
Solomon Sea Louisiades
Escaping into the Solomon Sea through the Hudumu-iwa Pass we turned west and bypassed Bushy and Grass islets where many Sailaus lined the beach. Men from the Renard Islands were collecting eggs from the nesting marine birds. They sell in Misima for K0.5 each. A pity for the birds but it’s been happening for hundreds of years, so it must be sustainable.
The Renard group of Islands east
About 20 small islets spread over 26km comprise the Renard Group and except for Kimuta are not permanently inhabited. Epoko at the eastern end includes two little islands with an adjoining reef allowing comfortable shelter in modest trade winds. It was a fantastic place to hang loose: a perfect beach and crystal clear water. On the southern side, a vertical wall fell to a depth of 600m; it was the first diving in the Louisiades where Silvertip and Grey whaler sharks were a common sight.
At K300 per fin, the Shark population around PNG is sparse. Turtles fair just marginally better. Some islanders have come to realise turtle numbers are in decline and have reduced hunting and gathering eggs.
The Renard group of Islands west
At the other end of the Renauds, we scrambled a precarious anchorage at Baiwa Islet. The magical seascape was worth any discomfort. Dreamy waters led to coral boulders, and stunted bushes protruded from the sea before meeting a white sandy beach under the lush canopy. I was about to suggest we stay here for the rest of our lives, running naked on the beach and living on fish when Burnie pulled up in his sailau. An amazing little man who had been crisscrossing around us at great speed for the last couple of hours. He had been trawling for pelagics and over a cuppa proudly explained his fishing strategies and successes. He lived in the main village four kilometers away and had also built a weekend hut here. As always these people are generous and we were more than welcome to stay at his retreat. We left him rigging up one of our lures. I am sure he will have used it better than us.
For further information and interesting insights about cruising the Louisiade archipelago click on the below links:
“Milne Bay that way.”
We were in good spirits ( and still enjoying our banana diet), so we decided to take the plunge and head to Alotau on the PNG mainland. Stay tuned for our unique diving and cruising experiences around the Milne Bay area.