Mon 29 Sep 2003 11:17
Our decision to visit Tikopia came mainly from the fact that it is one of
the few islands that we will visit this year that we have actually heard of
before. Despite its utterly remote location (we were the third boat to stop
there this year, compared to the twenty or so which make it to Antarctica)
it made the television news last New Year by being virtually destroyed by a
pair of vicious cyclones. I recall the BBC showing footage taken by an
Australian who had chartered a small plane from Vanuatu, the news reader
explaining that no radio communication had been received, the village
obliterated and that the assumption was that the entire one thousand strong
population had been washed away to a soggy demise. No doubt this is just
what the viewers like to hear after the indulgences of Christmas!
Fortunately however, the Tikopians were slightly smarter, climbed the hill
and, despite losing most of their meagre possessions, not a single one
perished in the worst storm to hit the area in living memory.
The island is fascinating and still beautiful despite the devastation. Its
people are of Polynesian descent rather than the Melanesians who populate
the rest of this side of the Pacific and it was for this reason too that we
wanted to call there. An ancient volcano, the crater has been opened to the
sea and subsequently closed off again by the coral equivalent of a Chisel
beach, creating a brackish lake behind. It has been inhabited for several
thousand years and frequently visited on trading and raiding missions from
the likes of Tonga.
We had a splendid sail over and arrived shortly after dawn, dropping anchor
in the well protected bay into the clearest water I have ever seen. We ran
the risk of upsetting the Solomon Islands immigration officials by visiting
before clearing in at Ndende Island but had been somewhat helped by the
Vanuatuan officials who had radioed Tikopia to forewarn of our arrival. In
the event it has not caused us a problem though there are many cases of
heavy fines being demanded or even entry to the Solomons refused.
We were soon greeted by a well-spoken islander who swam out to us and later,
after some sleep, a welcoming committee arrived. Virtually everywhere we go
out here we have to visit the chief early on and, to make life difficult,
Tikopia has four chiefs with a definite pecking order. We followed the given
advice and prepared a gift for each (a few cigarettes and some rolling
tobacco in a small bag (the bag is often seen as the most valuable part))
before setting off on this high-brow tour. We rowed ashore and were greeted
by tens of children who waded out to the dinghy and, as we jumped out, their
little arms bodily lifted the dinghy way above their heads and up the beach.
It was like watching a tribe of ants carrying an oversized leaf back to the
nest and happened every time we went ashore.
The houses are low to the ground (eaves at less than three feet) and
extremely strongly built in order to withstand the normal level of cyclone.
To get in you have to crawl on your hands and knees and, as local custom
says that it is most disrespectful to turn your back on a chief, exiting has
to be done on hands and knees but in reverse. It is also important not to
stand over the chiefs, who are invariably sitting down, so the low crawl has
to be carried on across the floor until you can shake hands and then settle
down cross-legged. Inside the houses are cool and breezy and very clean,
sometimes with beautiful carvings on the upright posts.
Number Two chief was our first port of call and turned out to be the only
one to speak passable English. He was a huge man who sat crossed-legged
surrounded by all his possessions and told us stories of the hurricane.
This, the lee side of the island, was the least damaged and although all the
houses lost their leaf roofs most of the palm trees were still standing,
though some with their tops blown clean off. It was not until we approached
the windward side that we really saw the devastation. Many of the islands
inhabitants live on the stretch between the sea and the crater lake, which
is only very slightly above sea level and it was here that the main force of
the cyclone hit. All the trees and the entire village had been blown into
the lake by the 130 knot winds or swept in by the 10 metre waves that rolled
up the beach. The lake, which was merely brackish, is now truly salty and
will take many years to get back to normal. The remains of the beach, now
devoid of the shade of trees, looked such an inhospitable place to live with
only the windswept bright white sand reflecting the sun's heat. We called at
Number Four chief, Number Three chief (who caused Katharine very great
concern by pulling me toward him as I shook his hand, in order to touch
noses. (Katharine, who imagined I was getting bored of all this diplomacy
and was unable to see the direction of the pull, thought that I had taken it
upon myself to kiss this chief!)) and finally on to Number One chief. All
were thrilled that we had come and we were finally given the freedom of the
island and allowed to go anywhere.
The people were vastly different from the Ni-Vanuatu and despite their
location had a more advanced outlook on life. I was given at least five
watches to mend (including two Kinetic Seikos that would be well beyond my
budget at home), a ghetto blaster, the Church lectern, and a car battery to
recharge on the boat. In return we were given fresh fish from the lake
(which was delicious), Chinese cabbage (our favourite), and some beautifully
carved island artefacts including two beautiful traditional fish hooks made
from sea shell and turtle shell. Number Two chief gave us a traditional adze
made of clam shell. Friendlier and more generous people would be hard to
imagine, but the following note which we were asked to e-mail to the last
yacht to call is worth including, as shows their style.
"Potikorokoro Village, Tikopia Island, Tumoto Province, Solomon Islands.
Dear Don Cameron, Scotsman,
As having this great privilege friend from us to write to you in such a way
of visiting you with ink and paper.
Well friend, before proceeding on, first of all we would like to say hello
and good morning or what ever part of the day. Sorry for this message
Anyway, our purpose of writing this piece of note is just to inform you that
we received the stuffs for our baby. We were very very please for that. It
was delivered in hand by Ross. Thank you very much for that.
Lastly friend, we would be very grateful if you can do us a favour, in
sending us one solar battery charger for D sizes for us, with its batteries
that which it can be recharged. Large, Medium Small, and seal it in a good
parcel then mail it to Ross, so that Ross can mail it again for us with one
block tobacco. Arrange this one with Ross if it is possible. We think, we
better pen off here.
Thank you very much
From us, bye
Collin and Matilda Nukumaina"
Aside from that, on our third day there we had a wonderful walk around the
island in the company of five village children who were detailed to guide
us. Ruby and Mary became good friends with Katharine and lead the harmonious
singing and dancing while we trooped merrily around the lake and back over
the ridge to the bay. We stopped to admire the roughing out of a dugout
canoe from a fallen mahogany-like tree and had a pleasant break eating sugar
cane on the steep slopes of the mountain. Our final day was made memorable
by an invitation to see the local costume called Tapa at one village house
and be ceremonially purged of any unwanted illnesses etc. that we might take
away from the island with us. Tapa is rather like leather but made from the
bark of a tree which is skinned in one piece and then beaten out to a large
size. The old folk still wear it daily, females like a skirt and males more
like a nappy. We imagined that Colin, our host, would model the outfit for
us but instead we were smeared with yellow tumeric in ceremonial fashion and
then adorned in the Tapa. We made quite a sight, as you might imagine.
Fortunately we will be able to show you all when we get home as we have been
given the Tapa as a present and hope that you will not be too surprised if
you see us out in it in the park on a Sunday afternoon. Tree hugging will
never be the same again!
We left Tikopia just a dusk fell and with some of the best memories that we
have from our trip so far. It is an island surely quite unlike anywhere else
We had a breezy two day passage from there up to Ndende Island where we
anchored in an uncharted bay, cleared into the Solomons and did a spot of
vegetable shopping at the small market under a tree near the football pitch.
Back on board we were given a pile of bananas and a dead pigeon for supper
by a girl from the nearby village. Coupled with the last of a Yellow Fin
Tuna that we finished off for lunch, we ate well that day. From there we had
a bouncy beat into the trade winds to the Reef Islands where we anchored
this afternoon and are looking forward to exploring this maze of reefs and
islets over the next few days.
Sincerely hoping that all is well at home and that the demise of the summer
sees you all in fine shape and jolly spirit.
Lots of Love to you all,
Peter and Katharine