A Pocket of Polynesia

Klaus Hympendahl
Thu 5 Feb 2009 05:19
A Pocket of Polynesia

S09 02.058 E159 04.827

As the wind picked up again I figured that actually yes, we could lose the boat. And if it happened it would be wet, dangerous and embarrassing. We'd been blown off course by a sudden squall whilst crossing West Bay on Pavuvu Island. It wasn't far to go, but the head wind was a pain when we started and a nightmare when it started blowing Force 6 straight into our faces. We had been trying to get to a more sheltered anchorage, a tiny distance just around a small headland. Now it was blowing force 6 and we were emergency anchored by the side of a jagged reef that jutted out from an unfriendly shore.

The 5hp engine of our dingy was not man enough for a rescue job. It strained and struggled through the wind and chop, but we got pushed closer to the reef. When the wind dropped we tried to sail off, but the anchor was wrapped around a coral. I dived to free it, but the wind ramped up again and the swell pounded the boat. It was no longer a good time to have a free anchor. I stood on deck letting the rain wash the salt off whilst Klaus told me, rather sheepishly, that salt water crocodiles outnumber people 3 to 1 on the Russell Islands. Great place for snorkelling then? It started raining a little harder. Not the greatest of starts to the day.

It had been raining on and off for 5 days. Everything was wet or damp. The chocolate biscuits had run out and the rum was a distant memory. I'd had enough of this foul weather and now there was a chance that I would be dragged across a coral reef. But it was not to be. Some folks in a passing motor boat pulled us clear and got us around the headland so we could we sail in driving rain to on Samatra. And here our day started to change.

Samatra sits on Pavuvu in the Russell Islands. The village is a little pocket of Polynesia transplanted from Tikopia in the 1950s when Unilever was looking for workers for its coconut plantations. They built concrete houses with tin roofs, wharfs, copra processing barns, a library and a nine-hole golf course. Hundreds of Tikopians came to work, but not many took up golf. Unilever gave it up in the 1990s, and the plantation slid downhill, but about a 1000 Tikopians remain to process copra, fish and farm.

It was Mark who had helped us off the reef and welcomed us to Samatra with open arms. He is the main man in Samatra, kind of a chief and shop steward rolled into one. He found a the family of a long-lost friend for Klaus and then introduced me to Ismail, the biggest micky taker I've met on this voyage who helped me take livestock DNA samples and gently took the piss. He also had the most amazing way with animals, his calm, happy and gentle manner surely having rubbed off on them. His dogs were soft and affectionate, not wild and fearful like so many here, but his pigs were a marvel. Some came of them came from the wild, orphaned during a pig hunt, but all of them rolled onto their backs to have their stomachs rubbed as Ismail spoke to them quietly, bent down to pet them and gently plucked a few hairs.

It rained and blew almost constantly for the next 2 days. The inlet turned yellow with runoff from the logging concession upstream and no one would take their outriggers to the good fishing grounds on the outer reefs. So we sat tight, explored ashore during the brief dry spells and chatted to our Tikopian friends about crocodile hunting, the strike that has shut the plantation for almost 6 years, life back on Tikopia and the boat that we'd be giving to their home island.

They'd had news of our project, but I guess never quite believed it until we anchored just off shore. Samatra approved of what we are trying to do and we felt it in the warmth of the welcome and amazing generosity. On our last night Crocodile John turned a pig I knew into a wonderfully stew and we ate it with cassava and manioc and danced to a Pu Ko Fe band who played their hollow bamboo instruments with the soles of old flip flops whilst everyone sang.

Then it poured down again just as Hanneke was putting on a slideshow. The entertainment ceased, at least until about 3am. It was then, after we'd been awoken by excited voices on the old rusted wharf, that Crocodile John arrived carrying 10kg of prime beef and the tale of an impromptu, wild cattle hunt. Damp it was, but there was not a dull moment in Samatra.

Matt Fletcher