As far north as we go
17 September 2018 | Ontong Java atoll
We'd hoped for a little wind to sail the few miles to Tatamba but the sea was like a mill pond so it was on with the motor. Our intention was to wait there for wind to sail out to Ontong Java but wind-wise, the forecast looked less than promising.
One of the few initiatives we had seen that the government has implemented to help with employment without exploitation are publicly run fisheries operations and this was the first one we had seen. The government provides a Fisheries Officer who buys fish from the local fishermen who go out in their small OBM's and catch reef fish. The F.O. runs a small ice machine and the fish are kept on ice until they are taken to Honiara on the trade ship once a week. We were told that the purchase price from the fishermen was $3-$3.50Au/kg and the wholesale price to the market sellers was $4-$4.50Au/kg which seemed a reasonable deal to us. Certainly in comparison to how much people are paid by for example the logging companies, this is pretty good.
After 24 hours we decided that we should go to the provincial capital Buala, 25 miles to north west, to re-supply with fresh fruit and vegetables knowing that Ontong Java would have no excess food available for trade.
We anticipated spending anything up to a week waiting for the wind if one believed the forecast and Buala was a pleasant enough anchorage, with the market, hospital and police station within spitting distance of our anchorage. After saying hello to the local constabulary and poking our heads in to the market we walked over to the hospital to see the vision nurse. �"Hi Paul and Frances�" was the shout from the hospital grounds as one of the general nurses Leslie had been one of our clients at Sigana Island the previous week. When he saw Monkey Fist come into the harbour he excitedly ran and told the vision nurse Rachael that we were coming. Rachael is very passionate about her job and we spent some time discussing various issues surrounding vision around the Solomon Islands. She showed us the meagre supply of glasses that she had at her disposal and we promised to leave her as many as we could before we left. We had heard that Racheal (Sorumana) was a well-known singer in the Solomons and she and her family had just won a competition to write and perform the theme song for the recent kustom festival held in Buala and she played for us the winning track. Very talented lady.
The hospital midwife, Wendy, was original from Ontong Java but had left there some years previously and she proved a wealth of information. She said that earlier in the year there had been no trade ship out there for almost five months and she did not know if any had arrived since. She also said whatever you do don't tell anyone you are going out there because your boat will be full of passengers. The next morning we awoke expecting to have a long wait in front of us for wind however there seemed to be a steady breeze of around 15 knots coming from the ESE so we decided to take the plunge and make an unexpected departure. But not before heading back up the hospital and providing Rachael with a good number and range of spectacles for which she was extremely grateful.
The voyage to Ontong Java was very fine indeed. We expected the wind to drop but it just kept on at the same force until mid-morning the following day. Then upon hoisting the spinnaker, our speed was brought back up to what we needed to arrive at the uncharted atoll while we still had enough light to enter and anchor.
The passage into the lagoon is extra-ordinary (check it out on our voyage map) �- it's well defined with steep coral walls either side, snaking over three kilometres into the lagoon itself and the water is so clear that the bottom is easily visible in 25 to 30 metres. The main island's name is the same as the main village, Luaniua and has a population of, they say, 1,000 but we suspect that includes everybody who has a house there but actually lives in Honiara. The people here are Polynesian and so it was yet another language to familiarise myself with. The leaf houses are all built on the ground as opposed to many of the leaf houses elsewhere that have raised wooden floors. Lino (vinyl) floor coverings are laid over crushed coral to make a clean and serviceable surface, mind you many were quite old and worn. The roofs of the houses are made from pandanus not from the preferred sago leaf as conditions and soil here are not suitable for growing the sago palm. What this means is that the roofs must be replaced annually rather than every ten years (as with sago). The job of replacing the roof takes a day or two, depending on how much help there is, but doesn't included collecting the leaves and transporting them back from the outer islands.
We made arrangements with the chairman of the Council of Chiefs and appeared before them the following day outlining our intentions. We had saved enough sunglasses to give everyone 18 years and older on Ontong Java a pair - so I think we were on a winner. There is a nurse's aide stationed at Luaniua but she was so busy and we never met her. We enlisted the help of a couple of Council of Chief's members - one person who rotated, wrote down people's names as they selected their prized sunglasses as well as Malachi, the son of the main chief, a nice young chap whose roll seemed to be more social than anything but also helped with translating and as per usual the clinic had a festive air. We also dispensed the spectacles also ourselves, and although slower, with a smaller number of people, it was manageable. There is nothing better than seeing an old tattooed lady come in, who can't speak English and has probably never had anything to do an outsider select a pair of sunglasses (without doubt the first she has ever owned), try on them on and walk away with them clutched in her hand continually glancing at them and repeatedly trying them and discussing them with her friends. Hopefully they'll get in the habit of wearing them when they're out in the sun �- that's the whole point of what we are doing, preventing damage to their eyes. Our policy is that people have to collect sunglasses themselves and cannot take glasses for other people who are absent unless there is a good reason. One lady asked (through an interpreter) if she could take a pair for her auntie who was in mourning. Malachi explained that after the death of her husband the lady was required by kustom to remain in her house for a year. Needless to say she was given an extra pair. Another guy asked if he could take sunglasses for his wife and when I enquired as to the reason for her non-attendance, he said �"she's at home, she's too fat to come�". Frances put her foot down and told me to let him have a pair. Obesity IS a huge problem here, no doubt with all it's associated health issues and it's particularly evident in females older than their early 20's. The majority of food is carbohydrate based �- rice, starchy vegetables and fried flour in one form or another with some fish and coconut thrown in. There is no alcohol allowed on the island but as for smoking �- I can't say that I've ever seen a community smoke so much. The vast majority of men were chain smokers with quite a few women also partaking. The tobacco of choice is Solbacco a roll-your-own tobacco which they made into the biggest cigarettes I have ever seen 5 inches (125mm) long.
The people here grow turmeric, but not for flavouring but as a dye for the women to use. They make headdresses out of a plant fibre which is soaked in the sea, then bleached by the sun and is then dyed. Frances was donned with one, her lovely grey hair and her crisp white shirt and skin turned a brilliant shade of yellow. When we were in Luaniua the community was preparing for a wedding the following weekend so the bride-to-be's family was in the process of accepting the bride price which here is bolts of cloth �- up to 200 of them and during this the bride is seated in the hut with her body covered in various shades of turmeric. Frances has some impressive photos when we again have internet. Here, once the brides family accepts the bride price they still have a say in the well-being of their daughter, which is not the case in some other regions.
On the last day we did some home visits to see disabled or infirmed people who had been unable to come to our clinic. One guy in his late 60's had had a stroke and we found him sitting by the window (i.e. a hole in the wall) of his leaf house reading his bible using his wife's glasses that she had been given by us the day before. We asked if they were OK and he said �"little bit�", it turned out they were +1.75 and he needed +3.00's to read as well as distance glasses. We gave him an extra pair of each and he asked for a pair of sunnies. Was he happy? Little bit.
Another person on our rounds we were taken to see was a guy named Clifford. We found him lying on the floor of his house just staring up at the roof. It turned out Clifford is only 35 years old and was paralysed from the waist down when he fell while climbing a coconut tree two years previously. We were informed that there is a medical helicopter based in Honiara that has the capability to fly the 500 mile (1,000 km) round trip to Ontong Java and back but this injury apparently wasn't classified as an emergency so he waited two weeks and was taken on the next trade ship. The doctor attending in Honiara told him he would never walk again, he was given a wheel-chair and sent back to this small village in Ontong Java. Clifford was a fisherman and gardener before the accident and has never been to school. This was and still is not uncommon where the parents either can't afford to send all their children to school or else need them to help around the house or in the garden. Clifford is married with five children (all at school) and is dependant on family and friends to support them. Without going to school he had never learnt to read or write and we asked him if he'd like to learn to do so and he said he would. To kick things off we spoke to Josas, a senior teacher at the school and asked if perhaps some teachers would assist him and he agreed to make the arrangements. We left $200SI with him for tuition to help get Clifford started on the path to an education. We'll be in touch (when we have phone coverage again) with our friend Grace from Lata Hospital who is head of disability services there and see what assistance the government can provide. No doubt it will be minimal and we plan to start a crowd funding campaign to cover any short falls. We'll keep everyone posted if you would like to contribute.
Is Luaniua remote? Yes, but there's always somewhere more remote. At the other end of the atoll (the third largest in the world) is the village and island of Pelau where around 400 people live. Again the Council of Chiefs was assembled and arrangements made and word spread. This time we had the assistance of the Secretary of the Council of Chiefs, Chris, who was fluent in English due to his employment history. After doing various stints in Honiara he had decided to finally settle back in his home village with his wife and four children as he said it was not possible to survive on a wage in Honiara. Villages like Pelau get very little assistance from the government and life is very hard here, which is why many people move to Honiara thinking things must be better, but often they are worse. Corruption is often a subject of discussion, the most corrupt country in the world is Papua New Guinea and the second Chris told us was the Solomon Islands. MP's, regardless of where they represent are without exception known as �"The Honourable�" and I do question as to whether they are being sarcastic. We were told that for the first year �"The Honourable�" does a good job and after that all the money and funding went missing.
Technically there are ways for the people here to generate income. Copra production (dried coconut meat used in the production of coconut oil and other things) can be undertaken but the work is so hard and the price is so low it is just barely worth the effort. Also there is Beech-de-mer (sea cucumber) harvesting for the Chinese market but at the present the fishery is closed (again) due to overfishing. But the last time it was open the licences were given to Asian companies who came with their own divers and decimated the stock.
As we were walking through Pelau we saw an old satellite dish that was overgrown. Chris told us that in 2012 �"The Honourable�" had this installed in their village so they could all watch the World Cup Soccer on TV. �"Were the Solomon Islands in the World Cup in 2012?�" Frances asked. �"No�" came the reply. We are still shaking our heads at that utter waste of precious funding.
A word on weather - Hot and often stormy. We're only five degrees south of the Equator here and out of the trade-winds and at the moment we are experiencing a continual procession of low pressure systems passing over us from north to south �- in between the wind is from the South East but only for a day or two. What this means is that over a period of two or more days the wind will go around the clock with storms coming from every direction, making it a little tricky to find a suitable anchorage and often means putting up with the consequences of long fetch (waves and rocking and pitching) and also makes for less than restful night's sleep and requires constant vigilance and a keen 'weather eye'.