Panasia is a spectacular island of towering limestone cliffs, surrounded by reefs with a pass on the eastern side. Our electronic charts are way off, so we eyeball the entrance and use waypoints from previous cruisers. In the end it’s a pretty straightforward entrance into an impossibly blue lagoon dotted with the inevitable coral bommies. There’s an idlyllic sandy beach with palm trees just to the right of where we anchor.
Much of the information we have on these islands has been gleaned from a booklet given to us by the previous owners of “Illusion” who cruised this area in the late 1990’s, so of course much has changed since then. It used to be uninhabited, but now we see a small village nestled among the palm trees on the beach, and very soon John comes paddling out on his plastic raft to greet us. He and his parents used to live on Little Panasia Island but when they passed away he decided to move to the larger Island. He tells us he is the owner of the island now, and several of his clan relatives live on the southern side. He comes aboard for coffee and biscuits and we discuss what we can trade with him. He mentions solar lights, sailcloth, rigging wire, clothes and the inevitable sugar, rice and flour. In return he promises us crayfish and a bagi necklace for Bruce. He also invites us for “kai kai” tomorrow and offers to take us for a walk around the southern side of the island. What a nice welcome!
Soon after we’re visited by Joseph, John’s brother-in-law, and John’s grandson Emmanuel. Joseph’s amazed by our transom steps and cockpit flooring, which he assumed was wood until he walked on it. “Dim Dim magic!” he exclaims. “Dim Dim” is the local word for white person, so we laugh and it quickly becomes our favourite phrase aboard Toucan! Later in the day Joseph and Emmanuel return with two fine crayfish, and are very happy with their new shirts, caps and sunnies. We enjoy a delicious dinner of bbq’d lobster, and surrounded by this spectacular scenery, we both agree that NOW it feels like we’re in cruising mode.
The next day we take the dinghy ashore and Joseph and John’s grand-daughter, Severina offer to show us the other side of the island. We take the dinghy around through the shallows and there’s a beautiful long sandy beach. As we walk along the length of it we’re amazed by how many people are living on this side of the island. Joseph tells us most of them live on nearby Brooker Island, which is where John’s clan come from, and visit here for their holidays – so I guess this is the equivalent of Pittwater for Sydney folk, or Rottnest Island for Perth dwellers, just a whole lot more basic!
We meet Lot, who’s building a new sailau, or sailing canoe. He explains the process and how they use a local resin and fibres for caulking. Specialists in carving do the carvings on the prow and stern, and with enough materials and assistance Lot reckons he can build it in a couple of months. The local ladies from the village husk a coconut for us and we gulp down the sweet and plentiful coconut water. Meanwhile Severina has found her own coconut and expertly breaks it open on the rocks and munches the coconut meat as we walk back to the dinghy.
We tell John we’ll bring our trading items when we come in for ‘kaikai’ – when we ask what time, he says vaguely ‘not too late’ so we assume mid-late afternoon. As it turns out we arrive too early and they’ve only just started the cooking process, but we while away the time admiring John’s new guesthouse that he’s building and I meet his wife Gwen and daughter Dorothy. They show me how to make coconut milk by grating the coconut meat, adding some water to it and then squeezing handfuls of it over the pot of sliced yams, bananas and green papayas. Dorothy gives me a tour of Gwen’s garden up behind the village – the soil looks surprisingly fertile, I guess because of the volcanic nature of the islands, but it’s obviously been back-breaking work clearing the rocks to make the garden. She also presents me with a beautiful nautilus shell. Another income for them is diving for shells – the shell meat is smoked and then sold at the market at nearly Misima Island. On the way back from the garden one of the numerous village dogs gives me an unsolicited nip on the back of my calf. Ouch! Glad we got our rabies shots before we left home.
We enjoy a delicious meal of crayfish cooked in coconut milk and mild chilli, baked fish, and the yams and bananas I helped prepare. It’s a bit off-putting as the tradition is guests eat first, followed by the men, and then the women and children, so we have quite an audience as we eat! We exchange our trading goods after the meal – John’s happy with his solar light and reading glasses, shirt and cap, and I give Gwen and Dorothy some clothes, sewing material and soaps.
They’ve been so kind and hospitable that we invite them to Toucan for dinner the following night – there are a number of extended family and children in the village so I try to be tactfully explicit when I invite just John and Gwen (Joseph has already returned to Brooker Island). That afternoon I prepare vegetable curry and marinade some chicken and then we wait. And wait…5 o’clock comes and goes, 6 o’clock comes and goes. Not a sign of anyone and it’s now dark. We decide there must have been some miscommunication and start to cook ourselves some quick and easy pasta carbonara. We’re just about to eat when we hear noise at the back of the boat. Out of the darkness emerges John, Gwen, Dorothy and all five grandchildren! Something obviously got lost in translation but OK we’ll make it work somehow – Dim Dim magic to the fore! We feed the pasta to the children and I quickly get our meal underway. After dinner they serenade us with beautiful harmonised singing, accompanied by John and Emmanuel on Bruce’s guitar and ukulele. We record it for them, and their smiles are priceless when they hear it back – they’ve never heard themselves on record before!
We’ve enjoyed our stay here immensely – Panasia has a magic of its’ own and we’ve felt very welcomed. Before we leave John gives us his ‘wish list’ of goods they need and asks if we can pass this information on to other boats coming this way – similar to Bagaman Island, heading the list is sailcloth or tarpaulin, rigging wire and ropes, solar lights, diving masks and fins, but also school backpacks, waterproof jackets and dry bags (those sailing canoes are fast but very wet!).
For now the weather has turned overcast and rainy, so once it clears we’ll say goodbye to Panasia and head to the Deboyne group of islands – our final destination here in the Louisiades.