Reflections on Manus Island

Manus Island. (pronounced “Man-oos” by the locals). The words are loaded with preconceptions. Immediately the detention centre springs to mind, the accounts of violence and brutality, the harshness and inhumanity of the place. We’ve also read accounts from yachts who’ve visited here in the past and they don’t make for reassuring reading – yachts being boarded, violence and theft, corrupt officials, a general sense of lawlessness.

Had we not met John and Therese on “Shoestring II” we wouldn’t have considered stopping here. But they stayed 8 days and had nothing bad to say about the place. They gave us good advice about where to anchor and some contacts for local people who could assist with fuel and transport, so our curiosity got the better of us and here we are, in Manus Island.

Our first impressions begin to shatter some of the preconceptions. I expected a harsh environment but the island is huge and green and lush, bursting with life.  Lorengau, the main town, is situated in Seeadler Harbour, a volcanic caldera surrounded by outlying islands with pretty sandy beaches and surf. Once in the harbour it takes us an hour to sail past Lorengau and eastwards towards the navy/army base at Lombrum Bay. It’s a huge harbour and we can see why it was so strategically important during the second world war. 

Sailing along the north coast of Manus Island

Lombrum Bay is well-protected from southerly quadrant winds.  On the right is the large army pier which is being renovated as part of new US/Australian initiative to set up a presence here, presumably to counter the huge Chinese influence throughout the Pacific (good luck with that, it’s probably way too little, too late). 

The army and naval base, Lombrum Bay

On the left side of the bay is the local community village of Nutt Point. We see people fishing in their canoes who wave to us but otherwise leave us alone. Across the bay is General MacArthur’s house from WWII, a large and incongruous building perched on the hillside.  It’s a very quiet, peaceful bay echoing with the distinctive sounds of the Chauka birds in the trees.  Its also very hot and humid, but we’ve been warned there’s crocs here, so no swimming for us unfortunately.

Lombrum Bay
Nutt Point, Lombrum Bay
Quite a garden growing here!
General MacArthur’s house on the hillside at Lombrum Bay

Our main objective here is to obtain diesel, so we call Gerard who owns the local fuel depot next to the navy base (+675 7993 3059 or email: stevengerard807@gmail.com).  He’s about to board a plane to the mainland, but tells us he’ll organise for his guys to be there in the afternoon. John and Therese told us he’s a local ‘mover and shaker’ who made a motsa from the Australian government on the fuel contract for the detention centre.  

The detention centre closed in October 2017 and has since been completely demolished.  I guess neither Australia nor PNG want reminders of the dreadful conditions and events that occurred here.  I hear that most of the refugees have since been moved to Port Moresby with the remaining men on Manus living in purpose-built community homes, quasi-free but always monitored.  While here I’m reading Behrouz Boochani’s award-winning book “No Friend but the Mountains”, an account of his time being imprisoned on Manus for 6 years.  Behrouz is a Kurdish journalist and poet who fled Iran due to fears of persecution. He’s still here, living in Lorengau, still fighting to have his claim for asylum accepted.  It’s a harrowing, haunting, deeply disturbing book and I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like to endure the conditions he describes…

But back to our fuel saga. True to his word, Gerard’s guys are there at 4pm and we take our diesel jugs in to be filled – straight from the tanker. The only hitch is that they need to be paid in cash and we don’t have enough. Solo, the foreman, offers to take us to town the next morning but is happy enough for us to take the filled jugs back to the boat in the meantime.

cutting out the middle man – straight from the tanker to us!

So the next morning we dinghy back in to the little beach next to the navy pier,  on the way being accosted by the security guard on the navy patrol boat tied up at the wharf who’s obviously VERY unhappy that we’ve come too close. There’s much gesticulating and shouting on his part.  We explain what we’re trying to do and he settles down and directs us to another, smaller jetty to the right of the navy pier that’s actually much better to tie the dinghy up to. Phew!  Then we wait for Solo to turn up – the security guards at the fuel depot are two lovely young men who chat to us while we wait – one of them is an elite state-level soccer player, the other is well-educated but struggling to find work in Manus.  Security work seems to be the main employment avenue for most young men here.

After an hour of waiting and no sign of Solo, we go back to the boat.  He calls us later and apologises and says he’ll let us know when he’s got transport.  The day ticks by, we get on with some boat jobs, but no word from Solo.  We meet another young man, John, from the Nutt Point community who comes aboard for tea and biscuits (also working as a security guard surprise surprise) and he tells us his uncle may be able to take us to town the next day.  It seems there’s no public transport and Lorengau is a  good 40 minutes drive from Lombrum Bay.

Finally the next morning after a series of calls to Solo and Gerard, we’re promised that transport will be available in the afternoon.  We decide to get on with changing the oil in the motors while we wait. It’s a messy business, and halfway through the job the phone rings – Solo is on his way and can we be at the dock in 10 minutes.  A mad scramble ensues to clean ourselves up and get organised. Man, oh man, island time is something else!

The grease monkey at work!

Our transport is an airport taxi driven by Wai, accompanied by Solo who acts as our guide (and perhaps security guard?). It’s a very pretty drive to Lorengau, past beautiful beaches and small villages nestled in the jungle.  Wai and Solo chew on betel nut on the way and educate us about how to chew it, how addictive it is, and how much money can be made out of growing it.  It’s an interesting experience, being driven by a taxi driver high on betel nut!

Lorengau main road
Lorengau market

 Lorengau has little to recommend it – it’s a busy, hot, dusty dry town with mangy dogs lying everywhere and some very basic shops.  Maybe it’s my preconceptions, but it seems to have an edgy feel and the people are not as friendly as elsewhere in PNG. The queue for the ATM is 40-deep. It could be hours of waiting. We get some basic groceries and fruit and veg from the market and then Wai drives us to another ATM near the hospital. This one only has 10 people in the queue so we line up and wait in the sweltering heat. Finally we’re in luck and we get our cash, Solo gets his money for the fuel and we even manage to pick up a case of beer on the way back to the boat. Everybody’s happy, just a bit hot and exhausted!

It would be nice to see more of the island and learn about it’s WWII history, but the practicalities of getting around make it difficult.  So it’s time to move on, to the outlying Hermit and Ninigo islands.  I’m glad we stopped here – I’m leaving with many conflicted emotions swirling around, but at least we have a more complete picture of Manus Island.  I hope eventually this beautiful place can be known for more than the part it played in Australia’s shameful history.

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