The smell of wood fires. A cock crowing. In the distance the sound of children playing and a dog barking. Reggae music wafts from the village. Nearby a turtle pops his head up from the aquamarine water and little silver fish skitter and flash across the surface. This is tropical island life. It could be any one of a number of islands in the south pacific, but these are the Hermit Islands, 140NM WNW of Manus Island and just one and a half degrees south of the equator.
It was another slow and frustrating passage to get here, with little wind but sizeable beam swells causing our mainsail to slat and bang when the wind dropped. In the process two of our upper mainsail attachments pulled out from the cars on the mast (stupid design, metal bolts in plastic fittings are never going to last), so we dropped the sail and proceeded under jib and motor alone as it was too bouncy to try and repair underway. Our wind indicator at the top of the mast is also playing up – we can get correct wind speed but only wind direction from the bottom semi-circle of the gauge, the needle refuses to move forward of the beam. They do say ‘gentlemen don’t sail to windward’ so maybe there’s a message there for us! We’re now having to rely on the old-fashioned methods of watching the telltales and our Aussie flag to ascertain the wind direction. In addition, the sail drive on the starboard motor continues to leak oil, so we have to limit the time we run it. We thought we’d fixed this problem back in Sydney but obviously not, so we’ll have to nurse it through until we can find a Yanmar mechanic and somewhere to haul out. *sigh*
Anyway, despite all that we’ve made it to this beautiful remote atoll. Our approach to the reef pass reminded us a little of coming into Bora Bora in French Polynesia. The pass is wide and deep, with the deep blue water transforming to light aquamarine inside the lagoon, framed by hillsides packed tight with coconut palms.
Now (of course) the wind decides to pick up and so we motor into SE headwinds towards the bottom corner of Luf Island, hoping to find an anchorage with some protection. It’s here in the pass between Luf and Akib Islands that you can swim with the manta rays, so we’re keen to find the local guide, Bob, and organise something for tomorrow. Ben approaches in his banana boat and tells us Bob is unfortunately in hospital, but he offers to guide us tomorrow if the wind settles. Right now it’s blowing hard and there’s no decent protection or sandy spot to drop the anchor, so we go around the corner of Akib Island seeking out a suitable place. It’s getting late and the light is fading, but we finally get the anchor down. According to our charts, we should be sitting high and dry on the reef, but we’re actually in about 12 metres of water with a clear sandy bottom. Perfect!
The next day the wind continues to blow so we get on with replacing the sail attachments and other odd jobs. Ben arrives late that afternoon with a bowl of fruit and veggies from his garden, a bottle of coconut oil, and the visitors book to sign. It’s not like trading in the Louisiades, but he suggests his wife might like some washing powder if possible. He also tells us there is an anchoring fee of 20 Kina, and 10K per person for the manta dive, which is more than reasonable.
The next morning he comes to collect us and we load our scuba gear into his boat and head over to the pass. It’s a shallow dive to a nearby bommie, but there are two beautiful big manta rays just hanging out making lazy circles around the bommie. Such a treat! Unfortunately the visibility wasn’t great and we’re still trying to get accustomed to our new Sealife camera, but we got a couple of decent shots.
We want to visit the village, but the normal anchorage on the SE side of the island will be too rough in these conditions so Ben offers to show us where to anchor on the NW side. It’s not ideal – it’s deep and we have no idea how much coral is on the bottom, but it’s protected and our anchor holds well. We go ashore and meet the delightful Frieda who gives us a tour of the village and church. They’re Seventh Day Adventists here, two lots of worship each day and Saturday is their sabbath. Frieda is treasurer and also in charge of health and first-aid. It seems to be a very well-organised and well-run village. Frieda loads us up with bananas, pawpaws and a HUGE bag of mangoes. We also meet Campbell who invites us for lunch the next day, part of their traditional welcome for visitors.
Campbell is from the neighbouring Ninigo Islands, but is here visiting his sister and daughter-in-law. Sadly his son passed away not that long ago, and so Campbell and his wife come and visit as often as they can to provide support for his son’s widow. He’s hoping she may eventually re-marry another of his sons.
Lunch is a magnificent spread laid out on a table beside the shore and proceeded by a welcome song from Campbell, his wife Nellie, and her sister Lena and husband. There’s papaya cooked in coconut milk, fish in beans, tapioca and sago pudding, sweet potato and fried fish. It’s delicious and they’ve obviously gone to a lot of trouble for us. After lunch we pull out some gifts for them, including an assortment of reading glasses. Much excitement! They all seem to find ones that suit them, and there are enough to go around for Frieda and her mother too. So to all our friends at RPAYC who donated reading glasses – a big thank you from Luf Island!
We’re keen to do some diving while we’re here, and now that the wind has settled we move out to the NW pass and find a little indentation in the reef that our friends Mark and Sarah on “Field Trip” identified when they were here two years ago. It’s a little anxiety-provoking being surrounded by reef on three sides, but it’s flat calm and we’ve anchored in sand so it will be fine for a short stay. We do a drift dive on the outer northern wall, me towing the dinghy while Bruce plays with the new camera and video lights. It’s a nice dive but not spectacular – the best bits are spotting two large Maori wrasse and a couple of sharks (the second one was definitely not a reef shark so I’m glad he swam the other way!), and the water’s so warm we’re only wearing rash vests over our swimmers.
We have a smorgasbord of fruit for breakfast every day, and try and find ways to use up the dozens of mangoes – mango smoothies, mango sorbet, mango puree, mango salsa..we’re getting quite inventive!
At night rain squalls come through and it becomes uncomfortable and bouncy, so the next morning we move back to the north side of Akib Island where it’s more protected. This is where the new high school is being built and we can see an impressive set of buildings on the hillside, presumably dormitories.
Ben tells us the school is already open and they have about 100 students, but there’s still much building to be done. They have some limited wifi access and hope to get Digital coverage next year. Many of the students come from the Ninigo Islands 60 NM away so they only get to go home once a year in the long summer holidays. We wonder how they manage to feed so many mouths with so few resources and supplies. We find out one source of supply the next morning….