Our first week in the Ninigo Islands is a necessarily quiet one to allow Bruce time to recover from his bout of malaria – it’s left him with very little energy and some aching joints.
Mal Island is the perfect place – the anchorage is well-protected from southerly winds, it’s quiet and peaceful and we enjoy watching the locals sailing their canoes.The canoes and sails are very different in design to the Louisiade ones, but they go like the clappers and they take their racing very seriously here. Unfortunately they didn’t hold their annual canoe race this year because of a lack of sponsorship – which is a great pity as apparently it’s quite a sight to behold.
We also spend time ashore with Thomas and Elizabeth, sitting around their table under the big shady tree, chatting about their life and family while the pigs snooze in the shade and various relatives recline in the hammocks.
They have five adult children, numerous grandchildren and a bewildering array of nieces, nephews and cousins.
Everyone in the village is related in some way, although Thomas tells us there are strict rules about who can marry whom to prevent congenital problems. In fact, although the original Ninigo Islanders were Melanesian, today’s population is a melting pot of different heritages as many locals have married Papuans from the mainland. There are also quite a few people with German heritage, from the time the Germans ruled the islands prior to WWI. Thomas tells us it was a bad time for the locals, who were forced off their homes at Mal Island to make way for the coconut plantations established by the Germans.
Australia took over administration of the islands after the first world war until PNG gained independence in 1975. Thomas thinks life is harder now than it was under Australia’s governance. They get no assistance from the PNG government except for some school and medical funding. There are no supply ships or ferries, so to purchase fuel for their outboards or any other supplies they need, they have to make the treacherous trip across 200NM of open ocean in their banana boats with 40HP outboards. Not only is the trip very costly in fuel, but it’s extremely dangerous if the seas are rough. Thomas tells us of many occasions when people have not returned, presumed lost at sea.
Bruce’s recent experience also gets me thinking about medical assistance. Brendan and his team at the health centre are fantastic, but surely would find it hard to respond to complicated emergencies or acute care needs. Like any remote community, life can be harsh here, and the risk of death in childbirth or sudden illness is ever-present.
But like many people with few possessions or worldly wealth, Ninigo Islanders are extraordinarily generous – Elizabeth plies us with drinking coconuts, eggs, papayas, sweet potatoes and limes without any expectation of goods in return. Of course, we give whatever we can – flour, rice, sugar, clothes. There are specific things that Thomas wants some help with – his four-stroke outboard isn’t working so Bruce tries to help as much as he can but determines it’s probably an oil pump that’s faulty. Without the spare parts there’s not much he can do.
Thomas also asks me if I can email some of his special friends from yachts that have visited here in the past, to send his greetings. Of course – I’m happy to play messenger and to see Thomas and Elizabeth’s delight when they get replies back. Then there are small things like glue for his son’s soccer boots, and the use of our compressed air gun to clean his carburettor.
We also meet his son-in-law, Justin, who teaches at the school. When we tell him the story of our woeful fishing record he brings us a very tasty bluefin trevally. And then Cyril and his family turn up with 4 crayfish – they’ve certainly taken pity on us!
Before we leave for Longan Island, Elizabeth presents us with a final gift – her famous pandanus hats, beautifully woven and coloured.
We’ve been so well-looked after here and feel honoured to have been given such a warm welcome. We’re feeling quite sad about leaving, but promise to return after our trip to Longan Island to say our final goodbyes. What an extraordinarily special corner of the world this is.