Louisiade Islands, PNG 2008

Let the Journey Begin

This was the start of the journey that has now (2018) taken us half way around the world. 

Because of the long distances involved we broke this trip into two stages. The first was essentially a 'delivery' following the east coast of Australia from Sydney to Laguna Quays - a distance of just under 1,000nm. Laguna Quays is a modern cyclone proof marina built halfway up the Queensland coast, near the Whitsunday Islands but really in the middle of nowhere! It was originally intended to be a key feature in a large integrated resort development started by a Japanese consortium in the 1980's. Despite having been sold many times over, the resort development has never eventuated and the marina sits eerily isolated in amongst scrappy cattle grazing country.

Overall journey track in 2008. Total distance approximately 2,500nm. 

Click on map to enlarge.

Nevertheless, being inexpensive and with an airport conveniently nearby, the marina made a good base for us not only for the period between the 'delivery' and the trip to the Louisiade Islands, but more importantly for the period after the trip and through the cyclone season before continuing our journey around the top of Australia the following year.

"Hi Connie"

We made the trip north from Sydney to Laguna Quays in June to take advantage of the predominantly westerly (offshore) winds and calm seas typical that time of year. I press ganged a team of buddies as crew and the voyage was fairly uneventful until we anchored at Great Keppel Island to pick up my sister Connie, who would join us for the remainder of the trip to Laguna Quays. We launched the tender and I headed off alone to collect Connie from the nearby marina at Yeppoon. When I returned with her half an hour later, approaching from the starboard side, I was a little surprised that none of my 4 crew appeared to be on deck. As I came round the transom to the port side to tie up the tender in her usual spot,Connie was treated to the most unusual of welcomes. The four larrikins (aka crew) had used their highly developed mathematical skills to calculate they shared the same number of butt cheeks between them as there are letters in "Hi Connie" and had used a large black marker pen to emblazon the welcome on their cheeks and arrange themselves on the port side, in the correct order, with their pants down around their ankles! Having used an indelible marker pen, I suspect a few of them may have been subjected to some curious questioning from their wives when they returned home a few days later.

A graphic representation of Connie's welcome by the crew!

Louisiade Bound

The Louisiade Archipelago is approximately 100nm south-east of New Guinea and is made up of a string of 10 volcanic islands fringed by coral reefs, and 90 smaller coral islands. The island group stretches over more than 80nm. The climate is moist tropical and the vegetation consists mainly of rain forest with many species of plants and animals that are unique in the world - particularly the birds.

 

The first known western contact with the islands was more than 400 years ago when the Spanish navigator Luis Vaez de Torres arrived in 1606. It is believed that Chinese and Malay sailors may have visited the archipelago even earlier. Even today the area receives only a few visitors most of whom arrive on yachts - although in recent times some smaller expedition type cruise ships have started visiting the islands as well. There are no resorts and there is no regular transport between the islands. The locals move about the islands by traditional outrigger sailing canoes.

Detailed map of the Louisiade Islands. Click on map to enlarge.

In mid September 2008 we set off from Laguna Quays with our good friends Mark and Anne for a planned 8 week round trip to the islands. Our son Matt and daughter Cath would fly to the nearby island of Misima and join us for a few weeks in October. We picked this time of the year to make the passage across the Coral Sea because even though SE trade winds blow in the Coral Sea pretty much year round, they tend to be lighter between September and December and the area is prone to cyclones anytime between December and April. The distance between the Queensland coast and the Louisiades is between 400nm and 600nm (depending on where you cross) and in a generally NE direction out and a SW direction home - meaning 2 - 3 uncomfortable days rolling around in a beam sea each way. The prospect of less wind and smaller waves was therefore an attractive proposition.

Our route would take us up the Queensland coast as far as Lizard Island where we would use the same passage through the Great Barrier Reef used by Captain Cook to escape the labyrinth of the reef in 1770. From there we would head to Samarai Is in Papua New Ginuea (PNG) being the closest port of entry to clear customs and immigration before heading off to explore the islands.

Crocodile Encounters

After an initial run of just over 24hrs we anchored in the channel between the mainland and Hinchinbrook Island to explore and try and catch some mud crabs for which the area is well known. We'd only been anchored an hour or so when Mark came hurtling out of the main saloon, tearing off his clothes and dived overboard. Anne, Karen and I watched

Mark, Anne, Karen and I shortly before leaving Laguna Quays

dumbfounded as Mark swam round the back of the boat and emerged a few moments later clutching an essential component of the coffee percolator he had inadvertently tossed out of the galley porthole. Moments later, as we reflected on Mark's lightning speed reactions a 3m crocodile floated by on the current not more than 2m from the side of the boat where Mark had just clambered back on board! None of us, least of all Mark, had given a moments thought to the fact we were now far enough north to be in crocodile country.

Getting ready to set our crap traps off Hinchinbrook Island.

We didn't see any more crocs while we were there but received clear evidence of their presence the next morning when we went to recover the three crab traps we had set overnight. None of them were where we had set them and it was only after a long search in our tender, deep into the mangroves, that we recovered one that had been dragged there and totally mangled by a croc taking the mud crabs that must have been trapped inside.

Those two encounters put paid to any further crabbing (as we had lost all our traps) or any thought of swimming for the time being!

Provisioning

We arrived in Cairns a few days later where we did the last of the provisioning we would need for the next six weeks. We had heard there would be little opportunity to re-supply once in the Louisiade Islands, other than by way of trade with the villagers for locally grown vegetables in small quantities. For proteins we budgeted to catch seafood for 30% of our meals (the girls were a bit skeptical about this after our crabbing failure at Hinchinbrook Island!) and the remainder had been purchased by Karen and Anne in Sydney and packed into the boat's freezer four months earlier.

With the help of an excellent green grocer in Cairns we purchased as much fruit and vegetables as possible for the length of time we thought it would last. The grocer helped advise on how long things would keep and went out of his way to source produce that was not yet fully ripe which, if properly stored, would last longer and ripen over time.

Another strategy that proved very successful was to store partially grown lettuces with root ball attached in a large ice chest with just a small amount of water in the bottom. With daily maintenance

Carrying out daily maintenance on our "hydroponic lettuce farm"

to remove any outer leaves turning brown and only ever using the outermost leaves of the lettuces (rather than finishing one lettuce before moving on to the next) we were able to enjoy fresh lettuce for nearly 4 weeks! 

Mark with my daughter Cath with one of many Spanish Mackerel caught

Overall our provisioning strategy worked extremely well. We caught so much fish that we returned to Australia with a fair amount of frozen meat left over which, infuriatingly, Australian Biosecurity officials confiscated and destroyed because of the risk of introducing foot and mouth and other diseases into the country. The fact the produce was still in its original Australian packaging proving we were not importing meat but simply returning with Australian meat mattered nought! On the fish front we discovered that our excess catch was one of the most valuable trade commodities with the villagers. The locals catch was restricted due to their very primitive fishing gear, whereas with our modern lures, rods and line and ability to troll at the correct speed we were "haulin em in" - mostly sizeable Spanish Mackerel.

Customs Procedures PNG Style

We enjoyed a very comfortable passage in a following SE breeze in the sheltered waters inside the Great Barrier reef from Cairns to Lizard Island - our staging point for the 400nm crossing of the Coral Sea to the clearance port of Samarai Island in PNG. Having cleared immigration in Cairns we were technically not permitted to make any further stops in Australian waters but decided to risk a visit to Lizard Island for an overnight stay and a hike to the mountain lookout where, in 1770, Captain Cook plotted his passage out from behind the reef to open waters.

The weather forecast for our passage to Samarai Island, was as to be expected ..... 20 - 25kts from the SE. This meant we could look forward to rolling around in a beam sea for 48hrs, but given that the SE trade winds blow pretty much all year round there was not much point in waiting for a better forecast. The trip, whilst rather unpleasant, passed uneventfully and we arrived at Samarai Island as planned two days later and anchored in front of the main village to clear customs and immigration. After an hour or more of fruitlessly trying to raise the authorities on VHF radio to notify them of our arrival we gave up, launched the tender and went ashore. We eventually found the sole police officer on the island (who also had responsibility for customs and immigration), in a small one room shack behind the grocery store. He was most apologetic that we had been unable to raise him and explained that his VHF radio had broken down almost six months ago and he was still waiting for a replacement and to make matters worse, the island's telephone system had been down for almost a week as well!

A friendly welcome from the locals

A typical shared village toilet facility

We took him out to the boat on our tender (he had no means of getting there otherwise) where, he started by explaining that it was an offence for him to take bribes but that he was free to accept gifts once he had completed all the formalities. He helpfully explained that cigarettes were expensive and hard to come by, that he and his wife enjoyed the occasional glass of scotch and then went about professionally and courteously working his way through the necessary paperwork. All went well until we got to the bit where we needed to the declare any alcohol and tobacco on board.

This posed a problem because the boat was stocked with enough grog and cigarettes to last four drinkers and two smokers for two months, whereas the duty free allowance was 1 litre per person and 200 cigarettes for our entire stay! After much head scratching and contemplative sighing our friendly multi-purpose policeman/immigration /customs officer came up with a solution. He would clear us into the country and order us to hold all the excess alcohol and tobacco on board as "bonded stores" until we cleared the country again. It got worse when he followed up with the advice that if we're to leave Samarai that afternoon, anchor overnight at a nearby island and return the next day he could then confirm the "bonded stores" were still on board and clear us back out of the country. When I pointed out that this was not suitable because we wanted to spend 2 months in the islands, he smiled and said: "I don't have a radio, I don't have a telephone and I don't have a boat - so how will I ever know you stayed in my country after having checked out?". I was beginning to like PNG a lot!!

This is what we came for!

We returned the next day, our friend checked the "bonded stores" were intact and stamped our passports to confirm we had left PNG. Being extremely grateful for the professional and courteous way he had executed his official duties we offered him a generous gift of cigarettes and scotch, which he politely accepted and we were on our way to explore paradise! We never saw another official during our stay in the islands and had completely forgotten about our "illegal stay" until we returned to Australia and were quizzed by our immigration officials about where we had been after having checked out of PNG two months earlier! Our explanation was readily accepted - they had heard it many times before!

Getting Hooked

Having cleared customs and immigration we left Samarai around midday for the 18hr passage to Deboyne Island, the nearest island of the Louisiade Archipelago. Within minutes of setting our trolling gear we caught a sizable Spanish mackerel and somehow in the excitement of landing the fish the large barbed hook ended up firmly embedded in Mark's right hand.

We briefly considered returning to the small clinic we had seen at Samarai, but after the no radio/no phone/no boat experience with the customs authorities decided we were probably better equipped to deal with the problem on board. Mark bravely endured an incision with a scalpel to release the hook and two stitches, all without anesthetic but tempered with the theater of a shot of scotch and a block of wood to bite down on. Being prone to fainting at the sight of blood, I was extremely relived to have gotten through carrying out the surgical procedures unscathed myself! The wound healed perfectly over the next week or so and Mark and I still bask frequently on his courage and my skills, but tend to avoid dwelling on our stupid carelessness which allowed it to happen in the first place!

Our first Spanish mackerel shortly after leaving Samarai

The medical emergency which followed!

Island Paradise

The Louisiade Archipelago, made up of over 100 islands and surrounded by a fringing coral reef is a 'paradise on earth'. The area is completely unspoiled with no development other than a few traditional villages scattered around the islands. There are no commercial transport links making it is very difficult for visitors without their own boat to get around. There are no roads, no vehicles, no communications links and power is only available in villages equipped with a generator. The islands are probably visited by no more than 50 or so yachts each year. Some, like us, make the trip from Australia but the 1,000nm round trip is a significant disincentive to most. Other cruisers pass through on their way to Australia from elsewhere in the Pacific Ocean.

The people are extraordinarily friendly and being part of Papua New Guinea, which was a territory of Australia from 1906 until 1975, all speak excellent English. The locals, particularly the older ones, retain a strong affection towards Australia with many holding the view that independence may have come too soon. With no significant local industry or agriculture there is little opportunity for employment and consequently the people are very poor. Most live a subsistence lifestyle and survive by fishing, tending small vegetable gardens and trading whatever excess food they have for other essentials.

Kids in the pantry at Boarding School. 

Travel between the islands is almost exclusively by traditional outrigger sailing canoe. We saw many of these magnificent vessels travelling on trading expeditions between the islands fully laden with whole families, wicker baskets overflowing with fresh  produce and live animals such as pigs, chickens and goats. The nearest port to the Louisiades with commercial links to the rest of PNG is Bwagaoia on the island of Misima and canoes regularly make voyage from villages as far as 90nm away. to sell their wares.

 

Other times we saw up to 20 children (with a few adults in control) travelling to their school on some distant island. Most villages do not have their own school so children board for periods of two weeks at a time and then return to their home village for a week or so.

Cath visiting the local school

Mum with kids negotiating a trade

The locals take a particularly keen interest in visiting yachts for gifts and trading opportunities. Typically, if a village was nearby, one or two smaller outrigger canoes would paddle out to the boat within minutes of anchoring. The women generally brought vegetables or fruit such as tomatoes, yams and bananas to trade for items such as sugar, flour, cleaning goods and sometimes clothing. The men on the other hand were less interested in trading and brought hand made carvings for which they wanted cash or offered to dive for lobster for a fee. We had read before hand that the locals would be most interested in stationary items (pens, erasers, paper, etc) for their childrens' school needs and had brought a substantial supply of these items but found that whilst they were very keen to accept these items as gifts they did not have much currency as trading goods. 

This left us in a bit of a difficult position because, whilst we were eager to source fresh fruit, vegetables and lobster, we had limited excess supplies of pantry goods to trade and very little cash in  in small denominations in the local currency - Kina. We ended up discovering however that fresh fish was also much valued as a trading commodity.  Due to their very basic and primitive fishing gear (bone hooks and feather lures) the locals were quite limited in their ability to catch fish. We on the other hand, using modern lures trolled at the correct speed behind the boat or our tender were catching far more than we needed. It became very rewarding to us to be able to go fishing and make very generous and much appreciated trades (a large Spanish mackerel for a handful of tomatoes and few yams for example) with the locals. We made many friends this way and were often invited to their homes to share a meal.

Our son Matt with another decent size Spanish mackerel Fresh fish become our most valuable trading commodity

After spending six unforgettable weeks in the islands it was sadly time to head back home. We exited the atoll through a passage near the easternmost end of the fringing reef and set course for Townsville, the nearest Australian port of entry some 600nm distant. This was a most unpleasant trip with constant 25-30kt SE winds and accompanying sea on the beam. No one complained - it was a small price to pay for a most memorable adventure!