Tri-lights and Traffic Jams

The English translation for the Guinean word “budi” is “never,” or at least it should be. “Never” would be a perfectly suitable translation for our most beloved isle, Budibudi. As in:

Come to Never-Neverland, where a magical fantasyland awaits you.

Finding Budibudi on the charts is one matter, and getting there another. A small isolated atoll on the north-eastern outskirts of PNG, Budibudi is 140 miles south of Solomons and 50 miles from its closest neighbour. Because if its remote locale, Budibudi has very little contact with the outside world. No travelers visit, no supply boats drop monthly wares, there are no inter-island trading route established. The people that inhabit these islands are completely self-sufficient. While we were there a young 14-year old woman delivered her baby girl. Supported by her female relatives, she waded into the ocean for a water delivery – exactly as her mother had done it, as her grandmother had done it, and each generation before her. Relying on their own capabilities and skills, they survive outside of external support. This was evidenced in all sort of manner. It was notable in a myriad of wounds that the children bore that would have sent any Western child to hospital; it was evidenced in the skinny limbed, round bellied children that ran underfoot. If there was any significant incidence, the sick or maimed would have to travel a full day by sailing canoe to Brooker Island, 50 miles west, to seek aid.

Anything that could not be grown on the island had to be brought in by sailau, an eight-meter long sailing canoe with two or three men onboard who would bring in supplies for the village. That sized boat doesn’t allow for much stowage space when considering the amount of supplies needed and the number of people being supported. A day downwind means three to four upwind to return home; as such, a “trip to town” was no mere leisurely saunter. With no weather reports or updated forecasts, once out you were in for whatever nature decided to deliver. We were struck by the purity of it. This is one of the few locations in the world where the traditional art of Polynesian navigation is still in use. Just like their forefathers, these brave sailors use the stars, the angle of the swell, the flight pattern of the birdlife, and other natural means to find their way out and back. We may romanticize the notion, however it does hold its hazards. While we were there the chief’s brother was hit mid-passage by strong winds and rough seas, was blown off course, and sought refuge at a nearby islet. With no communications the community was unaware of their status and deeply concerned for their welfare. We discussed a rescue mission amongst us, but where would you start with four yachts and a seemingly limitless ocean? Fortunately the seamen were adept sailors and turned up two days later – exhausted but safe. It was a powerful example of what this community faces and how they struggled to get the things we so easily take for granted.

So it was easy to see how, when our four yachts pulled into the atoll (S/V Oceans Dream, Atea, Al Fresco and Haku II), we were first and foremost seen as provision boats, vessels filled with their brand of booty: pen and paper for school, blankets for the elders, clothes for their infants, newspaper for their tobacco, line and fishhook for the fishing, sugar, grain and flour for their staples. While we set a barter system to slow the number of visitors, “trading” became a relatively loose term. We were inundated by canoe throughout the day – barter didn’t seem to stymie the flood of visitors.

There seemed little rhyme to the items traded for: One yam for a workbook and a handful of pens, two coconuts for fishing line and an array of hooks… whatever it may be that particular individual was looking for. On popular request was “wool,” it took us awhile to understand that they were after needle and thread. They’d get their requested item, and then some. Little packages left the boat with each visitor.

They were also adept at maximizing the opportunity for trade. We would get the minimal goods offered, or items broken up into individual ownership. You might trade for coconuts and get two. If you wanted more coconuts, you’d have to start new negotiations. If there were several items on offer, one pawpaw would be the niece’s, a handful of limes would be her auntie’s, a hand of banana’s would be the mother and a sole coconut would be the son’s, and we would have to trade for each item individually. While it might not be the most efficient means of barter, everyone would leave with a bit of something.

Of all the gifting, my favourite was not items swapped in trade but clothes given to the shivering naked babes that were paraded out to the boats. “My baby wanted to meet your baby,” was a common announcement. Very endearing, however I am positive the true motive was to hit up our stock of infant clothing. Neither parent nor sibling was hesitant to toss an infant in the bottom of the canoe for the paddle out to visit the yachts, at times in wet, rough conditions. I’d pull the soaked tot up onboard, dry and clothe them before sending them back ashore looking snug in one of Braca’s outfits. I probably set an expectation that any naked child would leave Atea with a new set of clothes, but it was a great way to engage with the locals and my way of contributing.

Where they got infant clothes, we got coconuts. There were always plenty of this island staple for trade, and they quickly found out just how wild we were on them. Braca developed a fiendish attachment to the sweet water and would gulp the contents of a coconut down with fervor. “Mother’s milk” quickly became second best. It was here that I also collected a stock of Nautilus shells, having previously refused to barter for shells to discourage poaching. These precious shells were commonly used as bailers in dugout [not exploited for tourists], and given the lack of a sustainable market [no tourism] we bent our rule.

At length, we finally learned that each knock on the hull meant business, and so to get some peace we’d either feign sleep or pretend to be ensconced in a major boat project. Braca was always a good alibi and the locals must have thought we kept a very bizarre sleep schedule, as he was often our excuse from engaging in a trade exchange; “So sorry, we are just in the middle of getting Braca to bed.” Again. But that wasn’t the norm. Usually one or the other of us would bolt up on hearing a knock or a demure “Hallo?” as the trading was always a good social occasion. The locals were of the most patient visitors we’d gotten anywhere during the season. One slight knock and then they’d hang on to the toe rail and wait. Much more pleasant than the repeated rapping that we’d received in other anchorages. A gentle hello, then they’d hold on to your ship quietly waiting rather than poking their faces into windows as others had done. It was all very civilized, especially considering there was often strong winds and rough seas that were dousing their canoes as they waited. Regardless of convenience, we came to enjoy their guest appearances.

And so our daily routine was filled with these “house calls” and digging through our treasure trove for the object of their desire. Trading was clearly modus operandi, and trade we did. We were quickly depleted of our stock; deservedly so when you considered how rare the opportunity to replenish goods was in Budibudi. Our stock of rice, flour, sugar, matches, material, fishhooks, magazines, children’s books and clothes of all description dwindled down at fast pace. We collectively donated medicines and petrol to the village, basics that they desperately needed. Since Atea was ending her six-month cruise we could afford to be generous with our supplies, and so we gave them everything we could. We were the only visitors they’d had that season, and would likely be the last for the year. If they were able to resupply from us, we were more than happy to assist. It was a small price to pay for being allowed time in their Wonderland.

During our stay we were invited to join a potluck lunch at the chief’s house, included in Sunday church and asked to participate in PNG Independence Day ceremonies. While all special events, nothing beat the spectacular jubilation we received by the locals on their introduction to a new sport: Kite surfing. I’ve never been a top athlete. I’ve never been the one to run through the ribbon at the finish line, never stepped up on the top tier to receive a gold medallion, never heard the rush of the crowd chanting my name. But the crowd in Budibudi gave me a sense of what that would feel like. When John and I came ashore with our kiting gear, it was like we’d just stepped out as victors to accept our Olympic medal. I’m not sure where everyone came from as there would only be a scattering of children on the shore as we made our way to the beach, but as soon as it was known that we were heading in with our kites the people would come running – men, women, children – buzzing with excitement to be spectators for the show.

It was the first time that anyone had seen kite or board, or a body flying across the water harnessed to the wind and the reception we received was exceptional. John kitted up and I helped launch the kite, and a roar was heard when the kite took to the air. I turned to an elder man next to me and said, “That’s only the first part!” As John strapped the board on his feet and took off on the water in a rush, the cheers were deafening. Kids were jumping up and down and adults were pumping their fists into the air, and a few even charged out into the water after John in their excitement. John raced off, and the crowd buzzed. When he turned, however, and made a speedy return to shore the people had no idea what was to happen next. They scattered in a frenzied panic and bolted into the bush. In an instant I went from being lost in a screaming, jumping, hysterical crowd to being complete abandoned, standing on shore alone in total quiet. It was surreal. As John turned again and headed back out they returned, and their excitement with them. What a moment – it was such a spectacular feeling. It must be akin to what an athlete experiences when the crowd chants your name, all eyes riveted on you as you race towards a victorious win.

John and I spent our afternoons taking turns kiting, and the locals who weren’t mesmerized by the sport spent their time huddled around Braca. Finally at the end of our cruise, we had found our ideal kiting spot: A safe beach, great kiting conditions, an exuberant crowd and an infinite number of baby sitters. After his warm up, John would pull out some of his rudimentary tricks; jumps, rolls, and carving turns close to the beach. Whereas back home these maneuvers would have been nothing worth comment, in Budibudi they were a sensation.

I also got my moment of fame, with screeches and squeals from the crowd as I got my kite up into the sky and board cutting through the water. Never mind I only made it a short way before smacking my face into the surf; I had a supportive audience and felt the joy of their spontaneous and enthusiastic encouragement. As I raced down the lagoon, John would chase after me in our dinghy as the safety boat to save me from being swept out to sea. I’d gotten the competence of getting up and out during our time in Budibudi, but never did get the hang getting myself back again. Never mind a slight error, the locals didn’t cast the least bit of disapproval. They would beam at me on my return to the beach never paying mind to my slight incompetence. Bless them for their encouragement, their enthusiasm, and their support.

We’d been so well received by the villagers that by the time of our departure we felt a strong connection to the community. It was a hard place to say goodbye to, and one of the islands where we could have anchored Atea and stayed for the season. It has so much of offer: natural beauty, safe anchorage, good conditions for a kiting enthusiast, dolphin’s bounding in the bay, excellent fishing, friendly and sociable locals, and there is so much more left to discover. On our last day we heard of a sunken “pirate” ship nearby, another temptation, but alas our time had come and we were due to reconnect with the rest of the rally further south.

Who knows if we will ever get the chance to get back towards these water, but if we do I just might set up a residential address.

From Budibudi we endured a wet and bouncy trip south against the ever-increasing trade winds and rejoined the ICA fleet in Panapompom Lagoon. John and I thought we were continuing to veer off the beaten path to penetrate deeper into never-neverland. We imagined Papuan islands where anchor hadn’t sat on her shores since the escapades of Captain Cook. Little did we know that the small lagoon we were heading for on the southeastern corner of PNG was “Club Med” for the Australian cruiser. The crime that plagues much of the PNG mainland is non-existent in these isles, making it a safe and easily accessible cruising ground. A small logistic glitch, however, keeps the Louisades from becoming the Caribbean of the South Pacific: There is no custom’s clearance for visiting yachts, so to get access boats must either clearing in at Port Moresby, 150 miles downwind and rife with crime, or remain in the region illegally. Thus, safe from lawlessness and geographically accessible, the logistical complications of visiting this region leave it void of the traveling masses that would otherwise plague her shores. There is an annual pilgrimage that brings canvas to her shores, however, commonly referred to as the Louisades Rally. It was amongst this group that we converged on the Louisades, making this tiny outer island group chockablock with thirty rally boats where normally there are none.

The Louisade Rally is a six-week rally that leaves Australia from Mackay, Australia, in early October and leads its coteries through in a fun-filled, all frills, parade through the Louisade archipelago. Daily activities are planned which are akin to the gaudy activities and cultural tours of an all-inclusive resort. When John and I decided that we would treat this last stint a holiday, we didn’t envision being ensconced in drinking games with a crowd of beer-bellied Aussies. Fortunately, the Louisades Rally travels in a pack so if you don’t want the congestion of a mast lined bay, you need only to avoid the planned route and you’ve the pickings of idyllic isles – this is where you found Atea for the majority of her stay in PNG.

We couldn’t refuse a few of the activities on the LR’s agenda, and so on occasion we gathered up with the rat pack and joined in on the fun. One of the events that was particularly entertaining was the sailau races. This annual regatta brings sailing canoes from all over the region to compete for a grand prize, sharing the day with the yachties by including us in a fun sail. In turn, the rally boats reciprocated by taking the locals out in their yachts and the two-day event concluded with a feast ashore and awards ceremony.

While it didn’t feel like we were “off the beaten path,” in truth the area is void of yachts the remainder of the year – leaving us one of about thirty boats to travel through the Louisades that season. The lagoon is a collection of a dozen stunning islands. Some of the islands were low-lying islets that fringed with palm trees and white sandy shores, others were mountainous and covered with deep jungle with steep banks that dropped into the ocean below. One in particular stood out for its dramatic vista, with sheer limestone cliffs jutting out of the water which stood tall like granite skyscrapers. Here we trekked inland to a vast limestone cave that was draped in large stalagmites and stalactites to swim in the fresh water below, and traveled to a nearby sister island to hike the interior to see “skull caves.” These caves were ancient burial grounds where our guide’s forbearers rested, skulls tucked into crevices and bones propped along cave walls.

While all the islands we visited in PNG were beautiful and unique in their own, our first and our last anchorage were the most memorable. We’d decided on Bramblehaven as our point of departure because of a selling write up in the cruising guide: “Punawan island is stunning – the epitome of a tropical vision – a low island with a brilliant white beach around most of its shores. Sheoaks and coconut palms are plenty, white sand, plenty of greenery, thatched huts, corals, fish with the addition of a good anchorage and total seclusion. Plenty of bird life with kingfishers, egrets, and birds of prey. Turtles lay eggs on the shores.” We envisioned this island group on the edge of the lagoon to hold our “slice of paradise.” Whilst the name might suggest a quaint English hamlet, Bramblehaven was a truly perfect example of the best a tropical island can be. As pilot whales guided Atea toward our final tropical oasis, we felt their company a good omen and a poignant farewell. Bramblehaven was all that it promised and more. Beaches so white they made your eyes water, the sea so clear you could admire the coral twenty meters below the surface, shades of blue so entrancing you thought you’d found your heaven on earth.

While there were no residents living on the islands, locals did use it as a base to cultivate coconuts and to fish. While we were there a sailau with four men came in and stayed through the duration of our visit. They were there to hunt shark, after only the fin for sale to the Japanese market. While they caught no shark during their stay, they did manage to capture a fledgling Pacific Eagle from its nest with the intention of sale at the local market. Unable to fly, the young bird hopped around their campsite for a few days, and unable to eat as it had yet to learn how to fend for itself. On the morning of their departure the bird was hoisted into the sailau. As the men prepared for departure the fledgling hopped up onto the mast and, figuring it’d made it that far, opened wings wide and flapped skyward. I didn’t know of the escapee’s success until later, but noted a lot of bird chatter that morning. Heading ashore in the afternoon, I sighted said bird tucked back up in the nest with mother and father standing by – much to our delight.

We spent our remaining days here in a state of zen, getting our fill of the luxuries of the tropics: swimming in clear waters, lazing in the warm sun, relaxing in the cool shade. When we pulled anchor we knew it was the close of a fantastic season, one that had provided all we had hoped for, and so, so much more. While we were carrying on to new territory, Australia would be a reintegration into a life we knew well, filled with café lattes, traffic jams and news flashes on current crime reports. As we watch Bramblehaven, PNG, and the South Pacific fade into the distance, I felt rich with all the incredible experiences we’d gone through over the past six months. Where ever we were off to, it was sure to be good. Where we’d been had been exceptional. It had filled all my fantasies about cruising in the tropics, and each little adventure we’d been through I will hold close to heart always.

2 Replies to “Tri-lights and Traffic Jams”

  1. Absolutely amazing. I’m speechless and breathless all at the same time after reading that. Just. Awesome.


    1. Hi Laura! Thanks so much for reading of our most recent adventures, and sending a hello. Your comment below is very touching – thank you very much!!!


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