Archive for 2016

Tikopia On The Move

December 15, 2016

Tikopia might seem paradise to the fleeting glimpse of an outside visitor. While its over one thousand inhabitants are living a carefully and smartly controlled life in intimate embrace with nature, modernity has carved a solid foothold right through the middle of it, and the deadly diseases of the consumer society driven by greed and systemic exploitation have grown like cancerous tumours, eating away with lightning speed at its very core. However, as in any other human society, these unfortunate inflictions are diligently hidden away, its weaknesses pushed aside by potent bragging with crippled testosterone, its dark sides kept carefully veiled by well-guarded secrets.

I had contacted Norwegian Thomas Lien by email while still in Luganville, Vanuatu, to get details about the present state of the Lapita canoe. A little over two years ago he had lived for six months on Tikopia with his family of four, hoping to get away from the perils of civilization for a time while producing a television series for kids starring his charming six-year-old daughter. His answers to my persistent questions provided some very helpful information about the technical state of Lapita Tikopia, but once I enquired about the social context and the possible reasons behind the boat’s abandonment, the conversation abruptly stopped.

The two Lapita canoes had been delivered to Anuta and Tikopia in March of 2009. From my detective work on piecing together a history of Lapita Tikopia since then, it seems that for the first three years it was managed by Ariki Tafua’s inner circle, his younger brother Pa Tilo taking on the role of skipper. Four or five trips were made to Lata and back, providing transportation for government officials amongst other lucrative ventures. Pa Tilo is an open hearted guy, with a modern mind tempered by years of working with Solomon Islands fisheries, but leadership is not very high up on his personal skill sheet. Taking advantage of a break during our first week of work on Lapita Tikopia I sat down with him overlooking the bright white sandy beach, which would be an absolutely picturesque scene were it not for the strange fact that this happens to be the Tikopia’s toilet with the dizzying amount of flies that goes along this persistent habit. His account of one of these journeys must stand for most of the others.

‘There were these government officials from Fisheries visiting our island,’ he said in his rather charming intermittently broken English. ‘They needed to return to Lata and suggested why don’t we bring them there with Lapita. They offered a good bit of money. So we went, stopping at the Reef Islands on the way there. Then coming back, I knew we had to go way out to go up into the wind, so I went almost down to the Torres Islands. That’s when my crew started to complain, asking why we go that far and why don’t we head for Tikopia. After four days we finally sighted Tikopia, but they said it was a different island. Then I was sleeping down in the cabin when I heard the sails bang about on top. I went up and nobody was looking after things. Everybody wanted to know better than me, but when it came to doing things they were hopeless. We finally made it back but then they didn’t want to sail with me anymore.’

By 2012 it appears that accusations started to rummage about in the island. That the Tafua clan was making a lot of money with the canoe, that it should be the property of all the island folks, why don’t they share the profits and other similar things. After a while Ariki Tafua, at the time the present chief’s father Edward, gave in and transferred ownership to a steering committee in the neighboring village of Saint Michael. More trips were made but the moneys earned ended up carelessly in private pockets instead of being reinvested in the maintenance of the boat. It looks as the Solomon Island disease of corruption and misuse of public funds and property has made great inroads in Tikopia as well. On one of the last trips in 2014 the foot of the main mast broke and repairing that proved to be too great a feat for the designated captain and crew. No more use was made of the sailing canoe and not only was there nobody looking after it anymore, but things started to disappear from it, probably to mend more urgent personal needs somewhere else on the island.

These two years of abandonment were now at our hands and I was doing my best to explain again and again that I had not come to do the work myself. From our first meeting with the three chiefs I had demanded working hands, skilled and unskilled, ideally from the different villages on the island, to come and help with the restoration of the canoe, so that a sense of communal ownership could be reestablished. This took a good week and a further visit to Ariki Kafika in Ravenga on a rainy Sunday to sink in to the realm of reality. By week two a small team of four of five constant helpers and a short list of intermittent appearances had materialized. The rotten wood was being scraped out from underneath the fiberglass of the decks and pieces of the miserable plywood we found at the local school were cut to be fitted back in.

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As was to be expected progress was terribly slow and the original optimistic goal of sailing to Vanikoro together with us on Aluna at our return to Lata by the end of the month soon had vanished into very thin air. But soon our new island friends were mixing epoxy with cheap Latex gloves on their big hands. Their work was far from a pretty sight with blobs of hardened glue all over the place. Pretty was not what we were after however, and at the start of our third week on Tikopia, the coaming of the worst affected hatch was being reinstalled. Locally cut timber started to appear at the sight to be transformed into new bearers for the deck platform. Ariki Tafua had generously donated a sturdy bed frame from one of his guest houses. This provided good quality timber for replacing the rotten parts in the hull sides. New pieces for the hinges were being cut out and shaped by a very tall and viscously skilled wood worker. On good days food was being prepared by nearby families for the work crew and the constant supply of beetlenut and tobacco kept things moving along.

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It was now the last week of our stay, the end of October was approaching and with that the onset of the cyclone season. The repair of the worst section of the hull decks was almost completed and I designed a new motor bracket to mount the 15hp engine that had been donated by the Tikopia member of parliament. This in fact was a bit of an engineering challenge of its own, as it had to be done crudely without any fancy blocks and tackle. I keep my fingers crossed that it will work in the harsh reality of maritime abuse. While there was still a good amount of work to be done, a solid beginning had been made.

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Figuring out what had gone wrong in the past beyond the general notion of money and accessories of the canoe mysteriously disappearing, proved to be an impossible task. The present Tikopia society is one in disarray. Modernity is overrunning the island at a time when three of the four chiefs had to fill the shoes of their fathers at a very young age, while the fourth is clearly losing his wits to old age. With the money economy infiltrating the island’s social fabric at breakneck speed, the power of decision making is sifting through the stunned fingers of the immature chiefs towards the more astute, and discontent and distrust is growing along the fuzzy lines of clanships like mold and moss in the tropical heat. Nobody I managed to talk to had the courage to speak out against the chief’s clan or give clear cut information about the whos and the hows of the managerial catastrophe that had stifled the sound development of Lapita Tikopia.

Against all odds Ariki Tafua seems determined to give Lapita Tikopia a second life. That there may be a good deal of self-interest fueling his resolve does not matter all that much in the destined evolution of things. Given the lack of interest demonstrated by his fellow Tikopia citizen, it might in fact be the canoe’s only chance of survival. The very visible truth is that the Tikopia have made a firm step into the modern day consumer society. Money and its distorted evaluation of reality is infiltrating the merry minds of these charming island folks like a viral outbreak of contagious disease under the burning tropical sun. Maybe the burgeoning middle class haunted by their very recent stone age past will sooner or later claim some or all of the properties of the flailing chiefly clans and in a neo-liberal take-over Tikopia style realize, in appearance at least, the communal intentions of the original donors of the canoe. That can and will of course happen only once the hard work of restauration from the past neglect has been accomplished, once the profits promise to be smooth and fat and sufficiently effortless…


In The Thick Of It

December 8, 2016

A week had gone by and we were in this adventure well over and above our ears. The work on Lapita Tikopia had started with the help of some youngsters, but soon a sizeable group of workers was assembling on a daily basis. A giant green tent top was strung over the canoe to shelter it from the rain that threatened to fall any day and time. The platform slats were removed and submerged in the sea under a pile of coral rocks to soak them in salt water and rescue of them whatever possible. The rotten wood around the hatch coaming was being carefully scraped out trying to leave the outer layer of fibreglass in place.

lapitaprogress-6Plywood however was nowhere to be found on the island. The best we could get our hands on was a pile of thin wall board, a low grade plywood with one side covered with a plastic coating that looks like wall paper. I decided that three layers of it with the plastic coating rough sanded and glued in with plenty of epoxy glue would have to do. Soon pieces were being cut to refill the hollowed out parts. I then gave our Tikopia friends a crash course in working with epoxy. We set up a station in one of the hull compartments with the resin and hardener jar and their calibrated pumps and a bucket with the glue mix. The latex gloves I had brought proved to be too small for the big hands of these island people. They provided much food for jokes and laughter and some ended up as udder-shaped balloons for the school kids passing by the work site daily on their way home.




From the very beginning of our stay on the island the idea had been floated to pull Aluna up on the beach next to Lapita Tikopia. The anchorage just outside of the fringing reef, while protected from the trades that howl out of the Southeast most of the time, promised to be marginal to dangerous should bad weather hit with a passing front that could bring nasty westerlies and corresponding onshore waves and swells. The offer of having plenty strong men available and an assortment of logs of the magic ‘slippery wood’ was too tempting to let go by and without thinking it through too much the day of the highest spring tides just after new moon Aluna slid across the reef and I rammed her into the sandy beach within a stone throw of the maritime patient we were diligently working on.

Unfortunately the promises made by Ariki Tafua and his younger brother, ‘engineer’ Dani, had trouble materializing. While a good crowd had assembled on the beach to watch the spectacle unfold, only a handful of them were able men and after much puffing and pulling the sun threatened to set and we called it a day, once the tide had retreated. Other intents were made the high tides of the following days, but Aluna proved too heavy to be pulled up the incline of the sand beach. The round underwater shape of her keels did not help either. As it turned out, we were now confined to a miserable existence with Aluna lapped on by the surf at high tides, with a slurry of coral fragments rubbing off her precious antifouling paint. To the discomfort of our vessel our own was added. As already mentioned, for the Tikopia the beach is far from a picturesque place to go for a pleasant evening stroll. Their well-encrusted habit of using it as a toilet had hordes of flies descend on our living quarters from sunrise to sunset.



No doubt practical it was to have Aluna and my workshop right there, to be able to run back and forth for tools and pieces, but the price was a too high one to pay. We stayed there in the surf and the smell for two weeks until the full moon tides came along and threatened to dislodge our eroding comfort for good.  With a push and a shove from an at this time reasonably testosterone infused crowd, Aluna returned to her element after her interlude in the surf. It took another week to have a half way decent mooring installed on two prominent coral heads inside the protected inlet and once again we could feel reasonably safe and concentrate on the work at hand.

By the end of week two new antifouling had been applied to both hulls and able woodworkers were busy carving replacement parts for the hatch hinges and the coamings. The goal was to restore the most deteriorated hull compartment before our departure and leave a model the Tikopia could reference to while finishing up the other three on their own. Some of the workers had had employment with the Solomon Island fishing fleet and with that experience with basic maintenance tasks like scrubbing off old paint and applying new one. The work with the epoxy didn’t come across as too difficult for them and while the cleanliness of their work left much to be desired, little by little the repairs progressed.

A pleasant interruption arrived on October 14. I had just crept out of the main hatch in the wee hours of morning, shaking off the grogginess of sleep and ready to face the notorious flies, when I hear a schoolboy calling me from the beach. He points out to the horizon and only says two words: ‘Lapita Anuta’. There she was, bobbing gently up and down on anchor just off the reef. Sam, the captain, came by later for quick chat. Of short stature and with an honest face framed by a round beard he sounded a story of confidence, counting over 20 separate trips done with Lapita Anuta, most of them working for pay, like this time for instance, as they were bringing the teachers of Anuta and Tikopia to Lata, the capital of the Temotu Province, for professional workshops offered by the Education Department.




Once again I pushed for closer collaboration between the two islands, to share maintenance chores and other know navigational knowhow. While there on Tikopian territory I received a shy affirmation from Sam, later when I ran into him again while back in Lata, the sad reality came to light instantly. ‘We have tried to work with the man (Ariki Tafua),’ he said, ‘The man cannot be trusted!’ There once again you have the human condition in all its splendor, throwing a wrench in the transmission. So close the two intimately related people live next to each other, so far they are apart when it comes to opening up their hearts!

Surveying The Sad State of Neglect

December 2, 2016

It had been clear to me that what we were going to see once finally close up to Lapita Tikopia was not going to be pretty. I had agreed with Ariki Tafua that work on the ship should start on the coming Monday and that on Friday and Saturday I was going to inspect the boat to get an idea of the scope of the work ahead.

We found Lapita Tikopia resting on round logs we would later learn are of the local ‘slippery wood’, ideal for dragging heavy boats over them. Her two hulls were each covered with a long strip of green tarp while a wider one loosely covered the center deck. Removing that one first we found a dilapidated cooking box resting on the platform timbers, a pile of inflated life vests with corroded cartridges and a heavy blue bag containing a life raft sitting next to it. The platform timbers flexed precariously when I tried to walk across them. Some pieces of it had broken off and rot hat gotten the best of others. Examining the hulls from the outside showed no major damage. The antifouling paint had worn off and two small cracks revealed a tiny bit of rot along the drain holes of the cockpit.

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After gingerly removing the long tarps covering the hulls we encountered the first serious trouble. The hinges of the enormous hatches of James Wharram’s Tama Moana design were badly worn, their ropes lose and whole pieces of the hinge mounts on the decks of the hulls were missing. The latter had resulted in cracked and holed areas where rainwater had entered. Rot had progressed from there underneath the fiberglass to the point making the deck areas feel mushy. Beatriz’ not very careful step on one area had her foot going straight through leaving a gaping hole. Fortunately, no serious injury resulted.

Once inside the hulls the extent of the damage became hauntingly clear. The plywood of the decks was reduced to a spongy mess in those places, rot extending as far as the top strips of the side planking and into the hatch coamings. White ants and wood rot go together in the tropics, and in addition there were dark brown knobs of as spongy fungus happily at home on the teak. There was water in almost all the bilges, fresh water, as the famous lick test soon revealed. About half of the removable floor boards that give access to the bilges were rotten to the point of no longer bearing the weight of a person standing on them. The floor of the starboard cockpit and the bulkhead around the entrance to the hull were also soft to the touch.

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Three of the beams were of a little smaller diameter. They had obviously been replaced, while the one that supports the mizzen mast showed small pockets of rot close to the port inboard lashing. The two masts had been leaned against a corrugated iron shed next to the boat, their wood severely weathered. The foot of the main mast had been crudely repaired with a string wrapped around it. While the two smaller sails looked decent, the big main sail’s vertical spar was reduced to a bare bamboo pole, weathered and split. Most of the rigging rope was missing. A crudely assembled motor bracket hung precariously from the aft beam.

The general impression was one of neglect. There’s a certain aspect emanating from a boat that has not properly been looked after, and Lapita Tikopia’s aura was impregnated with it from nose to tail. I began to wonder if anybody had even seriously looked at the boat prior to our arrival. All the descriptions of the damages I had heard prior to our arrival had been misleading, and I wondered if with the materials I had brought with us on Aluna we would be able to mend the worst of it and restore functionality to the boat. Most importantly there was going to be a great need of plywood to replace the rotten decks, and I had brought none. It could easily have been arranged with time, had there been a clear reporting of the facts.

But my task here on Tikopia is not only a technical and engineering one. Many people have invested their energy in the two Lapita canoes and a great deal of money has been spent. In order not to end up trying to refill a bucket with a giant hole in its bottom, I had to find out why it had come to all this. What went wrong on Tikopia? What is the social background that allowed such a precious and well-intended gift to waste under the sun? What kind of politics derailed the clear purpose of the donors and the original sound desire of the recipients?

Of course not all was work and despair. We did some exploring with our young friends. A terribly steep footpath leads up from Saint Michael’s village to a small gap in the mountain range visible from our anchorage. Descending on the other side our expert guides led us along the peaceful shores of Rongo Lake, the brackish body of water that fills the crater of the ancient volcano that created the island in the first place. Of its southern rim only two pinnacles are left standing. We learned that in 2013 cyclone Zoe had breached the sand spit that separates the lake from the sea and flooded the lake with salt water. Apparently Tikopia gets hit by cyclones almost every year. Our excursion then led us behind the village of Ravenga to a point where the footpath rounds a rocky promontory where the main crater rim descends down into the sea. From there we returned to the western side of the tiny island that for a couple weeks was our fragile home.

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180˚ Course Change

November 29, 2016

This is an interlude from the present time, as there are still three posts from the Tikopia project in the pipeline, which are duly scheduled to appear every Thursday for the upcoming weeks. Attentive readers might remember our ambitious plans for the oncoming cyclone season mentioned at our outset from New Zealand six months ago. Dreams like going up North to Kiribati, then Marshall Islands and the big brave jump all the way up North. Well, all of a sudden all the enormous sea we’d have to cross to do that started to seem a bit too brutal. Also our intense experience in Tikopia grew on us a bit like a finishing point of sort. Could it be that we had seen enough of the Pacific? Did the Poly-, Mela- and Micronesians all of a sudden look a little shallow, as if we had explored them to death, their charm now looking a bit empty, their cultural adaptations morphed to a solitary dead end street waiting to be crushed and cursed by modernity?

It came out of the blue, without wanting it, but then almost logically emerging from the few options at hand. Why don’t we go to Australia? That southernmost continent never had exerted any attraction for me with its white arrogance, dark history of penal colony and brutal annihilation of a native people with a skin tan too scary for the Europeans.

One month of humiliating maneuvers later, striving to fulfill the stringent visa requirements, and with a good chunk of cash having evaporated in the doldrums sun, it feels a little bit like sometimes life wants you to do things you never really wished for. Something must be waiting there ‘down under’ for us to do. It certainly is a great privilege to be able to radically change our life’s direction whenever the calling rings in our ears.

We have spent the last week and half in what must be one of the most miserable places in the South Pacific: the Solomon Islands noisy, dirty and faceless capital of Honiara. An impossibly small and exposed port, where half the time your vessel is bouncing up and down on short choppy swells coming in the tiny bay from the North, makes for a miserable existence at best, with torrential rainfalls that purge the creeks of their accumulated human throwaways, which ends up washed out into the sea, a slurry of plastic bags, food containers, plastic bottles of all sizes swimming around the boat at anchor and lining the beaches with their non-floating peers the tin cans. Landing our canoe here at the ‘Yacht Club’ always implied wading through a meter wide band of debris of modern mankind’s industrial excrements, where the Tikopia’s poop on their pristine beaches was allowed to quickly fade into memory, whipped out by a yet more disgusting manifestation.

After undergoing medical exams to prove that we will not infect the Aussies with some solemn diseases and staring at a wall of faceless refusal to communicate, finally last night an email confirmed that now the two of us are deemed suitable for visiting the terra australis. We will set to sea tomorrow morning and set an ambitious course for Brisbane in Southern Queensland, with Bundaberg as an option should the gods of the winds be less then favorable. We will report from the Eastern seaboard of the notorious Coral Sea as soon as we shall have passed unscathed the just as notorious Australian border controls with our unconventional vessel and our still mighty non-conventional attitudes!

Saint Michael’s Feast

November 24, 2016

September 29 is the day of Saint Michael in the calendar of the Melanesian branch of the Anglican Church. That is reason enough for the whole island population of Tikopia to congregate in and around the church under his patronage. It is a long dilapidated concrete building with a corrugated tin roof. We had come ashore with the morning service already underway, the chanting of the choir had lured us in. Once again a group of children had greeted us as we landed our canoe and had lead us by our hands across the big open clearing towards the church, which is not big enough to accommodate everybody, so groups of people in colorful dresses had been sitting in the shade of the trees all around while the muffled sound of the celebrated mass continued to nurture their lack of attention.

Now we are sitting cross-legged on the matted floor of a house next to the church. Ariki Tafua has invited us for the feast and we are in the house of his wife’s family. The chief and the invited guests seem to be always eating first. From a couple baskets bundles of food are unwrapped. The big green leaves are spread out on the floor in front of us and now serve as plates. Mashed manioc and banana pudding serve as staple, and heaps of it land on our plates plus sizeable junks of baked fish. A short blessing is pronounced, the Tikopia have embraced the Christian doctrine only very recently, in fact since about the middle of last century. Then the fingers dig in and for a short while the conversation stops. Tikopia are of Polynesian stock, proud and tall built and Ariki Tafua is a splendid example. His sizeable frame is hunched over the edibles in front of him and we do our best to keep up with his appetite. As soon as he’s had enough his food is moved on to the next group of people and eyes staring at us from the opposite side of the ample room give us a hint that our feeding time better be over too. Before we know it our ‘plate’ is also moved along and ends up before other hungry fingers.

After washing our hands and a short chitchat we go back outside and return to the clearing around the church. There the people who have come from afar, if such a thing can exist on such a tiny island, are finishing up their picnics. We are invited to sit next to the chief and his family on a mat covering the sandy grounds. A wailing sound comes from the other side of the clearing where a group of men has risen and a slow chanting makes a rather timid entrance. Little by little the voices clear and become infused with passion. The chief explains that the folks from the other side of the islands are ‘rehearsing’ their first set of ‘kustom’ presentation. The two chiefs from the township of Ravenga, Ariki Kafika and Ariki Fangarere are both dressed in traditional attire, broad bands of tapa cloth wrapped around their waists, bare chested with bright white leis around the necks, the heads topped with crowns made from the yellow stems of palm fronds. Soon the group starts advancing towards us swaying slowly from side to side while stomping heavily on the ground. A crooked half of an old canoe has been placed in the center of the clearing and a guy with two wooden sticks pounds a slow rhythm down on it, keeping the performers’ pace in unison. The group has now been reinforced in the back rows by women and young folks and as they advance towards us their chanting grows in crescendo until they approach the lonesome drummer in the center. There all of a sudden their pulsating fervor comes to an end, but the group reforms once again in the background from they had started.


After two more chants the dancers retire to their places and sit down. It is now our side’s turn and we’re immediately dragged into the action, soon swaying our enchanted bodies from side to side with hanging arms, trying to imitate the intriguingly monotonous melody, while connecting to mother Earth with our pounding feet. With every new number the dancer’s enthusiasm accelerates and we clearly are on a path to some mystic frenzy. The beetle nut stained teeth of our hosts gleam read and ravaging as the smiles become more and more exuberant. Our heads in the meantime have also been decorated with yellow crowns of palm fronds and Beatriz’ advanced dance moves are greatly appreciated and profusely applauded.


All afternoon long the two parties alternate their presentation, the dance moves growing more elaborate with eclectic jumping in line formation, clearly a challenge to improvise on given structure, where the most daring take the lead and enthusiastic followers trailing their valent initiative.


A short announcement of Ariki Tafua brings the celebration to a close while the sun starts its decent in the West. We are summoned to a short meeting at his house with the two chiefs from the ‘other’ side, to explain to them the purpose of our visit. They are both young and friendly and promise support by sending workers for our task of resuscitating the neglected Lapita canoe. This brings the day of celebration to a close and we retire to our gently bouncing floating home on anchor just off the reef. The children help us carry our canoe back into the water and send us off with cheers and laughter and eyes of immense curiosity, a trait we would soon learn to appreciate well beyond admiration!


A Chiefly Visit

November 17, 2016

The lukewarm waters had managed to cool off our worn bodies just a little bit and now under the still scorching afternoon sun we are paddling over the barely submerged reef towards a bright yellow beach at the southwestern extremity of the island. As we approach the sand at the water’s edge a group of children comes hollering from underneath the shady trees behind the beach. They help us carry Alunita up above the line of debris marking the limit of the waters at high tide. After a short mutual introduction, answering their standard ‘Wats yah neim?’ and in turn asking for theirs, we are taken by the hands and lead inshore.

There in the shade a bare hundred meters in from the beach sits Lapita Tikopia eagerly awaiting our visit. She looks sad covered with a green tarp but from a quick glance along the waterline her hulls appear sound. We continue in the shade of the trees towards a settlement where low set houses thatched with sugar palm leaves are framed by washed cloth hanged on lines strung between bamboo poles and cooking stations where shiny pots and pans await their next use. A little black and grey striped piglet crosses our path and hurries away to the great amusement of the young friends holding our hands.

The chief’s house only distinguishes itself from its neighbors by a slightly bigger size. A two-foot-high entrance opens on one corner and a plaited mat is rolled out from it like an inviting tongue. One of our guides crouches down to have a peek inside and announces that unfortunately the chief is not at home. A voice emanating from the house next doors proclaims something in a shrill native tongue, and we are informed that the chief has in fact gone to the gardens. Resigned that we might have to come back the following day we return to the beach with our local guides.

There a fiberglass skiff had just pulled in and we recognized Danny, the chief’s younger brother, who had come out to greet us as we had dropped our anchor. We help him drag the skiff up the short slope of the beach and after a short chitchat we are delighted to hear that the chief is now awaiting us.

Staring once again at the entrance to the chief’s house down at our feet, I hear a full-chested voice coming from inside, pronouncing my name and inviting me to come in. ‘But through the other door!’, it continues. I look to the right along the house but cannot distinguish any other opening. My questioning look is answered by the kids with gestures towards that same entrance at my feet. Down on my knees I go and crawl in through the entrance. An imposing figure sits there cross-legged in the shady twilight. A friendly grin decorates the round face of the chief and he extends his hand towards me in greeting. ‘Please, sit down over here!’, I’m told.

We had brought a small collection of little gifts for the chief, as we were told is customary. I extract from my backpack the water tap I had managed to obtain from the Office of Natural Disasters in Late, to hopefully put the water tank donated by them to the island a couple months earlier in working conditions.  A throttle cable for his outboard motor follows, about the need of which I was informed back in Luganville by the skipper of the German backpacker expedition boat ‘Infinity’. I had talked to Ariki Tafua a couple times previously by phone and during one of these conversations he had dropped the innocent sounding sentence: ‘Don’t forget to bring the batteries for the crayfish!’ It took me a while to figure out that this was not a surrealist joke about nature’s apparently infinite supply of energy, but a petition to bring AA alkaline batteries for his diving torches. Hinting at the modest material wealth pertaining to our personalities I next hand the chief two four packs of such batteries and finally, as something ‘purely practical’, a small envelope with a couple fish hooks.

The chief does not pretend to show any specific appreciation, but quietly deposits the gifts behind him on the matted floor. He is sitting in front of a queen size mattress under a mosquito net hanging from the rafters. These rafters are sizeable beams of timber suspended on six massive poles dug into the ground. ‘Our houses have to hold up to cyclones pretty much every year.’, comments the chief having followed my gaze, ‘This pole there in the back is the oldest. It is over one hundred and fifty years old. My grandfather installed it there.’ The pole he gestures to is painted black and sports strings of tiny squares carved into its sides. Beatriz asks if it is all right to go and have a look at it. ‘Yes, but don’t pass through here’, the chief replies and sends her through the back of the house, quite obviously to make sure that she does not pass to close to the chiefly bed.

Two drinking coconuts are brought in, cut open on one side with a thumb sized opening that has a bright white rim with the nut’s delicious flesh. Coconut water is the elixir of life, if there ever was one, and its freshness pouring down my throat alleviates a good part of the oppressive heat. Ariki Tafua announces that the day after tomorrow there will be a celebration in honor of Saint Michael, where the whole island population will congregate in the church right where Aluna is anchored. Not only will this be our first opportunity to observe the Tikopian ‘custom’ dances, but the other three chiefs will be in attendance and before heading home to their villages on the east side of the island will meet right here at Ariki Tafua’s ‘fare’. This will provide the perfect opportunity to inform them of the planed work on Lapita Tikopia and hopefully get them to support the project by sending some of their best people to come and help.

Towards the end of the meeting the chief’s jovial air comes to an abrupt end. In a rather serious voice he says: ‘You have to observe the ‘custom’ while you’re here on the island. In the chief’s presence you have to always crawl on your knees. And that door you came in, that is the chief’s door. Only for the chief!’ My quick apologies are well received. ‘It’s all right, you didn’t know!’, he smiles again, ‘But it is my responsibility to tell you. You are my guests! So it is important, especially when the other chiefs are here, that you respect our ‘customs’!’ As we had just been instructed, we crawl backwards out of the entrance, the correct one this time, the one for the common folks. It would have been to my left, had I looked there before entering.

Heading Into The Wind

November 10, 2016

It is September 23 and a gentle wind is allowing us to set our course to East Northeast. A little triangular speck of dark blue has appeared on the horizon to the East, a bit like a solitary sharp tooth sticking out from underneath a string of convection clouds. Tikopia is now just under 40 miles away. Still it would be three more days until we will finally reach its shores after ghosting across glassy seas with little to no wind and under the scorching sun of the Southern lower latitudes.

We had started our journey three days earlier, leaving Graciosa Bay in the calm lee of Santa Cruz Island, as Nendo Island is still called by most locals. The weather forecast had promised gentle weather for pretty much the entire week to come. I was hoping this would take most of the strain out of this tedious upwind journey for 200 miles to the east, straight into the face of the normally ferocious trade winds. What I had failed to realize is that with the flailing of the trade winds and the enormous heat generated by the sun, which had just crossed the equator and was now bearing down on us on its way south, would create all kinds of local wind phenomenon. Giant squalls distorted the feeble winds around them in all many different ways, creating a aeolian labyrinth through which we were now trying to navigate Aluna amongst dark bottomed clouds with streaks of rain pouring out from underneath.


On board with us was Luke, according to his own words the ‘author of the corresponding gospel’, who had been to Lata in his function as chairman of the Tikopian church to attend the consecration of the new bishop of Temotu Province. Once that pompous event had passed, he found himself stranded there with no means to get back home until mid-October, when the monthly cargo ship would make the long journey we were about to undertake. He was a lively chap with a special wit, that we took to study carefully to provide us with insights into the refined psychology of our soon to be hosts.

The Tikopia are a tiny minority of Polynesian stock in a nation of almost exclusively Micronesian decent. They are respected for their tall bodies, their ebullient hair and their smart and efficient ways, but also despised for precisely the same reasons by the Micronesians, who tend to be shorter, have curly hair and are generally quite a bit slower to react. This wit was to be with us throughout the trip, with Luke frolicking with all kinds of predictions, about the weather to come, the ways of the currents and the habits of the creatures in the sea, and even the features of his island home as we were approaching it, with most of them demonstrating a similar degree of veracity as his introductory statement about his supposed literary contribution to the New Testament of the Christian faith. The side of our boat next to his favorite place to sit and contemplate the seascape is now splattered with rust red stains. The beetle nut chewers are not known to be very careful when choosing sites for expulsing the bright red spit accumulating in their hamster like cheeks. Our friend Luke was no exception and obviously did not care much to investigate the effect of the wind before getting rid of the excess beetle nut juice in his oral cavity. The lime induced acid in that liquid had eaten into the weathered top side paint beyond the possibility to be wiped away without literally grating away the paint itself.

Every day the winds dropped in strength and one morning we awoke to see the island of Vanikoro closer than the night before, where we had passed it and left it aft of our beams. The feeble winds allowed us to advance a bare knot and a half at an angle of 55˚ to the wind. Checking our movements on the GPS it became clear that we were not only heading directly into the wind, but on top of it fighting a considerable current, pushing our course on the port tack away from our destination, while on the opposite tack we were barely able to hold our position. Luckily it turned out that the current’s strength waxed and waned with the tides, which on this latitude are becoming defined more and more by the sun, especially around full moon, with the waters being pulled during the day in one direction and during the night in the other.

The situation improved a bit later in the day, but progress was still painfully slow, to the great despair of our friendly passenger, to whom the concept of having to tack into the wind had been stowed away in the dusty realm of distant memories, the millennia of the most amazing seafaring culture this planet has ever seen pulverized by barely a century of sedentary neglect.

A delightful interruption to the monotony of calms came on Sunday, which seems to be the fishermen’s day of blessings. Luke’s eyes were good a scanning the seas and he had spotted a floating object ahead of our course, coming closer rapidly. It took a tacking maneuver to reach it and investigate. It turned out to be a strange cylindrical plastic object of maybe four meters in length, which like any other good sized floating debris, had been claimed by the seabirds as a perch to rest and roost. That is in fact how Luke had become aware of it in the first place. ‘I’m always looking at the frigate birds’, he commented, ‘there’s always a log or something close by where they are.’ While not as dramatic as the overturned canoe with a dehydrated castaway on it, as it appeared in a wild divination of its original shape, just as our ship was approaching the flotsam, the little bell on our trolling line rang with as snap. At the end of it a beautiful dorado came reluctantly aboard and provided fresh food for a good two days.


Returning to our little tooth of hope on the horizon to the east, its appearance has been made possible by an afternoon of usable winds approaching a good ten knots. They last into the better part of the night, but once again by midnight my slumber becomes intermittent as it has been throughout the journey. I have to get up and fiddle with the sails every hour or so, and progress comes to us once again at the pace of a slug. Glassy seas with only slight ripples continue for more endless days, but we are sure to harvest every crumb of kinetic energy out of the thin air. The tooth slowly transforms into a small pyramid at the falling of night and the following morning it has grown a flat annex on its southern side.


On Tuesday, October 27 around two thirty in the afternoon our anchor drops into the turquoise sand along a wall of jungle green. A couple of canoes approach, once again with crafty outriggers stabilizing their motion. Friends of our passenger they are and have come to welcome us. They come aboard for a quick chat and then take Luke with his few belongings ashore. It is scorching hot; the thermometer reads a hallucinating forty degrees. An hour later we float in the lukewarm water, trying to hang our feet and hands down into the little cooler wet a meter or so down. We’re trying to freshen up for our first important task on this renowned island: Report our arrival to Ariki Tafua, chief of the western side of Tikopia. This visit promises to be a rather formal affair!


Back To Civilization, Almost…

November 2, 2016

The return journey was supposed to be much easier and faster. It still took us three days to accomplish. The cyclone season is approaching and the trade winds have lost a lot of their strength. We left on a Friday night after having been sent off by our Tikopian friends with a good smear of turmeric on the bare parts of our bodies that continues to stain our clothing in bright yellow and will do so for a good time to come.


Until Saturday afternoon Aluna was happily riding a gentle Northeasterly and Vanikoro Island had appeared to our South and was making its way slowly past our beams. By Sunday morning the winds had almost disappeared. Big dark grey squalls were forming all around us and they did bring intermittent winds and torrential rain showers. The going was slow and constant attention was needed to trim and adjust the sails. We crept along, helped a little by the ocean current, and Utupua Island with its rounded peaks dove in and out of the curtains of rain, slowly inching its way to our aft. By Sunday evening a faint outline of Nendo Island showed before the orange of dawn started to suck away the daylight. For a change the winds had veered to the South, light but quite useable throughout the night with only a few intrusions to my slumbering to get up groggily and fiddle with the sails.


Monday morning saw us rounding the island’s northeastern tip. The weather still was squally with gray blobs of condensation draping over the green mountain crests. Aluna’s big main sail changed sides every now and then in response to the fickle winds around us. By sundown we dropped our anchor once again at the tranquil spot at the bottom of Graciosa Bay. Time to have a short rest and focus on the future!


A series of posts about our very special times with the Tikopia and their singular island society will now follow before revealing our plans for the next couple months to come.

High Quality Coconut Oil Form Low Tech Production

September 28, 2016

One of OceansWatch’s sustainability projects consists in teaching women a simple, almost fool proof method for producing high grade virgin coconut oil, which is then brought back to New Zealand on the organizations sailboats once a year. To produce the oil to the picky standards of a first world government in a very simple and utterly rural setting took a couple years of work to streamline. 

We had the chance to assist at one of the workshops given to a group of women in Pala Village. The gist of the program is precisely that: to give women, who strangely enough are most always underserved when it comes to economic power, a chance to make a little bit of cash on their own. Here in the Solomon Islands land ownership for example is a purely masculine affair. At the government table of the timber right hearing we attended a couple weeks back there was one women sitting amongst a good dozen of men, and all she was allowed to do was say a short prayer at the end. 


It all starts with a pile of coconuts, I our case a good one hundred seventy strong, peeled of their outer fibrous skin and now as the first business of the day cleaned down to bare wood with all kinds of scrapers, from kitchen knives to shards of broken beer bottles. It’s a community affair, so the going is loud and happy, the fond laughter that’s heard in any village here throughout the day accompanies the task to sweeten its boring routine. 

Next comes the splitting station, where sharp bush knives are wielded with precision. The nut sits innocently in a bare hand. It has to be smacked laterally just the right way to make it spring open. Its refreshing water squirts out into a basin to be used for pig feed later on. The halves of the nuts are piled up in a container upside down, to prevent the ever present flies from setting their filthy feet onto the freshly exposed bright white meat. 

Once the first container is full it wanders to the third and probably the most laborious station. Here the coconut halves are held with both hands and scrubbed against a metal grater attached to a small stool. The meat is ground up into a pile of thin strips and the now empty shells discarded. 

About two thirds full the plastic tub must be before it continues its journey to the next station where a mixture of ambient temperature and boiling water is added to the gratings. Coconut oil changes its aggregate state from gel to liquid at around 28˚ Celsius. The idea therefore is to keep the temperature of the mix slightly above that but not too much, as the a much higher temperature would start to quickly degrade the quality of the final product. The slushy mixture is then worked with a pestle for a good fifteen minutes to extract as much oil as possible from the ground up fibers. 

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From there a strainer picks up the fibers out of the white liquid, which then are put into a press to squeeze out every bit of liquid and leave behind dry fiber, which also will be transformed into pig meat. This is usually the final stage of the first day of work. The liquid is now an emulsion of water and oil and will need to sit overnight to let gravity do its work of separating the two materials. The following morning the oil will be decanted and bottled according to its degree of purity. The containers then are stood out into the sunlight for a couple days to purify the oil and extract more and more of the water, which at that stage still causes some murkiness. 

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If you are interested in this process of providing underserved women with a means to create economic sustainability, visit OceansWatch’s website for more information and the possibility to contribute to this well intended and passionately executed program with your generous donation. 

The Search for the Lapita Canoes

September 22, 2016

It had been impossible to get a good idea of the present conditions of the two Lapita canoes the Wharrams had donated to the islands of Anuta and Tikopia back in 2009 before arriving here in Lata, Temotu Province. The modern day communications we are so used to when we contact friends by shooting emails back and forth through all kind of messaging applications do not work here in these remote specks of land. The people here are just now beginning to get overrun by the technology craze of western consumer society.

But since we have arrived here three weeks ago the situation has clarified amazingly fast. We had a chance to meet with two ‘captains’ of Lapita Tikopia, who were in Lata for a training event. From the couple of conversations with them it appears that the canoe has suffered its abandonment due to damages suffered during a trip in 2014, where one of the mast feet cracked, a problem they have been unable to resolve, making the vessel unfit for use. As it happens in the tropical climate, deterioration has been rapid since then, with the platform timbers and two if its five beams rotted away. The large hatches of the hulls have also started to leak, which lets rain water into the interior and that can rapidly lead to rot. Within a couple of days’ time we will start to undertake the arduous upwind journey to the little island of Tikopia to finally have a first hand look at the situation.

Lapita Anuta on the other hand quite obviously has found abler and more dedicated seamen to look after and make good use of her. They have received last year’s donation of repair materials brought up by OceansWatch and she is now making regular trips from Anuta to Lata and back, bringing teachers here for trainings and important meetings, for which the vessel receives monetary remuneration. It appears that she has managed to enter the difficult dimension of economic self-sufficiency!

Last Sunday people from all over the Temotu Province’s many islands had come to Lata to witness the consecration of a new bishop for the Anglican Church. While the celebration was rather heavy on religious pomp it also included some demonstrations of traditional ‘kustom’ dancing and for us the opportunity to chat with some other folks from Tikopia, who confirmed the urgent need for attention of the canoe.

A possible answer as to why the Anutans had managed to develop the purpose of their donation received and make it fully their own, while the Tikopians had failed, came from a very unlikely source. During the food feast that had followed the hollowly holly celebration of a shift in the power hierarchy within the Melanesian branch of the Anglican Church, we were invited to sit down on the grass still wet from the last one of the many rainstorms that had tried their best to mar the festivity since the early morn. A long line of leaves sat spread out before us with boiled breadfruit, kumaras, yams and fish and meats packed in bundled up leaves. Soon everybody started digging in with their bare fingers and shoving good-sized morsels of yummies into their tummies. It all tasted delicious in spite of having sat in the rain out on the field since the morning and the enjoyment was endless up until that crucial moment when a corn sized splinter of pig bone happened to become involved in a violent encounter with my upper left premolar. The poor accessory to my usually quite sturdy digestive tract split right down the middle with a frightening sound that reverberated throughout the many cavities of my skull. A tactile investigation of the unfortunate occurrence produced two fragments of bony white matter laid out on my index finger between dark green flecks of island cabbage cooked comfortably in coconut milk. A further visual inspection revealed miniscule muscle fibers still firmly attached to one and with simple logical deduction I came to the finite conclusion that this therefore was not a part of my premolar that had decided to wander off duty, but in fact the culprit of the masticatory accident, while the one to its left with its shiny, polished surface definitely was.

On Monday morning I therefore found myself waiting on the well-worn wooden benches of the provincial hospital’s waiting room, keeping my gaze firmly on the indigo blue door with the white lettering indicating that behind it a dentist was exercising his hopefully well-developed art. In spite of my dedication a local gentleman managed to jump the line and enter the door before my most important self while having clearly arrived while I had been sitting there for a good while already. I could only convince myself of the imagined fact that his suffering must have been a good bit more eminent than mine, which in fact did not include any pain but only a slight discomfort.

Once past that minor hiccup I found myself comfortably situated on the reclining chair with a very patient lady dentist listening to my detailed explanation of the incident at the root of the reason for my visit. As is usual in such circumstances a good deal of circumferential conversation took place before, during and after my speech was impaired by the very professionally implemented repair procedure of my unfortunate premolar. Once it had progressed from the standard ‘where are you from’ to ‘what are you doing here’, it turned out that my very able female practitioner was well aware of the Lapita canoes and demonstrated ample knowledge of the intrinsic details of the particular island mentalities and customs. ‘The Anutans are a very brave people’, she mused all of a sudden. When asked, what would make her say such a thing, she elaborated: ‘They brave the sea like few others do nowadays.’ I felt an instant trust to impose on her my most burning question: ‘And why do you think the Tikopians have not been able to accomplish the same? Why have they not taken possession of their canoe?’ There was only a very short delay in her answer, which then emerged loud and clear: ‘The Tikopians have fear! They are afraid, I believe.’

I have grave suspicion that the dentist’s analysis might behold a giant grain of truth and have since that revealing conversation begun to construct possible strategies in my ever restless mind, designing ways to tackle that outbreak of yet another local variety of the disease of civilization, where once valiant warriors have succumbed to the emptiness of modernity, where fear has infected the mind and disrupted the naturel trust to a point where congruent action has been interrupted. It makes this upcoming journey all the more interesting and important as we might chance upon the discovery of crucial information on our expedition towards uncovering the root causes of mankind’s present and gravely acute illness of systemic destruction.

You might not hear from us now for a good month and a half, as Tikopia has only very reluctantly opened itself up to the outside world. There seems to be mobile phone coverage on the island as I have had several conversations with Ariki Tafua, the chief of the village where the canoe is located and where we will be staying. But my guess is that there will be no data streams to connect to the internet. I hope you will joyfully make this excursion with us into times only a very short number of years past, where information had to be collected by physically moving the containers of our mind to actual places rooted in reality.