Story and pictures copyright © 1999 Julia Hazel
Jeshan goes to PNG - Page 4
August-October 1999

Having survived the slippery slopes of Misima (page 3) I was ready to stick to sea level for a while, and set off from Ebora a day later. It was an easy sail, close hauled in light winds, heading across to tiny Tinolan Island, a low sandy cay with brilliant turquoise water around it. Perfect for snorkelling, catching up on a few chores and watching a sailing canoe from the nearby Deboyne Islands swoop by. They were apparently diverting to do a little fishing on their way to the coconut plantation at the other end of the island.

Then on downwind to the Conflict Group. Careful eyeball navigation to pick the way in through the surrounding reefs, glad of good visibility and fine weather.

Next stop was Itamarina Island, a tiny sand cay, so small you feel you could almost wrap your arms around it. No human residents. Sea eagles nesting in the tallest tree. Reef herons on the shore. Tiny unidentified birds flitting about in the dense undergrowth.

Just enough space in between the coral patches for Hannabella and Jeshan to swing at anchor, grateful for the benign weather which made it all possible. More snorkelling, more diving -- superb.

From there just a short sail to the our next anchorage, beside Gabugabutau Island. It's just a tiny sand cay on the big oval reef which forms the Conflict atoll, hardly more than a sandbank with a few trees clinging on precariously, and several already fallen into the sea where wind and waves had undermined their foothold. With the wind picking up, and quite strong currents flowing in and out of the pass close by, it was not exactly a comfortable spot, but interesting diving and exploring the shore line.

To the north and west of the Conflict Group the chart shows big blank areas -- pretty disconcerting when you are about to sail right across that very area! Especially when it is marked with a few dotted outlines of assumed reefs (perhaps from aerial photos) and notes like "Coral Shoal PA" (PA stands for Position Approximate) or "4 fathoms reported 1969".

This is just one of many unsurveyed parts of PNG waters, but they don't concern locals too much, since they have shallow draft boats and no charts anyway. Of course the few big ships passing to the south of PNG stick closely to the "beaten track" of charted routes. Needless to say, by that stage we were already well off the beaten track. With the weather fine and clear, a careful tip-toe through the shoals looked preferable to a long detour.

All the same it was a nerve-wracking way to go, especially after I found I was the only dummy out in the middle of the shoals, eyes peeled and dodging suspicious-looking patches for several hours on end. The Hannabella guys, who only set off later, opted to take a "fishing detour". Well that was their story anyway.

What's more, they did catch a very good fish, as I found out when Paul and Chris invited me to dinner that night to share it. What a gourmet treat - thanks, guys!

And so... on to Basilaki Island, Logea Island, and then Samarai Island, all with steep slopes and dense greenery, in contrast to the low sandy cays before. More people too, especially around Samarai which was once the administrative centre for the whole region. It appears to run mainly on some kind of left over momentum from decades ago, because nowadays everything is drowsy and dilapidated, in a green-grass-and-flowers-over-abandoned-buildings tropical sort of way.

Quite a historic place and interesting characters still around, though you would need lots of time and patience to poke about and discover things for yourself. Nothing is packaged and presented for tourists, and almost nothing remains of old structures or artefacts which must have succumbed to wartime destruction or tropical decay.

The surrounding scenery is lovely, but the catch is the tidal currents which rip through the straits around Samarai, squeezed between the Papua New Guinea mainland (just a few miles away) and the many small high islands close together here.

Getting my anchor fouled off Samarai was another reminder that this a place with plenty of potential hassles for small boat sailors. I was lucky to get the anchor free after lots of to-ing and fro-ing and tugging in this direction and that. And at that point it seemed a good idea to get on out through the straits while good weather lasted, and hope to make another visit to the area on the way back south later.

The other motivation to move on was diving, and I met up with Hannabella again at a tiny little bay on the mainland, chosen with diving in mind -- it had nice fringing reefs close by. Among swirling fish of all colours and many other delights we saw the huge-est turtle I've ever met, just cruising past us about 20 metres below the surface. Also the sleepiest tasselled wobbegong resting in a coral cave, giving us unlimited time to oggle at its weirdness. (This is a mild-mannered relative of the shark family. It has these amazing decorative fringes, so-called tassels, around its head. Such decoration on a bird would be weird, but on a fish it really has to be seen to be believed.)

Next: Jeshan goes to PNG - Page 5

Story and pictures copyright © 1999 Julia Hazel

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