Papua New Guinea to the Solomon Islands
After clearing in to Wewak on the north shore of Papua New Guinea, owner Grant Wilson hired a pilot to help with navigation up the Sepik River. Off the first village after the river bar, canoes paddled out to intercept Whale Song and sell exquisite wooden masks. Sepik men carve compulsively — full-size crocodile heads (and even bodies!) are carved into the bows of their canoes. Shaped posts support their homes. In most settlements the giant head of some mythical creature stands out from the gables of the village’s biggest structure — haus tambaram — the men’s spirit house. At Ambunti, 200 miles upriver, Whale Song had to turn back. We were running out of water.
The name Papua New Guinea challenges what the word country implies. The count varies as to how many languages are spoken there. If it weren’t for “pisin Englis,” lingua franca on all islands, the family on Crown Island wouldn’t understand the Unea Islanders, 90 miles away, or the people on Garove Island. Johan Albrecht Harbor on Garove is set in a crater, surrounded by the walls of an extinct volcano. But two days later, on New Britain, Whale Song anchored near a live one. Tavurvur belched ashes and flames and shot pumice rocks that incongruously bobbed in a little bay under the volcano. Rabaul, a busy port town in its shadow, was still digging out from under mud and ashes.
Papua New Guinea shares seismic unease with the Solomon Islands, where we chugged past grand steaming cones on the way south. On New Georgia, a red roof prominent above the tree line marked the entrance to Lever Harbour. A settlement of five families in bamboo huts lay low around the skeleton of a church under prolonged construction. A 6-foot-long split gong called people to worship. When the trading began — baskets, carved paddles and bone fishhooks for cold drinks, rice and sugar — settlement resident Roxon Tender Love offered us megapode eggs. The birds usually lay them in hot volcanic sand, but Love attracted them by putting a roof over a midden of warm fermenting food scraps. The eggs were huge. Barbara Parks, our cook, needed only one for three banana cakes. Our visit here went so well that we were invited to go boar hunting — with spears and dogs as our weapons!
Solomon Islands to Australia
We left Honiara, the Solomons’ capital on Guadalcanal Island, on schedule. The delay came a few hours later when a low-pressure system to the southeast matured into a cyclone. The wind and seas built from the west. I turned Whale Song northwestward behind the Russell Islands. With 800 miles between us and Cairns, Australia, the chance of running into a cyclone made us nervous, but luck was on our side. The system turned north and we went southwest. Out in the Coral Sea, waves sparkled blue and silver under puffy tradewind clouds and red-footed boobies dive-bombed on flying fish that took off from Whale Song’s foaming bow wave.
A popular vacation destination, Cairns, in Queensland, Australia, has everything a voyaging yacht needs. We drove Whale Song into a dry dock big enough to take vessels double our size. A new gasket fixed the bow thruster leak and left us some time for exploring. The town galleries ranged from tacky tourist stuff to sublime symbolic aboriginal art. A boardwalk along the waterfront served as a gallery of bird life — royal spoonbills, white pelicans, ibises, whimbrels, masked lapwings, godwits, curlews and dowitchers were just yards away. Trips into the rainforests changed our misperception of Australia as a country of one vast desert.