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June 19, 2000

Tarawa to Solomon Islands voyage, Update #18

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Date: Mon, 19 Jun 2000 21:39:54 -0700
Day 20
Wind SE 5 knots
Heading 250 Magnetic
Latitude: 08 degs 33.55' South
Longitude: 160 degs 35.40' East

Our destination Auki is now very visible on the skyline as an obtrusion of trees overhanging a bulge of headland 14 nautical miles dead ahead. Three miles to our left is the volcanic island of Malaita, much higher than either of us expected and covered in what looks from this distance to be thick, lush vegetation - a far cry from the barren sand atoll of Tarawa from where our journey began nearly three weeks ago. The higher elevations are elegantly topped with cloud and way down below on the hill slopes the tell tale signs of slash and burn agriculture can be seen: single columns of smoke rising the jungle. A peaceful looking island - at least from out here.

As with each voyage our first impression of this new 'dot on the map' came in the form of smell. Last night as we rounded the tiny island of Mbathakana on the northwestern tip of the main island our finely tuned nasal membranes caught the first whiff of land: that base smell of earth that stirs something very primal deep inside, cooking fires from the necklace of villages strung along the shoreline and another, very different and unfamiliar smell - of herbs and spices or some plant local to this part of the world. The smell of a place is I think one of the most unacknowledged wonders of traveling: breathing in aromas one previously had no idea existed. After you leave that particular place you may never smell that smell again. But one day, while doing something completely unrelated in a far away land, something or someone will remind you of that smell, and the associated memories come flooding back as sharp as if they'd only just happened. Smell is so under-rated yet so powerful.

These same aromas wafting to us across the water last night would have met sailors down the centuries who came to visit the islands in the name of conquest or trade. Last night was a day short of full moon on the wane, and as Moksha - with Chris as the pedals - silently slipped along parallel to the shore only a half mile away, I had a rare occasion to sit out on deck in the milky white light taking in a scene straight out of Robinson Crusoe: the faint outline of dark palms nodding in silent approval over a thin ribbon of bleach-white sand being hammered by the surf. Behind, the grey outline of Malaita island and further still the Southern Cross - our guide to take us ever southward - thrown up as a dramatic backdrop to this man-eater island. A hundred years ago - or maybe less or even still in remote places - cannibals would have been lurking in those trees, preying on passing ships with the aid of their fast paced war canoes or the odd shipwrecked sailor for an added nutritional boost to what would have otherwise been a predominantly vegetarian diet. It's an image that captures every schoolboy's imagination. And here Chris and I were where it all happened - just like in the penguin books!

Our immediate plans are to stay in Auki for a few days and glean some local knowledge on where best to wait out until April can fly in for the next leg and Chris can fly out back to the UK. We'll still endeavor to send back daily reports, so click back now and then to find out what antics we get up to on land. This island is after all home to some pretty interesting types: like the followers of the mysterious Marching Rule cargo cult that emerged at the end of WW2 in the hope of trading American rule for British. Villages were surrounded by stockades with watchtowers and huts prepared to store the cargo soon to arrive from the US. They're still waiting.

Also, Malaita is home to the last of the shark callers. Many people still worship their ancestors; whose spirits are embodied in sharks that the high priest summons. A boy stands on a submerged rock and feeds the sharks pieces of cooked pig (once human) one by one as the priest calls each by the name of its human spirit. The largest piece is given last, to the oldest shark. Should a fisherman be capsized in the deep sea, he can summon a shark, using a special language the shark understands.

Then there is the peculiar currency exchange here: 1,000 dolphin's teeth for a bride. Dolphin drives to obtain teeth are conducted at Mbita'ama harbour (north west Malaita) A sorcerer in a canoe taps magical stones underneath the water to attract the dolphins, which are then led ashore by other villagers in canoes, butchered, and the teeth and meat divided. Flying fox teeth are also in circulation.

All in all, it sounds a place rich in mystery and magic - hope you'll join us and explore the island with us over the next few weeks.

Something happened the day before yesterday that led me to believe that our voyages have been blessed in more ways than one. I was sitting out on deck at around 6.45 am, greeting the dawn with a cup of tea - as is customary - when a black dot appeared in the golden embers of the sun's first rays. I noticed the dot was tacking from side to side into the wind and gradually, as it closer and grew in size, I realised from the bent wings and characteristic forked tail that it was a Frigate bird, doggedly beating its way south to land, as such birds are said to do. Now before we left Tarawa, I decided to change the Raven that Jason Lacy painted on Moksha's bow to successfully guide Steve and I from San Francisco to Hawaii with another spirit guide more local to Tarawa. After consulting with some of the older men of the island, Karawa, whom I'd asked to paint the replacement design, informed me that the overwhelming consensus would be to have a Frigate bird, bathed in the orange glow of the early morning light, guide Moksha to the Solomon's. So, as I watched the same two birds plugging their way south, one above me and one on Moksha's bow, I realised that the old men of Tarawa had chosen well.

This leaves me to thank everyone who has made this last voyage a successful one, most notably John Oman of GOALS for posting the daily updates, my father for forwarding daily weather information and dreadful jokes, April in Colorado for forwarding us your messages from the website and Mat Kraft on Tarawa for posting us updates on the situation in the Solomon's from the BBC website. Not forgetting of course our mothers for enduring sleepless nights - sorry for putting you through it.

* Forgive me for indulging in casting stereotype - there's something about cannibals I just can't resist.

Jason & Chris,
The Moksha motors

Posted on June 19, 2000 3:21 AM