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June 22, 2000

Tarawa to Solomon Islands voyage, Update #19

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Thursday, 22 Jun 2000
Auki Motel, Malaita Province, Solomon Islands
Latitude: 08 degs 46' South
Longitude: 160 degs 42' East

Following a long, hard day cranking 25 miles up the eastern edge of Malaita Island at less than 2 knots we arrived exhausted at the harbour entrance to Auki just after dark on Monday evening. The decision was then to either wait for the moon and head in later that same evening or wait until morning. On the one hand we had an opportunity to make it in off the ocean, something not to be sniffed at when the weather could change any time and blow us off shore. On the other we weren't in possession of a detailed chart for the final approach, and even with a good moon on our side we could still be at the mercy of lone coral heads hidden submerged beneath the surface. Plus there was the issue of avoiding the Malaria mosquitoes that are most active in the evenings and we would be arriving at the end of the day, floundering around in a strange town trying to find accommodation and perhaps even more importantly a cold beer. We decided to wait until morning.

It actually proved more than the right thing to do. There's certain rightness in pausing before the close of any journey. It allows space to fully appreciate the forces of nature that have allowed safe passage and for one's own accomplishment. Like drinking a fine wine it allows for the experience to be rolled around inside the mouth and fully savoured before being finally swallowed. So we sat out on Moksha's roof, rocking gently back and forth in the undulating swell, mother moon starting her silent passage across the sky to the west, nipping on The Glenlivet and reliving with wry smiles some of the finer experiences of the last three weeks. At around midnight we heard the sound of outboard motors heading our way. Chris switched on the all round white light just in time for two fishing canoes to see us and slow their speed. Two boats, each with six men on board, cut their engines at the last minute and negotiated the last few yards to Moksha with the aid of paddles. Only now did the seriousness of the situation begin to dawn on us as our visitors, now silhouetted by the moon and muttering unintelligible words in Pidgin (the local language) draw up either side of us. For all we knew this was the local militia - the Malaita Eagles - come to rough us up a bit and relieve us of some of our electronic toys. Our only defense was the same Steve and I employed when visited by a gunboat in Cuban national waters during the Atlantic crossing 5 years ago: nakedness. Literally. Maybe, we thought, the sight of a couple of wild-eyed white men in their birthday suites will deter any hasty moves.

"Ho" came the faceless voices out of the darkness.
"Ho" we replied in unison, our faces now under the scrutiny of torchlight.
"You have problem?"
"No, we're just waiting for morning until we go into Auki."

With more than a little relief we began to comprehend the reality of the situation. These were local fishermen who had seen our lights from shore and come out to see if we were in trouble. In Europe and American navigation lights are used for navigation. Not so the rest of the world it would appear from our travels, including the Solomon’s. In the absence of an official coast guard service the local fishermen and sea-faring folk have to watch out for each other and any form of light – including running lights – are interpreted as meaning distress. How the locals keep from colliding with each other while motoring in and out of the harbour at night is a mystery.

After sharing cigarettes and a few words of broken English - in which the fishermen tried to persuade us to travel into the harbour with them as our guide - we parted company; the two outboard motors coughing reluctantly to life in heavy plumes of blue smoke and chugging away into the darkness in the direction of the town, leaving us to be once again swallowed by the silence of the starlit night. After an uneventful night keeping roughly aligned with the two red leading lights for the harbour, we each wolfed a bowl of porridge and a cup of tea before starting our final run into the harbour at around 8.30am.

Very soon we were joined by a group of boys in small dugouts launched from some of the many grass houses on stilts lining the shore. They made as good a welcoming party as we could ever had hoped for, darting around Moksha with the annoying agility of a cloud of gnats, inquisitiveness painted like a picture on each of their faces.

"OK, lets see who has the fastest boat" I yelled out of the open hatchway and opened up the throttle a little.

The boys caught onto the idea immediately and had no problem racing ahead and wiping the floor with us. One of the older boys - whose name we learned later to be Alphones - acted as our guide to the only wharf and gradually we poked around before finding a spare slot in front of ‘Ramus 2’, a 100 ft steel plated passenger ferry employed to make the 70 mile round trip to Honiara every other day. As we gently pulled up against the heavy wooden piles of the wharf that looked rather worse for wear from the long years of service keeping the Malaitan people connected to the capital, we looked up to find a long row of grinning faces of every expression, hair style and skin tone you could ever imagine looking down at us. I for one have never encountered such diversity in a people. But our attention - at least initially - was drawn elsewhere to a sight that held us both transfixed with horror for at least a full five seconds: each face was equipped with a fearsome array of teeth - all stained with fresh blood. It was as if they'd wandered out in the middle of a raw-flesh breakfast in order to inspect the next course (cannibalism being a common occurrence in the Solomon’s until just 50 years ago). All our worst fears came rushing to the fore before rationale took over and we managed to squeeze out a tentative "hello" that sounded more like a bleat for mercy than a convincing salutation.

"Beatle juice" Chris hissed out of the corner of his smile clips, "They're chewing Beatle nuts".

I almost roared out loud with a mixture of relief and amusement at our stupidity. Of course, people all around the world have been chewing the Beatle nut for centuries, including the south Pacific.

After a pause of several seconds in which no one spoke, a couple of the more confident among them and with better command of the English language found themselves being pushed to the front by a gawking crowd than had now swelled to perhaps a hundred wide-eyed, ketchup-munching islanders.

"Where you from?" asked the huge guy above me with short bleached hair who looked quite capable of employing either of us as a toothpick if needed to.
"Kiribati - three weeks. Originally England."
"By Motor right?"
"No. Pedal power."

The expressions on the wharf seemed to hesitate for a second before furrowing and nodding slowly. Realizing they hadn't the faintest clue what we were talking about, Chris beckoned me to lift out the pedal mechanism from the well in the boat.

"Look” he offered, “Just like a bicycle" rotating the cranks of the pedals so they could see the propeller turning.
"Ahhh” murmured our interpreter knowingly. “A bicycle in boat." And with these words he turned to the crowd, held the mechanism high above his head and bellowed something very loud and unintelligible in Pidgin. The whole crowd swayed and collectively let out a low moan as if in awe or fear, or both. "Blimey" I thought to myself. "They're going to fall to their knees and start worshipping the bloody pedal unit!"

"The Dog's Bollocks" interrupted a booming voice, now reading in broken English the immortal inscription that Scott Morrison - the maker of the unit's propellers and top bracket - had hammered into the metal housing.
"They're using The Dog's Bollocks to get here from England." And again the crowd swayed and responded as one voice.

It was I decided too much to try and explain that one. For a people that initiated a cult centred around American cargo goods after the second world war and who feed their ancestors in the form of sharks hunks of pork to placate them while fishing, a devilish looking boat powered by something the white owners call 'The Dogs Bollocks' should be an easy pill to swallow. And so with cultural formalities completed on both sides we stepped from Moksha onto terra firma and made our first few very wobbly steps into the domain of the so-called Happy Isles.


In our next update - posted either tomorrow or the next day - we'll be sharing some of the strange and wonderful experiences we've already had on Malaita: the ordeal at the police station, our caving trip yesterday and a brush with one of the Malaita Eagles Force militiamen in our motel.

Jason & Chris,
The Moksha motors

Posted on June 22, 2000 11:48 AM