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June 22, 2000

Tarawa to Solomon Islands voyage, Update #20

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Mon, 26 Jun 2000 16:53:04 -0700
Tulagi Report #1
Vanita's restaurant
Tulagi Island
Central Province, Solomon Islands
Latitude: 09 degs 05' South
Longitude: 160 degs 36' East

Tulagi, for all its merits as a safe haven for Moksha, is a bit of a let down in comparison to the island of Malaita where we were a few days ago. Not only is the island still winding down from its once elevated status as political and business centre for the Solomon's but there is also an atmosphere of general weariness and malaise as a result of the conflict that that doesn't seem to have affected the feisty Malaitans to such a degree. All the big businesses have closed bar one - the National Fisheries Developments tuna processing plant against whose wharf we have Moksha currently tied up to - staples supplies are running low in the island's two main stores with no prospect of significant re-supply coming in from Honiara in the foreseeable future and only the employees of the NFD seem to be getting paid, and even they are on a knife edge with keeping their jobs. Everyone is feeling the pinch and looking increasingly to their land and the sea to keep their families from going hungry. The place is perhaps a microcosm of the slippery slope being experienced all over the Solomon's right now.

And the people, especially the younger more 'international generation' who are more dependent on foreign trade than their fathers and grandfathers, all look more than a little depressed. Chris and I are already feeling ourselves sinking into quicksand.

But let's back up a little and come up to speed on how we got here. After a thoroughly memorable introduction to the Solomon Islands by way of the town of Auki on Malaita Island - which we'll get around to writing about in the next day or so and posting retrospectively - Chris and I slipped Moksha's mooring lines last Thursday evening and embarked on the final 50 nautical miles across the Indispensable Strait to the relative safe haven of Tulagi Island here in the Central Province. The reason for having to move on from Malaita so soon after making landfall was the absence of immigration and customs services there. All communications lines with Honiara had been cut, so after a two day stay of execution was granted by the local police to allow us a couple of decent nights' rest, we were obliged to continue onto complete customs and immigration either in Tulagi or Honiara. (At one point the police were going to make us get straight back in the boat an hour after arriving and continue on!)

We got underway just before dark at 6.45pm shortly after fulfilling our promises to two local youngsters - Alphones and Calvin, who had taken it in turns to keep an eye on Moksha during our stay - to have a go pedaling the boat. The wharf was jammed with people come to see us off it seemed, although in the fast fading light all we could make out was the dim outline of hundreds of hands held aloft in silent farewell. Then there was nothing save for the black, moonless night and splashing of paddles either side belonging to the same gaggle of children that had intercepted our arrival and had taken it upon themselves to escort us in their dugouts the few hundred yards to the entrance of the harbour. Finally they peeled away with a couple of last "Gooood-byeee's" trailing off into the night and a few distant "Gooood-night's" came wafting across to us from village of Ambu whose grass huts line the entrance. A rather sobering and sad departure. We would like to have stayed a little longer.

Then we were on our own, cutting a course of 230 degrees magnetic to take us up to the entrance of the Mboli passage at Siota by morning light. We'd pulled less than a mile away from land however when we took a fix on the GPS and realised the need to steer a more aggressive heading of 215 degrees magnetic to counter the considerable drift and windage being exerted on us by the increasing 20-25 knot wind and accompanying swell from the Southeast. Whether it was the effect of being in a confined passage between two sets of islands or just a freak weather pattern that had moved in, we found ourselves battling against the heaviest seas since leaving Kiribati. By morning a good 2-3 inches of water was sloshing around in the bottom of the boat and everything inside the cockpit was soaked from a few of the larger breaking waves making it up and over the side. Earlier on the previous evening I'd tried to write an update on this laptop but had to abort the idea after feeling queasy. But a swig of The Glenlivet and a couple of hours wearing a pair of anti-seasickness wrist bands that press a small 1/4 inch button into a pressure point on the underside of each wrist soon had me back on track.

The Mboli passage forms a narrow division between the two central province islands of Nggela Sule (Big Nggele) and Nggela Pine (Small Nggele). At 6 miles in length and at times only 30 metres in width, it looked from the chart and some local knowledge we picked up before leaving Auki to be a rather fun and unusual short cut to the alternative option of pedaling around the southern edge of the Florida islands. The only question mark was navigating the fairly comprehensive reef system guarding the northern entrance at Siota. Fortunately before leaving San Francisco I'd forked out the $59.95 for Warwick Clay's 'South Pacific Anchorages' cruising guide to the south Pacific which although a little pricey has already more than paid its way in providing essential information about the final approaches to Auki. Our navigation and plan to leave Auki at nightfall and arrive at the entrance the following morning proved spot-on. At 7 a.m. with enough light to distinguish the ill-kempt and fading red and green markers indicating a safe passage through the maze of treacherous reefs, we slowly nosed our way past the mouth and into the throat of the passage where we could relax a little more. There was more than a hint of Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' on our minds as we meandered our way at a lugubrious pace up the channel, keeping eyes keen to both banks for signs of saltwater crocodiles slipping into the water behind us or the first sound of poisoned arrows whistling across the water from the depths of the jungle not far beyond.

After a little ways we were accosted by a group of fishermen in dugouts who clambered aboard and spent the best part of half an hour learning about the pedal mechanism, where we'd come from, where we were headed next etc. While we talked story, exchanged songs on the guitar and generic jokes that have a priceless way of translating between any culture, we all slowly drifted downstream (which happened to be the direction we wanted to go) as one huge raft: one pedal boat and half a dozen 12ft dugout canoes trailing along behind. Many times I've been struck by how powerful a catalyst Moksha is for bringing people together from different walks of life, but none more so than on this occasion. For a collection of wood and glue to make it to the opposite side of the globe from where it was made and to provide the stage for such a special and unique meeting of different souls - such as I will never forget - is to me the single most powerful aspect of this whole project. Theoretically Chris and I were a world apart from these fishermen in every respect. But the fact they had wooden canoes powered by human power, and we had a slightly bigger wooden canoe also powered by human power brought us all down to the same level.

Finally the combined weight of 12 people aboard Moksha was taking its toll in the form of water seeping in around the pedal unit well, so we had to break up the happy host. Peter - seen here in the photo pedaling the boat - stayed on for a ride to his parent's house a mile further downstream. Along the way we took it in turns to play songs on the guitar and pedal the boat. Peter taught us the only song he knew (a hymn), a short section of which you can catch in the video clip. We reciprocated by sharing with him the chords and melody of Bob Dylan's Blowing in the Wind. And then it was time for him to slip the knot attaching his dugout to Moksha and paddle the 40 or so yards to his house and rather concerned looking father standing by the water's edge, obviously wondering what the hell his son was doing with these white men and on such a strange and demented looking craft. One thing was for sure, Peter had a bit of explaining ahead of him, not least how he came into possession of the coconut cream topped bun we'd bought from the hot bread shop in Auki and given to him to take home.

By 2 p.m. Tulagi hove into view and we began our final preparations before making landfall: raising the flags of the countries the expedition has visited so far, attaching lines fore and aft and trying to hail anybody in the area on VHF Channel 16 to determine the best place to pull in at. As with our approach to Auki we recieved no reply, save for the yacht 'Apollo' who could barely make us out in Honiara. At 3.40pm we slowly pedaled up the East Side of Tulagi, close enough to examine possible landing sites. Hardly a soul was to be seen in amongst the derelict government buildings and rotting remains of the once flush fishing industry, giving the place the feel of a ghost town. So we continued north until passing the largest wharf we'd see yet and pulled over to ask directions from the guys working on the dockside. Like on the wharf at Auki, though with less of an affable nature to him, a huge guy (who later became known to us as Bradley) with much darker skin than all the rest of his colleagues and a face like a bag of spanners looked down at us with one of the most unfriendly and intimidating scowls I've ever encountered. "Er, we've just pedaled in from England and wondered if you might, um, have a suggestion as to where to put in". I realised how ridiculous this sounded as I said it, as if we'd just decided to 'pop across' for a cup of tea and were planning on 'popping back again' in time for dinner. Typical English modesty I thought, making a mental note to try and be less matter of fact in future. No response from the coal man. I tried again. This time a white face emerged from the background and seemed to register the information I was trying to communicate. "Yeah, you're the guys I saw on TV back in Aussie last year," came the now familiar drawl of another common wealth cousin from down-under. "Poms, pedaling some goddamn fool boat around the world eh? Well, you better come in and explain yourselves to the boss." And with this very different but equally unique reception to the one weathered in Auki, we threw our lines to the waiting hands - one set belonging to Bradley whose expression had suddenly transformed into that of a beaming gentle giant once we'd proved ourselves to be something other than a marauding force of militia - and stepped ashore to this new Happy - though temporarily a little down-in-the-mouth - Island and all it's secrets and wonders therein yet waiting to be discovered.

Jason & Chris,
The Moksha motors

Posted on June 22, 2000 11:50 AM