Papua New Guinea starts where Far North Queensland finishes, and the best safe cruising grounds can be found not far away among the islands of the Louisiade Archipelago, to the southeast of PNG’s mainland. Here, islanders lead a peaceful life and sail large traditional canoes called sailaus to fish and trade between the islands.
Sylvie and I departed Cairns in September, 2016, reaching the Jomard Entrance after a three-day journey, and anchored at the small island of Punawan. We soon forgot our brain-rattling passage and soaked in the dreamy stillness. The water was unbelievably clear, and we were just 100m away from lush vegetation leaning over an idyllic beach where several native huts peaked through the foliage. A family group makes its home here for much of the year, moving to the larger volcanic island of Brooker, some 50km north, when food and water are in short supply.
Soon, a canoe appeared at the back of our boat. Chris – complete with pawpaws, bananas and the promise of crayfish – welcomed us and was keen to trade. There went my spare diving mask, a bag of fishing hooks and an assortment of ladies things in exchange for his goods, while our big bale of children’s clothes from the Salvos started finding its way to happy mums and delighted young ones.
Papua New Guinea’s islanders still live mainly by their ancient ways of subsistence – gardening, fishing, working with their traditional boatbuilding skills, pottery, carvings and unique jewellery. They have very few means of making money or places to spend it, so trading is an essential part of life. Western goods are in demand and visiting boaties tend to be generous, so we quickly realised we needed to be a little more planned and disciplined before our ‘shop’ ran out of stock. Fortunately, the locals are very polite and have a good sense of humour, so it wasn’t hard to strategise once we got our head around it.
At Punawan, we made many friends and I had fun catching crays with them. Before we left, they insisted on cooking us a farewell dinner – we provided lighting, a movie on our laptop and an oversized box of chocolate. It was a good start to our adventure.
The next leg of the journey saw us worm our way into a lagoon at the volcanic island of Panasia. After finding the entrance was 500m north of where it showed on our plotter (we found our Louisiades charts were quite inaccurate at times) we anchored under a spectacular cliff where the owner, John, lives on a tiny patch of sand. His daughter, Dorothy, guided us to the south side of the island, with grandparents, small children and babies also somehow squeezing into our dinghy. The bumpy trip was well worth it – we were shown their gardens and a cave, which was a giant, surreal cavern with an underground stream that formed a delightful, translucent swimming pool at the bottom.
We still hadn’t spotted any other tourists … in fact, we met just three yachts during our six-week cruise in the eastern Louisiades. There was a time when 80 or 90 were normal but, once the Misima Island gold mine closed in 2009, the infrastructure fell away and so did the cruising yachts. Last year, only 20-odd boats visited.
Cruising through navigation beacons and anchoring off a concrete jetty felt more like being back in civilisation. We were now in the township of Bwagaoia, population 3000, located at the east end of Misima Island. The township is the hub of the region and provides essential infrastructure, including a hospital, airport, four trade stores, bakery, bank, fuel and a guest house with wholesome meals for 56 kina (around A$23) each. The farmers market gave us an idea of values, which was helpful when evaluating trading deals.
The health department checked out our vessel and issued a quarantine certificate, which would suffice for clearing in and out of PNG if we didn’t make it to the official customs, 250km away on the mainland at Alotau or Samarai.
At the west end of Misima Island, we came across a perfect little coastal indentation which found its way to a beach full of children. Louisiade children have got to be among the happiest and healthiest on our planet … and no wonder, as a good part of their day is spent playing around the water with their friends.
We tied our boat’s stern to a convenient tree on the beach, making us almost part of Ebora village and jumped into the water for a snorkel. Soon, we noticed we were being followed by a tribe of splashing nippers and a familiar-looking dinghy full of laughing children …
We donated a soccer ball and some educational material to the local school, and I was asked to give a speech. It was a short one – what can you tell such well-adjusted young folk? Oh – in case you’re ever in the region, Chris, the school’s headmaster, has requested support from any boaties who may be able to drop off an old encyclopaedia.
Behind the village are steep slopes covered in rich volcanic soil. We hiked to a beautiful patch of village gardens halfway up the mountain. It was a hard slog for a couple of hours and we were glad of the entourage of children, who helped us around waterfalls and through rough patches. They also scampered up tall coconut trees to share tasty copra with us, washed down with the sweetest organic juice one could find.
The Deboyne Islands are well known for their skilled canoe-building artisans, and we were also interested in a WW2 fighter plane that sits in 3m of water near Panapompom Island.
Ishmael, the island’s councillor, gave us an excellent carving to welcome us. He explained there are no chiefs in the Louisiades and that elected councillors and committees of elders organise management and control law and order.
After a sedate drift dive through the Nibub South Passage, we continued a little further to Brooker Island. We found another poorly charted entrance through a wall of coral but, once through, the anchorage in front of the main village was excellent.
It happened to be PNG Independence Day, so we were treated to many sporting and cultural activities. Syl was the official lollypop lady, and she soon had a 100m queue of children waiting for their treat. We were guests at the official feast and enjoyed making new friends and meeting old ones from Punawan and Panasia islands.
The local villagers are very friendly … at times they’re too friendly and too many, and we became too busy. It was time for a canoe-free break. So, instead of socialising our way east along the more obvious Calvados Chain group of volcanic islands, we opted to explore the outer route along the northern barrier, where coral reefs with prodigious drop-offs, sand banks, tiny uninhabited cays, and fast-flowing passages abound.
Our charts were of little value when it came to finding acceptable anchorages and tiptop diving, but fortunately we had a bunch of Google Earth images, which were more beneficial.
We found a few good dive sites, the most memorable being Wa Passage and its pinhead island, where we anchored in sand along the sheltered eastern side. There was plenty of healthy coral and first-class diving close by during slack water, but the biggest thrill was scuba diving the incoming tide from the passage entrance. Syl delighted in low flying at six knots while tied to our dinghy by a 30m rope. I preferred watching a speeding coral wall pass by while strung to a surface buoy. Both methods were exciting, but safe.
Another 16km further, we reached the limestone Sabara Island. A string of craggy outcrops sprouts from the main island, providing a calm and picturesque setting, while children, pigs and dogs wander about the island. Each morning, sailaus zip across to the volcanic island of Panawina, where the locals work in the gardens and bring back drinking water.
George was our go-to man. He organised pawpaws, bananas, yams and tomatoes, and in return Syl and Shelly (of the cruising yacht C’est La Vie) put pants on small children and T-shirts on big children, while I chipped in with batteries and fishing gear.
A 35km slog through shallow waters and into persistent winds brought us to Nimoa Island. It’s a cut above its neighbours, thanks especially to the efforts of Melbourne Catholic priest Father Tony, who worked tirelessly for 40 years to establish the small, meticulously clean hospital and a higher-education facility. Piaz is now the manager there and expressed his gratitude for the support they receive from cruising boats, especially for simple things like medication, Panadol, bandages, gauze, baby-care products, tools for their maintenance man and cleaning products.
With persistent southeast trade winds blowing, the sheltered bay at Nimoa was a good place to relax. As usual, a visitor’s book soon arrived – this time compliments of John, who turned out to be a very friendly trader. If we did not require food, we could select from woven baskets, legendary baggi necklaces or wooden carvings.
The highlight of this stop was watching the local soccer and netball grand finals. It was a big day for the island, and the marvellous spirit in which the games were played and supported by everyone was impressive.
Escaping into the Solomon Sea through the Hudumu Iwa Passage, we turned west and bypassed Bushy and Grass islets, where we saw many sailaus lining the beach – men from the Renard Islands were collecting eggs from the nesting marine birds, which they sell in Misima for 0.5 kina each. While it’s a pity for the birds, this has happened for hundreds of years, so it must be sustainable.
About 20 small islets spread over 26km comprise the Renard Group and, except for Kimuta, they’re not permanently inhabited. Epoko, at the eastern end, includes two little islands with an adjoining reef allowing comfortable shelter in modest trade winds. It was a fantastic place to hang loose, with a perfect beach and crystal-clear water. On the southern side, a vertical wall fell to a depth of 600m.
It was our first diving site in the Louisiades where silvertip and grey whaler sharks were a common sight – at 300 kina per fin, the shark population around PNG is sparse. Turtles fair just marginally better, as some islanders have come to realise the population is in decline and have reduced hunting them or plundering their eggs.
At the other end of the Renard Group, we found a precarious anchorage at Baiwa Islet. The magical seascape was worth any discomfort – dreamy waters led to coral boulders, and stunted bushes protruded from the sea before meeting a white sandy beach under the lush green canopy.
From there, we had just enough fuel to make it back to Cairns, but we were in good spirits, so we opted to travel west to Alotau on the PNG mainland and then explore the unique Milne Bay area.
CRUISING THE LOUISIADES
Our 46ft (14m) PowerCat handled the moderate to rough swell on the way from Cairns to the Louisiades reasonably well while cruising at six to eight knots. The fuel excise rebate of 39cents/ litre for vessels leaving Australian waters helped reduce our cost. However, a sailboat would have been less jerky and more economical. Once there, our PowerCat was the ideal cruising vessel. Health: the two small hospitals have no doctors and only limited medication. Toward the end of our cruise, we copped nasty skin infections from minor cuts and needed antibiotics. We were glad of our well-stocked medical kit. Many locals also asked for our help with cuts and sprains, so plenty of bandages and antiseptics were needed. Vinegar in small spray bottles is very handy. We encountered very few mosquitoes, but a malaria test kit and plenty of medication is a good idea, just in case.
Goods for trading: the most requested items include clothing (in particular for children), hats, towels, thongs for adults, fishing hooks and lines, exercise books, pencils and educational material, magazines and bibles, cleaning products like soap and detergent, spectacles and sunglasses, diving fins and goggles, sugar, flour, rice, batteries (D and AA) and solar-powered lights, silicon, super glue and hand tools, old sails and rope, soccer balls and boots, sewing kits, perfumes and deodorants … along with anything laying around that is seldom used on your boat.
The villagers were overjoyed to receive pictures of themselves and family, and we were glad to have a printer with extra ink cartridges onboard. Tides and weather: the flood tide consistently flows from the north and ebbs from the south. Although they are small, it was surprising how strong the currents were through the passages. To avoid the worst of the trade winds, the best cruising time is September to November. Safety: we only encountered welcoming and open people, and the islands have a history of almost no crime or violence. We left our dingy anywhere we wanted – except the wharf at Bwagaola, where we were told to be careful. We saw no sign of crocodiles, although we were told they inhabit several of the far-eastern islands. Communication: we used our HF radio and satellite phone. There is a small area of unreliable mobile phone reception around Bwagaola.
For more information on cruising the Louisiades, check the ‘Friends of the Louisiades’ website: Louisiades.net.