Monday, September 5, 2011

The full story on Ninigo

At farewell party at the school
A few weeks since we were last able to get internet access but here we are in lovely Kavieng, a town on the tip of New Ireland in PNG. More of that later – first, we must tell you that we have found our favourite place on earth – Ninigo!
We went to the Ninigo island group straight from Jayapura, sailing 225 miles North East. Red Boomer were already there and came out at dawn to guide us over the reef into the lagoon. The water was crystal clear and turquoise, but that was only the start of Ninigo's charms. We anchored off the island of Mal and were greeted a while later by a gentleman named Thomas and his son Richard, who brought us fresh coconuts and the offer of any assistance we might need. Over the coming days, we spent a great deal of time with Thomas and his family and through him were introduced to the rest of the island.
Lovely kids at Lau PS
Mal was 'owned' by the Germans between the wars and was a coconut plantation. Coconuts still provide a source of income and food for the islanders and we ate many of them during our stay. When the Germans came to Mal, they bought the island with cigarettes from Thomas' grandfather – in the way that many powerful nations exploited indigenous peoples the world over. When the Germans left, the PNG government took ownership of Mal and its neighbouring islands, meaning that the traditional land-owners no longer legally own the land that has been theirs for generations.  Ninigo is very isolated, only receiving supplies by boat 2-3 times a year. Their nearest town is Lorengau, some 200 nautical miles away. Only a handful of people in Ninigo have outboard motors, with most travelling between the islands by traditional sailing canoe.  There is a primary school of 70 students, a clinic (well organised but low in supplies) and  a Government station (an HF radio and satellite phone). Mal also has an airstrip, which is occasionally used to collect critically ill people or to bring in Government officials. The local language is Seimat and we enjoyed learning some polite phrases from the delightful Seimat- English dictionary lent to us by our new friends.

Mal is a series of small villages dotted along the length of the horse-shoe shaped island and linked by walking tracks. It has excellent reef, full of fish and crays, which locals will catch if requested. The islanders have their own gardens where they grow papaya, oranges, pumpkins & bananas and community gardens of cassava and taro. Locals do not come to yachts to trade, being naturally reticent and unused to visiting boats but are very happy to trade any of their produce, as they are often without essential supplies such as rice, soap, sugar, flour, washing powder, fish hooks.
Visiting our friends at Puhipi village
Seth and Finn at Lau PS
The Ninigo people are very resourceful and will try to maintain and repair what they have, but are often using tools and equipment that are beyond repair. They are badly in need of many self-reliance aids, especially tools, 12V batteries, navigational aids, copper/ brass screws and nails. During our visit, Scott, Bill and Ole worked with the locals on a range of broken items – the satellite dish and phone, inverters, solar panels, DVD players, the community lawnmower and a series of outboard motors. Most electrical items have been damaged by salt, insects and sheer old age, but there was some success with the satellite dish and the lawn-mower, not to mention a stream of outboard motors that appeared from other islands as news spread. Our boat was visited by canoes with well-wrapped TV's in them. We were only too glad to help. Scott and I took a class at the school, with me reading stories (which we left with the school) and Scott being asked to talk about education, environmental sustainability and global warming! Education is taken very seriously in Ninigo, with the islanders recognising that their children will need to have every advantage if they are to make their way in the world and contribute to their island home. The teachers at the school are from Ninigo and are deeply invested in their islands' future.

Scott, Thomas, Richard, Ole and Joseph
The people of Mal - especially Thomas and his extended family at Puhipi and  Mollyna and Wesley at Piakahu - adopted us over the ten days we were there. They are people with strong values and a clear sense of community. Their children are happy, healthy and delightful company. We felt very much at home and in the last few days there was much talk of the merits of setting up a hut and going home, well, never really. Seth and Finn were in love with the various puppies they met and the idea of climbing trees for coconuts and playing soccer in the afternoons. I was drawn by the simplicity of the Ninigo life and the strong connections between people.

Visiting Mollyna at Piakahu
Normally we are cautious about inviting people back to the boat but this caution went out of the window in Ninigo. One Sunday, we invited two families to come to the boat for afternoon tea and had the honour of being visited by 40 people! Luckily we had all made plenty of cakes. The Anui water line was a bit low but we had a fantastic afternoon, with many jugs of cordial being made and much relaxed chat. We were given so much food in Ninigo – crayfish (eaten every day!), papayas and the sweetest pumpkins. The people have had very few yachts visit and so do not naturally ask for anything in return. We offered sugar, rice and soap and found these to be popular, though often we had to force our friends to take anything at all. There was a constant exchanging of gifts and food in thanks for favours and hospitality – on our last day Thomas' wife Elizabeth made me a basket, whilst Richard made Seth and Finn a toy sailing canoe (enthusiastically raced by the Ninigo children) and Thomas carved Seth a spear. 

Scott and Thomas
The school and community held a huge farewell party for us, with singing, canoe racing, speeches and a feast. It was an amazing day. We spent the next couple of afternoons with our new friends and there were tearful farewells on our last evening. The best place; the best people – never to be forgotten and hopefully one day revisited.

From Ninigo we sailed East to the Hermit Islands, which were lovely and also very friendly. The people there are much more used to being visited by yachts as they are on the route to Pulau and there was a constant stream of canoes coming to trade vegetables and fruit from their gardens, including the best pineapples.
Finn with Wesley and Mollyna

We moved on after 5 days on the longest leg of our PNG adventure – 360 nautical miles East to Kavieng. This took us four days as there were strong currents and head winds. Scott tried hard to sail whenever we could as we didn't have enough fuel to motor there and so it was a tiring few days of constant sail changes and tweaking. And now we sit off the Nusa Island Resort (look it up – beautiful) in Kavieng, with our afternoons spent relaxing in their sand-floored bar. Would trade it all to go back to Ninigo....

From here we will head down to Rabaul and then make our way South to the Louisiades. Will update this when we can. Australia is getting closer and we don't feel quite ready!