South Pacific - Lakouta, Fiji to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
National Geographic Endeavour
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The South Pacific has long been a dream destination for me. When the chance to explore it on the National Geographic Endeavour presented itself, I jumped on it. I was even more exhilarated knowing that the area of exploration was to be the remote region of Melanesia, a seldom traveled area made up of thousands of islands and many nations and tribes: Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.
We sailed from the main island to the quieter Yasawa Islands where we visited what might be envisioned as your classic South Pacific beach-side village: thatched huts known as 'bure', coconut trees, swaying palms, crystal blue waters and a gracious welcoming kava ceremony. For me, the most memorable aspects of Fiji were the open smiling faces and friendliness of these islanders who balance Melanesian, Polynesian, Indian and Western cultures.
The nation of Vanuatu, a former colony of both Britain and France, once known as the New Hebrides, encompasses over 80 islands and a myriad of tribes, towns and villages. Our first outing was pure adventure: a rough track ride in the back of open pick up trucks to the top of Mount Yasur- an active strombolic volcano. After short hike over a lava rock strewn rim, we were treated to close-up views of the inner crater and reverberating explosions that sent visible shock waves through the ash clouds and bursts of red lava into the air from the crater. Our day could hardly be surpassed - but a late snorkel and dive that lasted until sunset was just the thing.
Highlights of Vanuatu included many villages where they are reviving the ancient customs of storytelling through dance, carving, weaving and kava cultivation. The famous Rom dancers at Ambryn and their masks and carvings were spectacular, and the dance itself was a powerful 40 minute ceremony of dramatically costumed spirits being summoned by brave warriors.
Scuba diving in the warm waters of Vanuatu was memorable, not only for the coral reefs but for the ship wrecks that dot the ocean floor. We explored the Calvin Coolidge, a well known WWII troop carrier that lies from the shallows to a depth of over 200 feet. Its coral encrusted walls and fixtures were home to an incredible array of marine life: fish, lobster, manta ray and even sharks that made for a peaceful and surreal contrast against the skeletal military remains and artifacts.
The Solomon Islands seemed even more remote than Vanuatu. In certain villages, the children and even the teenagers had never seen a Western Caucasian in person before. The mutual fascination between our two 'tribes' was an instant bond that was full of growth and exploration. Children were delighted to see digital images of themselves on our cameras and the adults enjoyed speaking to us of local politics and their worries over their struggling livelihoods. Wherever possible, we purchased the exquisite goods they offered for sale; and the ship and National Geographic contributed school and other supplies as thanks for the hospitality of the villages.
The Solomon Islands offered even more stunning snorkeling and diving, and the health and plentitude of the live coral was visible as we traveled further west. Schools of fish grew larger and the marine life was abundant with all shapes and sizes. This diversity of sea life also made for a nice addition to our fresh food supply onboard, which complemented the abundance of bananas, tropical fruits, yams, coconut and other local ingredients that our chef creatively incorporated into the fabulous lunches and dinners.
On Santa Ana Island we were greeted with a fierce warrior welcome, where small bands of local men rushed our Zodiac craft shouting and brandishing spears. It was all in good fun, and elicited shrieks of delight from the village children and made for some great photos. Here, we witnessed the largest dance, with beautifully attired warriors enacting dances that told the stories and battles of the tribe's past. The accompaniment was a group of boys playing reed flutes and rattles in joyous fashion. The women even came out and did a very languorous come-hither dance that was quite a hit not only with us but with the villagers as well.
Other areas of the Solomons were rich in military history including the site of Guadalcanal and the small island where JFK and the crew of PT109 were marooned during the Second World War. We had our first beach visit there, on what is now called Kennedy Island and found the beach snorkeling to be exceptional.
Papua New Guinea
After saying a reluctant farewell to the Solomons with an incomparable sunset, we ventured to the much anticipated nation of Papua New Guinea. Our first taste was of another classic beach-side village of neatly arranged huts. We admired their intricately carved canoes which are part of the traditional 'Kula Ring' circle, a ritualized trading route several hundred kilometers long which links the various islands and tribes, promoting goodwill, skill sharing and, in some instances, brides for the warriors.
After being fascinated the entire trip by the engaging presentations of anthropologist Bob Tonkinson, I was very eager to visit the world famous Trobrian Islands which over 40 years ago had been the subject of one of the foremost treatise on anthropology. While the village we visited on Kitava Island was unprepared for us, the reason was a fortunate one: we had arrived on their annual Yam Harvest celebration day. In a culture where wealth, fertility and survival are measured in these prized crops and the size of one's garden, this was an immense treat. The villagers were busy ferrying betel nuts, palm leaves and yams from one side of the island to the other (atop their heads) and slaughtering pigs for the evening's feast. Small roasting fires were smoking everywhere and we were lucky enough to wander amongst these as well as the decorated ceremonial Yam houses as the villagers prepared for their feast and celebrations. Despite the activity, no villager was unable to find the time to chat or explain something to us, and I was impressed with their grace and openness. After some time we were hosted at a traditional dance in the schoolyard where the girls and boys dressed in elaborate clothing sang and danced for us. Their sweet voices were a fitting end to a fantastic day.
From the rich culture and history to the remote and exotic regions visited, the South Pacific is an explorer's delight! I can't think of a more fulfilling way to explore the region than aboard a small ship devoted to discovery and learning with comfort, and best of all, a healthy dose of adventure. This was truly the trip of a lifetime!