"Arctracer" Letters

Vanikoro & Tikopia, Solomons, Aug-Sept 2004

We stayed at Vanikoro Island from August 26 until midday September 3. Our anchorage was at the head of Manevai Bay where there is no village, so we were visited only once or twice per day by canoes and were able to do boat chores and relax after our trip to the Solomons. We opened the "cut-nuts" which we were given, and Nina used them in banana bread. I cut my hand trying to open one, but Nina became proficient. We received a whole stalk of green bananas in addition to ripe ones, so indulged in bananas more than was possible for the previous months in Micronesia. The island is very fertile and villagers brought many vegetables. Nina made exotic dishes such as fern-noodle soup with giant clams, baked tuna with plantain, mahi-mahi and cassava chowder, eggplant and green pepper stew, slippery cabbage with breadfruit, and mangrove crab with sweet potatos. Jerry's wine supply was conserved by putting rum in coconut juice for sundowners. We learned that the islanders eat dugong on special occasions. We saw many flying foxes (big fruit-eating bats) and know the islanders enjoy eating them too, but none were offered to us. Maybe another time??....

In addition to food, the islanders brought many pretty shells to trade. We really acquired more of them than we wanted, but it was hard to turn away people who had nothing else to trade. We got several nautilus shells that they told us we could trade with the carvers of Morovo and Nono Lagoons who use its thin mother-of-pearl for inlays on wooden bowls. We got a big Triton shell, and had it made into a trumpet by making a hole near its end. It is louder than our Caribbean conch horn. A couple of men wanted to exchange French Pacific money which they earned from expeditions studying the remains of the 1788 Laperouse wrecks on the western side of the island. Banks in the Solomons refuse to exchange that currency for Solomon dollars. We changed a little, knowing we would be able to change it in Australia, but recommended sending letters to the Noumea expedition leaders asking them to bring a more useful currency next time. We acquired many necklaces, most made with small seeds, but some with flying fox teeth and shells. The centerpiece of several was a piece of turtle shell inlaid with a bit of pearl shell carved into the shape of a hook or shark or something else. Since the islanders eat the turtles anyhow, it doesn't seem very bad to us to let them make something out of the shells. The USA, Australia, New Zealand and other countries ban all turtle products because turtles around the world are getting scarcer, so we may lose all gifts with any turtle shell upon entry into Australia. We`also got a strange big "pearl" from a giant clam, a paddle which we will take when we sail our dinghy, a "shark club" for knocking out sharks (actually used in Tikopia for knocking out a wahoo), a couple of small axe heads made from big clamshells, sticks for axe handles and locally-made string to tie the axe heads.

We gave many articles of clothing in exchange for the local items. T-shirts were in great demand, but some long-sleeved shirts were requested too. Dresses, blouses, lava-lava material, needles and thread were what the women wanted. Many of the women asked first for perfume, but we didn't have much of that so some accepted fragrant soaps instead. Most of the men wore shorts, and were small enough to wear Jerry's size. Flashlight batteries were in great demand, as were flashlight bulbs, towels, methylated spirits (alcohol for starting kerosene lanterns), and notebooks with pens and pencils for the kids. We gave an old 12-volt battery to the school for use with their short-wave radio, and discovered that the schoolteacher's middle name was Hixon.

Our most frequent visitor was Chris Albert Ramoli, son of the Paramount Chief of Vanikoro, Ben Tua. He not only did much trading, but provided a wealth of information about the island's history, legends, customs, flora and fauna. We learned about Laperouse and recent expeditions which tried to find out more about the wrecks of his two ships and the fates of the survivors. We read a collection of island legends written down by Peace Corps volunteers listening to Chief Ben Tua. Chris showed us two mysterious rocks which looked like ancient hand-pounders but which a legend said were thrown by a magic man in a destructive mood. He also showed a smaller stone, smooth and pointed at two ends, made of rock which he said was not from this island. He thought it might have been formed by lightning or fallen from the sky, but a more likely explanation is that a war party from some other island brought it in a canoe and threw it with a sling. Chris is a master of shark fishing. He shakes a bunch of coconut shells strung on a loop of vine ("lawyer cane" which we think may be "rattan") underwater to attract sharks, then uses hook and line to get as many as fifteen into his dugout canoe in just a few hours. Shark fins (dried) sell for as much as 550 Solomons dollars per kilogram in Honiara (about $36 US per pound) and the islanders eat the meat. His son Don likes to get beche de mer (sea cucumbers), clean and dry them, then sell them to the Chinese for 150 Solomon dollars per kilogram (about $10 US per pound).

We wanted to make contact with the Tikopian village of Muravai on the south side of Vanikoro, but there was no easy way to get there. Chris was able to pass the message to them by radio that we had arrived, and learned that one of them had gone on a boat to Tikopia just the previous week. We assumed they sent some betel nuts too. Tikopia is the easternmost island of betel nut chewers, but all the island Betel Nut Palm Trees were destroyed by Cyclone Zoe at the end of 2002. We bought sixty kilograms of betel nuts from Buma villagers for presents to the four chiefs of Tikopia. Maybe we shouldn't have helped them indulge in their habit, but we knew there was nothing they would like more.

After several days the weather ameliorated enough for us to move nearer to the village of Buma at the mouth of the bay. It was impossible to anchor closer than a mile from the village, and the locals showed us the best place was a small spot of relatively shallow (30 feet) coral in the middle of an area 75 feet deep. We anchored there, worrying a bit about retrieving our hardware later, and it turned out to be okay. We rowed to the village on Thursday morning. About 100 people live there in houses of mangrove poles lashed with lawyer cane and thatched with sago palm leaves. We spent some time in the house of Christina, Chris's daughter, and it was spacious and airy, raised about six feet above ground level. Some other houses were built right on the ground, with dirt floors. Most have separate "cook houses." Only a couple have solar power, and there is just one radio transmitter in the village to connect them to the rest of the world. Almost everyone is Anglican, and seemed very polite, shy and nice. We met Chief Ben Tua, proud to be still alert and active at 84. We were somewhat dismayed by the number of people of both sexes who chew betel nuts, but perhaps they are grossed out by some of our habits too. Nina did a huge amount of trading with the women and children who had not come to the boat, making lists of items to be delivered to the village the next morning. Jerry just took photos. It was a hectic time, and we were glad to retire to the relative seclusion of our boat after a few hours.

(view Vanikoro photos)

We left Vanikoro about noon on Friday, September 3, after one last trading session and saying goodbye to Chris. In a straight line it is only 120 miles from Vanikoro to Tikopia, but that is southeast - right into the prevailing winds. We were unlucky enough to have a "convergence zone" move over us when we were only halfway, so the second half of the trip was in squally weather. We traveled double the rhumbline distance because of the wind direction, and spent more than two days because we do not like bashing fast into waves. We did catch a small mahi-mahi, but lost two good lures to big fish - probably wahoo. We arrived at Tikopia Island on Sunday, September 5 about 4:30 in the afternoon. Dugout canoes came out to show us the anchorage on the lee side of the island, 70 feet deep with coral all around. Three men came aboard immediately as a welcoming commmittee. We had a good dinner and went to bed happy that we didn't have to stand night watches on another squally night.

Monday we went ashore and met Ariki (Chief) Tafua. We presented a book containing photographs taken on Tikopia in 2002 by our friends Jerry and Helen Fitch of "Pegasus III" and some clippings from New Zealand newspapers about cyclone Zoe. We also gave some small presents plus the betel nuts. Our reception was very cordial. The chief assigned his daughter to guide us around the island to visit the other three chiefs. It was a nice walk through almost continuous gardens. The windward side of the island was hit hardest by the cyclone, and the village there between the sea and the island's lake was completely destroyed by 30 foot waves. After the recent severe hurricanes in Florida, the Bahamas and the Caribbean you all know how bad these storms can be. Fortunately, nobody died here and rebuilding was fairly rapid. They had stored food, so nobody went hungry. Some emergency aid arrived, but some money and supplies disappeared somewhere in the pipeline. Anyhow, things are almost back to normal now. One chief was not home, but we met the others and presented gifts of betel nuts, batteries and tobacco. The only bad feature of the day was the development of painful blisters on Jerry's feet. After nearly a month without shoes his feet were really hurting on the 3+ mile walk.

We had some really interesting experiences on the next four days too, and we'll tell about them in our next letter. We're still at Tikopia, and still enjoying it.