As the boat was heading north a short distance from the endless Collingwood Bay beaches, I rested my back against the front windows of the passenger compartment, taking in the warm wind, the heat from the sun and the fantastic view. Under the coconut trees, in and just behind the sand, houses were spread out all along the shore line, and beyond and above the green fronds, the majestic outline of Mount Suckling and it's neighbours, stretching as high as 3600 meters and with scattered clouds climbing their slopes, made an immense and breathtaking backdrop. Crossing over coral bommies and ridges, that add the turquoise tint to the blues of the water, we approached Wanigela.
There is no wharf or jetty in Wanigela - somewhat surprisingly since it's quite a populated place with an airstrip and all. We anchored some hundred meters from shore and were greeted by a dinghy and ten-fifteen outriggers. Some to pick up a couple of passengers, some of general curiosity, and some to sell fruit and river clams. The clams were strung on a straw and kept in banana leaves on the canoe platforms. I bought a string from a woman. Not great in taste, but still quite nice.
My destination was Tufi, where I had spent a wonderful week a little over a year earlier, and I was now looking very much forward to seeing more of both people and places there. In Alotau I had boarded The Kavieng Queen the day before for a twenty-four-hour journey. Rounding the East Cape and then following the northern coast of Milne Bay Province had been fantastic. I had also been fortunate - the boat was only about half full and I had gotten a whole three-seat row all to myself.
In between stops in smaller and bigger villages we crossed waters with flying fish - both the large reddish ones and the smaller bluish - dolphins, and schools of tuna. The tuna were followed by gulls close to the water, and when smaller fish were chased up near the surface, the tuna would jump, sparkling in the sunshine, and the gulls would jabber away all excited about their own catch. Higher above frigate birds and boobies patrolled the waters. We stopped in Dogoura, where the famous church, or cathedral, overlooked the bay; in Rabaraba and Sirisiri. In Rabaraba the women set up a wharfside market while the boat was in, offering bananas, buai and mangoes. The mangoes were in season, and absolutely irresistible.
By Cape Vogel we stopped for the night. Driftwood was impossible to spot in the dark, and the captain couldn't take chances. Shortly before sunset we sailed into a small inlet at the very point of the Cape. The houses were spread out, with a couple of bigger ones dominating the view. Possibly a mission station. Along with two of my fellow passengers, John and James, I took a walk along a wide path that led up to an old airstrip - overgrown and not in use. James and John came from Central Province and were on their way to a place near Lae, where they were going to work as volunteers at a mission school.
We were joined by the man who ran the village shop. He took us on a narrow path through the woods, ending up on a small, white beach, sheltered by a point and some small islands. Under the coconut trees were three unpretentious but tidy houses, one of which was his shop. The place was an absolute gem, and in the quiet and the twilight it seemed more like a reverie than anything real. Through the open counter in the shop a couple of shelves revealed a modest stock of the most common tin cans and biscuits, and a couple of cans from the Coca Cola company.
Dusk was already well on its way when we returned, me with a Fanta in my hand, and after five minutes we were walking in complete darkness. By the wharf we could still see the last of a golden sunset lining the treetops and silhouetting small groups of locals and passengers chatting away in low keyed voices. Under the huge mango tree by the wharf there was now an evening market where some fifteen women were selling fruit, shells and even hot tea and coffee. Great! I purchased a cup, and also a beautiful shell necklace with tusks. A great bargain, not only because of a decent price, but Cape Vogel shell work is well known in this part of the country, and has been 'exported' to villages up and down the coasts and hillsides for ages.
Back on the boat I talked with a young man who was on his way home to his village near Menyamya in the highlands of Morobe. We had all heard the news of people having starved to death in this area, due to food shortage after torrential rains - a very unusual thing to happen in PNG. He was worried, of course, and didn't know what to expect when he got there.
I also talked for a long while with two women in their forties. One of them was travelling with her husband to visit their daughter who lived in Rabaul in New Britain. This meant changing boats in Oro Bay, then again in Lae for the final long stretch of water. A five-day trip all together, I would guess. The other woman - whose name was Wailoni - was a teacher in a small mountain village called Buniguni. She was on her way back now after having gone all the way to Alotau to collect her salary. This is how it works in PNG. Getting off the boat in Airara tomorrow, she would have a two-day walk ahead of her to reach her village. Makes you think about time, doesn't it?
As with so many people in New Guinea, they were both eager to talk about their own country and villages, and maybe even more interested to hear about a cold and rich country far away. I showed them some pictures from home, and as always, the pictures that received the most attention were the ones of my daughters, the one of snow, and the one of the midnight sun. The long midsummer nights, and even more so the winter days with no sun at all, are pretty difficult to imagine for people here right under the equator.
The next day we made our Wanigela stop, and I got my clams from the outrigger market. Then it was the final lap up to Tufi - and this was one of excitement. The trip had been very relaxing, but at the same time full of wonderful impressions and encounters with scenery, landscapes and people. Now the excitement of reaching my destination came on top of all this. It's one of the great moments of travelling, really, the part just before arrival. Will everybody be there? Have things changed? And what new adventures and acquaintances are awaiting me? I packed my luggage and said my goodbyes, and people were gathering on the Tufi wharf when The Kavieng Queen let her hawsers out to be fastened.
Postscript: Twelve months after I made this trip, the Milne Bay and Oro coasts were hit by terrible weather. Massive rain, coming from the cyclone Guba, poured down from the sky and the mountain sides for three days and caused immense flooding of all rivers and lowlands. An exceptional high tide made the situation even worse, and severe damage was made to many of the villages mentioned here, and some people didn't make it through. Collingwood Bay was particularly badly hit, and I don't know if the houses along the beaches that you can see in my pictures are still standing, or how the people here have managed the difficult times.