29 March 2011, 0500 GMT
Heading: 5.22˚; Distance: 45 Miles; Winds: 8 knots NNW; Barometer: Falling
Some days just deserve remembering. So it is that I depart from my intended post to share with you an account of my crossing of Straits at the eastern edge of the Bismarck Sea between Tokua, East New Britain and Namatani, New Ireland in the Independent State of Papua New Guinea.
Courtesy of unpaid royalties to the customary landowners in Kavieng, the airport was closed. One charter company could fly us into Namatani but couldn’t manage a plane in the morning to get us back. One charter company had all its planes in service or being serviced in Brisbane. And no helicopters were available out of Rabaul. If we were going to make it to take part in Custom in Konos, we were going by boat. The boat was the Fire Fly – a 22’ open fiberglass boat with a 45hp outboard.
We landed in Rabaul and went across to the Ropopo Beach Resort to meet the Fire Fly. No boat. I walked down to the beach to make my habitual visit to the coral snakes which frequent the shallows off the coast of East New Britain and, instead of snakes I saw thousands of small fish feeding in the tepid water, darting en masse at once in one direction and then the next. Twenty feet off-shore, the glassy surface was punctuated by the occasional flying fish learning how to flout destiny but for a moment.
The Fire Fly came late, fully laden with locals seeking transport across to the St. Georges, a small collection of islands in the Straits. Our host sternly clarified that ours was to be a charter and sent them skipping across the eight miles to deposit their fares and return for us. As I watched the wake of the boat disappear on the water line, I could see massive afternoon cumulus clouds darkening over the distant New Ireland mountains. Still waiting, the deluge began its afternoon deposit long before the Fire Fly re-emerged speeding towards our impatient lot.
“You may need these,” Theresa said as she handed out recently acquired rain coats.
Securing our overnight cargo under well worn tarps and heavy plastic, we climbed aboard and slowed across the luxuriant coral in reverse until we were well beyond risking propeller and reef. Turning north, the engine snarled to life and we lit out across the water.
The Bismarck Sea holds the bluest water I’ve seen on Earth. Even with the sky shrouded in afternoon storm clouds, to look into the Bismarck is to look into a Utopian past long before seas were choked by the despoiling of humankind. These waters once embraced humanity’s oldest persistent cultures; entombed many Japanese, Australian, and American combatants (and their death machines) during the Second World War; and, now, once again were resplendent in deep azure. The white spray from the outboard launched hundreds of flying fish – now quite a bit larger as we left the shoreline – for their mature flights lasting from seven to ten seconds and transiting thirty to forty meters at an altitude of half a meter above the water. Life, in small scale was awake.
I have not seen marlin feeding in a pack before. On the occasional fishing show that I watch with Zach, I’ve seen an angler straining against a lone magnificent fish who, in panic launches from the sea in desperate defiance. But, in a flash, about twenty minutes into our crossing, a school of the mighty hunters were dancing – their great spears presaging the majestic fish as they pierced the surface in a feeding frenzy evidenced at times with smaller prey visible in their hungry mouths. Enchanting. This was worth the wait.
The seas roughened as we neared the St. Georges with the hull of the boat slapping the surface sending a hot sea spray across the boat and its occupants. And then, as soon as it roughened, in the tidal shadow of the Islands, it once again pacified into a pond.
Beyond the St. Georges, the inevitability of the burgeoning storm was apparent. Trying to circumnavigate the wall of rain would add hours to the lateness of our journey and would take a toll in fuel that, alas, exceeded our provisioning. So, steady at the tiller, we made for the wall.
And then They came. First, about fifty yards to port, three dolphins broke the surface. Soon another five and then several off starboard. We were in the middle of a multitude of the playful mammals as they darted and leapt all around the boat. The driver started a staccato foot stomp at the back of the boat and, with the stomps several dolphins would launch themselves into the air. He, in some communication beyond my grasp, was encouraging them to join us on our transit and they, filled with exuberance obliged. And then, cresting the water once again on the port side were massive porpoises, their giant dorsal fins slicing the water in advance of their graceful arc punctuated by tail splashes.
“We don’t see porpoises often – certainly not like this,” Byron commented.
All around us – abundant life – all racing for the storm.
They knew that intelligence dictated going underwater when confronted with airborne tempests. We didn’t have the option. The heavens opened and were most generous. The best of Chinese waterproofing did little but slow the ingress of water and, in a moment, water resistant utility was substituted for portable sauna as precipitation and perspiration locked in mortal combat inside of a plastic suit. There is a moment when resistance is futile and you surrender to forces well beyond any semblance of control. Being in an open boat in torrential rain happens to be precisely one of those moments. I reflected on how deeply I cherished my life and the richness of experience that has graced my days. I found myself celebrating the absence of flight without which the sky and sea’s bounty could not have been apprehended on this day. I found myself lost in the scale of the present where my pulse of life was merely one beat in the orchestra of All. The storm, the sea, the wildness all drenched me through.
Thirty minutes from our destination, the storm relented and gave way to late afternoon blue patches and broken clouds. A frigate bird drifted in the currents coming off the land. A freshly washed New Ireland materialized all around us and we raced the coming dark.
Three more hours of driving to Konos to share Custom with over 200 people from Simberi, Tabar, and Tatau Islands… but that’s another story for another day. For today, my celebration of sensing life is sufficient and we’re all wealthier for it.