Sunday, February 18, 2007

Last voyage on the Sankamap

Contemplating the joy of sailing and the sadness of leaving, Zane has written the following. For a final taste of Takuu keep reading to the bottom. The final departure seems to me as tragi-comic as the initial one from New Zealand but, really, much more moving...

Ahhhh the Sankamap... It probably seems strange how much we refer to the ship in the blog and the fact that we do so by name. But once you've been here and seen how important this ship is and how its very character influences the lives of so many, you quickly start to think of it not so much as a thing but as a living breathing being. She was built for the PNG government around 18 years ago (I'll try and check this date the ship looks and probably is older), specifically so that the Atolls could be regularly serviced, and the plan worked well for a while...For a while it was a great little cargo ship that was air-conditioned, had a cook for the cabin passengers and a working shower. It could take about 130 passengers and, I would estimate, about 50 tonnes of cargo.

However from the outset it was doomed. It was originally designed with two cargo holds and two loading cranes, but then in order to save a few million Kina the decision was made to reduce its length by 10 metres. That reduction in length was achieved by simply cutting out one of the cargo holds and cranes. The money saved supposedly disappeared into some dodgy individual's pocket never to be seen again. As a result, the ship can't really carry enough cargo to be economically viable and, what's more, its sea handling has been ruined by the fact it’s so much shorter than it was designed to be and hence it doesn't ride very well. If you look at the photo of it you'll notice how stubby it seems to look due to the missing length in between the bow and the superstructure.

Despite being handicapped at birth, the Sankamap has had a busy and colourful life. She was used to run troops around during the crisis and even played a role in repelling rebels when they attempted to invade Buka Island from Bougainville by crossing the narrow Buka passage. Armed troops lined the side of the ship, which was tied up on the Buka side, and waited silently while the rebels attempted a night crossing. Then when the rebels were mid passage the troops opened fire. I don't know many details of the event but I can imagine it was a bit of a slaughter. The Sankamap got a bullet hole to show for her part in the successful ambush. This story is one of the seemingly endless supply Richard had about the ship.

The Sankamap has been the main lifeline to the Atolls off Bougainville for the last 20 years. At present management of the ship is in the hands of a company from Nukumanu (Tasman Island, one of the Atolls around Takuu). I'm still unsure as to whether the actual ownership of the vessel is in the hands of the company or the government but nevertheless there are a lot of people unhappy about the current set up.

You would assume that with control of the vessel lying in the hands of people from the Atolls the islands would be getting good service. However this is not the case, as the ship now has to put profit first in order to survive whereas before, while profit may have been nice, the first duty of the ship under her government-run management was to provide a service and that service was aimed at looking after the residents of the five outlying atolls. Under the new regime and its need to try and generate profit, the quality of the service to the islands has reduced and servicing and maintenance of the ship has sunk to the bare minimum. Gone are the air-conditioning and any of the creature comforts enjoyed by passengers in years past. The ship has numerous rust holes, many of which are dangerous for the passengers, and others I suspect seriously affect the seaworthiness of the ship.

The Sankamap regularly runs to Buka, Rabaul and Lae but only infrequently to the Islands as it has to try and earn enough in order to be able to afford what is a loss-making trip. As the most isolated of all the Atolls, Takuu suffers the worst from this fact. In the case of the other islands, either the Bougainville mainland or the Solomans are within fairly easy reach, but Takuu, in the middle of the atoll group, has no easily access to off-shore facilities for getting supplies or in case of emergencies.

In case we haven't mentioned it in previous entries, the Sankamap is pigeon for Sunrise and it is literally pronounced “Sun come up”. Despite the positive name, this ship is probably the single biggest problem that the Atolls face. A regular and well run service to the islands would create the ability for the islanders to set up their own businesses. These would help them to fund the ship’s trips to the Island and to fund and import better amenities for the island such as medical and educational supplies. It would also reduce their dependency on hand-outs from the cash starved Bougainville government. It would open the doors for tourists to visit and stay upon the Islands which would be a much welcomed economic boost. At the moment Takuu would by very lucky to get four Sankamap visits a year and has had to go up to seven months without a visit, meaning food and fuel supplies on the island are exhausted and if anyone has gotten seriously sick they are quite simply dead. The ship will not do mercy trips to the island so if you get sick and your family can't raise the 9,000-18,000 Kina (NZ$4,500 – 9,000) needed to pay for a trip you die. No ifs or buts - you die... they do a brief ceremony and put you in the ground before your body goes off in the heat.

So yes - the Sankamap is about as important as a machine can possibly get and yet due to a huge range of factors (many of them political and hence off limits to mention in a public forum) she is dying and while various people try to get an alternative vessel set up; none at this point exists so the ship remains the only lifeline for the Islands in the truest sense of the word 'lifeline'.

With all this knowledge we finally boarded the ship to leave Nukutoa Island in Takuu...

After waiting for so many days for the ship to come we got caught out by the fact that when it did, it actually arrived several hours early. I wrote this on the day that we left Takuu:

Briar is off getting shots of the kids at school which has started yesterday while I am frantically dismantling and packing all our gear deciding as I go what we really need to take and what can be given to the Islanders. I’m frantic because the ship is coming at 1pm and it is now 9am and there is much to do especially as we need to shoot an interview with the school principal at 10am which will take at least 30 mins. Suddenly Richard walks in and tells me the ship is in sight and be ready to go at 11am. He also adds a reminder that it can't anchor so please make sure we're ready in time as it would be most embarrassing if not actually impossible for it to wait for us. This sends me running through the village looking for Briar... No sign of her anywhere..Damn...

Rush back, keep packing, then Briar is there, phew! She's been filming Endar's leaving prep. I tell her the problem then we both pack like mad doing our best to make everything as watertight as possible due to the fact we know we will be boarding a moving ship from a banana boat. Abruptly Sio walks in, are we ready he asks? The boat is here waiting to take us to the ship. Suddenly as we shove the last items in bags, the bags themselves are being grabbed by many different hands and disappearing from the house. I try to do a last check to see what we have missed but it's cursory as I am practically dragged out the back of our house to where the banana boat sits in the water loaded and ready to go. People I know are surrounding me saying goodbye. It is a sea of confusion and emotion as we shake hands hug and kiss everyone. In the background we can hear a child screaming - grief stricken as his grandmother boards our boat to leave. Briar is close to tears as are some of the ladies. Even the usually staunch Sio looks a little weepy. The ship is slowly moving past the island a few hundred metres off shore, her presence adding fuel to the mad inferno of rushed farewells we seem to be caught in.

Avo the Chief is there happily shaking our hands, his gnomelike face smiling in appreciation of our visit. I'm feeling almost dizzy as I try to remember the names and faces before me and say goodbye appropriately. Then we're in the banana boat and heading away from the island and all is silent but for the throb of the outboard and the sobs of the grandmother. Briar and I look at each other kind of shellshocked. Is that it? After nearly two months here, are we really going? The last 10 minutes of machine gun farewells seemed both surreal and deeply moving...Did all that really happen?

The ship looms over us and then we're on board. Our gear is quickly stowed and we're on deck looking back at the islands as the last of the banana boats with the other passengers arrive. Rose is with us and pulls out food prepared for our trip. At first it looks like cooked coconuts but when cracked open they reveal that they are stuffed with rice and Karave; the sweet sap of the coconut tree. All this has been cooked in the shell so that the coconut flesh, the milk, the rice and the Karave have all caramelised into a deliciously sweet treat. We eat this, still warm from cooking, with sticky fingers as the ship finishes loading and swings her nose towards the reef and towards the passage through to the awaiting Pacific.

We’re set for 20 hours to Buka upon a ship that is probably overloaded and on which the liferafts are six years past their service dates, the toilets are places you avoid going at all costs, and every surface is covered in a thin layer of grime and rust, meaning that very quickly we are getting filthy...and yet we are happy

We have a long way to go... but we have started heading home.

A week in Buka lies ahead; a small frontier-like town on the edge of civilsation in a newly formed nation that has arisen from a long and bloody civil war... Should be fun!

Zane out.

It's toilet time...

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Stranger in a strange land

I'm at liberty to say that Briar and Zane are on the plane as I write (unless something utterly unforseen has happened) and I'm expecting to see them in about two hours, cavity searches at customs notwithstanding.

Briar has sent a post descibing the last few hours on the island which she couldn't get through till recently (they've been without the internet for the last two weeks). It's a moving and soulfully insightful piece and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Here is a post that I wrote just before leaving the island:

A wild cyclone is devouring Takuu. It rips through the coconut trees. The lagoon is stirred into a murky grey and its surface is littered with hundreds of tiny white caps. The banana palms are shredded into fine green strips which remind me of thinly cut paper used for decorating the edges of cakes or cocktail straws. Rain falls in bucket loads, hitting the ground in violent splashes. The chickens and roosters squawk and scream with horror but the ducks stand dead still, showering their waxy backs. The wind has a constant drumming sound, like that of a tide moving back and forth, but with a viciously wild and unpredictable edge. It blows directly through our tiny shelter, inside the eastern door and out through the western one. It deafens the sound of my thoughts like an oddly intoxicating blanket of gloom which wraps itself around you and over takes your mood and mobility. Rain and hair are in my eyes and a wet lap lap clings to my blistered legs. Nobody is outside (except for me and the birds). All have crept away. Men are sleeping. Women are huddled around open fires in the cook houses. Children stop their noisy games finding quieter activities inside. Meanwhile a lap lap from a clothes line is hurdled across the street. There is a loud crash as something three yards away has fallen from its place. Could it be the loose corrugated iron which acts as our make shift door, or the roof from our neighbors cook house? Before I have time to find out the whole place shakes from the violent clapping of thunder, followed by bright flashes of sheet lightening.

Do you think the boat will be here today? Hmm I don't think so. Every twelve hours we have a new piece of news. The last few reports have said that the rusty hulk that is the Sankamap is still in Tasman. First with a missing engine, then with the absence of its three anchors all lost along the way. We have learnt not to care or worry about when it will arrive. This is a great opportunity to put into practice what Echart Tollie calls " the power of now" (basically staying in the present moment) and perhaps it would be better to travel on the Sankamap when the sun-really-does-come-up?

I stand soaking wet in the middle of this storm and think back over our trip..

What will I take away and what will I leave behind for the winds to ravage? It is hard to know what you have actually learnt from a place while you are still in it. Usually the most valuable insights occur when you return home. I like the way T.S Elliot puts it in his poem 'Little Gidding':

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time

I was pleasantly surprised when these words turned up at the beginning of the film Run Lola Run. Speaking of quotes, I should add (while standing in the marae drenched through)

"There is nothing so strange in a strange land as the stranger who comes to visit it".

I read this at the beginning of a Denise O'Rouke film and fits appropriately with the way I look now. Something that could fit the description of perturbed drunkard – although this is just me stumbling around as I fight the elements! It also sums up the many ironic moments we have had since our arrival. For example, one day I was standing in the middle of the street holding the satellite phone to my ear (this is a plastic brick with a huge aerial) whilst being interviewed by Radio New Zealand. Around me villagers are hauling giant taro into piles, for an annual customary ritual. The situation just seemed too surreal.

I wonder what it would have been like for missionaries a hundred or so years ago. They wouldn't have had radio reports with news from afar, nor satellite phones or blog posts, only handwritten journals. They wouldn't have known whether their boat ride home had lost its three anchors, let alone become ship wrecked with no surviving passengers! They would have ventured to foreign lands like Takuu, with the expectation that they may never come back, or with rumors that they could be eaten alive (this is eventually what happened to the famous John Williams – an English Missionary from the early 1800s). Our trip is hardly remote by these standards, especially considering we can still use internet and even ring our producer Lyn for help when things get rough. Perhaps one thing I have learn is just how dependent I am on modern inventions. Live in a place with no hospitals, medicine and little news of the out side world and you have a completely different view on life.

The other thing I have been reminded of is the importance of staying positive. For some, this might sound like a 101 self help book lesson, but many times I have needed to focus on this simple wisdom. I was particularly inspired by a man named Ben. He turned up near the end of our stay and I got the opportunity to interview him one day with no prior warning. He is one of those guys who has an extra bounce in his step. He had once lived in Australia but has come back home expressing that he wanted to do his part to help his people. Part of Ben's work involves a business buying and exporting sea cucumber from Takuu. It is the only economy on Takuu (before this there was nothing for quite some time). The selling of the sea cucumber provides a way for families to find funds for their school fees and buy other living essentials and food items. Zane and I have been talking of and scheming up many other options and ideas that could help the community, and it was encouraging to hear the same thoughts being voice by Ben.

I have been asking many of my characters what is their view on change. When I asked Ben he immediately replied with one word: "Positive". He went on to say "we must take the word 'positive' into every situation and in every negative circumstance we must find a positive outcome". So many times during this trip I have tended to look at the glass as if it was only half empty. It is easy to get carried away thinking about how much nicer it would have been if I could have only taken this bit of gear or that lens etc. It is also quite stressful knowing that we have a limited period of time to shoot the film and that it is hard to get back to the island, so as much as possible must be filmed on this trip. Sometimes it has been hard to organize shoots and get the interviews I have wanted. In the hot sun and the dense coral the process has often felt like a long battle up hill (but I must say almost always exciting and enjoyable).

I have learnt that the important thing is to enjoy the journey rather than focus on the destination and to always stay positive (you never know - if I was living in John Williams time – I might have ended up being eaten when I got there so best not to think about it too much)! So I will throw all my negative thoughts to the winds. I will splash in a few more puddles, sing in the rain, and continue looking like a perturbed drunkard.

"There is nothing so strange in a strange land as the stranger who comes to visit it".

- Briar signing out from Takuu..

Monday, February 12, 2007

It's not over til it's over...

Ok everyone, predictably things have got a little delayed in Port Moresby - the plane from Buka was about three hours late in arriving on Saturday, and so that put the kibosh on shoot plans for the afternoon and knocked the schedule out by a day at least. This in turn has put back the return home 'til (I estimate) Wednesday, because it's difficult to get a same day connection from Brisbane and Auckland if you've flown in from Moresby. I know that many of you are really looking forward to their arrival (although possibly not even as much as they are themselves) but you're going to have to hold your proverbial, at least for a couple of days.

Briar and Zane have now got access to the web again, and there'll be some blogs from both on the last days of Takuu and the Sankamap coming up. They're also checking the Takuu gmail address sporadically, so if you're desperate to get in touch you can find them there. Bear in mind that they're still very busy tidying up lose ends and doing final interviews, so they may not be able to respond before they get home.

In the meantime, check out the interview that Briar did on Checkpoint from the island, by clicking the sidebar link, and watch out for archive of interviews on Breakfast, ZB and Nine to Noon which should be available soon. I should have a link to the article that appeared in the Sunday Star Times last week available soon as well.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The end is in sight....

After a week shooting interviews with expats and politicians in Buka, Briar got some sad news from home. With this in mind we're making an effort to get her and Zane back into New Zealand as soon as possible and are hoping that this will be Monday. This is a little bit earlier than any of us thought, but we've discussed it and we think that it's best, and won't materially affect the film. I'll try and post when I know what time they're getting in, but with current difficulties in communication, even I may not know much before they actually arrive.

Thanks everyone for all your interest in the shooting process, and all of the adventures on Takuu. Things are going to be a little quieter for the next week or so, but with the possibility of going to AIDC (the Australian International Documentary Conference) in Adelaide if we can find $1700.00 for the tickets, and a shoot in Rarotonga with climate experts at the SIDS Expert Meeting on Adaption as part of the Frame Work Convention on Climate Change, there's always more about to happen, including more travel. Please keep reading.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

In case you were worried

We are safe in Buka at the guest house. Richard maybe flying out shortly so may be last contact till we find other means.


Dry land


Z and B