Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Damaged trees

Trees on the shore of Nukutoa damaged by the waves.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Men's dance

Many of the younger men doing a stick dance at the concert on the school grounds. In this photo Satty and George can be seen dancing with several schoolteachers and other village men.

The Graduates of 2008

8th grade graduates of Mortlock School stand on the undamaged basketball court the day before the big waves came.

Damage to the school library

This was the school libary. All the schoolbooks were ruined by the waves.

Concert day in brief with curious weather effects

Its been a big day and I'm tired so I'll try not to make this too long.

It started, sort of, when Satty woke Scott and I to look at the big waves surging past the island. It was supposed to be a low tide with a half moon but the water level looked like a high tide and every seven minutes a huge sheet of water came racing towards the island with a hissing roar from the north west to crash against the northern shore. It was kind of impressive. If this had been a full high tide these sheets of water would be racing across the school playground. We figure these surges must be long period waves generated by a far off storm or cyclone (can anyone out there find a graphic of the weather map for the 7th and 8th of December 2008 that we can post on this blog?)

The rest of the day started at dawn. We started shooting at 6am with Endar to get some work done before the big concert. Scott, Lyn and John were roped into the event as dignitaries to give out prizes to the school children. Dr Scott Smithers had an extra job (he must be more dignified) he had to give a speech through a megaphone and tie the teachers ties.

Then there was a big lunch followed by the concert bit. Twenty nine acts. Traditional dance and church singing. It finally finished at dusk. It was a great day that we totally enjoyed.


P.S. Tomorrow we are going to Takuu to film some more taro pit action. Judging by the vicious state of the mosquitos at Petasi this afternoon the little winged creatures on Takuu promise to be truly unbelievable. Also, in case you were wondering if we plan to come back, our departure time on the Barbarian is set for midday on Sunday.

Too far away to get evacuation warnings (and too far away to be evacuated)

Its been an interesting couple of days here on Nukutoa. Yesterday the strange wave patterns that we have been noticing all week began hitting us with full effect as tides have become higher. Large sections of the island have been flooded and the shore has been eroded as waves have broken across the seawalls of the eastern shores.

This morning Scott and John held a meeting presenting their research so far to the islanders. Soon afterward everyone left to prepare fortoday's tide at 1pm. The news we had managed to glean via the radio was that low lying parts of northern PNG had been evacuated and that Manus and Kavieng had been hit hard by large waves. In Wewak water had reached the airport runway.

Here in Takuu we are too far away to get evacuation warnings (and too far away to be evacuated). People here can only guess at what must be going on. We suspect a huge storm north of here, perhaps around Guam, is generating huge ocean swells; swells with long period waves that carry them over the shallow water of the reef and still hold enough energy topenetrate the island.

As the tide rose so did the waves. Near Petasi (which is close to the edge of the reef) the water sometimes reached our knees. We had to be careful that the camera wouldn't get swept away with the rest of the debris hitting us as we filmed shots in the waves.

Over half the island has been flooded with most of the damage in the eastern parts. The school has been heavily hit with the schoolteachers house, the library and the elementary classrooms sustaining major damage. Schoolbooks are ruined, boats and water tanks float on the basketball court.

Only a few days ago the dance concert was held in the school grounds, now the grounds are a mess of coconuts and rubbish floating in the saltwater. The wavespenetrated into the middle of the island ruining houses and flowing into the wells.

All along the northern shore, houses sit without their walls, pools of water lie in the interiors upon which float the remains of household effects. Coconut trees have fallen and coral rocks have been thrown up on the land. There has been great damage to the sandy points upon which the canoes are kept. Several fishing canoes now have holes and lie tipped upon their sides.

All is calm tonight. The tide is low and the waves cannot get over the reef. Tomorrows tides are higher and on Friday to Sunday will be even higher still. We sent a press release to the NZ herald and John has talked to the Sydney Morning Herald so watch out for some articles.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

When you are here, you get the privilege of being part of the family too...

Over the last two years when I have thought of Takuu - the isolated atoll I lived on for two months in 2006 – 2007 - I have remembered a pace of life that moves in time with the tides and the rising and setting of the sun. One that is structured around community and people and less around money, property and careers. People are incredibly hospitable and there is a general feeling of openness and acceptance by the whole community. It is this feeling that makes staying on Takuu so special and what resonates with me most as I return.

In particular is the way families operate and the roles each will take in caring and looking after each other. When I was here before, Avo the chief of the island and the father to Sini whose family is looking after us, had two legs and appeared fairly fit and healthy. Last year his foot became infected after he accidentally stepped on a fish bone. Because Avo has diabetes the infection grew, until a few months ago his foot had to be amputated. At the same time Avo's wife Samoa had a stroke, becoming unable to talk or walk. Now both are disabled and they rely a lot on their extended family to help them. It's impressive to see how easily this happens. A special chair has been made for Samoa, which has handles on either end so that the ladies can carry her to the water to wash and toilet, while Avo is pushed around by his grandchildren in his wheel chair. If this couple had lived in New Zealand they might have easily ended up in an old person's home. Here they are constantly around their family, and if it is not Sini, or Sio their daughter or son-in-law who help them, it is the cousins, nephews, aunties and uncles. In additon to these changes, Avo's daughter Jane has had a baby. The father is not on the island so it is the extended family who are taking part in the raising of the child. The baby is always in some body's arms, being admired, talked to or played with. And Sio, the father of the house, seems to be making a special effort to be the father figure in the baby's life.

I am sure families operate like this all around the world, and as much as possible they will try to help each other. I guess the main difference here is that there is no traveling time, or distance between people, making it much easier to be together. In fact, you could say the whole island is an extended family. Lyn tried to do a family tree of our three characters and she found that they were all related twice to each other on both sides of the family.

When you are here, you get the privilege of being part of the family too. One lady, after a few glasses of kareve (coconut beer) told me I was her booboo (grand child), giving me a visongi (hongi – rubbing of noses). That definitely felt like some sort of initiation into the island life

When bitten by a crab - bite back.

The last few days have been difficult as far as making films on small atolls goes. Our subjects have often been unavailable due to the ongoing funeral ceremonies and we have had equipment trouble as well. All on the same day we had problems with playback on the camera, a virus on our computers from a pen drive and our generator (which we use for topping up our power if its cloudy or we have put too big a load on the batteries) suddenly started jumping around with a clattering noise while white smoke poured from the alternator.

So work shifted to the Barbarian where a small office for Rose and George was set up to translate the video tapes while Briar and Rod shot the underwater sequences for the beginning and end of the film. For these sequences Briar roped in a young man called Dan and a canoe. The first days filming took place in the north west passage where the tides bring in clear water from the ocean. Here Rod filmed shots using the canoe. The second day involved filming diving shots off Queen Emma's Island (Kapeitu). I took the chance to go ashore with Endar and Barbarian's crew to take a look at the ruins of the old plantation house which was abandoned in the 1930's when the village moved to Nukutoa.

The concrete walls of the house and some kind of factory are slowly crumbling into the jungle in the interior of the island. Trees are growing on the walls and lumps of concrete cover the area where the floors once were. The roof and anything wooden have been eaten away long ago. The layout of the house is still there and you can easily see where the bay windows and the veranda once where.

After messing about looking at the house I went back out into the glaring sunlight of the beach where Endar taught me to catch crabs for bait. The method is this -
1. Find a crab hole in the beach.
2. Dig until you find a crab.
3. Grab your crab from behind.
4. Throw the crab with force upside down on the beach to stun and kill it.

My first crab went well but with my second I failed at step 3. I grabbed the frightened little animal from the front and it bit my finger hard with a pincer drawing blood. I then learned another trick. When bitten by a crab - bite back. Biting its pincer causes the shell to crack and the crab loses grip. Endar had the crabs for lunch. Barbarian's cook, Daisy, fried them with chilli.

Yesterday I went fishing. There was no filming going on to speak of (Briar did squeeze off a few shots though) so I went on a trip with Cio (whose family we stay with), Scott and Leonard (Barbarian's engineer) [Briar and Lyn weren't allowed to come, they are girls, they are unlucky and we couldn't even talk about it to them]. We zoomed out of the lagoon in an orange fiberglass canoe circling the small reefs on our way out to catch bait. We had dolphins surfing in our bow wave for a while and outside the lagoon huge whales could be seen in the distance rising and crashing back into the water.

The fishing technique was to zoom into flocks of seabirds feeding on the water while trailing as many fishing lines as possible. In this fashion we caught six large fish, two tuna and four rainbow runners. Most of these fish are destined for the big event - Monday's Dance Concert. A lot of the men are still out there tonight - fishing for the concert.

Today we were back to the usual routine. We filmed Satty and Endar this morning and sequences with the scientists in the afternoon.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Animals we have seen so far on this expedition:

-Huntsman spider
-Scorpion (in Briar and Lyn's house)
-Dolphins (in Buka Passage and surfing the bow wave of our canoe in Takuu lagoon)
-Frigate Birds (talo has one as a pet)
-Fairy Terns
-Blue Starfish
-Rats (in our house)
-Manta Rays
-Whales (breaching at sea about 4km from the reef)
-Noddy Terns
-Cats (only at night)
-Corgis (in Buka)
-Black Skinks
-Yellowfin Tuna
-Skipjack Tuna
-Rainbow Runner Fish
-Moray Eels
-Coconut Crabs (on Takuu)
-Hermit Crabs
-Mushroom Coral
-Angel Fish
-Mosquito Fish
-Sea Cucumber
-Sea Urchin
-Ants (in our peanut butter)

Possibly to be continued....

This is how most days pan out for us here -

You may get the impression from reading this blog that all we do on the Mortlock Atoll is swan about looking at the sights and complaining about the toilet arrangements. The truth is in fact that most of our day is spent working.

This is how most days pan out for us here-

5am: We get up. Yes I know 5am sounds early but here on Nukutoa this is the time most people get up. At this time the sun is up, the roosters have left our roof and things are happening. The girls disappear for their morning kaukau (strangely the word for wash is the same as the word for kumera - go figure!), and we boys take the long walk to Patasi.

6am - 7am: Breakfast. Time for some Hardman cabin bread biscuits (Hi-Way Hardman. Strongpela Bisket!) with peanut butter (we bought 5 jars of peanut butter but no jam) and a cup of Milo. The crew of the Barbarian usually turn up with blocks of ice for our water cooler.

After this the scientists disappear for some morning science (measuring stuff, surveying and cutting up coral mostly - they have a lot to do on the low tide) and we filmmakers try to locate the people we are filming and prepare the equipment.
8 or 9am to 11am: We film a scene. I hold a microphone while trying not to let any equipment die in the heat / wet. Briar fusses over the camera and Lyn checks the shots / questions against the script. Meanwhile Rose and whoever else we can rope in work on translating the tapes from previous days shooting.

11am to 12:30pm: The hot part of the day begins. The light becomes harsh and full of contrasts while the equipment is in danger of overheating in the full sun. We try not to do any filming. Lyn and Briar start planning the next days shooting while rewriting the script against what we have just shot. I usually fiddle around with the batteries at this time trying to squeeze as much power out of the sun as possible before the equipment sucks it all up again.

12:30 pm: Lunch. Usually rice, instant noodles and fish or corned beef stew. All our meals here are made for us by our host family. We don't have to cook a thing, also they do our laundry! The scientists have turned up again by now and are working on their notes while adding up sums on a calculator.

1pm to 2:30pm. Back to planning / adding up sums. Its still too hot to shoot. Today at this time a big rainstorm broke over the islands. We ran around in the rain with buckets trying to catch as much of it as possible to refill the tanks. Fresh water is precious here. Some laundry water can be drawn from wells in the middle of the island but most washing and drinking water comes from the sky. As most houses are thatched only a few can catch rain.

2:30pm. The second shoot of the day. We go and interview someone or follow them around with the camera to see how much they can put up with.

5 - 5:30 pm: Sunset begins. Time to grab those atmospheric shots before it all disappears for the day.

6pm. It's dark. Time to write blogs, fiddle with the script and wind things down. The chickens are back on the roof and are falling asleep. We may try to wash ourselves using a couple of cups of fresh water.

7pm. Dinner time. The menu varies. Often a slight variation on the lunch menu. Sometimes it can be an incredible feast of local dishes. Today Endar cooked for us and there is a kind of kaukau flat cake / pudding as well as roast chicken (chicken doesn't turn up often on the menu). We don't forget to take our malaria tablets.

8pm. We try to send and receive emails while cursing the gods of the satellite phone. It often takes several tries to hook up and then sometimes throws us off the network. The signal strength comes and goes and we constantly play with the aerial trying to make it better.

After this we go to bed. Nicely tucked up under our mosquito nets until the roosters begin again.

Oops! Dinner time - better go.

The special dangers of Petasi.

A decision to travel to Petasi is never taken lightly. This little island is full of hidden (and not so hidden dangers) that include pandanus grass (which has sharp serrated edges to the leaves with little thorns that must be pulled out of the skin with tweezers), sharp coral rocks and piles of excrement. Petasi is the little island connected to the eastern tip of Nukutoa and when walking can be smelt before it is seen.

Petasi is often called Pootasi or Poo Island in our camp. It serves as the mens toilet. Briar has earlier described the special details and dangers of the women's toilet in the sea at the northern tip of the island and I have to admit that perhaps they have it worse, they have to get wet each time they go, but the men's isn't easy either. Finding a fresh area on the sharp coral where you won't get pandanus thorns in your backside can be a challenge on some mornings. Luckily our diet of fish, rice and kaukau results in less journeys to Petasi.

PS You may wonder what they use as toilet paper here. Scott has just discovered it is coconut fiber.


Saturday, December 06, 2008

A demanding sort of holiday. But, nevertheless, not an experience I'd be without.

Am clearly not keeping my end up in the blogging stakes here, but Jeffrey has made sure that the side has not been let down.

I'd say I'm not blogging because I'm so busy, and in a sense this is true, but in all honesty, the days float by here like we're on some strange, confronting holiday. Which is not to say that we're not working hard, but that its very hot, and humid and free time usually gets spent yarning or wishing you were asleep (in the middle of the day) and then trying to sleep at night (which is sometimes impossible.)

Life on Nukutoa is rather like full time existence in a caravan park at the height of summer in the 70s. There are little houses about the size and shape of caravans on similar sized sections, communal toilets and washing facilities and constant good weather. The footwear du jour, every jour, is jandals. People dress casual – t-shirts and laplaps (sarongs) and sometimes not even that. Every day brings its small dramas – flooded out-riggers, crap fishing, children who get grumpy and fractious because of chest infections. But generally things slide along in their own way, in their own time. Women work very hard here, but its still possible to see them drowsing in the sun after a long day. It's very safe. Children are free to roam and play and take physical risks because the other kinds of risks that we're familiar with – stranger danger, traffic, Internet nasties, simply don't exist. People treat us very very well, from the family we're staying with, to people that we don't even really know, to the people that we're working with on the film – this is a very close community. The fact that John and Scott are here to assess what's happening on the island is something that everyone appreciates very much as well. We're trying to make every second count.

That said – there's a flip side to every situation. Imagine living in a camping ground year round – no TV, no Internet, no shops, no variations in food, no showers, no privacy and worse – no doctor, no hospital and no transport out.

The toileting situation is something to get your head around – I was always taught not to pee in the pool, but now I not only have to pee there but shit there as well – if the lagoon counts as a pool. Not only that but I have to do it in plain sight of other people, including (sometimes) the men who keep their boats at poo-point – otherwise known as Tealoki. I'm confronted with physical evidence of other people's activities too, usually in the middle of a conversation with them about the film (people are curious) or village gossip (people are happy to divulge). Or sometimes just because. The other thing I find confronting about Tealoki is the eels. At night, at low tide, and when you're at lowest ebb, when you're expected to squat over about 3 inches of water miles from the shore, there are moray eels, white and curious, perched along the water's edge. Scott suggested not to worry unless I was presenting the eels with something reassembling a small crustacean, whereupon I put my hands over my ears and went “la la la”. I've figured out how to get around the problem but I don't want to divulge any more than I already have. It's simply too Freudian.

The constipation remains a problem – only psychological in part (dehydration and a lack of dietary fibre take care of the rest) and poo stories are regularly shared amongst our band of five reprobates. The worst part though, is having to get wet every time you need to go. It's a round trip of 15-30 minutes depending on your circumstance, and plays merry hell with your sunblock and insect repellent applications. Actually – I lie – the worst part is having to wake up, put on a laplap and then stagger to the water to pee in the middle of the night – I seem to save it all up for then. I've developed a number of dodgy strategies for making the process easier but they're all fraught – for example – tonight I took a short-cut and nearly ran over a giant pile of what appeared to be turtle guts and also a cat trying to eat them. Thank god for headlamps.

I've managed now to have had a close encounter with most of the confronting fauna that Takuu affords – bitten to the quick by clouds of giant mosquitos, had a giant spider fall out of the roof and land next to the spot where I was sleeping on the floor, found a scorpion in the bed itself (Briar wanted to take a photo), and one on my mosquito net, watched a centipede – the only really poisonous thing on the island, run out of my sleeping mat when I picked it up in the morning, played spotlight with a pair of rats and chased one out of our rubbish, repeatedly flicked off a jumping spider that had to have me and just got dive bombed by some kind of beetle while trying to write this. The coral gravel floor of our hut is alive with small crabs and, when you lift your sleeping mat off the floor in the morning, Slater's. While washing in the comforting blanket of darkness (because you have to wash standing next to a bucket in the street), strange, inbred zombie-cats slink past like ghosts.

So – yes – a demanding sort of holiday. But, nevertheless, not an experience I'd be without.

- Lyn

There were actually two parties going on at the same time on Saturday

30 November
If you are wondering why there has been a slight delay in the arrival of new blogs we have some good reasons.

Firstly all our batteries have been running down. The car batteries that we use in our solar system are now not as reliable and don't hold their charge as long as before. Also most of the equipment batteries have run down and need charging. Today I resorted to putting on the generator and have given everything a jolly good charge - so we will see how we go.

Secondly, yesterday we had an all day drinking session - so nothing got done (but it was good for public relations). Karave (and I'm not sure I'm spelling that correctly) is a kind of beer brewed from the sap of the coconut tree. It's collected in plastic or glass bottles hung at the top of the tree and fermented for a while. Additives improve the alcoholic content but not the taste. The resulting drink tastes a bit like a mix of beer and rice wine but isn't too bad after the first glass.

There were actually two parties going on at the same time on Saturday hosted by two of the main characters in our film. Satty (who is in his mid thirties and messes about with canoes) was re-rigging his outrigger in the men's boat shed / carving house at one end of the island. Briar and her camera were discouraged from showing up to this one possibly because last time she filmed one of Satty's boat launching captured on video the men telling Satty how he had done it all wrong - or it could be that he just didn't want to be bothered and asked to repeat his actions five times for the camera.

The other party was at Talo's house (Talo is in his 60's, gardens on Takuu, has a lovely wife called Madeline from the Solomons, is missing most of his teeth, keeps pet birds (including a frigate bird named after a footballer) and doesn't stop talking).

So the day passed much like a typical summer student party in Grey Lynn. I talked to many old men - their English vocabulary decreased as their consumption of Karave increased. The young men of the village were blind drunk by midday and everyone else drank until sunset.

Today (Sunday) we woke to find most of the village leaving for Takuu Island. During the night one of the elderly gentlemen died and as everyone is related to everyone else here, most people have departed for a five funeral on Takuu (many dressed as their best imitations of beekeepers). Some people here are worried about the funeral arrangements. Normally the fathers family of the deceased would perform the ceremony but this time none of them are available. Apparently the only person from the fathers side who was is a christian pastor - so he isn't able to do it.

So this time the mothers family will perform the ceremony. This could result in arguments in the land of the dead that may spill over into the land of the living.
After drawing family trees of our three characters I'm not sure how this situation could be possible. Our characters are related to each other on both their mothers side and their fathers side. When drawing out the family tree diagram Lyn put the ends of her paper together to form a circle and the two parts of the diagram matched up! At that point Lyn didn't even have all the connections drawn up yet.
To give you an idea of one connection: Satty is married to Telo's daughter from his first marriage, which makes Endar his great aunt in law.
The funeral means Talo is away but luckily Satty and Endar are still here so we can still continue making the film. Also this means the eagerly awaited school end of year dance contest has been delayed.

Everyone is very excited about this contest. There are little teams practicing all over the island I first became aware of them late one night when I half awoke to the sound of hundreds of sticks been beaten together all over the island. This resulted in a strange dream in which I thought the island was being invaded.
The dances are traditional to the atolls around here (the Carterets, the Tasmans etc) and seem to have no syncopated rhythms - just a steady beat. Apparently everyone has their own team including Beauty (the twelve year old girl who lives next door to us) whose team Briar named "Nukutoa Princesses" and Telo whose team of boys Briar, Lyn and I joined for a practice a few years ago.
Speaking of Briar and naming - it seems Satty has named his daughter after her. This new Briar is almost two months old (she was born on the 6th of October) is the same colour as the old Brair and has big serious black eyes.


Like having an entrance to a beehive in front of your own face!

You haven't experienced mosquitos until you have been to Takuu Island and photographed the giant taro.

Takuu is a short boat trip or lagoon wade through shallow warm waters from the friendly village of Nukutoa in the Mortlock Atoll. Visiting times are between dawn and 3pm. It is forbidden and also very unlucky to stay beyond 4pm.

When visiting Takuu it is fashionable to dress as a beekeeper. There are no shops on Takuu or Nukutoa selling beekeepers clothing but suitable facsimiles can be constructed from boiler suits, paper safety suits, wide brimmed hats and mosquito netting.

It is expected that visitors to the island not appropriately attired whip themselves with palm leaves. This ritual if consistently applied may discourage as much as 10% of all mosquitos.

Visitors to Takuu will want to photograph the giant taro. These impressive plants grow to over twice the height of a man and have huge wide leaves. Other types of taro on Takuu are worth viewing too. Visitors to the island will be impressed by the size and depth of many of the taro pits, some of which are hand dug to below sea level!

Of course the highlight of the trip for many people is the mosquitos. Those visitors unused to travel in a major tropical swamp will be amazed by the numbers and size of the little animals. It's like having an entrance to a beehive in front of your own face! I'm going back today and I hope you get the chance to visit soon.

-Jeffrey 27/11/08

Tuesday, December 02, 2008


Chickens. I am amused, slightly fascinated and irritated by chickens. My family used to keep a small collection of these birds when I was a teenager. Our chickens were very inbred and slightly feral. They would constantly do bizarre and stupid things.
The chickens on Nukutoa seem to follow the same plan. On your house, in your house, under your feet, on the beach, they are everywhere and seem to believe they own the island.
The chicken day begins just before dawn when they cause an almighty racket crowing and clucking at the top of their little lungs on the roofs of the houses. This wakes up the people of the village and serves as a collective alarm clock.
A little after dawn they descend from the roof to begin their day scavenging for food.
Roosters spend their day scavenging, attempting to out do each other in an endless crowing competition, taking dustbaths, fighting and sneaking up behind unsuspecting hens.

Hens spend their day scavenging, trying to build nests in stupid places (I have chased the same hen five times already today from my house, she wants to build a nest on the floor within our battery equipment), getting surprised by roosters jumping on their backs and losing (or forgetting they ever had) chicks.
Chicks spend their day trying desperately not to let their mothers forget about them while eating whatever they can.
Scott killed a hen the other day. It was an accident. He moved a wooden pallet to create a floor for our generator. As he dropped the pallet into position no one noticed the small black hen racing under it to eat the bugs coming out of the wood. The result was squashed chicken.

The chickens are desperate. I witnessed a chicken fight over an unlucky gecko. The poor little lizard was caught out in the open while at least a dozen chickens of various sizes descended upon it. The lizard didn't have a chance.
Dropped food or opened coconuts can also result in chicken mayhem.

At sunset the chickens ascend once more to the roofs of the houses. A common sight at dusk is to see a chick racing around a house squawking madly while its mother sits on the roof listening.
The thought in the hen's head probably runs like this "I hear a chick! Did I have one of those? Where is it? Perhaps its not mine. No I didn't have a chick today. Or did I? Its nice on this roof. I can see everything from here. Hmm sleepy... I still hear a chick. I wonder if its mine...." Eventually this problem is resolved. Either the chick dies and is eaten by cats or the mother comes down.
Night comes and all is peacefully silent as the exhausted chickens rest, preparing for another day of complete stupidity.
I must go now, I have to chase that hen off the batteries again.