A Pocket Of Polynesia

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Matt Fletcher
Position: S09 02.058 E159 04.827 (aboard Lapita Tikopia)

A Slightly Perilous Situation

As the wind picked up again I figured that actually yes, we could lose the boat. And if it happened it would be wet, dangerous and embarrassing. We'd been blown off course by a sudden squall whilst crossing West Bay on Pavuvu Island. It wasn't far to go, but the head wind was a pain when we started and a nightmare when it started blowing Force 6 straight into our faces. We had been trying to get to a more sheltered anchorage, a tiny distance just around a small headland. Now it was blowing force 6 and we were emergency anchored by the side of a jagged reef that jutted out from an unfriendly shore.

Dark cloudy sky above the sea
Rain squall
Klaus at the helm
Klaus at the helm in the pouring rain

The 5hp engine of our dingy was not man enough for a rescue job. It strained and struggled through the wind and chop, but we got pushed closer to the reef. When the wind dropped we tried to sail off, but the anchor was wrapped around a coral. I dived to free it, but the wind ramped up again and the swell pounded the boat. It was no longer a good time to have a free anchor. I stood on deck letting the rain wash the salt off whilst Klaus told me, rather sheepishly, that salt water crocodiles outnumber people 3 to 1 on the Russell Islands. Great place for snorkelling then? It started raining a little harder. Not the greatest of starts to the day.

The boat anchored off an island
Anchored off Samatra in the Russell islands. The "sun" roof is set really low to give some shelter in the driving rain
Locals with Klaus in a straw house
'Chief' Mark (left) located 2 old Tikopian friends of Klaus (right) who lived further up the creek from Samatra

It had been raining on and off for 5 days. Everything was wet or damp. The chocolate biscuits had run out and the rum was a distant memory. I'd had enough of this foul weather and now there was a chance that I would be dragged across a coral reef. But it was not to be. Some folks in a motor boat, sent by the crew of Lapita Anuta, pulled us clear and got us around the headland so we could sail in driving rain on to Samatra. And here our day started to change.

John sat on deck
Crocodile John
Crocodile skulls
Crocodiles killed by John

Samatra Village

Samatra sits on Pavuvu in the Russell Islands. The village is a little pocket of Polynesia transplanted from Tikopia in the 1950s when Unilever was looking for workers for its coconut plantations. They built concrete houses with tin roofs, wharfs, copra processing barns, a library and a nine-hole golf course. Hundreds of Tikopians came to work, but not many took up golf. Unilever gave it up in the 1990s, and the plantation slid downhill, but about a 1000 Tikopians remain to process copra, fish and farm.

Band playing under a roof
The PukoFe band played for us in the 'village hall' while the rain rattled on the tin roof
Villagers gathered under a roof
The whole village gathered for the feast/party

It was Mark who had helped us off the reef and welcomed us to Samatra with open arms. He is the main man in Samatra, kind of a chief and shop steward rolled into one. He found the family of a long-lost friend for Klaus and then introduced me to Ismail, the biggest micky taker I've met on this voyage who helped me take livestock DNA samples and gently took the piss. He also had the most amazing way with animals, his calm, happy and gentle manner surely having rubbed off on them. His dogs were soft and affectionate, not wild and fearful like so many here, but his pigs were a marvel. Some of them came from the wild; orphaned during a pig hunt, but all of them rolled onto their backs to have their stomachs rubbed as Ismail spoke to them quietly, bent down to pet them and gently plucked a few hairs.

Dancing children
The children had a great time dancing to the music
Hanneke and James wearing headdresses
James and Hanneke at the party

It rained and blew almost constantly for the next 2 days. The inlet turned yellow with runoff from the logging concession upstream and no one would take their outriggers to the good fishing grounds on the outer reefs. So we sat tight, explored ashore during the brief dry spells and chatted to our Tikopian friends about crocodile hunting, the strike that has shut the plantation for almost 6 years, life back on Tikopia and the boat that we'd be giving to their home island.

Two people chopping meat into a bowl on deck
Chopping up fresh meat
Food, baskets and people on deck
Departure from Samatra. John and another friend accompany us some of the way.

They'd had news of our project, but I guess never quite believed it until we anchored just off shore. Samatra approved of what we are trying to do and we felt it in the warmth of the welcome and amazing generosity. On our last night Crocodile John turned a pig I knew into a wonderful stew and we ate it with cassava and manioc and danced to a Pu Ko Fe band who played their hollow bamboo instruments with the soles of old flip flops whilst everyone sang.

Then it poured down again just as Hanneke was putting on a slideshow. The entertainment ceased, at least until about 3am. It was then, after we'd been awoken by excited voices on the old rusted wharf, that Crocodile John arrived carrying 10kg of prime beef and the tale of an impromptu, wild cattle hunt. Damp it was, but there was not a dull moment in Samatra.

- Matt Fletcher