I spoke with Adi Robertson, a senior reporter with The Verge who follows virtual reality, and I asked her why VR for the office hasn’t taken off. The following is an
South Pacific And AfricaBryan and Janes Travels in Africa and Oceania…
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We’ve now moved to the southernmost major island in the Vanuatu chain – the beautiful island of Tanna. Tanna is still a very traditional place, with most people still living a self sustaining lifestyle – growing their own food, making their homes from traditional materials (see pics), and living a clan based lifestyle. We stayed in simple bungalows made mostly of traditional and local materials (“Friendly Bungalows”), and run by local villages on a beautiful beach just east of the Yasur volcano (see below). Tanna is what one imagines when one thinks of a tropical paradise. Though their life is simple by Western standards, the Tannese we met are a contented people. Food is easy to grow in the rich volcanic soil, and there’s plenty of time most days to enjoy kava (see future post) with family and clan members. Homes are built along traditional Melanesian lines – walls and mat floors of split and beautifully woven cane, with roofs of pandanus (a palm like tree) thatch. The Tannese are always quick to smile and greet and you can safely walk anywhere through beautiful forests and gardens, with spectacular vistas of black sand beaches and the azure South Pacific (pictures below).
We came to enjoying the beauty of the place and learn more about the culture: Jane took an amazing traditional foods cooking class – hot stone steaming with no metal pots or cooking instruments, with the fire being lit by a traditional wood friction method in just a few minutes. One of our other objectives was to visit the Yasur volcano, which has been erupting continuously for hundreds, and possibly thousands of years. In 1776 and on his second Voyage Of Discovery, Captain Cook sighted the glowing caldera of Yasur far out at sea and thus the was one of the first Europeans to visit Tanna where they anchored, watered and replenished at what is now known as Resolution Bay (named after his ship).
The Yasur Volcano
As mentioned in previous posts, our travels in the South Pacific have taken us along parts of the “ring of fire” surrounding the Pacific. From the main island of New Guinea and onto to New Britan in the Bismarck Archipelago, rarely were out of sight of active volcanoes, they being created by the subduction of the Australian Plate under the Pacific. A bit of background: Volcanoes come in two basic types: shield and strata. Shield volcanoes are basically mountainsides from which fissures typicall pour forth liquid lava like the famous Kilauea volcano on the Big Island of Hawai’i. Strata are the classic mountains with bowl shaped caldera flinging out molten rock chunks which, building up over millennia, creating their cone-like shape. Yasur is a caldera of the “Strombolian” type, meaning it acts like what the Romans called “the lighthouse of the Mediterranean”, the Stromboli volcano, which has been in a continuous state of low level eruption for millennia (Yasur probably has been too). At just over a thousand feet tall, there is arguably no active strata volcano in the world which you can approach so closely and easily as Yasur. Dominating the landscape, it continuously spews forth a cloud of steam and sulphur gasses, hissing, even roaring at times, and making the earth tremble. But it is at night that Yasur becomes the living, breathing embodiment of “awesome” in its truest sense. An hour’s 4WD drive with Donald (our Tannese guide) across the volcanic cinder plain and another twenty minutes walk up the cone to the caldera edge at dusk delivered us to what I can confidently say is the most awesome natural spectacle I have ever experienced. As dusk ended and night began, we stood on the lip of the caldera (no guard rails or warning signs – you need a guide) just a few hundred yards from Yasur’s twin magma chambers, the liquid rock glowing fluorescent red. Every few minutes a smaller blast of volcanic gasses spattered glowing, semi-liquid rock onto the caldera walls, and every half an hour or so Yasur reminded us why the Tannese used their word for “the gods” in naming it. A tremendous explosion – a multiple of the most powerful thunderclap – ejected blobs of lava, some the size of a refrigerator or even bigger, hundreds of feet into the air, all this going on not miles, but just hundreds of yards from us. “Loud” does not do this experience justice. You could actually see a sonic boom-like pressure wave travel across the caldera and you felt it in your chest when it passed. At times, the breeze wafted a hint of the caldera heat and enveloped us in a sulphurous fog. Humbling. Scary at times. Yes, “ be in awe…in the truest sense of the word. This barely begins to describe the experience. And all this is just what seismologists call “Category One” for Yasur. I asked Donald, who has lived his entire life at Yasur’s foot, what Categories Two, Three and Four are like. “Category two – where we parked the truck (a half mile away), the lava is falling there. Category Three, we must evacuate the village. Category Four, the lava falls in the forest and sets it on fire.” Every day is the 4th of July on Tanna.
The Jon Frum Movement On Tanna
One of my goals in traveling through Melanesia in areas where during the Pacific War the fighting took on a scale and ferocity arguably unequaled in human history, was to get the point of view of the locals, the indigenous peoples (and ex-pats) of Melanesia about the War, many of whom were directly involved in providing the vast amounts of manpower required (to both sides): building and supplying the hundreds of airstrips, ports, roads, bridges and military installations over the vast Central and South Pacific. Now is a critical time, for much of this history is oral and those who still remember first-hand are growing old or are already gone. As described in an earlier post (from Alotau in southeast Papua New Guinea, below), for many Melanesians – those inhabiting those archipelagoes of Fiji, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, New Guinea and other places – the Pacific War was tantamount to someone from our Western Society being visited by aliens from outer space. For these people, then living a near stone-age existence, airplanes, enormous metal ships that made deafening noises and explosions, bombs, food wrapped in metal, big men with yellow hair, blue eyes and pale skin that turned red in the sun – all of this was an overwhelming experience. As one can imagine, they had a thousand questions, but tantamount was: “Why are you here?” And just as the Melanesians were becoming accustomed to all this, the war ended, and the white (and black) American fighting men went away. Why? Perhaps they, the Melanesians, were not performing their work properly? Did they offend the Americans? I had questions as well. We noticed that wherever we went in Melanesia and we told a local person we were from America, their face usually lit up and a broad smile crossed their face. They wanted to shake your hand and tell us: “Amerika numbawan!” Why this love of Americans? We’d bombed and bulldozed some of their lands into a lunar landscape during the War, polluted their beaches and reefs, brought death and destruction wherever our troops went and left an appalling toxic, explosive mess behind. I’d heard of the “Cargo Cults” – quasi-religious movements that prophesized the return of the big ships and all the “cargo”, said movements having emerged semi-independently across Melanesia. The Cargo Cults are what one might consider to be a natural outcome of the extraordinary experience they went through during the Pacific War, and particularly the mysterious abandonment of so much cargo by the Americans at its end (see previous post on “Million Dollar Point”). Why would they leave all these things behind if they did not intend to return? Why did they push their cargo into the sea?
This brings me to the John Frum Movement on Tanna. I’d read of it but wanted to hear about it first-hand from those living it, those who choose to live in John Frum villages on Tanna. I approached Donald, our guide up Yasur, with my interest/request. Donald advised that, yes, there was a John Frum village not too far away at the far edge of their clan/linguistic group (more than twenty languages are spoken on Tanna). We flagged down a clan member on our way back to Yasur the next day. He said he would pass on the word of my request, than an American had come to learn of the John Frum Movement and wished to visit. Permission was granted and the next day we set out on the hour and a half walk to the village which lay at the base of the Yasur volcano. With me I brought a traditional Melanesian greeting gift – a bundle of kava root (see future post on the integral role the drinking of kava plays in the South Pacific). Jane tagged along as far as the Yasur cinder plain (John Frum practices are a male, elder thing on Tanna). As we walked thru villages, people invariably looked up and smiled, and not just because Donald their kinsman was with us. These people live a relaxed, slower paced lifestyle which we’ve largely forgotten in the West as we perpetually quest for more and more “stuff”. Meanwhile Yasur smoked, hissed and rumbled in the distance. As we approached the village, we ran into several men working in their gardens along the path. One happily went ahead and advised we were approaching. Upon reaching the village, we took a seat under a tree at the edge of the village square, a leveled area being used at that moment by dozens of children of all ages in what appeared to be a spirited and energetic game of tag. The village was completely traditional. There was no electricity and little sign at all of anything “modern” at all (part of the John Frum Movement tradition – to live “Kastom”), save one small concrete block building set on a hillside nearby. In front of that building were three flags. The national flag of Vanuatu flew on one pole, flanked by an American flag, with another American flag attached to the front of the building. A short time later, Chief Isaac greeted us along with Steven, a village elder fluent in English. We made our way to the flag decorated building on the hill, which turned out to be their temple for the John Frum Movement. Upon entering, the first thing I noticed was a huge American flag draping the ceiling of the entire room. On the wall were various items associated with the Pacific War including a canvas carrying case for a Thompson submachine gun. We all sat crosslegged on woven floormat:
Chief Isaac (through Steven): “I can understand you, but I don’t speak much English. Steven will help me. Why are you here, Bryan?”
Bryan: “My wife and I have come to Tanna to enjoy your beautiful island. Thank you for hosting us. I am also interested in history. I am interested in the Pacific War. My uncle served here with the American Marine Corps. He visited Port Vila and the American base on Santo on several occasions. He fought the Japanese. I have read the American and the Japanese accounts of the Pacific War, but I wanted to hear from the local people, the people like you that live here. I wanted to hear your story. I wanted to hear about the John Frum Movement.”
Isaac, who was quite old (I did not ask his age) contemplated me for a few moments, then motioned to one of the temple walls, on which was the bright red and yellow flag of the American Marine Corps. On a table in front of it was a bayonet and a walkie talkie.
Isaac and Steven: “Before the war, we had Christian missionaries that visited Tanna. They said the old ways were no good. They said we had to stop drinking kava. They said we must become Christians. Some of us refused. The Christians did not like this and told the British and French government. They came and took some of our elders away to prison. They took them to Port Villa (the capital on the island of Efate). John Frum came to them and told of a great people in a land called America, and that Americans would come someday and free them. And the Americans would bring much cargo. The Americans came. Two thousand men from Tanna went to work for the Americans during the War. American soldiers said the Japanese were coming for us. They said that they took New Guinea and the Solomon’s. They said that we were next, but that America would stop them. Many Americans died. America saved us. Now we wait for John Frum to return. A great door will open on the side of the Yasur volcano and John Frum will come back to us through it. He will take us to the next level and the cargo will come back. We want to create a Facebook page to share the prophesy. We decide what cargo we use and don’t use. Cell phones are good. No TV. No church.”
In the foyer of the temple was a mural depicting the John From prophesy and the great door that would open on Yasur (see pictures below).
Bryan: “Isaac, how do you practice the John Frum Movement”
Isaac: “We have raised the American flag every day since 1956 (he may have actually meant 1946). Every day we raise and lower the flag. Every Friday night we dance and sing until dawn. In February, we have big events.”
Bryan: “What kind of songs do you sing?”
Isaac: “Traditional and American, like the Star Spangled song.”
Isaac then launched into a long dialogue in his local language, and in his speaking, I heard…..California…..Bill Clinton….Pendleton….Carolina….Atlanta.”
Bryan: “Chief Isaac, you have visited America?”
Bryan: “How did you come to visit America?”
Isaac: “We wrote to American Marines and they invited us. Also, Bill Clinton invited us to visit. Chiefs from several islands and our president went after our independence.”
Bryan: “What did you think of America?”
Isaac: “It is as John Frum said. I like Los Angeles and Washington D.C. and Atlanta and Camp Pendleton. At Camp Pendleton, I fired a rifle. Bryan, you look like the American soldier.”
Bryan: “Thank you, but I am much too old.”
Isaac: “Maybe one of their big men.”
Isaac and the other elders studied me a bit. I could clearly see they wanted to ask me something, but they declined when I prompted. We talked some more about John Frum. The translational vibe clearly seemed to be that maybe John Frum had sent me, that I might be some kind of an emissary of John Frum. That this was part of John Frum’s plan. This was definitely in the air (or maybe I was just imagining it), but I did not ask, fearing such a question would be inappropriate (I now regret I did not).
The kava root bundle was given to Steven by Donald (it is traditional that you have a second person to do the exchange) and I made a small cash contribution to the village, the use of which would be decided by the elders – as was “Kastom”.
As we walked back to where we were staying, I asked Donald what he thought about the John Frum movement. “I’m a Christian. They are not. That’s OK. We just try to be happy. Do good things. Take the right path in life. We all feel the same way.” Such a beautiful, fascinating, tolerant people…. “Donald, we Americans could learn much from you Tannese…” And that is what we discussed on our walk back.
Final post: Short stories, and observations: Kava, betel nut, what is, and is not a fish….
The awesome Yasur volcano calderas.
Beautiful Resolution bay where Captain Cook anchored in 1776.
The John Frum temple with American flags flying overlooking the John Frum village
John Frum Prophesy mural depicting door on the Yasur volcano through which John Frum will return.
Inside the John Frum temple with village elders.
Chief Isaac and Bryan in front of John Frum Prophesy mural.
Our traditional bungalow on the black volcanic sand beach of SE Tanna Island.
Traditional cooking – fire started without matches, no metal pots, pans or implements – steamed foods via heated stone/pit cooking methods.
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ON TO VANUATU
We’re now in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu, known before their independence from France and Britain in 1980 as the New Hebrides. Vanuatu is a chain of more than eighty islands stretching north to south five hundred miles, located east of Australia and south of the Solomon Islands. To reach Vanuatu, we headed about two hours west from Fiji (in the direction of Australia), landed in the capital city of Port Vila on the island of Efate, then headed north to the largest island, Espiritu Santo (“Santo”). You may not have heard of Santo, but you probably have heard of it. Santo inspired Michener (who was based there during the Pacific War, and to which he returned to after) to write his famous “Tales of the South Pacific”, which, in turn inspired Rogers and Hammerstein to write the hit musical “South Pacific”. Very much Melenesian (see previous post), most of Vanuatu is still a land of traditional culture, with arguably some of the most beautiful beaches and coral reefs in the world. Like our previous stops, we came to Vanuatu to experience the culture, SCUBA dive and generally explore.
The Coolidge And Million Dollar Point – “Military Intelligence” Strikes Again
During the dark days of 1941/early 1942, during the opening months of the Pacific War, things were going rather badly for the Allies. Pearl Harbor was famously attacked, Hong Kong and the Philippines were seized, the British stronghold of Singapore fell and the northern town of Darwin in Australia was being bombed almost daily. America was looking for a forward base from which to begin their assault on the Empire of Japan in the South Pacific. The huge natural harbor at the southern tip of Santo was eventually selected and within six months more than 45,000 American servicemen were stationed there, with more than a quarter of a million coming and going through it, and back through it again (including my uncle) to and from the fighting further north in the Solomons and New Guinea. Second only to Pearl Harbor, Santo was the largest forward American base during the Pacific War.
The Coolidge Disaster
Before The War, the President Coolidge was the floating definition of traveling in style across the Pacific. Built in 1931 at the Newport News Shipyard in Virginia, the Coolidge called San Francisco home port and sailed to and from Yokohama, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Sydney, Honolulu and other destinations. General MacArthur met his wife while on the Coolidge, bound for Manila (also on the Coolidge was, at the time, a rather un-famous Major named Dwight D. Eisenhower). With war threatening, the Coolidge was commandeered by the U.S. military and converted to a troop transport. Most of her luxurious fixtures were either removed or boarded up, but not all (see below), and her staterooms and salons were fitted with bunks six high to accommodate 5,000 troops plus another 10,000 tons of cargo. Thus configured and loaded, the Coolidge set out for the new forward base at Santo, unescorted, zig zagging to avoid Japanese submarines eight thousand miles across the Pacific. Weeks later the lights of the Santo base were sighted. Having received no further instructions, and fearing the Japanese subs, Captain Nelson promptly proceeded into the Segund Channel fronting the base, assuming a pilot ship would be dispatched for docking instructions. All was fine and good except for one minor detail the Navy failed to inform good Captain Nelson of: The channel had been mined!Minutes later the signalman on the bridge received a message flashed from shore: REVERSE. MINE FIELD. Too late. An enormous explosion rocked the ship as eighteen hundred pounds of T.N.T in an anti-shipping mine blew a hole big enough for a truck in the side of the Coolidge. Then another went off under the stern. Knowing his ship was lost, Captain Nelson ordered full speed ahead and hard starboard, running the Coolidge aground onto the reef fronting the beach about a mile from the Santo Base. Amazingly, all five thousand troops, save one brave Captain checking on his men in the bowels of the ship, got off and waded ashore covered in oil and without any of their gear but happy to be alive. About an hour later, the stern of the Coolidge began to settle. Within hours, the Queen Of The Paific slipped back into the Segund Channel where she rests today, her bow in about fifty feet, her stern in about two hundred and forty. Down with the Coolidge went everything one could imagine needed for thousands of troops headed for battle: rifles, ammunition, artillery, trucks, aircraft, tanks, food, clothing. Most critical was the entire Pacific supply of quinine, then the only effective treatment for malaria, thus dooming the Marines on Guadalcanal to thousands of cases of that deadly disease in the months to come. The loss of the Coolidge, both the supplies therein and her use as a transport, set the Pacific War back months and arguably cost thousands of extra lives. SNAFU (I’ll let you look that one up if you don’t know) on steroids.
Diving The Coolidge
What was then an epic example of “military intelligence” and great disaster has now become one of the greatest wreck dives of the world. Just slightly smaller than the Titanic, the Coolidge now lies on her port side just off the beach near what is now the small town of Luganville, which sprung up from the huge Santo Base after the war (many of the base Quonset huts are still in use). Though penetrating a wreck is usually reserved for highly technical divers, the Coolidge is unique due to its enormous size, relative ease of access and it being well-explored. An advanced diver with good buoyancy control can explore some of the interior spaces, provided he/she is with an experienced Coolidge divemaster (we were). Having said that, the Coolidge pushes the depth limits of non-technical diving and an accidental fin flip in the interior can raise a fog of rust particles, reducing visibility to zero. A good dive flashlight, with a reserve, and a calm non-claustrophobic disposition are required (it was still pretty darned spooky, however).
Our underwater guide to the Coolidge was a local Ni Vanuatu named Etienne. Etienne had made over a thousand dives on the Coolidge and would lead us on a fascinating trip through the passageways of the ship, just as it was when it sunk some seventy years ago. On our first dive, we rolled over the side of a small boat and followed a buoy that led down to the bow of the ship. As we sank thru the water column, the enormity of the Coolidge came into view – I felt like a very small ant exploring a rather large picnic basket. The port 3-inch bow gun, installed during the troop transport conversion, loomed into view, now pointed for eternity at the sand below. As we swam down the deck, helmets and rifles lay everywhere: troops reported to their muster station to abandon ship with them, only to be told to ditch their gear before they made the hundred foot climb over the side and down to the water. Etienne aped for my camera, donning one of the helmets and pointing a rifle in an underwater combat pose (see picture below). We then dropped through an enormous cargo door on the side of the ship (now angled towards the surface) and made our way down a long passageway, now in complete darkness, save shafts of light streaming through the upturned portholes. Below us, our flashlights illuminated enormous heaps of materiel caused by the list of the ship and the collapse of bulkheads over the years brought on by the regular earthquakes Santo experiences and corrosion. Howitzer artillery shells lay strewn here and there like giant matchsticks. At the end of the passageway lay an iconic vision of the Coolidge wreck – “The Lady And The Unicorn” – a ceramic bas relief that once adorned the first class smoking room, its colors still vibrant (see pictures). I briefly studied my gauges, noting that the “Lady” was at nearly one hundred forty feet, the recreational diving limit, constraining our time with her to just a few minutes. After my shooting of a few images, we reversed out of the “Lady” room and back through passageway, slipping between bulkhead struts to swim through another cargo bay before emerging through yet another cargo area. Our limited “bottom time” – the amount of time you can spend a given depth due to nitrogen saturation (see previous post), was getting short. As we moved back into the shallower waters at the bow, I noticed the enormous anchor chain streaming over the side, each link the size of a small watermelon. After a surface interval, we made another dive on the Coolidge, this time entering through a cargo hold. A few underwater twists and turns brought us into the barbershop with its recognizable chair, now appearing to be crazily bolted to the wall. A medicine cabinet in the adjoining sick-bay still had rows of potions neatly stored in shelves. Pictures below.
“Military Intelligence” Part Two: “Million Dollar Point”
As the War marched north through the Solomon Islands and New Guinea, the huge base at Santo became more and more distant from the action and new, more forward, albeit smaller bases took its place. But that didn’t stop the military from continuing to ship huge quantities of materiel to Santo. By the end of the War, acres of supplies, armaments, ammunition, food, clothing, fuel, aircraft, tanks, jeeps, trucks and millions of other things were still stored at Santo. So, what to do with all this stuff? Politicians didn’t want to flood home markets with it when companies were in the process of getting their civilian footings back. The French wouldn’t agree on a price, the Australians didn’t have the shipping to move it, and the local Ni Vanuatu (persons from Vanuatu) were not even consulted. Above all, everyone wanted to go home. The last thing they wanted to do is to stay at Santo inventorying all this vast horde of materiel, and otherwise dealing with it. So, what did they do? A lot of the small stuff they simply abandoned in the Quonset hut warehouse farms along the Segund Channel. All the big stuff – trucks, jeeps, tanks, cranes….were bulldozed into the sea (and then they drove the bulldozers in on top of them). All of it brand new or nearly so. This appalling waste (yet another application of “military intelligence”), has now created one of the most unique dives in the world, a place since dubbed “Million Dollar Point”. We jumped in just off the beach and looked onto a bizarre spectacle: huge trucks, flipped upside down with jeeps piled on top in a heap that had to be sixty feet tall. Tanks, capsized turret-down, were strewn in between. Enormous piles of helmets and helmet liners, looking, like some weird turtle mating frenzy, littered the sand floor (and the beach). Interestingly, an enterprising local, using a floating crane he raised, pulled up a Caterpillar tractor shortly after the war, drained the engine, changed the oil and electricals and fired it up. He then used it to pull out another twenty or so. Now that would make an interesting Cat commercial… What a titanic waste….
Next, onto to the island of Tanna in Vanuatu
The President Coolidge, on the reef on Santo, August 1942
Coconut crab…it’s what’s for dinner!
Amazing array of tropical fruits and vegetables at Luganville Market, Santo, Vanuatu
The amazing but appalling waste at Million Dollar Poine
The “Lady and The Unicorn” Deep within the wreck of the Coolidge
The massive hulk of the Coolidge Wreck
Sick-bay medicine cabinet in the Coolidge.
Etienne dons a helmet and rifle from the deck of the Coolidge
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ON TO FIJI
We’ve now moved south to Fiji – hundreds of islands sprinkled over thousands of square miles of the blue, blue South Pacific and about seventeen degrees below the equator – due east of Cairns on the east coast of Australia and out about a twelve hundred miles. Fiji is a cultural/ethnic crossroads of the three great Central/South Pacific cultures: Polynesian (which most are familiar with – Hawaii, French Polynesia, New Zealand), Micronesia (small islands scattered across the Central Pacific including the Palau chain, Yap, Chuk (Truck), Pohnpei, others), and Melanesia (New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, others). Of the three, Fiji is most aligned ethnically with Melanesia, but cultural influences come from all three, as well as the British who began contact/colonization some two hundred years ago.
After a brief stop at Nadi (pronounced “nandi” – in Fijian, the letter “d” usually has a silent “n” in front of it) on the biggest island of Viti Leviu, we flew down to Kadavu (again the silent “n”) for several days of diving the Great Astrolabe Reef – one of the largest barrier reefs in the world, birding (about eight species live nowhere else), and exploring the unique culture there.
Flying in a Twin Otter
For our trip down to Kadavu, we, along with one other passenger had a Fiji Airways Twin Otter to ourselves. For those who have traveled to remote places, the De Haviland Twin Otter aircraft is usually an old friend. Twin engined, simple to maintain, rugged and unpressurized, the Twin Otter can take off from strips most would think impossible. On these short bush airstrips, Otter passengers cannot help but notice a unique ritual. The pilot taxies to the end of the strip, pivots the plane facing down-strip and into the wind, locks the landing gear, then takes the engines up to full power. The engine roar and shuddering airframe is awesome. The co-pilot then places his hand on top of the pilot’s hand on the red knobbed throttles (one for each engine), hand over hand, to be absolutely sure they don’t slip back from full during take off. When the pilot releases the brakes, the Otter shoots down the strip like if was fired from a catapult and into the air faster than you would believe possible. Bush “E Ticket” ride!
On Kadavu, we stayed at Matava, one hour’s trip via open launch and into the teeth of the Trade Winds inside the Astrolabe Reef lagoon, slaloming between the patch reefs through azure waters. Matava is run by a fascinating Brit ex-pat, who has created a beautiful and peaceful place off the grid on the south shore of Kadavu. When we arrived, what is normally spectacular diving outside the Astrolabe Reef wasn’t possible due to the southeasterly trade winds turbocharged by a high pressure system over the ITCZ (Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone, a.k.a “the doldrums”) to the north. The subsequent high seas made it impossible to get safely through the barrier reef pass and into the crystalline oceanic waters. I was reminded of the great early 60’s surfing movie “The Endless Summer”, where the running theme was: “you guys really missed it, ya shoulda been here last week…” (the previous week, the seas were flat calm with water visability at 200’). Ironically, the surfing appeared to be amazing, with miles of perfect overhead curls and tubes breaking on the Great Astrolabe Reef. Not a single surfer rode them.
Even with marginal weather, our stay on Kadavu was great. We learned much about Fijian culture, walked that beautiful island and decompressed – literally and figuratively – from our previous 10 days of diving in New Guinea
On to the Na’ia, The Bligh Waters and the Northern Islands
On returning to the big island of Viti Livu, we boarded the Na’ia, another “liveaboard” dive boat (see previous post), where we again spent ten days of diving ane exploring what Jacques Cousteau called “the soft coral capital of the world”. During the ten days, we headed north up the west coast of Viti Levu, then south and east through the Bligh Waters (as in the infamous captain of the Bounty who navigated his open boat through these waters when cast adrift two hundred years ago), and down the east coast of Viti Levu to some of the more remote island chains. Cousteau was right about the soft coral. Soft coral, like their stony cousins, consist of large colonies of polyps – individual animals related to sea anemones, but with a plant or bush-like appearance when seen as a whole. Commonly called sea fans or gorgonians, and being filter feeders, soft corals, open their feathery arms with stronger currents in the most spectacular colors imaginable. Blue, pink, purple, fluorescent red…and many colors in between. One way to experience them is to do a “drift dive”, meaning that you jump into a strong current, normally caused by tides rushing into and out of coral lagoon “passes” (breaks in the reef system), and drift along underwater, watching the show. And what a show it is. Soft corals unfold like a spectacular underwater wildflower display, and as you pivot and look out into the blue (most drift dives are along a wall that may drop from just a few to hundreds or thousands of feet), reef sharks and other big predatory fish soar on the aquatic wind, very much like a hawk does in air, inspecting the vast schools of reef fish for those vulnerable to their swift attack (sharks are normally not a threat to divers – indeed they are the highlight of many dives).
“Yachties” Nomads Of The Sea
Upon disembarking from the Nai’a we stayed for a few days at a mellow place away from the main tourist haunts around Nadi. The place (First Landing – named after the place the first Fijians landed fifteen hundred years ago according to legend) was next to a small craft harbor full of small sailing vessels from every corner of the globe. Transom lettering spoke of ships from Australia, New Zealand, California, France, South Africa, Holland, and more. A few things immediately identify a sailboat rigged to spend serious time in blue water. Most have something called a “vane” on their transom (back of the boat), which looks, and indeed acts, much like a weather vane does in air. You set the vane to sail you at a given point to the wind and it then takes over the helm, making corrections by its wind vane. In areas of consistent winds like the trades, the wind blows consistently from the same direction for thousands of miles (NE in the northern hemisphere, SE in the south). A vane liberates you from the helm, sometimes for days or weeks on end. Most blue water sailboats also do not have “Marina Del Rey”style gleaming hardware and china white decks. The topside is typically arrayed with solar panels, emergency liferafts, heavy duty anchor tackle, spare rigging, fuel and water jugs – the things you need for days or weeks or months at sea. At this marina near Lautoka, “Yachties”, as those who have adopted the nomadic lifestyle of living on their boats are known, are busy with a thousand tasks. Many have had their boat hauled and are repairing the hull and cleaning/repainting the bottom, servicing the prop and its cutlass bearing. Others are treating weathered wood decks, replacing worn shrouds, backstays and mast spreaders, debugging electronic and communications gear and much more. A couple – he from Maine, she from Panama – came on board the Nai’a for dinner one night. He set our five (or was it six…) years ago from Maine, sailed down the east coast of the U.S. through the Caribbean, stopping in Panama to rebuild his bank account by building tourist bungalows, got married, then transited the Canal and set out across the Pacific to New Zealand, through the Solomons, Tonga and now Fiji. Their boat, 34’, was all business – beautiful in the functional way the great blue Pacific demands.
Our next stop is the island chain and nation of Vanuatu…more from there.
A massive manta ray soars past the reef wall
Jane with soft coral
Endemic Fijian clownfish in fluorescent sea anemone.
Grey reef shark glides by
The Kadavu/Astrolabe reef logoon
Fijian reefs from the air.
Fellow divers and crew of the Nai’a
Villige visit and Kava ceremony
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ANICDOTES AND OBSERVATIONS FROM NEW BRITAIN
Before we leave New Britain here are two short stories….local stories…remembered from the Pacific War.
In the immediate wake of Cyclone Ita, we arrived in Alotau and took a boat to a diving lodge beyond the roads of Milne Bay at the extreme southeast point of Papua New Guinea. On our boat was Edward, a man from the PNG island of New Britain, the largest island in the Bismarck Archipelago (and our next stop). We spoke on the boat and over the next few days on all manner of subjects as he sorted out the IT/internet issues at the lodge in the wake of the cyclone. Edward had lived and studied in Pittsburgh, enduring a Pennsylvania winter (and his first experience of snow). He had fond memories of the warm people (in spite of their climate), though virtually no one had more than the vaguest clue as to what/where PNG was, let alone New Britain, and where baffled as to why he looked like an African American (to them)…..didn’t all people from the South Pacific look like Hawaiians?
Edward also recounted to me a rather touching story from the Pacific War. In late 1943, America landed 10,000 Marines of the First Division at Cape Glouster – the western point of New Britain- to wrest a series of airbases from the Japanese. As they fought their way east, the Marines encountered Edward’s village, where his grandmother was in the midst of a difficult childbirth. Several Marine medics noticed a commotion in the village and asked their local guides what the commotion was about. They lent a hand and Edward’s uncle was born. His grandmother, grateful for the help the medics, felt she must name her new son after one of the Marines. But which one? After considering the situation, and consulting with the elders, Edward’s uncle was rather democratically named “America”. America still lives in the province of West New Britain of Papua New Guinea. Edward visits him whenever he can.
THE SPITFIRE UNDERCARRAGE IS IN OUR BEDROOM
The rugged, roadless rainforest mountains of New Britain hide hundreds of aircraft wrecks from the Pacific War, many of which have yet to be discovered. New Britain also hosts a small but close knit ex-pat community. I met some of them at the annual ANZAC Day remberance (Australian, New Zealand Army Corps. – the equivalent to America’s Memorial Day, focused on the ANZAC sacrifices during World War I, II) in the small town of Kimbe in West New Britain where we happened to be during the annual memorial gathering. Over the years, a small subset of these PNG ex-pats have taken up the challenge of finding at least some of these wrecks, both through their own explorations and contact with the remote clans and tribes in the New Britain interior. In many cases, these discoveries have closed sixty year old MIA cases through a fascinating process of identifying not only the air craft type, but the one individual aircraft from the mangled remains one can imagine would be left after plummeting though the rainforest canopy. Amazingly, many of these IDs were made by something as simple as an engine part, radio gear, wing guns, and in some cases, the personal effects and/or bone fragments of the air crew. We were lucky enough to befriend one of these amazing ex-pats (the name will remain unnoted as it is technically illegal to hunt for these wrecks per PNG law). Pending a proper museum that is anticipated some day, their home was an astonishing collection of WW II aircraft bit and pieces – aircraft engines, wing guns, ammunition, controls, radio gear, reconnaissance cameras, even a roll of the enormous film negatives used in them. Our friend recounted years of searching based mostly on the tips from older locals who remembered the aircraft going down. In some cases they reunited pilots or their surviving relatives with their aircraft. And yes, they did have a Spitfire fighter landing strut in their bedroom!
ON TO THE BISMARCK SEA AND DIVING
After our experiences on New Britain, we boarded the 72’ MV Febrina, a “liveaboard” dive boat, for 10 days of diving the remote pinnacles, reefs and islands of the Bismarck Sea. What’s it like being on a liveaboard dive boat? Close quarters for sure. And it’s all along the diving (but you typically also establish great friendships in the process). A typical day involves arising before six for a quick cup of coffee and re-check of your SCUBA and camera gear, then in the water on the first dive by 6:30. After anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes underwater (sixty on average for us), a surface interval of about an hour is had to eat breakfast and to rid the body tissues of dissolved “residual” nitrogen (you don’t want to be a like a beer bottle when it opens and suddenly “decompresses”, filling with bubbles). The next dive is typically at 9:30, followed by a dive at 11:30, 3:30 and a night dive on many days, for up to five dives a day. Save for our Aussie captain (a 30 year PNG hand that was both politically incorrect and hilarious), the crew were all from PNG (most from New Britain). The divemasters (underwater safety officers and guides) – a man and a woman – were both excellent, looking out for both our safety and guiding us to cool stuff you’d never find on your own, like the pygmy seahorse (see below).
THE CORAL TRIANGLE
Over the millennia, coral reef systems have waxed and waned with climatic heating and cooling periods, contracting and expanding with their need for warm, clear water. But part of the Pacific deemed “the coral triangle” (generally New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Parts of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Phillipines) have weathered these climatic swings for millions of years. The result is an almost incomprehensible level of diversity. Case in point: Hawaii, where many have either snorkeled or dived, hosts about fifty species of coral. New Guinea has more than five hundred (and counting). Many are familiar with the beautiful reef fish known as angelfish. The Caribbean hosts about six species. New Guinea? More than a hundred and fifty. To dive on the reef systems of New Guinea (there are still thousands of square miles of healthy reefs here), is a mind boggling kaleidoscope of color, diversity and near infinite complexity. The coral triangle is a 3D rainforest on steroids.
Here’s one personal story from the Coral Triangle….
The fantastic creature known as the pygmy seahorse (there are several species, all from the Coral Triangle) mimics the sea fans it lives on so perfectly that, in combination with its quarter inch size, is virtually impossible to find without spending hundreds of hours underwater at the sites we dove, which our divemasters had. They’d pass twenty sea fans, then carefully inspect a few square inches of another and….voila…pygmy sea horse (see pictue). To say photographing a pygmy sea horse is challenging, is like saying Jacques Cousteau kinda liked the ocean. In addition to dealing with all the normal diving stuff: buoyancy control, air and decompression status, location of dive buddy etc. you are dealing with a macro lens stopped down up to F40 (that means the lens opening is pinhole sized), with a quarter inch of movement in or out determining whether your miniature equine of the sea is in focus or not. On top of this, the little critters are usually determined to turn away from you. This is where your divemaster can help you out (that is, help ME out) – locating and relocating my diminutive subject while I bang away with fifteen pounds of housed Nikon SLR camera, high powered strobes, and related gear – adjusting F stops, strobe power, strobe/camera position, holding your exact position in the water column and hoping one ofthe shots will be in focus with your subject facing the camera (I had limited success). Underwater photography (Jane does video, I do still) is equal parts technology, skill, persistence and masochism.
So what was the takeaway from spending the equivalent of two full working weeks underwater (forty dives averaging an hour each) in the Bismarck Sea, heart of the Coral Triangle? In these days of rainforest/coral reef gloom and doom, there are still places like Papua New Guinea where, after surfacing from a dive, you can pivot your head down thirty degrees and see absolutely pristine coral reefs – mound coral, brain coral, branched coral, lettuce coral – and fish of every size, shape and color in massive abundance, then pivot your head up to gaze upon mountain range after mountain range of uncut rainforest. Yes, there are still places like that out there!
Pygmy Sea Horse On Sea Fan. Size: 1/4″
Sunset Over Wittu Islands , Bismarck Sea
MV Febrina on the Bismarck Sea
Glassy day on the Bismarck Sea. Water Temp 86.
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THE BISMARCK ARCIPELAGO: RABAUL, EAST NEW BRITAN
We’ve now left the “mainland” of Papua New Guinea (PNG) and are on the three hundred mile long island of New Britain, the largest of the Bismarck Archipelago. New Britain is hundreds of square miles of mountainous rainforest, punctuated by great conical, steaming volcanoes and hot tub temperature rivers. We’re at the eastern tip of New Brittan at Rabaul, an area of intense history – both human and geological – during the twentieth century.
The mountainous spine and brooding volcanoes of New Britain were born of the subduction zone between the Australian plate and the Pacific plate – part of the Indo-Pacific “Ring Of Fire”. Around Rabaul alone are seven active volcanoes, the most being Vulcan and Tavurvur, both of which erupted with great force in 1994, burying Rabaul in six to nine feet of ash, essentially turning that historic town into the modern day equivalent of Pompeii, but not erasing the enormous footprint of “Fortress Rabaul”, the base of some 300,000 Japanese sailors and soldiers built by the Empire Of Japan during World War II.
In the history of the Pacific War, Rabaul looms large. After their back-to-back victories at Pearl Harbor, Singapore, Malaya, the Philippines and other parts of the Southwestern Pacific in late 1941/early 1942, the Japanese siezed from the Australians (who, in turn, seized from the Germans after WWI) the near perfectly protected deep water harbor and town of Rabaul. Rabaul was Japan’s Pearl Harbor in every sense. Indeed, most of the first two years of the American involvement in The Pacific War was focused on isolating Rabaul and its satellite bases at Kavieng on New Ireland and Bouganville (in the Northern Solomon’s). The infamous fighting on the (Solomons) island of Guadalcanal was all about wresting that satellite airstrip from the Japanese they had built there in order to commence the terribly bloody island-stepping campaign north towards Rabaul (“Operation Cartwheel”). It cost approximately 100,000 American lives to isolate Rabaul along with dozens of aircraft carriers, battleships, heavy cruisers and other capital ships lost to both sides (for an excellent overview, download “The Lost Fleet Of Guadalcanal” done on the fiftieth anniversary of the fighting in which all sides came together again, and famed Titanic finder Bob Ballard discovered a number of the shipwrecks). Today much still remains of the hundreds of miles of tunnels, the five airbases, and the huge infrastructure built by the Japanese during The War, both above and below water. One of the military sites we visited around Rabaul was the “Submarine Base” where the Japanese (or rather their slave labor) dug a tunnel complex at a unique cliff site where the water is nearly a thousand feet deep right up to the shore. During the intense 24/7 bombing (the Allies dropped something like 20,000 tons of bombs on Rabaul), the Japanese were reduced to attempted resupply by submarine, with this unique site permitting subs to stop offloading and immediately submerge directly from the jetty built for that purpose. Above the Base lived a man named George who was forced to help dig many of the Sub Base tunnels as a young man. I asked what happened if he was sick, needed to tend his garden for his own food or otherwise did not work on a given day: “they find you, then chop your head off in front of the others”…. Beyond the numerous gun emplacements and wrecked aircraft (both above and below the water – see images below including Japanese Zero fighter just offshore), another amazing site was a system of huge tunnels containing three enormous landing barges, sill at the ready to launch in an attempt to resupply the beleaguered Japanese troops on Guadalcanal (see image). Our next stop will further west on New Britan where we, along with six other others will board the eighty foot long MV Febrina at Kimbe for diving and exploring the remote offshore islands, seamounts and reefs of the Bismarck Sea.
Intact Japanese Zero fighter in 100′ of water, ditched by the pilot upon return to “Fortress Rabaul”.
Ruins of the town of Rabaul, buried under six to nine feet of volcanic ash after the 1994 eruption (Vulcan volcano steaming in background)
Wreck of Japanese Betty Bomber at end of one of the five airstrips built around Rabaul by the Japanese During WWII.
Wreck of the Atun Maru, one of more than fifty large Japanese ship sunk by Allied bombing and now at the bottom of Simpson Harbor, Rabaul
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Greetings from Enga Provence in the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea.
We’re sitting this afternoon at over eight thousand feet in front of a warm fire as the chilly afternoon rains set in. I’m reading (the recently passed) Peter Matheson’s classic “Under The Mountain Wall” about the Dani People (50 years ago) and Stone Age culture in Papua New Guinea. Currently we’re in the Enga province of the Central Highlands staying at the Kumul Lodge (constructed of traditional materials and built by the Enga people), having spent the morning (successfully) seeking out and viewing two species of the absolutely astonishing Birds Of Paradise (see more, and photos below).
We’ve now been in Papua New Guinea (PNG) for a little over a week, having initially skirted Cyclone Ita (category 4) that brushed Alotau, our first stop, located in the Milne Provence at the extreme southeastern tip of PNG. At Alotau, we spent several days SCUBA diving on pristine coral reef systems after spending a half-day exploring the sites and artifacts of the fierce fighting in August 1942, where several thousand Australian/American forces handed an equal number of landing troops of the Imperial Japanese Army their first land defeat of World War II. Though seventy years ago, the War was still very much remembered in Alotau and in the villages around Milne Bay, and they gladly shared their remembrances, and the fascinating albeit rarely reported local point of view from a culture with one foot still in the stone age at that time.
AIRPLANES, OTHER ASTONISHMENTS AND THE WAR
Seventy years ago, few Papuans had ever seen an airplane, let alone conceive of the concept. While waiting for a transfer flight at the Alotau airport and with several hours to kill, I struck up a conversation with an older local man and I asked him about the War. He described the experience of his father as a young boy and others while out fishing from their outriggers in front of their village one day on Milne Bay in August 1942. Suddenly, a fighter plane came roaring up over the ridge south of them and dropped down to wave hopping level, most likely an American built P-40 on its way to strafe the landing Japanese Troops, the fighter flying from the Australian air strip miles distant (which is now the Alotau airport where we were both sitting). Everyone paddled back to the village as fast as they could, only to find all members turned out on the beach. The elders quickly convened a discussion as to what they had just seen, and the consensus was it was some kind of very fast, huge, noisy bird. Male villagers were to carry their spears, bows and arrows in case it returned to attack the village. Later, communication with villages up the coast on the matter indicated that white men (Dim-Dim) were seen emerging from the giant birds when they landed, which explained where the white men (which they had already encountered) came from – the giant bird had clearly given birth to them. They were the children of the giant, fast noisy birds! Later, they learned the Dim-Dim had built the giant birds, they called “aiplen”, but that just opened up a Pandora’s Box of questions, wonders and bafflements as the war raged through New Guinea (paramount was “Why the hell are you guys here?”). As an epilogue, just a few years ago, a man hunting in the forested mountains behind Alotau, discovered a P-40 fighter in and below a giant rainforest tree. The remains of the pilot, to that point a MIA, was determined, solving a 65-year-old mystery and providing closure for an Australian family. A pair
of fifty caliber wing guns from the wreck sits below that hunter’s house (see pictures). As one can imagine the War was a life changing experience for the Papuans and other Melanesian cultures of the South Pacific, so much so that it spawned a new religion – The Cargo Cult, that still is practiced today (more on that in another blog).
ON PAPUAN CULTURE AND THE ORIGIANAL ORGANIC GARDENERS
In the 30’s a pair of Australian gold prospectors named the Leahy Brothers were the first whites to penetrate the (eighteen thousand foot high) Central Ranges of PNG. It was assumed that the Central Ranges were devoid of human population. Much to their astonishment, they discovered a huge valley (one of many) at over eight thousand feet populated by thousands of persons living a stone age, agricultural existence (download the documentary “First Contact” shot by the Leahy Brothers with their 8mm camera). This meeting astonished both cultures: the Papuans by these cadaverous looking people…or the incarnation of their ancestors…..or whatever they were….and the Leahys (and their entourage) by the massive and most unexpected audience they had created. The epilogue of this First Contact was that the Leahys never found much gold but discovered these high valleys were perfect for growing coffee…brown gold… and the Papuans established contact with the outside world. This cultural encounter happened near the Central Highlands town of Mt. Hagen, about an hour from where we are now. Less noticed and/or publicized at the time was the fact that the Papuans had been gardening successfully in the same valleys for thousands of years without depleting the land. It goes without saying they used no chemical fertilizers or pesticides, but they also used sophisticated composting, crop rotation and drainage techniques…all many attribute to the “organic farming revolution” of the 60’s and 70’s…sorry guys, you’re about 5,000 years late: the Papuans had been conducting organic gardening”since most Euro/Mediterranean cultures were emerging from hunter/gather lifestyles. And they still do. Most Papuans (including our guests) still grow nearly all their own food, using these same practices on the lands they have lived on for millennia (stone tool artifacts have dated the populating of PNG back at least 50,000 years).
With over 800 distinct languages spoken, New Guinea is the most linguistically diverse place on earth. For fifty thousand years,hundreds of cultures have lived in isolation from each other in high mountain valleys, remote islands and lowland floodplains separated by vast wetlands. Most now communicate with each other with a creole of English: Tok Pisin.
So what are our rural Papuan hosts like ?(photos an video clips to follow). As with all diverse peoples, hard to generalize, but there are many cross cultural traits we’ve encountered: kind,curious (most have still have had limited contact with people of European ancestry), soft spoken, and very much a tightly knit social society. As long as you are invited, announce yourself, or escorted by a member of their clan they respect, you are invariably greeted with a smile and a handshake.
ON ORGANIC GARDENING….
One fascinating thing about our (highland) guests is their straddling of the modern and traditional worlds. Few wear shoes, and most still grow their own food. They still live in traditional thatched homes with walls and floors of woven split/pounded bamboo-like materials. Yet most also own cell phones and use them not only to keep in touch with relatives but also to establish the best time to harvest and/or sell cash crops, such as coffee, small plots of which many grow. Their life is still ruled by their traditional and ancient clan relationships. If you’re a young man and want to get married, you’ll still have to meet a bride price from the clan in question, usually payable in pigs (Papuans traditionally have only two domestic animals: pigs and dogs, with pigs serving more as a store of wealth/currency than a food source). Another aspect of Papuan culture, much studied since health writer Nathan Pritikin made note of their near complete lack of heart disease (amongst those still living traditional lifestyles) and obiesity, due to a naturally low fat, vegetable based diet, and naturally high in fiber and nutrients. Though infant mortality is high, it is not uncommon for rural Papuans to live to, and beyond, one hundred years, like the 95 year old woman we met walking down the road in Alotau who well remembered cooking for the Australian soldiers 75 years ago as the fighting raged back and forth through her village (see her portrait, below).
Coming in next blog: On to the Bismarck Archipelago – Rabaul, Kimbe and the Bismarck Sea.
The pristine coral reefs of Milne Bay
Kids playing in post Cyclone Ita floodwaters – Alotau, Milne Provence, PNG
Jane with 95 year old woman who remembered the WWII fighting 70 years ago.
50 cal wing guns from recently discovered Curtis P-40 fighter
WWII landing craft at Alotau
Friend with lorikeet on shoulder
The fantastic Ribbon Tailed Estrapia, one of the Birds Of Paradise, with it’s three foot long tail and glowing blue/green plumage.
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After more than two months and 5,000 miles across southern Africa, we returned to our home in Santa Cruz, California for a couple months before leaving for the magnificent South American country of Colombia.
There is arguably no other country in the world as diverse as Colombia. From the arid, sultry Caribbean coast to the soaring, trisecting Cordilerra of the Andes and their densely populated valleys between, to the grasslands of the Llanos in east and the rain drenched forests of the Choco on the Pacific to the vast lowlands of the Amazon – all packed into a country about two and a half times the size of California. And it is not just its geography that is diverse. Culturally you’ll find Afro-Caribbean culture in the north, the cattle/cowboy “Llanero” culture in the east, remote Amazonian tribes and descendants of the Incas in the south, and ethnicities representing virtually every part of the world in-between.
And then there is the phenomenal natural diversity that is Colombia. With nearly 2,000 species and with many occurring nowhere else, Colombia is the epicenter of bird diversity. California has about six species of hummingbirds. Colombia has more than one hundred and thirty, with names that suggest the living gems that they are: Ruby Topaz, Amethyst-Throated Sunangel, Golden Bellied Starfrontlet… Orchids? Thousands of species of mindblowing beauty and diversity, with new ones being discovered all the time. There are lowland rainforests of several types, cloud forests in the Andes, the Paramo ecosystem with its weird and wonderful plantlife high above the Andean treeline, the grasslands and riverine forests of the Llanos inhabited by such weird and wonderful creatures as the giant anteater, capybaras and river otters so large they’re called “river wolves” in Spanish. And then there is the vastness that is the Colombian Amazon, which still contains uncontacted tribal bands.
Is it safe?
With the exception of some parts of the remote southeast (Amazon) and southwest (Choco), our direct experience and extensive conversations with the locals says “yes”. As many know, Colombia has suffered under an armed insurgency by several quasi-Marxist paramilitary organizations (and the armed militias fighting them) for nearly fifty years, most notably the FARC (in Spanish: Fuerzas Armadas Republicanas de Colombia) and the ELN (Ejercito de Liberacion National). Over the past five years, a combination of ramped up military operations (funded extensively by the U. S.), a successful disarmament program and formal political negotiations now taking place in Cuba have created a much welcomed peace. Most notably, both aforementioned organizations have vowed to stop the kidnappings-for-ransom they used to fund their activities. I can tell you that our experience was not only safe, but every village and small town we stayed in was clean (more like immaculate in some cases), with settings ranging from picturesque to stunningly beautiful and full of friendly people that were very happy to see us. I was somewhat surprised that we were not once approached by local people asking for money (“begging”). Not once in five weeks anywhere in Colombia.
Where did we go, what were our interests?
Anyone that knows us, knows that we are passionate about the natural world, especially tropical forests and their phenomenal, interconnected diversity. And a big part of our visit to Colombia was to support the efforts to conserve Colombian biodiversity by a group called Fundacion ProAves (and others), who have bought and preserved critical habitat all over Colombia – in some cases, the last intact bits (as in the El Paujil, preserving some of the last of the lowland forest of the Magdalena Valley). As with most reserves, many promises are made, generally along the lines of: “in the long run, you will receive more income from ecotourism than by cutting these forests down for more cattle pasture”. And as with all promises, sometimes there is a gap between the promise and the immediate reality on the ground. In our many years of visiting places such as these in dozens of countries over four continents, we’ve discovered one thing more than anything else really counts: showing up. When people come from far away and let local people know by our actions that we have, in fact, come from very far away specifically to see their forests, animals, plants and flowers and to meet them, it impresses. So does the money directly spent on-site that goes into the local economy, but I would argue the showing up is most important. So that is what we did. Specifically, we visited and spent time at five of the newly founded ProAves reserves, along with a huge cattle operation experimenting with ecotourism in the Llanos, and several other places, both public and private. And as usual, getting to these places was an adventure in itself involving transport on foot, horseback, four wheel drive, and boat/canoe. Along the way, one invariably meets a variety of fascinating people from all over the globe. How about a retired Major in the Royal Marines, an Afghanistan vet who is Ornithologist. His story shall follow. What will also follow in the weeks to come are stories, short videos and photos of those places and person.
Colombian Andes: Western Cordillera looking west towards the Pacific
Wild Begonias – Western Cordillera
Traveling by horse to the Colibri Del Sol (Dusky Starfrontlet Hummingbird) Reserve
The high altitude moss forests of the Western Cordillera – seemed like a Hobbit could appear at any minute….
Cloud forest hummingbird
Blooming wild orchids in cloud forest.
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The following account comes from our friend Ant Washford ( ). Ant has been guiding in Botswana (“Bots”) for years, and is a great storyteller. Here’s one based on his time managing a high-end Bots safari lodge…and by “high end” I mean $1,000 a night…and up…..
The wealthy matron removed the diamond studs from her ears and placed them carefully on the bed stand of her luxury tent before enveloping herself in the crisp, white sheets. The next morning after the game drive, she returned to her abode only to discover her diamonds had gone missing… Storming into the common area, she accosted Ant Washford, and informed him that the help was guilty of pilferage, and demanding that action be taken. Ant considered the proposition: what would a person from rural Botswana do with diamond studs? Such a thing did not even exist in their universe… But the guest demanded action, and she was a guest accustomed to being accommodated.
While she was away being entertained, Ant entered the scene of the crime. Now, everything in Botswana, even $1,000 a night accommodations, come with dust. It is simply impossible to keep the talcum powder-like emissary from the Kalahari out…even with the daily whisking of ostrich feathers over all exposed surfaces. This proved to be the culprit’s undoing. Examining the floor, Ant noted tiny spoor leading away from the bed stand and to a small hole in the corner of the tent. Picking up the trail on the outside of the tent and knowing the gerbil’s penchant for shiny, glittery things, Ant followed the suspect to its subterranean lair. Spade in hand, the stash was excavated…bits of glass, shreds of mylar… then…. one…then TWO….solid gold diamond studs….
The matron, reunited with her diamonds, simply refused to believe what had transpired…. “What? Gerbils?! It was THE HELP AND THAT WAS THAT!” Gerbils: one, wealthy matron….zero.
As with all good African stories, this was relayed to us over a campfire, with a cold beer and a blazing sunset.
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We’ve now emerged from the Kalahari on the north end and are in the town of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe where the countries of Botswana, Namibia and Zambia come together. Famous for the massive waterfall complex where the mighty Zambezi river drops more than 300 feet into a gorge (a truly awesome sight: see pics), the town Victoria “Vic” Falls is curious place. An African tourist mecca, you can arrange for anything from bungee jumping to trips up or down the Zambezi to helicopter overflights. The town has the standard accompaniment of curio shops, artisan stalls, tourist traps, and hustlers selling anything you want (and a lot you don’t). But Vic Falls is also within the Victoria Falls National Park, and there is no fence surrounding it, so that means that elephants literally walk down the main drag of Vic Falls at night, as evidenced by their cannonball sized leavings in the middle of the street. The hotel we’re staying at, on the banks of the Zambezi, regularly has hippos grazing on its lawns, herds of African buffalo coming down to drink, elephant feeding nearby, and more. All these can be dangerous, even deadly, but the locals seem to accept their wild neighbors almost nonchalantly. We hired a local guide to take us birding on foot along the banks of the Zambezi, and we came across three bull elephants feeding just outside downtown Vic Falls. They moved away but with much ear flapping and trunk raising/sniffing – a sign of agitation. “Don’t worry about those guys…”, was our guide’s advice, looking at them dismissively. But I was worried a bit, and kept an eye on them as they moved away, as did they on us. We hired another local guide to take us up the Zambezi above the falls. He casually described how he probably saved the lives of some tourists the previous week who were canoeing on the Zambezi and accidentally got between a bull hippo and his cow herd. The hippo destroyed their canoe and flung them into the water, which is full of huge Nile crocs. He picked them up from their misguided adventure, unharmed. And this is not the first time he’s done that.
So, are big African animals dangerous? Potentially, but no more so than driving or interacting with a car, I’d argue. We dismiss the carnage that happens every day on our roads because driving is familiar to us. The same can be applied to the African bush. Do people get killed by African big game? Yes, but not often and some simple, common-sense tips from the locals make your journeys in the African bush as safe as driving to the airport for your trip, I’d say. Here are some of them. Don’t sleep in the open at night in the African bush. Sleep in a tent. Hyenas seeing you laying on the ground not moving will assume you’re fair game. We met a woman from Zimbabwe who lost an eye and half her face by making this error. Don’t hike or walk at night any more than you have to and always scan continuously for eyeshine. The big predators and hippos own the night. If you venture into the night very far on foot, you’re fair game. Elephant cows with young calves can be very protective – give them a wide berth. Same with bulls in “musth” (see previous post). While resupplying in the Okavango delta town of Maun in Botswana, our guide Ant ran into another guide that used to work with him. Recently, one of his clients apparently blundered between an elephant cow and her calf and he intervened on behalf of the client. Using her dexterous trunk, the cow picked him up by his belt and tossed all six foot two of him into the thornscrub, which would be about like being thrown into a large pile of extra sharp barbwire. He was scratched up, but otherwise ok. Hippos emerge from their watery daytime hangouts to graze like cattle at night, sometimes miles from the water source. Water for hippos is like the Peanuts cartoon strip character Linus and his security blanket – get between a hippo and his watery security blanket and you’re asking for trouble. Joseph, our guide that brought us up the Zambezi probably saved the life of a tourist when they decided to take a dawn stroll along the river behind our hotel, and right between a grazing hippo, which he somehow failed to see, and the river. The hippo charged (hippos generally don’t bluff charge) the tourist and Joseph pelted the hippo with rocks to distract him while yelling at the clueless tourist to run. The hippo called his and was unhurt. The tourist escaped unscathed, but probably returned to his room for a change of shorts, then to the bar for a shot of whiskey. So is all this any more danderous than, say, crossing a busy boulevard in any city where not knowing the protocol can get you smacked by two tons of steel? I say no. You have learned how car drivers behave and know what to expect. Are there “rogue” car drivers that can kill you? Of course, but that risk is low and manageable with a bit of common sense. The same with the African bush, and being there is an unforgettable experience, and the edge provided by the presence of dangerous game is part of it.
We’ve now traveled overland more than 5,000 miles from Cape Town at the southern tip of Africa to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe in Southeastern Africa. The people we’ve met along the way have been warm, friendly and accommodating. The landscape ranged from beautiful uninhabited windswept coastlines that run on for hundreds of kilometers to wildflower carpeted desert and beachside landscapes to snowcapped peaks to quaint 400 year old Dutch/Africaans towns to the wilds of the Kalahari desert, the Okovango Delta, and the big game strongholds of Chobe, Kruger and iMfolozi. So many stores to tell…some of which I’ll relate in future blogs.
Bryan (and Jane)
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The iMfolozi Reserve in South Africa has played a major part in keeping both the White and much rarer Black rhinos from being poached into extinction , and we were fortunate to see both on foot. As we drove through iMfolozi and other reserves we encountered huge quantities of both elephant and rhino leavings (bull white rhinos maintain dung middens, many in the road that can take on epic proportions – see pic). Our little VW Polo navigated these African land mines day after day, so we dubbed her The Dungmaster.
South Africa is a great first experience for Africa. You can see big game in abundance, the infrastructure is excellent and it has incredible diversity. But, Botswana is still basically a wild place with no fenced reserves or protected campsites. This means that when you’re camping as we are doing, you can wake up with anything in your campsite from lions to elephants. After nearly 4,000 miles we turned in The Dungmaster and met up with our guide and friend Ant Washford ( ), who is an old hand at both camping and traveling in the Botswana bush. On the second point, virtually all travel is 4WD, and I mean REALLY 4WD, and that means digging yourself out of the sands of the Kalahari on occasion, but it is so, so worth it. The Kalahari, though called a desert, actually receives too much rainfall (more than 10″) to formally qualify for that title. But being the ancient sandy bottom a shallow sea, standing water sites are few and far between because it all percolates rapidly into the sand. To say the Kalahari is huge (bigger than Ireland) and remote is an understatement, but its beauty is magical. Dominated by lightly forested ancient dunes interspersed with ancient lake pans, the Kalahari has surprisingly abundant wildlife, particularly in the dry season, and that is right now. Lions, elephant, many species of antelope including the large and spectacular gemsbock are regularly seen by us. Some highlights included watching desert lions (the males are huge and have amazing black manes in the Kalahari) on a kudu kill from 50 feet away, massive bull desert elephants lumbering to water sources, herds of gemsbock, lions calling and responding near our camp at night and much more. We traveled to the heart of the Central Kalahari Reserve and other areas, with hundreds of kilometers of driving…4WD….actually swimming thru the soft sand in our Toyota Hilux was more like it. Camping is limited to just a few sites, with simple pit toilets. At night, the sky of the southern hemisphere blazes with the milky way and the Magellanic Clouds (only visable in the southern hemisphere) and the Southern Cross. Silence is complete, and then punctuated by lion’s territorial and location calls: UUHHHH….UHHHHHHH…HUH….HUH..HUH… Let me tell you, that call at close quarters gets you in touch with your inner prey item, but it is magic!
THE OKOVANGO DELTA
The Okovango River is the only large river in the world which does not ultimately reach the ocean. Arising in the highlands of Angola, it forms a huge delta in northern Botswana where the entire river eventually trickles into the sands of the Kalahari. Within the maze of channels in the Okovango Delta is some of the most abundant wildlife in Africa, and is also home of the Bayei band of the Bushmen, people who have lived in the Kalahari for 80,000 years. In the Moremi reserve, we parked the truck and loaded camping gear into mokoros – dugout canoes – and with the help of Bayei watermen poled our way (the Okovango is too shallow to paddle) to a large island, following channels kept open by the nocturnal travels of hippos and camped for several days, spending our time admiring the incredible wildlife and tracking skills of both our Bayei hosts and Ant Washford. At night we listened to Ant’s 20 plus years of amazing stories living and working in the South African bush (we’ll relay some when we see you) and shared cultures with our Bayei hosts.
CHOBE NATIONAL PARK –
In the northwest corner where Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia meet is Chobe National Park (soon to be joined as a transfrontier park with similar huge reserves in Zimbabwe, Namibia and Zambia) where a great migration of large animals occurs each year as the dry season advances – from the grazing areas of Savuti and Moremi in the south to the Chobe River and its permanent water in the North. We camped our way north, and had one incredible experience after another. Here’s one. We were camping on the banks of the Chobe admiring yet another fantastic African Sunset and cooking on an open fire as we always do. It was nearly dark when Jane pointed over my shoulder to a herd of more than thirty elephants lumbering at a quick pace down to the river…and DIRECTLY THROUGH OUR CAMP. This is where you’re glad you’re with an old hand like Ant Washford, who calmly picked up a knife and fork, and gently started to tap them together, making a tink-tink-tink sound. At about 30 feet, the lead cow stopped, listening, then smelling. Ant then quietly spoke to the elephants, letting them know humans were in front of them. They then simply detoured about 20 feet around our camp, then quietly began to feed on the green grass on the other side not 30 feet in front of us. All was fine until Ant stood up to check the food on the fire and moved a bit too quickly in the near dark. This provoked a charge from one of the cows at very close range. Ant then quickly picked up his camp chair and held it over his head, Jane, and then I followed suit and the cow turned on her heels and called it off. Elephants don’t see well at night and Chobe is famous for mega prides of lions that have perfected the art of elephant hunting. The cow almost certainly just saw quick motion of something the size of a lion, and our actions let her know it wasn’t, and that was that. I have video of this amazing event, which I’ll show when we’re together.
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