ALLIKAT II – THE LOUISIADES RALLY 2012
As the sun rises, sandy coral atolls emerge from the indigo blue of the Coral Sea and the colour of the water lightens to turquoise and aqua – Duchateau Islands and the Louisiades beckon and the adventure begins!
From the moment the anchor drops in the crystal clear waters, smiling local villagers arrive in dugout outrigger canoes with haphazard sails made from tarpaulins. Children gaze with wonder at the “dim dims” (white fellas) and happy laughter echoes across the sandy beach as adults join them in impromptu soccer games and Frisbee throwing. As darkness falls, the shoreline is lit by a smoky barbecue filled with fish and painted crays caught by the men from the nearby village and soon Glo Sticks on the children punctuate the night with colour.
This was our introduction to the Louisiades, an archipelago running east from mainland New Guinea.
The people in this area live a subsistence lifestyle and only occasionally see Westerners; when the yachts arrive it is an occasion for great celebration as residents of outlying villages congregate at the anchorages. Yachts are continually visited by canoes offering trade, or just curious to see how the dim dims live.
From Duchateau Islands, the fleet sailed to Panasia, where the thatched villages nestle on the shore, backed by towering limestone cliffs. Panasia Islands hold the mysterious Skull Cave and the soothing waters of the Limestone Cave, all within sight of the rolling waves of the Coral Sea on the other side of the reef.
The children are a highlight of any visit to a village – usually they are the focal point of the welcoming “sing sing” as they dance in traditional costume and sing especially composed songs for the visitors.
The rally is timed to coincide with local island events, such as the sailau races at Panapompom, where outriggers from all over the archipelago congregate to compete for prizes donated by the yachts. Competition is fierce in each category and strategy often wins the day.
Each island visited is unique both in geography and culture. The rally supports the local health clinics of Paneati Island and Nimoa Island, so fund raising activities continue throughout the rally. These clinics support populations in the surrounding islands, so our visit strives to make access to the health services more viable.
The islands range from limestone outcrops to sandy atolls just holding above the surrounding waters at the edge of the reefs. Kamatal is one such atoll, and here is found the Kamatal Yacht Club, maintained by the local elder, Jimmy, for the use of visiting yachts. Soccer is the game of the islands, and even on this small cay, a soccer field has been established.
Bagaman Island provided a spectacular welcome and display of carvings, but at Hoba Bay we learned how the traditional crafts were made, with gift giving between local women and yacht crews. At Blue Lagoon it was party time on the tiny atoll for the yachties, all decked out in their best Hawaiian theme. A beach BBQ and traditional games soon made the balmy waters even more attractive as the day progressed!
The regional centre is Misima Island, and Bwagoia Harbour is the main access port. It is still the commercial and service centre and has the only airstrip for commercial flights. Yachts at anchor here can expect to have curious children visiting throughout the day. The Misima Guest House is the focal point for welcoming ceremonies and cultural displays and villagers walk for miles over the mountains to participate in the sing sing.
Away from the “city life”, the rally yachts diverged for free time and we crossed to the Renard Group and Kimuta Island. Here the anchorage was very deep as the lagoon dropped off into the kilometre deep waters of the strait. The bells of the church and the congregation singing could be heard out at anchor, and after the service the villagers, dressed in their best, could be seen walking along the shores back to their huts.
It was our next anchorage that proved to be the most magical – Saberi Island. We tucked in behind mushroom limestone outcrops that shelter a shallow lagoon- even at anchor you could clearly see the chain and anchor in the sand below the boat. A village that looked as if it had been made for a film set nestled behind a small headland, and small sandy beaches dotted the shores. Here we had nightly barbecues of locally caught fish, and were joined by children, who, intrigued by dim dim music, danced the night away.
Almost at rally end was our visit to Nimoa Island, where we learned of the difficulties of the education system, especially for the older students, who had to leave home and board from Grade 8. The internet is gradually making inroads and remote classrooms are being trialled for seniors. Nimoa is a hub for local islands and host for the interisland soccer competition, which even proceeds if there is a tropical downpour! Here also was the focus of the rally donations in improving solar power and light for the hospital clinic – it is amazing what can be found on a group of yachts to build a solar system, as the working bee found when parts were scrounged!
It was with sadness that the yacht crews departed Wanim Island at rally end, though the rain didn’t dampen the enthusiasm for the Pirate Party. All too soon we were back on the Coral Sea heading for Cairns after an all-too-brief escape to Paradise. Would we do it again? For sure!!