Friday, 30 November 2012

Wild west gold mine visit

Lihir Island was a great stop. We stayed at Latakot Bay where there's a resort of the same name. It's basically a hotel that serves the big gold mine half an hour away. It's also an excellent and very secure anchorage, the best on the island. The expat Aussie owner, Mark, even has his own yacht parked up in the bay. As much as we like visiting remote islands and villages, sometimes it's nice to be able to just hang out on Sophia without a constant steam of visitors/audience. Not to forget the extravagance of rowing ashore and ordering a pizza as opposed to heating up Sophia even more with our cooking...

Every day a car from the resort drives to town and we caught a ride with it (of course at a price). The great thing about the drive is that it goes right through the open pit gold mine). Neither of us have ever seen a gold mine, or any mine for that matter, so it was quite interesting. It's a HUGE operation and it sure leaves a big open scar in the landscape. Apparently the whole island is very gold rich (mostly just dust though) and there are a lot of negotiations etc going on with various land owners and also some environmental considerations. The ground has a lot of thermal acticity too, and we did see steam venting up from many places around the mine, so they do used it to create geothermal energy to power the processing plant, but there was also a floating gen-set ship in the bay. Mark, the resort owner, did say it was pretty sad to see how so much wealth went out of the island (and the country). PNG is very resource rich, but it's going to take a lot of careful management to use it to the country's best interests.

The main town is a bit further past the mine and as this serves the many thousands of workers at the mine, including a good bunch of foreigners (aparently both Aussie and Asian workers), the supermarkets had an excellent selection and prices were even OK-ish too. There were a lot of local people hanging about the place, I'm sure many hoping to find a job, but the place did seem to have the feel that it has just pooped up very quickly, probably not unlike the wild west's mining towns back in the day.

We have now sailed to the neighbouring Tabar Islands and are anchored in Cigaregare Harbour, a very protected bay off the passage between the two biggest islands. There's no village here, just a few people that are looking after a Chinese owned plantation. But, unfortunately there are crocs around here, so no swimming, which is a real shame, as it's super hot! We are now also only 2 degrees south of equator, so it shouldn't be a surprise. It's very pretty though with lush green jungle around us and lots of bird singing.

Last night a banana boat came into the bay to get some fuel off the people that live here and they stopped by to say hi. They are from a village just around the corner on the west coast, Teripax, and invited us to come stay here. We had already considered that as Mary, the Swedish boat we briefly met in Stewart Islands back in February was here some months ago and wrote up a report to Noonsite on Tabar Islands and that particular village and proclaimed it one of their favourite places, so we'll probably go there this afternoon after we have done some laundry in the river while minding the crocs.

We were on the internet at Lakakot Bay, so there are new imagines from both Solomon and PNG on facebook now.

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Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Sailing up the island chain

The night before we were planning to leave Nissan Atoll another yacht arrived! Imagine our own, but also the locals' surprise. That will only be the 5th yacht visiting this year. Even better was that it was another young couple! Cruisers our age are a bit of a minority and have only briefly met one or two young people yachts since Tonga (we miss Sala!), so this was great. Shawn and Holly on Oh la la are from Moloulabar and only left Cains a few weeks ago but the even better thing is they are heading the same way as us, although we might not see them before again before Palau! We ended up staying another day, mainly so we could catch up with them.

We also finally went for a snorkel in the entrance to the atoll. The entrance itself wasn't very interesting, but right outside on the very edge, the reef drops from maybe 7 meters to really deep (deeper than our dept sounder) and on that edge we saw several sharks, some of fairly decent size and they were pretty curious. At this point we were back in the dinghy, because the out-going tide kept sweeping us out to sea, so we were doing the head-snorkeling thing from the dinghy. Suddenly we also realised we were surrounded by a big pod of dolphins. It was hard to pick whether look over the water and see them do full body jumps/spins out of the water, or look underwater where we could also spot them swim underneath the dinghy. Pretty amazing.

After a final goodbye visit to the village we left at dawn the next morning. We had hoped to only do a day sail to the next island in the row, Feni Island, but unfortunately the wind picked up and we had 25 knots SW, which meant big swells wrapping right around the island and it was also overcast so we couldn't see the reef and on approach it suddenly went from 30-40 knots to 12 and without any change in water colour, furthermore the chart was without any detail, so we bailed out and left the island and a good night's sleep. It was a real shame, as it looks like a really pretty spot, several beaches and a tall jungle covered island.

That meant the next island group, Tanga Islands, was also out of the questions. We have now sailed 27 hours since Nissan Atoll and we're almost by Lihir Island, where there's a gold mine and therefore more resources and people, so should be an interesting visit. Our weather seem to be affected by a typhoon forming up in Micronesia. On our grib file it looks like the winds is kind of being sucked towards it, but in real life we seem to have changing wind directions and wind speeds and a fair bit of swell.

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Saturday, 24 November 2012

Our first atoll and mahi mahi

We left Buka later in the afternoon after our morning arrival. A ton of big dinghies with big outboards were zipping across the harbour constantly and most of them wanted to get as close to us as possible to check us out. Their wake combined with the current made the anchorage quite unsettled and with a big population like that, raskols (PNG name for criminals/bandits) would be a possibility, so that's why we left. We had three knots of current with us as we left, so we did get the times fairly right after all.

It was a little tough being on our forth night at sea, especially because we were close hauled all the time, at times with 20-25 knots of wind, but at least we were sailing, not motoring, and we could almost hold the course, so we didn't have to tack much. We arrived at Nissan Atoll (also called Green Island) at 8am in the morning and went through the pass without any problems, it was quite obvious where the passage was and the water was super clear and beautiful. It's our first atoll on this trip, so that was quite exciting. It's quite different from the Maldive atolls that are the only ones I know, as there isn't much beach and some of the island is quite raised. It's very densely wooded, we well as fairly densely populated. We read that 3000 people live here, but the local chief said 1700. We're anchored just inside the passage to the south in 3-4 meters of water, but with quite poor holding in coral and hard sand.

We had barely gotten our anchor down before the first dugouts arrived. One funny thing is the canoes now again have outriggers here in PNG, same as in Vanuatu, but different from the single hulls in Solomon Islands! The locals were very keen to trade with us, and we got yummy passionfruit, a local orange/mandarin fruit, paw paws, pineapple, eggs, bananas, starfruit, kumera, eggplant and lots more I can't remember. So despite the soil being fairly poor and sandy with lots of coral rock, it still is quite fertile! Sugar was especially popular to trade, but we also traded second hand clothes, fish hooks, line, pencils, lollies and salt. The only income possibility they have is copra and cocoa, but at the moment they aren't selling any, because the price is only 20% of normal prices. It's a 2-3 hour trip to Buka for them with their fast outboards, but it's very expensive in fuel, and hardly justify the cost of selling their produce at the market there.

Later when we visited the village and met the chief we learned we're only the 4th yacht this year. Some years they have had many more though, when the visitor book started in 2002 maybe 30 boats visited! There are a ton of kids and young people in the village and everyone are super friendly. It does get a bit tiring being constantly surrounded by canoes all day long (starting at 6.30 in the morning!), but on the other hand, it's also quite understandable, as we're the biggest and best entertainment they have had in a long time. Plus of course the trading possibility. After the first day we had to stop trading though, as we already had more fruit and veggies than we can eat!

Today we spent most of the day ashore being guided around by 16 year old boys. They took us to the school which is about 30 minutes walk away. It was Saturday, so no teaching, but it was still very interesting to see anyway and we spent a while looking at maps, books and stories written by the kids that hang on the wall. Some younger boys that were also following us climbed up really high in a tree to fetch us a local fruit that looks a bit like a green mango, but is more like an apple in texture and taste.

One big thing I forgot to mention in the last post was the Mahi mahi we caught on the passage to Buka! It's our first mahi mahi and it was so beautiful and golden that it was really sad to kill it and watch all the colour disappear. But it was really yummy!

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Thursday, 22 November 2012

Arrived in Papua New Guinea

We're now in Buka in Papua New Guinea. It took us three nights and two days to get here, but all the time in sight of land. The Shortland Islands are only a few miles south of Bouganville (PNG), so in theory you could just day hop, but there's no customs in neither Shortland Islands nor in south Bourganville, so it's stiil a small passage to change country. I also got it mixed up in my last post, we stopped by Sagharaughombe and Liapari Islands before going to Noro to clear out of the country, as of course we wouldn't do illegal stops after clearing out of a country.

The passage was typical of the weather we have had in Solomon Islands, pretty light, but a bit of everything and lots and lots of lightening, thankfully all in the horizon, not near us. The wind was mostly on the forward quarter, which is great when it's very light, as we can actually move at a good speed, and it's not uncomfortable either. It's a fine balance though, and when the wind picks up, it's not so fun beating into it. We had 1/2 - 1 knot of current with us the first 24 hours, but halfway up the coast of Bounganville, it changed to being against us. The last night we were tacking into the wind and being pushed by the current away from Buka, very frustrating, but we managed to get there, even after some hours of heaving to.

Buka passage can easily have 5-6 knots of current, so trying to time our arrival was important, but difficult, because we couldn't find any time table. OpenCPN did have one, and Phil estimated that morning arrival was OK, which was also what we'd prefer, so that we didn't have to stay the night, but could leave again the same afternoon. We ended up having about 1 knot of current against us, which was totally fine, but not what we expected. We just passed the passage again coming back from town (in a local boat) and it sure looked like there was a lot more current then, so it will be interesting when we leave a little later on.

So far people here are just as friendly as in Solomon Islands and people are actually slightly better dressed and many have backpacks etc, but then it's quite a big place also, much bigger than Gizo for example. Bouganville has quite a tumultuous history with civil war and mining problems (the two being related), but there's peace now and in 2020 there's an election to decide if Bouganville should be independent. All the land is owned by private people, nothing by the government, so somebody owns the land where the gold and copper mines are, and there are now ongoing negotiations about the rights to the land. So much potential in this land, but who is going to benefit is the million dollar question.

Like in Vanuatu and Solomons Islands, men must pay the father of the bride a pride price. This is very old customs and today speaking with one of the friendly locals (John) from the boat we caught a ride on, I suddenly realised why that is. I already knew that usually the wife goes to where the husband comes from. The parents are therefore paid a sort of compensation for loosing their daughter. Yeah, I know I'm slow. These days it's mostly paid in cash, but there's also some traditional trading/goods involved. A typical bride price around here is 4-5000 kina (1 kina equals approximately 0.66 NZ$), so it's quite a lot of money a man has got to save up to buy a bride, but he'll often also get help from his parents. According to John it's much more expensive in Port Morseby though, there it's more like 50-60,000 kina, though that does sound super super dear!

We're now going to make our way north on the outside of New Ireland stopping at some of the small islands on our way to Kavieng, the next big port. Unfortunately we have a lot of miles to cover, almost 1000 miles, to get to Vanimo by the north coast of Guinea just before the border to Indonesia. From there we're going to hop north over equator to Palau, where we hope to spend Christmas, so we gotta get a move on and can't spend too much time exploring this big and interesting country. We're still in the transition period between the SE trades and NW monsoon, and hopefully we can make it (a lot of motoring is guaranteed) before we get too much headwind, but we'll have to wait and see.

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Monday, 19 November 2012

Off to PNG and goodbye to Solomon

My parents left almost a week ago and we have now gotten used to having all the space to ourselves again and are over the 'empty boat' feeling. Overall it was a successful visit and enjoyed by all. The biggest problem for my parents was definitely the heat! Solomon Islands are very hot and humid, but at least Phil and I have been eased into slowly over time. We think it was very adventurous of them to come to Solomon Islands and stay on Sophia for 2 1/2 week.

We spent a few days in Gizo on the internet and stocking up Sophia again. And one day scuba diving! It's been five year since I last dived, but to me it's just like bicycling, where my body remembers the movements and feeling (and with that comes all the happy memories of past dives). Phil came along to snorkel, but we have snorkeled so many great places off Sophia, that it wasn't really that special for him. First dive was on Tua Maru, a Japanese 140 m long passenger/cargo ship, sunk during World War II by American bombers. It's definitely not the best wreck I have dived, but it was pretty OK.

Lunch was on the tiny deserted island which again would have been more fun if we aren't used to pretty little islands plus halfway through it started pouring down with rain and we had to sit in the sea to be warm-ish. Definitely the coldest we have been since NZ! Next dive was just off the islands (the site called Grand Central Station). It was on the wall of a reef and we saw some OK things, but like the wreck, it wasn't a super dive, just fairly average. The rain also wasn't doing the visibility any favours either. We saw a turtle, a shark, a lionfish,lots of clown fish and the usual reef life.

We had hoped to be able to clear out of Gizo and one boat which had stayed 6 weeks in Gizo confirmed we could clear out, lots of boats had done it, the only tricky thing was the immigration guy had broken his leg so we'd have to find his house which was over the hill somewhere. But it turned out the customs guy has just left Gizo and gone back to Noro and he wasn't coming back until sometime in December, so we had to bite the bullet and go back to Noro. It was OK though, we left early in the morning and arrived just after lunch and managed to clear out very easily, we spent our last Solomon money and still had time to sail to another anchorage, as Noro apparently isn't super safe on a Friday night. We anchored by Sagharaughombe Island just off Kolombangara. Like Bat Harbour, only a few yacht stop every year, so they were really happy to see us. The next morning a bunch of kids showed us the reef to snorkel and an old Japanese barge, almost disintegrated on the sea floor. One of the older kids did have an old mask and snorkel, but we lent our masks and snorkels to other kids, many of them had never even seen the barge themselves. We also tried to paddle their canoes, which is an awful lot harder than it looks. Every single Solomon Islander has been in a canoe even before they can walk, and so their balance is excelent. Both Phil and I failed to paddle very far, and we flooded and tipped over in the canoes, of course much to the amusement of the kids.

We have now spent a few nights by Liapari Island where an expat kiwi has a small boat yard, both for local barges etc and for yachts visiting, some people also leave their yachts here for the cyclone season (it's so far north that no full-blown cyclones hit). Phil has done a bunch of work on the engine and we're getting ready for another country. We're planning to clear into Buka on the norther side of Bourganville and it has a narrow passage with a lot of current, so we have been trying to find out the best strategy for that. Fingers crossed that it will work. It's only about a two day passage, so it hardly even counts.

Our verdict of Solomon Islands as a cruising destination is overall great. We have had a good time and haven't had any safety problems whatsoever. Of course we have taken precautions and stayed away from any places where there have been incidents and we always lock up the boat at night and take everthing loose inside, we even bring in our outboard, one advantage of having only a 2 1/2 horses outboard. People are very friendly and welcoming and there are litterally a ton of anchorages, we have only explored a tiny part of Solomon Islands. Furthermore most anchorages are very protected and safe and therefore there's no rolling. Compared to Vanuatu, the anchorages are definitely much more secure and non-rolly. OK, we have been here in the transition period between the SE trades and the NW monsoon, so we have had very light/no winds most of the times, but we would still claim that even in stronger winds, many anchorages would still be very calm. Only two downsides are the crocodiles and the heat. That combination even makes it worse, because it's so hot, but some places you can't cool off in the water because of the crocs. Another plus side (for some anyway) is that there aren't that many cruisers here, we think because of the safety issues, but we're not sure. We have has almost every anchorage all to ourselves.

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Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Empty boat again

My parents just left Sophia this morning, so she feels all empty now. It's been really nice to have them visit us and experience our cruising life, and they had a really good time (especially once they got used to the heat) but it's also nice to have her to ourselves again and especially to be able to tidy up.

We all enjoyed staying at Zipholo resort, despite the fact that it rained some of the time. My parents decided to stay in a bungalow for the night, and they also had an amazing feast of crayfish (lobster). We visited skull island nearby which is this tiny and very beautiful island full of shrines of skulls of old warriors and chiefs. When it was time to leave it was still quite overcast, so we couldn't continue through Vonavona lagoon, but instead we followed our track back to Diamond Narrows and went through that way and past Noro. We stayed a night in Kale/Bat Harbour on the kolombangara coast. It was a very protected small bay and only a handfull of people lived there. Florida Islands (Rodrick Bay) and this place are definitely the poorest places we have seen, more like almost everywhere in Vanuatu. Otherwise the other places we have visited in Solomon seem to have been a bit better off and people live in more 'proper' houses.

We have spent the last few days in and around Gizo. There are two resorts on a nearby islands, where the snorkeling is excellent (and no crocs!), but unfortunately they don't have very good anchoring, so it's better for day visits. Luckily my birthday was with lovely sunshine and we visiting one of resorts and had a great day first with dolphins playing by Sophia on the way there, then great snorkeling and a nice lunch at the resort. Unfortunately the wind picked up and we had to move back to Gizo before dark. My present to myself is to go scuba diving tomorrow, which I'm really looking forward to, it's been many years since I last did that!

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Tricky lagoon sailing

We left our beautiful Sarumara anchorage and sailed further through Marovo Lagoon to Seghe, which is the main town. We needed eggs, very important for my parents' fried egg on toast every morning. Monday morning when we went hunting for eggs, the two shops we found didn't have eggs. The ladies at the small market were only selling bananas, pineapple and betel nuts. We decided to move on and hopefully find eggs somewhere else. 20 minutes after we left it started raining and it was naturally overcast as well. It meant we couldn't see the water colour ahead of us which is crucial when navigating in the lagoon as not all reefs are marked nor on the chart, so we had to turn back and follow our track back to Seghe. The rain was actually good, because it really started pouring and we managed to collect almost 100 liters in a very short while. The rest of the day continued to be overcast and drizzly so we stayed in Seghe.

It was actually quite lucky we came back, because we then ran out of gas (or to be exact we went onto our small spare bottle which wasn't full), and so Phil went ashore to see if he could find some. He then managed to find a third shop that actually sold eggs. We ended up buying a new gas bottle in order to get gas, but that's OK, we can always use more anyway. It sure makes a difference gas-usage-wise to be four people and especially also making coffee several times a day for my avid coffee drinking parents.

After the rainy day we again had beautiful sunny weather and could continue. We then exited the lagoon and sailed over to Tetepare, and unhibited island with no proper anchorage, but we managed to tug into a small bay close to the shore in 25 meters of water. It was another hot day, so we had been looking forward to a dip, but even before we got the anchor down, we spotted a big crocodile swimming near the shore, so we changed our minds.

Yesterday we sailed further north to just past Munda. We had hoped to make it to Vonavona Lagoon, but the last leg was going right against the setting sun and again that means we can't see the water colour ahead of us, so we had to stop. Now we're in Vonavona Lagoon by Lola island and Zipolo Resort which is great, as it means the cook (me) gets a rest and we have internet again (which means photos on facebook). 

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Anchored in paradise

We have been in many paradise places on our trip so far, but now for the first time we have it all to ourselves. In Tonga we were often sharing anchorages with other boats, and in Vanuatu and Solomon so far we have usually anchored by villages. Naturally good anchorages and bays are where people live, so we have never really had an anchorage in total privacy until now. We're in Marovo lagoon in the Western Province. It's supposedly one of the biggest lagoons in the world and it has been proposed for a world heritage listing (but put on hold until the plundering of the land is done!!!). Actually it's made up of several lagoons in succession of each other.

Back to Honiara: we spent two nights there, my parents in a air-con hotel and my dad got well again. The doctor told him the best thing to drink is green coconuts, which I had already tried to tell him. He's not super keen on the taste, but he did drink some. He has now worked out it tastes a lot better with a bit of rum and a splash of lime in it. We plunged my parents into the deep end and did a 26 hour passage directly up to the Western Province, skipping Russel Islands on the way. Luckily it was a most pleasant trip, hardly any roll and only light winds and no wind overnight so we had to motor.

We stayed a few nights at Mbili where we were approached by about six different dugout canoes, some with several people in them, all wanting to show us their carvings. Marovo lagoon is knows to have a lot of skilled carvers and to be a good place to acquire carvings. It's often one of the only ways for the locals to make money. Anyway, we already got a few in Roderick Bay, and we don't have much room for carvings, so it was a bit limited what we could buy, yet we still ended up with a several more, but unfortunately we had to turn down a bunch. We were still happy to be shown all the beautiful carvings and admire their great work. It was also a beautiful bay, but unfortunately there are crocodiles in the area, so we couldn't snorkel, but we did hang off the ladder on Sophia once in a while to cool down a bit.

Now we're anchored by Kokoana Passage a little further north at place called Sarumara anchorage. It's on the outer edge of the lagoon, so there is only a thin strip of land and therefore no village and therefore no dugout canoes visiting. It's nice to meet the locals and trade veggies and fruit etc, but sometimes it's also nice not to have a constant stream of visitors. We haven't seen any other yachts since Honiara, so we have it all to ourselves. Yesterday we even had a bit of a breeze (but still protected from chop) to help cool us down, make it even more perfect. We also spend A LOT of the time in the water cooling off.

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