Before proceeding further with this tale, I have to make a correction.
The ship we flew halfway round the world to catch up with, on this occasion was not the Society Explorer, but in fact the World Discoverer.
Perhaps I could be forgiven my confusion as we took another trip, in approximately the same part of the world on the Explorer, but that is a whole other story.
We had fallen in love with the “Disco” on previous trips and were so delighted to be back on board with some of the crew we’d met before.
And after our seemingly endless journey, we relaxed with a libation. Or two. Bambang the barman was very efficient.
First stop was Samarai Island (Above)
Then we continued to Gawa Island:
The idea of this photograph is not to display my fine red shorts, but to give an idea of our trek through the tropical rain-forest at Gawa Island. Right at the top of the image you can just see the bow of the ship, off the beach where we landed in rubber boats. It was quite a distance!
This island, we were told, had never been visited by a cruise ship before but someone must have warned the villagers as this young lad came to lead us.
And on his shoulder, I see that Tim had entrusted his heavy camera bag!
People clutching small children, looked at us curiously, but did not attempt to communicate. I daresay they thought us extremely strange and perhaps they were a little afraid, with good reason. We met the village dog.
Then it was on to Rabaul, in East New Britain. A place known for its active volcanoes.
And there was Bill’s casual shape standing on the dock in Rabaul, along with all the other excited throngs awaiting our arrival!
A policeman, two bored dock workers and a taxi driver!
Bill had already “done” Rabaul, of course, but he went with us to view WW2 sites. There had been heavy fighting here.
Back then that war didn’t seem so long ago. It felt all too real.
But we had not come to Rabaul to see ancient battle sites. We were to attend a fire-dancing feast of the Baining people. These feasts were held to celebrate special occasions, rites of passage, death, a good harvest. To the Baining, living, as they did, in the shadow of active volcanoes, fire was something spiritual, sacred.
The feast was at a remote, secret location and we were taken there under cover of darkness. Pitch darkness! We rode in four wheel drives through dense jungle for about an hour.
Then our vehicles stopped and turned off their lights and we held on to each other as we literally could not see in any direction. We very cautiously followed the Cruise Director, whose voice we could hear and who, I suppose must have had a flashlight. We passed through a stockade fence and came to an open area where there was a huge fire and tables and benches had been erected for the feast.
To attend such a feast was not something I took for granted, particularly as a woman. During the dancing, the men wore enormous, intricate masks made of bark cloth, like the one Tim is holding. Women and children cannot be allowed to see these masks, but as strangers, presumably we were given dispensation.
Before the dancing, we were seated at the two long make-shift tables.
We were all a bit tense, I suppose, but the mood lifted when one of the larger cruise passengers sat on the bench, collapsing it to the ground.
Somehow he was helped back up and offered more secure seating. The rest of us lowered ourselves carefully to the benches as the fire pit was opened up and huge chunks of pork and taro were placed in a big pile on banana leaves along the center of the table.
The food had been cooking for hours in the ground beneath stones over which a fire burned. As I recall, we ate with our hands and fingers. It was tasty but I couldn’t really say what it all was. We were more interested in the dancing.
As we ate, we heard the music of drums beaten with bamboo sticks and a chant began. We all fell silent as the drumming and chanting built to a frenzy and the dancers began to approach the fire. They wore the huge masks but their bodies were draped with a variety of leaves.
The dancers kicked and poked at the fire, sending sparks high into the dark night. They seemed to become mesmerized. They were transformed by the chanting and the fire into supernatural forest beings.
And they walked through the fire, emerging the other side unscathed.
It was very late when we returned to the ship. I don’t even remember how the dancing ended, or whether it actually continued as we departed. I suspect the latter was the case. To me, it was a privilege to witness what was so sacred to the Baining people. But it troubled me that this was becoming an item on the tourist route.
Just as I always felt like an intruder in Buddhist temples or Moslem mosques, or, for that matter in Christian churches, I felt like an intruder at that feast. In my mind, people’s beliefs belonged only to them, most particularly people who had not yet been influenced by the developed world.
All these years on, I wonder how many people are left on this planet who have not been “contacted”. I know the Andaman Islanders have remained hostile to any who approach them and I hear that there are people in the Amazon that are isolated. I fear for these people. And it does not make me feel good that I was among the “adventure travellers” who paved the way for an onslaught of tourism.
We went with the best of intentions, to meet people, to exchange our ideas and thoughts and experiences, but how naive that was! It was bound to become big business. How did I not see it? Could I have done anything to stop it? No.
My only consolation is that I have a few photographs, a few memories of how those peoples and places were, so many years ago.