Tuesday, 26 August 2008


Click on an image for full size viewing.
Select 'back' to return to this page.

This was once the floor of the ancient sea that covered most of inland Australia. Finned monsters swam here, gliding over trilobites and other early life forms that had retreated from the land which emerged many millions of years ago as sea levels dropped.

"There's nothing here. Let's move on." overheard from a passing traveller, was one way of looking at it, but I was mesmerised by the sheer emptiness and the absolute silence of this ancient land.
There was a time when green, underwater light prevailed instead of the hard blue sky of today; when pterodactyls soared above the water instead of the whistling kites which now circled above me in the windless sky.

Parched yellow spinifex and mitchell grass now scrabble for space on the dry,red earth with an occasional stunted gum tree, the only other sign of life.....and then this !

and this

and this

Lawn Hill Gorge, a green oasis almost at the Queensland/Northern Territory border. A hidden chasm which nurtures a lush, green tropical micro-climate. Where fish, turtles and freshwater crocodiles thrive. I launched my canoe and took this last photo in the late afternoon, just before sunset, when the red walls of the gorge caught the last rays of the setting sun.

I'll be back !


Thursday, 19 June 2008

'What's in it for us' ?

A personal perspective.

Arawa Town, Bougainville Island. Looking south towards Kieta
Taken from my aircraft. P2-BFD

Single-liners which altered the course of history are legion. 'Peace in our time' : 'Let them eat cake' : 'The winds of change' etc. One from an Australian politician, delivered on the lawn of the District Commissioner's house at Kieta on Bougainville Island is another.
The speaker was C.E.B. Barnes, a not particularly distinguished member of the Australian Government of the time. The leader of a delegation of tribal elders had asked him, in Pidgin ,"What's in it for us?"... 'it' was a mine in the mountains of central Bougainville which was on land tilled and cultivated by its native owners.

The Minister for Territories got off to an inauspicious start with the word 'Nothing' followed by quotes from the Minerals and Mining Acts and the dictum that mining royalties paid to the government could be distributed at its absolute discretion, and might, or might not, find their way to the landholders on whose property they happened to be. He went on to describe the compensation which could be claimed by dispossessed landowners. This tactless reply was the trigger for everything that followed; culminating in the violent events which terminated the short, unhappy life of what could have been a successful joint mining venture with the people of Bougainville.

My just-published novel BOUGAINVILLE BLUE has a description of this encounter. I was there, when Minister C.E.B. Barnes answered a polite query from a dignified village elder with a technically accurate but insensitive reply; to the consternation of senior field officers present when he used the loaded word "Nothing"
The mine, focal point in the conflict between Bougainvillians and the governments of both Australia and Papua New Guinea, was the trigger which crystalised and gave form to an endemic resentment of outsiders, which had existed on this mountainous island since its first contact with the outside world. Germans, Japanese and Australians had been left in no doubt as to the wish of the people for them to simply go away, leaving the owners of the land to continue their lives unhindered. Control by these various colonial administrations had been tolerated, but never accepted.

The Bougainville Provincial Government relied for its authority and finance on the national government in Port Moresby, but became increasingly vocal in its demands for autonomy. It was even more insistent in its demand that the income from the Panguna Mine be considered as its, by right. Since the mine was now providing PNG with half its entire revenue, this met with a blanket refusal from everyone from the Chief Minister down, but talk of secession just grew louder and more hostile. "The land and all that is on or under it is ours. Close the mine and leave, or we will destroy it and you," was the message.

The Panguna. mine

Isolated acts of defiance escalated into open rebellion which included attacks on plantations, sabotage and armed assault on machinery and workers at the mine, and widespread violence along the length of the island. Explosives, stolen from poorly guarded magazines were used to destroy power lines and pumping stations along the ore pipeline to the port. Specific demands from what had now become a disorganised rebel movement in virtual control of most of the island were made. The succession of events and the personalities involved are fully documented elsewhere. I need not repeat the story of the years of conflict, the thousands of lives lost or the numerous failed attempts to defeat the rag-tag Bougainville Revolutionary Army, which culminated in virtual victory for the rebels over the well armed forces sent to subdue them...suffice it to say that the rebels won !

Bagana Volcano near Panguna

In May 1989, the mine was permanently closed. All but a handful of its thousands of workers, white and black, left the island. Plantations, once the main source of prosperity and employment for the entire island, lay derelict and untended. The port with its massive powerhouse, wharves and ore processing plant, was totally destroyed by fire and explosives. The town of Arawa was systematically looted and demolished by armed gangs who roamed its deserted streets, secure in the knowledge that police, army and all forms of government control were no longer there. The hospital, the schools, the supermarket, the rows of suburban houses, and every other sign of the former foreign presence on Bougainville lay in smoke-blackened ruins. The rebels controlled the entire island. They occupied the remains of what had once been the head office of the mine overlooking the rain-fed lake which part-filled the abandoned open pit and its millions of dollars worth of machinery, and equipment.

Panguna. 2008.

The town of Kieta, once the island's administrative hub, was destroyed in the fighting along with its outlying suburb of Toniva, and Aropa airstrip is still unusable and derelict. An uneasy calm has descended, with ill-equiped and under-funded government offices now operating from makeshift premises in the ruins of Arawa. A small airstrip has been built along the beach near the town. Random shots at incoming light aircraft still occur. Movement outside the town is still controlled by the rebels, whose approval, seldom granted, is needed before venturing further. The Panguna valley is still very much a 'no go' area..
Years have now passed since the closure of the mine. The bitter civil war which took thousands of lives has not yet ended, despite official pronouncements to the contrary. Peace talks, interspersed with vicious firefights are still the way things are on far-from-peaceful Bougainville. Rumours regularly surface about a possible revival of the mine, fueled more often than not by opportunistic promoters from the less respectable fringes of the mining and exploration industry, while Port Moresby, with troubles of its own, seems content to let Bougainville make its way as best it can along the separate path the victorious rebels chose for it.


Wednesday, 11 June 2008


One's first solo flight...first storm at sea... first love affair... first ?. are all destined to lie deep in one's memory, never to be forgotten, but a first book is up there with all of the above. So it was with me today after hearing "Congratulations. You are now a published author" from my patient and ever helpful publisher, Diane Andrews who can be contacted at

Readers seeking a historically accurate and detailed account of what has become known as The Bougainville Conflict won't find it in Bougainville Blue. It's an allegory, a story based on what happened on Bougainville, when an avalanche of men and machinery descended on an island still recovering from being fought over by the armies of East and West in World War Two.

I was there as the clash between Bougainville and the Western World and its material values grew ever more violent. Others who were also there for the short, unhappy life of one of the biggest copper and gold mines ever built, may draw comparisons with the actual conflict which engulfed the island and its people during this time; but it was not my intention to depict actual individuals or historic events in the novel, and I have not done so.

Bougainville still lies in ruins with the hard-pressed and dysfunctional government of Papua New Guinea still unable to bring itself to accept the unwavering wish of the people of Bougainville to govern and control their island. Until this is accepted, and real control over the land and its mineral wealth is given to the people; to coin a phrase; the blue on Bougainville will continue.



A novel based on some of the events which occurred on this isolated tropical island after the arrival of thousands of strangers and an avalanche of heavy machinery.

Australian expatriate planter Richard Robinson and his wife Ruth lose their plantation after its forced resumption to build a new mining town.

Josip Nugui, the first of his people to go to Australia for an education; law student turned insurgent who tries to stop the mine and succeeds, at the cost of his own life.

Rod Burgoyne; American geologist and mine manager faces opposition led by Nugui which grows into armed rebellion.

Governments in New Guinea and Australia fail to cope with the industrial onslaught on one of the last almost untouched islands in the South Pacific.

Not a detailed historical account of what happened, and to whom, this is a work of fiction based on some of the actual events seen at first hand by the author when the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and the government of newly independent Papua New Guinea fought each other to a standstill; one of the biggest mines of its kind in the world was closed forever, and black and white alike were caught up in a whirlwind of anger and bloodshed which very nearly resulted in the permanent disintegration of the newborn nation of Papua New Guinea.

Friday, 23 May 2008



A Life

He came back to his island home with his mother and sister at the end of World War Two . They were returning from wartime exile in Australia to Nuguria Atoll and the devastated wreck of a coconut plantation. His father, Lewis Carson was one of the Australian prisoners-of-war lost at sea when the Japanese ship Montevideo Maru was torpedoed by an American submarine while transporting them from Rabaul to Japan for use as forced laborers
Nuguria is one of the Polynesian outliers which ring Papua New Guinea. Its people are handsome, golden-skinned islanders; their original Polynesian heriditary characteristics have been modified by Micronesian and Melanesian genes contributed by arrivals from visiting canoes from Kapingamirangi Atoll to the north, from New Ireland to the west, and perhaps by visits from the ships of passing seafarers ranging from Admiral Zheng He's fleet on its voyage of exploration in 1421, to later ships carrying European explorers as they charted the legendary Pacific Ocean

Graeme Carson

The short-lived 19th century German presence in the South Pacific made Nuguria plantation an attractive prize after Germany's defeat in the First World War. The victorious Australians seized it with alacrity, unceremoniously ejected the former owners with little or no compensation, and sold it, along with hundreds of other similar assets, to their own returned veterans. One of these was Lewis Carson, father of Graeme.

Nuguria was Graeme Carson's fiefdom. He ran the atoll as a benign but absolute ruler, and totally dominated its inhabitants, as did his similarly placed counterpart, John Clunies-Ross on Cocos in the Indian Ocean. Force of character and an absolute belief in their right to rule was a characteristic of both men, and this was accepted by the islanders until influences from outside sewed the seeds of discontent. The Winds of Change have now made anything remotely resembling this state of affairs unthinkable and much ink has been spilt reviling the discriminatory attitude and the paternal mindset of those early times, but whether the total absence of aid, assistance or basic governance for Nuguria which now prevails is in an improvement is a legitimate question.
Like many of his contemporaries, Graeme Carson accepted responsibility for the health and welfare of every individual on his property, in his case, all 58 islands on the twin atolls which made up Nuguria. He was administrator, doctor, nurse, mechanical engineer, book-keeper, unofficial arbitrator in disputes over land, unofficial matchmaker between partners from different families, and an occasional pugilist when a dispute demanded strong action.. His small ship was used to transport patients to Rabaul for hospital treatment free of charge and he arranged and paid for places in the prestigious King's School in Sydney for several young Nugurians. In short; his word was law, and government regulations and decrees from distant Rabaul ran a bad second to on-the-spot decisions by the freehold owner of Nuguria.

Carson's family lived on Tekani Island about 3 miles from the airstrip in a house built by his father, and the Nugurians occupied the adjoining island of Busureia. As well as providing money in return for labour or locally harvested copra and trocas shell, Carson was the only source of medical treatment on the atoll and the only authority to turn to in disputes. The nearest government official was many days sail away. Communication was by tenuous HF radio link to Rabaul on New Britain using the radio in the plantation office surrounded more often than not by a group of attentive bystanders. The artificial boat harbour lay immediately in front of his house with retaining walls formed by stacked mushroom coral heads overlaid by clean white sand. This tiny harbor sheltered schools of small bait fish in addition to the dugout canoes used for transport in the lagoon. In the early 1960's, he used his own labour and materials to carve an airstrip out of the narrow island at the southeast end of the atoll: 2,500 feet long and surfaced with a thin grass cover over coral rubble, it allowed fast and easy access to outside medical aid together with much faster mail delivery. It also produced a stream of official visitors from government departments in Rabaul whose insistence on correctly completed paperwork was not always welcomed by the busy owner of the atoll !

Boat Harbour. Tekani Island

. Graeme Carson married his first wife, an Australian girl, who gave him a son, Timothy. His mother, who lived on Nuguria as an undisputed matriarch, clashed repeatedly with her, and the marriage ended in divorce. Carson remarried, this time to Tetau, daughter of an heriditary Nugurian clan leader. She bore him another six children. The redoubtable Eileen Carson co-existed in wary but resigned amity with Tetau, until the matriarch's death by drowning after a fall from the seawall during a violent northwest gale.
Political independence for Papua New Guinea in 1975 marked the start of a revolt by young islanders against what they now regarded as the exploitation of their homeland. The easy relationship between Carson and the islanders began to deteriorate into open hostility, often fueled by outsiders who now began to arrive on Nuguria as the invitees of islanders returning from school in New Britain and Bougainville.
He applied for citizenship of the newly independent Papua New Guinea, renouncing his Australian citizenship in the process. While it was never officially spelled out, Australian passport holders who tried to continue in business in Papua New Guinea soon discovered that it was nearly impossible to do so in the face of official harrasment by newly promoted government officials, determined to exert their newfound authority. One of the unforseen consequences of this change in nationality left his family divided into those born before he became a Papua New Guinean citizen and those born later. The former were able to get Australian passports and move freely between New Guinea and Australia: the latter, as citizens of PNG, were only able to visit Australia for brief periods on tourist visas. This did not allow them to enroll in Australian schools, or to obtain access to medical treatment and other benefits, which their older siblings were still able to do.

Canoe. Nuguria Lagoon

After 1975, the plantation industry throughout New Guinea went into a rapid decline. Labour became hard to get, and even harder to control. No plantation was immune and production of copra and shell rapidly fell nationwide. A rise in nationalist sentiment as the new and hopelessly unprepared nation tried to continue the sophisticated administrative practices of its former colonial masters affected Nuguria and every other agricultural and commercial enterprise in the country. Inexperienced and under qualified clerks and junior tradesmen were shoe-horned into senior administrative positions in government and private enterprise, usually with disastrous results.
Life on isolated Nuguria Atoll was slower to change and the coconut groves which covered most of the 58 islands in the group still produced copra. The reefs continued to yield commercial quantities of trocas shell and Carson still owned and controlled the atoll, but his sway no longer held to the extent that he could decide who could and could not live there. Outsiders including missionaries from some of the fundamentalist Christian sects arrived. They succeeded in proselytising the more impressionable islanders, persuading them to discard traditional ancestor worship and replace it with their own aggressive brand of Christianity. Schisms developed, sometimes dividing families. One breakaway group moved to the southern end of the atoll and built a new village restricted to the newly converted.
A few short years after Independence, most of the expatriate population of New Guinea was either selling up and moving out, or adapting to the new regime and learning to accept bribery as a normal business tool. Carson, now a citizen of Papua New Guinea, stayed on and adapted as best he could, but labour was now unreliable; production of copra and trocas shell continued a downward spiral and his bank started to deliver threats of foreclosure, only deterred from actually doing so because, by government decree, plantations were now unsaleable to non-nationals and credit for PNG citizens to purchase them was no longer available due to the high rate of failure by those who had.

Family Group. Nuguria

Nuguria is no longer a working plantation. 'King' Carson is dead and the islanders are now left largely to their own devices with only sporadic official visits from the dysfunctional Papua New Guinea government. The airstrip, hacked out of the jungle by teams of villagers and plantation labourers is overgrown and no longer useable. The cargo ship which brought regular supplies and medical assistance to the atolls is broken down and unseaworthy and Nuguria can now only be reached by a hazardous dash across the miles of open water which separate it from New Ireland in small workboats or outboard-powered sampans which occasionally risk the crossing, or by a PNG Defence Force patrol boat. The atoll is now notionally administered as part of the Bougainville Province, but Bougainville, wracked by internal divisions carried over from the civil war which led to the destruction of the huge open-pit mine at Panguna cannot govern itself, let alone concern itself with distant Nuguria, which it has effectively abandoned.

In early 2002 Carson was voyaging from Nuguria to Nissan Island en route to Buka at the Northern end of Bougainville in the plantation workboat MV Eileen, when he collapsed with what was later diagnosed as a severe cranial occlusion. His crew continued on to Buka where the former hospital, now reduced to an aid post with limited medical equipment still existed. After a long delay, he was evacuated by air as an emergency patient to the Catholic Mission Hospital at Vunapope on New Britain, where he was treated for the stroke which had left him partially blind and unable to speak distinctly. Months went by and his condition did not improve. He and his wife Tetau flew to Australia, the nearest source of skilled remedial treatment for a stroke victim; but the delay in obtaining specialist treatment had, by now, resulted in permanent damage. Although still active, he spoke with difficulty, he could not write or type, and his vision was poor. As a Papua New Guinean citizen, he was only granted a three month visa by an unsympathetic Australian High Commission in Port Moresby, which also endorsed the visa of this former Australian citizen and member of The Royal Australian Naval Reserve "Not to be renewed or extended." Medical treatment in Australia was cut short when his visa expired, and he returned to New Guinea and to Nuguria where he died in May 2004.

He is buried alongside his mother on Tekani Island near the deserted and abandoned house where he lived and worked for most of his adult life. The trade wind still stirs the palm fronds above the graves and frigate birds circle high overhead, as they did when he and his sister lived there as children on this lonely Pacific atoll on the edge of the world.


Friday, 16 May 2008


Kieta 1976... Now derelict and abandoned


Part 1

The day started normally enough on Bougainville Island. Our office in Toniva, a suburb of the small coastal town of Kieta opened for business at the usual time and I sat down at my desk after checking the telex, (remember telex?), for overnight messages.

A call from our Papuan store manager from the main cargo wharf was the start of what turned out to be the beginning of the end for B F Darcey & Company, and the signal for our exodus from New Guinea.

"Customs say we can't ship that two tons of trocas for Japan"

"Why not? The export entries are in."

"Something about no more shell exports by non-nationals"

I drove to the wharf and found our shipment of bagged trocas shell resting on pallettes with a small crowd of locals gathered around it.
Manager Jim was glowering at two unsmiling customs officials, one of whom had a proprietorial foot placed firmly on the nearest bag of trocas.

"The law has changed", I was informed. "Dealing in trocas shell is now only for Papua New Guineans and your business can no longer buy, sell or export it".
A check with Port Moresby confirmed this, and was swiftly followed by an offer from an anonymus caller."Just heard about your problem. I'm a citizen and I'll be happy to buy the trocas from you…..". A price of less than half the market value of the shell followed.

30 years on, a similar situation would present no problems. In today's New Guinea a discreet bundle of money in a plain envelope would result in removal of whatever the impediment was, but in those early post-independence times, bribery was unheard of.
It was 1978. Three years after a reluctant Papua New Guinea had been pitchforked into independence, ready or not, by the Australian Government, and things were rapidly unravelling.

The more prescient private business owners had already either sold up and moved out of the country or converted their firms to a partnership with one or more of their native staff as majority shareholders. This made the business no longer "foreign" and it could theoretically continue to trade, unhindered by the increasing number of restrictions on business for those now labelled "non-nationals'.

Finance for the new part-owners was obtained by way of a government-guaranteed bank loan. The more prudent of the former sole owners lost no time in transferring their money out of the country and usually followed it, leaving the business to be run by what was,more often than not, inexperienced and untrained new management
We had not done this and continued to run our Company as a fully owned family business.

We traded in Cocoa, Coffee, Trocas Shell, Crocodile Skins and other tropical commodities. We owned several commercial buildings at Toniva near the port of Kieta, a fleet of 4 wheel drive vehicles, and a twin engined aircraft which I flew. We ran a retail store which sold everything from artifacts and carvings to women's clothing and jewellery, and we lived in a house which we had built on the beach at Toniva, a short walk away from the office and stores.

'Head in the sand' accurately describes the mindset of the Darceys and many other expatriates in those post-independence years. The children, especially our young daughters, in the years immediately before our departure, had been increasingly exposed to aggressive and intimidating behaviour from young males in the streets and elsewhere and they were ready to leave long before their parents.

We were constantly getting unwanted and unpalatable advice to "sell out and get out" from former residents of similar places to Papua New Guinea who had moved there after their lives in Africa and Southeast Asia had been made uncomfortable, unsafe, or both.
We did not listen to them. New Guinea had been home for over 30 years. All four children had been born there, and life was prosperous and enjoyable. Where would we go ? Australia was fine for holidays and a good place to send the children for their secondary education, but not a place where we wanted to live.

Those who did move were easy targets for sellers of all kinds of fringe investments in Australia. Macadamia plantations, Ti Tree farms, Avocado orchards and other trendy investment schemes were only some of the means used to separate returning New Guinea residents from their money.

We stayed on; coping with an every increasing level of interference from the new Papua New Guinea Government, and a studied refusal to continue anything other than a benevolent 'hands off' by the Australian Government while it continued to send millions of Australian Dollars in untied annual grants to its former Trust Territory.

Sunday, 27 January 2008


The legendary Graeme (King) Carson of Nuguria had ordered the construction of what became known simply as The Big Canoe, and it was ready to start work.

Lloyds of London received some unusual proposals from our Rabaul office from time to time, but a request for insurance on this small ship was too much even for that un-flappable British institution.

"Sorry old chap... This is a bad connection. For a moment there, I thought you said the hull was built from a solid log"

"That's right…standard construction material out on the atolls, and very good for boatbuilding."...
long silence

"I'll run it past a few brokers and call you back"

He never did !

The Carson Family's Malekolon Plantation was on Anir Island in the Feni Group off the south-eastern coast of New Ireland.

Salat strait, Feni Islands from Malekolon Plantation.

Unlike Nuguria, Anir is a high island with big tropical hardwood trees. One of these was felled to be transformed by canoe-builders from the atolls into one of the largest dugout canoes ever seen there. Two smaller canoes were got from the same big log.

The half-finished hull. The three figures on the right are an indication of its size.

Electric power tools replaced traditional hafted adzes and carefully controlled fire for the initial work on the felled log, but final shaping of the sides and bottom was done with hand-adzes, using the sound made by a tap on the hull with the tool's wooden handle to determine when the correct thickness had been achieved.
The part-finished hull sailed from Anir to Nuguria after a diesel engine turning a three bladed propellor was installed. An outside rudder, a traditional ship's wheel and standard instrumentation including compass and binnacle
were then added inside a fully enclosed wheelhouse. giving the helmsman full control from there.
She was completely decked in, with a long covered hatchway, under which copra or general cargo could be kept dry and secure in all weathers.

Never registered or in survey, she served for many years in Nuguria Lagoon as the plantation's main work-boat .The canoe would probably have been seized and impounded had it ever entered Rabaul Harbour or Buka Passage and it never did, but discrete and un-announced open-water voyages were sometimes made from Nuguria to Nissan Atoll and Malekolon.

Graeme Carson, ( right ) .

Frank Darcey Jr. inside the part-finished hull .

The Big Canoe at work. Tekani Island, Nuguria


* The men from Takuu and Nuguria
who built The Big Canoe included :-
Possiri Popi, Apoke Sione, Teloma Mani,
Tumau Fariki,Tepiko Heia, Tonegina,
Tewavia Tehoru, Kipu Sieki, Trakoa
and Aruka.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008


In 1987, we were anchored at the western entrance to Nuguria, close to the island after which our yacht, Tekani was named. It was a sentimental return to this isolated South Pacific atoll where we had enjoyed many previous visits as guests of plantation owner Graeme Carson and his Nugurian born wife Tetau

S.V. Tekani. Nuguria Lagoon. 1987

During this, our last visit, we were fortunate to be once more invited to join the people of Busuria Village for live-bait fishing in the lagoon.

Tekani, the home island.

Live bait fishing involves many people and is carried out using traditional methods and materials; the end result is a canoe filled to the gunwales with fish, but many hours of intense effort by thirty or more people precede the final frantic few moments, when fish after fish is landed by casting small baitfish on barbless hooks into a milling school of trevally.

The water in the lagoon is crystal clear

The bait drive starts at low tide on the crown of the reef by dragging a long sweep-net into an ever-decreasing circle. The net is made from coconut fronds, twisted and bound together. It reaches from the surface of the water down to the shallow, sandy bottom in a dark, threatening curtain and is kept floating on the reef, when not in use. The net lasts for many months before being discarded and left to drift away. Small silver wrasse and other bait fish flee before it into a bamboo mat which is then emptied into a long split-cane basket hung on the side of the canoe .

The net is deployed

and dragging starts

driving small bait fish into an ever shrinking area

into the mat floating at its end

The mat is lifted carefully out of the water,shifting
the bait fish into the floating basket alongside the canoe

In former times, the canoe with its floating basket of live bait secured alongside, together with two or more other canoes, would be sailed or paddled across the lagoon to a deepwater reef entrance on its eastern edge, where schools of golden trevally are known to gather. An outboard motor now speeds this part of the live bait fishing operation, but everything else stays as it has been for generations.

After locating the school of trevally, the head fisherman first sprinkles the canoe with salt water in a traditional gesture of recognition to the ancestral spirits of the lagoon, then scoops up a bailer-load of bait fish and casts them in a wide circle around the canoe.

The fish start feeding on the live bait, undeterred by reef sharks which soon appear.

Fishers using bamboo rods with fixed lines impale live wrasse from the bait basket on barbless hooks and cast them into the school which is now in a feeding frenzy. Hook-up is immediate, as soon as the bait hits the water.

Bait casting

Five or more rod-wielding fisherman in the canoe soon fill it with a load of flapping trevally, fresh from the sea, more than enough to feed the entire village. Surplus fish are smoked and preserved for later meals.

A fish is quickly landed before it throws the barbless hook

From time to time, tales of a food shortage on Nuguria and similar atolls East of Bougainville, circulate in the electronic media. While the reports are genuine enough, they fail to point out that the shortage is of imported tinned fish and rice which have displaced taro and fresh fish as the staple diet: easier to open a bag of rice or a tin of Taiwanese mackerel-pike, than to toil in a mosquito laden taro pit or spend all day fishing under a vertical tropical sun; but, unlike its its Australian predecessor, the PNG Government is not always prepared to deliver shiploads of food to the atolls on request. Fortunately, the traditional hunter-gather skills of the Nugurians are still remembered, to be used again when hunger prompts.

Camera: Ivy Darcey


Monday, 7 January 2008


The American whaler, Abgarris, first reported the atolls in 1830 and located them, not quite accurately, 120 nautical miles off the east coast of New Ireland, and 200 miles south of the equator

Nuguria Atoll. Satellite Image

Fead was the name given by cartographers to the larger one of the two island groups, but the original inhabitants knew it as Nuguria

Tekani, the Home Island,

There are two separate atolls with a deep-water passage between them. Both wear a thin necklace of low islets perched only a few feet above sea level on the outer rim of the lagoon. The highest point on every island is only a few feet above the high tide mark and, in common with other low-lying atolls in the Western Pacific, Nuguria, the larger of the two, is experiencing a disturbing rise in sea level: whether this caused by global warming or by subsidence of tectonic plates on the seabed is currently being disputed by a myriad of experts, most of whom have yet to actually set foot on these, or any other atolls.

Tekani Island boat harbour with dugout canoes

Before the arrival of European sailors, Nuguria's only contact with the rest of the world had been the occasional arrival of sail-driven canoes from Kapingamarangi, 600 miles to the North, and other arrivals from Nukumanu, Nukutoa and Luainia to the East. Some visitors remained, and infused Polynesian and Micronesian genetic material into the Indo-Asian DNA of the original arrivals.

Nugurian girl. Busuria Village

Fishing was, and still is the Islanders' main source of food, supplemented by Taro which is cultivated in excavated pits in the coral sand of the larger islands. The fertile soil in these artificially created food gardens has been laboriously built up over many years with organic vegetable material which replaces the nutrient-poor coral sand and rubble of the atoll.


There are no large trees anywhere on these islands and traditional canoe builders were entirely dependant for suitable material for canoes on the infrequent arrival of drifting logs from the rain forests of New Ireland 120 miles to the West. The canoe-building skills of the craftsmen of Nuguria are legendary: they transform a raw tree trunk into a hollowed-out, graceful canoe using hand tools only.

Canoe from Busuria Village en route to fishing grounds in the lagoon.

Before the discovery of the atoll by European sailors, hafted adzes with sharpened clamshell blades; the hardest available material on these stone-free islands, were used after deliberate use of fire, to remove all but a thin outer shell of timber in the hollowed out hull with a thickness at the gunwale of only two centimetres, gradually increasing to ten centimetres or more at the bottom for added stability.

When finally finished, this huge log canoe was powered by an inboard Diesel engine and was used as a plantation work-boat in the lagoon. She made regular open water voyages to Nissan and to Malekolon Plantation near New Ireland from Nuguria.

Canoe sails were originally made of woven tapa cloth using traditional looms. Rigging to support the single mangrove pole mast and sheets for the sails came from coconut fibre. A species of tall mangrove supplied the mast and was also used for the outrigger which was attached to its booms by sharpened bamboo spikes and split cane lashings

20th century canoe with traditional rig near Tekani Island

The canoe builders of Nuguria now use imported sailcloth and power tools, but the final finishing cuts are still delivered using hand adzes with frequent pauses to guage the thickness of the hull by listening to the sound made by a gentle tap from the wooden handle of the adze; the same method used by their forebears here on these lonely islands at the edge of the world.


Wednesday, 2 January 2008


In 1955, I had just returned to Sydney from a trans-Tasman crossing to New Zealand in Kylie, a steel ketch which had taken up the previous two years of my young life as we built her in the sand dunes of La Perouse on Botany Bay

The author at La Perouse before launching Kylie

As a newly married man, not yet gainfully employed, I was faced with two choices: Longreach in Western Queensland where a job as radio announcer awaited, or Port Moresby in what was then Australian Territory where Steamships Trading Company had a ship needing a supercargo, (Code for sea-going clerk/handyman/dogsbody)

Port Moresby (which I had never seen) seemed the better alternative and I left Sydney with a one-way ticket to Port Moresby aboard a vintage DC4 leaving my new bride behind to follow 'later', when my employers would hopefully pay for her to join me.

Port Moresby signalled my arrival with a shattering metallic clatter as the aircraft touched down on the wartime runway at Jackson's Airport, still covered with the ubiquitous marsden matting ; interlocking steel plates which the post-war territory used for purposes never dreamed of by its American inventors. Tank stands, pig fences, security barriers and fishtraps were just a few.

I had invested in a new officer's cap complete with snow-white cover to complement my reefer jacket and long trousers; appropriate attire for my new career, or so I thought. Sweating profusely in the humid air, I went straight to my new ship, MV DOMA which was moored alongside Port Moresby's only wharf, fully loaded needing only its new supercargo before departing for Daru across the Gulf of Papua.

'Duali'. Sistership to Doma

Her shirtless skipper David Herbert, brother of Australian author Xavier, raised a bushy eyebrow at the appearance of this new Supercargo in wildly inappropriate attire and wordlessly poured me a very large glass of Negrita rum before turning to the Chief Engineer with what I later learned was his invariable signal for immediate departure…."Kick 'er in the guts Lofty!" he said, and we sailed for Daru without further ceremony.

Doma was part of a fleet of small ships bought by Steamships Trading Company for peppercorn prices from the Australian Government, which disposed of the huge mass of machinery and equipment left behind by departing U.S forces to anyone with a cheque book.

She was 120 feet overall. Flat-bottomed. Powered by twin diesel engines but without the usual benefit of contra-rotating propellers, which made her almost uncontrollable when going astern. She was designed by a general in the US Marines as a water tanker and general cargo carrier: if these small ships survived one beach invasion, this was all that was expected of them. Doma was fully loaded with a mixed cargo of rice, tinned meat, sugar, flour,tobacco and other staples below a single long hatch. The deck was completely covered with 44-gallon drums of highly volatile fuel, and this in turn was overlaid by over one hundred deck passengers, complete with pressure stoves, which were lit from time to time directly on top of the fuel drums.

Foredeck of Doma at Daru. Papuan Gulf

Navigation equipment was minimal. Depth sounding was by leadline. Other aids were completely absent. No Radar, no Radio Direction Finder; and no buoys, lights, or any other indication of position or depth for the hundreds of miles of shallow, mudstained water of the Papuan Gulf. The success (or otherwise) of a voyage was entirely dependant on the local knowledge of her officers and crew, mainly the latter, whose seagoing antecedents had sailed these seas in huge claw-sailed Lakatoi canoes for centuries.

Doma successfully completed this, my first voyage, with no more than the usual number of groundings and missed landfalls. On return to Port Moresby, she was immediately loaded with an almost identical cargo for the reef strewn East Coast of Papua. Destination, Samarai, at the Southeast end of Papua.

Loading copra and rubber at Otamata, Papuan East Coast

More appropriately dressed now for my job, I approached the shipping manager for an advance on my princely salary of sixty pounds per month for an airfare for my new wife Ivy who was patiently waiting in Melbourne. To the astonishment of Skipper "Dave" Herbert, Steamships Trading Company agreed. "Yer must have caught them off guard by turning up sober," was his percipient comment.

The voyage to Samarai was our honeymoon and attracted the close interest of planters at ports along the coast. They had been attentively listening to ships' radio Skeds carrying my messages to Ivy which included sentiments and detailed promises of connubial bliss better expressed in more privacy than that afforded by an open radio circuit !

Heat, dust, and an overall air of makeshift dilapidation pervaded Port Moresby, still showing the effects of years of military occupation, which ended in 1945.
The streets were potholed. Traffic was chaotic, and wheeled transport was salvaged army jeeps or trucks and battered sedans with the occasional new car driven by one of the newly rich entrepreneurs of this frontier town.
We set up our first home in an apartment in the dusty outer suburb of Boroko. Ivy started work as assistant to Dr Joan Refshauge in the Health Department and I went back to sea for two more trips on Doma. Sufficient sea time now accumulated, I sat for the rudimentary examination of the times, gained a Ships Master's Certificate and was immediately offered command of a small 85 foot motor vessel M.V. Moturina.
I managed, with the considerable assistance of my Papuan crew, to safely negotiate the entire coast of Papua for the next three months. I will be forever grateful to those Papuan seamen for their help in keeping me off the reefs and mudbanks of their home waters.
A tactful, discreet cough, followed by meaningful inclination of a bushy head translated as " Turn now boss or we'll all be swimming ! "

Canoes at Pari village. Papuan coast

Moturina, like Doma, was another wartime legacy. Single-screwed with a high deck house aft. I first took command while she was on the slipway after a refit and proceeded to move her all of half a mile to the small ships wharf, where an official group consisting of the managing director, the shipping manager and the all-powerful harbour master, whose signature was hardly dry on my new masters certificate, awaited the arrival of the new Captain.

For six months of the year, the Southeast Tradewind blows across Port Moresby harbour at 25 knots or better, and it was directly behind me as I approached the wharf and its assembled dignitaries.
'Slow Astern,' rung down on the rickety telegraph to the engineer two decks below, had no discernable effect on Moturina's headlong charge at the wharf… 'Half Astern,' followed by 'Full Astern!' had no time to take effect before wooden ship and solid timber wharf met with a rending crash, sending the welcoming committee down in a confused heap of white-clad limbs and bulging eyes, accompanied by a roar of alarm from the local wharf workers.

Damage was confined to a few planks stove in above the waterline, which were repaired much sooner than the ego of her chastened skipper, who retreated to the Snakepit, the mariners' retreat at the nearby Papuan Hotel.