Marooned in the Mortlock Islands: Mike Bourke

In September-October 2002, I spent six weeks in Bougainville Province, now the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, doing field work for a study of village agriculture. The first indication of the transport troubles that lay in store for me came soon after I arrived in Buka. My contacts had assured me that all should be OK with a trip to the atolls, so I went along to the shipping office to confirm this. Buka is a tiny urban area and I walked to the office, only to discover that it had been moved some months ago. This did nothing to increase my confidence that transport arrangements were in hand and, as it turned out, the MV Sankamap had departed Buka on the previous day and was already en route to Kieta and the atolls. “Did the vessel depart early?” I enquired. No, this was the July trip but it was running two months late! However, if I dashed overland to Kieta (on Bougainville Island) the following day, I would be able to catch her there, but I must arrive by 4 pm.

I quickly rearranged my schedule and packed for the 5-6 day trip to the atolls. Early next morning, in a crowded banana boat, I crossed the narrow strait between Buka Island and the northern tip of Bougainville Island, where a new township, Kokopau, has sprung up. It was nothing more than a collection of tin sheds and small stores, but was the northern-most end of the road transport route from Central and South Bougainville.

I picked up a Public Motor Vehicle and we set off for Kieta. I was squeezed into the front of the Landcruiser with the driver and one other man, in a smoke-filled cabin, reverberating with loud pop music. Incessant rain ensured that the windows stayed up. Dropping through a series of narrow gorges along the way, we crossed rivers whose bridges had all been destroyed during the Crisis. By mid-afternoon we passed through Arawa, but after all the fighting and looting in the area it was a shadow of its former self.

I was becoming increasingly impatient to cover the few remaining kilometres to Kieta. Finally after dropping off an assortment of passengers, we got to the wharf, where with much relief I saw that the MV Sankamap lay waiting for us. An hour later, we departed for her first destination, the Mortlock group.

After an unforgettable meal of rice and greasy meat, I retired for the night to my “First Class” Cabin. This contained four bunks, with a TV set in the narrow aisle between them. Throughout the night there was a constant rotation of passengers although, as far as I could tell, there was only one passenger at a time in any one bunk. It was a rough voyage, with strong SE winds and a following swell. The ship rolled like a cork. I couldn’t go up on deck, which was my usual antidote to sea sickness, as empty 200 litre drums careered across it, threatening to demolish anyone foolish enough to venture there. I’m usually a good sailor, but that night I was sea sick for the first time in my life.

We arrived at the Mortlock atoll group next morning. The Captain announced that he would have to return to Buka to get more fuel as the ship did not have enough to complete the onward trip to the Tasman Group. He would, we were assured, be back in three days. At this stage, I was so battered and bruised from wrestling to stay in my rolling bunk and dodging the highly mobile TV set as I made obligatory visits to the unmentionable toilet, that all I wanted to do was to get onto dry land. To get ashore, I took a canoe to the islet of Takuu. There, the family of a fellow traveller, Sione Paasia, very kindly took me in, gave me a dry place to sleep and fed me. This was the first time that I had lived with villagers in PNG whose ancestry was Polynesian, rather than Melanesian, so there was much that was new for me.  I surveyed the swamp taro gardens, assessed the villagers’ diet and listened to stories from my host’s seafaring days. Fortunately, I was not short of reading matter as I had a large box of papers with me. It was to be 12 days before the ship returned but I had a very pleasant stay, only made difficult by my anxiety that my colleague, Tom Betitis, would be waiting in vain for me in Buka.

Finally, the MV Sankamap returned. By then I knew the name by which the islanders referred to the vessel: MV Tomoro, as in “Tomorrow never comes!”

It was late afternoon as we set off for Kieta. With my new-found Mortlock friends, I enjoyed an evening meal of swamp taro in coconut cream, before I retired to my bunk in the First Class cabin. I had discovered that the Captain was again concerned about the amount of fuel we had on board and so had decided to run only one engine. I awoke with a start at 4 am (just before dawn at this longitude), to realize that the engine had stopped and the vessel was stationary. I hurried up on desk. We were anchored in the lagoon of a small atoll.  We had indeed had insufficient fuel to make the return journey from the Mortlock group, so we had diverted overnight to the Carteret Group. The vessel was now adrift and it seemed only a matter of time before the wind pushed us onto a nearby reef. It was no thanks to the Captain that within the hour there was a wind change which happily blew us clear of the reef.

As well as fuel, the ship had also run out of water and food. The islanders, who were used to this, had brought both drinking water and plenty of baked swamp taro. I managed to wash in rain water collected by an awning. Lack of fuel meant that, not only could the captain not power the vessel but, since there was no electricity he could not use the radio. It was with much relief that we learned of a functioning Health radio on the atoll, so we managed to get a message out that we needed fuel to get the Sankamap back to Buka.

While we waited, I spent the day inspecting the atoll’s food supply. This was the only place I had ever been to where payment for small services was requested in food. Unfortunately, since I didn’t have any I had to pay with cash instead. Next morning, a police speed boat turned up with several hundred litres of diesel on board, sufficient to get the Sankamap back to Buka. We finally arrived at about 2 am. Most other passengers left the vessel immediately, but I remained on board until dawn. Then I went in search of accommodation that did not include a mobile TV set and a breakfast that did not include taro.  Not long after that I found my colleague, Tom Betitis, who had heard of our ship’s misadventures and so had not given up on me after all.

Continued in Transport troubles in Bougainville


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