Photo: Maori crewmen Howard James (right) and Panau Karlo posing on a vaka.
TWO WEEKS IN NOUMÉA: GOING ON BOARD A VAKA
jeudi, août 9, 2012 (Thursday, August 9)
On Wednesday, August 8, after class, I caught a bus to Centre Ville and walked along the seafront. Some of what I saw is in this piece that I wrote for the Weekender pages (September 7, 2012 issue) of The National newspaper in PNG.
GROWING up in a coastal town attracts one to the sea and objects in it – such as boats and canoes. That is more so if you spent most of your lunch times of your primary school days in the sea swimming or body surfing.
That happened to me as I walked down the eastern end of Centre Ville of Nouméa, New Caledonia, on the afternoon of Aug 8. I mean, I was attracted to the vessels on the waterfront.
Earlier I had visited the many shops in the clean streets of Centre Ville – where there were no betelnut stains and heaps of rubbish piling up along sidewalks.
For almost every shop I walked into, I was greeted politely by shop attendants with “Bonjour monsieur (good day sir)” and “Au revoir monsieur (see you again sir)” when I left.
When I could not communicate properly in French in one particular shop, an attendant asked: “Are you from Vanuatu?”
“No, from Papouasie Nouvelle-Guinée (PNG),” I replied.
“You do not speak French in Papouasie?” she enquired.
“Non; nous parlons anglais (No; we speak English),” I answered with a phrase that I would use almost every day when I was introduced by my host family to others who asked the same question.
“Mais, tu parles français (But, you speak French)?” They would ask after my statement.
And I would clarify: “J’apprends français (I am learning French).”
After going through the shops, I went to Port Moselle Marina to just have a look at the numerous boats berthed in the jetties there.
(The mere sight of the sea and boats has a special relaxing effect on those who grow up near the sea.)
I passed the Municipal Marche (town market) buildings and looked out.
That was when I saw the end of at least one traditional vessel. It was double-hulled, built like the Motuan lagatoi, a traditional Papuan vessel I had done some research on over the years. But the two canoes of that particular vessel in Nouméa stuck much higher out of the water.
I thought they were Wallisian, Tahitian or from one of the outer eastern Loyalty islands of Maré, Lifou and Ouvéa.
The next day, after visiting more shops, I walked along a jetty and found people sitting under the shelter built on one of the three canoes.
I was met by crew members Howard James and Panau Karlo – they both had tattoos on parts of their bodies.
“Where are these canoes from?” I asked, after greeting them and introducing myself.
James said: “Two of these canoes are vakas, traditional Maori canoes. The other is from Vanuatu. We are Maoris. But there is a Vanuatuan crew member with us. And earlier we had a Papua New Guinean member.”
He said the canoes are part of a special project and their group, Pacific Voyagers, were returning from the Solomon Islands after participating in the Pacific Festival of Arts staged there in July.
Photo: A vaka stands out among modern vessels in the Port Moselle Marina, Nouméa.
Their last stop was in Vanuatu and the canoes were now bound for Auckland for maintenance and checks before they continue with other voyages.
“The journey to Auckland will take about six to eight days, depending on the winds,” James said.
Since April 2011, the group has sailed by Tahiti, Hawaii, San Francisco and San Diego in California, USA, and the Galápagos Islands of Ecuador.
Pacific Voyagers use the winds in the open seas to power their vessels.
When they enter a harbour, or when leaving, they use a small engine fitted on the vessels and powered by solar energy. It is one of the aims of the project to have the vaka fleet entirely eco-friendly – propelled by the wind and sun.
Howard said the voyages have older navigators teaching and guiding the younger ones.
“And, yes, we also use our traditional celestial and navigation knowledge to reach our destinations,” James said.
Interestingly, also on board one of the canoes in Nouméa was a young female crew member.
You can learn more about the Pacific Voyagers and track their voyages by visiting www.pacificvoyagers.org.
You can also check them on Facebook.