Sunday 6 November 2022

From On Board: Heritage Expeditions in Melanesia - Loh and behold

#expeditioncruising .

Torres Island Group. Loh Island.
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Young women colour their hair with ground flower petals (Fiona Wardle/Heritage Expeditions)

With so many islands earlier in our voyage having not seen rain for months of end, today was the day the drought broke.

Our arrival at the tiny village of Lungariki was marked by the familiar warrior challenge with spear and club-wielding villagers pouncing on our Zodiacs amid loud cries and yelps. Of course, we were suitably alarmed and virtually defenceless – our only weapons being iPhones in video mode.

Has Chief found a new wife? (Fiona Wardle/Heritage Expeditions)

Chief introduced us to his tribe with traditional dancing, drumming and singing - just before the heavens opened in full monsoonal glory. The island hadn't seen a lot of rain, so the downpour was welcomed and we could hear the near-empty tanks filling lustily. Like so many islands, rainwater is crucial for drinking, while springs and wells supplement supplies for washing and cooking.

A torrential downpour didn't dampen the enthusiasm of our hosts. (RE)

Soaked to the skin, we still enjoyed our jungle walk to nearby Rinuha where sportsfields, schoolhouses and churches make up the village centre. All the while we are escorted by an enthusiastic band of local people of all ages, curiously interrogating the strange newcomers and their even stranger plastic attire.

Walking in a wet jungle (RE)
Our determined and dedicated birders reported excellent sightings despite the heavy rain. Hunting birds on Loh is apparently forbidden, so machete-smashing through the undergrowth was not necessary, thankfully.

We did learn of the curious folktale that describes the creation of the island. Once upon a time, a giant coconut crab was eating the villagers and threatening the survival of the inhabitants until one brave soul disguised himself as a beautiful red crab. The monster crab was enthralled at the attractive colouring and, thinking quickly, the villager told the monster he too could have the colouring if he jumped into a fire. Problem solved – and the parts of the dead monster were distributed around the island to create the familiar landmarks.

The Torres Island Group are possibly the most remote in all of Vanuatu, occasionally seeing a supply ship and a flight from Santo. I asked about cellphone coverage and was told jubilantly they have 4G from Vodafone. Medical services are a different matter with the villagers relying on a small contingent of 'traditional healers' (klevas) – men and women with the power to look into your soul, diagnose your ailments and prescribe 'kastom' jungle herbs. That might sound suspicious, but most healers have shown a willingness to work with national health bodies especially in the identification of such diseases as TB.

We farewelled our sodden hosts and climbed back aboard our Zodiacs.

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