Pacific Odyssey: To Papua New Guinea and Milne Bay

This article is Part V of a series that describes a journey from the Philippines to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. For Part I, please click here.

The welcoming committee on Normanby Island, D’Entrecasteaux Islands, off the northeast coast of Papua New Guinea. Photo by Matthew Stevenson.

It took my mini-van about an hour to make the return trip from Capas to Angeles. I rode on the clogged long bench in the back, as if a recruit on a troop transport, but still managed to spot the street corner near the Hotel 999, from which I collected my backpack and headed, of all places, to the mall. It was a desperation move, as my Kindle was no longer charging and the battery on my wristwatch had failed.

Of the two crises, the Kindle was by far the worst, as I had loaded onto it all of my trip books, about nine in all. A clerk in the electronics section identified the problem as a faulty charging cable, and sold me a new one for $8, which ended my anxieties about spending a month without anything to read. Sadly, without books, much of American history in the Pacific grows dark, as the jungle and indifference have covered over so many once-famous battle sites.

To catch the Manila bus from Clark International Airport, I had to take a taxi to the airport and wait for almost two hours for the next shuttle bus to leave for Ninoy Aquino International Airport. I passed the time in a coffee shop, which had wifi and air conditioning, and then took a front seat on the bus, for the ride to Manila.

Leaving the airport, I got a good look at what was once Clark Air Base, a mainstay of the American military presence in the Pacific, and from which during the Vietnam War B-52 bombers had flown numerous missions over Indochina.

Since the Americans ceded the base to the Philippine government in 1991, the zone has been transformed into an industrial and residential park, a suburban enclave in the heart of Asia, with malls, factories, Little League teams, and housing subdivisions such as you might find on the edge of Indianapolis.

For a while the bus made good time on a divided highway toward Manila, and from my front seat I could admire the rolling landscape of central Luzon, which has more qualities of the English countryside than does Bataan’s gnarled jungles.

Once we reached the outskirts of the city, however, Manila was again an endless traffic jam of Carmageddon proportions. I had hoped that we might detour the worst of the downtown gridlock, but the driver had to make a stop in the city center, which meant hopscotching through Manila. The seventy mile drive between the two airports took four hours.

As my flight for Port Moresby did not leave until 11 p.m., I had time to browse around the shabby departure hall and eat dinner in the dreary corner of a convenience store. Ninoy Aquino International has few restaurants and only a handful of shops, as if in a time warp from the 1960s. I had expected an array of choices for dinner, but instead ate a cold sandwich next to a cashier selling lottery tickets.

* * *

The Philippine Airlines flight to Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea (PNG), took five hours and landed at dawn. I was seated in an empty row but lacked the contortionist skills to get any sleep.

The plane approached the city from the northwest, descending toward the runway over a series of scrubby hills that separate Port Moresby from the surrounding jungle. Like Juneau, Alaska, it’s a port and capital, but with few roads to the interior, so more a city besieged by nature than an Asian hub.

On the approach, I remembered landing there in 1989, except Moresby then had the qualities of a colonial trading post huddled around a small downtown, while now it has numerous suburban neighborhoods with houses built up on stilts—outposts of civilization with two-car garages.

For months I had tried to plan my travels around Papua New Guinea, but most of my emails went unanswered. I tried government tourist offices, private tour operators, hotel front desks, and random travel people online. But rarely did I connect with anyone who could explain to me how I might travel to some of the World War II American battlefields, which are scattered about the island nation.

Keep in mind that PNG is an island nation with few roads or ferries. The only way to get around is by flying, but airports are few and far between in the areas where Americans went into battle. What should be American national parks is now inaccessible jungle.

My personal interest was to visit Cape Gloucester, on the western tip of New Britain (an offshore PNG island). My father (a Marine Corps company commander in the First Regiment) had fought there for four months in 1944. He arrived courtesy of a U.S. Navy landing craft, but in my travels I had no such conveniences. As best I could determine, the closest airport was more than 100 miles away in Hoskins. In between there was water and jungle, but few roads, and those were dirt tracks.

Arriving in Papua New Guinea I did have what many travelers don’t have, which was a near complete collection of books and maps about the American war in New Guinea. But having history on my side mattered little when it came to tracking the progress of the 1st Marine Division, which in late 1943 sailed from Melbourne, Australia, to Goodenough Island, in the Trobriand Islands (off the north coast of PNG), and then to Finschhafen(east of Lae, if that helps you), before landing on D-day near Cape Gloucester, New Britain, on December 26, 1943.

The campaign around Cape Gloucester, following earlier battles in the Solomons, was designed to isolate the Japanese fortress and anchorage at Rabaul, which is on the western tip of New Britain. Taking the airfield was a step in the direction of Rabaul, and fighters from that strip would help to attack the Japanese redoubt (its principal naval base in the South Pacific). Marines in the landing liked to joke with each other, asking: “Will you be on the roster after Cape Gloucester?”

From Europe, all I had managed to pre-arrange in PNG were two nights on a sailboat that had agreed to meet me in Milne Bay. After that time was up, I would be at the mercy of the local travel infrastructure, which, as I approached Port Moresby by air, I was pretty sure added up to almost nothing, except what are called banana boats—coastal skiffs that once hauled bananas.

A few days before flying from Manila to Port Moresby, I did, however, hear back from the proprietor of a company called Ecotourism Melanesia. The owner, Aaron Hayes, sounded knowledgeable in his emails and said that he might be able to help arrange my passage to Cape Gloucester, although personally he had never been to that part of New Britain.

Aaron worked from an office in Australia, but he volunteered to send his local representative to meet me at Jacksons InternationalAirport. Maybe in person I could explain to Glynn what I was looking to do and maybe he could help make some of the arrangements? It wasn’t much, but for the moment it was all that I had, except for my one-way ticket from Milne Bay to Goodenough Island (both of which are at the southeast extremity of the country, along the dragon’s trail, if that’s how you imagine PNG).

* * *

Before meeting up with Glynn in the coffee shop, I changed money, worked on a cash machine, and bought a local phone with a SIM card, figuring that as I would be traveling to far-flung places it might make sense to have a way of making local calls.

Those few transactions introduced me to the monetary world of Papua New Guinea, which, when you factor in its employment rates (80% of the population lives below the world poverty line) and the size of its economy (ranked 130th in world, between Chad and Tajikistan), must be the most expensive country in the world in which to travel.

I later discovered that even in far-flung places around the country, coffee and a sandwich cost ten U.S. dollars, and a bed in an ordinary lodge is $80, before any meals or SP beer.

Operations manager Glynn, the local representative for Ecotourism Melanesia, and his driver met me in the airport coffee shop, where the three of us had $20 worth of espresso.

Buzzed by my lack of sleep on the overnight flight and from the morning joe, I dove into my local map collection and explained that my goal was to travel from Lae to Cape Gloucester, about 80 miles across two treacherous straits.

By email Aaron Hayes had said that there might be a ferry going once or twice a week from Lae (PNG’s second city) to Gloucester. I was hoping that Glynn might have in his bag the fine print of a few ferry schedules or could help me navigate from either Goodenough or Milne Bay to Lae, about 200 miles apart along the PNG north coast. (It was also along that inhospitable shore that General MacArthur had fought his disastrous campaign for Buna and Gona, which cost the unprepared Americans thousands of casualties.)

During our meeting there was a lot of head nodding and agreement (Papuans hate to disappoint foreigners), but I left the coffee shop as I had come away from endless emails in the last six months: knowing that few people in PNG had ever been to Cape Gloucester and that no one in the travel business knew how to get there.

On my maps Glynn and I traced our fingers from Lae to Finschhafen (once a German trading port) and over the Vitiaz and Dampier straits to New Britain, just as many times, online, I had tried to figure out if there was a costal ferry that made the connection.

That internet exercise had never unearthed more than online articles about the sinking of the MV Rabaul Queen (owned by Star Shipping) in nearby waters in 2012, which killed more than 150 passengers. Now when I asked Glynn about the ferry service, he said he didn’t know, but would check with Aaron (who was, in turn, checking with Glynn).

In general what I found, when I wrote to tour operators and independent guides about my plans for Papua New Guinea, was that they responded by ignoring my request and writing at length about what they might have in their tour-package inventory.

Here is a response that was typical of many I received when canvassing the internet for travel options to either Goodenough or Cape Gloucester:

For Milne Bay a good guide option is Waiyaki and Max Nemani, two brothers who operate a small bird watching hut/lodge at Sewa Bay on Normanby Island and takes tourists hiking in the D-Entrecasteaux Islands looking for birds.

I have been to Goodenough Island and would like to advise that:

– the seas between Alotau and Goodenough and between Goodenough and Fergusson Island can be very rough (my most scary ever small boat crossing, huge waves, tiny boat, no life jacket)

– there MAY be a scheduled ferry from Alotau to Goodenough (the ferry business changes hands, comes and goes) but generally no service from Goodenough to Fergusson so you have to arrange private hire of a small boat or hang around at the jetty for a day or two waiting to catch a ride on somebody else’s little boat (4/5 metre dinghy)

– the walk right around Goodenough takes 3 days

– the island has been summited before and is a tough climb

– the only proper visitor accommodation is the guest house run by the Womens Association at the main town on the east coat

– the airstrip at Vivigani [Goodenough] is closed due to disuse

At least Glynn gave me his phone number, so now I had someone to call, in the event I found myself on a sinking ferry.

* * *

The flight from Port Moresby to Alotau, in a Dash-8 of Airlines PNG, took about an hour. For the most part we flew over the high spine of the Owen Stanley Mountains, which were encased in clouds and mist. Think of the miasma in an Edgar Allen Poe poem, as when he wrote of “that fleeting, shadowy, misty strife.”

Approaching the runway, the plane made a wide circle over Milne Bay, of fjord proportions, which during World War II was the scene of an early, bitter battle between Australian and Japanese forces. Now much of the land around the bay has been given over to a copra plantation.

On our final approach, I could see one boat anchored in Milne Bay, and knew that it had to be the sailboat “Chemistry,” which I would be joining the next day to sail toward Goodenough Island.

The airport—named after an Australian pilot, Robert Guerney, who was killed on a nearby mission—had several war memorials on the apron of the runway. Only a handful of passengers got off the plane, and we collected our bags inside the terminal, which was about the size of a small garage.

The airport manager told me that local buses, heading toward town, passed in front of the airport. As I was walking through the parking lot, a local businessman with a pickup truck offered to drop me at my hotel, the Napatana Lodge, which was on the main road. On the ride he said that his home province was the Morobe peninsula (around Lae), but even he did not know if any ferries to New Britain stopped at Cape Gloucester. (By this point, I was asking everyone for directions.)

* * *

For several months, I had been writing (without any response) to the Napatana Lodge to reserve a single room for the night. I had even tried calling. It had good online reviews, and the pictures showed an elegant guest house with both up-market bungalows and backpacker rooms.

Checking in, I said to the woman at the front desk I was surprised that none of my emails had come through. But then she said, of the lodge’s website: “Oh, we haven’t used that email for a long time. And the telephone isn’t working.” She might well have said, “Welcome to PNG.”

As the lodge had few guests that night, I was assigned to the expansive backpacker room (a screened porch with six beds and several sofas), which I had to myself. I was happy to unpack my clothes (it had been a while) and settle my papers and maps around the large desk, as if enrolling in a writer’s colony.

Because the flight from Moresby had been several hours late, it meant that I only arrived in Alotau in the mid-afternoon, and that I had few options of things to see before nightfall. Such is the crime rate in Papua New Guinea that everyone I met warned me that I needed to be somewhere safe when it grew dark.

My only choice for an afternoon visit was to a small war memorial at Turnbull, which had been an airstrip (number 3, in local parlance) during the war.

In August 1942, on their way to attack Port Moresby—and, after that, according to their plans, Australia—the Japanese landed a detachment of men near the village of Ahihoma, which is along the coast east of Alotau.

They marched west toward two air strips, with the idea that they would overrun the local garrison and seize both the port of Alotau (then called Rabi) and the adjacent landing strips. (Much of the Pacific War was fought to control what are now regional airports.)

Backed by American war planes, the Australians held the line in repeated jungle actions against the Japanese and won a small but critical battle at the start of the Pacific War.

By holding alongside Milne Bay, the Australians made it impossible for the Japanese army and navy to attack Port Moresby, and without that strategic port, the Japanese invasion of Australian was postponed.

In searching for reasons why Japan lost the Pacific War, Milne Bay is a good place to start.

* * *

I hitched a ride along the coast road to the war memorial, which had plaques, a small cannon, and a mounted propeller to commemorate the engagement at Turnbull. I took a picture of a brass plaque that showed the casualties sustained during the battle, which lasted less than a week but claimed the lives of 156 Australians and 14 Americans.

On its side, the Japanese army lost some 612 men in the battle, and another 535 men were wounded, which explains why the Japanese broke off the engagement around strip number 3 and melted back into the jungle, to await evacuation down the coast.

In the histories of World War II, Milne Bay gets very little attention, but along with the early American victories at Guadalcanal (also in August 1942) it was among the first defeats inflicted on the Japanese army, which had been advancing—almost without opposition—since its offensive campaigns began in Manchuria in 1931.

For almost ten years, the Imperial Japanese Armyhad been the master of Asia, and I am sure it came as a shock to encounter an Australian battalion (with American air cover) that with mortars and bayonets was willing to make a last stand at every jungle stream.

* * *

Before dinner at the hotel, I asked the woman at the front desk if I could swim in the bay. She shrugged and had one of the groundskeepers at the lodge unlock the rear gate (everything of value in PNG is locked up at night), and I picked my way along a rough path to the water’s edge.

In retrospect, I should have asked someone about the presence in local waters of crocodiles or sharks, but as I was new to PNG, I paddled around in the shallow, slightly murky, waters and went back to my screened porch, where I watched the sun set (in a matter of minutes), as if it had rolled off a flat earth.

My plan for the following morning was to meet “SV Chemistry” at the town dock in Alotau, and I was there, as planned, at 8 a.m. The hotel taxi had dropped me at the industrial wharf, however, not the town’s public dock, and it took a while for the guards on duty to point out the correct waterside landing.

Unable to explain where I should walk, one of the guards finally fetched his car and drove me around the dockyard to the town landing, where I could see the “Chemistry” drifting in the shallows. It was opposite another small war memorial, where there was a quote about the battle that reads: “The sweating jungle crowded in upon it and mist sat on the densely scrubbed mountains and the very air sweated.” I could take its point, as even at 8 a.m. the humidity was thick on the ground.

From the war memorial I shouted toward the boat, to make my presence known, but the only spirit that moved on deck was that of a small black dog (her name was Luna, and she was the ship’s dog).

I wandered around the war memorial, where I came across a quotation from Field Marshal Sir William Slim, theater commander in Burma, who said: “In August and September 1942 Australian troops had, at Milne Bay in New Guinea, inflicted on the Japanese their first undoubted defeat on land. If the Australians had done it…so could we.” The only other products being promoted in the small waterside park were loose joints.

After a while, my calls were answered and a small outboard boat was dispatched from the “Chemistry” to pick me up at the beach. (While I was boarding, Luna sniffed around the “salesmen” near the memorial.) On board I met the captain, Gavin Prescott (who is British), and his Brazilian wife, Luciana, and their close friends from Australia, Dave and Patsy Mitchell. All were on a sailing holiday in Papua New Guinea.

I had connected with Gavin through Airbnb, and in our exchanges he had kindly offered to meet me in Milne Bay and sail me to Goodenough Island, about sixty miles away.

At that point in my planning, I was more interested in Cape Gloucester than Goodenough Island (although my father had been camped there), but Gavin’s emails were so friendly and encouraging that I decided to begin my PNG travels in his company, hoping that I could learn more about how to get around these remote islands.

In all my advance planning, he was the only one who responded to my questions and came up with solutions to some of the problems that I was posing. I now regret that I didn’t stay on board his boat for another two weeks.

Sailing out of Milne Bay, Gavin steered the “Chemistry” so that I could inspect the jungle clearings (at villages known as KB Mission and Ahihoma) where the Japanese had first landed their forces in 1942 to attack the Australians. He brought the boat close to the shore, but all we could see were small clearings in the jungle.

One reason the Japanese had such a hard time in the battle of Milne Bay was that by the time they had hacked their way to what is now Alotau and the Turnbull air strip they were suffering from jungle fatigue—the response to a vile climate that mixes rain, humidity, heat, and disease, in equal proportions. (Tropical showers give off the cascades of broken plumbing.)

* * *

I spent much of that first day at sea, as we cruised out of Milne Bay, getting to know Dave and Patsy, an Australian couple who had been friends with Gavin for almost thirty years. They had met in the sailing community around Australia, as Dave and Patsy love nothing more than their time on the water.

I learned that after they were married and when their children (now in their twenties) were small, the Mitchells had sailed around the world, a circumnavigation that included the Indian Ocean, Red Sea, Suez Canal, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and then a long run across the Pacific.

They were gone for about four years. (Occasionally, they would stop for a while and earn money at odd jobs.) Earlier in his life Dave had served on an aircraft carrier in the Australian navy and, from what he and Gavin said (always very modestly), Dave was one of those people who could do anything with his hands, and Patsy had managed to amuse two toddlers within the confines of a small yacht.

When I asked Gavin about the “Chemistry,” and where it had been built, he nodded in Dave’s direction and said: “Other than the hull, we built everything that you see.”

“Chemistry” is a luxury catamaran that is 60 feet long, with modern conveniences that I had never encountered on a sailboat (including a big refrigerator, freezer, working shower, and comfortable bunks).

As we sailed along the coast outside of Milne Bay, the conversation touched on islands in the Indian, Atlantic, and Pacific oceans, and no matter what places I asked about (Christmas Island, Tahiti, Cyprus, etc.), Dave and Patsy had stopped there on their round-the-world cruise. How nice, in the age of Trump, to meet people so curious and fluent about the world.

Now that their children were grown, they had rented out their house near Brisbane, Australia, and were living full time on their sailboat, which they take to places such as New Caledonia or Vanuatu in the casual way that many Americans drive with their families to Florida.

For their vacation this year, they had flown to the Solomons and were joining Gavin and Luciana in getting to know a series of island groups outside Milne Bay, including the D’Entrecasteaux Islands and the Louisade Archipelago, which are close to what Americans would know as the Coral Sea, northeast of Australia.

I was lucky in booking myself onto “Chemistry,” as it turned out that the fathers of everyone on board had served in World War II. Gavin’s father (an Englishman) fought in Italy after the Anzio landings. As Gavin liked to joke: “He walked his way to Trieste.”

Dave’s father had been in the Australian army in New Guinea. He was stationed at Madang, a town on the north coast above Lae. He was there for much of the war, and his experience in New Guinea turned Dave into an avid reader of World War II histories, for many of the reasons that I was now on my way to New Britain.

When Dave learned that I had come to PNG in search of American battlefields, he went below and returned with several bulky histories that he insisted I read at some point.

One was a history of the Allied coast watchers who were posted around New Guinea and the Solomons—several saved the life of Lt. (jg.) John F. Kennedy when his PT-109 was sunk near Gizo Island.

The other book he pressed on me was Peter Brune’s Those Ragged Bloody Heroes: From the Kokoda Trail to Gona Beach 1942, about the experience of Australian forces in the desperate fighting across the Owen Stanley Mountains, which prevented the Japanese from taking Port Moresby.

Americans would like to think that single-handedly they won the war in the war in the Pacific, but without the Australian victories at Milne Bay and on the Kokoda Trail, the Japanese might well have rained on the parade of the American century.

Once we realized that we shared tastes in historical literature, the rest of the sail took the form of an extended book club conversation, in which we were forever mentioning books and histories that the other should read.

I might have been unlucky with many of my plans for PNG, but at least for now I was lucky with the company that I was keeping.

* * *

Another subject of the floating seminar was the Australian campaign during World War I at Gallipoli, which is down the coast from what was then Constantinople (now Istanbul).

Dave’s grandfather landed there in April 1915, in the first waves at Anzac Cove, and fought until September, when he was wounded and evacuated. On their world sail, Dave and Patsy had stopped in Turkey and had gone to see the battlefields around Gallipoli (it’s an Australian pilgrimage).

More than any other battle in Australian history, Gallipoli came to define the country as an independent nation. Too many men died or were wounded there for the country, after the war, to retain much affection for the British, who had landed them on those hostile shores. In the campaign some 8,141 Aussies were killed, and another 19,441 were wounded.

The fighting lasted almost a year but failed to dislodge the Turks from the high ground around the Dardanelles. It was all for nought, except that the suffering and dying gave Australia a national identity that earlier had been lacking.

The diggers (as the Australian troops were called) hung on tenaciously, against many odds, and developed a cocky swagger that saw them through one of the worst battles of World War I.

As I told Dave, a popular rejoinder, when an Aussie in a Gallipoli trench would start complaining, was to say: “The next thing you’ll want is flowers on your grave.”

* * *

In the middle of the afternoon, we rounded the East Cape of Milne Bay (through a narrow channel lined with reefs) and sailed into the broad expanse of Goodenough Bay, a stretch of open water between the PNG mainland and the D’Entrecasteaux Islands.

It was exactly the route that my father had sailed, in September 1942, when the First Marine Division shipped from Melbourne to Goodenough Island.

The Marines had gone to Brisbane after the long campaign on Guadalcanal, which lasted from August to December 1942, but the climate proved unsuitable for the many marines who were suffering from malaria. (With one such case my father was hospitalized, during which time, when he was riding in an elevator in his bathrobe, the doors opened and in walked Eleanor Roosevelt. In her distinctive upper-class voice, she said to him: “Hello, solider.”)

In no condition to fight again immediately, the division was moved to Melbourne (they camped in the main cricket ground), where it trained for future operations. The refitting took about eight months, and, then, as my father would often say: “We sailed in an old liberty ship for eighteen days along the Great Barrier Reef, going god knows where, but surely into combat.”

In our case, after rounding the East Cape, we began to look at the charts and on navigational computers for a suitable anchorage for the night. We had decided that we would not make it to Goodenough Island that day, and to spend the night somewhere along the coast of Normanby Island, which is part of the D’Entrecasteaux chain and as remote any island on the planet.

* * *

I never ceased to admire Gavin’s abilities as a skipper. As a younger man, he delivered sailing yachts around the world, and that had given him experience with ocean sailing, as did his childhood, which was spent in small sailboats in the North Sea, off the east coast of England.

For secondary school Gavin attended elite Winchester College, but then decided that neither Oxford nor Cambridge was for him. In effect, he then ran away to sea, and ever since has been a professional skipper. He said that he had lived in Australia the last twenty-five years, and that, of late, he had positioned the “Chemistry” in the Solomon Islands, where he received a steady stream of charter passengers, as well he should, given his professionalism and Luciana’s skills as a chef.

He and his wife could take up to six guests on the boat, and what he loved, in particular, was to sail around the central Solomons, from Choiseul to Munda and the points in between.

For me, the pleasure of Gavin’s company, besides watching his skills as a captain, was to pick his brain about places in the Solomons that I had only read about in my histories of those World War II campaigns: Kennedy Island, Rendova, Blackett Strait, Kolombangara, Ferguson Passage, and the Shortland Islands. It was a pleasure to have my books and maps come to life.

* * *

For that evening’s anchorage, Gavin and Luciana, whose iPad was connected to a global navigational and chart system, chose a harbor on Normanby’s southwest coast, into which we sailed as if on one of the voyages of Captain Cook.

I don’t think, before that afternoon, that I had known what to expect when mooring a sailboat near a remote Pacific island. But this secluded anchorage, in the lee of tall hills, might well have been a safe harbor of the eighteenth century.

As we dropped the sails and motored toward a remote cove, all sorts of small children, each of them paddling their own hand-hewn bark canoes, approached the “Chemistry” and—laughing and smiling—escorted us to our mooring. Some of the children said that they had come directly from school (at the far end of the harbor).

As word got around the expansive harbor that a sailboat was here for the night, entire families turned out on their canoes to assist in the fanfare of a yacht’s arrival. Some came with fruits and vegetables to trade. In exchange, many wanted rice and ball point pens. (If you are ever shipwrecked in the Pacific, take along some Bic pens.)

One of the men in the receiving party said that many boats used to come to Normanby. But since security (aka pirates) had become a serious issue in PNG, few yachts had stopped in the bay. We were the first in several months.

For all that Normanby was a paradise lost—think of an idyllic Pacific harbor, with a few grass huts on the shore and in the distance tall hills covered with palm trees and jungle—it did come with a few risks, all of which I heard about as I contemplated going for a swim.

For starters, the waters around PNG are full of sharks and, here and there, saltwater crocodiles. During the war years, when many boats were sunk, surviving the wreck often meant dying in a shark attack, which in some cases happened immediately. (Lt. John F. Kennedy can consider himself a lucky man for having survived both the sinking of PT-109 and his many subsequent swims in search of rescue craft.)

It’s true that there are more crocodiles inland where rivers meet the sea in brackish waters, but they could still be “out here,” and the annoying thing about sharks and crocs is that they do little to broadcast their presence.

As I was contemplating my evening swim, Patsy said the worst time of the day for shark attacks were dawn and dusk, when in the dark waters the sharks had a hard time identifying a human shape as anything more than breakfast or dinner. During the day, she said, they might be more wary of humans, although that was hard to predict.

When I asked the delegation of kids paddling their canoes off the aft deck of the “Chemistry,” if this particular cove had any sharks, they laughed and said “no.” They were persuasive enough for me to dive off the aft deck of the boat, but not to linger in the water, especially as the sun was setting.

* * *

The other problem in paradise is that of pirates, who have been known to board pleasure crafts and steal anything of value on board. And then sometimes to kill all the passengers. (As best as I could determine, cannibalismwas a by-product of tribal warfare and followed victories over enemies; it wasn’t part of some protein diet.)

Gavin told a few horror stories about yachts being boarded in the night, which is why he sails with his faithful dog, Luna, who is the perfect breed (a staffy cross) for such seaborne guard duty. She was affectionate with me and all the passengers; but she had marked off the confines of the boat deck as her territory, and whenever strangers on their canoes got too close to the gunwales, Luna would spring into a barking frenzy.

I did notice that when were at anchor not everyone inspecting the “Chemistry” was a cheerful school kid hoping to trade pineapples for a pad of paper.

Occasionally sullen men would paddle past us, wearing the same grim expressions, I am sure, that the sharks wore below the surface. In a country where most people don’t have a job, the presence of a foreign yacht in a secluded harbor must look, to some anyway, like an invitation to form an ad hoc cargo cult.

Another reason pirates are prevalent in PNG is because there are so few boats and ships in its waters. Nor is there much of a coast guard. On our sail from Milne Bay to Normanby, we passed at most three or four banana boats. I saw no other sailboats or large ships, even on the horizon. Nor did I see any large fishing craft.

Close to the shore, I did see single men trying to catch fish for that evening’s dinner, but wielding a single spear or one line with a hook. On the open seas, PNG waters are eerie in their emptiness.

* * *

As the sun set across the harbor, I wondered if Margaret Mead, in her research around New Guinea, had ever come to Normanby Island. She was no stranger to such remoteness. Later I figured out that she had been on Manus Island, which is to the north of New Britain and about six hundred miles (PNG is vast) from the D’Entrecasteaux Islands, when she did the research for her book Growing Up in New Guinea (1930).

The book was a sensation, as she had discovered Pacific islanders unaffected by modern society. Her goal had been to determine whether the children in such an Eden were growing up differently than their counterparts in, say, American suburbs. The book was written three years after her stay on Samoa, during which she learned to describe western civilization by observing Pacific natives. It helped in her travels, I am sure, that Mead had a sense of humor, as she later said: “My grandmother wanted me to have an education, so she kept me out of school.” She also once described how she worked, in these terms:

I used to say to my classes that the ways to get insight are: to study infants; to study animals; to study primitive people; to be psychoanalyzed; to have a religious conversion and get over it; to have a psychotic episode and get over it; or to have a love affair with an old Russian. And I stopped saying that when a little dancer in the front row put up her hand and said, ‘Does he have to be old?’

Next up: To Goodenough Island, D’Entrecasteaux Islands, off the coast of Papua New Guinea. To read other parts in this series, please click here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.