Budi Budi Atoll

Alex Rust

08 November 2010 | Solomon Sea, Papua New Guinea waters

We drifted half the night well outside the atoll entrance waiting on light to navigate the coral and not long after sunrise we were approached by a lone canoe paddler even though we were four miles out at sea. We invited him aboard and after tying up his sailing canoe, which was intricately and distinctively carved from local wood with head figures on both the bow and stern, learned he was the chiefs son and would help guide us through the pass. There were seven islands fringing the atoll, two of which were inhabited, and we were being lead to the lesser populated of the two.

Upon arrival into the village we noticed a bustle of activity which we hadn’t seen previously in other remote south pacific island villages. A local boy had just married and there were several people from the bigger island there to help construct his new house. In just one day using only palm leaves, bamboo and stripped bark they completed an entire house raised several feet off the ground so that the random tidal wave would not wash it away. The women sat around weaving the walls and flooring using dried palm leaves as materials. Of course all work stopped on our arrival and their eyes and focus turned to these strange white people who came from the sea. There is no airstrip in Budi Budi and because it is so far from the mainland, the only contact with the outside world they get comes from the wandering sailor (not many in Papua New Guinea) that happen to make a stop. We presented the chief with a bag of rice and he welcomed us to his island and invited us to go lobstering with him that night.

After dark we gathered our snorkel gear and underwater flashlights and went to find the chief who was sitting with his village on the beach enjoying some locally grown tobacco. There is no electricity or lights here so the only way we were able to find him was the red glow of the piece of wood they used to light the tobacco which they would smoke out of pipes constructed of sea shells. He joined us in the dingy and lead us through the darkness perfectly dodging coral heads before giving the signal to stop and throw the anchor. We were now on a shallow coral shelf on the windward side of the island and could hear the waves breaking nearby. There was no moon and the bright stars filled the sky. We had two functioning lights between the four of us so Tree went with Chief Tao while Ben and I went another direction. Swimming through shallow coral patches in the darkness of night raised my awareness and senses but because the light only illuminated a small circle where it was pointed all of my focus would go there and I noticed small details of coral I would otherwise pass over in daylight. We came across a white-spotted sleeping cowfish. We were able to pet it as it slept. We ventured out past the breaking waves to explore the crevasses where I spotted the first lobster. I took a deep breath and swam down to grab the fully exposed giant bug but as soon as I grabbed it jerked back violently swimming into a nearby cave. I surfaced and because Ben is the better free diver he took the torch and I watched as he disappeared into the cave. It was pitch black dark and we were right where the waves were breaking. A minute went by since I watched the light disappear. My mind raced as to what might have happened to Ben in that cave and knowing that without a flashlight I could not go looking for him. Then I heard him yell about 100 feet away. I swam to him and the lobster he now held. He was laughing as he described the fight between him and the beast in that cave which had left him bleeding on his right forearm. Apparently I had drifted in the darkness away from the cave without realizing it. We then looked around for the dingy realizing we didn’t know where it was. We followed the shelf to shallower water and were eventually able to see the faint glow of Cheif Tao’s flashlight guiding us back. Along the way I found another lobster although this one I didn’t have to battle in a cave and simply picked it up. Back at the dingy we learned that all four of us had each caught a lobster and we went back to boat and feasted like kings.

The next day our boat was filled with visitors from both islands as they came to stare in awe at the strangely constructed vessel we lived in. They would bring us eggs, papayas, bananas and coconuts in exchange for a t-shirt, hat, sugar or a pen. Later in the afternoon we noticed a fleet of small sail craft coming our way from the big island. School was out and all the children from the island we were anchored off of were now sailing the two miles home. Many stopped for a visit and I invited them aboard for some backflips. Their sails were made from old rice bags tied together with strips of palm leaves and would frequently blow out in a gust so I brought my old genoa out of retirement and cut them a chunk. Chief Tao showed up with a pair of broken reading glasses he had been given by a passing yacht years before. He was amazed as I pulled out some superglue had them fixed and ready for use again within minutes.

The next day we decided to go on a sail across the lagoon to an island of only white sand. We brought with us a couple of guys who we had been spearfishing with including Chief Tao’s son. We taught them how to raise the sails and run the lines on the boat and with a nice 15 knot breeze and all sail raised we clipped along nicely to everyones enjoyment. Half way across the lagoon we spotted a group of 30 dolphins with some jumping several feet out of the water. We arrived at the sand island and using the fortress anchor and 100 foot of line dingied it over to a foot of water and hooked ourselves in.

Originally we were there to film a pirate scene but the water was so clear around the huge coral heads that I decided to take the locals diving. We got out the scuba gear and began explaining to them what we were doing, mostly in sign language. They were very scared at first but after I was able to get the first one down and he came back up all smiles and excited at the new found joy of being able to breath deep beneath the waters surface the others readily wanted their turn.

The entire village was on the beach watching as we returned amazed at the amount of heel we had as we tacked back towards them. They had cooked a feast for us and using banana leaves as plates, served us a roasted chicken, boiled papaya, taro (a local potato), and coconut milk to wash it all down. Afterwords the chief ordered a palm mat to be spread over the sand under the shade and we all sat indian style in a circle and talked about the local happenings as well as telling stories from our own homelands which captivated our audience.

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