By Luke Wilkinson
A race of traditional Papua New Guinean war canoes? Sold! I contacted the local tourist office, and before I knew it, I was in Saidowai, a tiny village on the peaceful Sewa Bay, Doau (Normanby Isaland). Doau, deep in the maritime province of Milne Bay, has a culture shaped by canoes. Many of the people are master sailors, navigators, paddlers, and many people also like to just chill in a canoe after a hard day of farming yams.
My intention was to come to Papua New Guinea to see the war canoes, but to my delight I was introduced to four different kinds of traditional canoes. Not only did they show me, they taught me to paddle and sail them, whilst inviting me into their homes to be part of their culture.
My first canoe session was on a small dugout canoe, similar to a V1. The kewou, in the local Eyagu language, are popular throughout the Pacific Islands. They are carved out a single tree trunk with a loose plank sitting on top as the seat; the ama and kiatos are attached by a combination of holes bored through the timber and by ropes made of flax.
I quickly learnt that paddling was a big social activity in the village, and I was never far from company. My friend and paddling buddy Mombie even told me off for paddling to fast. Paddling was time to chill, have a yarn and share stories. Time on the kewous set the stage for story-telling, Mombie taught me a lot about the folklore of the people, and the politics of the village. It was on the beach they taught me the spiritual side of canoe building. Every potential tree is carefully considered, and only one is blessed and felled for construction. They have huge respect for nature and only cut down enough trees, only when needed to ensure that canoe building is sustainable for future generations.
Their questions about my culture taught me more about their culture than I could have imagined. They were very naive about pop culture and believed the few Hollywood movies they had seen as fact. The most frequently asked question was: “is Christiano Ronaldo real?”. These guys only get to see one sport match a year, State of Origin Rugby on VHS, it’s interesting how Ronaldo’s reputation had preceded as far as Doau, an island where no one actually knows if he exists.
Once the wind picked up, I was able to start sailing on sailau. These sailboats were simply one of the larger kewous with a mast tied to it. The sails are traditionally made with banana leaf, but it is common these days to use recycled rice sacks sewed together. Two young guys took me out on my first sailing session. The first sailor controls the mainsheet from the bow. The way he read the water and wind is incredible, even in mild breezes he managed to get the boat up to hold-on-to-your-seat speeds. The second sailor sits on the stern with one foot on the side holding the paddle in place as a rudder. Taking the weight of the wind in the arch of my foot was somewhat painful, but I managed to steer the boat for a bit. To change direction, they simply repositioned the boom around the mast, and the two sailors traded roles. The next day, a small cruise ship came into Sewa Bay. We took the opportunity to sail around the ship as baby-boomer passengers took photos of the traditional sailboats. I sometimes wonder if they noticed the big fat dim-dim (white person) sailing around in their photos.
After a heartfelt goodbye, it was time to leave Saidowai and head back to the mainland. I stayed in Alotau, the provincial capital, where a traditional canoe and music festival was being held. Tribes from all over Milne Bay, many who have sailed for days, turned out to showcase their music and dance or to compete in one of the two races on display.
My first voyage during the festival was a trip on a traditional kula canoe. This double hulled sailboat, much larger than the sailau, could hold enough provisions for them to make the long journeys, where sailors sleep, eat and cook. They’re usually pretty happy to take tourists for rides if they ask nicely, some may even take you during the official race. The race involves the sailboats travelling to a beach on the other side of the bay to retrieve a type of flower, first boat back with the right flower, wins. My crew were from Tewatewa (Hammock Island), where it is customary whenever a kula canoe one is pulled onto the beach, all the men women and children help pull it ashore and chant songs, like a local sea chanty.
The highlight of the festival had to be the war canoes. These hold about 30-50 warriors, and are symbolic of Papua New Guinea’s cannibalistic past. These massive canoes are powered by multi-purpose paddles, like you’ve never seen before. They were not only paddles, but spears and axes. I always thought it was cool to refer to my paddle as a weapon, but these actually were weapons. They were extremely long and at the non-weaponised end, adorned with carvings or material that flies in the wind. The length made them difficult to hold, as the top does not have a handle like the paddles we normally use, instead hey are held more like a kayak paddle, only it’s one sided and significantly heavier.
Traditionally, voyages were community events. Returning warriors were greeted by the entire village, music playing on traditional kundu drums, women and children dancing, and preparations for the feast began. Sometimes, the voyages were not successful. Returning boats would signal their home village and any surviving warriors would be greeted by crying children and grief-stricken widows. The celebrations would turn to funerals.
Today, cannibalism is no longer tribal culture. Modern war-canoe culture is now centred around winning races and celebrating rather than invading each other, but their ancestral grudges are pretty obvious in how they race.
The Milne Bay province is one of the most welcoming places I’ve travelled, defying the dangerous reputation of Papua New Guinea. Tourists are rare, so when they saw a 6-foot dim-dim walking the streets, many locals approached me to introduce themselves and shake my hand. The Kenu and Kundu festival is an amazing showcase of culture from all over Milne Bay, from music, dance, food and the different kinds of canoe. If you ever want to paddle a canoe with an axe (who wouldn’t?), then this is the festival for you.
To my friends back in Saidowai, if you ever get internet and can read this: auwedo tasiga, auwedo nugu.