By Geoffrey Heard
New Ireland is described in Tok Pisin as a "masket" -- rifle -- it is a long, skinny island only a few kilometers wide in most parts, lying roughly northwest/southeast, with Kavieng at its northwestern end and the second town, Namatanai, 263 kilometers away (as the Buliminski Highway runs) in the mountainous southeastern end -- the butt of the masket.
New Ireland is coral (unlike New Britain which is pretty much all volcanic) which makes for legendary white beaches, wonderful reefs, cool streams of sparkling pure water running out of the limestone mountain spine, and the sweetest fruit you have ever eaten. Pineapple with no acid after taste? Just dripping sweetness? It's simply not fair!
I call Rabaul and environs paradise and in many ways it is. So what can I call new Ireland? It's paradise too. We have a bit of an embarrassment of paradisiacal riches in this part of the world, actually! :)
It was a huge pleasure to visit Kavieng and be in Medina again, but my time was limited so I had to get on to Rabaul. A call to Solwara Meri (Mermaid) had the next sector of my travel organized in a moment. Solwara Meri runs a "banana boat" -- open 22 foot outboard-powered boat -- ferry service from the west coast of New Ireland near Namatanai across the St George's Channel to Rabaul. Three services a day -- early morning, noon, and afternoon -- with the boats running in pairs for mutual assistance if necessary.
Their own buses were full but I could catch an associate's bus from Kavieng when it came through Medina at about 10 in the morning. It would bring me to Namatanai where I would board their truck for the quick trip to their west coast speedboat base to catch the 3 o'clock run to Rabaul. No sweat.
It went just as arranged -- at 3 o'clock precisely, we were pushing off from the New Ireland beach, next stop Kokopo/Rabaul.
Pushed along by one or two 60hp Yamahas, the boats make the trip in about an hour and a half in the smoothest water -- early morning -- and a bit longer later when the swell gets up. Our trip starting at 3pm took a bit over two hours -- the boats had to drive out quite a long way to the north of Kokopo then come back down to it running south-west to avoid confronting the sea too directly.
Even with a few waves around, the trip was surprisingly dry. Banana boats are pretty clean runners and the skippers are skilled, but even so, you wouldn't want to wear your Sunday best for the trip. And it takes just one tricky wave and…. After cheating the waves for nearly two hours, we got a bit of a splash right near the end of the trip. Nobody was worried though -- after all, this is the tropics, the temperature was still about 28 C, and our speed produced a nice wind. We were all dry within minutes!
Even though the skippers were angling across the swell, there was plenty of kidney beating percussion as the boats bucked over the waves. This (and the bus trip over part of the Buliminski which is unsealed) were definitely BYO cushion situations.
Back in the day I used to be somewhat subject to motion sickness but had never experienced it on a small boat or a canoe. I was fine on Solwara Meri until we stopped towards the end to wait for the second boat (which had veered more widely than we had) to catch up. As we sat rocking in the swell, I suddenly became conscious of my breakfast and lunch. Oh dear! The other boat arrived and we got underway again just in time to save me from disgracing myself!
We had a hilarious moment when I stood (holding on to the wheel-house with a grip like an octopus, believe me!) to take a picture of the second boat running astern of us. The wind whipped off the old straw hat that has been my companion on three tours to PNG and a moment later it was floating in our wake far astern. We all fell about laughing at the time -- the action was so sudden and so fast we were all totally startled. It actually turned out to be a problem though; a search of the stores in Kokopo failed to turn up a replacement -- and I need a hat to avoid sunburn of the head!
A GREAT DAY AND ECONOMICAL TOO
A great day traveling, capped when I arrived in Rabaul by the good fortune to find a bus half empty and about to head out for Vunakabi. I was aboard in a flash and home in Vunakabi half an hour later. I tottered off to bed early and slept like a log.
The Kavieng-Medina-Namatanai bus fare totaled K40 the Solwara Meri truck trip was K2, and the speedboat sector cost K60. A total of K102 or about $40. is that economical travel or what? Oh -- add the K14.95 I had to pay for a crummy cotton hat today!
Certainly, the banana boat/bus run between Kavieng and Rabaul is not for everyone, but for a lot of islanders and visitors looking for something a bit different at economical rates, it's a godsend.
You can book by ringing John and Nelita Tse, who own and run Solwara Meri, on 7136 3764. Or if you prefer, just inquire where you see banana boats parked on the beach. ###
This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2011. The opinions and comments in this article are his own.