The papaya or pawpaw – well worth growing
Walk against corruption this Sunday

The sights and sounds of Milne Bay


Alotau A CROWD HAD GATHERED around and it was swelling rapidly. There were mostly men, of all ages, with stained red teeth, dark skin, all carrying knifes or machetes.

The women and children stayed on the fringe of the growing melee. Many of them also bore the telltale red mouths. That could mean only one thing — betel nut.

This natural stimulant from the jungle is like an extreme caffeine hit for the locals, and it renders visitors very high, often leading to hallucinations. A man preached the gospel to another crowd, but his was diminishing while ours was growing.

The light from the evening’s low sun had become hazy, filtered by dust that was being kicked up by the drug-fuelled, machete bearing crowd as they grew ever more quizzical of our presence. But this was not a dangerous mob, their red teeth were framed by smiles. There was chatter, fits of laughter and above all, excited talk of dim dims.

Alotau market is not exactly used to receiving visitors, let alone white foreigners, or dimdims as they are called by the locals. Depending on who you ask, the word dimdim either means “man of the horizon”, which sounds somewhat mysterious, or it’s a reference to our white skin.

Either way those who inhabit PNG’s most easterly point, the spectacular natural harbour of Milne Bay where Alotau is the primary town, use it with great affection.

Our group had wandered down from the hotel during the early evening to buy market food. Dishes of dried fish cooked in coconut milk and green vegetables sat next to home-baked breads, deep-fried fishcake patties with noodles and handmade donuts.

The crowd, buoyed by our willingness to try their food, grew ever more friendly. Mischievous boys hungry for a sale claimed they cooked the food that afternoon, only to turn red and giggle when asked what the recipe was.

 Shrieks of laughter from the women and men cut through the evening as the boys stumbled to cobble together an answer. Eventually they too cracked under the pressure and launched into hysterics at being found out.

We talked rugby league — Darren Lockyer and Wayne Bennett were nothing short of heroic to the men. Teams like St George, the Brisbane Broncos and the North Queensland Cowboys were intoned reverently as we spoke.

Word of our dimdim presence and carefree attitude to food had spread and it wasn’t long before a man came forward with his hand buried deep in his pocket. He opened his fist and within the palm of his hand lay six pearls as fine as you might see anywhere in the world. Each one varied in size, but all had the same soft pink tinge and each was perfectly spherical.

He had collected them from the reefs nearby and earlier that day we’d also been exploring the same underwater world during a trip to Samarai. There was a resemblance to the Whitsundays in terms of topography, but that was where the similarities ended.

The clarity of the water was sensational, the colour was an eerily deep blue, often splattered with the unmistakable turquoise hue of pristine coral reefs that were perfectly visible from the surface. Dolphins emerged out of the blue, desperate to engage in oceanic displays of somersaulting.

Manta rays also leapt from the water in shows of strength while flying fish hurtled above it for 50 metres at a time, skimming no more than 30 cm above the ripples in an incredible display of gliding. It seemed that the marine life enjoyed the warm open air as much as our dimdim skin did.

Beneath the reef was just as spectacular. A section in front of the remote Doni Island Plantation Resort is home to a dugong that comes to welcome guests every morning. The area is reputed to have some of the best snorkelling in the world and Doni Island offers a great opportunity to explore.

Soft coral swayed in the current, while bright purple, yellow and orange hard coral provided an optical feast. Luminous reef fish scattered and hid at the sign of a human floating by, only to emerge shortly after for a curious peak.

And that was on the so-called “bad” side of the island. Our guide informed us that the other side had far better reefs, but time constraints meant we couldn’t venture there. Instead it was time to squeeze in a visit to Kwato Island, home to two rather unusual, yet incredible sites — arguably the world’s most attractive cricket ground and a church that photos can’t do justice.

Both were constructed by the missionaries who originally colonised the archipelago. The cricket pitch is fringed by palm trees, flanked by massive frangipani trees, edged by a white sand beach, while a streaky edge or late cut would see the ball race away into a turquoise channel of coral reef and warm water. Behind, another island’s mountain caps off the remarkable setting.

On from the cricket ground, and up a steep hill is the church. Beautiful in its simple open-air setting and set atop the island, the views are nothing sensational. The breeze flows through the Pacific-style shrine and coupled with the cool shade it is a truly spiritual place that does have you feeling a little closer to God, regardless of religious persuasion.

The walk back through the jungle, past the cricket ground and along the white sand beach, over the washed up coral shingle and into our boat that bobbed on the crystal clear waters, meant our adventures were coming to an end. But our evening at the market with the food, the crowd, the giggles, smiles and dimdim excitement had only just begun.

Source: Travel Weekly


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