The worm catchers of Sialum
23 December 2020
| Published in PNG Attitude, 25 December 2011
CLEVELAND, QLD - Sialum patrol post was situated on the north-eastern tip of the Huon Peninsula about 60 miles north of Finschhafen, the sub district headquarters.
I say ‘about 60 miles’ because Rudi, the Lutheran missionary at Kalasa, and Hans, the Lutheran agricultural extension officer always argued about how far it was.
Hans reckoned it was 58 miles and Rudi reckoned it was 60. “Definitely 58 miles,” Hans maintained. “Yes,” said Rudi, “but you don’t go in and out of the ruts in the road, you just skim over the top of them!”
Hans’ penchant for being a leadfoot in his old blue Land Rover was well known. He drove a little too fast for sedate Rudi and his wife Martha.
Hans retired to Germany in 1974, while I was at Sialum. There he took a job as a security officer and, sadly, was murdered on the job not long afterwards.
One day at the Sialum station office, I asked the old village ‘komiti’ [councillor] for his Village Book. When first contacted, all villages were presented with a grey-blue covered Village Book. By the end of World War II, most villages in ‘controlled territory’ had been issued one of these books.
The Village Book contained a running commentary of each government visit and notes by government officers on any important points to be followed up by subsequent patrols.
Whenever some government activity occurred, an entry was supposed to be made in the Village Book.
The Village Book for Gitua (a coastal village north of Sialum) contained comments going back to 1944, when the Japanese had been withdrawing towards Madang.
An Assistant District Officer had written about his conduct of the first village census after the Japanese had been forced out and had signed his entry ‘Captain/Assistant District Officer’.
Kiaps in those days had a military rank equivalent (either Army or, in the case of some Coastwatchers, Navy), and it was thought this might help if they were captured: that they might be treated as a prisoner of war rather than being shot as a spy.
The Captain/ADO’s report noted an increase in the population and recorded various misdemeanors he had investigated.
He had also reported that the village was actively preparing for a special feast, celebrating the collection of its share of the annual appearance of sea worms.
Noting the date of the ADO’s entry was near the current date (November), I asked the komiti if the feast was still celebrated in 1974, and he assured me it was.
Later that day, I buttonholed the village komiti from Kwamkwam, just to the south of Sialum.
Would I be able to witness this feast when it was due in roughly a week’s time, I asked.
After some discussion, it was decided it was possible for me to attend, given that, as a white man, any taboos associated with the celebration would not apply.
The villagers all along the coast were keeping a close watch on the rising of the moon, the timing of which triggered the appearance of the worms.
The worms could be caught from the time the sun went down to the time the moon appeared over the sea around half past seven.
Just prior to this time everyone was warned to stay away from the nearby rivers running from the mountains and emptying into the sea.
Traditionally to go near the rivers at this time would court death. The village people said the worms came down the rivers and travelled into the sea. I thought that maybe the worms were small eels or elvers.
A few days after my enquiry, the people sent word that tonight was probably the night. So in the late afternoon my wife and I walked along the beach from our house to where the villagers waited with their outrigger canoes.
In the centre of each dugout was an empty half 44-gallon drum tied to the poles joining the canoe to the outrigger.
Inside the dugout was a pile of coconut frond torches and a hand net made from mosquito netting.
The team in each canoe consisted of a young girl to hold the lighted torch (bumbum), a young man to operate the net (umben) and a small boy whose duties included paddling the canoe and emptying the net into the drum.
In the tropics, the period between the sun going down and the mosquitoes coming out is the most peaceful time of the day.
The waves of Vitiaz Strait had expended most of their energy on the reef and gently surged to the shore.
Sialum station was situated on a lagoon formed by the outside reef that extended along the coast for about three miles.
At fairly regular intervals Inside the reef there were islets that rose above the high water mark and, through gaps between the islets, the worms were supposed to arrive.
Towards sunset the canoes were launched and paddled towards the gaps in the reef.
Hoping to observe the complete performance closely, I asked if I could accompany a canoe and it was agreed I could.
I was welcomed aboard a canoe and the young occupants paddled me to the reef where the rest of the flotilla awaited.
As I stood on a sharp coral island, I was surprised to see only teenagers and young unmarried people in the canoes.
I was told that those who were married or old could not participate in this part of the ceremony as their genitals would swell and cause their death.
Seeing the look on my face, I was hastily assured this did not apply to white men.
Our conversation was terminated abruptly when a young man yelled, “Em nau, em pesman bilong ol” (Aha, there’s the first of them now).
My young friends called me over to where they stood in about two feet of water. At first all I saw was a brown thread, corkscrewing through the water.
Then the water came alive. As the tide flowed in and the water reached my waist, hundreds and then thousands of worms arrived until they clouded the lagoon.
Some worms were as long as a foot and some just three or four inches. They were about one-sixteenth of an inch wide. Some were rusty brown and others azure blue.
I could feel the worms sliding around my body and it was unpleasant. I joined a team in a nearby canoe.
The technique for catching the worms was straightforward.
The girls would light a torch and hold the glowing end just above the water. The flickering light attracted the worms which formed a seething mass beneath.
The young men would scoop up the worms in the net and hand it to the young boy in the canoe, who would tip the squirming mass into the empty drum and hand back the net.
If the torch flared, the worms would corkscrew away - so a steady light was essential to catch them.
The night was now pitch black and all along the coast as far as I could see, lights were flickering as each village gleaned their share of the harvest.
The canoes rocking in the gentle waves and the torch lights reflecting off the surface in flashes of yellow, red, blue and purple created a surrealist picture.
Other tiny water creatures emitted blue-green phosphorescence which combined with the phosphorescent slime from the worms. It was a memorable sight.
As the nets of worms were tipped into the drums, phosphorescent slime drooled down the outside of the containers clinging to the bottom of the nets.
The netting went on for about two hours before the moon rose. As each drum filled, the canoe was paddled to the nearby beach and waiting adults tipped the worms into saucepans. As the moon rose, the worms disappeared.
Everyone then assembled on the beach and the worms were stuffed into lengths of hollow bamboo.
These were cooked slowly on an open fire for about a day until the contents became a solidified, translucent mass ready to eat. The smell of cooking worms was pungent.
With the moon slowly rising, we politely thanked everyone and walked home. Before we left, I scooped up a few worms of each colour into a small bottle of sea water and took it to study in daylight.
The next morning, much to my dismay, the worms in the bottle had died. However at the bottom of the bottle was a layer of blue eggs.
I assumed that the blue worms might be female and the rusty brown ones, male. I also assumed that the worms were coming to the beach to lay their eggs in the sand and then die, having completed their life cycle.
Before we left the beach that night, the villagers explained this was ‘em Krismas bilong mipela’ (Christmas).
For a week after this feast they would do no work in the village gardens or at the government station.
Great account. Palolo worms, Paul?
Posted by: Robin Hide | 23 December 2020 at 05:29 AM