Wednesday, October 03, 2007

On Ironbottom in a Flatbottom

The ferry for Malaita was supposed to get away early in the afternoon. But as with anything in the Pacific Islands no one really knew the timetable. We were supposed to do this on Tuesday. Now it is Thursday. Be gone at midday. Get going after dinner. Symptomatic of all this madness is the fact that there is no captain on the bridge. Rather, it is crowded by dozens of people, none of whom look like they should be there. The ramp to the ferry, Ramos, dropped onto the dock at Honiara (which sits on the island of Guadalcanal, famous for the fighting against the Japanese which took place here in WW2) mid afternoon even though the ferry was tied up alongside for a good few hours before hand. Before arriving at the ramp it was tied up at a larger jetty and for that period we took the opportunity to load the hospital beds – manhandled across the rails, down some stairs and into the cargo bay. Departure was hilarious. It was finally dark. Families were squatting all around the vehicle ramp of the ferry. As the ramp finally came up the mad scramble was not from those onshore making a hurried entry but those family seeing off other family who had to vacate very quickly. Some of us are camped on our truck with all its equipment and material just in case someone wants to help themselves. But most people seemed fixed on settling down for the night and getting some rest. We hoped for the same but the heat is ovenlike, the humidity oppressive. The lights are dimmed and the deck here, from bow to stern is thick with huddled groups drinking, playing cards, arguing, singing and chewing betel nut. Even though they are not supposed to. It is all a little incongruous since the ferry, ex Hong Kong, is all still signposted and marked up in Chinese characters. No one seems to care. We slide out on a glassy sea and beat our way across the eastern fringe of Iron Bottom Sound, site of huge Japanese and allied shipping losses during WW2. That the ferry is flatbottomed means nothing until lightning and thunder rip open the night and suddenly everyone is awake and hanging on for dear life. Hot rain lashed us for half an hour and we endured it all in silence. And with not a little concern as we were flung about. Those on top of the truck scrambled down for a less precarious ride. Then just as dramatically it was all over and we were returned to a mirror sea and the flying fish that sailed along in flashes of reflected light beside us. For which I was thankful since in the crash of the storm I offloaded dinner over the side. I normally travel better than that. Hours later the dim, dusky orange light on the horizon, looking like something suited to “Heart of Darkness” marked the slow approach into Auki, on the island of Malaita. Malaita will be home for the next ten days or so but we have a long drive ahead of us after we reach Auki.

April 2003


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