Panasia - the island of imposing cliffs

Oct 15th 2019

As we approach Panasia, the sun is about to start setting behind its tree-clad limestone cliffs. Entering its lagoon therefore is an experience we don’t care to repeat. The ‘channel’ (aka break in the reef) we’d planned to enter through looked narrow enough on the charts, but looking at it in real life we had some serious doubts about whether the boat would fit. But what is one to do? The sail to get here had taken us a lot longer than planned so approaching 3pm we found ourselves with some unattractive choices to make. Sail back to where we came from and arrive at night to brave the reef in semi-familiar surroundings or brave this reef in what’s left of good day light.

Choosing the latter, we crawl through the so called channel for about five minutes, with me at the front guiding and Graham driving. The narrow pass finally widens and we safely make it into the lagoon. A few bommies later (coral heads to the uninitiated), we anchor right in front of a tiny beach with a few huts. As a side note, we discover later that the channel was a bit further down and what we crawled through was not an official entrance. Live and learn (to navigate).

The anchor chain had not finished unravelling before a man starts paddling towards us on a makeshift stand-up paddle board consisting of four plastic fenders secured together with rope. Meet John, the owner of this island, who’s been expecting us thanks to the very efficient PNG inter-island telegraph. John and his wife Gwen live here with three young grandkids, tending to their cliff side gardens, with an additional 8 people living on the other side of the island. Every available patch of ground is used for gardening, with vertical gardens evidenced on every cliff, connected via narrow goat tracks meandering up and down the hillsides. A very steep looking “main” path up over the cliffs connects the two sides of the island, John assures us even the kids would manage it if we were keen for a walk. He’ll even provide a guide.

We kick off with obligatory trading, with John bringing bananas and paw paw and paddling away with chisels, rope and more. Despite reading many blogs on life in PNG and the etiquette of trading, the reality of subsistence living in what we think of is paradise is very hard to reconcile. It’s tempting to just hand over whatever they ask for when you see how little they have. But as this would likely compromise our own survival prospects out here, trading seems like a tidy solution, especially since quite a few locals are not shy of asking. We did run out of bananas days ago after all and since anything they cannot grow or catch is literally a week’s sail away (on a canoe!), everybody wins.

The isolation of this place comes into sharp focus when John asks for some eye drops for his little grandson with an eye infection. I am sure there will come a day when we will have to turn this sort of request down, but this isn’t one of those times. So for the moment, I am dutifully dropping 2 eye drops into little Rodney’s eye, four times a day.

A garden working bee seems to be to on one day, so quite a few canoes sail over from nearby islands to help. They all stop by the boat of course and we trade for cherry tomatoes, ibecca (leafy green), eggs, more paw paw and banana. As we can’t say no to anyone, we trade for all of it, offering clothes, rice, sugar, school supplies, fishing gear and soap in return. We’re definitely getting into the groove now. I also brought toothpaste and toothbrushes but this seems like a lost cause due to the incessant betel nut chewing which makes nearly everyone’s teeth red and rotten by the time they are teenagers.

Justin, the friendly lobster man from Punawan pays us another visit, bringing two paw paws and looking for a soccer ball. I’d read about this being a popular item to trade but simply ran out of time in Cairns to get some. Luckily he takes a t-shirt and some fishing line instead. Despite really wanting to spend more time talking to Justin we can’t, as he shows up minutes after Graham cuts his toe quite badly jumping off the boat. My first aid training comes in handy here as a I expertly clean the wound and apply steri-strips. I attempt CPR just for good measure, but Graham assures me it’s not required.

Infections are not to be risked in the tropics, so as the kids and I paddle the dingy to the beach the next morning to attempt the cliff walk, Graham and toe stay behind. John’s promise of a guide eventuates in the form of his 5 year old granddaughter Jocelyn, the lucky winner of the family lottery. She shyly smiles at us then darts up the hill barefoot, with kids and I struggling to keep up in our Anaconda walking gear. It is only about 9.30am but our cheeks are purple from the heat already. Less than five minutes into the walk we hit a cliff with a single vine running down it. Jocelyn is by this stage so far ahead of us we don’t see how she managed the cliff. She stands up the top peering down on us, with Lara stuck about a third way up and not going any further. By now, the group back at the beach has realised what they are dealing with, and within 30 seconds Jocelyn’s mum and friend visiting for the day, join us for support. They expertly help the kids up (yours truly did it free solo, thank you) and then we really get going. A group of teenagers appears from the opposite direction and come along with us for the ride. In total, I believe we had organically obtained ourselves 2 guides per person.

We struggle on up the steep hill to the general amusement of our guides who feed us fresh coconut juice at the top, expertly macheted into drinkable form right next to my head by one of the girls. We are learning that PNG people are experts with machetes and knives, and just as well given the level of prominence of said items in their every day life. The views from the top across the lagoon and beyond are incredible and almost worth the risk to life and limb.

After three days, Graham’s toe is almost well enough to sail again so we head over to our next destination, Brooker Island. John joins us for the short sail, his daughter is playing in the netball semifinals and his gardens there need tending. So long Panasia, it was short but sweet.