vanishing point

15 April 2010 12:57:00 AEST

Manus Island, PNG - 1995

The beginning of knowledge is the discovery of something we do not understand. - Frank Herbert

“My Grandfather lost a leg here in ’44”

…and with that, the Captain began scanning the harbour through the binoculars as though he was going to see it sitting there on the beach somewhere. Manus Island stretched before us now as we pierced the outer ring of islands. I had never seen so many reef breaks in such a small patch of water. Usually this would be cause for excitement – but navigating a Patrol Boat through them into the base at Lombrum made it less so. I made a mark on the chart when we went past something that looked surfable– there was a lot to come back to.

The New Guinean Navy had caught a Japanese long liner in their waters and were escorting them into port. It was a big moment for them so we did another sweep of the outer islands to avoid spoiling the show with our arrival. I found another three reef breaks and a point combo that weren’t even on the chart. We started our approach. Manus Island was a graveyard for Pacific Empires. The Portuguese and Spanish had tried to tame it for hundreds of years before Germany claimed it in the 1800’s. After World War I it passed to Britain before the Japanese over ran it. US and Australian troops took it again in 1944 and the naval base they built here was one of the largest in the world. Macarthur ran his war from here, taking back the Philippines and then the rest of The Pacific. This base and harbour which once hosted over 100 warships was now home to three lonely New Guinean Patrol Boats. I scanned the area as we came alongside, vast areas of ramshackle administrative buildings and troops barracks, locked up and abandoned. Kids played in a derelict, rusting US Jeep from a MASH episode on the beach.

We tied up, the tuna boat ahead of us. Sad, tired Japanese fishermen filed around the deck as New Guinean fisheries officers walked around with clipboards spilling loose carbon paper. A few minutes later, the wharf was packed with locals manning utes, motorbikes, wheelbarrows and carts – anything with wheels. I had never seen anything quite like what happened next.

A massive hatch on the side of the long liner opened up, spilling ice across the wharf. Then, a prime 300 pound snap frozen tuna went sailing through the air and impacted against the timber slats. The wharf erupted into hysteria. The Japanese Captain was crying through his fingers. Each of these fish that he landed at sea on padded bags and ordered carried around the ship by hand would have easily fetched $10,000 a piece at the Tokyo fish markets, now they were sliding around a village wharf and being carried away in the backs of rusting cars. I watched a local kid about 10 years old pick up a fish bigger than him by the tail flukes and drive it around the wharf on it’s nose. He started screaming when he realised his hands were snap frozen to it. More experienced handlers used T-shirts, underpants and car seat covers to protect heir hands. It was not quite the momentous return to Manus Island that the Japanese had in mind. I talked the XO into letting me take the ships boat to ‘survey’ some of the new reefs we saw…in the interest of reporting on them for maritime safety reasons of course. Four of us skipped out immediately, cutting across the mighty harbour to the blocking islands.

‘Okay, deal is only one ride each per wave then we move on’

We surfed at least a dozen breaks in the space of an hour, all within sight of the ship. Deep water bommies that unloaded into short barely makeable kegs, scalloped shoaling reefs that bent and refracted the swell 90 degrees before transforming into classic speed walls. Finally we found it, a 4 foot left hand point set up on an atom thin wedge of curving reef. I remember standing in the barrel of that thing and counting to seven before I even thought about what I was going to do next. We rode that point until sunset.

That night, the local governor had invited us to a restaurant way up in the heart of the island on the slope of a great mountain ridge. He was a giant man with massive, broad hands – he gave us each a small, rare, brightly coloured green shell, it was a shell only found on Manus Island and I remember how he softly closed my hand around it as a gift. In a glass cabinet behind the bar I saw the remnants of Empire. A Japanese Katana with a torn rising sun flag wrapped around its base, the blade was drawn three inches from the scabbard, still as bright and terrible as the day it was forged. Next to that a battered Prussian ceremonial helmet from WW I. It went back further, a rusted sword hilt and pieces of Spanish gold fused with coral reef from a medieval wreck. Behind it all was a fossilized shell 30 centimetres across, curled like an ancient nautilus, from a time when the entire mountain ridge lie under the warm shallows of the extinct Panthalassic Ocean. I walked out onto the deck of the club and looked west across the sprawling chain of islands. Countless reefs and points never named, never surfed. I saw the limits of the town of Lorengau halt abruptly beneath us in the valley below, fading out to taro and sago fields, vanishing point of civilisation before the massive impenetrable jungle canopy spread over everything all the way to the horizon like a green universe, stirred only by the faint white smoke of a long forgotten tribe from deep within the interior.

-AJJ Waldie-

Story 7 of 365 (358 days and 358 stories to go)

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