The small villages of the Moluccas have a habit of relocating suddenly. The villagers – usually no more than a dozen families – frequently change the location of their houses which need only a couple of days to erect on a new site. They may move to find better fishing, to a safer anchorage and – above all – to an easier source of fresh water.
It was well into the afternoon when the last of the large bays opened up. Ahead of us the afternoon thunderstorms were rolling across the forested ridges and slopes of Waigeo. Surges of grey-black cloud flowed across the tree canopy on a broad front. The wind came ahead, whipping the tops off the wavelets in the bay. Lightning flickered in the depths of the cloud, and then the curtain of grey rain blotted out everything. When the rain cleared we had a glimpse of a tiny white dot in the murk at the back of the bay. It might have been a landmark erected for navigators, but there are no such marks in Waigeo. We set course for it, and crossing the broad bay we found the spire of a tiny, white painted church. In front were a dozen or so palm-thatch houses set on stilts on the water's edge. The jungle came down the hillside to within yards of this tiny village, which looked as if it was about to be swallowed in the vegetation.
We anchored and, minutes later, there was the usual response when four canoes put out from the village to visit us. But these were canoes like nothing we had ever seen before. The central hull was a very narrow dugout log, tapering to a fine bow. From each side sprang delicate outriggers that would have done credit to a modern high technology aircraft. They curved out in a beautiful downward line so that the floats barely kissed the water. There was not a nail nor ounce of metal in the entire construction. The sweeping outriggers had been carved from naturally curved wood, and were bound in place with neat strips of jungle rattan. They were so well made and exquisitely balanced that they flexed like the wings of birds, and the entire canoe floated high and light as it skimmed forward.
The men in the canoes were pure Papuan with not a trace of Malay in their features. They had tightly curled wiry hair, broad nostrils, deep-set eyes, and very dark skins. In the lead canoe the grey-haired headman of the village was obvious from the deference paid to him by the other men. The canoes clustered around the stern of our prahu, and half a dozen men scrambled on deck. Budi and Julia made introductions and explained why we had come there. The villagers were intrigued to know about their unexpected visitors because the last time they had seen a foreigner was seven years earlier when a butterfly hunter had come to their village.
27 October 2009
Rediscovering Waigeo: At the Bird's Head of New Guinea
From The Spice Islands Voyage: The Quest for Alfred Wallace, the Man Who Shared Darwin's Discovery of Evolution, by Tim Severin (Carroll & Graf, 1997), pp. 155-156: