Wuvulu Update

The update follows a fiction piece which won the Billy Blue Literary Award in 1985 and was first published in Billy Blue magazine.I was reminded of it after talking about my experiences in New Guinea in the 1970’s before independance. It reflects the way of thinking at that time and a branch in the path which has led to the present.

New Guinea was under Australian jurisdiction. There were Europeans who had been among the first Patrol Officers who had gone into some remote valleys, still walking around. The plane circled the butterfly shaped island and the memories came flooding back. As the coconut palms in neat rows came into view beneath me, I saw people cycling, walking, making their way to the grass strip below. A soft touch down a bumpy ride along the strip and we surrounded by Wuvuluvians, shouting, laughing, excited to see relatives and friends return from mainland Papua New Guinea, 180 kilometers away.

I first visited Wuvulu with my husband Kevin in 1973 when a Sydney solicitor Colin Helliar contacted us about making a film on Wuvulu. Colin and Paul Stocker had purchased the island, a cophra plantation and were planning to develop it as a tourist resort. They had a group of international backers including actor William Holden, author James A. Michener, well known yachtsman and wine, maker Jim Hardy and marine architect Jean Michael Cousteau. Far ahead of its time they had a visionary plan to develop the island while each aspect of development was controlled a and measured. The original cophra plantation – Agita – occupied 6,800 hectares and was expropriated from the Germans by the Australian Government and later sold by tender. When they brought Agita, Stocker and Hellier established the Bismark Planters Society to administer the provision of medical services to the islands, maintain roads and airstrip, run a Co-operative Store and maintain adequate water supplies. Half of the island was given back to the islanders with the intention tha only 10 percent of the island would be developed. The development was to be supplied by windmill generated electricity and serviced by a sophisticated sewerage plant. Petrol powered vehicles and outboard motors were to be forbidden as was spearfishing or shell collection

After being approached by Paul Stocker, Jean Michael Cousteau’s Living Sea Corporation did an initial survey of the island and their report states: `Thus, it seems possible to create for the first time a situation where civilization will not destroy the natural environment and where a balance of nature will be retained. We can prevent environmental problems rather than having to cure them. In addition the potential for scientific investigation is great. Because the cophra plantation of minimal impact is the only evidence of man’s development, the jungle and reef can provide an exploration and testing ground for scientific studies. It could solve one of the greatest barriers to investigations, namely the lack of research facilities in remote areas and open Melanesia to science. In addition it may be possible to create a national underwater park that could blend into the creation of an International Commission for the Protection and Preservation of South Pacific Islands. A project of this type is already in its infant stages’.

Jean Michael Cousteau’s enthusiasm for Wuvulu was reflected in repeated visits to the island. In 1973 he organised with Pepperdine University in California, an initial 4 week extension course to Wuvulu. Students and teachers were given the opportunity to see a experience a primitive South Sea island, to work on scientific projects both land and marine and to participate in Project Ocean Search.In the following years the expeditions continued. In 1976 the New Guinea Government was formed and immediately resumed all foreign owned land. It was a terrible blow for the creators of the environmental plan for the development of Wuvulu. All land was resumed and the development ceased. Project Ocean Search continued for a while using the Calypso Maru, one of the Cousteau Society vessels.

On our first visits we stayed in the Plantation House with Manager Brian Cullinan. It was built by Faui, a Dane born with the name Edvard Christian Antonius Nielsen-Ortofft in 1870. Wuvulu was discovered by Ortizde Retes, under the command of Phillip !! of Spain’s man o’war San Juan in 1545. The natives attacked the ship in canoes, their war canoes with high prow and stern, and did not retreat despite heavy losses until their entire supply of arrows, spears and stones was gone. After a period of world wandering the sailor Faui arrived on Wuvulu in the 1890’s. Though they sought his life for many years, the natives grew to respect Faui. His name is derived from the tough coir fibre of the coconut husk. Around the turn of the century when Nalipei was King (Poalla) a young girl refused his advances and he buried her alive as a punishment. Another girl Upa-Upa displeased him and he had tied her hands and feet with lianas and tied her to a tree with a mussel shell fish hook though the cheek. She freed herself by a violent jerk of the head tearing the hook out of her cheek after 2 days. Faui saved her and when the Poalla and his men arrived, refused to give her up. He organised a revolution and Nalipei abdicated. The people gave him the Royal white shell and he became King.

Faui built the Plantation House with materials brought from Shanghai. It was the oldest European building in Papua New Guinea. Birger Morner who visited Wuvulu in 1913 described it: `The single storey house has three rooms and is entirely surrounded by a verandah. Like the stem of a T – a covered path leads from the middle rear to a smaller building containing the kitchen and bathroom. The seaward front lawn is large, providing ample spac for two grazing ponies and about 100 chickens, geese and ducks.’ When we arrived in 1973 there were some changes, but the house was recognizable from that description. There were no Chinese ponies on the lawn and the verandah had been covered in with mosquito net, where geckos clung to the wire, racing up and down through the night. Bamboo furniture from Wewak graced the verandah, a welcome sight after a day’s diving and filming. Faui’s grave was in a grove beside the house surrounded by Crotons with their colourful foliage.

The most spectacular aspect of the diving is the shore diving. Just offshore you can plunge into 700 meters of water onto cliffs of coral. The island is an underwater mountain right on the edge of the continental plate on which Australia and New Guinea lie. While diving and filming on Wuvulu in the 1970’s we were diving from an outrigger canoe with a hookah supplying air from the surface. While diving we discovered a cave. It was about 30 metres long and went back into the reef. Huge black coral trees hung upside down from the roof and big cup sponges adorned the roof and walls Obscured by a mound covered with coral the cave entrance was sheltering a huge grouper, as big as a cow and as placid I hoped, as he watched us swim around the cave. The cave had stalactites growing from the ceiling indicating it had been formed on dry land. Later other caves were discovered at this depth around the island indicating an old sea level now 20 metres below the surface. My first awareness of sea level changes. A unknown cave species of fish was later found, which unlike most cave dwellers does not orient itself to the nearest surface.

Many of the fish on Wuvulu are unusual. The Wuvulu people fish for a deep sea fish called `ferrari’ The long fishing lines could be seen strung between coconut trees to prevent kinks in the line. They live in very deep water and at night the fishermen go out in their outriggers. They use live bait on a hook with a lump of coral tied in a banana leaf, lowering the bait to 200-300 metres and jerk on the line to release the hook at that depth. When the fish comes to the surface its huge eyes, glistening skin and long teeth identify it as a deep water species – an unattractive feast to our eyes. While the tools and artifacts are still made by the Wuvulu people, their heritage of song and poetry is almost gone and their oral history was remembered by only the very old people. Their stories are sung. The partipants were decorated with greenery and wore white feathers in their hair. The sang love songs. One of their poets Rau who died in the 1860s is considered to be their greatest poet. Sadly only one of his poems is recorded:

Song of Morari (Big Bowl) and Leimea (Jellyfish)

She longed to meet him once again,

Though he was another’s man

She had to see him once again,

Though she could not imagine how.

She went in the night to the lonely shore

and played her flute all alone.

A youth came walking out of the dark

But he was not the one.

Sadly she turned to her village back

And sought some Pandanus leaves.

From them she braided rings for her arms

That rustled at every step

She went again down to the shore,

For a star, a white one That she knew to light up the dark.

She saw a star gleaming As white as a shark-toothed knife

A light she thought that she knew but fear and pain held her fast.

She felt of a sudden a shark toothed knife

Tearing her body apart.

But it was no star, no royal knife

She had seen the eyes of her love

Gleaming star-like in the dark

As he came across the sand.

She stood head bowed

He took her by the hand.

They walked in waiting silence In darkness to her home.

If I can create into manifestation one project I’ve worked on, it would be this, an environmentally sustainable Wuvulu. The Award Winning Billy Blue story will be posted next post. Here’s an entry I found which has a photo of Faui.


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