Baluan Island PartII – Five Reasons to Go
About 38km Southeast of Manus and up to 3hrs in total travelling time by motorised dingy from the Loniu Bridge lies the mysterious volcanic island of Baluan.
Formed by an extinct volcano locally known as Malsu (pronounced Mal-sue), Baluan rises some 200 plus meters out of the sea.
Baluan is heavily vegetated and completely surrounded by reef but has only one beach. Hot water, evidence of the geothermal activity, pulsates out of rock crevices all around the shoreline. There is also a boiling vent on the western side of the old volcano.
The island is often referred to by locals as a ‘ston ples’ or place of stones. The volcano erupted basaltic rocks and boulders – round, hard and black, the rocks cover the island and in many ways, define life here.
Gardening can be a challenge because of the rocks, but the locals plant between them and the harvest is always good here because of the soil. Rain is the only factor out of their control.
On the northern shoreline are several small islands the largest of which is known as Mouk Island. Baluan once blew its top and sent debris all over Manus. Mouk Island and the other island are remanets of the eruption. Interestingly, according to aManus legend, there is a mountain in the south coast of Manus that was picked up by birds from Baluan and dropped there. Sounds like a volcanic story to me.
The crater of Malsu is quite big, an estimated 1km in total width and a depth I can only estimate as possibly 100 plus meters or so. I was trying to get a good picture so one could estimate the depth but with the fading light, I wasn’t able to do so.
I stood at the edge of the crater and looked down into it. It is a massive old crater carpeted by vivid green vegetation. You have to be careful when you are standing on the edge of the crater, a gust of wind racing up the slopes can blow you off your feet and into the crater, sending you plunging to your death.
The locals garden within it and report the fertile soil is warm in places, especially in the deeper parts of the old crater.They said when it rains, a large warm pond quickly forms here.
Up near the summit of the Malsu, I was shown a large old tree with roots that spread out on the ground in all directions. The tree had huge, long branches that were several meters in length and spread out overhead. I felt menaced when approaching it. Then Silkara explained to me that in the past when their ancestors killed people, they brought the bodies up here and hung them from the tree. They did this so that the dead persons relatives could come and collect the body. If they didn’t come, the ancestors would cut the body down, haul it over to a flat black rock that looked like an alter table. At this rock, they would cut the body up and share it. People would cook the bodies in clay pots and have a good meal.
Once upon a time, possibly before the modern Baluans arrived here some hundreds of years ago, another group of people called the island home.
They were the Mapo’s (pronounced Mapoes) and they left a permanent reminder of the society they had once created on the island in the shadow of the volcano.
If you visit the island, you will find an elaborate network of sturdy stonewalls made out of the islands volcanic black rocks. These are Mapo artefacts.
The rocks walls that they built interlocked around the island, divide it into terraced plots that ‘grid’ up the volcanic slopes.
Several long strips of terraces are no doubt road networks and pathways across the island and are still used today.
I asked the Baluans about the Mapo. They said the Mapo were a group of dwarf like people who lived on the island and built these rock walls.Their ancestors apparently remember the Mapo as people who lived in the island’s junglesand watched the activities of the Baluans. They only came out when the Baluan villagers had retired for the night.
The story is that the Mapo were hard workers. When the Baluans cleared land for gardening or started planting but did not finish, the next day when they returned, they found that to their surprise the mysterious Mapo had completed all the work for them.
The Mapo did everything excessively and where very hard working. According to the Baluans, this was not just strength of the Mapo but also a weakness.
When it came to harvesting crops, if the Baluans harvested some bananas from their gardens, the next day when the arrived at their gardens, all their bananas where harvested, even the green ones. They said the Mapo over harvested the gardens and the land. They were helpful but also destructive.
So what happened to the Mapo? Where they chased off the island or did they mysteriously leave one day? Different Baluans will tell you different stories. But something happened.
Two people from Baluan on different occasions told me about a site they had found, a sacred site that they said was a home of the Mapo. They didn’t show me but described as a rectangular small house, created out of stone, long and narrow inside and hidden in the bush somewhere on the island. I would have loved to see it.
But in listening to the Baluan tales of the mysterious Mapo and the seeing the rock walls, I recall the Author Jared Diamond’s story of the Easter Islanders who built great rock monuments yet may have contributed to their own demise by overharvesting the land. Where the Mapo people and culture similar to the Easter Islanders? Is it possible, they destroyed themselves and when the current Baluans arrived on the island, they were only a small group left, not enough to fight the new aggressive arrivals?
Or did they disappear before then, chased of by a possible volcanic explosion here or maybe a severe drought?
TheMapo walls help the current Baluans, who used them to mark out land, family burial sites, garden plots and keep out wild pigs from spoiling gardens.
Not so long ago they said the walls were quite high, between 1 – 4 meters high in places, but time, rains, wind, erosion and human activity have several reduced these to walls to a tenth of their original height.
It’s an interesting mysteriously that I hope someone can shed some light on.
Bathing in Geothermal Heated Water
As mentioned before, the villagers often bath in these very hot pools of water that boil out from the rocks along the shoreline. It’s a great way to have a wash, just sink yourself down in these hot rock pools and look at the stars.
The Paliau Movement
One thing I wanted to do in Baluan is to see a village or two on the island and also learn a bit more of the Paliau Movement, also referred to as the Win Nation movement.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to. I arrived late on Thursday and left early the next day. This wasn’t my plan but the situation was out of my hands. When you travel to places its important to find out information before hand about the customs of various places. Sometimes there is not much information.
Most of the Baluan Islanders are Seventh Day Adventist Church fellows. The practice of their faith is to observe Sabbath or worship at 12noon Friday through to Saturday. This means that they don’t work when they are in worship. For me, this meant that if I stayed back on Friday, I wouldn’t leave till Monday as no boats would run during the Sabbath and as a general rule, no boats run on Sunday. The only exception would be if there was a medical emergency.
Because of Sabbath hardly any boat runs on Friday as well. With my hosts help we used his boat, got some passengers and headed back to Manus sooner that I wanted. I planned to go back and complete Baluan once I was done with the rest of Manus, but this was not to be so.
The Paliau Movement or the Win Nation movement is a particular interesting and popular pre-independence movement led by a very capable Baluan Islander, Sir Paliau Moloat.
Paliau (1893-1991) was one of the first nationals to attain the status of Sergeant Major in the native police force of the New Guinea administration and he led a company of over 200 men. When World War II began, he led his men into the bushes of East New Britain and fought against the Japanese. Later he surrendered to the Japanese, who in turn made him one of their policemen.
After the war, he was chucked in jailed by the administration for being a policeman for the Japanese. Disillusioned by what he felt was a double standard in how natives where treated, he sent a letter to the Baluan elders to build a meeting house and so he could share his ideas on self-improvement. He was later freed and sent back to Baluan. He was also appointed as Baluan Village Officer by the administration.
His influence was growing and he lectured people against false thinking and living in peace.
Paliau, already an influential figure with his progressive thinking started to Paliau Movement in the 1946s at Baluan when he was 38 years old.
He wanted people to improve their lives, change their villages, get educated, live in peace together and help Manus progress.
People readily followed Paliau, as he was a smart individual who engaged the community in various activities early in his life. While a police officer he had started a revolving fund in 1932 using his own savings of 32 pounds to help his people meet the heads tax obligations that the colonial administration was imposing on them. The fund was placed under the care of the local leader, the Luluai, and people could get interest free loans from it. They had to repay the loan so that it could keep going and he also asked them to contribute to the fund to help other communities, which they did, the fund reaching a sum of some 2000 pounds which was a massive amount in those times. Paliau would have been 29 when he started the fund.
The Paliau Movement swept the West coast of Manus and was responsible for many changes such as the establishment of the current villages such as Bonai on the coast of Manus, the high incidence of children who were enrolled in school and more. But Paliau in some ways, also found himself caught in the cargo cult beliefs of many of his followers and while some of the Paliau Movement where progressive, based around health, education and transparency, some of his practices such as re-interpreting the Christian ideas of God and building his own church got him labeled a cargo cult leader and was thrown in jail in the 1950.
What is cargo cult? It’s hard to explain a phenomenon that’s never been full explained. But most people agree cargo cults are large organized groups in relatively low technology societies mainly Melanesian that practice a belief that ‘cargo’ – effectively the goods possessed by other technology advance societies – can be achieved through religious rituals and magic.
Often the cults attached a religious, magical interpretation to the daily practices of the colonial administrations, such as flag raising ceremonies, parades, or copy how they look or work without understanding what is the real purpose of these activities. Cargo cults are often religious, reflecting Christian practices and adopting Christian beliefs, copying Christian churches and altars but combining them with their own ideas and cultural practices, all in the end to open the magical invisible gates and receive cargo.
While Paliau was just the Baluan Village Officer, the cargo cult movements were sweeping through Melanesia, from Vanuatu, to Solomon Islands to the territories of Papua New Guinea. When he started the Paliau movement, the administration saw him as a progressive leader that maybe they could work with.
However, the moment he started his own Church, mainly because he was incensed with the Manus Catholic Church’s behavior towards some of its members, the Administration saw him as a cult leader and carted him of the Port Moresby.
He was released soon after, returned to Manus, and changed the movement to further to become a force for change on a political level. He successfully campaigned for Manus to become Manus Local Level Government Council. Manus was one of the first of the administrative territories to achieve the status in 1951. He was elected President (1951 – 1964). In 1964, he was elected as Member for Manus to the House of Assembly and a founding member of the Pangu party who believed strongly in independence both for the individual and for the country. He was Member for Manus for two terms (1964 – 1972).
Before he died in 1991, the Queen knighted Paliau Moloat.
Paliau represented a new brand of leaders who through their philosophies and practices, created the spark that is now recognized as the beginning of Melanesian nationalism. He and others like Yaliwan of Madang, Taro of Oro, Tommy Kabu of Papua and Koriam Urekit of the Pomio Cult inspired the evolution of village and community based political and socio-economic systems. And their legacies live on though we don’t know much about it.
I didn’t stay at Baluan to learn more about his philosophy and the current practice of his followers who keep he progressive spirit alive on the island. This is a great regret for me. But traveling through Manus, I asked a lot of people about him and learnt some interesting things.
He was a strong believer in health and education. It was his belief that health and education were the keys to Manusians achieving what the Americans had achieved. He believed all children should be in school.
He believed that all knowledge should be shared and those who had traveled to other countries or went to schools should come back to Manus and share their knowledge. One person told me about one such meeting they had gone to where Paliau asked them to speak and share what they had learnt and in turn were asked a tonof questions by all those present.
He believed that many of the people in the territory administration were cunning and what they said should not be taken as gospel truth. He was disappointed with his own experience of administration contact and saw self-determination as the key to be treated as equals.
He believed some of the old customs should end and had no place in a progressive society.
He believed that all people in Manus where one people and old rivalries should end.
He believed in the establishment of progressive villagers, such as the one that exists now at Bonai. I didn’t get to visit the village.
I think there has not been a definite study of Paliau. What I have is information I gleaned from discussions with various persons in Manus as well as from Kakak Kais’s work on the Paliau Movement (www.pngbuai.com/100philosophy/paliau-movement/default.htm), which has helped to fill some of the gaping holes in my knowledge of this great person.
But everything I have written here about Baluan and Paliau is a first person narrative by me. It’s important that if you read this that you do not take everything I say as gospel truth. If you do you are imprisoned in the world of my narrative, you fooled by my biases and my inaccuracies…So go to Manus, go to Baluan, climb Malsu, and find out more this Melanesian and his ideas and make up your own mind.
If you are interested in visiting send me an email on email@example.com.
Learn more about Papua New Guinea here www.papuanewguinea.travel.
Enjoy These Images from Baluan (You can read Part 1 here, it also has images of Baluan).