Lou Island: Obsidian and Kindness in Manus
I arrived at Rei Village, Lou Island, the boat’s motor idling as the sea pounded away at the beautiful shoreline. We could see people milling around the beach and on the embankments on both side of it under a giant kwila tree. It was Tuesday 22nd, February 2011.
The skipper of the banana boat, Lloyd Senang expertly waited for a wave to come in. One of the passengers shouted ‘whoop’ and Lloyd revved the engine onto the crest of the incoming wave and we surfed the boat up and onto the beautiful Rei beach.
The boat wasn’t yet out of the water, but it was out of the tide. Lloyd pulled out a rope fastened to the boat and spread it up on the shoreline.
Everyone, kids, adults, women, old men lined up on the beach, the rope in their hands, waiting for the sea to come in. Lloyd gave a shout as the waves came in and we hauled the boat further up the beach, away from the reach of the hungry sea.
I was at Rei Village. I was in Lou Island, Manus. I had travelled a long way in search of one thing, to find an obsidian knife and see where it was mined.
If you know your history about PNG, you should know about Lou. In traditional times there were only a few places in the South Pacific, where obsidian, that beautiful, black volcanic glass so important to ancient traders, was mined and fashioned.
Lou Island was one such place. The old Lou Islanders mined and skilfully produced obsidian knives, spear shafts and other items here. Their work has been found all over the South Pacific as well in the Philippines and other Asian countries. Wherever Lou obsidian has been found, so too have traces of Lapita pottery. This has shown to researchers the extent of trading by the early Manusians and other people along the vast stretch of ocean and seas.
Lou, seemingly long and flat when compared to the neighbouring Baluan is an extinct volcano with three old craters. It is part of a sunken caldera system that has produced Baluan, Lou,Tuluan and other volcanic islands here.
The island lies about 20Km south east of the Manus Island. You catch the boat at Loniubridge, it costs around K30 per passenger on way.
When you approach Lou, its dramatic. Large red, black and brown volcanic rocks like towering fortress walls rise out of the ocean.
Overgrown withered trees with curled roots grow over the rocks,their large branches spread out over the tumultuous water and sea spray, as if reaching out for something. Thick forest covers the steep slopes of rock and rubble as waves crash violently below.
There are a few beaches here. The beach at Rei is actually the mouth of a seasonal river.
Lou does not have reefs in most places, especially on the sides not facing Manus and thus is facing incredible erosion from the sea. The sea pounds on island as if furious that a volcano dared to create land here.
Getting the boat into Rei was difficult, with no reefs, or small islands to help ease the currents here, the sea is relentlessly threatening to throw us in. Everyone on the boat assures each other that this is not that bad.
I say a quick silent prayer “Please God, All I want is an obsidian knife, what’s so wrong about that?”
Twenty minutes later, I am at Rei Village, shaking hands with people, dropping my bag of at Lloyds house and setting off to do a tour of the village.
Reipeople and pretty much the rest of Lou are Seventh Day Adventist Church members. Infact, Lou Island SDA Mission during the early part of the century was an important outpost for the church as it did its work in the South Pacific.
Many of the local customs here reflect SDA practices, such as Sabbath, dailysermons as well as others (which has helped the local population of Cuscus on the island which are not eaten). If you read my other post about Baluan Island I mentioned how this affected travel as well, as they do not work on certain days.
Lou people are homebuilders. They build large beautifulhouses above the ground that catch the sea breeze. I spent sometime on the walk admiring these houses. After the experience of the boat ride here, I know that it is difficult to bring material in. But this has not stopped them in anyway.
One really nice family invited us to eat with them. Hupa Loras, a well built Lou Islander and his beautiful wife had prepared something for me, a meal of baked tapioca, flattened like a cake. It was made using coconut oil and was very sweet to eat. They had put two tinned fish on it as a present and a plate of the sweetest fish I have ever tasted. I apologised first, because I am horrible at eating fish and then went for it, with several fish bones stuck in my tongue.
Many of Papua New Guinea’s most educated leaders of industry, society and government come from Lou Island. I am not going to name them but some are senior judges, lawyers, engineers, teachers, business people, social workers, scientists, journalists and more. As we ate they called names and told stories. Some people may think that these are simple island people, but to call Lou people simple is to be fooled by them. They are very smart and hard working too. But they like their island life as well. It is here you will find the classic Papua New Guinea dichotomy. Smart, intelligent, aggressive yet laid back at the same time.
Lou being volcanic is fertile. Everywhere I went I got fed huge meals of garden produce and fish. It’s a policy of mine on my travels to eat everything that’s offered. At Lou, I started doubting if this was the best policy as I ate so much everywhere. Everyone was feeding me. Hupa’s meal was just the start. I headed back to Lloyds place and had another huge meal there as well. I must have gained 5kgs overnight.
I crashed that night, in a room overlooking the sea, with the cool sea breeze blowing through an open window.
The next morning the adventure began.
We jumped on a boat, escorted by Lloyd’s relatives, Viki, Alpha and their aunt and uncle and we headed over to Ulumeng, an obsidian site.
A few minutes east of Rei Village, we arrived at the most beautiful cove I have ever seen. I don’t know why I brought a really bad camera with me. If I could show you what I saw, the blue ocean that pushes into here, each swell creating blue & green shadows under the water, the dancing sunlight, the pebbled beach, the green trees, the red and black rock walls on each side pockmarked with small caves caused by the sea, it was surreal as if painted with the most vivid colorsever created. I think everyone on the boat knew I’d be stunned as we arrived.
A few minutes later we were off and climbing up a steep ridge to where the Umlewang village was and met up with local guys, Kekes &Korup,who began to explain the whole process of obsidian mining here in traditional times.
The myth of the rock is quite interesting. They said Obsidian, which they call Pwue-al, came one day as a large school of fish. They old people of Lou trapped the school in their nets but the stone told them, if you bring me a white pig, I will go onto your land and I will be easy to find. The people could not find a white pig, so they took a black pig and covered it with lime to offer the obsidian. But as the pig walked,the lime fell off and the truth was exposed, much to the fury of the obsidian which buried itself deep in the island. As a result of their failed ruse, Lou Islanders have been punished to dig deep mines and tunnels to get the rock.
We had a look at these mines. They are deep narrow holes that go some 3 – 12 meters into the ground along the old volcanic ridges. A person would be lowered down on a rope, to excavate the pit and look for the rock. All excavation material was brought back to the surface. There were areas where a person could take shelter in case the hole collapsed and one could shimmy up the sides of the holes as well, as there were definite small steps in some of them.
All around the site were obsidian waste rock, black sharp and shiny. They explained that some of the hills that the houses here are built on are actual waste mounds from the obsidian mines.
In the old times, specialist obsidian craftsman would sing spells to the obsidian and then split the rock with a special stonetool. The waste and poor quality rock would be discarded and the good rock would be used to create daggers known as Kosum and spearheads known as Pilko. The dagger handles where made out of the stalk from palm trees and coated with tree resin. They said the daggers were made this way so that if in a fight and it was used to stab someone, the handle would break off, leaving the obsidian blade in the person. They assured me that these wounds took a long time to heal and often killed.
I asked them about the ancient trade of these knives. They explained that as well as other goods such as sago and pots etc, the main item it was traded for were live humans, ‘fresh meat’ they said with a grin. In the school history books we were taught traditional items were created and traded for other useful items and food. Simple yes, but the reality of many ancient societies was that one of the highest sought goods was fresh meat, human meat. In Manus when I met other people, they explained that raiding parties would terrorise other communities, steal men especially, and head out to Lou to trade for the knives.
At some pointing in the last 100 years or so, the Lou Islanders ended obsidian mining and buried their best knives in a cache somewhere on the island.
I wanted a knife. But it was ok because someone would bring me one later that night.
They gave us a bilum of sweet mandarins, we said goodbye and headed off towards another beach on the other side of the ridge.
The boat was waiting for us. We jumped on and headed another good 10 – 20 minutes towards the Umlewang point. They wanted to show me the hot water system here.
We met an old man, Ponoan Semin and this was his land. He lived next to the point which was always steaming with geothermal activity. His children lived nearby but he was recently widowed.
It was high tide so we didn’t get a good picture of the hot water system. They said when the water levels dropped, the hot springs poured out of the point into rock pools. They are very hot, even when mixed with cool salt water. I almost got scalded in one place.
We said goodbye to Ponaon, a nice old guy and headed out to Boan Village, about 30 minutes by boat. (I am estimating time here, truth is I dont know how long it took to get there).
The trip to Boan was pretty special. We came to an area along Lou Island were great coral reefs lay underneath us, and in front of us where these sudden great white cliff walls that rose above a narrow pebbled beach.
There were birds in the cliffs, a giant white eagle and underneath we spotted fish and turtles, lots of turtles.
We beached at Boan’s long grey sandy beach. After speaking to the local councillor, we walked back along the beach with Graham Kimat, a young boy who was acting as our local guide.
We walked up to a beach where infront of us was small lake. Graham explained that this lake is created from boiling hot water from a geothermal area on the other side of the water. He said the geothermal area was further inland previously but has moved out, closer to the water.
We headed out to the area. As we did, we passed areas of dug up mounds, quite deep and covered with coconut fronds. These areas were mined for wild fowl eggs. These fowlslay their eggs in the hot sand all year round. The people here come and harvest what they can. Fowl eggs are big, twice the size of chicken eggs. The holes and frond coverings where everywhere we walked.
The thermal spot isa red in color, probably cause of the heat and minerals being emmited here. The place was called Tangwok, which means hot water or hot place. Graham advised us to follow where he put his foot. He explained one wrong step and you could go through the soft earth and find your self in boiling hot water. We could hear it underneath us, rumbling away and around us it hissed steam out of pockets in the red soil.
I took some pictures but something didn’t go so well with the camera so shot a video instead, which I will share later.
And then I got given about six wild fowl eggs. Graham explained that sometimes they traded eggs for smokes and other goods. You can’t find wild fowl eggs in large quantities anywhere else in Manus. We headed back to Boan planning to continue on our journey, but a family wanted me to stay back awhile and eat a special treat. What was it? Fried wild fowl egg!! I must have had about six, which wasn’t a good idea as I later, painfully found out.
After the eggs, we headed out travelling around the rest of the beautiful shoreline of Lou Island, passed Tuluan and Baluan in the distance. My camera batteries were fully depleted and my stomach was playing up after eating so many eggs, so I just laid back in the boat and chilled out, dreaming about my obsidian knife which I was going to receive later that night.
What can I tell you about Lou Island? Its a fascinating place, with beautiful, kind but fiercelyindependent people. Go there, get yourself an obsidian knife, wash in boiling hot water, go hiking, go fishing, meet great people and get to know a part of Papua New Guinea’s real history.
But you need to do with local permission.
Get in touch with Lloyd, just call him on his phone 72179512 or email me here firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll put you in touch. Find out more about Papua New Guinea, here www.papuanewguinea.travel