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Strung out in the Solomons

The four foot shark moved ahead of us, the slow methodical sweep of its tail moving constantly like some menacing metronome. As we walked across the shallow coral reef that surrounded Refuge Island, Lutan, the local chief and medicine man, walked ahead of us clearing the spirits with a whispered chant. Steadily the shark moved ahead of us but always keeping within 15 feet.

A few hours before, we had arrived at Tembara, greeted by hoards of smiling naked children, laughing and pointing. What we mistook for pleasure at seeing us was in fact humour over where we had been. Opposite Tembara village, on the other side of the lagoon, was the wreck of a B52 bomber from WWII. Its alloy skeleton glittering in the Solomon sun drew us like a magnet as we entered the lagoon. We clambered over its huge wings, leapt up and down on the perspex canopy and generally had a full explore. The locals, especially the young ones, thought this was huge joke. Later we were to find out that none of the locals ventured on to the wreck because, and I quote Chief Lutan, “him big fella BOOMA and two fella he gone dead.” As the realisation of “Big Fella Booma” sunk in, and the laughter of the children began to subside we were formally introduced to the Chief. No more than four feet tall and of equal girth, it was hard to work out if his constant toothless grin was at our exploring misadventure or because of his genuine pleasure at our visit.


We talked, drank a little mango juice, then he proudly showed us around his lodge and gradually we began to get to know one another. Lutan’s toothless smile was constant, as was his tubby embrace. We asked what else was special about his lagoon. His smile melted away and a serious man appeared from behind the gummy grin. He spoke quietly to his oldest son who seemed to strongly disagree. Then with the simple command of ‘come’ we followed the chief towards the boat. On the way the oldest son explained that we were going to Refuge Island, the ancient island, where the spirits lived. He went on to whisper that no one can go there without Lutan lifting the spirits.

At the opening to Tembara lagoon was a non-descript mushroom shaped island. We pulled up to the edge of the shallow reef that surrounded the little island and Lutan got out and told us to wait. The nervousness of his son was unsettling and the change in Lutan was remarkable. As soon as his feet hit the shallow water a shark appeared not six feet away. It accelerated through the shallow water producing a jet like spray. Lutan turned to the shark and said in a calm voice some ‘custom words’. Remarkably and immediately the shark stopped and settled on the surface, its black eye clearly visible as it turned towards us. Lutan beckoned us forward. We waded through the shallow water towards Refuge Island, one eye on the shark, the other on Lutan. Apart from the lapping water and the constant chant of Lutan’s voice the only other motion was the steady movement of the shark. As we walked towards the shore the shark kept about 15 feet from us, never further, never closer, always constant. As Lutan stepped on the beach he picked up a piece of bush and waved it around in a sweeping motion. “Me shiftim spirits, em bad fella, you come self, im eat you, yummi:” ‘Yummie’ was emphasised by the international visual phrase of rubbing ones stomach in small circles and licking your lips, the message was very clear.

The coral island was formidable, with sharp coral cliffs and a small driftwood littered beach. We struggled through the roots of a banyan tree and headed around the edge of the cliff. Lutan explained that Refuge Island was where the tribe would hide when other headhunter tribes would raid their village. According to the chief, the island was so sacred that when the raiding parties would come the island would completely disappear. He proudly showed us the cracks in the cliff where two warriors defeated a whole tribe by killing everyone who struggled through the narrow crack, they could only get through one at a time. To one side of the crack was a small hole. Lutan pointed his stubby black finger a the hole. “Look im fella…look..look”. Straining to see down into the shallow dip we were startled by two eyes looking back, well more precisely, two sockets. “Em bad fella, my big papa, he kill em dead.” This statement was explained with further portions from the international visual phrase book, a series of short sharp chopping motions. Lutan then gently kicked the skull. “Em bad dead fella.”

With the obvious stated we noted that uncomfortably close to the skull was a large pit. And one could not help but draw a comparison between the skull and the pit and hamburger wrappers found lying around a fast food outlet.

“Em, for eating,” said Lutan point into the large pit. “People?”

“No peepole…fish!” This was a very large, deep pit …. for fish. Walking around the edge of the ‘fish’ pit Lutan showed us fossilised clam shells that collected water off the cliff walls and a conch shell so old it had become part of the rock. Leaving the headhunters version of McDonald’s behind we continued to walk around the cliff face. Lutans beaming smile once again faded and he became very reverent. Without looking he pointed to a small coral rock box on a cliff ledge. “Em Papa, em big papa, and big big papa.” Clearly the coral box contained the skulls of his father, grand father and great grand father. As you do in any graveyard we kept a degree of decorum and sobriety. “Mr Steve .. you wan go look?” Said Lutan with a childish grin. Scrambling up the cliff face towards the coral box, visions of the shark and the large ‘fish’ pit clearly came to mind. I had the uncanny feeling that this box of heads could well be those of unsuspecting tourists rather than of some ancestral relatives.

“Mr Steve you no touch, em bad, yummie, yummie.” I quickly looked at Lutan, his toothless grin had returned with a warped sense of local humour. Gazing into the box I was staggered to see three severed heads in a variety of conditions, big big papa was looking a little sad, big papa still had most of his teeth and papa was still uncomfortably fresh with small pieces of hair. Rocky

Edging back down the cliff Lutan gave me another of those warm and sweaty bear hugs, which I now began to question were less to do with affection and more to do with testing the fat content of tonights roast! As the cliff moved toward the sand we ventured out into the shallows, I scanned the water for the shark but he seemed to have gone. I turned to Lutan and asked. “The shark has gone?” Lutan pointed near to my feet and laughed. There laying more out of the water than in was the grey shark, at my verbal exclamation the shark skimmed over the surface. “Em good fella, em big papa..em like you.. em no yummie.” Fortunately from that point on grandfather kept his regal distance and we kept to the beach. The rest of the island was a feast of tales and artefacts, but the vision of the shark, the papas and the ‘fish’ pit made it a little hard to take in. The genuine look of relief on the face of Lutan’s son when we waded across the shallow water back to the canoe was also a little disconcerting.

I don’t believe in ghosts or spirits, I’m not superstitious, but as the boat was being gently paddled back to the village, with Lutan sitting happily in the bow, I slowly turned my head to look back at the island, not altogether sure whether it would have disappeared on our departure or not. I was relieved to see Refuge Island was still there, but less relieved to see the gently sweeping tail of ‘big papa’ following closely behind.

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