Briar Jensen pad­dles with the shark call­ers of Tem­bin in Pa­pua New Guinea

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holidays Afloat -

THE sa­cred rit­ual of shark call­ing is pe­cu­liar to the west coast of Pa­pua New Guinea’s New Ire­land prov­ince. I’m here as part of a cul­tural ex­pe­di­tion cruise aboard Ima­jica II, a stately 25m tim­ber schooner. With a max­i­mum of 10 guests and four crew, the bou­tique char­ter of­fers stun­ning trop­i­cal sail­ing with swim­ming, snorkelling, div­ing, fish­ing and en­light­en­ing cul­tural ad­ven­tures in the Bis­marck Ar­chi­pel­ago.

We ar­rive at Tem­bin vil­lage one af­ter­noon and are wel­comed ashore by head shark caller Blaise Holde, who is sur­rounded by a swarm of smil­ing chil­dren. This re­gion is only ac­ces­si­ble by boat or a five-hour drive from the is­land’s main town of Kavieng, across a steep moun­tain range on a pot­holed road of­ten washed out by rain. Con­se­quently vis­i­tors are rare, de­spite the vil­lagers’ at­tempts to sup­ple­ment their mea­gre in­come with tourism.

The two women in our group of four are quickly adopted by the vil­lage girls, who proudly show us to the tra­di­tion­ally built guest­house. Then it is on to the wa­ter­hole for a re­fresh­ing dip while moth­ers and grand­moth­ers scour cook­ing pots and scrub clothes. The chil­dren are thrilled to have their pho­tos taken and love to prac­tise English, which they learn at school along with Tok Pisin, the lo­cal pid­gin, and Tok Ples, their clan lan­guage.

On the beach they tell us about Lap­bubu, the huge rock out­crop that sep­a­rates the vil­lages of Tem­bin and Kontu. Ac­cord­ing to lo­cal leg­end the rock was once home to Bi­bi­lang, a gi­ant can­ni­bal who de­voured any­one who came near, hence the name Tem­bin, which means no peo­ple. Bi­bi­lang was even­tu­ally killed so Tem­bin could be set­tled.

De­spite the in­flu­ence of Chris­tian­ity and a pref­er­ence for West­ern-style clothes, life in New Ire­land is still gov­erned by lo­cal lores and cus­toms, some so se­cre­tive that out­siders may never fully ap­pre­ci­ate their in­tri­ca­cies. So I feel priv­i­leged as I lis­ten to Holde ex­plain the prac­tice of shark call­ing, which re­quires con­sid­er­able dili­gence and per­sonal sac­ri­fice.

‘‘ For two to three days be­fore we must not sleep with our wives or step in ex­cre­ment of any kind, in­clud­ing bat drop­pings,’’ he says. The lat­ter can­not be easy as dogs and pigs range freely through the vil­lage. He goes on to ex­plain shark call­ers must not eat food pre­pared by women; they eat and sleep in the haus boi , or men’s house, and cleanse them­selves with bush medicine to wash away any im­pu­ri­ties or dis­ease.

At a private al­tar un­der a tree, he will pray to the shark spirit, cre­at­ing a re­spect­ful con­nec­tion be­tween caller and shark, fa­cil­i­tat­ing an eas­ier catch. For the ben­e­fit of guests, or per­haps to keep less sen­si­tive tourists away from his al­tar, Holde has built a replica out­side the guest­house.

Beck­on­ing me inside the low frond wall, he shows me the stone rep­re­sent­ing a shark on which he demon­strates draw­ing eyes with sap and plac­ing a ripped leaf for a tail. What hap­pens to the leaf some­times in­di­cates the out­come of the ex­pe­di­tion.

As we gather on the beach early next morn­ing, I won­der what hap­pened to the leaf on Holde’s al­tar last night. His face gives noth­ing away, though he is not happy about the weather. Flat, glassy con­di­tions are best, as a shark caller will nor­mally pad­dle 10km to 16km off­shore. Even in the pre-dawn dark­ness I can see rain clouds hov­er­ing and the sea build­ing. While Holde un­der­takes some last­minute re­pairs to his outrig­ger, one of his sons deftly fash­ions a wa­ter bailer from a ba­nana leaf, se­cur­ing it with a twig.

In the outrig­ger ca­noe, I silently re­mind my­self not to point. I’m un­der strict in­struc­tions from Holde and must not make any sud­den move­ments or loud noises. Th­ese are all bad omens that will bring cer­tain fail­ure.

I am sit­ting pre­car­i­ously — it’s my first ex­pe­ri­ence of bal­anc­ing on a hollow tree trunk — while the ocean swells un­pre­dictably be­neath and oc­ca­sion­ally breaks over the bow, mean­ing some se­ri­ous work with the ba­nana-leaf bailer. With three other pas­sen­gers, each of us in a ca­noe with a lo­cal pad­dler, I’m float­ing around Holde as he rhyth­mi­cally shakes co­conut-shell rat­tles over the sides of his ca­noe. As they churn the sur­face, a hollow clink­ing echoes through the wa­ter. Then he be­gins singing, an eerie call to the shark spirit.

Be­side him are a noose, spears and a club, the tra­di­tional weapons of a shark caller, and a tabur , or trum­pet shell, which I won­der if he’ll blow to­day, sig­nalling to the vil­lage that he has caught a shark and the vil­lagers should pre­pare for a feast.

Mark, my pad­dler, times our reef cross­ing care­fully, count­ing the waves and shoot­ing through be­tween sets of four. On the seaward side, Holde ex­plains it is too rough for him to spear the reef as he passes, in deference to the shark spirit, so in­stead he must of­fer a spe­cial prayer. We watch silently as he raises his pad­dle and prays rev­er­ently.

Af­ter stand­ing to scan the hori­zon he chooses a spot on the ocean and we pad­dle to­wards it, care­ful to re­main be­hind his ca­noe. It is hard work and Holde pe­ri­od­i­cally dis­ap­pears from view in the swell, but I can still hear the hollow thwack of his pad­dle as he skil­fully ma­nip­u­lates air through the wa­ter, the sec­ond method of at­tract­ing a shark.

Af­ter 40 min­utes of pad­dling, Holde stops and we gather around as he ar­ranges his im­ple­ments and re­minds us of the rules re­gard­ing move­ment, noise and point­ing. He takes a large rat­tle in each hand — loops of bam­boo threaded with dried co­conut shells — and shakes them vig­or­ously in the wa­ter, which calls the shark’s spirit, thereby bring­ing it to the sur­face. Then he sings the soul­ful shark caller’s song.

Over­cast skies ren­der the sea a fath­om­less, inky black. Outrig­ger poles creak and strain against their vines as we roll about. My emo­tions roll, too, os­cil­lat­ing be­tween ex­cite­ment at the ad­ven­ture and con­cern over the flim­si­ness of my ca­noe. I am si­mul­ta­ne­ously will­ing a (small) shark to ap­pear, and wor­ry­ing what will hap­pen if one does.

Holde con­tin­ues to rat­tle and sing; we watch and wait. But no shark ap­pears, so he se­lects an­other place on the ocean and off we pad­dle to try again. But it’s not to be. As a fine driz­zle set­tles in, it ap­pears an­other clan may have cast a spell, caus­ing the bad weather and deny­ing us a catch. Clearly dis­ap­pointed for his guests who have trav­elled so far, Holde demon­strates his shark-catch­ing tech­nique, sans shark.

If a shark ap­peared, he would use a small bait­fish tied to the end of a stick to tempt it be­side his ca­noe. As it swam up from be­hind, he would whip a wo­ven noose over its head and jerk it tight, forc­ing the at­tached wooden pro­pel­ler against its body. With a small shark, he would hang on to the noose and sub­due it with his club be­fore haul­ing it aboard. With a large shark, he’d let it go, wait­ing for it to ex­haust it­self fight­ing the buoy­ant pro­pel­ler.

I’m not sure I like the part where he blud­geons the shark to death, but I’m here to wit­ness, not to pass judg­ment.

And I’m sad for the vil­lagers, who will not feast on shark tonight. The liver is highly prized and di­vided care­fully by the chief, en­sur­ing each child re­ceives a por­tion to ward off sick­ness and, for the boys, so they may one day be­come shark call­ers.

Know­ing that the lack of a shark sup­per tonight is not my fault for point­ing, shout­ing or mov­ing doesn’t seem much con­so­la­tion. Briar Jensen was a guest of Vir­gin Blue, Air Ni­ug­ini and the Ima­jica Ex­pe­ri­ence.


The Ima­jica Ex­pe­ri­ence of­fers seven-night and 11-night sail, dive and sur­fari ex­pe­di­tions plus ex­ploratory cruises tak­ing in the shark call­ers of Tem­bin. From $2600 for seven nights, $3980 for 11 nights. An 11-night sail and Bain­ing trek com­bines seven days sail­ing, in­clud­ing a visit to the shark call­ers, with five days visit­ing the Bain­ing fire dancers in the moun­tains be­hind Rabaul; from $4830. Cruises depart from Kavieng or Rabaul; Ima­jica II is un­der­go­ing main­te­nance and trips will again be avail­able later this year. More: www.theima­ji­ca­ex­pe­ri­ Tem­bin can also be reached over­land from Kavieng. More: New Ire­land Surf Tours and Trekking, kavieng­sur­f­ www.newire­land­

Catch of the day: Sharks don’t al­ways re­spond to head caller Blaise Holde’s en­treaties but on this oc­ca­sion he re­turns to Tem­bin vil­lage with a prize

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