SHARK, RATTLE & ROLL
Briar Jensen paddles with the shark callers of Tembin in Papua New Guinea
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.theimajicaexperience.com. Tembin can also be reached overland from Kavieng. More: New Ireland Surf Tours and Trekking, email@example.com. www.newirelandtourism.org.pg www.png-tourism.com
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