Timeless Tranquility of Rennell Island
There are countless facets of this island that bring me to feel we have crossed dimensions, and are lingering here, suspended in time. The feeling first struck me as we sailed offshore and I was watching large waves crash against the rocks. They were windswept and magnificent, frozen and motionless for a moment of suspension. Then, there was our arrival into the unknown. We first passed the much smaller Bellona island, which we were later told is essentially one long village, running from tip to tip. We must have been on the opposite side, for all we could see was steeply sweeping sea cliffs, painting an image of the most inhospitable places to live. As we approached Rennell, Haunui came over the radio asking if we had seen signs of life since one of the crew had a fish spine piercing his finger all the way through and was in need of a doctor. Explorers in an unknown land, we could see no people as of yet, rather nothing but beautiful, wild jungle and an old abandoned hut of some kind with tracks that appeared unused for years. We anchored in a sheltered bay at dusk after a few unsuccessful tries at setting anchor in an underwater realm full of successively deeper ledges.
The island is a World Heritage Site, designated so because of its expansive lake in the interior that is resplendent with endemic species and minimally affected by human disturbance. The island is entirely coral, once a huge underwater reef that was pushed upwards during an eruption, and unique in that it is one of few Polynesian islands in the Solomon Island group that is 95% Melanesian. The winds are not favorable for our journey south and so we have decided to stay here for a few days and humbly await nature’s shift. Here with us, Hine Moana, areEvohe, Okeanos, Faafaite, and Haunui. The rest of our vaka family, TeMatau a Maui, UtoniYalo, and Marumaruatua turned back towards Guadacanal in the squalls and anchored there to wait out the weather.
I thrive in the feeling of discovery at arriving in a new place in the blanket of night and awakening to discover one’s surroundings through the eyes of a child. The island is completely forested and filled with bird song, bringing in the new day in unison with their dawn chorus. Bats, or perhaps they are large flying foxes, soar above the jungle. After taking care of the canoe, we descend beneath the sea, to uncover a variety of colorful coral, iridescent blue-green clams, and abundant reef fish. There is a fresh water spring along the shelf and the area is known as Waikiki, which translates as such. Ironically,we are a world away from the Waikiki of Oahu, Hawaii, that was once a natural splendor with abundant freshwater springs.We stepped ashore briefly, to find some Haunui crew emerging from the bush with a few local villagers in tow. They had hiked 2 hours to find the village, surely surprising the villagers as they emerged from the bush. The locals were friendly and very excited to come and see the vakamoana. The tribal chief was a young man, and covered in tattoos that represent his family’s lineage. Tomorrow will be a big planting day in the village, in preparation for Christmas when they will be hosting all of the villages on the island, which reportedly total 14. They are planning ahead, planting crops of cassava, papaya, taro, sweet potoato, banana, and other staples so that they are well equipped to feed the entire island.
Later that evening before sundown, I took the stand up paddle board out and sought some solitude. Slowly paddling around the vaka in the calm waters of the bay was a soothing and cathartic sort of exercise. The jungle again filled with song as birds bid the sun goodnight and bats soared low, seeking their sleeping places. In the evening, the crews of Haunui, Faafaite, Evohe, and Okeanos came over to Hine Moana for kava and dinner. There were songs into the night under the stars and the sharing of stories. I learned from other crew that in Honiara, a traditional navigator heard of this gathering of double-hulled voyaging canoes and he came in search of Tua Pittman with a letter in hand. The man comes from an island in the Solomon Chain, and his letter said simply, ‘our islands are vanishing from sea level rise, please help us’. I see tremendous power in the fact that he comes to the canoes with these words. The voyaging canoe is arising as a symbol, a messenger globally. Tua in fact pointed out, that the majority Pacific Arts Festival logos over the past 14 years have voyaging canoes in them.
We spent the next day recuperating and taking care of repairs and maintenance on the canoes. In the late afternoon, we took the dingy to the outer edges of the bay to explore a coral canon of sorts. You would never imagine from the surface what lies below but there was a deep chasm, a sort of coral canon, quickly receding into darkness, where bigger fish dwell. The current was incredibly strong, carrying us somewhat involuntarily across walls of coral extending deep into the sea. Beyond the chasm were endless, shallow fields of coral and clams and, ashore, diverse limestone caves and lush jungle.
In the very early morning, I took out the stand up paddle board alone. Gently drifting along the shoreline, butterflies surrounded me, bats soared overhead, a sting ray swam below, the water was so clear that on the surface was a pattern like interlaced diamonds, or perhaps a quilted blanket. There is abundance here…. schools of fish leap from the surface in unison….large, diverse, colorful coral heads looms so close to the surface it is as though we peer at them with no barrier, as though the water is removed, and I am looking through the eyes of a marine creature, surrounded by water so turquoise. Smoke rises from a fire onshore, and drifts out across the water. I can smell the smoke, and the forest abounds with bird song. The water is glass, I can see the skeletons of coral, the behaviors of fish, iridescent blue fish flitting about. Bayan roots stretch out against the rocks, the cannoned coral above the sea. Fresh water springs emerge every so often, the first light of day hits the water and warms me.
In the afternoon, we hiked to the lake, an owl calls out as we travel through the forest, and the wings of white ibis color the forest every now and then. This lake is a World Heritage site of impressive size at 15 miles long, Legend has it that there was once a giant, man eating octopus in the center of the lake. The octopus was living in a cave and needed to fill the crater with water before it could emerge. The story goes that 8 canoes came and chopped off each of its arms. The people here speak of their origins in a canoe form Fortuna, that went down to New Zealand, and then back up again to Rennell. The parallels are fascinating for octopus are a common symbol in mythology across the Pacific. There is a small village near the lake, and what struck me most about watching life unfold there is the ingenuity of the children in their play and imagination. They had taken an old rugby ball and cut it into a helmet on one half and a mask with the other. It is truly amazing what children can create with limited resources and how enriched the imagination can be with simplicity, as opposed to the talking, technical toys of the modern world that rob children of their imagination!
The next day, we made more repairs and readied the canoes for departure. Prior to leaving we made a trip to the nearest small village to trade flour and crackers for coconuts. We climbed up the mountainside through dense forest, with a trail of children behind us and up into the village. Once atop the hill, we were greeted with an unforgettable view of the bay below and the vaka, surrounded by extensive reef and turquoise aqua waters. The view provided a moment of contemplation, and of nostalgia for what will soon fade into the past as we sail onward.Rennell will be eternally ingrained in my memory, for her vibrancy, abundance, and untold tranquility…truly a secret whisper out there in the coral sea, a place where time seems suspended and diversity celebrated with a treasured truth that is vanishing on planet Earth.
By Karen Holman