Duke of York Islands

Posted February 13, 2020 by David McGuinness

Myself and Laurence left the jetty at ten past nine and struck out north with our boat driver from Goroka in the Highlands, not a usual occurrence and one that caused more than the odd sideways glance from locals Laurence informed me.  The water was clear and smooth as we made our way across the bay. We passed a zero fighter airstrip on one island, and a German-built warehouse still in use as a store for coconut and cocoa, a continuation of the plantations the Germans started here.

We landed on Mioko island, one of fourteen islands that make up the Duke of York islands. As we pulled in a group of boys jumped into the water from a tree and sensing their 15 minutes generally played up to the camera, with wide smiles and daring stunts. Our local guide Simeon, greeted me and showed me around. The island has a basic homestay with mattresses-on-the-ground bedding, and an external toilet and bucket shower. The atmosphere was again friendly and relaxed. The “restaurant” had a map of the world on the wall and I showed Simeon where Ireland was. It seems in PNG knowledge of Ireland is probably about as widespread as knowledge of New Ireland is in (old) Ireland! 

Simeon gave me a list of options of things to do, the first being a demonstration of shell money. Interestingly though the concept exists in different parts of the country, the implementation - more specifically the shells used - differs. The supply of the shells used for making shell money on Duke of York islands (and in East New Britain) has been exhausted locally and so are imported from West New Britain and Bougainville, which both use different shells for their shell money. Shells are threaded onto strips of ?? A long strip fits about 200 shells and rings of 10 or more are put together and used for ceremonial purposes, like festivals and funerals. The shells sell in fish tins (of about 1 litre) for 25 kina, and each one is enough to make 10 loops, which would sell for about 50-70 kina (£12-16 / $16-21). Short strips of shell money can be used to buy things in the market. A single betel nut costs about ten short strips. Watching the old lady thread the shells and use a fork to move them along to be closely but evenly spaced proved the age-old adage -making money takes time. Simeon’s wife demonstrated how to make a basket from a coconut frond, weaving the strands together in an intricate design, and ten minutes later she had a beautiful bag. Made green the sun would dry it out and make it useful. 

Both men and women knew how to make both shell money and to weave baskets. Styles however differed and baskets for men differed from those of the men, with young boys preferring a different style again. Talk turned to Queen Emma. Before Queen Emma came there was little the islanders could do for themselves it seemed. She had taught them weaving–a Fijian or perhaps Samoan technique–as well as teaching them to fish. I asked them how people survived before Queen Emma, which caused some pause before they told me about traditional fish traps, the use of poison rope and spear fishing. The people certainly felt a reverence for Queen Emma. I asked Laurence again about this and he said it was the same on the main island. I asked him who had told him the dark stories about Queen Emma. He said it was an old man, who died in 2014, and had told him they had purposely burned all evidence. This story had certainly played on my mind but it seemed unlikely I would ever find out whether this was just the story of an old man or whether behind it, lay a truth.

The Duke of York islanders have a single facial tattoo, downwards diagonally across the cheek from the eye. Some have one on the other cheek too. Left or right cheek was also a matter of preference. Simeon confessed that he was scared of needles and so didn’t have one. He was also a blow in, coming from New Ireland, the mountains of which could be seen in the distance.

The islands are home to just 17,000 people but consists of 4 dialects of one language, and a separate language on one of the outlying islands. Another language is always only ever a stones throw away in PNG. 

We took our leave and headed back towards Kokopo, stopping for a picnic lunch and some snorkelling on Pigeon island. Laurence taught me some phrases in pidgin, and me and the long-long man and long-long mery laughed as we made our way back across the sea which was, as had been advised, starting to get a little rougher. 

This blog is part of an Off-The-Beaten-Track Travel Diary. Click on the links below to navigate through this journey.

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