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40 days & 40 nights on a remote island in PNG

Co-creating a small eco-tourism community

· transition,coaching,ecotourism
After 5 flights and a 2 hour dinghy trip we set foot on the breathtakingly stunning island of Gonubalabala and thoughts started rushing through my mind “It feels like home. I want to stay here. Oh, I can. Yay, I am. For 5 weeks. I can’t wait to welcome the first footers to the island next week and see expressions when they first lay eyes on our new home.”
Gonubalabala Island, Samarai Archipelago, Papua New Guinea. Photo credit: James Ashdown
“Eauwedo” , which when pronounced sounds like “Are y’r a weirdo” in a lovely Northern accent.

“Eauweeedo”, “Eauweedo”, Eauweeeeedo” is the first and most important word we learned. Eauwedo means: ‘Hello’, ‘Welcome’, ‘Thank you’ and ‘How are you’ and is used all day long. 100’s of times a day amongst the 20 locals on the island and us. The Mailulu Clan welcomed Filippo and myself with a beautiful ceremony, flower necklaces, singing, dancing, coconut scones, massive smiles and hand shakes on the happy and prosperous future of Tribewanted Gonubalabala. All of this was so wonderfully overwhelming and touching. I immediately felt welcome. I must admit I shed a tear of joy and gratitude.

Eauwedo. Our welcome ceremony
Nydia our community manager and I on the neighbouring island of Samarai doing some last minutes preparations before the first footers arrive

Nydia our community manager and I on the neighbouring island of Samarai doing some last minutes preparations before the first footers arrive

What brought Tribewanted to Gonubalabala?

A brief recap — This November 2015, Tribewanted partnered with the small community of Gonubalabala called the Mailulu Clan and supported them in their goal of building a simple and small off-grid eco-tourism site in tropical paradise. Gonubalabala is a small 3 hectare island in the Samarai archipelago in Papua New Guinea.

 

Filippo and I were joined by 12 adventurous first footers on this epic island adventure and cultural experience. And yes, it was absolutely amazing to see their faces and reactions arriving in our little corner of paradise. So 14 of us in total, aged 25–52, seven nationalities. Some stayed a week, some a full month. A very diverse, interesting, like-minded and really fun bunch.

The first footers: Tribewanted co-founder Filippo, Nix (me), James with little Stevie, Becky, Jonathan, Tracy, Chris, Mark, Michael, Henry, Birgit, Til, Anna, Lars with the catch of the day

The first footers: Tribewanted co-founder Filippo, Nix (me), James with little Stevie, Becky, Jonathan, Tracy, Chris, Mark, Michael, Henry, Birgit, Til, Anna, Lars with the catch of the day

We packed our tents, torches, goggles & snorkles, teabags, travel solar chargers and camped at the beach. We laughed — a lot. I especially enjoyed the many many fascinating conversations, learning so much from each other. And the many, many long hours of discussing life, our dreams & goals and putting the world to rights. We arrived as fellow adventurers and solo travellers looking to live life differently for a while and left with enriched lives and some new very good friends.

A typical day in tropical paradise: rising with the sun and going to sleep when night falls

It’s difficult to get out of bed on the wrong foot when waking up to this view

It’s surprising how quickly you can get used to a completely new environment and totally different lifestyle. No electricity, no running water, limited zoom (gasoline), and therefore limited transport, no Wifi (although we sometimes had a signal from the mast on a neighbouring island, as long as its generator had enough zoom). So it was more or less a digital detox. And this is definately a lifestyle I am personally a very big advocate of. What better place to disconnect from our busy lives at home and live and breathe every moment in tropical paradise.

Typical morning: sunrise, early morning manta ray watch, swimming with the mantas. Manta photo credit: James Ashdown

Typical morning: sunrise, early morning manta ray watch, swimming with the mantas. Manta photo credit: James Ashdown

I typically awoke at sunrise around 5.15am, the sound of the waves slowly welcoming me to the day. Get up, walk 5 metres, paddled in the waves whilst cleaning my teeth and watching the sun rise. What a peaceful start to the day.

Slowly everyone emerged from their tents and enjoyed a first morning cuppa in the community area or more often than not at the beach while staring out to sea, keeping an eye out for the mantas’ fins and then grab goggles, snorkles and join them for a swim.

Our beloved hammock lounge for morning, midday and afternoon reading and snoozes:

Preparing sago leaves for the roof of the bungalow, planting yams in the gardens on the top of the island, making a chicken coop so we can avoid the daily Easter egg hunt in future:

The manta rays are definitely an absolute highlight at Gonubalabala.

Larger than us, and very friendly creatures. There’s a natural manta ray cleaning station about 3 minutes swim of the shore. Swimming with them is like a beautiful dance. Experiencing up to seven mantas circling me, swimming towards me where for a short moment I thought one would swallow me whole but then it would gracefully change course and glide below me and circle back. Magical is the only word I can find to describe this phemomenal experience. Definitely one of the top daily topics on the island.

We also had the opportunity to support the local community on various projects on the island. Primarily, building the new private bungalow for two guests. Before we started there was an official ceremony to bless the land, the community, the ‘dim dims’ (meaning the white people). It’s fascinating how the bungalow was constructed without the electric tools and machines we are so used to seeing on a building site. And who needs a ladder when we can stand on each others shoulders. Although I must admit that we did borrow a generator in the last week to do the planing of the floorboards. Sago leaves were collected, folded and bundled ready to make the beautiful and waterproof roof. The walls were woven by hand. The craftsmanship in every single detail of the bungalow never ceased to amaze me — how the beautiful architecture considers every inch of detail including flow of air and protection from the sun and heat, so necessary for tropical island life.

Day trip including picnic and fresh coconuts to a tiny neighbouring island without a name:

Fun day trips. The Samarai archipelago has a few more stunning islands that are really worth a visit. Samarai has a small market with fresh fruit and veg. We went on fun and adventurous hikes across Doini island where the Mailulu Clans’ ancestors lie in the skull cave. I’d never seen a real human skull before — so there’s another first. Then there’s beautiful Love Beach, the perfect place for a sundowner. Close by there are some smaller islands we visited where we drank fresh coconuts, went fishing, knocked fresh oysters off the the rocks and had a snooze in the shade. It’s literally like island hopping from one island paradise to the next.

Sunset on Gonubalabala Island

The days ended just as peacefully as they began. Sundowners, followed by freshly cooked fish and chilled evenings at the bonfire under a carpet of stars.

 

Insights and learnings from the local community

Nydia with her son Stevie, Pastor Steven and his wife Cinderella, Leone and Felix

Family and community is everything. All for one and one for all. Always. Four generations live on Gonubalabala. They meet every morning for a church service under a tree at the beach, taking it in turns to lead the service. They complement each others skills in daily life and can therefore build or create anything they need and barter fruit, veg and fish amongst themselves.

The extended family and community & the power of the spoken word. At first there were rumours in the province that we, the ‘dim dims’ were in the long run planning to take over the island and make them leave. This has sadly happened a lot in recent years on islands close by. Therefore, we fully comprehended their fear. It was of utmost importance that we had as many conversations as needed with not only the local community but also extended family and chiefs from the other islands. We assured them that Tribewanted Gonubalabala is owned and run by the community. It is important that the local culture and traditions remain as we want to offer our tribe members and guests an absolutely authentic experience. “We only believe what we hear with our own ears.” they said. I’m happy to say that all worries were resolved smoothly and we successfully continue to work hand-in-hand.

The community raises their children together. It may look as if a toddler is running around the beach alone. But when you look closely there’s always someone keeping an eye on the little ones. And there are no toys, hardly any crying and rarely a tantrum. It’s fascinating to see how the kids make up their own games and are very happy little souls, it seems under no pressure to grow up quickly.

We enjoyed a really fun visit to Logea primary school on a neighbouring island and seeing what amazing work they are doing to provide education for the children. On their sports day we witnessed the kids playing competitive sport, really enjoying themselves and how keen they all were to take part. Their level of fitness was an inspiration to us to have our own island olympics which turned out being hilarious beach races wearing goggles, snorkles and flippers. Community fun!

Living on island time. Living in the moment. No watches or clocks. The time is always ‘now’. A bell rings when church or gatherings begin (the bell is actually an old oxygen diving tank hanging from a tree). The first bell means get ready, the second bell means now walk over to the meeting space. Easy. No multi-tasking, no rush, take it easy in the humid tropical climate. Take one step at a time.

The most spiritual chuch I’ve ever attended a service. This is taken just before the community arrives as I didn’t dare to take any photos throughout the service:

Wicked sense of humour: We enjoyed many a giggle together. Here one of my favourite memories: The Clan is very catholic and have a beautiful church under a tree at the beach. Leone was translating Pastor Steven’s words: “We thank God for bringing us the missionaries, otherwise we would have eaten you upon arrival on the island”. Stunned for a moment, but then I saw the twinkle in Leone’s eye. Yes, we are in a safe place, and no, there are no cannibals here :)

Craftsmanship and listening to nature are key survival skills. During our time on the island our lives were really stripped back to the basics. Surviving means being able to build a secure and waterproof roof over your head, and understand the rules and signs of nature to plant you gardens and know how, when and where to fish for your dinner. I still have so much to learn but will now never go thirsty on a deserted island, having mastered opening a coconut with a machete. (I just need to learn how to scramble up those palm trees)

Less is more. I arrived back home and asked myself why have I so much stuff? So much of everything. Feeling stuffocated. And I thought I had already pruned my belongings to the max necessary. It’s about needing less of everything. Less clothes, shoes, boxes full of unecessary gadgets, books, scarfs etc. Using less water. Especially using less water. We were living on a few litres a day per person on the island (for cooking, bucket showering, washing dishes and clothes) and it works perfectly well. They own next to nothing and are content just the way they are.

We proudly present the first Tribewanted accomodation in PNG
The private double bungalow built in November 2015:

Amazing but true — in just one month we helped the local community build this beautiful bungalow for two. What an achievement. I have a massive appreciation of their skills to build such beautiful natural homes.

A dorm with three single beds is also available as well as the opportunity to camp on the beach, just as we did.

Posh pit loo to the left, bucket shower to the right:

Nydia says: “This has been a very special experience for our community. It was the first time to have help from guests within the community. I loved working, teaching, learning and experiencing new things together with guests. We miss your smiling faces on the island. We look forward to welcoming new guests. Whether solo travellers or in groups. See you soon. ”

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A few testimonials from the first footers

Jonathan: “Epic! It was so much fun from start to finish! That is all :-)”

James: “This trip massively exceeded my expectations. From meeting the Mailulu clan and the other first footers, being made truly welcome and part of the community and having the opportunity to live the island life in a different culture to its fullest and learn what’s really important in life. The island is beautiful, the people amazing and the experiences unforgettable — visiting other islands on day trips, snorkelling the coral reef and swimming with the manta rays, visiting local markets, helping out the clan with some of the building jobs. Overall I would encourage anyone and everyone I meet to visit this island paradise and change your lives forever.”

Michael: “My priority was to gather new experiences, have an adventure, and to live in the community with the locals — and to get offline and disconnected. My expectations were exceeded. The greatest impact on me was getting to know lots of interesting tribemembers and locals, the daily conversation with the mantas and getting used to drink warm beer. Gonubalabala is fascinating on all levels — island, nature, wildlife, people and a real good chance to get down to earth.”

Anna: “I would go back in a heart-beat! Totally unique, exciting experience in a stunning place with inspirational people and incredible wildlife! A world away from everything… AMAZING!”

Lars: “My favourite memories: swimming with the manta’s, laying in the hammock, going fishing and watching sunrise each morning from my tent”

Filippo: “Live in paradise alongside the local community. Go back to the basics. Be a better person for it.”

We really did live differently for a while.

KAIONI — we’ll be back! And yes, at departure a few more tears were shed. Photo credit: Henry Teare

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