Mel Thunderbolt | Kapingamarangi Atoll
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Kapingamarangi Atoll

We had been out on the open ocean for over two weeks.

Dates and days of the week fell away and the only thing left was night and day, on watch and off watch.

Daily activities included making meals, reading, napping and sun-tanning while our tiny boat slowly made its way through the vastness of the ocean with no land in sight.

Looking at the chart, plotting our way, we saw that there was a tiny atoll relatively close by and decided to go and take a look.

Navigation chart for the Atoll

Excitement arose onboard when in the far distance, we could see tiny shrubbery indicating land.  Kapingamarangi Atoll.

It was a small narrow passage into the lagoon on the south west side of the atoll and navigation through it was difficult.  All hands were on deck to help look out for corral heads as one wrong turn would have ended in disaster.

After a successful entrance into the lagoon, we dropped anchor close to the shore and watched the local islanders come out onto the beach one by one to wave and welcome us with much excitement.  We even had a local fisherman come out on an outrigger canoe to give us fish and coconuts to welcome us.

Welcome to Kapingamarangi

Kapingamarangi Atoll is roughly 74km2 in size with a population of only about 500 people.

Their language is Polynesian with very basic English learnt from reading books left by passing sailors.  An interesting fact is that the atoll was once occupied by the Japanese during WW2 and was attacked by US Navy long range bombers.

We launched our dingy and went ashore, and as my feet touched the beach sand, it felt as though I had stepped into another world.

The jungle type vegetation with Coconut and Pandanus trees gave it the true island feel. Some of the locals wore t-shirts that had been handed on by sailors and others wore skirts and dresses in true Polynesian style.

The village was alive with children playing, dogs, chickens and pigs running freely and adults doing their daily chores.

News had spread around the village that newcomers had arrived, and everyone left their daily chores to come and greet us.  We were told that the island chief wanted to see us and we were lead through the sandy streets through the jungle, passing huts and families along the way.

The Jungle Streets

The huts were made of wood and had grass matting for the roof.  They didn’t have doors or windows and I asked myself who would need them anyway with the hot, tropical climate and little or no crime.

What I found interesting was that there were graves of deceased family members placed right next to the family living huts, and many headstones had been used to hang wet washing or had family members sitting on them.  I later found out that there had been illnesses from people burying the dead so close to their living, vegetable and washing areas and I could understand why.


The deceased loved ones nearby

We arrived at the centre of the small village to what looked like a hand built church with a bell on its roof, where we waited to meet the chief.  I must admit I was a little nervous after hearing all the stories about active Cannibalism in some Pacific Islands.

However, I should not have been worried because out walked the friendliest island man I had ever met.

He was so happy to meet us and was delighted about our arrival.  He explained that they very rarely got visitors besides a supply boat once every six months that brought basic food and western supplies from Australia.  He insisted that they wanted to have a feast in our honor the following night and that we could not decline.

He then gave us a tour of the island, introducing us to locals along the way.  He knew everyone’s name and gave us a brief story of each person and how they contributed to the community.

Meeting the wonderful children along our path

Besides the general supply of rice, canned food, and necessities twice a year from Australia, the atoll had to rely solely on themselves to survive and everyone had an important role to play.

The main source of food was fish, so there were the fishermen out on their canoes each morning, then the food farming of mainly Taro, Pandanus and Breadfruit, so farmers were tending to their small vegetable farms. Fresh water was always a concern and most of it was collected from the rain and stored.

I was blown away by the resourceful and ingenious ways the islanders used nature around them to make artifacts for daily living.

Shells were used for cutting instead of knives, clam shells used for bowls, coconut shells as cups to drink from and their leaves weaved into mats for sitting, hut roofs, plates and bowls for eating, hats and skirts to wear and they even used the leaves to make sails for their outrigger canoes.

The local spies

Excited for our feast the following night we headed back to our boat, but not without constant visitors. The local children could not get enough of us and swam out to our boat to watch us and giggle, they found us very interesting.  I even washed a local girl’s hair on the back of the boat after she saw me washing my own.

Hair wash day

That afternoon we went out on our dingy once again to dive on the WW2 Japanese wrecks in the lagoon and we even found a sunken bomber plane.

Sitting watching the sunset dip over the horizon, I couldn’t help thinking about the sunken war wrecks and how different island life must have been all those years ago and how this tiny island had transformed into a peaceful paradise.

Melissa Van Der Walt