Tides that bind: Australia in the Pacific

| August 23, 2021

In the nondescript hall, with a sea breeze providing only a modicum of relief from the stifling heat, discomfort remained our host. There were no seats, just a bare floor. And for my middle-aged body, which has the innate flexibility of a crowbar, sitting cross-legged for any period was a mild form of torture.

I was worried for my companion, too. Despite the then governor-general’s unflappable grace, sitting on the floor in her immaculate attire was definitely not in the handbook. And if my aching bones were any guide, there had to be a limit to what could be asked of the vice-regal limbs. So I suggested to her that I find a chair.

But Quentin Bryce is complete class. She wouldn’t hear of it. The most senior of the Tuvaluan women were sitting on the floor and so would she. This moment was not about her, it was about the kids who were ready to perform, and she was hardly going to steal their limelight by being the only person perched on a chair. And so we sat and watched and listened as teams of children took their turns in dance and song.

With expectations set at what an equivalent cohort of pre-teens might offer in Melbourne or Brisbane, what emanated was simply angelic. The mood of the room changed instantly. Our senses were elevated to a heavenly place by the purity of the voices and the precision of the harmony. The dancing was elegant, captivating and joyful.

What we were seeing was amazing. In this unremarkable hall, on Funafuti atoll in the small island nation of Tuvalu in the middle of the Pacific—remote, distant—we had happened upon the indescribable. The tiny population of about 5000 had produced a performance worthy of New York’s Carnegie Hall or London’s Royal Albert Hall.

The governor-general was as astounded as I was. Stiff, cramping legs were irrelevant. This was a moment to behold, and we were privileged to witness it.

Just as on that day in March 2012 in Tuvalu, from 2010 to 2013 I was honoured to experience the character and generosity of Pacific culture and society time and again as I travelled this extraordinary region while serving as Australia’s parliamentary secretary for Pacific island affairs.

Love at first sight

My first encounter with the Pacific occurred in 1984 when I visited Papua New Guinea on a Geelong Grammar School trip. After one night in Port Moresby, we touched down on a grass airstrip at Simbai in the highlands of Madang Province. The local community had donned their traditional costumes and face paint, and a sing-sing greeted us at the plane and accompanied us as we walked to the village hall.

I can still remember my senses being overwhelmed by the vibrant colours, tribal sounds and rare smells. For a fresh-faced sixteen-year-old from a cloistered environment in Geelong, this was an unimaginably exotic experience, one that sparked inside me an affection that would only grow over time and extend across the Pacific.

A few days later, as we hiked through the mountains, damage from a storm forced us onto a route which clearly had not been walked by visitors in years. Before long, we were deep in the jungle, many hours’ walk from the nearest settlement and an entire world away from our comfort zones. And then, in the depths of this wilderness, we came across a local couple living alone in a small hut.

Our surprise at seeing them was nothing compared with their complete astonishment at a passing parade of a dozen young white people— we may as well have descended from Mars. Our guides from Simbai and the couple did not seem to share any of Papua New Guinea’s 832 languages, and yet in no time at all, through a combination of sign language and the odd comprehensible word, the man of the house agreed to guide us to the next village, a twelve-hour return walk. (His service proved invaluable, which later begged the question: what on earth was the plan had we not run into him?)

Towards the end of a long day, our new friend began calling into the mountains. And soon there was a reply. This was the highlands way of ringing ahead to let the tiny hamlet of Tsarap know that it was about to receive a visit, the likes of which it had never had before. As we approached, a group of children ran out as a spontaneous greeting party and walked the last stretch with us.

The younger kids followed tentatively, gently touching our skin. And as two peoples unexpectedly came face to face, once again we were met with the Pacific hospitality we were quickly growing accustomed to. We slept that night on the floor of the village hall, after swapping the food we carried with that offered by the warm folk of Tsarap.

We had been away from Australia for less than a week and already my world had exploded in size. Here in Papua New Guinea, life was being lived in a way that I had never seen before. And thirty-seven years later, having since travelled far and wide from Geelong, I now know that PNG life is lived in a way unlike anywhere else in the world. In 1984, my understanding of how astounding are these lives was only just beginning. But already, for me, it was love at first sight. Papua New Guinea—dubbed the Land of the Unexpected—was simply incredible, and it remains so today.

Protecting Pacific culture

The Pacific truly is a place of wonder.

On a map of human density, China and India are at the heart of the world’s population, and Europe, the Americas and Africa follow, whereas the Pacific encompasses many of the smallest communities, those most remote from the centre. And with this remoteness comes intimacy and uniqueness.

Pacific life is unencumbered by the smorgasbord of distractions facing those of us in dense habitation. Human creativity and generosity are remarkable here, as expressed by the beauty of the local cultures and the social norms of the people. The way in which the islanders present their view of the world through art is different, as are the materials used to achieve this. Tapa—cloth made from beaten bark—is their canvas, and its distinctive texture yields the unmistakable signature of Pacific craft.

Often, music is simply unaccompanied voices formed into harmonic choirs. But in Papua New Guinea’s Bougainville region, instruments comprise hollow lengths of bamboo beaten by the wielder on one end, usually with an old thong. The length of the bamboo determines the note. More than a dozen bamboo tubes are played by a single musician, and in turn entire orchestras of players produce novel versions of pop songs, national anthems and even classical music.

Dance is a birthright: it appears that everyone can do it. The type of dance changes subtly from one country and region to another. There is an ornateness to dance here which can be lost on the outsider, but its beauty certainly isn’t. The haka—the familiar Māori challenge—bears witness to both the historical existence of war and a contemporary warrior culture, and versions of it exist throughout the Pacific.

The inhabitants of atolls such as those in Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands and Kiribati have an innate connection with the sea. The ocean is a source of comfort and security, of food, play and culture.

This piece offers the opening 1,000 words from Richard Marle’s new book Tides That Bind: Australia in the Pacific published by Monash University Publishing in August 2021.