Tues 28 July 2009,  (13deg, 19min South, 166deg, 37min East, Loh, Torres Group )

After yesterday’s strenuous jaunt north to Hui Island, it was decided to hire the local “fast boat” (equipped with our 15hp Mercury outboard and fuel) for a dash south to Toga Island to conduct a clinic.
Toga is typical of most Torres islands.  Lots of lush forest, a big hill in the middle, girt by reef and rock, few safe anchorages and those that exist are mostly away from the main villages.  This last fact features large in today’s report, along with the importance of good communication – and consequently the frustration and anxiety that can be caused where it is lacking.  As Graeme has said a few times, “Doing the clinic is easy, getting there is the hard part”

So it was that the small boat made off this morning – not real early morning, more like 9:30am, with 12 heads showing above the gunwales – which included Atchin the (very best in all the Torres) driver and two Ni-Van assistants, plus the Ni-van local medical nurse practitioner, Zebulon

Graeme backed up yesterday but forming part of the medical team, leaving the rest of the crew, Mike, Terrence, Chris, Jo and me to mind the boat, get some rest and attend to tasks.

As I write, it’s just gone 5:00pm and we are scanning the horizon beyond the nearby point for their immanent return.

In keeping with the changing nature of plans, we didn’t see any evidence of the medical team’s return until around 8:30pm when it was well and truly dark.

Not so unusual, and all quite logical when you consider the obstacles placed in the way of the medical team throughout the day.

To understand some of the difficulty in communications and transport it’s important to know something of the local geography.  The island of Loh has a small island attached to its northern edge called Linua.  The two land masses are separated by a small channel, which extends for maybe 1-2km, it’s full of coral heads and is navigable for only 1-2 hours either side of high tide.

We’d ‘like’ to be anchored on the eastern side, in front of the white sandy beach where the two islands meet – Ngerein Bay, also called Log Bay on some charts, and where the bungalows and local village can be accessed by a tranquil row ashore.  Unfortunately, the strong south east wind blows straight into this lagoon, so we have anchored on the western side of where the two islands meet, at the other end of the separating channel and where it flow into the sea.  One of our charts refers to this spot as “Boat Cove”, but as mentioned in an earlier message, we have dubbed it Atchin Anchorage after the Ni-van guide and local boat driver we took aboard when we first arrived.

So, when I say we didn’t know of the team’s return from the southern island of Toga until 8:30pm, they had in fact returned at 6:00pm, deciding to return first to the beach and bungalows on the other side, where all of the medical volunteers could easily walk to their bungalows and where the boxes could be unloaded for the next day’s clinic in the nearby village.  It then took another two hours for the tide to rise sufficiently to enable Atchin to navigate the channel, thereby returning Graeme to the boat.

Being the final night of this medical tour, a dinner was also planned “on the other side”, at the bungalows, to which Graeme, Chris and Jo represented Chimere and the Medical sailing Ministries, with Mike, Terrence and me remaining aboard on anchor watch.

Finally knowing that the small boat had returned safely from Toga was a great relief.  Then around 11:30pm Atchin once more navigated his way in the dark through the coral infested channel, more akin to a bayou swamp, at the conclusion of the dinner and it was then that Graeme downloaded the saga of the day’s events.

I’ll relate some of his recounting …

The trip in the small boat, down the coast of Loh and across the Dumanoir Channel to Toga was achieved in about an hour – a bit wet, however, on account of the 20-25 knot south east head wind, choppy sea and relentless swell. (Graeme’s seat was in the middle, so he declared with glee that … “I arrived dry!!”)  Instead of continuing down the coast of Toga and around the southern tip in order to make a landing on the south east corner of the island, where the clinic would be held in the village of Litau, (also known as Leto locally, or Laterio as it appears on some charts) Atchin pulled into a sheltered northern cove.  Near the village of Liquil (or Likwai) – but not the site of the clinic.

“How far to village?” Graeme asked Atchin, as everyone disembarked from the small boat, mostly wet, including feet from the walk through the shallows.

“Not much”, said Atchin.

“Little way, maybe an hour” said Zebulon.

Five minutes later they arrived at the village, put down the boxes and their daypacks, much relieved that the distance up from the landing was so short.  It was then that the truth finally revealed itself.  This was not the site of the clinic.  Zebulon pointed to the hill before them and the rough bush track which rose up and out of sight through the lush tropical forest.

So the trek began.  An hour later, they reached the plateau after what amounted to a strenuous mountain climb.  “Much further now?” Graeme asked.  “Not much”, came the expected response.  An hour later, after they had descended the plateau to the coast, through yet more lush forest, the village of Leto was reached – the first patients being the medical team, with wet feet, rocky paths and gritty sand leading to a profusion of blisters requiring dressings.

The time was 12:30pm.  The troops were hungry.  But because the villagers were not expecting them this day there was no food prepared – so it was straight down to work.  Given the time it would take to return and the desire to do it in daylight, it was decided to finish up and be back on the track by 3:00pm.  At 2:30pm all the food came out and it was a delicate balance of being suitably hospitable, but at the same time needing to prize themselves away.

In total, 46 patients were seen, out of a village population of 330.  Graeme, recounting the story of one patient, couldn’t hold back the laughter as he described this man’s wicked sense of humour.  The man had already gone through the process of blood pressure, blood sugar, eyes tested etc, (with other members of the medical team) but in a brief lull he sidled up next to Graeme and declared, “My name Armstrong.  First man on the moon” while pointing to himself.  He then said, “I got swollen finger”.  “Finger sore?” inquired Graeme, “Yes”, said Armstrong.  “What did you do?”, asked Graeme.  “Play volleyball”, came the reply.

Seeing there was nothing he could do for the man’s swollen finger, that would cure itself within a few days, Graeme suggested he not play volleyball on the Independence Day celebrations on 31 July.  He then inquired of Armstrong – “do you know what Armstrong say when he first step on moon?”  “NO”, came the excited response.  “He said, One small step for a man, one big step for ALL men (to paraphrase).”  Which he repeated several times with a big grin.  Later, as the medical team were preparing to leave, the man sidled up to Graeme again and Graeme was able to introduce him to everyone … “This is Armstrong, first man on the moon” … with handshakes and smiles all round.

Graeme continued … “Armstrong, can you remember what you said when you land on moon?”  Then after a brief prompting, Armstrong replied .. “That one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, with a burst of satisfied laughter as everyone applauded.

So the return 2 hour trek to the northern beach landing was begun.  Graeme set up a competition in order to spur everyone on and at the same time overcome some natural physical and emotional exhaustion in the team, with a prize of chocolate to the one who guessed the time of arrival at the small boat.  Graeme selecting the first time and everyone then having to pick a time less than this.

Optometrist Tim might have won the chocolates, if not for the group’s encounter with the chief of the small village close to the northern landing. (the one they’d walked through upon arrival) “Can you do a clinic here?” he asked.  With light starting to fade, boxes all stuck down and a frazzled band of medical volunteers eager to get in the boat for the one hour return voyage, it was a tough one.

After much indecision, it was finally decided that time did not allow, but the general question was asked, “Is anyone very sick here?” revealing a couple of cases which could be attended to relatively quickly and the chief himself, who needed to have his eyes tested.

The irony of the day, which was revealed late in the piece, was that the southern village was expecting the medical team yesterday and had walked to the northern village, 5 minutes walk from the landing, no doubt anticipating it would be difficult for the team to land further south.  A simple phone call – if that were possible – would have saved a lot of unnecessary travel and extended the clinic time by about 4 hours

The return boat trip was relatively dry, with a following sea enabling Atchin to surf many of the waves, thereby increasing speed and reducing fuel consumption.

The key report back from the farewell dinner at the bungalow … “It was wonderful”.  With the bungalow owner, Whitely Toa singing a song of welcome and farewell, which included a lei of flowers for everyone.  It has now been revealed that our representative MSM crew of 3 ate enough coconut crab for 6.  Somehow that didn’t make me feel better.

In the end, sleep was once again the winner and was well deserved by all.

Smooth sea, fair breeze and I gotta get me a coconut crab.

Rob