On a pedestal of boulders overlooking a glistening sea past the end of the road on Kaua‘i, a lone figure faces the rising sun. Bare-chested and wrapped in a lava-lava, he wears a woven headband and a large shell amulet, with white stripes painted across his cheeks. A pointed canoe paddle is clenched like a spear in his hand. At his feet a crouching cameraman pivots to film the moment as Simon Salopuka, a doctor from the remote isle of Taumako in Solomon Islands, does his best to channel his people’s greatest cultural hero: the primordial voyager Lata.
Salopuka has come to Kaua‘i to shoot scenes of Lata lore for a documentary, part of an effort to draw attention to the voyaging traditions of Taumako’s people, ethnic Polynesians who inhabit a handful of islands in a predominantly Melanesian archipelago. While Pacific wayfinding as a whole has experienced a renaissance in recent decades—including the extraordinary worldwide voyage of the Hawaiian canoe Hōkūle‘a—Taumako’s Polynesian voyaging traditions have remained known only to a relative few, while the island’s people struggle to keep them alive.
It’s especially powerful for Salopuka to be shooting the scene at this spot on Kaua‘i, an ancient hula platform dedicated to the Hawaiian goddess Laka, one of a multitude of male and female forms by which Lata is known throughout Polynesia. In Taumako, Lata is revered as the first canoe-builder and voyager, who was eventually exiled from the island for his trickster ways. It’s believed that he returns to Taumako whenever a canoe is built and that all voyagers in effect “sail with Lata.” “Those kind of stories make me feel part of what Lata did before,” Salopuka says in the documentary. “I really feel that Lata is part of us.”
The film’s story is Salopuka’s story. He was born on Taumako, a truly isolated volcanic island just a little over three miles long, with no electricity, phone, airstrip or harbor. The population fluctuates between about four hundred and seven hundred people, sustained by subsistence farming and fishing with essentially no paid work available. Their homes are built of dried leaf panels, locally grown and easy to replace after a cyclone. Even basic imported foods like rice and coffee are treated as delicacies. Two-way radio is Taumako’s only communication link with the world—if there are any working batteries around.
Taumako’s people are often unable to get on or off the island, because the government supply ship that visits every few months (with luck) is the only interisland transport. A few people have canoes with outboard motors, but the 130-mile trip to the nearest island group is dangerous, and there is frequently no fuel. Because of this, the revival of traditional Taumako voyaging canoes, called te puke, is seen not only as a matter of cultural pride but a practical necessity.
“In many ways they’ve become isolated by modernity,” says Mimi George, a Kaua‘i-based anthropologist who studies Pacific wayfinding cultures and has long been involved with Taumako voyaging efforts.“They aren’t happy about not having access to marriage partners, foods and goods, and they’re trying to reconnect with family and ancestors.”
At 14, Salopuka left Taumako for school and didn’t return for many years. He became the first person from the island to attend college, then earned a medical degree in Papua New Guinea. In 2005, when he was working at a hospital in the Solomons’ capital, Honiara, he got a call from Tau-mako’s paramount chief, Koloso Kaveia, asking him to help with a project to revive the island’s voyaging traditions. By then, Salopuka says in the film, “I had spent twenty years away from home, studying and working in the hospital. City life was difficult, and I felt something was missing, something deep from my culture.”
Kaveia, a master navigator who was then in his nineties, wanted to build a te puke and reopen old seaways to partner islands, including his dream of a final voyage to Vanuatu. Sadly, he died before that voyage could become a reality, but in 2012 Salopuka and others honored the chief’s legacy by sailing a smaller canoe to Nifiloli, about a hundred miles away. “When I first got on the vaka”—another term for canoe—“I was really a bit frightened,” Salopuka recalls of boarding Taumako’s unique style of canoe, with a hull that rides mostly underwater. “You can only see the platform where you are sitting, and the whole canoe is under the sea, like a submarine.”
But Salopuka soon grew accustomed to the sensation and to his duty as bailer, a constant chore on Taumako canoes. The wind was good and the vaka traveled quickly, but at night clouds covered the stars, which the navigators needed to find their way. Some of the crew members wanted to turn back, Salopuka recalls in the film, “but I tried to ask old man Kaveia if he can help us. And when I called his name, all of a sudden the stars just came out.”
When the canoe landed at Nifiloli, relatives were overjoyed to greet one another—including Salopuka, whose grandfather had sailed for Nifiloli on a te puke decades earlier and never returned.
Off a canoe landing where a windward Kaua‘i stream meanders into the ocean, Salopuka, done up again as Lata, looks down on several sorrowful figures floundering in the water—a scene from legend in which the hero encounters a crew of shipwrecked scoundrels and takes them aboard his canoe. Alongside a house nearby, a long, low A-frame shelter shields the narrow hull of a Taumako-style vaka, which was deftly carved by Kaveia and several others from the island when they visited supporters on Kaua‘i in 1999.
Smoothly chipped on the outside and narrowing upward at each end, the twenty-eight-foot albizia-log hull is hollowed out, with just a narrow slit opening at the top, which for voyages is sealed up to run just above the waterline. With sharply pointed crescent sails fashioned from woven pandanus leaves and said to catch wind like the wings of a tropic bird, Taumako’s canoes have a raised platform with a small shelter for the captain and most precious cargo. Their unique underwater hulls are a sort of ancient precursor to the semi-submersible technology used today in superyachts and other high-tech ships. The craft are also remarkable in that instead of tacking, the crew actually lifts the slim mast and carries the whole sail from one end of the vaka to the other, a method known as shunting.
According to accounts of Spanish explorers in the Pacific dating back to the 1500s, large traditional canoes, perhaps sixty feet in length, could carry forty passengers or more, plus around ten crew and several tons of cargo. They sailed on voyages of several hundred miles between islands while cruising at a decent clip of about five to fifteen knots.
“It’s an amazing design,” says George. “The hull, the ama [outrigger], the way it’s sailed—it just works. They’re smooth, they have very quick acceleration and they’re very easy to steer on many points of sail. And what’s so fascinating about it is that you’re basically riding on a submarine with an ama. It makes it fast and it makes it stable. And you can carry enormous weight on a te puke.”
George first went to Taumako in 1993, when she was sailing through the Pacific with her partner David Lewis, a maritime adventurer and researcher whose 1972 book We, the Navigators first shed light on some of the last traditional wayfinders in the Pacific. Lewis had sailed to Taumako during his field voyages in the late 1960s and was greatly influenced by the time he spent sailing with a master navigator from nearby islands named Basil Tevake, who taught him about the “star paths” that traditional navigators followed. “I was no stranger to the complexities of navigation, having three times crossed the Atlantic single-handed and having been the first to skipper a catamaran around the globe,” Lewis wrote. “Nevertheless, Tevake’s feat (of expertly navigating without instruments) was evidence of a skill far beyond my own experience.”
When Lewis returned to the Solomons with George in 1993, they were welcomed to Taumako by Kaveia, who had been a steersman for Tevake aboard David’s boat during his earlier visit. After a few days, Kaveia asked for their help in preserving the island’s voyaging knowledge. “One morning he woke us up for breakfast,” George remembers, “and he said, ‘So, David, would you like me to tell you how we navigate?’ David was flabbergasted but of course he said, ‘Yeah.’ And what Kaveia revealed changed everything.”
Bit by bit the chief imparted a comprehensive system of wayfinding that correlated deep knowledge of star positions, seasons, winds, waves and other factors into one intricate framework called te nohoanga te matangi, or, roughly, “the life of the wind positions.” “It was this whole amazing mental map,” George says, “which has been a mystery in the literature for hundreds of years.”
Kaveia also demonstrated ancestral techniques even more difficult to explain scientifically, including an alleged ability to influence the weather through metaphysical means. “As paramount chief, one of his responsibilities was basically to control the weather, the wind and the seas,” George says. “And all I can say is that when he said his prayers and pointed these various sticks at clouds or called the wind to come from a certain position, it worked. He never missed once.”
And then there is the phenomenon known as te lapa: mysterious flashes of light in the water that are believed to form a beacon pointing the way to unseen islands. Taumako’s voyagers say they regularly navigate using te lapa, particularly on dark, overcast nights. “It came like flicks of lightning straight to the bow of the te puke,” Salopuka says of the first time he saw te lapa. “At first I don’t know if it’s only me seeing that, or my friends on the canoe, too. But everybody saw it. It’s something kind of special—is it from ancestors, or is it just something from nature? I cannot understand or really explain.”
Evidence suggests that early Pacific settlers migrating out of Southeast Asia first inhabited these islands around three thousand years ago. Over time some stayed, and some migrated farther east into the open Pacific: to Fiji, Sāmoa and beyond. But there remained periodic contact and likely intermarriage among the different groups; even today drifting Tongan mariners show up near Taumako with some regularity. It wasn’t until two millennia later, around 1000 ACE, that the island’s ethnic identity appears to have diverged as distinctly Polynesian in language and custom while nearby islands remained more Melanesian. Like a few other culturally Polynesian islands in Fiji, Vanuatu, Micronesia and other Pacific nations that lie outside the imaginary boundaries of the so-called Polynesian Triangle, Taumako is often referred to as a “Polynesian outlier”—a term the islanders and their supporters aren’t crazy about.
“This is a crossroads, this place, and it always has been,” George says of Taumako.“As people began migrating out into more remote parts of the Pacific, this is where it started to take more than one night to get from one island to the next. Taumako is the big jump-off. It’s a very significant area in the prehistory of voyaging.”
While there were wayfinders on other islands in the area, mountainous, forested Taumako was where big vaka were made. Master craftsmen would build te puke to order—a task requiring island-wide labor and months to complete—and then sail the craft to the owner’s island. Upon delivery the canoe builders would receive payment in painstakingly strung coils of “red feather money,” a traditional form of currency still used on rare occasions for dowries and other customary purposes.
In the early 1900s as many as two hundred te puke were reported to still be plying the waters around Taumako. But then in 1918 a terrible epidemic—likely Spanish flu—decimated the population, reportedly leaving only thirty-seven survivors, including a young Koloso Kaveia. A tremendous amount of traditional oral knowledge was lost, including the island’s chiefly lineages and much wayfinding lore.
British colonization of the Solomons took a further cultural toll, as did World War II. After the war, border disputes and political strife restricted the sea routes, and by 1963 the last of the old working te puke had disintegrated.
After the epidemic, young Kaveia was sent away to another island, where he began crewing and later captained working voyaging canoes. Eventually he became a seaman on an island-hopping supply scow before returning to Taumako to serve the last forty or so of his approximately ninety-eight years as the island’s elected paramount chief and primary repository of traditional voyaging knowledge.
Kaveia’s effort to revitalize Taumako voyaging began in 1980, when he led the construction of a te puke and captained it using traditional navigation—the only kind he knew—more than eight hundred miles west to Honiara and beyond. But that canoe was eventually destroyed by a cyclone, and Kaveia, in his eighties and growing increasingly frail when Lewis and George came to the island, was anxious to build another while he still could.
The process of building a te puke begins more than a year before the planned launch, with the planting of extra gardens of yams, taro and bananas, and fattening pigs to provide for daily feasting during construction—a traditional obligation to all the workers, because it’s said that if they don’t eat well, neither will their adze blades. Then they begin a sixth-month process of braiding more than a half-mile of coconut-sennit rope.
After a large tree is selected and felled according to customary Lata lore, the builders rough out the hull in the forest. Then the log is hauled to the sea over steep, rough terrain. Hundreds of helpers strain on long hauling ropes, laughing together and singing chants of Lata in rich harmonies. According to Kaveia, the hauling was once aided by a long, slow rain, which the canoe builders of old summoned to help ease the hull to the sea, but today that particular part of weather magic has been lost. “Nowadays when we call rain, it rains too hard,” he told George. “The floods are no longer gentle enough to safely bring the rough cut down.”
Once the rough hull is at the shore, it is shaped further while groups of women start weaving lauhala (pandanus leaf) sail panels and sewing them into the shape of Lata with his arms upraised. The finished hull is painted with a soupy white sealant made from pulverized seaweed, and all the large wood crossbeams and other structural members are carved and fitted.
Finally, Kaveia explained: “We must deliver the te puke to the island of the person who ordered it. … Once we know the te puke is seaworthy, we carefully prepare and load the cargo, do our weather control work and depart Taumako. When we arrive at our destination, we blow our conch shell so we know that they are ready to receive us, and we go ashore to the valuables and feast they have prepared for us. When they are ready they will sail us back to our island and depart as proud owners of their new te puke.”
In the late 1990s, thanks to funding and efforts from the newly formed Vaka Taumako Project, Kaveia was able to supervise the construction of a te puke and sail it to Nifiloli, where the first voyaging vaka to land there in many years was greeted with jubilation and feasting.
With that accomplished, Kaveia began planning a more difficult voyage to a partner island named Vanualava, which lies about three hundred miles south of Taumako, in Vanuatu. A number of Tau-mako kids had gone to school there before World War II and had never been able to return home. Their relatives were eager to reconnect with them.
On the Vaka Taumako Project’s web site, vaka.org, George writes of the last time she saw Kaveia alive in 2008, after his hopes for the Vanuatu voyage were dashed by funding shortfalls and bureaucratic red tape: “I saw him sitting on a log by the seaside. Hour after hour he looked toward Vanuatu under a sky full of bright stars. Just before dawn I heard him cough at my threshold, and I beckoned him in. He said ‘I just made the voyage to Vanuatu and returned! I saw every sign—wind, swell, star and te lapa. … We are ready.’”
A few months later Kaveia passed on to the realm of the ancestors. Those still on Taumako have been trying ever since to fulfill his dream of a voyage to Vanuatu, a feat that can be accomplished only in November or early December, when a rare wind known as te palapu blows from the north. They planned to make an attempt in 2015, but then record-setting Cyclone Pam swept through the area and destroyed the island’s only existing vaka, along with all the gardens and fruit trees. It took two months before a relief boat even reached Taumako, and for most of the next year, residents focused on finding food, replanting and rebuilding before once again going through the whole process of constructing not just one, but two te puke for another attempt in late 2016.
Several hundred people moved back to the island just to participate in the effort, now led by Chief Jonas Hollani, who had voyaged with Kaveia, and his son Ambrose Miki, along with Kaveia’s own son Chief Fox Boda. “People in Taumako are really interested in this, and young people really drive the project,” George says. “But even married older people will just drop everything and come and work their butts off. They really want to do it.”
Food and money were raised to feed the workers and help pay their children’s school fees. George and fellow Kaua‘i supporter Meph Wyeth came down to help with the herculean administrative labors, as crew members had to produce often nonexistent birth documents and obtain approval signatures from faraway government centers to get passports. Two female immigration officers agreed to travel more than a hundred miles by dangerous open fiberglass canoe to Taumako to clear the crew for departure at any time within a one-month window. And in the middle of all this, the only available communication link, a satellite phone, went down.
When November came the crew was ready for a journey that was expected to take two to four days. But no te palapu wind blew. For several weeks everyone waited on pins and needles. One of the voyagers even visited the grave site of an ancestor on a nearby island to ask for help in summoning the wind. Then, on November 18, there was the lightest hint of te palapu, so they took the larger te puke out for a shakedown sail a few miles offshore. If the wind improved, perhaps they would continue on.
Out on the water, the crew of eight was itching to go: “There were a lot of questions: ‘Why can’t we just go now; what’s the reason?” George recalls. But it wasn’t to be. There were too many issues to be ironed out on the new canoe, and the wind remained light. It turned out to be a good thing, because the next morning the breeze began blowing strongly from the south.
Maddeningly, a suitable te palapu wind did arrive on the very last day of the one-month departure window and blew for a couple of days. But by then there was no way to complete the voyage before the crew’s immigration clearance expired, so the journey had to be postponed.
Preparations are under way for another Vanuatu attempt late this year, and in June the voyagers intend to make a shorter sail to the provincial capital of Lata for the Solomons’ independence day celebration. What seems certain is that the elders and the students of Taumako’s recently formed Lata Voyaging School are determined to fulfill Kaveia’s voyaging vision as something essential to the life of the island: reuniting Lata with his people. As Kaveia himself wrote in a 1999 article with George: “In Lata’s absence, we the people of Taumako are miserable and fight among ourselves. When he returns, we come together as a people and we feel joy.” HH
To learn more about Taumako voyaging or to help support it, visit vaka.org.