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Dancing at Palmerston Atoll

By Kate “Bob” Addison

For me, our visit to Palmerston Atoll, indeed our whole way of life on this South Seas voyaging barque of ours, is summed up by a comment the Captain made to Bill and Metua Marsters, my hosts on Palmerston. He said “none of us are rich, but we have a very rich life.” It’s true for most of the islanders that we visit, and just as true for most of us who sail aboard the Picton Castle.

Our visit to Palmerston was like a summary of all that is wonderful about sailing the South Pacific. From the legendary generosity of our hosts, who hadn’t even met most of us until we arrived on the beach, bag in one hand, flip-flops in the other; to the community spirit and coordination required to unload cargo and crew from ship to boat to shore and then to organise feasts and dances for everybody.

We were certainly kept busy on Palmerston. The traditional Picton Castle – Palmerston dance show needed performers, which meant we had to learn some Polynesian dances and quickly. Rehearsals were intense but fun, with everyone learning how to loosen up and match the dance steps to the words of the songs. The boys, bare-chested in colourful pareau, did two short dances, taught by shipmate Taia – one a special Picton Castle Haka, the second an interpretation of a song called “Silver Dollar”.

The girls, bedecked with flowers, learned a very lyrical dance to a traditional Polynesian love song, and for competitive purposes would like to point out that it’s much more impressive to learn a dance to a Maori song than an English one. Just saying….

We all got to relax after our performances and watch the adorable Palmerston children showing off their dancing. Finally everyone made a big circle for the ‘round the world’ dance; groups of 3 or 4 couples at a time were called into the middle of the circle to dance, swinging hips and knocking knees to the insistent rhythms of the drums. Mandatory, all hands dancing. It was brilliant fun, with nearly the whole island gathered down by the beach in the shade of the coconut trees, our ship in the background at anchor near the reef.

Sunday was a feast day to celebrate the official end of hurricane season, and almost the whole island gathered to share an enormous table-groaning spread laid out along three big tables. Some of us helped to prepare the feast too – going out on fishing expeditions, or husking coconuts. We were taught how to make traditional Polynesian dishes such as ika mata, similar to ceviche or poisson cru, it’s a raw fish dish marinated in coconut milk and a dash of lime, sometimes with onion or other vegetables chopped very fine, sometimes plain. Both coconut and fish featured heavily in the menu, as both are abundant here. There are pigs and chicken on the island too, but the majority of other foods are imported.

Most of the cargo we carried from Rarotonga was food – freezers full of meat, dairy and bread and sacks of vegetables, rice and flour. It’s hard to grow vegetables when there’s no soil, only sand. The islanders do a pretty good trade in fish to Rarotonga. We are looking forward to returning to Palmerston in six weeks or so when we will be spending our Aloha Polynesia voyage delivering cargo to the outer Cook Islands.

In between the feasting and the dancing we got to know people from the island, wandering between houses and stopping in for a cup of tea and a chat. We were much in demand to make up teams for beach volleyball and football, and the little children got lots of attention from our gang, running round, playing clapping games or finding hermit crabs to race. The swimming and snorkeling in the lagoon were excellent – it was refreshingly cool and clear with plenty of reef fish, rays and even a few good-sized reef sharks, which caused plenty of excitement. Sam and Allison took the monomoy out sailing in the lagoon with mainly local children for crew, and two of the nights ended with a sing-sing down on the beach with everybody singing their favourite songs accompanied by guitar and ukulele.

Then on the last day after we all got back aboard to sail onward, we had many of the islanders aboard the ship, we did some dances, they sang some songs and there was much hugging and saying goodbye before the Palmerstonians headed back into their boats and we ran up aloft to loose all sail, heaved up the anchor and sailed off the hook at the end of another wonderful island adventure. Most of the boats lingered nearby as we loosed sail, hove up the anchor and sailed off the hook for islands downwind.

boys dancing
little dancing girls
Nadja
P C dancing girls and the band

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