Journey to the Sinking Lands

A witness to the world's first evacuation of an entire people due to climate change

To Huene

To HueneWe took a sail-canoe to another island, Huene, today. Or rather, to what was Huene. Rising seas and storm surges have broken the island up into small fragments – and you can see from the dead tree-stumps lying out from the shore how much smaller the land mass of even these parts is than once it was. Where we visited, only two families remain and one of these is to be one of the first to be evacuated from the islands. It really is bloody sad, because the place is so lovely and the people just as nice too. We ate salted fish and salted turtle. Another turtle lay helplessly on its back where it had been dumped in the shade of a tree. I think he was going to be dinner.

It may seem like a lovely idea, but my experience of sailing a canoe across a coral lagoon was pure farce. For a start, our canoe leaked, badly. I managed to block one hole with my toe, but we had to bail pretty desperately for most of the journey. And our sail was really more hole than cloth; there were at least twenty decent gashes through which what little wind there was whistled uselessly. Coming home, we were becalmed. The four others in the boat with me seemed happy to drift about the lagoon and wait for a puff of wind to push us anywhere. My delicate white skin burning under the tropical sun made me less calm. We really moved very slowly indeed. After an hour or two watching it turn bright red, I got quite desperate, and finished the journey wearing someone else’s t-shirt over my head and a lady’s floral shawl draped over my poor burned knees. Eventually we gave up on the sail completely and paddled until my fingers blistered (after only a few days here I realise I really am very weak compared to the locals who are, of course, completely adapted to the environment). So now I am a series of contrasting shades of red; burned knees and ears, a nice heat rash all over my torso, blisters and a triumph of sandfly bites on both hands and feet. Those parts that have not been exposed to the sun/local insects remain resolutely white. I do make a very English traveller.

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