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Field Journal: Chief Paul and the Volcano

by AMNH on

From the Field posts

Brian Smith, assistant curator in the Department of Ornithology, is blogging from southern Melanesia, where his team is conducting an inventory of birds on a month-long Constantine S. Niarchos expedition. Read the first post in the series here.

[Filed December 17, written December 8]

New day, new adventure on a new island: Gaua Island. There is an active volcano on Gaua surrounded by a lake with large tracts of continuous forest—a prime spot to study birds.

gaua volcano
Our campsite on Gaua Island was set up across the lake from an active volcano. 
B. Mauck.

When we flew in, we were fully prepared to wait a long time to catch a ride on one of the island’s few trucks. After a few hours, a man with a Popeye-like physique crossed the grass runaway and introduced himself to each of us as Chief Paul. He would serve as our guide on Gaua Island for the coming week.

In Vanuatu, the Chief title is passed through the paternal line and represents a position of high importance and leadership in the community. I will try to do Chief Paul justice here, though that’s a tall order. During our short time together, we saw Chief Paul in roles that ranged from community leader to emcee at a Christian musical fundraiser, to master of the bush, father, and skilled spear fisherman. He was also a perpetual optimist. Whatever we needed, Chief Paul’s answer was “yes,” and he never failed to deliver.

B.Smith Prawns
Chief Paul spearfished prawns every afternoon at our camp in Lake Letes. 
B. Mauck

The challenge with getting to camp was that the site was a three- to four-hour hike up slope from the seaside village where we were staying. But our team did not want pass up the opportunity to work next to a smoking volcano, so Chief Paul rounded up a team of 10 people to help us carry all of our gear to the campsite.

As soon as we started heading up the trail, we were greeted with rain. Just as Malakula was exceptionally hot and sunny, Gaua turned out to be reliably rainy. It would go on to rain in the morning, afternoon, and evening every day for the next week.

We set up a camp at the edge Lake Letes, in the best forest we encountered so far in Vanuatu. There was little or no human disturbance to the area, and at elevation of only 400 meters the area showed characteristics of forests typically found in mountains. The trees were stunted and heavily laden with epiphytes,  plants that grow on other plants. On the first afternoon, after the rains let up, we set up nets along the muddy trail, battling massive swarms of flies who insisted on covering our faces and attempted to enter our ears, mouths, and noses.

Chief Paul’s boundless ingenuity became a source of amusement for all of us, as any potential obstacle was quickly resolved. Case in point: no one brought cups to the camp, so Chief Paul made cups (with a decorative design, no less) from bamboo using his bush knife.

When Chief Paul didn’t have rope to fix the sinking canoe we took across the lake, he ripped a tree into segments with his bare hands to secure the wooden beams connecting the canoe. 

Two men, Brian Smith and local guide Chief Paul, row a canoe across Lake Letes near Gaua Island in Melaniesia.
Chief Paul helps row across Lake Letes and back to our campsite. 
B. Mauck

When additional tasks were required, Chief Paul looked to his adolescent son Hatsun for help with a simple command of “HATSUN!”—and the job was soon completed.

The camp ran smoothly except for a few minor setbacks. Everyone was banged up after working in the bush for a couple weeks, and an infected hole in my foot left me hobbled for a few days. Also, few birds hit our nets, and the morning chorus of bird singing, which had been at rock-concert decibel-levels in Malakula, was largely absent.

Despite the decreased productivity in Gaua, we hit an ornithological goldmine when we encountered the Royal Parrotfinch and the Palm Lorikeet. It was a amazing feeling to hobble on one foot up the trail to see Palm Lorikeets for the first time as they fed in a palm tree Mike had found.

On the last day in camp, while we were waiting for help to carry our equipment down slope,  Chief Paul took us on a guided tour of the volcano. We didn't really know what to expect or how close we would get, but we ended up hiking to the edge of the volcano—and even got a chance to look into the white abyss.

B. Smith Gaua Crew
The Gaua field crew sits less than 15 feet from the top of the volcano. 
B. Mauck


The morning after our long hike back, we needed to catch a flight to Vanua Lava, the last island on our expedition. But when the Twin Otter plane arrived, the hot-tempered pilot said that 150 kgs of weight needed to be dropped—and decided that most of our luggage would have to stay behind, meaning our gear would be shipped on the next flight, in three days. 

Mike made the difficult and selfless decision to stay on Gaua so all the gear could stay on the plane,  allowing the expedition could continue. Our biggest fear about our luggage being over  the weight limit had finally come true. We left Gaua without Mike.


This Constantine S. Niarchos Expedition is generously supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

Read the last post in the series here.