Review: Rainbownesia - A Kaleidoscopic Arc Across Odd Oceania

Stu Nettle
Swellnet Dispatch

Flight UA 154 connects Guam to Hawaii. It’s a six stop drop that spans the North West Pacific, and if you ever find yourself on that flight I’d suggest doing everything in your power to get a window seat: arrive early, slip money under the counter, push minors aside, whatever it takes to plant yourself next to a porthole.

Staring spellbound into the wide blue yonder is a wonderful way to pass any trip, but on UA 154 your gaze must be focussed: head tilted downwards, eyes squinting, because the expanse of ocean isn’t quite as empty as you’d imagine. From 30,000 feet high, thin ribbons of land arise like constellations, and just like stars across the firmament, the isolated atolls and reefs below evoke wonder. They stimulate Big Questions, such as, I wonder what the surf's like down there?

For most people, the question remains unanswered, and they’re happy to keep it that way, but US author Michael Kew has a particular bent for this part of the world. For over twenty years his travels have zeroed in on Micronesia, Melanesia, and the western parts of Polynesia, a region he’s collectively called Rainbownesia. It’s the name of his latest book, sub-titled: A Kaleidoscopic Arc Across Odd Oceania.

And odd it is, especially in the age of modern travel: drive for a day across Europe and it’s possible to pass five countries, but in Rainbownesia the only way it’s possible to drive for a day is in circles. Even a day’s sail from anywhere will find the traveller surrounded by water. It’s a region defined by ocean, where dots of terra firma are divided by vast distances. 

In Rainbownesia, Kew visits eight islands spead across the odd arc, deep diving into places few people have heard of. Kew is a surfer of course, so I assumed this was a surf travel book and I prepped my dossier with glee, yet though he chronicles many surf sessions, they’re each understated, the surf of dubious quality (or so he says), the narrative focusing on the people and the places.

As an aside, I read Rainbownesia while visiting a Melanesian island, which I figured was a suitable context, but what I would’ve given to have internet connection and access to Google Earth! To trace Kew’s journey across each atoll, lagoon, and finger of reef. Unlike this review, there are no pictures in the book, just unmarked greyscale images that begin each chapter. They’re unsatisfactory renderings of the picturesque places Kew visits.

All the islands in Rainbownesia are inhabited by people whose ancestry can be traced to South East Asia. When the first great migration came out of Taiwan, spreading east across the Pacific, they became brilliant navigators by necessity. In various ways those lonely travels underpin much of modern life: the Satawal elder reviving celestial navigation despite GPS; the spiritless Tuvaluan youth who know of the exciting modern world beyond their impenetrable moat; the French colonist who has the choice of going home when island life gets too lonely; even the head of Tokelau’s tourism bureau who thinks “tourists are from outer space”, so rare are they on his distant atoll.

Kew is less an anthropologist than a keen-eyed real-time observer; a writer who renders island life, sometimes idyllic, sometimes confronting, in vignettes of saturated hue. When he calls upon history it’s always to highlight the islanders' modern predicament: distant, isolated, almost forgotten by the modern world. And always there’s the weather, the oppressive squeeze of tropical humidity, the relentless tradewinds, and the wild exposure to storms, plus the kaleidoscopic coral beneath the waves, all described in florid - sometimes overly so - language that approximates the colours below.

Kew also touches upon politics, on Tinian he visits the airstrip the Enola Gay launched from, next stop Hiroshima, the island now a military ghost town, while nearby Saipan buckles under the strain of recently moneyed Chinese tourists, a portent for other places that rely on tourism dollars.

One of the first things I did when I returned from Melanesia was fire up my laptop and log onto Google Earth. I needed to revisit all the places Kew had travelled to, to stare through the porthole, this time armed with a bit more knowledge. As the viewfinder darted about the North West Pacific, multiple islands and atolls passed underneath, places Kew hadn’t written about but which no doubt support people with their own tales to tell. Some of them may even have good waves.

And it made me wonder.

Rainbownesia: A Kaleidoscopic Arc Across Odd Oceania can be purchased online

Comments

memlasurf's picture
memlasurf's picture
memlasurf commented Tuesday, 25 Feb 2020 at 1:39pm

But did you get waves Stu for all your troubles and machinations?

freeride76's picture
freeride76's picture
freeride76 commented Tuesday, 25 Feb 2020 at 1:44pm

I sailed in a 50ft gaff rigged schooner from Hawaii to Guam through some of that arc.

Can confirm a lot of ocean and also some insane waves.

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Tuesday, 25 Feb 2020 at 1:44pm

Me? No I got stitches.

Mebbe one-and-a-half jetlagged sessions beforehand, but the best was yet to come, fuck it.

memlasurf's picture
memlasurf's picture
memlasurf commented Tuesday, 25 Feb 2020 at 1:48pm

Not a good portent for my trip in May, need to get that thought out of my head.

memlasurf's picture
memlasurf's picture
memlasurf commented Tuesday, 25 Feb 2020 at 1:45pm

You need to put a book out of your travels FR as it sounds like you have been just about everywhere there's surf.....in warm water.

Island Bay's picture
Island Bay's picture
Island Bay commented Tuesday, 25 Feb 2020 at 1:54pm

I found it a great read, and google maps was a close and necessary companion.

Reading the Nauru chapter coincided with a family trip to Noosa. Surfing Boiling Pot and eating good holiday food was a harsh contrast to lift there. Almost made me gag.

If you spent your youth with you nose in a big atlas wondering what THAT place looked like, or how THOSE mountains were, this is your kind of book.

wildenstein8's picture
wildenstein8's picture
wildenstein8 commented Tuesday, 25 Feb 2020 at 4:15pm

Not only do many of the islands in the NW Pacific not have airports, many of them don't even have safe berths or mooring for yachts. If your happiness hinges upon the knowledge that there are still perfect unridden waves somewhere in the world, then you need to direct your attention to that corner of the world.

freeride76's picture
freeride76's picture
freeride76 commented Tuesday, 25 Feb 2020 at 4:32pm

a lot of really super shallow reef passes with dry coral heads poking up everywhere and no hospitals.

dandandan's picture
dandandan's picture
dandandan commented Wednesday, 26 Feb 2020 at 9:40am

That's what I have heard. A friend who sailed through said he didn't surf most of the best looking waves for those reasons. He also said the reef was sharper, and something along the lines of "every other bit of coral seems dead after you've seen the coral in melanesia"

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Wednesday, 26 Feb 2020 at 10:56am

My own theory is that, because it's a very seasonal basin - some places get waves no longer than three months of the year - and because it's less trodden, literally, different corals, such as finger coral are allowed to grow and also reach higher towards the sea surface. Limited wave friction means the coral's equilibrium is higher than elsewhere.

freeride76's picture
freeride76's picture
freeride76 commented Wednesday, 26 Feb 2020 at 11:05am

Possibly. Some places are exposed to the full gamut of North Pacific swell....and still have incredibly sharp live coral. definitely less human impact.

most of the waves we rode for the first time we would snorkel the inside section first and get a handle on the coral heads there.

lots of curious, sometimes aggressive reef sharks there too. mostly blacktips.

you'll be circled at the least within 10 minutes of jumping off the boat.

atticus's picture
atticus's picture
atticus commented Wednesday, 26 Feb 2020 at 8:47am

I'll always prefer a travel writer that returns to the same region, digging deeper into familiar themes, who's curious and appreciative, rather than someone with a big budget and a scattergun approach.

Chris Buykx's picture
Chris Buykx's picture
Chris Buykx commented Wednesday, 26 Feb 2020 at 4:11pm

Flew that route a few years back when it was still Continental. Landing at Chuuk was perhaps the closest i have come to death by Aeroplane - and I have a long history of sketchy travel.
Continental Pilot stuffed the approach, plonked it down way too fast, bounced once, twice - screeching toward the end of the airstrip with not enough room to stop - or take off again! Just a couple of feet before the runway ends in the lagoon he swings it hard left and the plane tips, outside wing dipping towards the ocean at the end of the runway. Then the plane rights itself and somehow we make the 180 degree turn!
FFS!
Was very unsurprising when another airline plonked it in the water at same runway last year!

Lanky Dean's picture
Lanky Dean's picture
Lanky Dean commented Wednesday, 26 Feb 2020 at 9:32pm

Sounds like the author, could have used you for the intro.
Would been the most exciting part of the book though, wtf.