Seven Days on Crab Island

Sunrise over the island.

In the summer before 12th grade, a group of us high school friends decided to camp out on a small uninhabited island for one week. This island was just off the coast of the Melanesian mainland and was reachable by a short ride on a banana boat, which is a narrow fiberglass boat propelled by a rear outboard motor, and usually featuring a few planks for seating. The family of one of my classmates – who was also a trip member – lived in the nearby coastal town, and they had agreed to arrange the transport for us.

The seven of us who had decided to come agreed ahead of time to bring no food with us, other than a one kilogram bag of rice for each person. The plan was to live off the land, supplementing our rice with only what we could catch or find on the island, or in the surrounding ocean. We didn’t have very much experience hunting for our protein like this, but we were sure it couldn’t be that hard. We brought plenty of fresh water, however, along with hammocks to sleep in and supplies for island camping such as machetes, homemade spear guns, fishing line, and camping pots.

Our crew of brave campers numbered seven. Five of us missionary kids (MKs) were from the same class, just about enter our senior year (we were three Americans, one Canadian, and one Belgian). Calvin, my close friend and theological inquiry partner-in-crime, was one of these. One of my older brothers also accompanied us, since he was back in Melanesia visiting us for the summer. The final member of our crew was Philip, a local orphan who had practically been adopted by my family when I was in junior high. Philip did not go to our MK school, but worked and lived at the gas station across the street as he saved up money to try to return to school (which he later did, with great distinction). During these years, Philip was a regular fixture in our home and joined us for many adventures, including the Easter camp fiasco where I ended up unknowingly dating several local girls at once. A generous soul and hard worker, Philip also had a quiet playful side to him, and had decided to bring a dreadlocks wig with him in his pack, just for kicks. He seemed to have found this in a tote we had of costumes and dress-up clothing.

The drive down from the highlands took about five hours. After an hour and a half we were stopped by other drivers and warned of a criminal roadblock just up ahead. Deciding to try and run it (what could go wrong?), my brother drove up the hill as fast as he could, up toward the crest of the slope, where just beyond the robbers were said to lurk, allegedly with bows and arrows and a couple home-made shotguns. Thankfully, we never saw any sign of the criminals as we nervously flew over the summit and around the curves in our Nissan Patrol SUV. Perhaps we were going too fast and they opted to hide out for an easier victim? We didn’t stop to find out. After two more hours we reached the pass, where by a series of slow hairpin turns we descended several thousand feet in a matter of minutes, leaving the cooler highlands weather for the heavy humidity of the tropical lowlands. An hour of driving through sugarcane fields brought us to another set of smaller mountains, and just on the other side was our destination, a lovely coastal town that had once served as a Japanese base during World War II.

We spent some time buying supplies in town and enjoyed some fast food, our last kitchen-cooked meal for a while, and were off to the island by early afternoon. One of the adult missionaries, the dad of one of the campers, accompanied us to the dock and to the island drop-off. As our banana boat sped over the waves we passed other similar craft that carried village fishermen, the occasional wooden outrigger canoe, and several larger islands on our right. Before long we saw it, a small, flat island with a dense cover of palm and coconut trees and a sandy lagoon facing the mainland. Under the transparent water, coral reefs spread out in their dull purple clusters, flecked with bright colors here and there from darting fish or waving anemones.

In all, the island was probably several acres in size, a place too small for a village. Its only structure was a thatched-roof, open-walled hut close to the lagoon. This pavilion of sorts would become our campsite. It was sheltered from the strong sea breezes, which we thought would make for better sleep since our hammock sides wouldn’t be whipping around loudly. And it would have, had it not been for the mosquitoes. These attacked certain members of our group so intensely that they even overwhelmed my brother’s anti-malarial meds, meaning he later traveled back to the US with a bad case of malaria.

A short walk through the palm trunks and dry leaves led to the back side of the island, which looked out on the endless Pacific. Large trees grew out horizontally over the water, giving shade to the shoreline of razor-sharp coral rock. There was no sand on this side of the island, just rock that was ceaselessly beaten by the incoming waves into little sharp craters and ridges that bordered tidal pools. Back here the sea breeze was always blowing, swaying the palms as it smashed wave after wave against the coral rock.

We set up camp and decided to get hunting. Unfortunately, we found fishing with our homemade spear guns quite a bit harder than we’d expected. Even when we could get close to a fish, they would often casually slip aside a centimeter just as the spear shot toward them, seeming to mock us as we swam past them to try to save our spear from getting lost in the depths. I remember one clown fish in particular that liked to look straight at me as I repeatedly tried and failed to shoot him. I eventually gave up and left him to gloat in his smug little orange and white way. That first afternoon we caught nothing, but we comforted ourselves with the knowledge that at least crab meat would be easier to come by once the darkness came.

Darkness fell, our stomachs rumbled, and five of us set out with flashlights and our metal spear-darts, which had proven pretty useless for securing us any fish. But Calvin and I had learned how to hunt crab from a previous trip the year before. At night, hundreds of crabs will emerge from their little caves in the rocky shoreline and come into the island interior to hunt. As they move, they rustle the dry leaves on the island floor. So, lights off we would walk slowly into the trees, waiting for any rustling noise. When we heard one, we would quickly shine a flashlight at it. And if it was a crab that was moving, the light would paralyze it. We could then simply walk up to it, assess if it were big enough to eat, and then skewer it on a spear. Within a half hour we had two spears’ worth of skewered crab, most still moving, some about the size of a palm, but most sadly a good deal smaller.

Returning to camp, we found an unpleasant surprise. The two who had not come with us to hunt crab (an American and the Belgian) were sitting by the fire, eating hot beef stew out of cans. They looked a little guilty as we approached with the still-clawing spoils of our hunt.

“I thought we agreed to not bring any food other than one kilo of rice per person?” we asked, confronting them.

“Well,” spoke up the Belgian, “We decided we didn’t want to do that, since our parents didn’t think it was wise, so we brought ourselves some food.”

The rest of us were hardly satisfied by this response, and somehow felt this would be a damper on the whole trip. But what was to be done? Frowning, some got to work boiling rice and others tore off crab legs to be boiled in a separate pot.

The end result of the crab boil left much to be desired. The legs were so small that it took quite a long time to finagle the meat out of the little armored appendages. And then once it was in your mouth it wasn’t even enough to chew. Still, it had good flavor. However, our appetites passed long before we had even a portion of what we’d normally eat. When we were finished we sat around a pile of mangled crab parts, shooting glances at our two renegade friends who were now eating chocolate bars and drinking tea, looking very satisfied that that they had made the right decision. This might be a long week, we thought to ourselves. Still, it was only the beginning, and we had barely begun to explore our various food options on what we were sure was an island of plenty.

We had a decent night’s sleep and woke up, as planned, to go watch the sunrise on the back side of the island. This morning practice became one of my favorite parts of the trip. Every morning we would all manage to roll out of our hammocks just a few minutes before the sun came up. We would then shuffle through the small palm forest to the ocean-facing side of the island, and watch the sun come up out of the Pacific ocean. The wind seemed to pick up and shift as the hint of a red disk crept out, becoming an orange orb just barely kissing the horizon. Then it launched up into the sky, growing smaller with increased height, brighter and more yellow. We never spoke while we sat and watched this island sunrise. There seemed no need to.

After this, we would split up with our Bibles and find secluded places around the island to read and pray. I picked the fat trunk of a tree that grew out horizontally over the water before it arched up into a crown of broad and glossy green leaves. The trunk was huge, wide enough for me to sit comfortably cross-legged on it. It faced East, so I could continue watching the sunrise as I read my Bible, prayed, and chewed on the day’s devotional from My Utmost For His Highest. As far as idyllic places to have a quiet time, I don’t think I’ve ever found one that tops that tree leaning out over the waves, stretching out toward the morning sun.

Breakfast, however, was an increasingly sad affair as the trip went on. There was cold leftover rice, perhaps some cold crab meat if you could be bothered to pick at the shells, but not much else – at least until we scored some coconuts. Green coconuts, the ones still on the tree, are not good for eating. They are good for drinking, if you fancy some clear warm liquid that tastes somewhat fermented, mildly sweet with just a hint of old sock. But at this drinking stage the coconut flesh is mushy and not ready to eat. No, the good coconuts for eating are those that fall from the tree and hit the forest floor with a thud.

As the week went on, Philip took to sitting in the camp with a dazed look on his face and the dreadlocks wig on his head, head cocked for any cracking and thudding noises that might indicate a dry coconut had fallen. When he heard a thud in the jungle, he would bolt up, grab a machete, and run into the trees shouting, “Dry one! Dry one! Dry one!” When it actually was a dry coconut, the camp would be filled with much rejoicing at Philip’s return and we’d eagerly pull off the thick bark, crack the inner nut itself, and distribute the sweet flesh, broken into triangle-shaped portions. Fresh coconut made a good breakfast. Though coconut boiled in rice didn’t really work out. Coconut roasted on the fire turned out to be a wonderful surprise, tasting of butter and toasted marshmallow.

As far as other edible fruits on the island, we only managed to find one unripe papaya, which we ate anyway. And while our two friends continue to eat their meals in what seemed ever-growing extravagance (canned fruit in syrup?), we sought out other sources of meat. Fishing continued to prove elusive, though I did manage to spear a small bottom-feeding fish the size of a banana which had a large underbite full of sharp teeth. He had been lounging on the sand, quite still, and I mercilessly shot him from a very near distance above. Nevertheless, after all the clown fish mockery, this felt like a great victory.

Then there were the eels. The island crabs liked to lounge in the warm tidal pools of the late afternoon, and muscular brown eels liked to hunt them there. The eels would ride in on a wave, plopping into a tidal pool and begin their hunt. If there were no crabs there for the taking, the eel would leap and slither over the rocks to the nearest pool, and keep hunting. Armed with machetes and our short metal spears, we learned to spot these eels on the hunt, rushing one when spotted and attempting to pin it down with a machete while others tried to spear it. Eel skin is amazingly slippery and tough, and they wriggled and writhed something awful, but we managed to eventually get a couple. We then proceeded to chop them into segments that resembled sushi. Our pot of boiled eel caused much excitement in the camp, although the experience of eating it was rather anticlimactic. Very mushy, very fishy, and lots of little bones.

Ultimately, our best haul of protein came from some locals that visited the island to fish, felt sorry for us, and left us with five big plump reef fish. This was four days in or so, and it was a Godsend.

Other than hunting for food, we spent our days snorkeling in the lagoon, finding brightly colored starfish, reading in our hammocks, and goofing off with our cameras. We had brought a video camera with us and used it to make a mock preview for a scary movie, based on our island experience. “Stay out of the water,” the trailer began, with a shot of my brother swimming into the lagoon and suddenly being pulled under. “Stay out of the jungle,” it continued, with shots of Calvin running scared among the coconut trees, looking over his shoulder. “Stay out of the dark,” it went on, as a dry coconut resembling a head was rolled into a circle of firelight and MKs went scurrying and screaming. A montage of several other cliche thriller scenes followed, with the final shot being of Philip, in his dreadlocks wig, emerging out of the darkness to take a swing at the camera with his machete. Alas, this visionary film never made it to a public viewing.

The only actual creepy thing we experienced happened late one night as we sat around the fire. In the midst of the rhythmic sounds of the waves, somebody heard the sound of a human cough come from down near the beach. As we were all sitting around the campfire, it couldn’t have been one of us. A nervous search in the dark didn’t yield any results, and we all tried to reassure ourselves the one who heard it must have been mistaken. It wasn’t quite as easy falling asleep that night.

However, apart from the creepiness of that one night, most of our nights there were wonderful. I remember laying out on the beach, staring up together at the night sky, where the southern cross and countless other stars shone brilliantly, and the pinkish-purple band of the milky way was visible to the naked eye. It was one of the clearest night skies I have ever seen. But it wasn’t the only thing shining. The waves themselves would flash with a neon green color when they crashed, evidence of tiny bioluminescent algae that had flowed into the lagoon. It was too good to pass up the chance to swim in glowing sea water, and soon we had all jumped in, laughing and splashing around in the lagoon, hardly able to believe we got to experience such beauty. As I recall, the conversation that night turned easily toward spiritual things. How could it not when we were surrounded by such lights and colors of creation?

At last, the final morning of our island stay dawned. We were very crusty by this point. Layers of sunscreen, sunburn, bug spray, salt, and dirt had left splotchy patterns on our backs – maps of strange continents as it were. There was a thick crust of salt on all of our scalps. Saltwater dips can be refreshing, but they don’t necessarily leave you clean. So we were looking forward to some hot showers – and some good, hot food.

The five of us who went through with the food challenge had made it. We had survived on rice and what we could wrest from the island alone, with only a little bit of help. Hungry and sugar-starved though we were, it felt good to have done it. For boys trying to become men, it was an experience that built some tenacity and gritty creativity. And now we knew of the glories of fresh coconut roasted on the fire, and the not-quite-glories of boiled eel and island crab.

And though our bodies had been somewhat deprived, our souls left that island full. Consecutive mornings of communing with God as the sun rose over the ocean. Days and nights spent talking with brothers in Christ about things that truly mattered as the ocean wind blew and the stars shone. It was a week I am still very grateful for having experienced. For I was not just alone with God in a beautiful place, but alone there together with this group of friends. Such places of easy communion with God and with others are not always easy to come by. A week like the one we spent on Crab Island drove home to us the privilege of being raised on the mission field, one not earned by us at all, but enjoyed because of the sacrifices of others.

At last the banana boat and my friend’s dad pulled into the harbor. We took some final pictures, clambered aboard, and started bouncing away on the waves. One of the moms had sent a cooler of ice-cold Cokes, (manufactured in that country with cane sugar and thus superior to the US flavor). I cracked open one of them and took a sip of sweet bliss. After having no sugar for the entire week, it tasted incredible. Calvin was giddy with the anticipation of hotel pizza for supper. My brother sat next to me on the side of the boat, happy and thoughtful, not yet aware of the malaria pumping through his veins. Philip still had on his dreadlocks wig, now blowing in the wind as if he were some farsighted Melanesian pirate.

The sky was a rich blue and cottony clouds floated past us as we made our way through the spray of the waves. Behind us Crab Island slowly drifted out of sight.

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