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The zoo at the Sidea Catholic Mission

Poisoned and dying in Sidea

Evolution is To Be Changing in a direction as awareness moves toward the development of new sensory abilities to satisfy the desire to know the error in expectations and thus survive.

Catholic Mission, Sidea

Sidea, Milne Bay, PNG

"Looks like nobody is home," Freddy and I stroll up the drive to the Catholic Mission. The Fathers must be good gardeners as there is a wide variety of bushes and trees all methodically arranged around the campus of the mission.

"There’s nobody home even when they’re here," Freddy grumbles.

"Well, we need some eggs and I want to see the menagerie." An old man in the robes of a catholic priest, hurries across the lawn and vanishes into the shrubbery.

"I don’t like zoos, and I don’t like this place. Necrophiles," she mumbles.

"Come on, Freddy, not so loud."

"It’s obscene to worship a dead man on a stick," she snaps back.

We enter the main building, an old, wooden, colonial-style affair. An open door reveals a library and one of the Fathers. He is an elderly man. He gets up slowly and comes around his cluttered desk to greet us. "Good day," he smiles. "Can I help you?"

"Uh, well, I understand you have fresh eggs for sale and also a zoo of some kind." I feel Freddy standing next to me like a 400 ton rock. God knows what she might say next.

"Oh yes. Well, you’ll be wanting Father Michael, the eggs are his project." He smiles and leads us around to the back, past a long chicken house, into a garden where another old priest is tending some vegetables.

Father Michael’s menagerie is right next to their egg-production center. The smell of the chickens is overpowering. I glance inside the chicken house and see the birds crammed together in their cages - pretty normal for an egg ranch. One of the eggs slips out of the old man’s fingers and plops to the dirt floor. I look down at it. It is thin shelled and has a pale yolk. No doubt from the lack of sunshine in here and proper vitamins in the food. They probably will not taste very good. Still, eggs are eggs and Freddy buys a dozen while I look around.

Five rows of dilapidated wire cages make up the menagerie. When Father Michael leads us into them, an osprey begins to cry. It is a forlorn, heart rending cry of hopelessness. Freddy and I both come to a stop and look into the sea hawk’s cage. There is a black cat crouched on top and a carved white statue of Mary - or someone - with her hands held in prayer stands in front of the cage. I snap a photo of the statue with the cat just above it and the osprey cries again.

We look into the cages at an assortment of tattered birds, some lizards, and surprisingly, a cage full of Siamese cats......."We keep them in there so they won’t breed with the ordinary cats, you know." the Father pokes a wrinkled finger at the cats. The osprey has taken up a chant and the priest turns and snaps, "Here, what’s wrong with that osprey?"

He begins to say something else but Freddy is walking away, back towards the dinghy. "Uh, yes, thank you very much for showing us around, excuse me...." and I hurry after her. She’s mad as hell so I don’t say anything. At least she didn’t accost Father Michael.

"It’s an evil place." she jumps into the Avon. "What a rotten thing to do to those poor birds." The Osprey calls after us in counterpoint to her remarks. It is a haunting, chilling cry and it follows me for hours, even after we are back on Moira anchored around the point; well out of actual ear-shot.

We have been feeling terrific, I’ve just finished writing an article on coral reefs and this week we’ve been taking underwater photos on a truly gorgeous little reef where the corals intertwine in a marvelous display of life. Yesterday we made three dives, including a night dive.

In April, when I came back from Port Moresby, I took the worm poison Dr. Cook gave me. It really put me down for a couple of weeks. Freddy took it too, and she also felt rotten afterwards. I couldn’t find any worms in our feces after we took it, though. The tests in Port Moresby found nothing either, so Dr. Cook decided I had a special kind of nematode living in the lining of the intestine and laid eggs only every two weeks or so. Whatever, the medicine kicked us hard.

I didn’t do much writing then. Just read a lot of books and slept, trying to kick off the effects of the medicine and whatever else was wrong with me. The only thing I wrote in the log during the whole time was the visit from Ben Cropp. I look back in the log and find:



About 1600 a loudspeaker shatters the silent bay, "AHOY RESEARCH VESSEL MOIRA, IS DOCTOR CHESHER ABOARD?" Expecting a big naval vessel or something I look out to see a white motor yacht, about 50 feet long, hovering next to us in the small anchorage. It’s name is BEVA. BEVA repeats "AHOY RESEARCH VESSEL MOIRA, IS DOCTOR CHESHER ABOARD?" again, as if anything within two miles didn’t hear it the first time.

All this strikes me as a little stupid but I’m feeling a little stupid myself from the worm pills. I step out from under the awning onto the deck and stare at the BEVA. The boat apparently sees me as it announces, "WOULD DR. CHESHER PLEASE GIVE US THE HONOR OF HIS PRESENCE AT TEA AT HIS CONVENIENCE?"

"Sure," I squint at the boat and nod, accepting the offer in an entirely inadequate, normal speaking voice. BEVA, however, is satisfied with my puny voice. It gives a mighty gurgle with a deep throaty diesel sound and begins to move. She has those reflective "unfriendly windows." I suppose somebody must be aboard.

Freddy and Walter cat and I sit on the edge of the cabin and watch BEVA. I am wondering if anyone will bother to come out on deck or if they have a fully automated anchor, too. The big boat noses around a couple of times like a dog looking for just the right spot to settle. At the last moment a hominid runs out on deck and works the deck gear for the anchor. BEVA pulls back on her anchor chain to test her bottom tether and, after a final growl, relaxes into slumber. Freddy and I look at each other and then at Walter. Walter is giving BEVA the intent look he uses when he wants something. He loves to visit other boats. We all get in the dinghy and motor over.

Aboard BEVA we find Ben Cropp and associates. Ben Cropp is an underwater cinematographer from North Queensland. He’s here in PNG with his wife Lynn, his friend Wally, plus an attractive young girl, and an oversized and muscle-bound young man with his red hair in a brush-cut. Ben does not introduce me to the young couple.

Freddy talks with Ben’s wife and the young couple while Ben talks to me. Oddly, he does not know I am Walter Starck’s partner. Walter, who also does movies, has set up the Foundation up the Daintree River, only a few miles from Port Douglas where Ben now has his base of operations. When I ask if he knows Walter Starck he sneers, "Sure, but you know, he’s become a bit of a hippie with his commune up the Daintree." He does not know me from my work on the Crown of Thorns, either. He found out I was here from Barbara Allen, who met him after she left us in the Trobriands. He tells me about his present project.

They are filming an odyssey about sharks. His old style shark films - where he and some friends blow the sharks away with bang sticks - is "out" with the new conservationist movement. So this movie will be different - more naturalist, less destructive. The crowd catcher will be the young man with the red hair and the muscles. He and Ben will spear a bunch of fish and stake them out in a big circle. "We’ll stay in the center of the bait, right? In come the sharks. I start filming. The sharks grab the bait. When one of the sharks has a fish in its mouth - and this is critical, mind you - the fish is inside the mouth so you can’t see it but the shark has not swallowed it yet. Right? A shark can’t bite when he’s got a fish in his mouth. Right? My mate, pea-brain over there, grabs the sharks tail!" Ben slams his fist onto the dinette so I’ll know he’s reached the punch line of the film.

"Oh," I’m feeling really inadequate for conversation. I should be lying down.

"Of course, it looks dangerous but with the fish in its mouth the shark will never bite." Ben backs up to explain the punch line again.

"Ooooh," I nod. Muscle-man, the pea-brain shark grabber, is busy in the galley looking strong. Somehow I think the film will be lacking in science or drama but who knows, maybe it’s just what the Australian TV public wants. Ben goes on while I brood about the amount of money it takes to mount a foray like this and the expensive gear I see lying around. Why do "naturalists" like Ben Cropp do so well while I’m low on funds and feeling worse than my own poisoned worms seem to be feeling. What ever happened to the guiding forces of the Moirae?

Freddy rescues me, pulling me out the door by the arm. Walter is already in the dinghy, curled up waiting. We put-put back to Moira and Freddy fixes dinner while I try to write what happened today.

"Did you hear the story about Port Moresby?" Freddy stirs something on the stove.

"Story? Uh...Yeah...Ben said something about Port Moresby. They had some kind of problem there. It’s kind of vague. I think I mentally stepped out for a bit. What was it?"

"I got the story from the rest of the people while you two were yakking....They tied up to the main wharf on the outside of a local interisland boat to clear customs. Since it was late, they decided to stay tied up there for the night."

"About 3 AM a great big drunk, black as night, came staggering aboard to check out their boat. He sneaked down the steps from the wheelhouse, crept forward, came to the cabin where he found the young girl sound asleep. He oscellated inside, looked at the girl and surveyed the various belongings scattered about. He selected her purse and her camera and carefully reached over the sleeping girl and collected them in his enormous hand.

"He stumbled into the forward cabin and found the older man and the young stud sound asleep. He also found their wallets and watches and stuffed them into his filthy and torn pants.

"He went aft where Ben and his wife have their enormous stateroom, and found Ben and Lynn stretched out on their king-sized bed. Bev was stark naked in the heat, spread-eagled on the bed."

"They told you all this?" I’m awed at Freddy’s ability to get the dirt.

"Yes...Lynn told me. Anyway, this was too much for the drunk. He stood there looking at the sleeping pair for a few minutes, took off his pants and climbed on top of Lynn."


"Yes...At first she thought it was Ben getting amorous. But when this black giant came down on her she KNEW it was not Ben and came wide awake screaming."

"I assume it wasn’t just the smell...."

"He was a very big character...Everywhere. All the commotion woke Ben and he looked over at this giant man who seemed very determined and wondered what the hell to do about it. Wally and the young stud came dashing in to find out what the dire screams were all about."

"Too much!"

"They froze at the sight of Lynn, the jolly black giant, and Ben sitting upright in the bed, watching. The drunk looked up and saw everyone standing there and decided maybe it was time to leave so he unmounted, picked up his pants from the floor and departed with the watches and the wallets."

I find myself giggling at the story as I re-read it in the log although it actually isn’t a funny story. What’s strange is them telling us about it. Damn stupid of them to tie up to the wharf overnight in a place as dangerous as Port Moresby let alone leave the doors unlocked.

Back to my update.

Moira on the slipway at Belesona

We slipped Moira in mid May and painted the bottom. Then I began work on an article about coral reefs and got the boat ready to head off...somewhere. We have not decided what we’ll do next. Right now we are anchored in a small bay off the northwest end of Sidea, surrounded by a really lovely coral reef. Except for the Catholic Mission in the next bay, we are all alone. We are still not 100 per cent. It goes up and down. One day we’ll feel great, the next we feel miserable.

As I write this, I feel a little dizzy. Whatever has been wrong with us these past months is still lurking in the background. We’ve been going strong since Sunday, diving twice a day, taking underwater photographs of the reef, but right now I’m weak as a kitten...on and off and on and off. I don’t think the medicine Dr. Cook gave me in Port Moresby got it. Maybe It’s not parasites at all. But what???????

The image forms in my mind of a diesel engine running out of fuel. Just before it dies, the governor fails and the motor revs way up and then zonk, It’s dead. Maybe, the past few days, I’ve been like a diesel engine revving as it runs out of fuel.

As a matter of fact,I feel really shaky. A wave of blackness rears up and the night surf falls. I gasp, shake my head. "Freddy, I....I don’t feel so good."

She looks up from her reading, a worried, withdrawn look on her face. "Now that you mention it, I don’t feel so good either."

My face flushes. A cold sweat beads on my forehead. The dizziness grows, the blackness roils up to engulf me. I am going to pass out. I sit up and put my head between my legs. In a few minutes I feel steadier but I know this is something really bad and getting worse minute by minute.

"This is not good." I am panting, my vision blurs, my chest aches and feels like It’s on fire. I tremble. For a moment I black out but come to again immediately, in time to catch myself as I fall forward onto the dinette. My mouth feels numb, there is an awful, metallic taste in my mouth...I can hardly breathe.

"Oh Rick, what’s wrong? My legs feel funny." She tries to stand to come to my aid but she’s unable to stand.

"Come on, sweetheart, lets get to bed." All I can think is, something is wrong, really wrong. My head is swimming, confused, can’t think straight. I help Freddy stand, she is trembling and cold. We go aft and collapse into bed.

Nightmares chase me all night long.

I wake up feeling worse, no idea what time it is. Daylight.

I try to write on the typewriter but my fingers miss the keys. I try to walk. I stumble and fall. I fumble my words and they come out wrong. I lie down and focus deep inside, searching. Something is terribly terribly wrong. A hard, cold, death reaches towards me like a rising black tide. Frightened, I pull back from the icy eternity, force myself awake, panting with fear.

My muscles ache. I can’t think. Walter cat is down, too. He tries to jump up the companionway ladder and FALLS!

Freddy goes over to him. She’s crying. I’m Crying. "Oh Rick, what’s WRONG with us?"

I sit there, unable to focus. She grips my arm, "It’s the water. It’s got to be. We’ve been poisoned."

My head aches. Water? "Huh? What?"

Freddy is shaking me, peering close into my face, I think I have been unconscious again but am not sure. "We’ve been poisoned. It must be the water. It must be. Listen to me. The water is the only constant thing in our diet. I has to be the water."

The dizziness and fog drops away and I feel almost normal. I stand up, "The idea has merit, I suppose." I move the ladder away from the companionway and kneel on the floor. A wave of exhaustion flows over me as I bend down. Sometime later I lift the deck hatch by the galley and manage to unscrew the water filter container. I have not done this for a long time. "Christ! It's green! Look at it." I pull out the filter paper and it is a metallic, copper green. Experimentally I touch the tip of my tongue to the paper. It has a bitter, metallic taste. It actually burns my tongue. "Holy shit. We’ve got metal poisoning."

"From what?" Freddy takes the filter paper and looks at it closely.

"Maybe chrome from the stainless tanks. Certainly copper from the water pipes. Shit. Shit. Shit. How could I have been so stupid? I even did a study on the effects of copper on biological systems. There is a medical syndrome - a neurological thing - you get from copper poisoning. And the rain water is corrosive as hell, the water we drink sits in the copper water pipes from the tanks for hours - all night - in the morning we pump it out slowly and drink it, loaded with copper." The revelation excites me and I feel wide awake and almost normal again. I put the filter back together and close the deck hatch. Another wave of dizziness overcomes me and I wake up on the deck, Freddy holding me.

Sometime later I hear her say, "Why now? After nearly four years?"

"I don’t know. Maybe It’s something else, too. Maybe it just took time to reach a critical level - we’ve been feeling rotten for a long time."

"Since the end of the expeditions in March," Freddy agrees.

"Since March....." This seems enormously important. I sit on the deck, trying to think about March, the metallic salts still burn in my mouth from the one tiny taste of the filter. My pulse is regular. My liver does not seem swollen. My tongue - and Freddy’s - is coated an awful yellow color. Loss of coordination. Weakness abating after eating. And last week we ran out of vitamin pills cutting off a big chunk of our calcium intake and calcium combats metal toxicity.

"What can we do?" Freddy is lying down on the dinette seat. "We don’t have anything to drink...we can’t touch the tank water."

Yes, we are both very thirsty. Perhaps there is something to drink in the food locker. I climb onto the settee. It is a long way from the deck to the cushion. Once I’m on top I discover it is so much more comfortable than the floor.

Freddy’s voice says "I’m very thirsty." I open my eyes. I remember to look in the food locker and find a can of fruit salad. I lie back and place the can on my chest and tell Freddy I found it. We can drink the liquid in it. Before I can move, perhaps in five or ten minutes, Freddy gets up and I hear her open the can. We gobble up the fruit and slurp the sweet liquid. For awhile the real world swims into focus and we talk about calling on the radio for help, possibly trying to get to the hospital at Alatau.

"No, we can’t. The doctor at Alatau hates white people, thinks they develop psychosomatic problems just to waste his time. Besides, if we go to the hospital we’ll probably get hepatitis. It would kill us for sure." I can’t be sure Freddy heard me. I’m not sure I said something. We lie in bed and sleep and wake and sleep and wake.

I awake drifting high above Moira, looking down on her elegant shape as she gently swings at anchor in the small bay. The reef glows with life all around her and the deep sea where the reef ends gleams fresh, new, transparent blue.

I am a Frigate Bird held gently aloft by Sky, rising higher and higher until I see the whole island of Sidea and Moira is a tiny white dot directly below me - off the northwest tip of the island. I wheel higher and see China Straits and Samarai and higher until I see Milne Bay and the jagged mountains of eastern Papua New Guinea and higher....

"Come on, Rick, come on," Freddy is blowing air into my mouth. Now she is pounding on my chest. Now she is blowing air into my mouth again. I open my eyes and her face is pressed against mine, her eyes filled with tears. I am trembling all over, shaking hard, cold, sweating.

It is dark outside and we eat another can of fruit - peaches this time. The liquid soothes the burning throat. "We need some EDTA," I say as the sugar flares up in my brain. "Or some penicillamine. They chelate the metal and the body just urinates it out. We don’t know for sure what metals might be there."

I lie back and think about feeling bad since March. What is so important about March? "I know, we haven’t had any rain since March. It might not be our water system. I’m sure the copper is there and is dangerous, but maybe the water in the catchment tank at Belesona is contaminated, too."

"I think it is," Freddy agrees, "We’ve drunk the water from that tank for months.... Our rain catcher has been useless."

"It was right after we found out about all the streams and ground water being contaminated with leptospirosis." I remember something else, "Damn! I looked in the catchment tank and was surprised there was nothing in there." I slam my fist onto the dinette. "There were no mosquito larvae in there! Why didn’t I know?"

"And remember the yacht - with the little baby? The baby was sick and crying all the time and nobody could figure out what was wrong with it." She’s right.

The water in the catchment tank must be poisoned. "I’ll bet It’s lead. Lead hits infants and young children really hard and fast. The yacht had been using the water from the same tank for over a month. And Peter Plattsman, too. Peter told us the water was OK. He said he always made his coffee with it. And Peter has been acting really strange lately, paranoid, erratic, angry one minute and laughing the next. Mad as a hatter."


"Hatter. People used to make top-hats using a mercury compound and hatters went crazy because of mercury poisoning. Lead poisoning has neurological effects like that, too." I get up and pace the deck. "It could be mercury. In the Virgin Islands they found mercury in water catchment tanks from roofs painted with an antifungal compound. But the roof at Belesona is not painted, It’s galvanized iron."

"It doesn’t matter, we can’t trust our tank water or the water from the catchment tank. We’ll have to get to Samarai and buy milk." Freddy gets practical.

"Milk would be excellent. We need calcium - as much as we can get. I’ll call Dr. Cook and see if we can get some Penicillamine to chelate whatever is in our system so we can get rid of it."

If, I think to myself, we are strong enough to get to Samarai tomorrow. When heavy metal poisoning goes from the chronic to the acute phase most people die. Right at the moment I could not get the anchor aboard or keep it together long enough to sail through the reefs and islands back to Samarai.


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