Michael McCormack paid a high price for downing, not sipping, the sakau during a Pacific tour, later stating: ‘I was trying to be respectful’
Former Australian deputy prime minister Michael McCormack has learned the hard way that being polite can be hazardous to your health.
The Nationals MP suffered the consequences of drinking an entire shell of sakau – a traditional Micronesian kava with sedative qualities made from the root of the pepper plant – in one hit, thinking it was similar to South Pacific kava.
In Fiji, for example, guests at a kava ceremony are invited to drink the entirety of what is offered to them, in one gulp, if possible.
But as McCormack discovered – via a trip to a local hospital for treatment for dehydration – sakau is much stronger and recommended to be sipped, with the shell usually passed in order of prominence of the attendees.
Speaking to the Guardian on Friday, McCormack was in good spirits, saying he had downed five shells of kava in Vanuatu the day before his sakau experience and didn’t expect it to hit so hard.
“I was trying to be respectful – I really took one for team Australia,” McCormack said.
“They made it in front of us, squeezing the juice out of these massive tree roots, just absolutely squeezing it. It had a peppery essence and I was OK for 10 to 15 minutes and then I thought, ‘ooooh, OK’.
“I looked over at [the foreign minister] Penny Wong and mouthed, ‘I’m not OK’. I went cross-eyed. I really did. Then someone got me a bucket and, well, yeah.”
Trouble is, I did stomach it! In a bid to show my respect to local traditions I drank the whole bowl of Sakau. Feeling much better now and it’s been a great chance to connect with our Pacific family in FSM. 🇦🇺🇫🇲 https://t.co/Bs1QKBvtYa
McCormack was part of a bipartisan Australian parliamentary delegation touring the Pacific region. The attendees made a fleeting six-hour visit to Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia to commemorate the 35th anniversary of bilateral relations. The occasion was marked with sakau and ceremonial dancing.
While not alcoholic, sakau – like other kavas served throughout the Pacific region – is known for its narcotic sedative effect. When used properly it can lower anxiety while also helping to numb pain.
McCormack was feeling all the pain, however, when he took ill, while members of the Australian delegation fanned him down and rubbed his back while he held a rubbish bin to his mouth. He was eventually helped to a car and taken to the local hospital, where he received treatment for dehydration and rested while the effects wore off. He was later released with a clean bill of health.
“I slept for 14 hours,” McCormack said. “I went from the hospital to the Australian ambassador’s house and slept for seven or so hours and woke up to some text messages from [his wife] Catherine asking if I was OK. We messaged back and forth a bit and then I slept for another six or seven hours.
“I haven’t slept like that in my entire parliamentary career. I don’t think I have slept like that since I was a teenager.”
McCormack missed the final leg of the bipartisan Pacific trip and remained in Palikir, the capital of the Federated States of Micronesia, recovering, while the delegation continued to Palau.
In Pohnpeian folklore, sakau was a gift from the gods. While its usage has varied over time, it is usually served in a coconut shell, the state symbol of Pohnpei. It is made by pounding on the root of the kava plant and then straining it through the bark of the sea hibiscus tree.
It’s known for being one of the stronger kavas – hence the sipping recommendation – as there is very little water added to the roots when making the drink. Because the root is in plentiful supply, powder is rarely used and the hibiscus bark, which sets Micronesian kava apart, is also known for its pain-killing qualities. When used as directed it’s a heady drink. Users report a “buzz”.
Our bipartisan delegation visited Pohnpei today, as we celebrate 35 years of bilateral relations between Australia and the Federated States of Micronesia.
Deeply honoured that President Panuelo described Australia as a trusted Pacific partner – it is a sentiment we share. pic.twitter.com/zFyuxEyUNg
McCormack said he didn’t want his experience to take the focus away from the trip itself.
“It was so worthwhile. The security agreement with Vanuatu was so important,” he said, noting politicians from the major parties “all got on really well and I think the nations we visited really appreciated that we were speaking as one”.
McCormack said next time he would “absolutely” sip and not down the drink in one go.