Here we are, anchored under Mt Yasur, smoke puffing over our heads from this active volcano. Arriving in Vanuatu was like stepping back in time, real pacific island!
Although Port Resolution is the preferred arriving bay for most of the yachts, we decided to head for Lenakel, the chief village. Here is where customs, immigration, bakery and bank are located. We weren't prepared for this: the chief village consisted of 2 huts build from palm trees and what long time ago was a wharf. We didn't like the anchorage, not protected from wind shifts and with a rocky bottom. After much hesitation, exhausted from the passage we decided to go back half way around the island to Port Resolution after all. What a bad choice we made, it turned out to be a major job to get around with headwinds and moderate swell along the trip. The rush was on to arrive before sunset and in time for customs, who coincidently were here clearing in other yachts in the bay. Despite the rush, we still couldn't check in as we didn't have any local currency. That meant a trip back to Lenakel !!! Then we found out how badly we were prepared for Vanuatu, there are no ATMs here, even the bank doesn't take credit cards and there are no public transport. All too much after a passage, we resigned to our beers and to bed early.
Tanna is one of the most back in time places we have been so far! There are 4 villages here, with total of 400 people. Houses are built from palm leaves, there is one telephone line for the entire village, no electricity and water comes from a spring out of taps located on the road and by the football pitch. There is a school, children can choose between learning English or French, a small hut with a red cross, presumably a hospital. They live of taro, paw paw, pumpkins, eggplant also they have a few pigs, chickens and cows. We were introduced to the chief , the head of the village, an old and wise looking man at the circumcision party. The Tannese have a permanent grin in their faces, they are quite shy but very welcoming and friendly. The concept of tourism hasn't really arrived here yet. Magic is big part of their lives. So all started when the US troops were here, one guy, John from America (shortened to Jon Frum movement), was particularly generous to the locals, giving endless supplies of coca-cola , cigarettes, treating them as equals. Once the troops left, some supporters made radio aerials out of tin cans to contact Jon Frum. Others built an airfield in the bush and constructed wooden aircrafts to entice his cargo plane to land. Flags are still raised each evening to this god of their imagination.
At 4pm, eight of us yachties hopped on Stanley's Ute, to drive up to see the volcano. It can't hardly be called road, but off we went on a very bumpy ride, we had to grab firmly on to our seats or else we would be over the side. The Ute passed over local-built bridge, made of 3 logs either side, and past a couple of tree houses. The landscape slowly turned in to a desert of ashes. On the foot of the mountain we hopped off the car and started walking up to the crater. Half way up a massive burp of smoke covered the sky. The roaring got louder and then magma shot up and spread against the sky. You can get as close as you want to the edge, and peer into the crater to see the boiling magma. Touer, our guide, told us that if the moulding rocks got closer we have to stand still to watch where it lands, never run. But that requires a nerve of steel... As it got darker the activity intensified and the red hot rocks started to shot closer to us. Some people couldn't handle the sight and started to head down to the base, that is when Mt Yasur showed the biggest of its furry and a huge lump of boiling magma landed 100m from the group! Everybody ran to look at the magma, but for me that was just a bit too much. There was a mixture of fascination and fear, you are aware it can be dangerous but it is totally mesmerizing like watching flames dance in a fire. We all agreed nowhere else in the world would let you get this close, health and safety!
The circumcision party...
This party is held once a year to celebrate the boy’s rite of passage, at the age of nine to thirteen. The boy's family plan this big event 3 or more years in advance, as they have to supply food for the entire village. We and all the yachts were invited to the party, but the actual circumcision happened almost a month ago. This minor operation is performed without anaesthetics or antiseptics and with a sharp edge of bamboo , away from the other villagers. The men come along to clap coconut shells loud enough so the mother can't hear the boy's scream. The foreskin is buried under coconut, where a palm tree grows, which belongs to the boy for life. It all started at 7 am, women were advised to wear long skirts and to bring little gifts. We took some coca-cola. The Tannese women and girls had face paint, grass skirts and lots of tinsel. We weren't aware of what we were going to witness next. The man bought out the food for the feast: taro, kava roots, manioc and then the pigs came out. Tied by the feet to a bamboo log, screaming violently, the pig got hold to the ground and clubbed in the head with a heavy piece of wood, the screaming got louder and spasms more frequent until it all went silent. Then the dogs- not exactly domesticated- came licking the blood pouring out of its head, some fight broke out between the feral dogs. That wasn't all, cows came next, they had the throat slit and tumbled to the floor. One hour later, 2 dead cows and 6 half dead pigs were lying around us, some of the pigs still had enough life on them to scream a bit. Some of us were shocked, forgetting to give the gift to the young boys. Since the outboard has broken, we rowed back to Nomad Life for a rest. The real party would start in the afternoon.
Before sunset the men gathered at the Nakamal, which is the village meeting point for the kava ceremony. The kava was prepared according to the traditional way: chewing into a mush by a chosen circumcised virgin boy, the saliva triggers the active mildly hallucinogenic ingredients. There were 4 kava circles which made up the four local tribes. Around the Nakamal, during the kava drinking session, silence is imperial. The bowlful have to be drunk in one go, then the residue spat out. Together with the drink, pigs hearts were barbequed on sticks. The villagers explained that after drinking kava, the man can't touch women as that will make him impotent. Meanwhile the women, who weren't allowed at the kava circles, gathered together to eat the laplap- grated manioc, taro and coconut cooked in palm leaves under hot stones. After everybody ate and the men were sufficiently sedated the Kastom dance started. Unfortunately for us, it was dark and the little lightening from the generator wasn't enough to see well. But this wasn't a show set up for tourists. The dancing went on until sunrise.
After scraping some money together we managed to pay customs and immigration in Lenekal, it turned out to be a hefty fee...Otherwise we traded goods for fresh food and truly ate what the locals did. Whit formalities done, we started to head towards Port Villa, the capital, two islands up. We offered a ride to an Aussie couple, Michael and Veronica. They came to the island on a cargo boat and now wanted to experience a bit of sailing, on the way back. Both were first time sailors, and although the seas were rough, both coped well with the new environment. Before sunset we arrived in Dillon's Bay, Erromango. This island was even more desolated then Tanna. The village had around 100 people and they were pleased to see new faces.
We went ashore in search of the famous "Missionary rock". On this rock the islanders laid Williams body, the first missionary to arrive. They chipped the outline of his body on the rock before cooking him. Apparently he was a short and stout man... The whole island is a jungle so we couldn't find it. But with the help of a local, Kenneth , we found the swimming hole formed by the Williams River. Veronica and Michael had a swim while we chatted to Kenneth. Later that afternoon we caught our first fish after a long time. After dinner we headed off to Port Villa, to arrive there in the morning.
Vanuatu has been a country full of surprises, again we weren't expecting a city like Port Villa after being in places like Tanna, isolated from modern world. Port Villa was a modern town with good shops, for our relief it has ATM's machines, internet, but still very pleasant. We met up with Kiwi Dream , who were in Tanna while we were there. After we left there was huge confusion involving money. Some cruisers donated money to the village school, but the Principal never saw any of it. Very sad...
Michael and Veronica's last night in Port Villa ended up in Sophie's Nakamal for some Kava drinking. The nakamal here is like a kava bar, a bit seedy, frequented by locals, but with some seriously strong kava, where women are allowed. After 4 bowls the mouth went numb and walking became almost impossible.
Port Villa has its charm: the market ,full of dozen varieties of bananas, smells coming from the food stalls, lively with locals, makes it an interesting place. We found, thanks to Michael and Veronica, a little Vietnamese restaurant in the Chinatown, serving delicious food. The waterfront is picturesque. Just 300m from Villa, in the harbour there is Irikiri Island. The supermarket has an impressive variety of food, all imported, so not cheap. Otherwise we were busy sorting visas and cruising permit to Indonesia and obviously more boat repairs. Graham managed to fix the outboard but now we had problems with electricity, either the batteries were flat, or the alternator broken. Anyhow Port Villa offers not much in terms of boat repair. We ended up buying a generator to keep us going for now. It looks like we will have to change plans and go to Australia instead of Papua New Guinea.
Finally we were ready to leave Port Villa. Around the corner was Port Havanna, 20 miles from Port Villa. It looks like a long and narrow bay protected by islands, a very sheltered anchorage. In the evening it got so dark, there wasn't one light around and also very quiet.
Keep on moving. We left early for a 50 miles passage to Epi. It was a day no wind making a slow passage. We arrived at the entrance of Revolieu just after sunset; it was a straightforward entrance only reefs to avoid each side of the bay. Once the anchor was down, the beer was out and we watched a boat coming into the bay. It was a funny shaped boat, but as it approached, torches came out of nowhere in the jungle and the cheering started ashore. People were getting quite excited about this boat and we wondered why. It turned out that it was the cargo boat bringing the so awaited goods for the village. Maybe these people were the Cargo Cult followers...
Still on the move, this time we had sleep in and left at 10 am. We were eager to put a bit of mileage on and also heard that the weather is going to deteriorate and we wanted to be at Port Sandwich for that. If the bad weather was coming, there was no sign of it, just another windless day. We chose Pt Sandwich not just because it is an extremely well protected bay, but we read that this bay is infested with sharks. No intention of swimming here, we were content just to see some fins. Not long after arriving we saw a big fish jump out being chased by a very frantic fin. Later talking to the only other yacht here we found out that indeed there are lots of sharks and swimming is not advised. In fact, wherever there is a village, there are sharks around. The villagers throw the carcass of the dead animals in the water.
The village was a 40 minutes’ walk from where we were anchored. The people here didn't seem to have much contact with Westerners. They were all looking at us with curiosity and some reserve, the kids were all smiles but very shy to say more than hello. I approached a woman to ask for the bakery, the bakery was in the church but you had to bring your own water, so they could bake .... Then I asked if she could sell us some veggies. We returned in the afternoon to Mary's house, she and her family worked in the Copra trade. I took a bag of veggies, yams, lettuce, plantain, bananas. But I didn't have small change so ended up giving 1000 Vatu ( £5), which is probably more than her monthly earnings.
Before heading off, John, a local , approached us for a chat with the usual questions of where we come from, etc. He told us about couple of shark attacks that happened here, all involving tourists, never locals. According to him white men's flesh tastes better... That got us thinking if Cannibalism is really off the menu (apparently people in Vanuatu practiced cannibalism right until 1969). He advised us that the seas are rough with 25knots of wind since from the anchorage we didn't have a clue. And it wasn't far from the truth. The wind rushes through Malekula and Ambrym creating an acceleration zone, due to the height of the islands. We had some big waves and 25-30 knots of wind. The destination was Pt Stanley, reasonably sheltered from Easterly winds.
Not much around here, unfortunately this anchorage is far from the village or anything of interest. But we decided to wait a day for the weather to settle. We were greeted by Elder Willy in his dugout canoe, on his way to the mainland. He had a mobile phone that needed charging, we offered to charge the mobile if he did a bit of shopping for us in the village. Then he asked if he could get a ride to Luganville, in Santo, with us. He sold oysters and needed to get to the town for that. We had no idea where to store 5 bags of oysters in the boat. Willy and his oysters came out on his canoe the following day, hopped on board and we were on our way to Luganville.
15th July - The USS Coolidge
This dive was really one of the best! The sheer size of the wreck was quite amazing, 200 m long and 25 m wide. It was sunk by friendly mines (unusual for America!) just next to Luganville's main port, some 50 years ago. But before the dive, we were taken to Million Dollar Point to pick up last bits of diving equipment. This diving site again was a left over from the war, the Americans decided to dump all their equipment’s in the water: bulldozers, airplanes, engines as they couldn’t reach a financial agreement with the Condominium, which was a dual administration by the French and English, then governing Vanuatu.
The wreck starts shallow but to get a better look it is necessary to go quite deep, 35 metres. We passed the promenade, the holds, saw some cannons and ammunition and remains of trucks. Added to that the variety and quantity of fish was unbelievable: dog tooth tuna, baitfish, clown fish, 2 lion fish. Despite the depth it seemed an easy dive. For the second dive the instructor took us to see "The White Lady". Located amidships in the smoking room this porcelain statue was an impressive 43m deep and in the middle of the wreck. Weving our way through the structure of the ship, it was getting quite dark and I started feeling slightly drunk. It was nitrogen narcosis setting in. Finally we saw "The White Lady", took pictures and started to head up, by then my drunkenness had gone. The safety stop lasted more than 12 minutes, during which time we saw something quite rare: a dugong (manatee, peixe-boi) swimming by. These animals are endangered, so we were very pleased to see one.
Next stop is Australia, it will be a big jump from here. One thing we can say about Vanuatu, it is full of surprises and certainly has a WOW factor. That included the bill presented to us for clearing out of the country! Almost 100 AU Dollars, we were gob smacked, at least its half of what we paid to enter!!!!