Among those flags was an SSCA burgee documenting the multiple visits by sv Cormorant. We met Harry and Jane of Cormorant way back in Trinidad, where we discovered Jane and I had Dana Hall School in common – me as a student and she (subsequently) as an administrator. After their first visit to Asanvari, Harry and Jane had returned from New Zealand with the equipment to build a miniature hydroelectric plant to provide the village with electricity. It sounds like such a simple thing on paper, a generator to provide electricity where there is none, but Asanvari is a long, long, long way from the "grid." It is a long way even from any easy source of fuel to run a standard generator. To devise a way to provide electricity from natural sources is quite simply, way cool! (For more information on the story of building this generator, SSCA members can search through back issues of the SSCA Bulletin online at www.ssca.org.) It was because of Harry and Jane's efforts here that Asanvari was high on our list of places not to miss.
The yacht club is presided over by Chief Nelson and his son Nixon. Nixon, particularly, speaks great English, having worked as a dive guide out of Luganville. They go out of their way to make yachties feel welcome at Asanavari, and obviously this has worked well for the village.
First thing in the morning, Nixon is liable to come paddling up to your boat with freshly-baked bread. Later in the morning, they may pass the word over the radio about activities that could happen, and in the afternoon they may organize the local ladies to bring in popular items of fruit and veg from village gardens, which we may then purchase by leaving the requested sale price in a pile of coins wherever the item had been sitting!
Although kastom dance is usually a popular thing, Nelson and Nixon picked up quickly on the fact that most of us had been to one or the other kastom dance festival recently if not both. However there was a local wedding planned for our first day that many of the cruisers decided to go to. Local, of course, is a relative term. Asanvari is on the beach, and the wedding turned out to be in a village up on the ridge about a half hour's walk away. In the company of Dave and Chrissie of Runaway Bay, who'd come sailing in from the north the night before, we went along for the "walk", which took a bit longer than advertised and included at stiff climb up a narrow path, something the ladies who'd dressed nicely for the wedding surely hadn't anticipated.
Many of the Vanutau footpaths are the width of bare feet making for challenging footing for gringo walker shod in Tevas or Crocs (the most popular cruiser footwear).
It is amazing these villages that exist sprinkled away in the forests of the mountainside. It makes you realize how little of the country we see, sticking, as we do, to communities right on the coast. On Malekula, and probably on most islands, there are still really, really traditional clans living largely out of touch with the modern world back in the deep folds of the mountains. But an amusing sidelight of our walk was crossing paths with one of Maewo's candidates for parliament hoofing it by footpath the length of his district trying to drum up votes for the upcoming September elections. Later, we asked Nelson and Nixon about the political side of Ni-Vanuatu (Ni-Vanuatu is what the people call themselves) life. It appears to be a completely separate power structure than the chief systems that rule the villages themselves (they say even the prime minister is subject to his chief when in his home village!). Pentecost, we were told has four representatives while Maewo, with a smaller population currently only has one, although due soon to be entitled to a second as their population crests 5,000. (Maewo Island, by the way, is a slightly smaller twin sister to string-bean, mountainous Pentecost to the south.) There are at least four parties fielding candidates, and the fellow we met was not the incumbent, whom Chief Nelson anticipated regaining his seat. A parliament in Port Vila sure seems a long, long way from village life, so I asked how they keep track of what is going on, and he said, "By radio."
At our turnaround point – the village hosting the wedding – we also met the bride-to-be, a nice-looking young woman with a pudgy one-year-old on her hip. Her story is also an interesting vignette of Ni-Vanuatu life. While at school to become a nurse in Port Vila, she hooked up with a fellow student and went home with him to live in Tanna. According to Chief Nelson, her parents back in Maewo had no idea what had become of her! Marriage is a big step here. A groom may have to pay a bride price of up to $100,000 vatu (about $1,000…or the equivalent value in pigs!) He may also have to compensate his future mother-in-law for the loss of a worker as usually the groom takes his bride back to his village. In the old days, and perhaps still, there were elaborate understandings of obligation between the joining families, including that a groom's younger sister might be pledged to the bride's brother and so forth, and sometime this connection might span several generations. On the other hand, most people I asked about this did say that most relationships nowadays start with a mutual attraction at school or church. Evidently, this couple was making things official by coming home to Maewo for the wedding. Another curious tidbit Chrissie picked up is that the couple recently moved to a village in the hills to get away from the dangerous ocean "where children are frequently lost." Perhaps that is just her view, having grown up on the mountain herself!
We did not stay for the wedding itself, which turned out to be the first of a couple of good non-decisions we made while in Asanvari. The second was not going on a trip to "The Bat Cave." I know it's hard to imagine that an American would want to miss out on this, but Don had a sore on his foot that he was nursing, and another hike – advertised at two hours – did not sound like a smart move for it. Right decision. The Bat Cave turned out to take about six hours round trip with much bushwacking by machete and plenty of mosquitoes, and Nick and Bonnie of Rise 'N Shine reported back that there were times, scaling cliffs by means of vines and roots, when they "feared for their lives"! Bonnie did confess that at one point where she was in mortal dread, she looked over the precipice to find an aged grandmother "commuting" to her regular garden. So I guess it is a matter of perspective!
Better, more active decisions we made were the swim in the waterfall (after checking out the generator set-up), the snorkel on Asanvari's recommended reef, and the big group dinner at the yacht club.
The waterfall comes right down to the shore, so it was an easy scramble to get a fresh water plunge after our hot "walk." David and Chrissie were even smart enough to bring soap. Good thing I was last, because ---ooops ----who remembers that soap doesn't float!?! Hey, I'm a child of the Ivory generation, and besides, when is the last time I had a bath!
For the salt water plunge, Don and I dinghied over to the "huge coral head" – really more of a butte that rises from the deep at the south corner of the anchorage. The visibility was impressive, and although the only corals were small ones on the butte's flat top, there were lots of fish in a variety of sizes. Even though Don no longer has his speargun (and I don't think it would have been permitted anyway), he still prefers to snorkel with fish worth shooting if he did have one. Here, we saw at least five huge groupers, as well as the even bigger Napoleon wrasse as well as sizeable parrotfish and a whole slew of various schooling fish. We circled the butte twice and then swam across to the fringing reef and made our way in toward the village where to our surprise there was actually quite a bit of coral and still plenty of fish. Don went back for the dinghy and I continued on in a snorkel swim all the way back to the boat. As you might guess, the side of the anchorage where the waterfall comes down is pretty much devoid of coral or fish. But I could still see our anchor perfectly set in the sand 60 feet down!
We had read (and heard) that Asanvari was a good place for a group dinner ashore. By our third day there the anchorage had collected over a dozen boats, but thanks to the intestinal bug that had troubled at least half the fleet, momentum for a dinner was slow to grow. It took a NZ boat coming up from Vila with guests to get the ball rolling, but when it turned into a 75th birthday party for Rod of Sah-le-ah, everybody joined in. Nixon and his family put on a fabulous feast of roast pig, fresh-water prawns in noodles, green papaya curry, kumala (a white sweet potato), rice, stir-fried green vegetable (green peppers, I think). Don was very worried that when the number jumped by about ten at the last minute, that we were going to get short-changed (although for the equivalent of $9.50, how much could you complain?), but in fact Nixon had planned ahead and there was plenty for all 35 cruisers. After dinner there was kava and birthday desserts brought in by cruisers, plus there were not one but two string bands that alternated through dinner, and after dinner pretty much everybody – local ladies included – took to the dance floor. We may have scandalized the place by touch dancing (a little swing stuff), but soon most of the cruisers were doing the whirl and twirl thing and in the end there was the inevitable conga line. The band kept announcing a last song, as they had to walk home to their village in the dark, but they just couldn't help themselves and kept playing and singing until well after cruisers' bedtime. It's truly amazing what energy electric light can bring out.
Perhaps it was one of our less wise decisions to plan an early morning departure after a late party night, but groggy and heavy-bellied as we were, by first light we none-the-less tucked a few reefs in the sail, put our heads down and started the required bash back south.
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Penetecost is a long string bean of an island with steep mountains thrusting up into clouds. The lower flanks of the island are heavily clad in coconut plantations, and there are a whole bunch of anchorages along the western coast, most with villages but some without. Waterfall Bay is really not a bay, just a dimple in the coastline situated between two villages. We could see the cascade from the waterfall as we turned in, but by the time we got to anchoring depth it was lost behind some trees. Although the cruising guides recommend this as a day anchorage only, we had a very settled night with just a little bounce. The oddest thing about it was the bright electric flood lights with which the village of Melsisi to the north was lit up and the trucks headlights (at least two) that traveled back and forth along a coastal road. We haven't see electricity in a long time!
The boat may have have a fairly settled night, but I didn't. Around about midnight I woke abruptly with a miserable intestinal bug. I mention this only because I am relieved, after stressing over what of my own cooking might have caused it, to find that David on Runaway Bay had it on the otherside of the island chain. So there is something going around. So I didn't enjoy the 25-mile sail north to Asanvari as much as I would have otherwise, being sleep deprived and having to....commute below... shall we say.
Asanvari (S15*22'.874; E168*07'.42) is a much touted anchorage as one of the most beautiful and friendly in Vanuatu. It was the destination of the other, larger group of ICA Rally boats that left with us from Fiji. Friends of ours from Trinidad had stopped here several years ago and constructed a hydroelectic generator in the waterfall that tumbles into the bay, so it was high on our list of places to visit. Turning in, it didn't look all that enticing, but once in, it is actually a rather well protected bay with steep forested hills wrapping around. The fat semi-volcanic island of Ambae, that straddles the V of sea between Vanuatu's two strands of islands, fills up a good bit of the horizon westward, and we can hear, although not see, Asanvari's waterfall. (Turns out we could have seen it if we'd anchored closer to the village.) Since I was lying low yesterday, we haven't been ashore yet, but rumors are that Chief Nelson is already planning something to celebrate the new big group of boats arriving. Good thing I am feeling better today!
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It seems that several weeks ago, Luc and Jackie of the yacht Sloepmouche (cruisers who have paused here in Vanuatu the past two years) sailed into Southwest Bay. Over chats with local chiefs it transpired that the villagers would do just about anything to increase visitor traffic to the bay. Indeed last year one of the villages undertook to put on a program for a small cruise ship that made several visits. The villagers went away for some training and put together a relatively polished presentation. Then the cruise ship didn't come anymore. So Luc, who is an active contributor to the SSCA Bulletins, undertook to coordinate a cruiser festival here in conjunction with the chiefs. The three villages planned a three-day event, and Luc got the word out over the coconut telegraph, with the result that some thirty-four boats assembled for the event!
I'm sure others may have been put off by the idea of such a crowd, but in fact, the anchorage could easily hold three times as many boats. We are all swinging free with plenty of room between neighbors. And while the critical mass of cruising boats and their crews has been a revelation for the locals, it's also been quite a social occasion for the yachties themelves, many of whom haven't crossed paths in years.
The three villages involved in the event are Lembinwen, Lapo, and Tenstick. The festival began at Lembinwen, a large village on the bank where a salt water river flowing briskly from a huge tidal lagoon meets the bay. Central to the day was the dedication and opening of the Southwest Bay Yacht Club. The "yacht club" phenomenon is found all though Vanuatu. In traditional places where areas, buildings and pathways hold all sorts of traditional restrictions and taboos (particularly with respect to outsiders and women), having a building where yachties can gather to mingle with the locals without inadvertently treading on those traditions has been a successful compromise. Lembinwen was keen to have one and built the thatch hut in a matter of weeks.
But it could not happen without a lot of pomp and ceremony. The yachties were greeted on the beach with drinking coconuts and hibiscus flowers for each lady. There was a receiving line and a string band (evidently every village has their own) and an emcee with a megaphone. We learned later that the megaphone is a regular part of village life, a way for the chief to "send out" messages to the village, a tropical town crier, if you will. In the hands of Charlie, Lembinwen's emcee for the day, it was a non-stop white noise as he shifted back and forth between languages and panned his voice this way or that to target various groups of yachties or villagers in a relatively vain effort to herd us all along …vain of course because he was completely incomprehensible! There was a flag-raising on the beach, a banner held up by adorable children we needed to walk under, and speeches from a thatch dais by several chiefs, who were terrified at addressing a crowd of white foreigners in English if the trembling paper holding the composed speech was any indication! There was even a white ribbon on the door of the new yacht club that had to be cut with scissors at yet another flag raising.
Considering that this was Lembinwen's first such event, they did a very fine job. They had a whole series of demonstrations of village life planned; climbing coconut trees for nuts, cutting said nuts open for drink or meat, cooking a pudding of coconut and plantain in tubes of bamboo of a fire, starting that fire without matches, and of course weaving useful carryalls out of pond fronds. They also gave a cursory demonstration of how their outrigger canoes are constructed, and a shy fellow showed the traditional sand-drawing, where images are created without ever lifting the finger. We had a nice lunch of beef stirfry, taro, and a fancy bread and banana concoction, which surely used every plate in the village's possession, and then we all climbed up a hill (where hand-rails had been lashed helpfully to the path-side trees) to watch a ladies' grade-taking dance.
Unfortunately, what explanation of the dance Charlie and the megaphone provided was not clear enough that many of us appreciated what we were seeing. It is only after coming back to the boat and reviewing my Lonely Planet did I start to get a clue. Grade-taking, usually associated with men only, is a process whereby individuals increase status within the community. According to the Lonely Planet, the men "earn respect by publicly disposing of their wealth in a series of elaborate ceremonies"…"accompanied by the ritual killing of pigs." What they are after from the pigs are the boar's tusks, which take six to seven years to grow, so one has to own a lot of pigs that reach maturity to collect the required number of tusks to reach "high levels of society." It seems that the southern Malekula women are the only Vanuatu women to take grades.
What was perhaps slightly uncomfortable was that the ladies danced topless. It is an odd jump to make from women in Mother Hubbards (the smock-like dress introduced by missionaries) to the same women in grass skirts and vines. These are not the nubile virgins most of the men were hoping to see, but matronly figures, to put it kindly, and the dance was a fairly monotonous chant and tread around a "house" made of saplings, which the ladies eventually entered and then pushed down for the finale, a symbolism lost on us.
After the dance, about half the cruisers opted for the lagoon tour – a fast trip in a line of dinghies through the huge estuary up the river.
The next day was pretty much a rerun, except that presented by the villagers of Lapo, the ones who had trained for the cruise ship, every phase was more coordinated and more polished. Instead of flowers for our ears we had leis (which work better for white people!),
there were straws for our drinking coconuts, the benches at the beautifully landscaped dance ground had backs to them (!!!!), the lunch was somewhat more elaborate, and the guy on the megaphone was much easier to understand. As we landed our dinghies on their beautiful beach, we were parceled into groups of ten and given a guide for the day. The guides were more effective than Charlie's amplified directions had been, but even so I am quite sure the guides found cruisers much more challenging to "herd" than the cruise ship passengers had been!
The two big differences in the day were the village tour and the dancing. Lapo (pronounced LaBO) is the Swiss village of southwest Bay. The thatch huts climb the steep hillside along a path that switches back and forth up through dense jungly forest. The houses, though still stick and thatch, seemed larger and more westernized in style, with porches and windows, some with screens and others even with glass, motivated, I presume, by the gorgeous vistas and the cool breezes. One little cluster had three tombs in the front, (rather Samoan style), there was a nice little Presbyterian church, and deliberate effort at landscaping with flowers and shrubs along the paths was evident everywhere. Near the top of the villages was a waterfall with a Jacuzzi like pool for kava drinking.
As for the dancing, this time it was men's dances and the men were in Kastom-dress.
Unlike the "participatory' dances we saw in Tanna (and here I consult Lonely Planet again), the two dances we saw in Lapo were "impersonation" dances where the men "pretend to be an ancestor or legendary figure" which allows the use of elaborate masks or headdresses.
Below they wear little more than penis sheaths and decorations of leaves, including colorful tufts from their backsides like rooster tails. Unlike the women, the men were easier on the eye, revealing fitter more muscular flesh. (We were told that one reason the men don't run to fat like the ladies is that kava – in these villages restricted to men's consumption – is an appetite suppressant!). Also the men's dance was accompanied by the drumming of a set of three elaborate tamtam (carved wooden slit-drums), which was very stirring.
The costumes and headdresses were truly memorable (different in each dance), but the dance steps themselves were the same for both dances, a handful of slow deliberate steps, then a flurry of fast double-timers when the drum beat sped up.
The art, of course, is doing it while keeping the headdresses upright.
Of course, just as we were all sitting there thinking the dance steps were rather unexciting, we were invited to come out and join the dancers. It wasn't so easy…and that's without headdresses!
All in all another nice day.
The third day of the festival was a more relaxed opportunity to visit the small hamlet of Tenstick, located on the westernmost point of the bay and named for the haystack islet just offshore. It seems in WWII the pilots based at Espirito Santo paid the villagers "ten sticks" – or ten cigarettes – to use the islet for target practice. Here the main attraction was to be snorkeling and diving, but the good weather that had blessed the first two days of the festival failed, and the morning was beset with a chilly drizzle. As you might guess, most of the cruisers, overdosed on village visits from the previous two days, opted to stay home. On Tackless II this captain was feeling a bit under the weather as we had celebrated Don's big SIX-OH the night before (more on that later). But when someone announced on the radio that perhaps these villagers had gone to more preparation than we'd been led to expect, we, like several others, clambered into our dinghies to pay our respects.
The Tenstickers had their own string band, their own hibiscus flowers and drinking coconuts to offer (these with straws of "cabbage stems"!), a table of snacks to try, and some crafts and shells to sell. Both men and women were on the beach to greet us, and sat around to chat. Don and David (the Runaway Bay crew had caught up with us in time for the BiG SIX-OH dinner) had a tour with the chief, and David invited the chief to visit our boats in the morning (Damn, gotta cleanup AGAIN!) Afterwards we took our snorkel gear to check out the reefs around Tenstick Islet, and were sufficiently impressed with the clear water and reef landscape to plan a scuba dive tomorrow.
If you are wondering what the villagers got for their efforts, it is common to ask a fee. After all, these traditions, reefs and National Geographic opportunities are all these people have to market. On the first day, Lembinwen asked only for gifts of our discretion (and they collected quit a heap!); at Lapo they asked the equivalent of $30 a head (a bit dear), and at Tenstick $3 bought us access to the reef.
Don's BIG six-OH!August 13th came around again this year, and it was mighty nice of the folks of Southwest Bay to throw this big party for Don, cause i'd been wondering waht special thing I could to celebrate. It was our friends Randy and Sherri of Procyon that alerted us to it as a perfect place to meet up for the occasion, and very fine that our "newest best friends" David and Chrissie of Runaway Bay put the push on to get here in time. Other than the events of the festival, Don's big day started with sat phone calls home as well as well-wishing by email, and ended with a big dinner for six in Tacky Two's cockpit. Randy and Sherri contributed a sinful chocolate cake and a split of champagne, Dave and Chrissie a lovely fruit compote and yam fritters, while I strove to provide cheeseburgers in paradise…which, believe me, in Paradise is no easy feat. My homemade buns, such a success in Tonga two years ago, were a bit of a flop, and the burgers, down-sized twice before grilling to fit the buns ended up more like White Castles' infamous sliders. Damn, I shoulda thought to grill onions!!!! My potato salad, however, was more successful, thanks to Chrissie's bringing us provisions from Port Vila.
Although we miss being close enough to home that the family could make a big fuss over us for milestones like these, the cruising way has its virtues: celebration by like-minded souls in like situations with similar thoughts of where we are in life and what we want from what remains us.
15-18 August 2008 – ‘Tween Time
Southwest Bay was the kind of place one could hang on the hook indefinitely, especially with the ability to restock beef, fish, eggs as well as lemons and limes from the Kiwi Farm. On the Friday after the hoopla of the festival died down and as the fleet started to disperse, we did manage to fit a scuba dive in on the reef on the west side of the pass between Tenstick’s islet and village. Don and David actually opted to sit on the surface and schmooze about boat systems while Chrissie, a newly certified diver, and I went for a very nice dive through a system of caverns and pinnacles, my favorite kind of landscape. Hard to believe Chrissie was a newbie!
In the afternoon, Don and I went ashore to collect a sarong I had purchased from a woman named Marklynn at the Tenstick do the day before. We found her house as she’d described, the last compound on Lembinwen village’s west end. She and her husband Silon made us welcome in the family’s main building, a structure of cement and stone up two feet, topped by the traditional vertical stick walls, and an absolutely beautiful thatch roof. The building housed an open space probably 25’x40’, and inside was almost nothing! Against one wall in the corner was a bench with some cooking pans, and the sarong I was picking up was pinned to the wall above it. Their son Anthony, a handsome young man as yet unmarried, is one of the musicians in the village string band, so of course we had to buy a copy of their just-released CD (produced very professionally by a Peace Corp worker.) Later when Marklynn went to get a gift for me (my very own, very pink Mother Hubbard dress…so I “could have a proper dress!), she went into a smaller hut nearby, so we deduce each member of the family as their own sleeping hut.
Aside from the new and spacious compound, Silon and Marklyn are distinguished by keeping pets. In a stone and cement pool built into the sand, Silon keeps five turtles – four hawksbill and one green turtle – that he says he has raised from babies. Keeping turtles for four years takes a lot of work. They feed the turtles rice and change the water every day, and Silon claims they take the turtles out in the sea for swims. He says he keeps them to teach the community children that turtles are protected now and not to be caught or shot for food. He also has a flying fox in a cage, which he acquired when one of the boys shot the mother with a slingshot and the baby was found tucked under her wing. All the animals seemed happy and clean and friendly with the family.
On our way out, Silon led us on a tour through Lembinwen village. Even though we had spent a day there for the festival, we actually had not seen much of it. Wandering around unattended is not encouraged. It turned out to be quite densely built up (no wonder Silon moved to the suburbs!). We saw two of the three churches (Presbyterian, SDA and CDC…I know what SDA is, but not CDC!), an actual open air stage for the band and other village events, a volleyball court, the primary school, the chief in his undershorts and well, you know….village life.
The next morning we took advantage of the light winds and motored back around the south end of Malekula to the Maskelyne islands at Malekula’s SE corner. This was a change of plan. Originally, I’d thought we’d sail with Runaway Bay north up to Luganville on Espirito Santo, where the US military base was during WWII and where there are several spectacular wreck dives (the USS President Coolidge, a 654-foot former luxury liner that was serving as a troop ship when she struck a friendly mine and sank, and the infamous Million Dollar Point, where the US navy dumped thousands of tons of equipment after the war.) However the Coolidge is a deep dive which I am avoiding these days, and Don was lukewarm about diving on his own, and with the weather report predicting strong easterlies coming in within the week, we were concerned about getting pinned in up there when we would need to get back southeast to Efate. So, instead we decided to proceed with Procyon and other friends over to Ambrym Island for a famous Rom dance festival
The Maskelyne Islands are a pretty little group of seven islets and extensive reef areas. We tucked in to a super protected anchorage behind the coral-fringed islet of Awea (S16*31’.9; E169*41.’2) with a bunch of friends, and quite honestly, never put the dinghy down. With two festivals behind us and another to go, we were perfectly happy just to sit on our boat and do as little as possible. Of course, that didn’t stop people from visiting us. Marjetka, the Slovenian single-hander, and her wonder dog Cherie were there and came and spent an afternoon visiting, as did Randy and Sherri of Procyon. Also we had a few visitors that came by canoe, most memorably Martin and his five-year-old son Thatcher! We enjoyed chatting with Martin, and although he had nothing to trade, we ended up making him a gift of some reading glasses which he sorely desired.
On Monday morning, the wind picked up to a respectable 15 knots and the entire anchorage emptied out in a steady stream and set sail for the NW tip of Ambrym Island about 46 miles away. As the fleet sailed out, we had to give way to the local canoes, now alll equipped with sails!
Since Ambrym is Vanuatu’s other big active volcano, we were concerned about picking up ash and fumes as we sailed by its leeward side, but fortunately for us the main impact was some locally-generated wind patterns switching the southeasterlies abruptly to northwesterlies! Still we had another great sail and settled into the relatively open roadstead off Nebul village known as Rodd’s anchorage (S16*06’.5; E168*.07’.7).
It was a bit sloppy just outside Port Resolution where the next morning we bashed our way far enough offshore to avoid any fallout from Mt. Yasur. But almost from the moment we turned north, the mist lifted, the clouds cleared and the wind settled once again conveniently on the beam allowing us to keep pace with the speedy Kiwis and generally have a fine 68-mile day sail to Dillon' Bay, Erromango.
As we approached Erromango, we heard this really unfamiliar sound…the sound of the fishing reel whizzing out at a rapid pace! By the time Don could get to the rod, the mahi mahi had jumped four or five times, but I guess at the blistering pace of seven knots, he was unable to shake the hook. I worked at slowing the boat down by furling the genoa while Don held on to the rod for dear life. (You may remember our last big mahi got away!) This one did not, and after we managed to wrestle it aboard (bloodying the bejeezus out of the back deck in the process), it proved to be a record setter for Tackless II – five feet! (Ooops sorry for the sidewise pix, will fix another time!!) The new paint job has been christened.
Dillon's Bay is a wide V centered on the mouth of a river disgorging from a cleft in Erromango's step mountain range. The village of Unpongkor is strung out along the north bank of the river. Interestingly, the river is called the Williams River after the first missionary that was killed there in 1839. The body was bartered with an inland tribe for food, protein in exchange for some veggies perhaps?
The boys went in within hours of our arrival to take in the barracuda that David caught, and the remains of the mahi after Don had filleted it. Islanders are always aghast at what cruisers consider waste – the huge head in this case. The carcass was spirited away in no time. Very quickly they were solicited to examine a young man with an eye infection after getting a stick in it, followed by an ailing generator. The two mechanically-minded guys were a lot more optimistic about helping the latter than the former, but by chance the rally leader, David of Diomedea, is an eye surgeon and Runaway Bay David was able to contact him on the radio for some guidance. Both projects ran over into the morning, and I'm pleased to say both patients were left in better shape for their efforts. While the guys were ashore I took advantage of the sunshine and stayed aboard to do several loads of laundry. While I was at it I had two young visitors come to call. These boys, aged eight and ten, made this canoe themselves!
In the afternoon, Chief William undertook to guide us to some burial caves. It took about a half hour by slow dinghies (we'd been joined in the anchorage by then by Reg and Lois of Force Six from Tasmania and a group of four French vacationers on a borrowed boat from New Caledonia), and we all got thoroughly soaked. Chief William, a man of some age, nimbly led us up a path (that was poorly suited to the Crocs I had worn…I thought we were going to caves on the water!). There were two caves: one a five-foot wide mouth descending into the dark, the other an open alcove reached by scaling the roots of a Banyan tree woven into the side of the cliff. Chief William did a little "tok tok" in the native language to advise the spirits we were just here for a respectful visit, before removing the "barricade" (a grid of sticks) placed there to keep the spirits in. Chief William does this because his father told him to, even though he himself doesn't "believe in all that."
In the end, all of us but the French went to both caves, and sure enough, in each, were neat piles of human bones.
Chief William said that the ones in the upper cave were his grandfather, and that the bodies were brought there during a battle when they didn't have time for the one week mourning. David and Chrissie were incredulous that this was all allowed so casually. They said the Maori of New Zealand would never permit outsiders anywhere near!
After the dingy ride back to the village, we ladies ventured inland along the river road to find the swimming hole in the river for a fresh water wash. Everyone greeted us as we walked through the tidy village, children giggling from the branches of huge spreading banyan trees. Unfortunately, as we neared the spot, we were advised that run-off from the previous night's rain the in the mountains had muddied the water, and indeed it did not look inviting, although several young girls proceeded to swim. Instead we made our way out into the boulder strewn stretch where ladies were sitting to do their laundry surrounded by kids our grandson Kai's age and sat and chatted with them.
Meanwhile, while Reg and Dave worked on yet another generator, Don went off with a villager he'd met earlier (another David!) who wanted Don's wise western input on some "development plans" he had for a little back-packer resort with bures and rental kayaks and the like. You may wonder how visitors might get there without yachts, but in fact there is an airstrip on the other side of the island via which these villagers ship lobsters and fish to Port Vila. Don said it was a beautiful piece of land with great views with a fair amount of landscaping work already in process…things, Don says, you can do without a lot of money!
That evening we had another potluck supper on Tackless II. As we had already shared out half the mahi, the potluck put a major dent in our remaining supply. But the others provided four or five side dishes, including from the galley of Force Six a huge plum pudding for dessert, complete with brandy sauce . As a slight drizzle rolled down out of the mountains, we were able to drop all the windows and have a cozy social evening.
The next morning we took off on our own for a 168-mile run up to the island of Malakula to meet up with our friends Randy and Sherri of Procyon for a special festival being organized there just for cruisers.
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Unlike most villages we have seen from the Marquesas to Fiji, in this one the houses are all traditionally constructed of woven sticks and thatch roofs. I can't tell you how right this feels, compared to raw rectangles of wood, tin or concrete. The houses appeared to be clustered in family groups, and everything was neat and tidy, albeit with pigs running hither and thither. The only western style construction appeared to be around the primary school, but we didn't get a chance to look in.
We did spend quite a bit of time in their 'cultural center", a separate bure with "exhibits" and laminated placards pertaining to specific traditions, customs and ceremonies. There even was a reproduction of an oil painting of "the only first hand witness of a cannibal ceremony". I suspect a Peace Corps contribution to the effort. We were told there is an American lady living in the village, but we did not cross paths.
When they did arrive, the officials were fairly organized. There was even a representative from the bank to change our "hard currencies" (US and Aussie $) into vatu. Vatu are one of those currencies where $1000 vatu equals a dollar. Hard to get your head around.
We had a relaxed afternoon in preparation for muster at 4pm to climb into three pickup trucks for the trip to Mt. Yasur. Although there were only six ICA Rally boats (note the one with steering problems achieved a fix and caught up with us all), there were another eight or so boats in the anchorage who joined the tour, so the trucks were pretty well packed with about ten people sitting on benches around each of the truck beds. The "roads" are mountain tracks with some very large holes. These trucks are the only transportation these villages have!
What can I say about Mt. Yasur. It was pretty incredible. It rises from the mountainside in a neat ash cone from a burned area of lava rock. The trucks drive as close as 150 meters, and the brave-of-heart climb the rest of the way up a soft black-sand path to the rim. Let me hasten to say this is the upper rim. They used to let people descend to the lower inner rim until a Japanese lady was incinerated in an instant by a molten blast!
Believe us, the upper rim was spectacular enough. With the wind from the southeast, most of the smoke was blown away from us and the experience was curiously devoid of sulphur smell. There were evidently two main vents. The left hand one put on most of the fireworks, blasting red hot molten boulders from its glowing core 200+ feet skyward at regular explosive intervals. The vent to the right, however, specialized in freight train sound effects and towering columns of roiling black smoke.
We stayed until after dark and captured a great deal of the show on camera and video. It is powerful and mesmerizing, and that's at activity level two. (No one's allowed up if the level rises to four or higher.) One can readily understand how the mountain figures as a powerful deity in the "kastom" beliefs.
Speaking of "kastom", (Vanuatu has hundred of languages that developed in the isolated villages. Bislama, a sort of pigeon English, in the national shared vernacular. Many islanders do, however, speaker either English or French as well.) …the very next morning we were ashore at 7:30 am to climb back into our trucks for a ride to a 'nearby" village to attend a "circumcision festival." Stanley, our yachtie liaison at Port Resolution, was very excited for us, because this was not a tourist show, but a real event – indeed one of the traditional events we'd read about in the cultural center.
The nearby village, said to be in walking distance, was a 45 minute ride by truck. Presumably, there is a shorter footpath, because Stanleys wife Mariam did appear under her own footpower! The yachties and a few tourists from a hotel were seated on a rise looking over the ceremonial ground, packed dirt, where there were five piles of what most of us took to be umus or earthen ovens. We were right as it turned out later, but the first stage of the ceremony was for the five families of the boys to start laying on piles of gifts: first perhaps a dozen woven pandanus mats, then dozens of sulu-length strips of colorful fabric (spread one at a time!), then blankets, then more mats and a bundle of pandanus baskets, all this for EACH pile. Each clan group congregated in a separate corner of the ceremony area.
The men wore sulus, often matching within the clan, motley T-shirts, occasional crocs (Chinese rip-offs) and the odd feather in their hair. The women were far more decorated. They wore layers of grass skirts, a sarong around their tops, garlands of plastic flowers and Christmas tinsel around their necks and multiple feathers and other decorations in their hair. Obviously, even "kastom" attire has been influenced by the modern world.
After all the last baskets were balanced on the piles, in came the livestock. This was pretty hard for most of the Westerners to take. Each family provided pigs, goats or cows. The pigs were brought in squealing, hung by their feet from poles, and then stunned by a blow with a club. (This brought vividly to our minds the reproduction we'd seen in the cultural center!) The cows and goats were, mercifully, slaughtered dispatched out of our view, and then dragged on to the 'stage" by teams of men. The young Welsh girl next to me wept silently through the whole process.
Only now was the stage set for the boys to come out of the bush. Traditionally, the circumcisions were done by bamboo scalpel without anesthetics. Nowadays, we were told, they do it in the hospital "so the boys don't have to have the pain." No mention was made of the more hygienic conditions! Then the boys are sent away from their mothers "out into the bush" where they are in the care of men who supervise the healing and provide manly instructions. The ceremony we were attending was for their return from the bush.
The boys when they finally appeared were dressed up fancy like their mothers. They were paraded through the piles with their male relatives shrouding and protecting them. The boys looked very young and small and overwhelmed by all the hoopla. There followed much kastom dance, chanting harmony by the men to a rhythm stamped by their bare feet in the dirt. (Crocs were kicked aside for this!) The women circled the men bouncing like kangaroos and contributing their high harmonies. Clearly their legs are in better shape than ours!
When the dancing was over, the boys had disappeared again, and now began the dismantling of the piles they had worked so hard to build, each pile given to the mother's family who had come from distant villages. (When women are married off, they move to their husband's village. For this ceremony, the wives families traveled to be on hand.) At the bottom, under the piles of leaves did, in the end, appear umu earth ovens from which were extracted packets of cooked pork and laplap, a traditional dish easiest described at a flat, starchy pudding baked in leaves. One of these packets was delivered to the cruisers, who despite their aversion to the slaughter techniques, weren't too hesitant about chowing down! (Even the Welsh girl had some pork!)
At this point the ceremony broke so that all the food stuff could be prepped and put to cook for the big feast and dance that night…actually the main event. As the cruisers dispersed to the trucks, we were told we'd be welcome back that night, that the doings would mostly likely last from sunset to sunup. I think a German and Dutch family did go back, but most of us returned to our boats, anxious about a forecast wind shift and plans to move on in the morning.
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We have not been ashore yet, but shore has come out to us by way of dugout canoes with floating outriggers made from tree branches. Tawa, our first visitor, traded us a cooked lobster for 4 D cell batteries. Tom, coming later in the afternoon, sought a few litres of diesel for his father's generator for which he gaves us papaya, christophene, and a huge bunch of spring onions straight from the garden! This is the way of Vanuatu, a long strand of mountainous islands where villages developed in isolation from one another and villagers today still live very simply. Visting yachts come prepared to trade useful items for fresh produce because it is one of the few ways the locals can acquire these things.
In the evening our rally leaders, Dave and Andrea of the yacht Diomedea (Wonder what it means? I asked. It's the species name for albatross!) had the whole rally group over for sundowners to celebrate our arrival. I think the original plan was to assemble at the "yacht club," picturesquely situated on a bluff overlooking the anchorage, but it was discovered that the five cases of beer, delivered by Tusker Beer, one of the rally sponsers, had been consumed by the villagers! So the evening was potluck with the remains of stores from Fiji, and it was a nice group of people -- mostly all accented folk from NZ, Australia and Great Britain! As darkness feel, the volcano inlnd from the anchorage belched fire and turned the skyline red.
We have a busy day ahead today. The customs and immigration officials from Lenakel, the main town on Tanna (but with an untenable anchorage) are due at the Yacht Club at 9am (possibly with another five cases of beer!), and then at 4pm we assemble for the truck ride up to the volcano. this is the BIG ATTRACTION of Tanna, the world's most accessible, active volcano. One can drive to within 150 meters of the rim and walk the last bit. This is said to be an exciting and thrilling experience.
Tackless II herself feels joyful. In the past, when the knot log has ventured up to seven knots, the wind has been howling and the ride has been agitated. But this whole trip, the inside of the boat has been quiet. Few creaks or groans, and the motion has been relatively smooth and steady, plus we have happily carried more sail than has been our habit Both of us have slept soundly on our off watches, and we have managed to eat quite well. It's almost like sailing a whole new boat.
So,miracle of miracles, we may finally come around to feeling good about our investment of time in the yard and our investment of dollars with Baobab Marine.
Update to follow on landfall in Tanna.
After I went back to bed, I guess I missed a little excitement. One of the boats up ahead of us in our group of six experienced a steering failure, and had to bear off under emergency tiller away from Tanna to Port Vila on Efate, the only place in Vanuatu where technical assistance can be had. Since they were ahead of us, Don hadn't expected to see them, so was right surprised when a bot'as bow lights appeared on the horizon. This brings our group down to five.
So at 0800, we have 178 miles to go, over half way. Apologies about the GPS stamp; apparently the small GPS I was interfacing conflicts with my iridium modem. So I will do this by hand.
At 0800, Tackless II was at 18*50S; 172*32E, on a course of 244*M, making 7 knots. The wind is 17 knots from the SE, seas 3-5', sky is clear, Barometer is 1011, and temperature has warmed up to 82*
Nor, shall we mention, were we the last boat in line! With a brisk 15 knots off our beam, we set a record 12 hours making a steady 7+ knots. Thank you Willie for our new bottom!
Unfortunately, the wind died off around midnight, and so did our great progress. Around 0200, we furled the genoa, turned the enigne on , and sheeted the main to center to stop the sails from flogging, and we have been proceding that way since. Sigh. It was grand while it lasted. At least the batteries are all topped up, the sky is clear, the stars are bright, and the crew is good.
I think I've turned on the function to stamp the emails with our lat/long. someone let me know. But just in case, at 0530 Fiji time, Tackless II was at S 18*12'; E175*12', Wind SE 6 knots, sky clear.
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