After nearly a week in the “big smoke,” Port Vila, we were provisioned up and ready to get back out to visit some of Vanuatu’s more remote islands. Vila is quite nice with it’s calm and protected anchorage, nice waterfront cafes and restaurants, good shopping and continental touches, but we were ready for some more “National Geographic moments.”
On the morning of 20 June, under a cloudy sky and with the help of some reinforced southeasterly trade winds, we made a quick trip to Port Havannah, situated around on the north side of the main island of Efate. It was a bit windy in Havannah, so we made Moonshadow ready for the passage north to Epi and chilled a bit for the afternoon.
We weighed anchor just after first light, and slipped through Purumea Channel into the South Pacific Ocean. As we moved out of the lee, or wind shadow of the island, the reinforced trades kicked in giving us about 25 knots of breeze on the beam. With just our working sails and “Wilhelm” our trusty autopilot steering, we made the 60-mile trip in about seven hours, logging a top speed of 12.9 knots for the day.
After dropping the hook in a very rolly Lamen Bay, we caught up with our old cruising and diving buddies Jeanette and Jim on Dancer, their beautifully maintained 55 foot Bill Tripp designed ex racer. Lamen Bay is world famous, at least in Vanuatu, for it’s friendly dugong, a.k.a. a manatee or sea cow. People come to Lamen Bay just to swim with this sea mammal. The dugong made a cameo appearance for us but because some recent cyclones have disturbed his feeding ground, has been feeding elsewhere.
The following day, we had a nice stroll through the village and school along the shore of Lamen Bay. We kept a sharp dugong watch, but he was not to be seen all day. We went ashore for a local meal at Tasso’s. He runs a guesthouse and Nakamal or Kava Bar. In his thatched “yacht club,” he put on a great meal for us, more than we could possibly eat, for about US $5.75 per person, tax included, and Vanuatu is in the “no tipping zone.”
Two rolly nights in Lamen Bay was enough for us, so we headed about 25 miles west-northwest to the Maskelyne Islands. These small islands on the southeast end of Malakula are remote and beautiful, and their surrounding reefs are reported to have some of the best diving in Vanuatu. Once again, we had a beautiful day of sailing and then anchored in a tight little bay behind a little island called Awei.
The Maskelyne islanders are very friendly, but quite cut off from the rest of Vanuatu, so live very simply and traditionally. Many farm small plots on the mainland or other islands, so they “commute” by sailing or paddling their small dugout canoes through strong currents and rough seas. Others can be seen fishing or foraging on one of the many shallow reef areas surrounding many of their islands. The scene seems more reminiscent of Southeast Asia than the South Pacific.
We forgot our Kodak for one Kodak moment, a man on the beach expertly shaping the hull of a canoe with an axe and hatchet out of a single hardwood log.
It looked like very hard work. He told us that it was usually about one week’s work to make a canoe, and that a good one would last a maximum of five or six years. Given the basic tools they have to work with, we were amazed at how fair or smooth the hulls turned out.
We spent four days in the area, balancing our time between some boat cleaning and maintenance, some jungle walking and a bit of diving when the wind and tides were cooperative. The weather was mostly crappy, so the diving was less than ideal. Jeanette from Dancer finally put out a “health and welfare” call on the sun, which hadn’t even made a cameo appearance for nearly a week. A couple of the dives were quite nice though. We did a few drifters along the reef at the intersection of four channels. Our dive guide labeled it “Kodachrome Reef.” There were plenty of big fish, turtles and we even spotted a very rare, ten-foot leopard shark having a snooze on a sandy patch of the bottom. All allowed us to get up close and personal. An evening walk on the reef in search of lobster turned out to be a total bust.
Our most interesting shore visit was to a village on the little island of Avokh. A man named Robert came by in his canoe and invited all the yachties to visit his village. The two cyclones that ripped through Vanuatu earlier this year had been particularly hard on his village. It was not as tidy and the people seemed to lack the same spirit as in other villages we had visited.
No village tour is complete without a visit to the church. Robert was particularly proud of their church. He told us nearly all of the wood beams and bench planks had been hand-hewn by the villagers. A few were salvaged from a shipwreck. Typical of the area, the church bell was an old fire extinguisher suspended from a post. It actually had a pretty nice tone!
We were invited to visit the local school, across a shallow mangrove swamp on the neighboring island of Lembong. Village children arrive at school by boat, taken by their parents in large “station wagon” sized canoes or in small “sport” models. The little school, perched on a hillside overlooking the soccer field, was simple and tidy. The four-room structure had loose coral bits on the floor, salvaged corrugated tin on the walls, bamboo matt partitions between the rooms, and hinged, tilt up window shutters. The day we visited, it was “parents day,” so not much serious schooling was going on. This seemed to be just fine with the friendly, energetic and neatly uniformed students.
The classes each had about twenty kids, with two grades in each room. Of course there were good old-fashioned chalkboards at the front and back of the room, but these had been neatly framed with split bamboo. The curriculum was a mix between the three R’s and social studies and some practical education to prepare them for life in the village. Ni-Vanuatu children are taught three languages, English, French and Bislama or Pidgin English, in addition to their tribal language, which they usually speak at home. Most Ni-Vanuatu speak at four or five languages. They learn about the local plants and animals that make up their diet and how to balance them for proper nutrition. Needless to say, it was quite interesting to look at the teaching aids on the walls. In one room, there was a display hanging from the rafters labeled “transportation.” Suspended there were two rough woodcarvings, one a small floatplane and the other a dugout canoe. I suppose that these are the only forms of transportation that they have seen, or may ever see. The children were very curious about us and always gave us a big “thumbs up” when we snapped a photo.
Experiences like this are a big part of the reason we are out here.