The past two weeks of cruising in the Banks Islands have been about as good as it gets; great weather, gorgeous and uncrowded anchorages, friendly villagers and a high fun-to-boat maintenance ratio.
Returning to Ureparapara from the Torres Islands, we had a chance to savor its awesome geography a bit more. Anchored in Diver’s Bay, one is virtually floating in the middle of a volcanic cone, opened up at one end, surrounded by 2000+ foot high, greenery covered precipices. On this, our second visit, the weather was unusually clear, so we had a chance to really take in all that lay around us.
We had a walk in the village at Diver’s Bay that is home to about 200 people. As usual, all we met were friendly and greeted us with a warm smile. Even though it was a “work day,” the village was quite quiet and nobody seemed in much of a hurry to get much done. I suppose these islanders are blessed with all they need to survive, and not much desire for more.
What is always interesting to me is to note the architecture and innovation used in construction of the homes, given the extremely limited availability of materials. The thatched roofs seemed more elaborate than in other parts of Vanuatu, and some of the huts had exterior panels of copper sheeting. I later found out that they were salvaged from the bottom of a French freighter that was wrecked on the island a number of years back. The panels, rough and covered in a patina, made for an interesting contrast to the bamboo, wood, palm and pandanus thatching. One home had, as a garden decoration, a radio antenna buoy used to locate the end of a long-line used for commercial fishing. This gift from the Gods must have broken or been cut loose and drifted into the bay, to be salvaged by this unknowing villager. Typical of Vanuatu, the village was very neat, and was nicely landscaped with quite a few ornamental plants, flowers and stone fences.
The most interesting feature was the “kinder” or pre-school. Its little playground had a full-on swing set and “jungle gym,” no pun intended, fashioned entirely of local materials. Most notable was the slide, beautifully carved and polished, made from a section of a single hardwood log. The whole scene was quite reminiscent of something out of “The Flintstones.”
We summonsed one of the villagers to muster up some lobsters for us and the Dancers, Jim and Jeanette. The following day, we were delivered seven nice lobsters, for which Jim swapped one second-hand T-shirt. The fresh bugs, washed down with some Kiwi and Aussie wine, made for a great meal.
The next day, we made the short twelve-mile hop over to the Reef Islands. This group of islands, surrounded by a shallow barrier reef, forms the only true coral atoll in Vanuatu. The low-lying islands, surrounded by beautiful white-sand beaches and a shallow green lagoon are no longer inhabited due to their lack of a fresh water supply, but make a great cruiser’s stop-off when the weather is settled.
The shallow lagoon is loaded with stingrays, which flee when approached by dinghy. We had a bit of fun chasing these fast-moving black or tan animals through the green waters of the lagoon as they darted this way and that to escape what to them must have seemed like a ship from outer space.
The diving along the outer edge of the reef was excellent. Numerous steep-sided coral bommies were strewn about on the 20-40 foot white sand bottom. There was a plethora of colorful tropical fish as well as sharks and rays. I managed to spear a very nice 5-pound grouper that was lurking on the sand bottom under the base of a bommie. This tasty fellow made for an excellent “fish of the day.”
The reinforced southeast trade winds kicked in once again. We were anchored on the outside of the Reef Island’s barrier reef, far from any wind protection from the islands. The wind whipped up to a minimum of 22 knots with long periods of 30-knot blows. The sound of the wind whistling through the rigging was, I estimate, in the 60 to 80 decibel range, enough to require earplugs to get a good night’s sleep. Time to split!
We weighed anchor early the next morning and sailed south to nearby Vanua Lava Island and the shelter of Waterfall Bay. During the easy twelve-mile downwind run, we hooked into another large sailfish, which promptly stripped the reel and snapped our line. He did a number of very impressive tail dances in a valiant effort to spit out the stainless steel hook attached to our new lure. Bugger!
We spent a couple of relaxing days anchored in Waterfall Bay. Unfortunately, recent rains had given the water in the waterfall a brownish tint; somewhat reducing it’s allure. That, along with a swell making a beach landing very difficult, kept us from going ashore. The villagers came by in their canoes with a multitude of fresh fruits, vegetables and coconuts for trade, so we managed to stave off scurvy for a bit longer. We also found some excellent snorkeling on the edge of the reef below the steep cliffs along the edge of the bay. The water was clear, the fish plentiful and there were numerous caves and swim-throughs to explore along the underwater wall that drops down to a 40+ foot sand and gravel bottom.
Sola, the governmental center of Torba (Torres and Banks) providence and is situated on the other side of Vanua Lava from Waterfall Bay. We needed to renew our cruising permit so we motored the 28 miles in light air to the lovely and well protected little bay on the east side of the island, landing a three-foot mahi enroute. Sola is described as the “big smoke” of northern Vanuatu. We knew at once we were in the big city again when we saw in addition to smoke, motor vehicles, electric power poles and a few cinder block buildings with corrugated tin roofs. We happened to arrive just as the village was waving goodbye to a group of the young people who were heading to the island of Efate to go to “camp.” That evening, we found it almost strange to actually see lights on shore once again.
We headed to the government offices to take care of the formalities and were met by Henry, the local Customs officer. Contrary to our experience in many other parts of the world, this gentleman was knowledgeable, helpful, friendly, efficient and polite. In short order, we had a new cruising permit in hand and were given directions to the “town stores” to do some provisioning.
Sola is “not exactly” like Port Vila or Luganville when it comes to provisioning. Unless you are a connoisseur of canned mackerel or corned beef, you might say that the selection of food on the shelves is a bit thin. We managed to get a few kilos of rice, some local beers, toothpaste, eggs and some matches and other odds and ends for trading. Henry, the Customs man got a message to the local baker, who dropped by the boat to deliver six loaves of fresh-baked bread the next morning at 0600. I don’t know if they use coconut milk in the bread dough or if the oven is fired with coconut shells, but the flavor imparted in the bread is heavenly. What a treat!
The following morning, we motored just outside of Sola Bay to nearby Kwakea Island. This gorgeous little island, just east of Vanua Lava, is ostensibly a coconut plantation surrounded by a white sand beach. Kwakea has about 20 inhabitants who survive by fishing and producing copra. We went ashore for a walk and were greeted by Chief Jimmy, who looked like a tanned, gray pony tailed throwback from the 60’s. He was most happy to see a visiting yacht and welcomed us to explore his island. He directed us to a footpath, and we enjoyed a leisurely walk past the village through the coconut plantation to the other side of the island, returning along the shell covered, and white sand beach. Unfortunately, most of the good shells had already been claimed by hermit crabs, and usually scampered away as we approached.
With light winds the next day, we motor-sailed south to the lovely Losalava anchorage on the Island of Gaua, about 20 miles to the south. About nine miles out from Losalava, we hooked a massive sailfish. I was hoping to just save my lure and lose the fish. After a half an hour of fighting, the huge fish came up to the stern, exhausted. I jumped into the dinghy and managed to slip a loop over its tail and we towed the fish the rest of the way into port. This one measured in at nine feet long and I’m estimating 150 pounds, a new Moonshadow record. It was a bit more than I wanted to deal with, let alone what we could possibly eat or freeze, so we gave the fish to the villagers at Losalava, who were quite happy to have some fresh fish. At least I saved my lure.