Our goal was to be in Luganville, commonly referred to as “Santo,” for a 4th of July party, so it was time to put a few miles under the keel. We headed west, around the bottom of Malakula Island and then followed the west coast north a ways to the lovely Southwest Bay.
We had a great sail and hooked a nice, four-foot wahoo on the way. I reeled him right up to the transom, and was about to haul him aboard when he spat the hook. Bugger! The good news is that we hooked his big brother fifteen minutes later, and managed to board him after a good fight. A bit of cheap booze poured over his gills, a.k.a. “the parting shot” and Mr. Wahoo was quickly relaxing in La-La Land. This monster weighed in at around fifty pounds. Wahooo!!! As soon as we were anchored in Southwest Bay, some villagers in canoes visited us. They saw Mr. Wahoo peacefully resting in our cockpit and got very excited, yelling, “wan beeg fis! wan beeg fis!,” which I reckoned was Bislama for “nice catch, dude!” I filleted the nice fish and gave the carcass and one of the fillets to our visitors. I think they were more excited about the wahoo’s head than the 20-pound fillet. We understand that the natives consider the cheek meat of large pelagic fish to be a delicacy, and the head makes a tasty soup.
That evening, we were sated with fish, and pelted with rain. I estimate we received about six inches in eight hours. It was the first good wash down Moonshadow had received since NewCal. After all the salt was washed away, we caught enough runoff from the deck to top off our tanks, and give us a temporary reprieve from our state of perpetual water rationing. The bad news is that the surrounding countryside turned into a sticky, squishy mess, and the muddy river runoff turned the normally crystal clear water of Southwest Bay into something that resembled the contents of a kava bowl. Diving? Spear fishing? Fahgeddaboudit!
The next afternoon, after the heavy rains had let up, we dinked into shore, landed on the dark volcanic sand beach and scrambled up a cliff on a slippery path to the village of Wintua. At the end of a soggy turf airstrip was Alo Lodge, the local guesthouse. There we met George, the proprietor, who gave us some skinny on the area and organized a guide to take us hiking in the jungle the following day.
As we arrived on the beach the next morning, Aitep, our guide, greeted us. Aitep was a slight man with graying hair, deep lines in his face and a well worn half-set of teeth. From the neck up he looked every one of his 56 years. From the neck down, he was slender and quite fit. He looked and moved with the agility of a 30ish marathon runner.
Aitep led us along a soggy jungle path while clearing recent overgrowth with his long, sharp machete. To help us with our footing, he made Cate and I walking sticks with a pointed tip and smooth handle. Even with the aid of the sticks and our grippy hiking shoes, we slipped and slided in the mud. Aitep must have had electronic skid sensors built into the soles of his bare feet, as he never seemed to lose his firm footing. As the trail began to ascend into the hills, Aitep retrieved a small shovel he had hidden in the bushes and dug steps for us on the steep parts of the path. When we became thirsty, with a few whacks of his machete, he would hand us a coconut opened up for drinking. There is nothing that can compare to the flavor of the cool milk of a young coconut on a hot day. A few more whacks and we had a snack of its soft meat, the consistency of yogurt, scooped out with a spoon make from a chip from the husk.
Occasionally, Aitep would stop to point out a plant, bush or tree that had some significance to the Ni-Vanuatu people. Most of their food, medicine, construction material, clothing fibers and adornments grow in the jungle. Many of these people survive quite nicely with very little intervention from the outside world, much as they did before the arrival of Europeans, hundreds of years ago.
Our first stop was at the top of a high hill, where we had a commanding view of the village, the airstrip, Southwest Bay, and a large lagoon just inland from the bay. After a rest, a chocolate bar and a few Kodak moments, we went to visit Aitep’s coconut grove and cattle pasture. Aitep claimed to have 200 head of cattle on the island, which would make him quite a wealthy man by Vanuatu standards.
We strolled back into the dense canopy of the jungle and visited a hut that Aitep had built on a sacred site for native rituals. He said he also occasionally came to the hut by himself to get away from the wife, kids and noise of the village. Funny, that’s why we came to Vanuatu, but I suppose it is all relative. The hut was beautifully and meticulously hand crafted of heavy branches with walls and a roof of woven palm and pandanus leaves. We were not allowed inside, but were allowed to view some of the ritualistic masks kept there and used in their kastom ceremonies, while Aitep rolled and smoked a cigarette made from local tobacco and a bit of notebook paper.
Retracing our steps back to the sea, we managed to avoid any death slides on our trip down from the hills and made it safely back to Moonshadow in time for a late lunch. We were quite muddy and tired from the long walk. Aitep says he does it every day to attend to his garden and cattle. No wonder he’s in such good shape!
The next day, the weather forecast predicted a small low-pressure system would be moving over us, bringing some north and west winds. Southwest Bay is well protected from the South and East, but wide open to the North and West, so we immediately weighed anchor and sailed north to Santo and the protection of Segond Channel. We had a very fast trip with fresh Easterlies on our beam. In the lee of Malakula Island, the seas were nearly flat. It was a lovely day sail in cloudy skies, which finally opened up on us just as we entered Segond Channel from the Southwest. While some yachts cruising in Vanuatu reported gusts to 60 knots in the “disturbance,” we didn’t see much more than 25 knots as we sat snugly anchored in Santo.