The Banks Islands-Part 2

It would be difficult to pass judgment on which island in Vanuatu is the most beautiful. The variety of geography offers something for everyone. We, however found Gaua, the southernmost of the Banks Island group, particularly alluring.

The north and west coasts are rugged and volcanic. The geography resembles the Kona Coast of Hawaii around Kailua, only it is scarcely touched by humans, and parts of the shoreline are protected by an off-lying coral reef. There are numerous picturesque, quiet and primitive little villages that dot the shoreline’s numerous protected coves.

We spent a few hours walking on the roads and paths near the Losalava Bay anchorage and visited a number of villages situated along the rugged shoreline. All are neat and tidy with the ubiquitous church as their centerpiece. Most of the homes are simple, tidy thatched huts with dirt floors. Around the homes are grassy areas, lovely gardens of ornamental plants and thick stone fences. We visited on a Sunday, so most of the villagers were relaxing, chatting or reading.

In the largest village, Namasari, we visited the recently constructed meetinghouse. This was the largest and most impressive traditional style building we had seen in all of Vanuatu, measuring at least 100 feet long and 25 feet wide. Its symmetry was nearly perfect and the craftsmanship was exquisite.

Outside of the village, the native jungle is dense and dotted with massive banyan trees, some with intertwined root/trunk structure as wide as a house, and standing at least 100 feet tall. In some villages, the Ni-Vanuatu people take refuge in the root structure for protection during cyclones, keep a lookout high up in the branches, and have Kastom (traditional) dances in a cleared out area under the shady canopy of these impressive trees.

As we were relaxing around sunset that evening, a man came by in a canoe to visit. He had paddled up from Lakona Bay, about 14 miles down the coast. He had come to pick up his daughter, who was in boarding school there, to take her home for the two-week semester break. I mentioned that we were heading in that direction the next day and jokingly asked if he wanted to race. He laughed and then asked if he could hitch a ride. I agreed to take him, his daughter and sister-in-law along and tow his canoe. I told him we would set off at 0900.

At 0850, Johnny, daughter Salina, and sister-in-law Vanessa arrived for their ride to Lakona. Johnny and I rigged a towing harness for his canoe, and then we loaded all his gear; oars, fishing spears, bush knife, bailing tub and a small amounts of food, water and luggage on board Moonshadow, so that nothing could be lost in the event of rough seas. Our passengers were delightful and most polite.

I offered Johnny the helm, which he excitedly accepted. With a small amount of instruction, he was able to steer a pretty straight course. He informed me that he had never driven a motor vehicle or anything that had a steering wheel before, but quickly figured out the relationship between turning the wheel and pointing the boat. There are some things we just take for granted!

We arrived in Lakona Bay by midday, saving Johnny about eight hours of paddling. I managed to give the decks a fresh-water wash down and change the oil in the genset before “show time.”

“The show” was the village women playing “water music” and the village men doing some Kastom dancing for a large group from the tall ship Soren Larsen. Water music can best be described as a cross between native percussion and water ballet. Eight village women performed a brief concert and I can only guess that it evolved out of washday boredom. The water music and the Kastom dancing were both interesting and impressive. I later asked the chief what was the significance of the men’s dance. In his very polite Bislama (Pidgin English) he told me essentially that, “if I told you, I’d have to kill you.” I didn’t push the issue.

There is no surer way to bring on rain than to do your washing or hose off the decks. Our neighbors on Sidereal Time did the former and we the latter, and sure enough, the rains began.

We managed to get ashore between the squalls to visit three villages situated along the bay. We had some nice chats with the villagers and learned a bit more about life in the villages. As an island trading ship approached, we heard the drums beating and everyone began hooting and hollering. Apparently this “coconut telegraph” is the way they make a general announcement of a birth, death, ship or yacht arriving, village meeting, etc.

These ships, formerly known as copra schooners, arrive on a somewhat irregular schedule, sometimes only a few times a year, to collect and buy copra (dried coconut meat) and deliver provisions to the villagers. They have a small on-board store with some basic items, which the villagers can buy with the money from the sale of copra. They also rent deck space for passengers, so act as sort of an inter-island ferry. The arrival of the trader is always a major event for the village, bringing much needed supplies, returning friends and family members, and news from the outside world, not unlike the copra schooners of yesteryear.

The weather was lousy, but the winds and seas remained relatively calm, so we decided it was a good time to put some miles under the keel. We decided to head south to Santo for some provisions and a meal or two out. We headed out at 0700 on Wednesday morning, and motor-sailed in seven to nine knots of wind to Hog Harbour, easily covering 54 miles in six hours flat. The fishing reel got a good workout, bringing in a large, toothy barracuda and a small female mahi, both of which were released. We also missed one large mystery fish, which stripped the reel and spat the hook. Bugger!

It was nice to return to civilization and catch up with loads of cruising friends who were hanging out in Luganville.

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