Vanuatu: Aore, Epi, Espiritu Santo and Malakula Islands

We spent four busy days moored off the shore of the lovely little Aore Resort while we took care of business in Luganville, just across Segond Channel from Aore. After a month in “the boonies,” we needed to catch up on email, stock up on fresh provisions and replenish the rum locker. We also had a chance to catch up with good cruising friends Patrice and Terry on Mango Tango, a Deerfoot 61, and Joyce and Chris on Touche M’Dear, a Sundeer 64, who were stopping over in Aore, on their way north to the Banks Islands. Ex-cruisers, Jim and Helen Boswell, now ex-pats living on Aore Island, had us over for one of their regular plantation barbecues, which are always fun and interesting. Of particular interest on this occasion, beside good food (fresh Santo beef) and good company, were a flock of chickens that climbed a frangipani tree at sunset and roosted high in its branches. None had ever seen this before, and we could only surmise that the chickens were seeking safety from the “island squirrels” or large rats that terrorize them after dark. On the subject of ex-pats, there are quite a few living in Vanuatu these days. The local joke is that they usually fall into one of three categories: mercenaries, missionaries or misfits. Jim and Helen, who are developing a plantation resort on Aore, are an exception. Our first day out of Luganville, we enjoyed an easy sail to the southwest, through the coconut plantation-lined Segond Channel and then turning due east along the south side of Aore Island to Port Lautour. We took anchorage in a well-protected spot in the lee of a small islet just offshore from the large Seventh Day Adventist mission situated there, and enjoyed some snorkeling on the adjacent reef that afternoon. The following morning, we set sail for Wala Island, just off the northeast coast of Malakula. Upon our arrival, the villagers organized an “Island Night” for the four yachts in the anchorage. Late that afternoon, we witnessed the guest of honor, a black pig, very dead and hanging from a pole, being carried by two men along the beach to the village. Ashore that evening, we were served up some not-too-nasty-tasting kava in punch glasses followed by a very tasty meal of roast pig, kumara and rice. This village was obviously accustomed to tourists, as they were fully equipped with a long picnic style table, dishes and utensils. We were serenaded with music by the village string band, and many of the villagers and their children attended and joined in the festivities. The following day, we motor sailed again in a southeasterly direction down the east coast of Malakula to Crab Bay. We had a long walk on the white-sand beach with Patsy and Alan from Sedona and Ramona and Shinko from Serenade, followed by sundowners aboard Moonshadow. Continuing down the coast of Malakula the next day, we reached Banam Bay. Banam Bay is a large crescent-shaped bay, with white-sand beaches, lots of palm trees and good protection from the southeast trade winds. After dropping the hook, with the weather cloudy and breezy, we spent the afternoon doing a bit of cleaning, repair and maintenance. One of the villages along the shore is the home to a group from a tribe called the Small Nambas. A namba is a penis sheath, made by wrapping a pandanus or palm leaf around the penis and then tucking the end into a bark belt worn around the waist. The Small Nambas, as opposed to the Big Nambas, are so called because their particular style of namba is much smaller and less ornate than those worn by the Big Nambas. Imagine if Americans named groups of people based upon the style of their “apparel.” There might be the “Boxers,” the “Jockey Shorts,” the “G-Strings” or the “Nothing At Alls.” In any event, these people were very friendly and hospitable, and it was comforting to know that they ceased the practice of cannibalism fifty years ago. The next day, the Small Nambas village organized a Kastom (traditional) dance festival for the large group of yachties anchored in Banam Bay. We arrived on shore and were led to the men’s dance site. By custom, women and small children villagers were not permitted on this site, and part of the ground was “taboo” to the white people as well. After about 45 minutes or so of spirited dancing and drumming, we were led to the women’s dance area. The women, dressed only in pandanus grass skirts, some holding small children, performed two more dances. After the dancing was finished, we were lined up to thank and shake each and every dancer’s hand, and then the chief made a short speech to welcome and thank the visiting yachties. We were all then asked to say a few words to the dancers and villagers before sitting down for a traditional Vanuatu style meal. Woven palm mats were set on the ground and on them was laid a tasty meal of lap-lap and chicken roasted in coconut cream, all of it presented on banana leaves. This type of “traditional” meal is enjoyed while seated on the ground, and eaten with the hands (that just shook 100 villager’s hands) and no utensils. A true scout would have carried along some Handy Wipes for the occasion, but we didn’t quite know what we were in for. Lap-lap is a staple in the Ni-Vanuatu diet. It is a paste that is made up from various cooked rootstock such as manioc (tapioca), kumara and yam, coconut cream, and seasoning, wrapped in banana leaves and cooked over an open fire. The consistency is somewhat like a dense polenta and the taste, not like anything I have tried before, is quite nice. The idea was to use the lap-lap as sort of a scoop for picking up the juicy coconut chicken. Snorkeling on the reef at the edge of Banam Bay was excellent, and walking on the roads and paths connecting the villages was very pleasant and scenic. We met a young man named James who was drying copra (coconut) on the beach, waiting for the copra boat to arrive and collect the fruits of his labor. He told us that the going price for copra is 25,000 vatu (US $180) per ton, adding that it takes five men about two full days of work to produce one ton. It is hard work, but it seems to pay better than the average hourly wage in Vanuatu. James walked us through two villages, showed us his home, two churches, the local grammar school and told us a bit about life in Banam Bay. FYI, school in Vanuatu starts promptly at 6:30 am. Later that afternoon, James jumped into his canoe and paddled out to visit us at our home. As James boarded Moonshadow, it was apparent that he was a bit awestruck by the scale and symmetry of our big sailing “canoe.” As he stepped aboard, not wanting to soil the decks, he used his well-worn baseball cap, which had long since parted with its brim, to wipe off his feet. We showed him our floating home and sat down for a nice chat. James, who is 29 and unmarried, told us a bit about the customs surrounding marriage in Vanuatu. Unlike some societies, young Ni-Vanuatu people are free to choose their own partner and may marry a person from another tribe, village or island. The man must, however, pay a “bride price” to the parents of the woman. The government of Vanuatu has set the ceiling on the price of a bride at 80,000 vatu (about US $576) and one pig (US approximately $1 per pound). Word has it that a very special woman might fetch a few extra pigs. This may not seem like a lot of money, but as with a yacht, in addition to the initial purchase price, one must consider the long-term cost of maintenance. After a nice visit, we sent James on his way with a new cap. The weather reports had indicated some letup in the reinforced trade winds, so we set sail the next morning for Lamen Bay, on the island of Epi, 30 miles upwind. We no sooner had raised the main and started motor sailing into the choppy seas, when we hooked and landed a nice mahi-mahi. As we left the shore of Malakula behind and worked our way into the lee of Epi, the seas moderated. The day was quite clear, so on the passage we could see the active volcanoes of Ambrym and Lopevi in the distance, sending a bit of smoke into the South Pacific air. In less than five hours we were anchored in Lamen Bay, amidst numerous friendly sea turtles, popping their heads up for a breath of air and look around. Later that afternoon, our friend Philippe, an intrepid young Frenchman who is single-handedly sailing around Vanuatu, arrived and anchored nearby. Philippe just took delivery of his new 30-foot “go faster” yacht, custom built in his brother’s boatyard in Port Vila. After this shakedown cruise, he plans to spend the next year sailing her back to his home in Brittany, France, the wrong way (west to east), via the Panama Canal. Philippe joined us on-board for a sundowner, dinner and some great conversation that evening. By the way ladies, Philippe, is 30-something, single, tall, dark, handsome, and might be willing to take along just the right person as crew. On this, our third visit to Lamen Bay, we hope to have an up-close and personal experience with the friendly resident dugong, for which this anchorage is famous among cruisers. Dugong is the Vanuatu word for manatee or sea cow. She has made cameo appearances on past visits, but has never stuck around long enough for us to get in the water and say “g’day” and shake hands/fins.

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