Port Vila (Efate) to Luganville (Espiritu Santo), via Epi and Malekula Islands
3/9/16 – 13/9/16
The nation of Vanuatu is a new arrival in the South West Pacific, having achieved its independence and nationhood, in July 1980, to the great joy of locals who had sought their freedom from foreign rule for decades. The Spanish and Portugese were the first Europeans to ply these waters as early as the 1600’s but it was James Cook on the second of his incredible voyages into the Pacific, who mapped and named many of the islands and gave the chain the name of New Hebrides in 1774. Later interest by the French led to a tug of war between the British and the French to gain control of the islands that led to the nonsensical “two-fella rule” by these two countries from 1906 onwards. Under the so-called “Condominium” rule, dubbed the “pandemonium” by those who lived under it, both France and Britain imposed their own laws, systems of punishment, education and health systems in the New Hebrides and there were two sets of police supposedly keeping order. Locals concluded that if you were going to get “done” for a misdemeanour, it was better to be pinched by the Gendarmerie because their food in jail was better. There are not many examples of colonial rule that would be more flawed than the Condominium and after1980, the year of independence, the sound of The Republic of Vanuatu rang sweetly for the locals, the ni-Vans. Australia retains a strong and supportive presence here, and we find that Australians are welcomed genuinely and warmly as good friends and neighbours.
The isles of Vanuatu sit parallel to New Caledonia, run broadly SE to NW, and end a couple of day’s sail from the Solomons. To the south of Efate and the capital Port Vila, are found the major islands of Erromango, Tanna and Aneityum, whilst to the north, in a loop popular with sailors, lie the islands of Epi, Malekula, Espiritu Santo, Ambae, Maewo, Pentecost and Ambrym that take one first to the NW from Efate, to Santo, and down from Maewo to the north back to Efate and Port Vila. On Calista we are hoping to make the most of “working the trade winds” around this northern cluster of islands before returning later to Vila, and then Noumea and Australia, before the onset of the cyclone season. We are already beginning to regret the loss of a month following the near-disaster at Coffs Harbor, but at least we are here and we are having a fabulous time to boot!
Heading west from Port Vila, and heavily laden with supplies, we made our way across Mele Bay and rounded Devil’s Point, named possibly for the horrible currents that can plague this area, for the protected waters of Havannah Harbor, which in the early 1940’s became a major port for the allied Pacific Fleet, aimed at repelling the Japanese forces that were threatening the region from the Solomons. Paul and Juan on Bumpy Dog were heading on the “great loop” as well and took the photo below of us on approach to Havannah Harbor, doing it comfortably under headsail alone.
Some cruisers spend weeks in Havannah Harbor, but we planned only a brief stopover, near the mouth of Ai Creek, because the forecast for the next day looked near perfect to take on the long day sail to Revolieu Bay on the island of Epi. The Ai Creek anchorage served our purpose perfectly although on the shoreline was found a couple of beachside holiday homes that looked like they had been plucked from an Australian seaside, and came complete with a couple of Aussie families in residence, with the guys, tinnies in hand, performing cultural heroics on the outdoors barbie. Yes, we gave them a friendly wave as we settled on anchor, but we have not sailed all the way from Australia to find it duplicated off our starboard bow.
|Anchorage Ali Creek, Havannah Harbour|
|Another delightful dawn departure|
We were making our way across Havanna Harbor to Little Entrance, between Mose and Lelepa Islands before the sun kissed the highlands of Efate, and we were soon in the open ocean with moderate trade winds nestling, in the slot, abaft of our beam. This was a perfect opportunity to engage “Kev” our Fleming Wind Vane, a process that starts with getting the boat balanced, and “light on the helm”, which for us usually means a reefed mainsail, and a headsail or genoa according to wind strength. When Calista is “light” to steer, with little or no “weather helm”, we set the boat as close as we can to our desired course and then rotate the vertical wind vane on top of the device until it sits upright, locked square onto the wind, and at this point we engage the lines that link the vane to the steering wheel. If we have this process correctly in place, then thanks to the remarkable construction of the device, if the yacht veers to one direction, wind pressure comes on one side of the vane and via the gearing and lines to the wheel our ship is brought back on course, and the vane is again vertical to the wind. This is of course the sanitised, blog-friendly, version, and in reality setting up and “tweaking” the vane until it is all working well; in a seaway, with wind blowing, the boat rolling in a swell, and, the ever present challenge of keeping Calista as close as we can to being “on course”, is a test of patience and cooperation, that could test any seafaring crew. When it is set up, though, we can make minor course adjustments by raising or lowering the boom via our mainsheet, and relax to marvel at it all as the indigo-blue waters rush past our hull, and the bow of Calista makes white furrows at the bow as we settle back in the cockpit to look for flying fish, the spouts of whales and to sup on the gently changing vistas as islands form, draw abeam and are lost astern, as clouds drift merrily overhead. Sailing like this in the trades is as unforgettable experience, and we constantly marvel at what we are doing, and just where we are on the globe to be able to enjoy it.
|Kev at the helm|
On board during “passage”, we cast regular eyes over the horizon, monitor our progress on our chart plotter, and every couple of hours or so we commit to navigational work below on our paper charts and record our latitude and longitude, so that we can cast our eye over the area that lies ahead for anything of note in planning a safe passage to our destination. An institution that we have kept is that of having a pot of mixed nuts and dried fruits at 10.30, the time we call “recess”, although no sirens sound to herald its arrival. On this passage to Epi, the wind held true, Kev was in stellar form, and we romped along over the combers as the once volcanic peaks of Matasa and Makura, and the larger isle of Emae slid by out to starboard. Yes, the flying fish were there in abundance, and whilst the spouts of a pod of whales was sighted not too far away, they were making cumbersome progress and were soon left well astern.
|Another tough day at sea!|
In the end we decided not to deflect from our plans and linger longer in Revoulieu Bay, knowing that there was every chance that we could pass by this way later, on our return to Port Vila. As a fine sunset gathered its ruddy momentum, we celebrated our first night out from Efate with a smorgasbord of Cookie’s stellar salads out in the cockpit, and mused about the fine folk back home who sometimes asked us...”so what do you eat when you are out there on your boat?”. We eat very well thank you very much!
|We do it tough on Calista!|
|Sunset views from Café Calista|
Not far from Revoulieu Bay lies the headland of Cape Foreland with its dolphin like visage, and up on top of its summit we spotted a communication tower, which, we found to our delight delivered excellent internet coverage. We had converted one of our phones to “local”, via a regional sim card, and with a modest data allowance, it allowed easy and unexpected linkage to our Predict Wind weather forecasting system, at a miniscule cost. Over the next week we would be constantly surprised to find, in supposedly remote islands, we had internet coverage superior to what was available in many of our coastal destinations at home. Converting a phone to “local” and using it as a “hot spot”, linking to our devices was proving to be a very good idea indeed.
|Morning coffee as we pass Cape Foreland|
We were eager to be up early and to head for the coastal town of Lamen Bay, which apart from possessing an anchorage of some repute, had a number likely attractions ashore including a “yacht club” where nautical souls from around the world were supposedly wont to gather. Beyond Cape Foreland in the hour of dawn, wisps of smoke from cooking fires was all that marked the presence of villages, nestled deep within the coconut groves and the trees of the forest. Lamen Bay’s anchorage proved to be a fine one, and we were soon ashore to find a community still getting back on its feet after the ravages of Cyclone Pam in early 2015. The local wharf was in disarray, with its concrete slabs all akimbo, but whilst such a teetering structure would be condemned out of hand at home, here it was “business as usual” with locals apparently seen lumping their produce over this fractured structure to the weekly ferry as if it was a graded road. At the end of the bay we found the local landing strip with its “Domestic Terminal”, limited, quaint, and deserted. Heading back into town and past the local High School, it was not a school day, and although a helpful local offered to “open it up for us”, he needed not to bother, as we found that none of the doors were locked, and besides, if they were we could have climbed in through the windows. When we hear of teachers in Australia complaining about the quality of facilities and resources, we’d like to charter a plane, and bring a group of them to see Lamen High, via Lamen International, following its necessary upgrade.
|The local wharf|
|Mr Sibly's classroom|
Further into town, along the foreshore, we eventually found the “Yacht Club”, where tattered pennants and flags, and a stained and forlorn visitor’s book told of a place where the good times had been literally blown away, and might not return until reconstruction was finally complete. Duck and a cold beer would not be on the menu tonight, although the workers outside suggested that if we waited until mid afternoon, a local household might have bread on offer fresh from the oven.
Back on board, with a stroll through Lamen Bay completed, it was still shy of noon and Cookie came up with a wonderful idea. The weather forecast hinted at conditions that might see us sheltering in Lamen Bay for a couple of days, but if we were nimble, we could hoist our sails in the direction of the famed Maskelyne islands, which sit like the paws of a seated puppy, which is a fair description of the outline of the larger Malekula Island, some four or five hour’s sail to the west. We had heard a lot about the beauty of the Maskelynes, but with the weather forecast we might have to head a little further to the north on Malekula where in Port Sandwich, we could sit out most blows. A brief visit to the Maskelynes was now possible, and to us brief was distinctly superior to not at all.
|Anchorage at Awei Island|
The entrance to the Maskelyne anchorages, after a lively passage where rain constantly threatened but never eventuated, meant sneaking in a channel between Baneuv Point and Vula Island which cannot be seen until one is nearly on it and but for the reassurance of the cruising guide and its invaluable waypoints, the waves crashing on the volcanic rocks all about would keep all but the most adventurous sailors well out to sea. The anchorage giving best shelter in the area lies in an inlet tucked behind Awei Island, protected from the open sea by an extensive reef, and surrounded on all sides by an exquisite vista of coconut palms, forest and craggy uplands. Minutes after anchoring a local dugout pulled alongside with Gricken on board, a local villager who had been waiting all day for three friends to emerge from the forest to a beach on the other side of the cove, where they supposedly had been sourcing Kava roots. His “would be” passengers were operating on “island time”, but now as darkness began to fall Gricken was wondering whether he should wait any longer or start on the longish paddle to home. He asked if he could use our mobile phone to call his village for news of the others and he responded to our puzzled looks by pointing out a phone tower up on the ridge, surrounded by forest. Mobile phones and dugouts seem an unlikely pairing, but eventually we helped Gricken find out that he may as well head home, for his friends would not get back to the beach before sunset. He has a mobile back in the village, and we gave him a zip-lock bag that meant he could bring it with him with less chance of it getting wet in the dugout.
|Our new friend Gricken|
In the fragile light of dawn, I looked out into the cockpit to find Gricken and his canoe already alongside us, with the offer of some gleaming reef fish for breakfast. It was very hard to heed the warning about the potential ciguatera poisoning, and decline Gricken’s kind offer. Soon though, Gricken’s friends emerged onto the beach and we soon headed that way too in our duck to explore a forest trail that led through the bush behind Banev Point to the ocean beach on the seaward side. The trail turned out to be a stunning one: at first wending its way through groves of coconuts before plunging into a lank and dense forest where the very air was thick with the musky taint of wetted leaves; where creepers draped themselves around mossy branches, where throaty birds made melodies in canopy branches, where butterflies flitted in squadrons of gold and where blue-tailed skinks darted from fern to fern with abandon. All about the plants of the forest grew rich and succulent, drawing goodness from the volcanic soil. We expected to come upon a village, but instead we emerged on an open beach where an extensive reef kept the coastline at arm’s length from the ocean that roared beyond. There was no one to be seen and we might have been Robinson Crusoes, on a forgotten island. This was a place of great natural beauty, where pandanas palms licked at golden sands, in a scene that might have been plucked directly from South Pacific.
|Beautiful tropical forest walk ........|
|...........to remote tropical beaches|
In the afternoon we ventured ashore on Aewi Island, and made our way past a traditional copra drier, and through further stands of coastal rainforest to the tiny village on the windward side of the island which is now home to three families, where we met Nasoa, a village elder who was more than willing to show us around. The scene here Imay have been idyllic, but we soon learned that all was not well in paradise, with doubts hanging over their tenure on the island, and the tragic death of his young brother in Port Vila, who passed away suddenly in hospital, leaving behind a wife and three little children now casting a pall over everything. Nasoa had high hopes of his own children doing well via education, but we wondered how this might be possible, from here on remote Awei island.
|The Copra Furnace|
|Nasoa and his youngest son|
That night with our new-found web access, we were delighted to find that the weather in the next few days was likely to be softer than predicted although we still felt it sensible to make for the shelter of Port Sandwich, which seemed to have other features of interest, all of its own. Later in the evening, from the cockpit, we noticed a reddish glow in the eastern sky, which, in Australia would be diagnosed as a bushfire out of control, somewhere beyond the ranges. Here in the Maskelynes, the chart showed that looking down the channel, we were in a direct line with Ambrym Island, some 20 miles away. That surely was it, the twin volcanoes of Ambrym, Mount Marum and Mount Benbow, with their eruptions colouring the night skies, and warning everyone that there are powers of nature afoot that reduce humans to insignificance. Reefs, rainforests, lagoons, mangroves, and now volcanoes with their Vanuatu version of Dante’s Inferno…what manner of places are the Maskelynes!
It is recommended that in piloting a way out of the Maskelynes, care should be taken to “go with the tide”, which for us meant a morning passage past Lemboy Island, Gricken’s Avokh Island then Vendeuv island from where we entered Cook Bay, before leaving Gasgard Point to port and finding the open sea between Malekula and Ambrym Islands. We could see Ambrym more clearly now and the plumes of smoke that constantly rose from its volcanoes drifting away in the trade winds before congealing as a line of clouds heading north-west to the horizon. Scudding showers again threatened but they did not mar our passage, while ashore, past the fringing reef, only the wandering bovines on the shoreline, and the waft of smoke from cooking fires gave any indication of habitation hidden in the woods. Peunoamp Point with its navigational tower marks the rounding point into Port Sandwich, where around Lamap Bay and a further point the anchorage itself opens up, and we could see that we were not the only yacht that was seeking safe anchoring in this well regarded haven.
|Anchorage at Port Sandwich|
The word “port” conjures up many things, but this port, apart from a clutch of yachts laying on their anchor chains, had only a rudimentary jetty, laden with local produce, as the sole piece of infrastructure that might confirm its status as a “port”. Visually, though, with its surrounding hills clad in green, down to mangroves fringing its shores Port Sandwich was pleasing to the eye, and we soon had our duck afloat and were heading ashore in search of the Rainbow Store, where apparently mine hosts Ruac and Noelle have been fine friends to yachties over many years. We had expected a town of sorts, with a bank, small stores and an airfield apparently not far away, but ashore, apart from doe-eyed cows grazing under coconut palms, and the odd chicken scratching underfoot, there was little to see, as the main settlement of Lamap lay nearly an hour’s walk along the only road out of town.
We ultimately found the Rainbow Store, and going there was quaintly like entering someone’s back yard, where a “store” for supplies was really a rear room under a back verandah. The Rainbow Store, too is still recovering from the cyclone and whilst the charming courtyard, leading to the locomotive-like wood oven was ambience personified, an eatery of sorts was no longer functioning but Ruac assured us that the oven would be at full steam in the pre-dawn of the next day and orders for fresh bread could be placed, and be collected for deployment on board for breakfast.
|Delightful Rainbow Store|
|Collecting our fresh bread from Noelle at Rainbow Store|
Meanwhile, as the afternoon progressed, Ruac suggested that we should not miss the big event of the day, the afternoon arrival of the ferry, Big Sista, in the middle of its weekly jaunt, linking Port Vila with Luganville, and many of the islands in between. The throng of locals arriving on foot plus a handful of utilities bumping down the village road to the wharf were sure signs that the ferry was on its way. There were kids playing in the shallows and locals; some with goods and chattels, and others taking up vantage points for the entertainment, plus sundry hounds of mixed parentage, all mingling and milling alongside the wharf, making up the welcoming party as the twin hulled Big Sista made its way around the point and growled its way into the wharf. Soon all was a bustle of people, produce, and chiselled young men lifting impossible loads, such as bags of coconuts, to a cacophony of orders. Where we had picked our way carefully over jetty plankings, broken and loose, swarthy young fellows now danced like gadflies, laden to the gunwales, and nary missing a step. Pigs in bamboo baskets were lifted and deposited on the upper decks with their squeals of protest lost in the haste to get all aboard and secure in the fading light. Then, with no ceremony at all, Big Sista’s lines were let go and with a throaty roar and brimming with people and cargo, she made for the open sea. What a night aboard might be like in a stiff sou-easter we could only imagine. At Port Sandwich in minutes there was no one to be seen and the gentle lowing of a cow in the coconut grove was the only sound of note as we headed for our duck to make our way back to Calista.
|Loading Big Sista|
With Bumpy Dog and Serafina now joining us in port, Cookie decided to make a batch of her peerless scones and invite their crews over for Devonshire Tea. As ever her baked produce was a gastronomic triumph and our visitors arrived hungry and left replete. This excess, led to a decision to take a long walk in the afternoon, up the road to Lamap, where we were informed a local soccer tournament was under way. Eventually we found the rudimentary bank and local store, and the hotly contested game of soccer where young men threw themselves at the ball with commensurate skill and courage. We deflected the offer to join a group at the Kava Hut, thinking that stumbling back along a darkened road, with no light to illuminate the way was silly in the extreme.
|Devonshire tea on Café Calista|
Banam Bay is a mere handful of miles up the coast and with a more desirable weather forecast on offer, we made our way there easily and were soon anchored and heading ashore. We had planned a swim along the beach, but the children from the nearby village had other ideas and soon we found ourselves kidnapped! They swarmed around us all a-chatter and were soon joined by the mum of three of them, Judy, who offered to “show us around the village”. We had visions of a 10 minute excursion but what unfolded was a near three hour connection with the wonderful people in the local villages that left us misty eyed in wonder at the fathomless friendliness and kindness of people we had only just met. After showing us through her local village, and with the clutch of kids in tow, Judy took us to a copra kiln where we met the local chief who welcomed us warmly, and took time out to explain the process where coconut flesh is kiln-dried for local export to Luganville.
|The chief, Judy and lots of kids at the Copra kiln|
|Wonderful stroll through the villages with Judy & her children|
With paths weaving their way past coconut groves, villages and wells we shook hands with many, gained an insight into daily village life and eventually found our way to the ocean coast where Ambrym smouldered away in the distance. Knowing that our background was in education, Judy offered to take us up the hill to the local school, where Rolina the local kindy teacher met us and her grandfather insisted that we take with us a trio of his freshly baked bread rolls. She insisted that we return the next day, Sunday, to share some lunch with her and to meet other members of her family who lived a short walk away. Rolina’s work is demanding in the extreme as Cyclone Pam had destroyed her schoolroom, and her 42 pupils were still “roughing it” in temporary shelter. As we wended our way back to the beach, we stopped off to meet Rex, Judy’s husband who is hoping to take up contract work on farms in Australia as part of an agreement between the Vanuatu and Australian governments. We returned to Calista laden with gifts of bread and fruit having experienced a singular excursion ashore, one that we would not forget.
|Judy, Rex, Jaster, Erneth & Emil|
We were relieved that the heavy rain that fell overnight and into the next morning stopped before noon and, as it often is in the tropics, with a pinch of sun and a waft of wind, there was soon little evidence that it had rained at all. We took inshore a secondary mooring line that Judy and Rex needed to tether an errant cow, some fishing gear for Rex, some home products like margarine and coffee that were not available at Banam Bay, and Cookie who is a dab hand at making jewellery, presented Judy with a necklace that was received with both gratitude and delight. In no time we had made our way back to the village by the school where Rolina had prepared a tasty vegetarian lunch before leading us to meet her brother Jim whose partner is Brittany, originally from Florida, who he met on a tall ship experience in local waters. Jim and Brittany have a son Isaac, and Brittany has an academic background, and is keen to undertake a PhD specialising in local languages in Malekula. Brittany somehow manages a foothold in two very different cultures. Jim’s extended family and a sprinkling of friends were also there and, as we shared plates of delicious fruits from the garden and forest, time skipped away, and before we knew it, we could struggle to get back to our duck in daylight hours. It was hard to leave this wonderful place and when we ultimately got back to our duck, with plans to sail further along the coast in the new day, Judy insisted that she and her children join with us to hold hands as she prayed for our wellbeing on the great voyage that still lay before us. Although her words were in Bislama, the message was abundantly clear, and this was a moment as poignant and as moving as one could experience anywhere. What did we say in an earlier blog about the wonderful people of Vanuatu? We returned to Calista with an experience at Banam Bay that we would never forget.
|Lunch at Rolina"s home.|
|Brittany, Jim, Isaac and extended family|
From Banam Bay it is a sail of five or six hours to Port Stanley, and in a tailing breeze, we were joined by Bumpy Dog in a pleasant romp up the coast, before we turned into the passage between the mainland and Uripiv Island and found a snug anchorage protected by an extending reef, as the afternoon winds whistled in and confined us to on-board activities. After our remarkable time at Banam Bay, our solitary existence in the low-lying Port Stanley, came as a stark contrast.
|Sunset at Port Stanley|
By now we had reached the “head” of the “seated puppy” that is Malekula, and we were within a day’s sail from Luganville on Espiritu Santo, lying across the Bouganville Strait. We planned to reach Luganville in two hops, one to the northern Malekula Island of Vao and another to the Ratoua Island Resort via the tricky currents of Bruat Channel, between Malo Island and Luganville. After an early getaway from Port Stanley we soon drew abeam of Vao Island and it was clear that with the fresh SSE wind prevailing, the anchorage at Vao would be an uncomfortable one and it would be prudent to move on across the strait to Ratoua. With the breeze holding at a moderate strength, we soon covered the fifteen or so miles to the entrance to Bruat Channel, where we had timed our approach so that wind and tide were aligned. Yachts must pick up a mooring at Ratoua but when we got there we found the available mooring in a poor state, and not wishing to duplicate our experience in Baie de Prony, we decided that for the second time in one day we would change our plans and this time head for the Aore Resort moorings opposite Vanuatu’s “northern capital”, Luganville. What had started out as a 15 mile jaunt to Vao Island became a 49mile passage via the Bouganville Strait, Bruat and Segond Channels to the lights of Luganville. Our passage from Port Vila had exceeded whatever expectations we had and whetted our appetite for what there was to discover along Santo’s eastern coast, and the islands that lay beyond, over the horizon.