Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Port Vila to Noumea
(Blog readers please note - by left clicking on  photos you will see them full size and a photo gallery below. The same applies for previous blog posts..see blog archives below.)7/10/16 – 14/10/16

Returning to Port Vila after our amazing voyage to Vanuatu’s northern islands was not the anticlimax that one would suppose. For one, in their own time, Paul and Juan, Patrick and Murielle and Patrick and Edith had all gathered in Vila as well, and in no time we were drawn to Happy Hour at the Waterfront Bar where we compared notes on our experiences, discussed plans beyond Vila and simply enjoyed the conviviality of disparate souls who had enjoyed that unique fellowship that comes with chance meetings in faraway places. We agreed to reconvene at Spice the Indian Restaurant on the hill overlooking Vila the following evening, although it has to be said that coordinating essentially independent souls about their intentions, preferred time, transport to the eatery, and who might join or be deleted from the touring party was somewhat like herding cats, and caused us more than a pinch of merriment. Eventually an assemblage formed outside Yachting World, and after varying expressions re the mode of conveyance to the eatery, a “Brexit majority” favoured an uphill stroll, so walk we did.  We had such a fine time at Spice, that on our way down the hill following this grand repast, we realised that no-one had taken a photograph of the occasion for posterity.

Back in familiar territory on a mooring at  Port Vila

We had returned to Vila to re-provision, plan our next passage at sea, and because, after a stellar period of benign weather, less friendly conditions were on the way, with the potential of stronger winds, rain and storms. In the meantime though, we just enjoyed being back in Vila, Vanuatu’s National Capital, which is in many respects a big, friendly town that nestles in and around a magnificent harbor. With it being school holidays in Australia, there were more “big island” visitors than normal, and when P&O’s liners, Pacific Pearl and Pacific Eden called in on successive days, we took the opportunity, between showers, to head to the Cruise Liner wharf and take a closer look at Pacific Eden the 2015 addition to the P&O fleet. The boffins at P&O are not likely to be consumers of this blog, but if they were, they would be relieved to know that Pacific Eden passed the toughest test of all, Cookie’s Liner Rating, the CLR index, where the Eden was voted “shippy”, with agreeable lines and presentation, and not “like a sponge cake” or cruelly, “like a sheep carrier”, which is her sharp assessment of others of their genre.

Pacific Eden

There is something about Port Vila that makes it a comfortable place to be, where the watch holds no sway and the calendar is an adornment with pictures that hangs on a wall. One can easily wile away hours strolling about, in the markets or heading for a cafĂ© where the faces are as friendly as the coffee – or thickshakes! – is good.  Even getting about in Vila is a breeze as yes, there are Taxis with meters for those who crave formality, but it is far easier to spot a van with the numberplate starting with “B”, hail it, and for 150 vatu (85 Vatu to the $AU) each the driver will take you anywhere in town. There are no buses in Vila, but nearly every second vehicle seems to be a “B” van, and sometimes the island music on board is worth the admission in itself. We really enjoy our “getting around” in Vila and have found “B” travel to be a great part of the experience.

Paying for our coffee thickshake at Jill's cafe

The "B" Van transport

Having placed ourselves in the hands of John and his nephew Stuart of Island Tours for our Tanna / Volcano experience, we found ourselves dropping in to their relaxed office on our strolls into or out from town, and saw Stuart at the Waterfront Bar where he is a congenial and popular employee. Before departing for our “northern odyssey” John told us that he had family links to the Loltong and Asanvari areas of Maewo and Pentecost, and we thought little more of this, but now we found that many of the good folk that we had met, including Columbus the floating baker, were well known to John who has played a considerable role in developing tourism that area, and especially on Pentecost. Then Stuart let us know that his sister operated a small shop in Loltong, and we realised that while we were there we had met her, bought a couple of items from her but never imagined any connection to Stuart. John was quick to remind us, wisely, that “…it is a very small world!” Indeed.

The intractable weather that had remained wonderfully at arm’s length whilst we were “in the islands”, and had been forecast for some days, now arrived in full and sullen regalia as a tart reminder that benign weather like we have had should not be taken for granted in this part of the world. Storms gathered all about; giving the anchorage in Vila a curtain of black, and when the rain fell, it was unrelenting and confined us to on board activities. Unfortunately for Paul and Juan, their plans for an overnight trip to Tanna to see Old Yasur coincided with the arrival of the foul weather and their travel company, noting the storms and strong winds could be a significant safety problem, delayed the trip twice, before offering a full refund. At the same time we were searching in earnest for a window of weather to take us from Vila past Tanna to Lifou in the Loyalty Islands, and on to Noumea, and we too were keen to see this system rumble its way off toward the Solomons or Fiji, before we put to sea.

Not going anywhere just yet!

Then, with the wind, rain, lightning and thunder having cleared, conditions between Vanuatu and New Caledonia improved and we were able to target a period of lighter, but sailable conditions for the 60 odd hours that we estimated that it would take us to get back to Noumea from Port Vila. Having now set a time to go, we knew that our practical beings needed to override our feelings because although we really had to go, we didn’t want to go, and could have remained happily in Vila for ages. As Bridgette the new owner of Spice, put it…”I’ve only been here since May, and Vila really grows on you”.

Suddenly, with a date set for our departure, and the weather holding, there were lots of things to do before departing Port Vila, apart from saying farewell to our nautical friends who we had met by chance but had gotten to know well over the last few weeks. Some fine Duty Free shopping is available in Port Vila and we planned to use our imminent departure, and armed with our official “clearance papers”, to re-stock (I almost typed re-Scotch!) the ship’s cellar with selected extracts from Scotland, that we had sleuthed in our forays into town.

Farewell & thankyou to Lemaira at Yachting World

Only an avowed optimist would assume that completing the departure formalities in a casual country such as Vanuatu could be achieved without a hitch, and sure enough, having headed to Customs, we were re-directed to the Port Authority for clearance, which meant finding a separate port precinct office, where the Authority revealed that they needed a 7000 Vatu payment (about $A 82) to clear us to leave town. We had requested advice from Immigration about the cost of “clearing out”, but they neglected to say anything about the Port fee, and now, on the far end of town, and with most of our remaining Vatu converted back to Australian Dollars, we were well short of meeting this bill. Luckily, the Port Authority Manager took pity on our situation and offered to drive us back into town in a VPA Vehicle to an ATM, so that we could withdraw some money, meet our Port dues, clear with Customs, and head across town to Immigration in a “B” van, where we got our passports stamped and the vessel SV Calista was officially cleared to leave Vanuatu waters.

At last, our clearance papers!

Returning to Noumea from Vanuatu was a 300 plus mile, two night passage, heading nearly due south from Port Vila, between Lifou and Mare in the Loyalty Islands, before heading to Havannah Passage or more correctly, Canal de la Havannah, at the southern end of Grand Terre, New Caledonia’s main island, which needed to be approached with care, at the change of tide, to avoid the strong currents that challenge shipping in this area. Weather conditions were forecast to be agreeably light at the outset, before a friendly sou-easter might see us sail on under wind vane, to beyond Lifou, on approach to Havannah Passage.

Some sail repairs before departure

We rose early to slip our mooring in Port Vila, and Paul and Juan came out into their cockpit to wave us on our way, which was nice of them given that we could not know when, or if, we would see each other again. In no time we had negotiated our way out of the harbor and the aroma of ship’s jaffles issued from below, as the lighthouse on Pango Point hove into view away to port. Soon the unmistakeable lift of the SE swell told us we were at sea, and as the uplands of Efate were gradually deflated by distance, we left Vanuatu astern. We had saved the garlands of flowers that had been placed around our necks back at the Yacht Club dinner in Loltong, and now we dropped them over the side, and watched with a tinge of sadness, as they slowly dropped astern, until we could see them no more.

Reluctant departure for Noumea

Readers of this blog will be aware of the fabulous experiences that we have had in Vanuatu, but as Efate slipped away, we wondered what the future might bring for this wonderful island nation. The pace of change has been rapid in recent years, and we wondered how much might change in the next few years, and whether we have been lucky to see Vanuatu as we have done. Yes, the impact of modern technology such as mobile phones can be seen everywhere, and we hope that the current structures of village life can survive the pressures that this will mean, especially for the young. On the hill above the town of Port Vila, the Chinese have built and “gifted” an imposing, but rarely filled Conference Centre to the people of Vanuatu, and the two dominant Telcos in the country, we have been assured, are Chinese controlled. For those of us who sail here there may be changes as well. The charming Oyster Island anchorage on Petersen Bay, Espiritu Santo may not be accessible in the future as the Oyster Island Resort has been sold to Chinese interests and a short bridge from Santo to the island may make cruising to this wonderful place a thing of the past. A little further north at the unsurpassed Lannoc Bay and Champagne beach, we have been told that “foreign interests” are pressuring locals to sell these priceless places, and what that might mean there is anyone’s guess. Our memories of going ashore in Lannoc Bay, and strolling amongst the doe-eyed bovines on our way to Champagne Beach might be a far cry from the scene there into the future. Champagne Beach might be considered too beautiful to be left to the people of Vanuatu, and money may rule the waves. We tried not to have these things intrude into our thoughts as Efate became indistinct astern, the sou-easter built to sailable strength, and we set up “Kev” our wind vane to sail us on into the night.

Another amazing sunset at sea

The seas north of the Loyalty Islands seemed curiously upset and the lumpy conditions did not ease until we were just short of Lifou. We had timed our passage to hopefully coincide with the tide in Havannah Passage, but as the sea grew smoother we were struck by a contrary north-setting current that in places reduced our progress by as much as two knots. There are times, we will admit, that the rigours of night passages at sea are trying, but on this occasion, with a fulsome moon shining its merry beams from above, the gentle lift of the swells, and the eager motion of our ship as she ploughed on through the night was a sight to behold and it was a delight to be on watch. As we drew abeam of Lifou on our second night at sea, there was the wink of the light on Cap de Pins, the island’s most easterly point, and we ghosted by on a fading breeze, with our navigation lights blending with the moon’s wash of electric white. Not a soul ashore, we suspect, saw us pass by and head on to the south.

Another amazing sunrise!

As we passed between Lifou and Grand Terre the predicted light sou-easter collapsed entirely and under motor and mainsail we headed for the Goro Lighthouse that marks the start of Havannah Passage. We wad timed our approach to coincide with the first sector of the rising tide, but out from the pass the remnant swirls of the outgoing tide were enough to make the sea boil and for us to be slewed in the current. Those who have encountered contrary strong wind and tide conditions on the entrance to Havannah Pass are not likely to forget the experience. On the reef, abeam of the entrance lay the wrecks of two substantial vessels as a reminder to all mariners to treat Havannah Pass with respect.

Blogging in the calm conditions enroute to Havannah Pass
A very friendly Havannah Pass!

Our original plan was to push on in the afternoon through nearby Canal Woodin, or Woodin Passage to an anchorage just shy of Noumea, but with the afternoon getting on and the clear skies being replaced with darkened drapes above and the threat of rain, we resolved to make for Anse du Pilote, on Ile Ouen, a protected anchorage in Canal Woodin, that looked to be a fine place to spend the night. As we entered Anse du Pilote the hills of Ille Ouen and the uplands in the Canal were attractive in form and yet blighted by the scarring of mining and erosion that dominates much of southern Grand Terre. Palm fringed Anse du Pilote looked picture perfect on our approach to anchor, and yet it proved to be disconcerting in one respect, as Cookie called depths below us, and we edged closer and closer to the shore. This anchorage was very deep! When we dropped anchor we were in 40’ of water, and seemed to be but a stone’s throw from the beach, a circumstance that we would rarely experience, at home. Anse du Pilote proved to be a tranquil and sheltered place, immensely pleasing to the eye, and by night having the flash of the port hand marker in Canal Woodin, perched atop an adjoining headland and the loom of the lights of Noumea illuminating the sky to the north. Our agreeable passage from Port Vila over the preceding days had taken us 56.5 hours and we had covered 307 miles of the south-west Pacific. Already Port Vila seemed thrice that away.

Anse du Pilote anchorage with scarred hills in the background

Port Moselle the clear-in port in Noumea is especially busy at this time of year and there was no guarantee that we could get a berth, in spite of an email request chain that Cookie had started back in Port Vila. Their message to “call us in the morning when you are close” saw us up early, again, and making our way out of Canal Woodin whilst the sun was still feeling its way on the eastern horizon. Canal Woodin is a busy shipping channel, and the previous night a couple of very fast ferries, bound for the Isle of Pines or the Loyalties had entertained us with their swift passing by us. In the open water, these ferries skim over the water at a breakneck 35knots! With Canal Woodin just astern we noted ahead a far bigger vessel, the liner Carnival Spirit, also making for Canal Woodin and on to the Isle of Pines. We were a little relieved not to have to contend with this behemoth in the confines of Canal Woodin.

The sheep carrier Carnival Spirit heading down Canal Woodin

As we approached Noumea a radio communication with Port Moselle confirmed that yes we could have a berth, from 2pm that afternoon, and hopefully we could achieve the Bio-Security part of the Quarantine arrival procedures, later the same day. As a vessel entering port from overseas, we were required to be flying the yellow quarantine flag, the French flag and the flag of our home country. There are set protocols surrounding these adornments.

With a few hours to spend, we were considering our options when our VHF radio crackled into life. It was Cran and Ann McLean on Lettin Go, the impressive 52’ Chamberlain Cat. We had last seen Cran and Ann at The Boatworks in the Coomera River off the Gold Coast, when we had limped in for repairs in June, following our challenging time in Coffs Harbor. Cran and Ann, who were headed overseas, had kindly made Lettin Go available to us as temporary and salubrious lodgings, whilst Calista was at the boat hospital. We had first met this fine couple on Kangaroo Island in early 2010, and had joined them on the way up the East Coast on their way back to Brisbane to complete a meritorious circumnavigation of Australia. We had agreed to re connect if we could in New Caledonia, and here they were, anchored in Baie de Citron, off our starboard bow, just minutes away. Soon we were alongside calling out our greetings, only to find that, just in front of them was Marcel on Diddys, and that Cran, knowing of Marcel’s connection to us, had met with him and invited him on board for a meal. Now with everyone heading in to the harbor, Cran and Ann invited us all on board for a nautical get together over dinner.

A wonderful evening on board Lettin' Go

With our yellow flag down, we headed to Lettin Go, where a wonderful evening unfolded and in excellent company the hours passed quickly. We scarcely noticed that for the previous few nights sleep had been at a premium. Cran and Ann were planning to spend a couple of weeks in New Caledonia before making passage for New Zealand, and Marcel, like ourselves was seeking an appropriate weather window for the voyage back to Brisbane. For the moment, it appeared as though the weather patterns were not kindly and some days might have to be spent in Noumea and in the nearby lagoon, waiting for things to settle. This was hardly an imposition.

Secure at Port Moselle Marina

Having returned to Noumea it is worth recording that according to Cookie’s trusted Diary and Ship’s Log, 68 days have passed from our departure from this fine port to our return and in this time we have covered 1259 nautical miles, and have visited 23 different anchorages on SV Calista.  It was a good a time as any to reflect on the unforgettable time that we had enjoyed in the islands of Vanuatu, and of the wonderful people we had met along the way. It was true after all: you may voyage to Vanuatu for the places to see, but you will never forget the people.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Maewo (Asanvari) – Efate (Port Vila)
24/9/16 – 6/10/16

(Blog readers please note - by left clicking on  photos you will see them full size and a photo gallery below. The same applies for previous blog posts..see blog archives below.)
A glance at the map of Vanuatu, to the islands north of Port Vila, shows that a day’s sail north of Efate, the island of Epi is reached, and it is here that sailors contemplate a “rectangle” shape of islands ahead of them and often conclude that the most efficient way of visiting them is to veer to the west to the larger islands of Malekula and Espiritu Santo, before crossing the “top” to the east, via Ambae, before returning down the “eastern side” via Maewo and Pentecost, to Ambrym and thence back to Epi. For us, from Epi we will return to Port Vila, while others continue on to the far northern Banks Group of islands, but we needed to be in Vanuatu, earlier in the “season” to have headed there. As we dipped deeper into spring, cruising yachts begin an exodus from Vanuatu, an escape before cyclone season: some to New Zealand, others, like us to Australia, and others, north to the Solomons where in the equatorial zone, the Coriolis effect that can spin tropical lows into monsters, is too feeble to produce these super storms. We must soon join the migrating yachts, and head for safer havens….like Coffs Harbor!

On Calista, we did not have a sense of “heading south”, or “heading home”, because on Maewo, Pentecost and Ambrym, we have saved some delights for last, like that roast potato, at the end of a Sunday roast.  In leaving Ambae, for the anchorage of Asanvari on the southern end of Maewo Island, we were heading for a place that other cruisers had enthused about, but we preferred to go there and reserve judgement until we had seen it for ourselves. A fair estimation of a cruising destination is to arrive there and find a brace of yachts snared by its allure, and as we approached the sheltered bay, under the “hook” of Teterigi Point, we were pleased to see some good friends already there and others that we looked forward to meeting if they tarried in Asanvari. Again we had Paul and Juan on Bumpy Dog, Geoff and Di on Stylopora, but there also, from Noumea, was Patrick and Murielle on the 52’ Grand Soliel yacht Hieracon, and the Swiss couple Patrick and Edith, on Solina, a large circumnavigating catamaran.

Asanvari anchorage

Maewo and Pentecost are slender isles, baton like in shape, aligned approximately north to south and separated by the four mile stretch of Lolvavana Passage. Both are approximately 30 miles in length, with Maewo averaging a svelte 5miles in width, and Pentecost some two or three miles broader. Maewo is precipitous in appearance, of dense sylvan presentation, and altogether too formidable of form to have roads constructed to the villages that cling precariously to its coastline. There are hence no cars on Maewo, no airports either, and only the workmanlike supply barges, like Kalyara, link the inhabitants of this remote isle to the outside world. Hence, after anchoring, in going ashore at Asanvari through a small boat passage in the reef, we entered a world of neat village dwellings, charming hedgerows, smiling faces, and a natural warmth of welcome for those of us for us who have arrived by sea.  

Local traffic
The "main road " lined with gardens

Visually, nature got things picture perfect when crafting Asanvari, and to place the cherry on the top for dusty mariners like us to refresh themselves, it has a deliciously cool waterfall, complete with plunge pool leading to a free flowing stream for water replenishment which doubles as a never ending torrent to wash one’s smalls. To luxuriate under the waterfall and get a back massage from its generous cascade, was too good to be true. Nearby, the good folk of Asanvari have completed the catering for yachties by constructing the Sparkling Waters Bar, although when a sunset get-together at the bar was proposed, to the acclaim of all, Barry, the local convener, had to admit that, until the supply boat came in, there were only six beers in stock to go around! Yachties, though are resilient folks and ship’s cellars were soon raided, condiments procured, and a fine gathering assembled at the Sparkling Waters Bar as if to usher us into Maewo life, Asanvari style. Barry’s wife had made some delightful flower arrangements to grace the tables, and as the sun set over the masts in the bay, it was hard to imagine being in a more inviting place than this. Unplanned moments like this one, amongst like-minded souls as we were, are a sheer delight, and added greatly to our experience in these distant shores.

Sparkling Waters Bar at the waterfall

The beautiful waterfall

Enjoying a back massage

Sundowners at the Sparkling Waters bar

Ashore, Asanvari is a “walking village”, with leafy pathways that guide one past modest households where cheery faces emerged to say hello, to ask our names and to find out from where we had come. The local store was hard to find open, but just up from the beach, the entrepreneurial Erica and her husband run a little eatery, with accommodation alongside, to meet the demands of a tourism boom that may be a little time yet from arriving. As a sideline Erica sells produce from her village garden, although in noticing some excellent cowries that she had for sale, Cookie’s attention was hopelessly drawn, and I knew that our on board collection was about to expand. Erica can spot a shellaholic a nautical mile off. On our way back on board, we met Columbus; not the celebrated explorer, but rather the celebrated baker, who offers a unique service for early morning loafers, by paddling out in his dugout canoe with freshly baked products literally hot from the oven. True to his word, with a swish of his paddle and a tap on the hull, Columbus duly delivered, and it is unlikely that, in the annals of seafaring, that a hot and golden loaf has been fallen upon with greater alacrity than on this morning on Calista. Saint Columbus!

Erica's restaurant

Columbus' bread delivery

The good Columbus and Erica, we found, were not the only entrepreneurial souls in town, for when Patrick and Murielle drew alongside in their duck they said that we were invited to a “cave snorkelling” opportunity with Carl, a young local man who had developed a marine experience for visitors drawn from the unique karst, or limestone topography found on the seaward side of the village. He and his family had constructed a “Magas Cave Tour” where from a purpose built shelter, snorkelers were guided to an impressive underwater “dropoff”, with myriads of fish and an array of hard and soft corals before being led through a circuitous limestone cave – not a place for the claustrophobic – before emerging out of a paved sink hole in time for garden fruits and fresh coconut juice in the pavilion. Fabulous!

Coral gardens
The cave exit at the end of a lovely snorkel
Carl & the snorkelling team !
At one time Asanvari, apart from the Sparkling Waters facility, had a “Yacht Club” of sorts although in March 2015 Cyclone Pam demolished the structure and it is now in the process of being rebuilt. According to Carl, we were the 62nd yacht to drop anchor in Asanvari this “season” and we wondered, what with the facility by the waterfall already in place, how there was a need for two yacht facilities in Asanvari. Then, to add complication, the original chef who prepared meals at Sparkling Waters has decided to “go it alone” and offer meals from his village around from the waterfall. Apparently, having facilities  for yachties, was driven by former Chief Nelson, whose strength of character kept differing elements in the village on the same song-sheet, but with his untimely demise a couple of years ago, there have been literally too many cooks and not enough broth. Asanvari looks idyllic, and is idyllic, but on the ground it is not necessarily utopia, Maewo style. We figured it best to remain at arm’s length from village politics, because, apart from enjoying our separation from the political world, here there are eminently better things to do, and probably we were seeing inter-clan rivalries that have been entwined in village life for aeons.

Construction of the new Yacht Club

For us though, with days at a premium, and longer range forecasts already predicting a return to stiffer trade winds later in the period, we had to decide whether we would leave Asanvari. In the end its attractions seduced us, and we stayed one more day, simply because we did not want to leave. Besides, there was snorkelling still to be done and there was that wonderful waterfall, which issued its watery symphony throughout the night, and by day drew us to its aerated waters that were impossible to resist. In the end, all five yachts decided it was time to leave, driven by the need to move, as October drew nigh.

Our “move” was in truth not a big one, just a dozen miles or so south, across Lolovana Passage to Loltong Bay, a favourite haunt of Derek and Bela Reinemer, former owners of Calista and now proud owners of the Perry designed Pandana. Derek and Bela are regular visitors to Vanuatu and it was unfortunate that in this, the year that we visited here, family commitments elsewhere have kept them on other shores. Knowing of Derek and Bela’s fondness for Loltong had us committed to calling in, again, to see it for ourselves. Staying in touch with Derek and Bella, after nearly 10 great years of owning Calista has been cherished by us both. We can’t imagine this occurring following the sale of a car, or a furniture setting for example. Yachts are in way living things that are in a realm of their own. Yachts are family.

Calm passage to Loltong, Pentecost

The anchorage at Loltong is partly protected by two outer reefs, and there would be plenty of space for Hieracon, ourselves and the two other catamarans that were already there, but for the need to leave space for inter-island roll-on roll-off ferries to enter, manoeuvre, and draw alongside their beach-side staging point, which here, as it would only be on Vanuatu, is under the spreading banyan tree. We anchored, re-anchored and then moved again to a spot just out from shore with the help of Patrick and Murielle who took soundings from their duck with their portable depth sounder, which was, we concluded, a handy and helpful piece of equipment.  

Anchorage, Loltong

We took no time in getting ashore, partly to observe the hurly and burly of a ferry arrival, and thence to explore the village. Tickets could be sold to a ferry arrival, with the throaty manoeuvring of the ship, the pressing throng ashore as the drawbridge was lowered and the myriad of parcels, bags, boxes and crates that found their way on and off the ship in muscled arms, to a cacophony of Bislama, all at volume 10, as somehow sense was made of the consignment madness that seemed to be unfolding in front of us. Soon the ‘warehouse” under the Banyan was littered with produce and supplies, and the only utility in town, a vehicle bearing a mixed grill of tyres and a mechanical profile where, that it went at all, could be classified a miracle. Through it all a throng of young men sat inert on the roots of the Banyan tree, and remained so long after ferry growled its way out of the bay, despite there being tasks all about, such as the lifting of boxes, and the hauling of planks that cried out for attention. When life in the village returned to its equilibrium, only a pig in a wooden crate remained of the cargo from the ferry, left on a sandbar, with its anxieties rising along with the tide. As we joined the stragglers who were heading for home, to our considerable mirth, we came across the aforementioned utility, parked in the shade, with the driver lying alongside, asleep. It was after all lunchtime siesta, and apparently one ferry arrival, was maybe an arrival too many.

Unloading & collecting supplies....
but who's collecting the poor pig!?

Directly ashore from where we were anchored is found the Vatulo Yacht Club, brainchild of Matthew and his wife Mary, who specialise in hosting  traditional banquets, featuring foods drawn uniquely from local gardens. The “Club” is adorned with flags and other yachting memorabilia from around the world and alongside, Matthew is crafting two cosy bungalows, to value add to what has already been created. After arranging with Mary to host an evening at the club for boaties currently “in residence”, we listened to Matthew’s advice that in order to “get to know” Loltong and its people, it was a good idea to take the time to pause, find a shady spot, and allow the people to connect with you.

Vatulo Yacht Club
The village Banyan tree

In a word, Loltong is a treasure. With Matthew’s advice in hand, we found that a stroll through the centre of town took a while, with locals ever ready for a chat, and in the event of feeling fatigued, there are strategically placed public seats, deftly located in dappled shade, for the wearied traveller to take it all in. Near village central, the “main” road bends and in the crook thus formed, an extensive slatted seat is a grand example of its kind, with generous shade and a garden rockery to add to the scene. To sit here and contemplate the day is popular with many of the menfolk, whilst in shaded alcoves, or in the community Namakal, women cook, chat and work on handicrafts, and laugh, freely and frequently. Down near the beach, whilst naked tots gambolled in the shallows and shrieked in delight, a mixed gender game of soccer was being played with the fervour of a World Cup final and no one seemed to care that the goals were crooked sticks or that the ball had long since lost its air. All about, chickens scratched, some with cloth strips on their wings to confirm ownership, dogs of doubtful lineage ambled about, and pigs snorted in the bushes. Nothing in Loltong seems hurried.

Village images........

Making kava

Steep hilltop vegetable gardens

Also under the resting place in the centre of Loltong, we met a group from the Australian National University, whose members were engaged in absorbing life and language in the village, in a more professional manner than our own, as part of a move to record local customs and tongues with the support and involvement of the community. Some group members had been on Pentecost for weeks and here at Loltong they had obviously made some very close friends. The researchers were Bislama fluent, and were making efforts to record, like Brittany in Banam Bay, key features of languages that were spoken and not recorded. A fear is, we suspect, that with phone towers flourishing in the islands like tropical seedlings, and mobile phones making rapid changes to village life, there was a fear that local languages might easily disappear without trace, as new generations of young people in villages became seduced by the new and abandoned the old.

Loltong Guesthouse & restaurant

At the end of town a cement paved road makes its way steeply out of town and from its summit a grand vista of the village and the anchorage made the labour to get there worth every drop on the brow. Near where the road beetles upwards we met Barnabus Vavo, at first glance a languid storekeeper, but in reality a man with a remarkable story to tell. Some years ago Barnabus “jumped ship” here, at the request of a couple on a large cruising yacht, and spent six years with them, voyaging from PNG, to Fiji, to New Zealand and on to Australia, where, to complete his portfolio at sea, he completed a Sydney Hobart Yacht Race. With slender patronage at his shop, we listened spellbound to Barnabus’ tales from the bounding main. His cruising career came to a harrowing end somewhere off New Zealand, when an immense storm dismasted their yacht and Barnabus was certain that he was about to disappear into the Tasman, without a trace. Somehow they survived, limped back into port, and Barnabus decided that maybe his roving days were over, and that returning home, marrying and starting a family might be a good thing. He and his wife now have four children – we met his delightful little daughter with Barnabus under the shady tree in the centre of the village (where else!) – although we wondered whether in quieter moments, his thoughts drifted to full sails, trade winds, and exotic destinations. These things are all a long way from Loltong.

Barnabus hard at work in his store!

There are two schools in Loltong; one is a “French” school, which we visited with Patrick and Murielle, who had a bag of textbooks and materials from Noumea to donate, and the other, perching atop the peninsula on the north side of the anchorage, was really in the village of Labultamata, which is reached by boat or via a hike around the bay through the forest. The forest trek proved to be a walk where in leafy glens, with giants of the coastal rainforest lowering overhead, we thrilled to its arboreal splendour, whereas for villagers and kids heading to school it was just the track to Labultamata, and the path one trod in getting to school. Emerging at the village, we met Franklin, who offered to show us around and to take us up to the ridge above the houses where the school commanded a magnificent view back along the coast to Maewo.

We arrived at the Labultamata Primary School during a break, and to Franklin’s amusement little’uns were soon swarming about us, in scenes reminiscent of the Pied Piper, or even Gulliver’s Travels.. A horde of ebullient youngsters, like uncorked lemonade, ushered us in the direction of the long suffering teacher, who was in her classroom, attempting to snatch a moment of sanity, before we burst in with an army of effervescent tykes in hot pursuit. She manufactured a gracious smile and showed remarkable tolerance as we wrote our best wishes on the blackboard, complete with a map of Australia showing where we lived, and then attempted to make some order amongst the mayhem by taking a group photo of the assemblage. Then, not wishing to make things worse than they were, I made a strategic error whilst attempting to construct a form of retreat. I “hi fived” a wild-eyed urchin, clad in an Australia t-shirt, and next thing all the kids wanted a “hi five” and the cacophony rose again, to decibel levels bordering on dangerous. In the end, what was meant as a goodwill visit, probably sent the lovely teacher heading home at day’s end, reaching for her analgesics. The walk back through the forest to Loltong, harkening to the gentle lullaby of the birds, and feeling the soothing airs of the breeze through the trees, was a salve to our nervous system.

Having fun with the local school kids!

A wondrous evening at the Vatulo Yacht Club then capped what had been an unforgettable sojourn in Loltong. Eight good souls came ashore from vessels and we found ourselves in the expert hands of mine hosts Mary and Matthew, her “front of house” Lofate, and very ably assisted by Matthew’s niece and nephew the immensely likeable Nellisha and Crillis, who we learned now live with Mary and Matthew following the sad death of Matthew’s sister. Mary works magic in the kitchen and the promise of supping on a range of traditional dishes, in tapas-style portions, was just perfect. Course followed course, with animated interaction flowing freely across the table, whilst the charming Lofate periodically called everyone to order with the arrival of a new dish, and gave an informative explanation of its contents. A tasty salad featuring the fruits of the gardens and forest completed a gourmet tour of Loltong that will live long in the memory. It was one of those very special occasions that one hoped would never end.

Matthew, Crillis, Lofate, Nellisha & Mary

What a wonderful night we all had!
Farewell sunset

It was with a leaden heart that in the new morning, with children already laughing in the shallows, and the wisp of home fires in the village heralding the new day, that we drew up our anchor, and made our way out between the reefs before turning our bow to port and Loltong quietly slipped from view. We had some 18nm to cover down Pentecost’s leafy coastline before we arrived at an anchorage called “Waterfall Bay”. South of Loltong, where embayments are at a premium and therefore, when we arrived at the anchorage, courtesy the Cruising Guide, we nestled in square with the coastline where winds from the south through to the north via the west would make the anchorage untenable. In no time a ship on the horizon morphed into a local trader, functional, not pretty, and surprised us by steaming in between us and the shore, before releasing its tender with a clutch of parcels to be ferried ashore and placed under a foreshore tree, of substantially less grandeur than Loltong’s spreading Banyan. As the ferry chugged its way to the north, a utility arrived, the parcels were collected and the consignment process was complete, Pentecost style. With a light easterly predicted we felt secure enough to head ashore, just as Patrick and Murielle arrived to make it two ships in the anchorage.

Close encounter with the ferry
Waterfall Anchorage

Naturally, with the anchorage named “waterfall” we were keen to find this aquatic feature, especially given the delight we had in the cascade at Asanvari. Before finding a river mouth and following the flow upstream, we stretched our legs in the direction of Ranwadi the local village, which we failed to find although we fell upon, and into, the shore-side Ranwadi Bakery, which is less “backyard” and more extensive than others we have seen owing to the fact that it is a major supplier, not only to local folk, but to the significant, live-in, Ranwadi Churches of Christ College, that sits atop the hill above the coastline. The college has had a major face-lift in recent years, which has included the construction of some impressive, lit sporting grounds alongside the coast road which has been part of a significant aid contribution by the Australian Government, designed to assist key schools on selected islands in Vanuatu. It was heartening to see Aussie aid being directed at education in this way, as not only do local children view learning as valuable, it is certain that Vanuatu will need as many trained young people as it can get in order to face the challenges that are there now, and into the future. We climbed up to the school and, it being a Saturday, took an undisturbed look around, causing considerably less mayhem than we did in Labultamata!

The Ranwadi Bakery

Back near the anchorage, our search for the waterfall upstream looked to be thwarted, as we could find no track of any substance beside the river, and likely pathways disappeared into the backyard of some local dwellings where washing hung, chickens roamed but no-one could be found to set us aright. Eventually a group of local girls near the beach, no doubt enjoying their weekend away from school, put us on our way and we eventually found an attractive hedge-rowed path leading up to what was a hugely impressive waterfall. With a group of local teens in understandable possession at the falls, we satisfied ourselves with a refreshing plunge in a burbling rock pool downstream, although we were horrified to see some of the teens, atop the falls, and edging way too close to a slippery oblivion for our risk-adverse liking, whilst beckoning to their mates below. Maybe this is another form of indifference to the fear of heights that is obviously a hallmark of the famous tower diving exploits of local men, seen annually in Pentecost in April, May and June.

Was worth the search...a great waterfall!

Our evening at “Waterfall” proved to be an uneventful one on this coastline, although back at home it was AFL Grand Final Day, and I took the opportunity to attempt to search our HF Radio in the upper reaches of the 15 to 17 kHz bands in an attempt to secure a “feed” to the game via the ABC and Radio Australia. Eventually, way up on 17840 kHz, there it was, the footy, direct from the “G”, complete with the dulcet tones of the ABC commentary team, as clear as if we were tuning in from the Fitzroy Gardens. What a place, here off Pentecost Island, from which to hear the history making win by the Western Bulldogs over Sydney. Many thanks, Aunty, and Radio Australia.

Selwyn Strait separates Pentecost Island from the island of Ambrym, and we were away early next day to make the comfortable 20 odd mile passage to the anchorage and village at Ranon Bay on Ambrym’s north coast, to allow time for some exploration ashore. Ambrym is a volcanic island, dominated by the conic forms of Mount Marum and Mount Benbow, which are both decidedly active, and attract trekkers from around the world to what is a long, tiring but spectacular two-day experience, that allows visitors to peer in awe from the crater rim to the fiery cauldron below. For us fitting in a trek was not possible, but from our anchorage at Ranon plumes of smoke billowed upwards, and drifted away to the north-west. Some sailors, anchoring on Ambrym’s north coast, have found that a wind-shift to the south can leave a boat smothered with extract of volcano.

Ranon Bay

Ashore at Ranon was a flimsy experience compared with, say, our time at Asanvari or Loltong, although in fairness we had little time to make anything other than a cursory connection with locals, who were curiously thin in numbers on the ground. Kids who we came across, responded to our “hellos” with unabashed requests for “lollies” or “money”, which drew little response from us, so after a walk along a coastal track beyond the village, it was not long before we made our way back to Calista. There is no doubt that the highlight of our brief visit to Ranon, came at night when the fireside glows from the twin volcanoes lit up the southern sky with an arterial glow, as nature’s blast furnaces gave us one of the most unusual backdrops to an anchorage that we have ever had. It was impossible to go out into the cockpit in the evening without staring in wonder at the curtains of red hanging over Marum and Benbow; dancing and flickering in the night sky as they reflected the fiery furnaces below. Seeing this spectacle was reason alone to cherish a stopover on Ambrym. There are times when Cookie’s illustrated diary of this voyage, which is now well into volume 2, causes her to ruminate on a sketch that best represents the day, but on this occasion the brooding spectacle of the peaks to our south was an obvious choice, and her red “Derwent” was soon pressed into service.

For some days we had been dissecting the regional wind forecasts via the Predict Wind program, searching for the best “window” of wind to make the passage around Ambrym to head for an anchorage on Epi Island, and thence to bear away a little for the long day sail back to Havannah Harbor on Efate, just shy of Port Vila. Once around the eastern point of Ambrym, the path to Epi is to the south-east, or directly into the face of the prevailing wind. Therefore we were looking for winds that were not south-east, and our best option was a light easterly, that we could at least motor-sail into to reach Epi, and if it held, hoist everything and sail our way back to Efate the following day. Planning passages to make the best of the wind and sea states can make all the difference in achieving an enjoyable experience at sea. A promising “window” had emerged for us to achieve this but we needed to wait one more day on Ambrym before heading to Epi, so in the meantime we had been searching the Cruising Guide for another anchorage on Ambrym that had potential interest.

Morning light on Mt Marum & Mt Benbow

Just six miles to Ranon’s east lay the anchorage at Bavanna Bay, which, according to the guide, was blessed with a “hot spring” leading to a warm rivulet flowing out to sea. There have been times when cruising in South Australia in winter, when the promise of an immersion in a hot spring would come as a gift from Heaven, and as we had never experienced such a phenomenon in our travels, heading to Bavanna was an obvious choice. Once anchored there, we hastened ashore to a steeply sloping black sand beach, and a surrounding aspect that was devoid of the lushness of Pentecost and Maewo, possibly due to the fallout that often descends from Marum and Benbow. We may have overcooked our hopes for the hot spring, for instead of an oasis like nirvana with steaming pools set under swaying palms, the soak by the sea was slimy, weedy and uninviting. There would be no luxuriating in a hot tub in Bavanna Bay, although where the marsh issued out to the sea the water was warm beyond tepid, but probably wasted in a clime such as this. There was no settlement nearby, and so, in solitude, a swim in the bay was an instant and welcome attraction. The cap to the unusual nature of this place came whilst swimming when, upon digging our feet into the sand, we struck sub-surface water almost too hot for the touch. Our thoughts did fly back to our stoic friends at Port Elliot, where from the Surf Club hardened souls swim through the winter, and having just endured the coldest and wettest September on record, they would have liked to have joined us to dive without flinching in the warm waters of Bavannah. That evening we were disappointed to find that from the bay, we could not sight the peaks of Marum and Benbow, although on sunset, the plume from their vents gave us a sunset that was truly spectacular.

Water Temperature.....27.9 deg & hot sand !
Amazing sunset

It was but a handful of miles from Bavanna Bay to Ranwakon (Dip) Point on the eastern tip of Ambrym and when we got there in the morning we were happy to find that the winds were agreeable, the sea was kindly and that we could make all haste to Epi. Just around Dip Point is found the anchorage at Craig Cove, which we had considered, but had rejected, in favour of Bavanna Bay. When abeam of it we noted Farr Flyer in the anchorage on AIS, so we called up Jerry and Carmel, to find that, having been delayed considerably in Port Vila with water maker problems – we do not have a water maker, we have 500l and frugality - they were headed for the Isles that we had just visited. After helping with enquiries that they had and wishing them well on their journey, we got a call from Jody and Simon, off Manoroa 2 with more questions still, as they planned their passage to the north. Having met back in Noumea it was great to re-connect with these fine people as we passed, like ships in the night.

Dolphin escort enroute to Epi

Our passage to Epi was an enjoyable one, with Ambrym falling astern in the mist, and us “glassing” Paama Island and the classically cone shaped Lopeui Island, south of Ambrym, to port, where, if time had permitted, there were more attractive anchorages just waiting to be explored. For a time the breeze swung off the bow and we romped along under sail, before, off Epi and on our way to Revolieu Bay, the wind faltered, dropped out, and we noted a concerning line of whitecaps away off our bow. Knowing that nearby Lamen Bay probably offered better protection; we swung our head to port, and found, on anchor, that when the wind did come it issued from an unexpectedly north-easterly direction, but friendly for us where we lay. In the end, we had time to go ashore for another stroll around town where we took a quick look at the local stores, marvelled at some ladies weaving their colourful mattings, and generally stretched our legs before the final passage back to Efate.

Colourful handicraft

Apart from some raucous roosters, all was subdued when we eased out of Lamen Bay in the pre-dawn, just as the sky turned caramel in the east. In an hour or so we had passed Cape Foreland, succulent cheese and tomato jaffles had issued from the galley and with mugs of tea at the ready, we set a stabilising mainsail, before passing Revolieu Bay in search of better winds beyond Maling Point, in the open seaway beyond Epi. It was not long before the light airs of the morning became firmer winds of the day and we were able to set a full pattern of sails and leave the navigation to “Tim” our autopilot. These were conditions that could make a salt dewy eyed with delight: a fathomless sea of blue tending to purple, Flying Fish skipping all about, the majestic Emae and Makura Islands off to port, friendly cumulus clouds floating over an azure sky, and us with time on our hands once the sails were tweaked, to lie back, relax and take it all in. Eventually Epi fell over the horizon astern as Efate, with the grand double peaks of Nguna Island and its handmaiden Pele to its immediate north, as the entrance to Havannah Harbor became clearer ahead. Inside the harbor we doused sails and headed for the Ai Creek anchorage across the bay that we had used on our passage north. Compared with our experiences north of Epi; to be anchored outside the bright lights of holiday houses, and to hear the noise of vehicles on the main road behind was to know that civilization lay ahead and the description of the islands of Vanuatu where, according to Linda Kalpoi, General Manage Vanuatu Tourism…”unspoilt living in villages, where life is carefree, and the friendliest people are waiting to greet you” was now probably astern of us, and over the horizon.

Great sailing

Entering Havannah harbour...with so many amazing memories & experiences!

In departing Havannah Harbor for Port Vila in the morning, we passed by Lelepa and Eretoka (Hat) Islands before warily making our way around Devil’s Point outside Mele Bay, where turbulent currents can make the entrance into Port Vila an unpleasant experience. A radio call to Leimara from Yachting World saw us placed in the redoubtable hands of Moses and Willy who guided us to our mooring off Iririki Resort, where for $15 we get the same view as those in the Overwater Bungalows of Iririki, but at a fraction of a cost.

Moses & Willy escort us to our "Resort" mooring

Our voyage to the fabled isles to the north of Port Vila had been blessed with a pattern of fine weather that was beyond our fondest hopes, in stark contrast to what Anne and John Marley on Essex Girl, had experienced just a year previously. We had been fortunate, indeed, with the only drawback being onshore sea-breezes that occasionally made anchorages bumpy during daytime and a general shortage of winds that sometimes saw us motoring when we preferred to sail. We had covered 508 sea miles in the islands, and had more memorable experiences than we could possibly cover in these pages. In some small way we were reminded of the great traveller Marco Polo, who, in the Middle Ages, made it all the way to China via the silk road, and returned to the Mediterranean years later with incredible tales from the Orient. On his deathbed, religious clerics gathered, hoping to see him recant his extraordinary stories, but Polo was defiant, and rose on an elbow to declare…..”I did not tell you half of what I saw”. Yes, we have been fortunate indeed to have had the experiences that we have shared in Vanuatu’s wonderful islands amongst its wonderful people.

We looked forward to our return to Port Vila before planning our return to Noumea and the long haul back to Australia. A great many sea miles still lay ahead of us, but the balmy days we had enjoyed in Vanuatu’s islands were certain to linger long in our memory, as we make our way back to New Caledonia and beyond.