Thursday, October 6, 2016

Luganville  - Ambae
13/9/16 – 24/9/2016

(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.)

Luganville, even to its ardent admirers could not be described as a pretty place. Perched on the northern side of Segond Channel opposite Aore Island, it lacks the attractive topography of Port Vila, and whereas in islands all around there are current or ex volcanic peaks with grandeur that demands attention, here on the southern side of Espiritu Santo, or “Santo” to everyone, the aspect is low lying, flattish and on first inspection, possessing plainness in considerable degree.

Not far away though there are some world class attractions that make Santo a premier destination for tourists. “Downstream’ from Luganville, lies the submerged wreck of the liner SS President Coolidge, sunk during WW2 after hitting a “friendly” mine at the harbor entrance, which attracts divers from all around the world, and has the practical bonus of being accessed by simply walking off the beach to the “dropoff” to the wreck site. Then there is the Millennium Cave which has been a mecca for canyoners and adventurers since its taboos were lifted in 2000, a host of incredible “Blue Pools” for the more mortal of visitors, forest hikes, stunning beaches, and for us some anchorages plucked directly from Yachting World. These delicious places plus the ever friendly folk of Santo have made it a “must visit” destination for yachties for years.

Secure on the mooring at Aore opposite Luganville

We have come to Luganville for supplies, primarily fresh produce from the Luganville Market, some items from the supermarket, and a cut or two from the butchery, of Santo’s premium beef. Accessing Luganville, with its long and languid main road presented a logistical challenge for us, because anchoring off the town is not easy, just “downstream” off the Beachfront Resort, there are masts to be seen but the anchorage is exposed somewhat to the SE, so we have settled for a sheltered mooring off Aore Resort, across the Segond Channel, where the promise of a regular ferry service direct to the town wharf was a key attraction for us. The resort has been gathering place for sailors for years, and the cruising notes spoke of warm welcomes for salty sailors, a ‘yachtie room” for saline bonhomie, showers, good food, cold beer and of course the ferry. Times have now changed however, and under new ownership the moorings have been reduced to three in number from “several”, the “yachtie room” has sunk without trace, and the “shower’ is a tap by the beach. We can access the resort ferry into town if there is space available after resort guests are seated, but taking jerry cans or large volumes of shopping on board is not permitted. We took our second class citizenry status stoically, but wondered how, in lean tourism times post-Cyclone Pam where most international carriers refuse to use Port Vila’s airport until it is fully repaired, any money, even our second class money, over the bar or in the restaurant, was not a good thing for the bottom line.
Onboard the "ferry" to Luganville

Understandably, apart from some pleasant dalliance in two of the town cafés we treated our time in Luganville as “business”, and were keen to get on our way. The market proved to be fine for quantity and price, but a little thin on variety, whilst across the road at the local Butcher’s, I had arranged a handful of vacuum packed Scotch Fillets, but left, deflated, when the staff explained that the machine had broken, and the timing for its repair was…. “island time”. Cookie came back from the market with a woven basket full of sweet potatoes, and a similar quantity of eggplants, having been unable to convince the sellers to reduce their sales from bulk to portions. We will be getting creative in the galley when we leave Luganville.

Market produce purchased & washed!

We departed Segond Channel past the Coolidge, just as a group of divers were wading into the fray, and were soon abeam of Million Dollar Point, where at the end of WW2, US Forces, not knowing what to do with a host of trucks, jeeps earthmovers and the like, simply tipped them into the sea rather than see them fall into “unfriendly” hands. The needs of locals here on Santo apparently did not carry much weight in the Pentagon, and most tourists coming to this site today leave still scratching their heads.
Million Dollar Point

Beyond Segond Channel we came around to the north with an intention of making for the highly regarded anchorages off Oyster Island, tucked in behind a series of islands and reefs in an area known as Petersen Bay. Mostly we plan where we are headed and stick to the plan, but just a handful of miles up the coast as we entered Diamond Passage off Palikulo Point, which marks the entrance to Petersen Bay, a wave of spontaneity had us hastily changing our plans. Off to port twinkled the sheltered waters of Palikulo Bay, coloured as though it was Lapis in Nepalese jewellery. Already there were two masts there, floating on azure, and in a trice Cookie was heading below for the “waypoints” from the cruising guide that we would need to weave our way into the anchorage around some reefs and shoals.

Turquoise waters of Palikuno Bay

Although we have crossed vast tracts of lonely ocean there are times when we connect or re-connect with others who are also living afloat in ways that continue to astound us. Here we were thousands of miles from home and as we closed on this charming anchorage, we realised that we had a connection with both of the yachts anchored there. In 2010, on returning from our ill-fated voyage to the Louisiade Archipelago off the SE tip of PNG, and with Christmas approaching, we sheltered in the cosy harbor at Bermagui, waiting as gale after gale blew through Eastern Bass Strait. There too in a wonderfully sturdy steel sloop, welded by hand, and using materials as they were scrounged was the sloop Jannali, who with owner / builder/ welder extraordinaire Martin, and partner Kerry like us, were waiting for anything looking like a gap in the weather off Gabo Island to make for Lakes Entrance and Xmas. Before leaving Aore Resort we had a message from one of the staff that a “Martin” was trying to contact us, but think as we did, we had no idea who the “Martin’ could be, or how he knew where we were. Now as we came up to anchor, there was Jannali, and there was Martin, with new partner Cindy!! Well we remember sitting with Martin, poring over BOM information and weather models, and planning an “escape’ from Eden, around Gabo in the briefest of lulls before yet another gale hit from the NE. We left Eden at 3.45 am on Xmas Eve 2010 – Cookie’s trip diary tells it unerringly - , and because coast radio stations were effectively closed for Xmas, we stayed in touch with Martin until he called us about 2am when we were somewhere off Wilson’s Promontory to say that he was safely in at Lakes Entrance. We had not heard from Martin since, and that is just the way of the sea. Now Jannali was just about to up-anchor for the Oyster Island anchorage, and naturally we arranged to re-connect there after our stopover at Palikulo Bay. We were really keen to meet again and to compare notes after nearly six years of life had passed under our keels.


The second yacht at anchor was Stylopora owned originally by SA orthodontist Don Gilchrist and his wife Robyn, and whose book on their voyage around the world was eagerly read by us both, given that Don’s original boat, Bandwagon, was the first “big sailboat” we had ever put to sea on, following an offer to ‘crew” on board in a Saturday afternoon race off SA’s Cruising Yacht Club, arranged by good friend Geoff Gowing. Cookie remembers the afternoon well, what with seemingly urbane men endlessly yelling at each other and for the stiff rebuke she got for leaving the post where she was placed, to race to the bow to see a pod of dolphins. “The balance of the boat!” someone barked, as Cookie looked around wondering how her slender form could upset a 10 tonne racehorse. We have a “dolphin rule” on Calista that says that if the sea state is fine, then to go to the bow to watch dolphins is the thing to do, as one of the great joys about being at sea is to watch these magnificent creatures cavort at the bow. We never tire of doing this. Now Styropora was owned by Geoff and Di, a Brisbane couple who were surprised by Cookie’s enquiry that went… “was your boat originally owned by Don Gilchrist?” The sea is sometimes a small world indeed.


In the tranquil and inviting waters of Palikulo Bay, we had hoped its reefs might provide some worthwhile snorkelling, and we identified two areas that we would try. Returning from the first we saw Paul and Juan on Bumpy Dog heading in with the alarming news that they had grounded out on the shallow reef entrance to Oyster Island, and were abandoning plans to go there. We felt that apart from having a deeper keel than us, they had made their entrance attempt too early in the rising tide, and that the next day, closer to high water, was the best time for us to make our passage. With high tide due at mid -afternoon this gave us an opportunity for a morning snorkel on the reef section guarding the anchorage in the hope that we might find some nice coral and, if we were lucky, we might “find Nemo”. Maybe this was our lucky day, because sure enough, alongside a very substantial coral head, we found not only “Nemo” but a brace of his clown fish relatives as well. Cookie was in eighth heaven, although these distinctive little fish are always flitting hither and yon, and are therefore very hard to photograph.

We found Marlin & Nemo !

Now came the moment of truth, negotiating the shoal entrance to the Oyster Island anchorage. On our way there, several miles up the bay, Martin called to say that he too had grounded on the entrance, but he had new coordinates that might help us find our way in.  So, after a careful approach, with Cookie at the helm and me at the bow with my cleanest polaroid glasses deployed, we slid through, with everyone breathing in, and our depth indicator showing a spare 0.2 of a foot under the keel. The reward for negotiating this entrance, was to access the Oyster Island anchorage, off the Oyster Island resort, a safer and more picturesque spot it would be hard to find. A well anchored boat could ride out a considerable tempest in the tree lined Oyster Island anchorage, which is a truly sumptuous place.

Beautiful sheltered anchorage at Oyster Island

It was great to catch up with Martin, to meet the wonderful Cindy and hear the unusual story of their meeting over the sale of a guitar on e-Bay, after Martin and Kerry had amicably set sail for different horizons a few years ago. Cindy is an “outdoorsy” lady who, apart from battling the dreaded mal de mere loves her life at sea on Jannali. We have sometimes mused that to test a relationship, just put to sea together. Martin is now a key member of Volunteer Marine Rescue services at Hastings in Victoria, and they too are making their way: ultimately back to Bass Strait and home, but via Vanuatu’s northern Banks Group, then north of New Caledonia to Bundaberg. We were keen to spend a little time in “catching up” about life and times and Martin suggested we join them at the Sunday Resort Smorgasboard, that was to especially feature a group of local musicians who were presenting a number that they were preparing for the South Pacific Song Contest, drawn from a local group of young musicians, a Bamboo Band and a group of female “water dancers”, who were all set to perform. We have rarely taken up an offer with greater alacrity and rapidity!

Catching up with Martin & Cindy at Oyster Island Resort

Sunday at the oyster Resort turned out to be a stellar one in every respect. We had the opportunity to meet some fine folk from other boats and backgrounds, before tackling a buffet that was delectable, expansive and had the serving tables groaning under their burden, before we too groaned in sympathy, unable to consume another morsel. If the food was superb, the musicians were equally meritorious, and we spent a singular afternoon, marvelling at the performers, especially the dexterity and harmony of the Bamboo Band and the unique skills of the Water Dancers whose water slapping percussion skills had to be seen to be believed. All the performers combined for the South Pacific Song Contest, and what with the rapturous applause from all assembled under the shade of the coconut trees, they treated us to two encores. This was a day that we wanted not to end.

Local Band
Water Dancers

Bamboo Music

Guilt ridden after a day of excess, we set our sights the following day on a kayak paddle up the nearby Nalgiafu River to the Blue Hole, a limestone swimming spot fed by underwater springs, and ever popular with tourists. For us the paddle up the river hemmed in on both sides by forest giants, wreathes of climbing plants and the marvellous mangroves was the real highlight, with the swim at the end in a distinctly blue pool coming as a bonus. Martin and Cindy joined us in their dinghy, and took one of the images you see below. We were delighted to be back on our kayaks apart from finding, to our great disappointment, that somewhere in the “practice paddle” the previous day, or whilst tied up alongside Calista overnight, one of our boats had suffered two small punctures. Cookie is a skilled operator when it comes to small boat repairs, and we hope that with her intervention, the air in these fine craft will stay, next time, where we put it.

Lovely paddle.... the Blue Hole

The morning high tide on the reef pass into Oyster Island was timed at 0630, and following s pre-dawn rise, we opted to join three or four other vessels in making good our “escape” to the north. With the “snail trail” of our track into the anchorage still there for us to follow on the way out, the passage over the shoal was easily accomplished and soon we were hoisting sails for Undine Passage, which leads between Malano and Malugoa Islands to the open sea. We were headed for the modestly named Hog Bay on northern Santo where, within its confines, is found one of the world’s celebrated beaches; a place that we had on our “wish list” since we visited there on Pacific Pearl in August 2015. “Imagine being there by ourselves, just us and no tourists” we had mused.

On the “big ship” we were up early, leaning eagerly over the top rail of the eleventh deck as we eased our way between Lathu (Elephant) Island and Sumgmass Point, and there, away to point, a crescent of white sand cradled by forest and a limestone escarpment hove into view, the exquisitely beautiful Champagne Beach. “How would it be sailing here!” we said to each other. Now, after nearly 20 miles out at sea, and radioing our farewell to Martin and Cindy on Jannali, who were heading further to the north, we bore away to port, to our waypoint abeam of Elephant Island which marked an entrance that we had long dreamed of, and coincidentally, at 15degrees, 06,98 minutes south, marked the most northerly point of this voyage. Head west to the Australian mainland and this latitude lies between Port Douglas and Cape Melville on the East Coast, it aligns with a spot above Wyndham in the west and tracks through Mataranka Springs in the middle of the continent.

Passing Elephant Island on way to Lannoc Bay

To be honest, we were pinching ourselves that away to port lay Champagne Beach in its sublime splendour, with not another soul to be seen. Anchoring off Champagne Beach itself - named this not so much as a marketing ploy as for the fresh water springs that “bubble” through the sands to the east of the beach – is feasible but not practical due to the coral heads that are scattered just off from the beach. Like other yachts we headed for Lannoc Bay, the “next bay around” from Champagne Beach, beyond Sungeun Point and reef, where in gin-clear water, deeper than we usually consider at home, we found a patch of clear sand into which we rattled out our anchor chain. Off Pacific Pearl, we had photographed a yacht riding in Lannoc Bay, with the big ship in the background (see this picture in the first Blog Post of A Voyage to Vanuatu), and now Calista was the yacht in the picture, just as we had envisaged it could be. This was all just a little surreal.

Stunning blue waters of Lannoc Bay anchorage

If blue is your colour, then all of its hues, from deepest to lightest are on display in Lannoc Bay from the richer shades bordering on purple in the deep sand patches through to lighter tints closer to shore. A duck ride ashore here is an experience in itself. Then, at water’s edge rivulets of water issuing from the sand are just another phenomenon at this phenomenal place. Fresh water springs! Yes, you can head for a swim in your turquoise sea pool, go for a snorkel to check out the wildlife, and then wash off in the crystal waters of the spring before thinking about the day; and keeping in mind that you have not yet reached the jewel in the crown, Champagne Beach, which lies but an amble away through the coconut grove. By the way, sea water temperatures here nudge 27 degrees, so the keener waters of the springs are a skin tingling delight.

To come ashore at Lannoc Bay is to enter a world akin to what Bali must have been like, when the first of the “alternative” travellers ‘discovered” it in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Cows graze on the beachside meadow, chickens fossick and peep, and families of pigs snuffle about, oblivious to scenery. Collections of thatched huts mark the modest Towoc Restaurant and Bungalows, like the losmens of Kuta, transported over distance and through time, but missing the beards and the beads of a hippy invasion. Bovines eyed us curiously as we made for Champagne Beach, and soon, there it was, in all of its postcard glory with not a waddling tourist in sight!

Towoc Restaurant & Bungalows

Champagne Beach is a masterpiece of nature, with the blinking whiteness of the beach nestling under its headland: crystal waters bathed in sun; against the leafy backdrop of the forested escarpment and the picture perfect view across the reef to Elephant island, bobbing out there, cradling the bay. There is a pier in the corner of the bay, for the patrons off cruise ships and locally hewn shelters along the bay, that come alive when a ship is in with local sellers pedalling mementos, clothing, Vanuatu – style takeaways, and of course cold beer.  Today Sarah, who lives next to Towoc, and whose extended family own much of the area, right up to the escarpment, has finished her chores at home and has taken her kids to play on the beach whilst she has put out some of her home crafted wares, just in case some tourists arrive. We wonder if her kids will ever know that in frolicking on Champagne Beach, building sand castles, collecting shells and watching crabs endlessly digging their burrows they were growing up in paradise. For us, we swum, strolled along the beach, lounged under the dappled shade of a forest giant, chatted to Sarah, and eventually, when a car arrived with a young couple from New Zealand on board, prevailed upon them to delay their plunge long enough to take a snap of us at work here in the tropics.

Champagne Beach

At day’s end we strolled into Towoc Restaurant, met the charming Lena, who manages it seems everything front of house to cooking and bottle washing, to be told the terrible news that they were out of beer until someone “did a run” into Luganville, next day for supplies. With this, we booked for the next night – no booking sheet or diary, just telling Lena was all that it took – and headed off down the road in search of the local baker whose whereabouts was uncertain, and Lena’s instructions petered out at Towoc’s front gate. In Australia, the bakeries at, say, Lameroo, Willunga and Yankalilla (yum!!), are all there in the main street, whilst here bread is baked “cottage industry” style, and it took some significant sleuthing and questioning of locals – several who had conflicting input – before we stumbled into the backyard of the wonderfully friendly Dimity, the local baker, just as he was extracting a brace of golden offerings from his oven. Dimity’s succulent loaves cost around a dollar Australian each, but their aroma……priceless!!

Dimity's Bakery

Sarah's beachside stall

In board Calista, we have been wondering whether too much of a good thing is still a good thing, and whether spending time in dissipation at Champange Beach is something that we should even admit to, let alone write about. In the end we settled on attending to a raft of necessary tasks in the next two mornings – Cookie, for example was keen to rectify the punctures in our kayak – before abandoning our on board life as the heat of the day gathered for a spot on the sand in the dappled shade, with endless immersions on offer, was the correct approach to mixing pleasure with pleasure. Bumpy Dog had been “in residence” here when we arrived, but they had now headed on their way and our original vision of having this place among places to ourselves was complete.

Paradise, though, cannot always be perfect and the light airs that we have welcomed and cherished have ushered in clammy and misty conditions, born of volcano and village smoke, that meant that Elephant Island, that stood clear in focus across the bay was now obscured in haze. None of this dented the enthusiasm that we applied to time on Champagne Beach, and we were lucky that we took a selection of pictures before the mists rolled in from the sea.

Our evening at Towoc Restaurant, was memorable for its uniqueness and quaintness, rather than for its haute cuisine. Between the chalkboard menu, Lena’s kitchen interpretation, and what finally arrived at the harborside tables there was evidence of non-adherence to script although the fare was fine indeed given where Towoc was, and the limitations of the culinary engine room. The aforementioned beer, a commendable local drop tagged Tusker Premium, came crisp and crackling cold, and was consumed with aplomb. Also “in’ that evening, were an Aussie guy who has been at Towoc for weeks and is besotted with the place, a Dutch lass with her Mexican boyfriend, and Jules and Scott from Christchurch, who it turns out were on their honeymoon. Jules is a Norwegian engineer, and Scott is a Kiwi who is a photographer for Discovery Channel. Jules must carry some Amundsen blood, of living on the edge, because her and Scott have just come from one of the Ambrym volcanoes where they abseiled down inside the crater, to camp alongside, film and to be up close and personal with its cauldron of lava. This sort of puts a new twist on the old line of….”darling did you feel the earth move last night”? It probably did!

In these climes, winds typically rise during the afternoon and drop off at night, so with a half moon “’t illume the heavens” and the promise of a light but nagging easterly to blunt our progress at sea, we planned our reluctant departure from Lannoc Bay on the 53nm passage to Anbae Island, for one am, to make the best of the still of the morning, before the breeze got up. Alas, we could not see Champagne Beach as we stole out of Hog Harbor, and although a feeble moon did its best to penetrate the smoke in the atmosphere, we spent the night and into the early morn with Ambae bold and tall out to our starboard, and could not make out its outline.

Vanihe Bay anchorage & black sand beach

We had heard much about the unusual nature of Ambae’s Vanihe Bay, with its spectacular volcanic cliffs, black sand beach, and its solitude, arising from its beetling topography, which prevents anyone from getting there by land. Having come from the talcum-white of coral sand at Lannoc Bay, the eeriness of clear water over black sand took some adjusting too, especially as the clarity of the water at Vanihe Bay was such that it was possible to count the links on our anchor chain, some 30feet down on the bottom. Ashore, on the beach was like being in an amphitheatre, as castle-like walls towered all about, defying anyone to climb out to the village at Lolowai Bay that we knew was just over the ridge into the next bay. To swim was unnerving, with the black sand turning depth into guesswork and the pallor of feet, in contrast with the sand, giving a ghostly effect. Anchoring, tucked under precipitous cliffs, blunts some winds but causes swirling eddies that defy any attempt to “hang” on the anchor in a preferred direction. Vanihe Bay was indeed an anchorage like few others, and with raptors circling above the battlements and the afternoon sun lighting up the escarpment, it was a treat to have this quite unique place to ourselves, as the sun faded away from the day. I will admit to reaching for our strongest torch in the middle of the night just to make sure the craggy cliffs were where we had left them on nightfall.

Lolowai Bay anchorage & local store

The entrance to Lolowai Bay is a tricky one, and although it lay only a short steam from our Vanihe Bay anchorage, it requires an accurate approach on navigational “leads”, and to safely cross the reef, and the last third of a rising tide is strongly recommended. We were unsure whether we would “overnight” in Lolowai Bay, but having entered in the early morning, if we got ashore and were nimble, we could see the local village, take a look at the “wharf” area where an inter-island barge was loading, and still have time to clear the entrance on the tide before noon. In effect, this is what transpired, for apart from a generously stocked and friendly local store and a collection of unremarkable built facilities, we saw little that was to compare with the extraordinary places that we had just visited. Lolowai Bay had some tough acts to follow, but some 25 nm away there was a place, on the island of Maewo, which deserved every bit of attention that we could muster. With this much vaunted destination of Asanvari Bay in our sights we left little time in clearing the reefs that guard the NE corner of Ambae Island and setting sail for the southern corner of Maewo Island, one of two baton-shaped islands that are peculiar to this part of Vanuatu. As we sailed from Ambae, the skies finally cleared and the smoking dome that is the profile of this rumbling isle held our rapt attention, astern of Calista. We were on time to make Asanvari before sunset.

Safely across the stop Asanvari, Maewo Island


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