The World ARC 2014 Blog, Vanuata
Vanuatu - Now here is a strange place, despite getting closer to civilisation (we are only a 7 day sail from Australia) we have appear to have landed in a place that time has forgot, and it is really rather nice. The islands of Vanuatu spread out over a 500 mile chain and boasts the worlds happiest people (statistically) which seems kind of incongruous since cannabilism was alive and well up until only 70 years ago in the northern islands. The villages here, ruled by benevolent chiefs have been rather ignored by the empire grabbing that dominated the rest of the pacific, largely because of a stale mate situation, where it was loosely ruled jointly by a disinterested anglo french alliance and only sought independence in the 80's.
This mishmash of a political situation has left villages in peace and isolated from each other, so it's not unusual to have 25 languages on a small island, and a complete mixture of cultures -- and in Tanna's case Cults. Notably the Cargo Cults, one village worships an American 'John Frum' and another village worships England's Prince Phillip.
The villages are immaculately clean, beautifully laid out and almost exclusively made from natural materials, no rusting corrugated iron here! the pace of life is unhurried, living from the land and the sea, tending to families and respecting local traditions -- they are certainly poor by any western standard but they seem genuinely happy and content with their lives.
So here we are, cruising the islands, meeting the people, and generally exploring - we left from fiji 2 weeks ago along with a new crew recruit Doug from San Francisco and the veteran team of Dan, Em and Sarah and we had a lively sail in the company of some other Ex world Arc boats to arrive to the southern island of Anatom - where it rained, and rained some more which cancelled our anticipated hike to a waterfall and instead we meandered around the village and caught up on reading and planning. Just off shore was Mystery island which hosted a wonderful beach for snorkelling and even a kite surf session when breaks in the rain allowed.
Onwards to Tanna, we anchored in Port Resolution which is a pretty little bay providing shelter on the windward coast, it is home to a 'yacht club', a beautiful village, lush tropical vegetation and AN ACTIVE VOLCANO! At night the sky above the anchorage glows an ominous red and by day the edge of Port Resolution bubbles and steams and occasionally a fine layer of ashy dust lands on the deck and a whiff of sulphur fills the air- it doesn't really feel like the most natural place to linger. But seriously, what an amazing place.
Landing on shore we soon made a friend of Stanley who was to become our guide - fishing for the village has been difficult because of the bad weather and rough seas and since our stores were stocked with yellow fin tuna and Dorado and we have more meat than we know what to do with (it's all got to be eaten by the time we land in Australia, and I may have got a little over excited in the Fiji butchers) - we donated some fresh tuna for his families dinner.
Stanley soon got the measure of what we wanted to achieve on Tanna , and being a nice chap and polite he didn't want to dampen our resolve with comments like - that may be a bit ambitious or it's really quite a big hill to do before lunch, if you want to conquer the mountain after lunch - instead he just said yes, see you in the morning. So our day of adventure began.
Along with friends on another yacht Hebe, we took to the challenge which was to hike over the ridge to the next inlet, Sulphur Bay, also known as the village that worships John Frum, who legend has it arrived on the highest hill in Tanna in the 1930's dished out some well meaning and sage advice not to forget their traditions, keep dancing, drink kava, let the women drink kava -- he was off to America and one day would return. He hasn't yet... but when he does he will be proud -- every friday they party hard, from dusk to dawn and consume a lot of kava. Also they are very happy, content and wealthy in pigs (the measure of a village), all in all a good life.
Our main purpose in Sulphur Bay was the hot river, here the boiling springs merge with cooler water to create a nice bath-like river which runs down to the beach - here we body surfed the pacific swell on the beach and warmed up bathing in the river, occasionally the sound of breaking waves was interrupted by the massive, earth moving booms of the ever present volcano behind us... eeek.
Onwards on our tour we said good bye to the rather tired chief's son (it was saturday morning and he had been praying hard last night) . Around the volcano's base and across the ash plain and under the looming mount Yasour - the plain was desolate, an ashy desert perfectly smooth except for the scattering of 'lava bombs' varying in size from ping pong balls to small cars which the mountain throws over occasionally - the advice - 'don't run, watch to see where it lands' wasn't that reassuring, we mosied on, looking skyward at each loud boom and quicking our pace towards the safety of the jungle once again. A few hours later Stanley expressed his doubts that we could keep to schedule which had us back at Port Resoloution in time to get the 4wd up to the volcano crater. As luck would have it, he knew a nice place for snack (a 4pm lunch) which got the big thumbs up, lunch was ordered and the 4wd re directed to pick us up - we wouldn't call it defeat.
The main idea is to be up at the crater (the one spewing molten rock) just before sunset so you can see the view from the top and then wait until sunset to see the fire inside. There is no health and safety here (well not except for a sign that read 'Think Saftey'?) and you're stood at the crater rim, buffeted by strong winds, really not wanting to slip in - it was strangely terrifying and utterly awe inspiring. Think crackling bonfire on an epic level, the thunderous booms are like standing too close to a subwoofer as a hot mixture of ash and small glowing lava bombs are belched into the air.
Not the first time on this pacific tour we felt extremely humbled and privileged. Standing here, on a tiny island at the pacific rim plate boundary, where continental shelves collide - seeing first hand, nature at it's purest.
Moving up the island chain, we find ourselves anchored off a tropical river at Eromango. This is the home to a sleepy little village where we met David, a lovely gentleman who is trying to finish off his 'yacht club' - by far the most impressive building in the village which he has been building for 6 years and will be a bar/restaurant with some guest accommodation in the island style. David is earning the money for his materials by giving the 1 or 2 visiting yachts a week a tour of the village and the surrounding area. He is quite the tour guide, we found river swimming pools, he scaled a palm tree for our coconuts (not bad for 64) and we learnt a bit about the village.
Interestingly the main activity is planting sandalwood seedlings in the forest. This used to be indigenous but was wiped out by European traders as it's valuable for aromatic oils used in perfumes, soaps and ointments. This initiative is about investing for future generations... the crop will take 80-100 years to yield! Let's hope the market stays strong for their grandchildren's sake.
One of the places David was keen to show us was the Cave of Skulls! How could one not be intrigued. To put this in perspective you need to understand a little about the Melanesian traditions, and customs, who not that long ago were a pagan society. It wasn't until the late 19th century that the waves of missionaries brought the islands to embrace the holy light, and although now they are Christian, it takes time for generations of rituals, beliefs and fears to be forgotten - indeed they are still discussed and you get the feeling, not entirely impotent.
The idea of death to the pagan mind, was not so clear cut and the link between the earthly realm and the spirits not exactly impenetrable. Whilst there was an overseas paradise, the spirits of your ancestors were likely to show up now and again to check up on what they left behind, and so the bones and particularly the skulls must be preserved for them to re enter as they see fit. Without this the 'homeless soul' would have nowhere to rest and would be left screaming in the night, which is no place for your loved ones.
Prior to the missionaries the skulls of the ancestors would be laid on plinths outside the family's house, regularly annointed with coconut oil and sometimes consulted, other times the remains would be left in caves or crypts close to the village. The skulls were not a grim reminder of death, but instead a cheerful token of man's love and immortality.
Almost all of these caves, crypt and personal shrines were destroyed by the early missionaries and from now on the deceased are given a Christian burial. Here on Eromango, they have preserved a piece of their culture and history. This isn't just a tourist sight and it's no coincidence that the beach immediately underneath the cave is still used by the villagers as a gathering place, there are plenty of other beaches nearby.
Well we have done it, we have crossed the Pacific Ocean! It's been an amazing adventure, but more on that later. The line we have just crossed is the oceanic/ continental plate boundary and the body of water we are now in, is the delightfully named Coral Sea - no doubt excellent for snorkelling and diving, but it sounds more terrifying to the navigator suggesting an abundance of reefs to avoid. Indeed this evening we will be zig zagging through the largest one in the world, which starts 100 miles off the Australian coast. Happily because it's so big there are light houses and buoys to guide us, things not seen for many a month and three and a half thousand miles. Reefs not withstanding and customs and quarantine obliging we should arrive in Mackay in time for a cold Fosters (memories of student days) on Saturday night.
Our passage from Vanuatu has been swift but gentle with just enough breeze to keep us moving along at a steady 6-7 knots under full white sails, yet not an ocean swell in sight, we have had beautiful sunsets, and with only a tiny glimpse of moon, the stars have been super bright, the sea alive with bioluminescence. Perfect.
In anticipation of our quarantine inspection we are eating rather too well - the freezer needs to be emptied, all the dairy consumed and no trace of nuts, berries or fruits to be found anywhere onboard - since Skyelark is rarely understocked, the voyage a little quicker than expected, and sailing with half our usual compliment, we are struggling through a gastronomic challenge.. but I've got faith in the team, we will do it.
Looking ahead, with a whole continent at our bows we will have to do some adjusting. Gone are the pandanus and palm frond houses of the islands, the dug out canoes, the smiles, nods and waves of everyone within eye sight and the obligatory conversation and exchange of good wishes with anyone you pass by. Civilisation awaits and the next stage of the adventure begins... We start with 4 weeks in the Whitsundays, that, should at least be a soft landing -- don't feel bad for us.