Back to Vanuatu





On the morning of 19 May, with the Auckland sky-line attractively draped with a rainbow, we made our way to the Quarantine Dock, completed our paper-work and cleared out for Tanna in Vanuatu, about 1100 miles away.


We were looking forward to our return to Vanuatu, but also felt some concern. We had liked the country and particularly the people very much on our last visit in 2001; it was our favourite among the island groups of the Pacific. We were worried that our memories could not be lived up to. We knew that the inevitable changes would make for a different experience, but hoped that it would still be a good one.




We had had plenty of time to choose our weather for the passage. A pattern of highs punctuated by fronts of varying intensity had been passing across the Tasman Sea for some weeks. This is the simplest of patterns to deal with in the southern hemisphere for a northwards passage. We hopped onto The SWly change which followed the latest front, giving us brisk reaching away from New Zealand. This was followed by continuing moderate to strong southerlies ahead of the high, gradually swinging SE and then E as we moved to the northern side of the system. The northern tail of a weak front gave us a brief taste of NElies before the wind returned to the southerly sector. This last came in as weak Trade Winds and wafted us up to a landfall at Aneityum, 40 miles south of Tanna, which we passed almost exactly a week after leaving Auckland. Fortuitously Vicky had landed a lovely medium-sized Mahi Mahi the day before so that we could dine on splendour to celebrate. We spent most of a night hove-to in very light winds off the east side of Tanna, observing, as Cook must have done, the glow from the Yasur volcano.






As we motored into Port Resolution shortly after dawn, we spoke to a French family among the yachts anchored there, who informed us that crews from several boats were heading across by truck to Lenakel, the technical Port of Entry, to get clearance. We quickly anchored. Vicky grabbed her papers and some money, leapt into a passing dinghy and disappeared for nine hours, most of which were spent bouncing and gyrating in the back of a pick-up (and occasionally pushing) on what is laughingly called a road. However, the market also gave her a chance to pick up some fresh fruit and veg, as well as some Vatu at the bank.








Port Resolution is an ideal place to get back into the tropical cruising life, a life which we had not really experienced since leaving Brazil four years earlier. The anchorage itself is very well protected except in a strong NEly or Ely. The people of the village are used to cruisers and very welcoming to them. Stanley has taken over from his father as the village’s yacht ‘ambassador’ and does an excellent job. During the cruising season, there are other cruisers with whom to chat and exchange information and gossip. Evening drinks are the norm. Otherwise, we could sit in the shade and gaze at the sunny landscape while pretending to read. Before we left we had hauled out our diminutive bimini and had purchased a new, larger solar panel, which helped to reduce engine charging time.


Though we had visited it once before we couldn’t resist a further look at and chance to photograph the Yasur volcano at twilight. Its steamings and rumblings are not particularly impressive in daylight, but it seems to draw life from the darkness, bellowing and sparking more furiously.





With the trade winds on vacation, a quiet day’s motor-sailing took us SE to Aneityum. The village of Anelghaut on the SW bay was in many ways little changed from our first visit. We were welcomed by Joseph, a part-time teacher at the small secondary school, which serves the whole island.


On a walk around the village on Sunday afternoon, we were invited into the nakamal compound. Every village has its nakamal, but the rules around who may enter vary markedly. In some villages it is strictly men only, in others there are two, one for men and one for women, in others the nakamal is ‘co-ed’, but may have a men’s side and a women’s side. In the nakamal we re-met Wesley, who had been one of Vicky’s guides on her muddy walk to the waterfall eight years previously.






On our previous visit to Anelghaut cruise ships had suspended visits to the small island on the southern side of the harbour, what their brochures call ‘Mystery Island’. The ships have now returned, which has made the village a comparatively wealthy one. However, their presence somewhat detracts from the ‘ambiance’ of the anchorage. Fortunately, they only stay for the day and depart at sunset, taking their thousands of passengers with them.


However, the arrival of the ship was welcomed by our friend, Kenneth, Vicky’s other guide from her hike. He is a keen sailor, has built his own quite sophisticated sailing canoe and made a sail from cloth he received as a gift from a cruiser. He takes passengers sailing near the reef, but we think he would go sailing anyway, as he delights in the sport itself.







We paid a brief visit to the small secondary school, whose facilities are very limited. There is no free education in Vanuatu. Though many parents scrape together the money to send some of their children to primary school, very few can afford the relatively high fees for secondary school, especially since there are usually additional boarding costs.


During our visit, it became clear that Vicky had contracted a tropical ulcer infection. Fortunately we had appropriate antibiotics aboard. However, these infections can be very serious and, as in this case, can spring from the tiniest abrasion, cut or sting.




We made only a brief stop at the urban delights of Port Vila, on Efate Island, to get some medical advice about Vicky’s infection, fuel and stock up. We were anxious to get north fairly quickly and so were shortly on our way to another favourite anchorage at Awei Island in the Maskelynes at the SE corner of Malakula Island.


The village of Avokh nearby is both crowded and poor, situated on low-lying land, part of which floods on spring tides. However, the people of the Maskelynes are resilient and resourceful, as well as welcoming. In this village cooking is done communally in a village cookhouse, where the traditional laplap is cooked in earth ovens. Wrapped in leaves, this concoction usually as a base of pounded bread fruit or taro with small pieces of meat of chicken mixed in. To western eyes, it is not particularly appetising, but it is reasonably nutritious.





Canoes are used throughout the islands. The vast majority have outriggers and are paddled, mostly on the side with the outrigger to counter-act the drag. The canoes are generally fairly rough dug-outs formed with an axe. Kenneth’s canoe at Anelghaut was unusual in being smooth and well formed. In many villages each family makes its own canoes, but in Avokh there was a specialist canoe builder, seen here forming an outrigger float. Most families have more than one canoe. Canoes in the Maskelynes need to be more seaworthy than most, as they work in strongly tidal channels, where there is often a heavy chop when wind is against tide. As a result, most have an extra sheer plank to raise their freeboard. Because the villages are generally on crowded islands, the villagers have their gardens either on other islands or on the mainland of Malakula. As a result, they must sail considerable distances every day to get food and firewood. To do this they are among the few people in the islands who regularly use sails on their canoes.



This man is undertaking one of the essential daily tasks in any village, the preparation of kava. There are various ways of preparing kava, some less sanitary than others. However, what you see here is the first stage. After the root has been more or less cleaned of earth, it is chpped into small pieces these are then ground. Traditionally, this might be done with stone or coral, but is now often done in a mechanical mincer. The ground root is then placed in a muslin or fine-meshed bag. Water is poured into the bag repeatedly and pressed through the root until the desired strength is reached. Only experience can tell when this is. The result is a concoction with exactly the look and consistency of muddy water. For most people, one ‘shell’ (half a coconut shell) has little effect apart from a peppery taste, two make the lips slightly numb and give a little buzz, three are mildly intoxicating, giving a further buzz and making the drinker a little dreamy. Four shells usually sends the drinker to sleep. In general, kava does not have the anti-social effects of alcohol in that it does not make drinkers aggressive or violent.



Our next stop on the way north was Homo Bay on Pentecost Island. Pangi village is one of two on the island where land-diving takes place. As a result, tourism has made it relatively well-to-do by Vanuatuan standards. However, even here virtually everyone is fed mostly from their own gardens. The shop to the right is typical in selling only a few food staples which are not available locally, sugar, flour and rice, as well as clothes, cloth, laundry soap, batteries and a few other manufactured items. Despite the coming of mobile phones to the southern islands and crocs instead of flip-flops (or thongs or jandals) the primary means of exchange in most villages is still barter, though cash is slowly taking over. Cash crops can be important to this. Locally, cocoa had been planted and the beans harvested and sold.




We were shown around the village by three children. One, a boy, was allowed to show Tom the diving tower, which is taboo to women. These towers are complex structures which are rebuilt annually, though the basis is always the remains of several stout tree stumps. The tower arches gently backwards from the bottom and is stayed by long vines tied to other trees. There are jumping platforms at various heights up the down-slope side of the tower. The landing area is on the down-slope at a considerable angle. This area is well dug-over to loosen and soften the earth. The tower is quite flexible for a structure 15-20 metres tall. Boys begin jumping from the lower platforms and gradually work their way up over the years. At one time, diving was a means of achieving rank within the local social structure. Increasingly now it is also a means of earning money.







Originally the land-diving season was only in April and May, when the vines used were both strong and still supple. However, this is also at the margin of the rainy, cyclone season when there are fewer tourists. As a result, the season has been gradually extended into June and even July, increasing the potential danger to the divers as the vines become more dry and brittle.


Each diver participates in the building of the tower and the platforms and selects the vines which will stop his fall. The vines are carefully tied to his ankles. The divers from the top-most platforms must push well out to clear the tower and reach the softer landing area. Just before a diver reaches bottom, the vines come taut and break the platform to which they are tied, markedly slowing his fall. His objective is to touch, but not hit his head or even shoulder to the ground in the landing area. This shows the greatest machismo.


The dives pictured here took place at the high tower in Naghol village near the airstrip in southern Pentecost.




At the southern tip of Maewo Island is the village of Asanvari, which is a favourite cruiser stop. The village is set in beautiful tropical surroundings behind a white sand beach in a bay well sheltered from the Trade Winds. At one end of the beach is a small waterfall which is both attractive and available for baths.


Asanvari is a very successful village largely due toits development by Chief Nelson (below). He has both developed a cash crop in Asanvari kava, which is exported to Luganville and other islands as the premium ‘brand’. He has also developed the ‘Yacht Club’ which caters for cruisers, scores of whom visit each year, bringing further cash to the village. Nelson’s son, Nixon, who has trained as a chef, but is also very practical in other fields, is carrying on his father’s traditions.









Considering the relative wealth of the village, we were disappointed to see that the primary school at Asanvari was neither well built, nor well-equipped compared to a number of others we saw in the islands. Two young women, Meg (UK) and Beth (Aus) were undertaking VSO work in the school. As usual, the children were delightful and mostly very eager to learn. Though the official national language of Vanuatu is Bislama, in most schools the language of instruction is English, in a few it is French. Since most children speak only their local language, of which there are about 150 in Vanuatu, this means that they need to be at least tri-lingual.





Chief Nelson and Nixon arranged a meal and some ‘Kastom’ dancing for us and other visiting cruisers at the yacht club, as well as kava drinking for those who wanted. The dancing is noisy and rhythmic, with drums, ankle rattles and war-like chants. Unlike at some villages, at Asanvari, Nelson has realised that western thresholds of interest in a particular dance fail at about five minutes, so he rings the changes with different dances by a group of men who have clearly practiced their moves thoroughly.


One of the pleasures of visiting villages in Vanuatu is the opportunity to help the villagers with technical problems for which they have neither the tools nor the expertise. Often our own expertise is only a little greater, but we do have more resources and some experience with jury-rigging. Though we had only a little success, Andy and Tom spent a day working with Nelson and Nixon to try to repair the small hydro generators which other cruisers had installed above the waterfall.


There is also a second village adjoining Asanvari, at which the chief is establishing a cultural centre where tourists can visit to see Vanuatuan traditional crafts and learn about the Islanders’ culture.