Vanuatu 2



One of the main reasons we wanted to re-visit Vanuatu was to spend more time among the Banks Group Islands in the north of the country. An over-night passage from Asanvari in rain and very mixed-up winds took us to the northernmost of the Group, Ureparapara. The island was formed from the crater of an extinct volcano, from which one side was blown out, creating Dives Bay between the steep walls of the crater. In normal or strong trade wind conditions the Bay is reputed to be subject to gusty williwaws and swell, which rolls down the Bay from the sea outside. Fortunately for us a few days of NWlies gave us calm conditions in the anchorage.





When we arrived, Selwyn came out to greet us in his canoe. He had been educated by the Melanesian Brothers at a school in the Solomons and spoke excellent English. His family compound was next to a small creek at the southern end of the village. Two of his grandchildren acted as our guides as we walked in to the village.








As we walked into the village there were remarkably few people about until we got to a cleared area along the shore. Here the whole village was gathered and working on the building of a new ‘kindi’ for pre-schoolers. The dry stone foundation had already been laid and most villagers were busy cutting and splitting bamboo, which was then used by specialists to weave into beautiful patterns for the walls. It is only in the Banks Group islands that we saw these woven patterns. In other islands patterns were occasionally painted on, but not woven. Virtually every aspect of the building had been produced in the village - even the climbing frame and slide in the playground.


What was so impressive about all this was the intensity of community commitment by the whole village. As we got to know the villagers and their circumstances, we understood why this commitment was so important. Though the island is only about 10 miles from Vanua Lava, the main island in the Group, it might as well be 500 miles away. The village has no radio nor any motor boat. As a result, they are dependent for external supplies and communications on supply ships which might or might not arrive twice a year. In fact, visiting yachts are an important source of supplies.




As we cruised through the islands we saw several schools which had been built with funds from the European Union. One of these was at Ureparapara. However, despite the relative poverty of the community, the school was beautifully furnished and decorated – in marked contrast to much wealthier villages. The furniture had all been built by villagers and was the best we saw in the country.


One of the major concerns of all villagers in Vanuatu is their difficulty in earning cash to pay school fees. This is particularly difficult for those on islands like Ureparapara, where, apart from a few teachers and a nurse, there are no jobs and no other way to earn money. Essentially these communities still have barter economies. It was virtually impossible for any youngster from Ureparapara to go to secondary school. They would have to board on Vanua Lava for the whole of each year, away from their families and pay fees which could only be afforded by the whole community, rather than any one family.





While we were anchored there were always a few canoes out fishing in the Bay. Fish are the primary source of protein for the villagers. When they discovered that small schools of fish were attracted to the shade under ‘Sunstone’ we were soon surrounded by eager fishermen.


Though there were many of the usual outrigger canoes in the Bay, there were also a number of the much more elegant canoes like Luke’s to the right. We were told that these were modelled on canoes which islanders had seen in the Solomons. These canoes were much lighter than usual and their fine lines made them much faster. However, their natural instability meant that they could only be used within the sheltered waters of the Bay.





Visiting villages is a fairly intense social experience. In western industrialised societies we pick and choose when we are going to be with others for our work and social lives. Village life is not like that. Being alone or with only one or two others is rare. After some time among villagers, we needed a little break. The low, sandy Rowa Islands, surrounded by an extensive reef, lie a few miles to the SE of Ureparapara. The anchorage there is only protected by the reef and so is tenable only in moderate conditions. We were fortunate to have a couple of days with winds of 15 knots or less to enjoy this beautiful, archetypically tropical setting. Though the islands are now uninhabited, ironically, the village in Dives Bay, Ureparapara, was originally founded by the inhabitants of the Rowa Islands, displaced by cyclone damage and lack of water.









Vanua Lava is a high, green island, and its west coast is particularly attractive, with several waterfalls which plunge from the jungle-clad cliffs into the sea.


We stopped overnight at Waterfall Bay, where, ironically, the anchorage is out of sight of the waterfalls. On several occasions, we had offered to trade torch batteries for lobster, but were regularly disappointed. But here, we were woken just after dawn to the treat of a lobster, which we cooked straight away, ready for the evening meal.




Vureas Bay is at the southern end of Vanua Lava. Chief Godfrey and his wife, Veronica, have their family compound here. Godfrey is Paramount Chief for the Island of Vanua Lava. The whole family were charming and welcoming. We had dinner and kava with them and Godfrey gave a demonstration of a distinctive chief’s ritual in traditional dress. His son, Jonas, acted as our guide to the nearby village of Vetumboso, which with a population of 800-1000 was the biggest single village we visited in Vanuatu. The family were busy preparing the venue for the island’s cultural festival. For which we typed out and printed the programme.











Could these skills be used up a mast?

The Island of Gaua, often shown as Santa Maria on charts, is the southern-most of the Banks. Like most in Vanuatu, the island is volcanic. In fact some geologists believe that it has the potential to be another Krakatoa, as the large and very scenic crater lake in the middle of the island is thought to be holding down an ‘explosive charge’ of magma, whose pressure is slowly building. The volcanic porosity of the island is apparent in facets such as the fresh water springs which run out of the sands on the beaches.


At Lakona Bay, on the SW corner of the island we were treated to ‘water music’ by the women of the village. This consists of a variety of rhythmic splashings, punctuated by a remarkable booming noise, the source of which remained a mystery to us. In the small village there was also a collection of traditional fern tree carvings. Because of the nature of the material these are rather rough and have little longevity. Despite the reputation of the Banks Group as being less sophisticated than the southern islands, we found their houses and buildings in general to be both more attractive and better constructed than many further south.




At Lakona Bay we shared a meal with Chief Henry and his family. The meal was quite typical of island cuisine, though probably somewhat richer than usual because of the guests. There was roast chicken, tuna with capsicum (green pepper) and a variety of dishes with a pounded breadfruit base and a kind of coconut milk dressing.


Like many south-sea island communities the primary cash crop is copra from dried and husked coconuts. Unfortunately the bottom has fallen out of this market with sharply falling demand, so these communities have few means of earning cash.






Despite their recent construction, the traditional buildings of the primary school at Lakona with their dark interiors and earth floors were in marked contrast to to the light and airy building at Ureparapara. However, we were impressed by the enthusiasm and professionalism of the teacher we spoke to. We were also interested to find, both here and elsewhere, that the most teachers we spoke to had been trained at the teachers college in Port Vila. During our earlier visit in 2001, it was often only the head teacher who had formal teacher training.



From Lakona we moved south to Espiritu Santo Island. This island had a strong French influence during the colonial period and large areas were privately owned estates, cultivated as plantations and for cattle. The area around Luganville in the SE was also a major base for the US military during WWII.


A stop in the reef-sheltered anchorage at Peterson Bay gave us a pleasant and quiet couple of days. The Bay is the home of the Oyster Island Resort, which is owned by a New Zealand couple who are themselves cruisers and are therefore friendly to other yachties. The other attractions are the two small rivers which empty into the Bay. These are navigable to their heads by dinghy, where each has a ‘blue hole’, a pool where sparklingly clear, blue water wells up from the deep bottom.





The island of Ambrym is renowned for its traditional wood carvers, who were at work when we visited the village of Ranon. The larger carvings are generally tamtams, which have a quasi religious function and come in two forms. One is solid and is usually set upright in the ground like a statue or totem. The other lies horizontally and is partially hollowed to form a drum. The tamtams are stylised human figures of varying complexity, some containing only a single figure, others many, sometimes intertwined around an exaggerated phallus.


Quite apart from tamtams, the locals also produce prettily decorated, but very simple flutes – simple because they only produce two notes!


Though the island’s people are creative and apparently among the country’s best educated, we found them more dour and less welcoming than those on the other islands we visited. Perhaps there is a message in there somewhere.








Occasionally a fairly simple experience can turn a little bizarre. Vicky had been determined to have at least one really good hike during our stay in Vanuatu. Though it is a long day, the track up to the central volcano of Ambrym presented the opportunity, both for the hike and the view down into yet another steaming crater. She had a delightful and knowledgeable young woman guide, Ruth, from the village of Ranvetlam. However, another tourist was also along. Unless you go out of your way to meet one, it is rare to come across a female tattoo artist, liberally decorated with her own work. This was Vicky’s companion hiker. She was a Brit who had emigrated to Australia – presumably invited to immigrate on the grounds of the labour shortage of female tattoo artists in Sydney.


Unfortunately, the tattoo artist’s eyes were bigger than her thigh muscles. It was a tough hike, even for someone as fit as Vicky. Half-way back down the young woman was exhausted. Help from some other guides eventually arrived and a hike that should have taken 7-8 hours ended up taking 10. It all ended happily, but was not without its worrying moments.






Our last stop, before heading back to Port Vila to clear out, was at the island of Uliveo, back in the Maskelynes. Here we visited the giant clam reserve, which has been established by the villagers on the island. It was initiated by the Enrel family, one of whom, Jack, was the head teacher of the local school. This conservation project was unusual in being entirely locally initiated and supported. Sadly, it seemed to us when we visited it, that the reserve had seen somewhat better days, whether for environmental reasons beyond the control of the islanders or through waning support.






Though Uliveo is small, low lying and surrounded by reefs, it supports a very large population of about 1000 people in three villages. There are both primary and secondary schools, newly built with EU funding. At the schools we again met Bill, who now teaches on Uliveo. We had first met him as a teacher at Avokh primary school in 2001. With him were three students we had met as much smaller children in his class at that time.


The social structure of Uliveo was an interesting departure from what we had seen elsewhere. In general in Vanuatu, the chiefs of villages are either elected or hereditary. In some cases there are two chiefs, one of each kind, with different responsibilities. For the most part elected chiefs are mature, well respected adult men with considerable or even absolute power and influence in the village. On Uliveo the chiefs were elected only for very short terms and seemed to be young men, barely out of adolescence. They seemed to carry little weight in the community. It became clear that the real power and authority lay with the elders of the various village churches around which the lives of the villagers were centred. The chiefs were mere figureheads.



Like most third world countries, an extremely high proportion of Vanuatu’s population are children. The vast majority are cheerful, polite and helpful. It is very rare to hear a Vanuatuan child crying or grisling. They are patient when things do not involve them and interested and engaged when they do. They are happy whenever they can be helpful.





Stewart, who is a part-time teacher and hopes to become fully trained and employed, was our guide on Uliveo. He gave up most of two days to introduce us to the island, its villages and its people. He gave us many insights into the life and culture of the island.


Many cruising boats these days have water-makers, which relieve the anxiety of maintaining a supply to fill the limited capacity of a boat’s tanks. Of course there is no free lunch. In order to run the water-maker, you have to carry extra diesel to run your engine or generator. You also have to maintain another piece of technology.


For a boat like ours with no water-maker, we have to take our chances to collect drinkable water. Occasionally, as at Uliveo, a furious tropical downpour allows us to collect enough to fill our tanks in short order.






Our brief pit-stop in Port Vila to re-stock, re-fuel and clear out, fortunately coincided with the presence of no fewer than six OCC (Ocean Cruising Club) boats in the harbour. An impromptu, convivial and somewhat boozy meet was held in the limited but cosy confines of ‘Sunstone’s’ cockpit.


Unlike anywhere else in the country, Port Vila is relatively ‘developed’, with supermarkets, banks and retail opportunities for visiting tourists and cruise-ship passengers. Unlike the rest of the islands, there is a middle class of Melanesian politicians, civil servants and entrepreneurs, as well as the remnants of white colonists. Recently, in addition, have arrived a group of tax exiles from Australia and New Zealand, who have bought property in Vanuatu and become technical residents to take advantage of its ‘offshore’ banking and tax regime.


On our first visit to Vanuatu, we had found it almost impossible not to catch fish. This time we caught none at all while in the country’s waters. Part of this was probably attributable to lack of skill or diligence. However, we felt that the introduction of commercial long-lining had also had an impact. Our view was supported by a number of locals with whom we spoke about fish stocks. Fortunately, almost as soon as we left Vanuatuan waters on our way to New Caledonia, Vicky once again landed a very nice mahi mahi.