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Vanuatu

We had thought that sailing South from the islands to New Zealand – from the warm tropics with predictable trade-winds to the cooler subtropics with much more variable weather – would be much more difficult than sailing North again; on the way back up we’d be able to time things so as to leave just after a front had passed, giving us favourable southwesterlies all the way up to 30 degrees South, where we’d be safely back in the trade-winds.

Early May looked good. A front was sweeping across the Tasman, due to bring in its wake strong southwesterlies for several days. There was a pesky depression sitting over the warm waters off the Queensland coast, but lows in that neck of the woods are supposed to slide to the southeast then weaken; it shouldn’t bother us.

On May 1st a flotilla of nearly fifty yachts left Opua, bound mainly for Tonga and Fiji. We hadn’t quite finished our shopping and the first day of southwesterlies was predicted to be quite strong, so we waited another day. Then it was a quick visit to Customs and Immigration, a last-minute call at the Opua store to pick up fresh bread and vegetables and, at ten, we were untying from our longtime berth on the breakwater, and heading out into the Bay of Islands on a bright but cool sunny morning. Out past the Ninepin at the head of the Bay, and by dusk we had the Cavalli Islands abeam, our course NNE. We were quite sad to leave New Zealand – it is very easy place to like and in another life we would have been very happy to settle here. But there was a nip in the air and new horizons – Vanuatu, the Solomons, Micronesia – beckoned.

For the first couple of days we had light but favourable winds and sailed within sight of a large green yacht from Ireland, called Balu, also bound for Vanuatu. That low carried on deepening and, notwithstanding daily predictions, obstinately refused to move southeast. At the back of our minds now was a storm nearly fifteen years ago, now dubbed the Queen’s Birthday Storm, that had wrought havoc on the cruising fleet, sinking vessels and necessitating a massive rescue operation by several navies combined. The wind hardened and, by our fourth day we were close-reaching into a 30-knot near-gale, with heavier weather to come. By May 7th we had three reefs in the mainsail, and were flying a tiny storm jib forwards; the motion was wild, the skies grey.

That evening the wind built steadily until we were at 40 to 50 knots, with gusts probably ten or fifteen knots higher (approaching hurricane strength). For the first time since we have owned Bosun Bird, we reduced the size of the mainsail to a tiny fourth reef, lowered the storm jib and hove-to, to ride out the storm. With the mainsail sheeted firmly to the centre line, the tiller lashed to one side, we rode comfortably enough at fifty/sixty degrees to the wind, meaning the bows took most of the shock of the building seas. Once or twice heavy breakers out of synch with the wind caught us broadside on, bursting into the cockpit with a great rush, effortlessly ripping the grommets from our canvas leecloths. Worse than the motion was the noise: a high-pitched shrieking in the rigging, with a background roar of breakers all around in the night. But apart from those ripped lee cloths everything held up; in one violent roll the crew decided to head-butt our saltwater tap, causing it to bend, and incidentally leaving her with a spectacular black eye, but we cannot blame the boat for that.

Reaching north to VanuatuBy morning the worst was past, and over the space of an hour or so, the wind dropped from 45 knots to absolutely zero and the sun came out. But there was a chaotic, violent seaway running and, with no wind to position us, we were bucking around violently. We decided we should raise the vulnerable paddle that, hanging over the stern, drives our new Aries self-steering gear; in the middle of the operation there was a particularly violent lurch and its gears jumped by one tooth; nothing catastrophic but it did mean that from now on the vane did not respond accurately to the wind.

After the storm: more frustrations. The wind remained light, and came from all over the clock, meaning we had to change the arrangement of the sails almost every hour, including during the night. We coasted slowly between the remote, uninhabited islets of Matthew Island and Hunter Island, keeping Matthew in sight for three days. These inaccessible mid-ocean rocks hold a special fascination; our Admiralty charts of Matthew and Hunter dated from the mid-19th century, told us the islands were discovered in 1788 and 1798 respectively and they pilot book added that “jets of sulphurous vapour have been observed”; in two hundred years each has seen maybe half a dozen landings. We’d last seen Matthew from 30 miles away, en route from Suva to Brisbane in our earlier boat, in 1986. Flying fish signalled to us that we were in fact back in the tropics: every morning there would be one or two stranded on deck. Every evening we checked in by radio with a station, manned by volunteers in Russell, in the Bay of Islands: every night, through the crackling ionosphere, NZ seemed more distant.

We never really found the trade winds that are supposed to predominate north of 30 degrees, but on May 15th we made our landfall on the southernmost island of Vanuatu: Aneityum. We anchored in clear, calm water, at Port Aneityum, “Surveyed by Captain Denham, HMS Herald, 1853”, on the southwestern tip of this high, lush green island. Protecting us from the swell was a horseshoe reef, most of it awash, but a part of it covered in palms: Inyeug Islet. Once every six weeks, upwards of a thousand people descend upon this idyllic location for just a few hours; with the more romantic sobriquet of Mystery Island, this is a regular stop for cruise ships out of Sydney and Auckland. Over on the main island we could see the straw huts of a small village, and smoke rose from the treetops; but at night all was dark; there are only four inhabited locations in all of Vanuatu with electricity, and this is not one of them.

Regulations (this was not an officially designated port of entry) meant we could not go ashore, but we spent a couple of very peaceful days here, swimming in the lagoon and trading with the friendly locals who came to visit us in their dugouts: two D batteries and a tin of tuna bought us eight enormous pamplemousses and a hand of thirty bananas. We also took advantage of the calm water to have an e-mail correspondence with the Denmark-based maker of our windvane, Peter, and successfully rectify the anomaly that had arisen after the storm.

Mount Yasur in eruption (photo courtesy Nathape)From Aneityum, it was an overnight sail to the next island, Tanna. This was a unique landfall: although the night was clear, every few minutes there would be deep rumbles and red/white flashes on the horizon ahead. This was not a distant thunderstorm, but Yasur volcano, spectacularly active ever since Captain Cook became the first European to see it. As we drew closer we could see red molten lava being shot high into the sky, and as dawn came up we could set our course on the thick black smoke belching from the 800m cone.

We anchored in historic Port Resolution, a U-shaped cove open to the North, on the windward side of the island. Historic because this was Cook’s first contact with the group he named the New Hebrides and also his first certain contact with cannibals. We anchored just after seven o’clock in the morning, among five or so other yachts that were rolling heavily, and were soon exploring ashore, rolling unsteadily on the solid land.

As at many villages in Vanuatu, the local community has nominated one person to be the lead contact with yachts, in this case a friendly young Melanesian called Stanley. He immediately made arrangements for Jenny to ride to the other side of the island, next day, to officially clear into Vanuatu, and gave us the lowdown on Tanna. The community had set aside one building as the Port Resolution Yacht Club: it was festooned with the flags of yachts from up thirty years ago, and served meals, even Tusker Beer. Frustratingly, though, until Jenny came back from the settlement of Lanakel, we had no local currency to take advantage of this.

A visit to the rim of the volcano was obligatory, even though there were vents actually steaming all around Port Resolution. A bumpy one-hour trip in the back of a pickup delivered us to within a few minutes’ walk of Yasur’s rim. For an hour we stood awe-inspired as the ground shook and rumbled loudly under us, great clouds of smoke billowed up and – every few minutes – firework-like fountains of red lava shot up directly in front, the prevailing wind conveniently ensuring that they landed on the far rim and not on us. The display was all the more impressive in that we went as dusk was coming on, and the red glow from deep inside the crater began to light the underside of the clouds above.

Later that evening we drove on to Sulphur Bay, for another unique experience. This is the home of a bizarre religion or cult, known as the Jon Frum movement. Frum was a mysterious person who appeared from the sea in 1936 to some kava drinkers, and said he was related to the God of the Volcano. What ensued is far from clear. According to some he promised that if Europeans were made to leave Vanuatu, great wealth would ensue. Five years later, nearby Espritu Santo became the principal base for the massive American effort to dislodge the Japanese from the SW Pacific, Guadalacanal in particular: 250,000 American troops passed through Santo in only two years. They brought with them what seemed to the local people massive affluence: Coca Cola, cigarettes, refrigerators, electric fans, earth movers and so on. Many of them were black, which was quite astounding to the people of Santo (and the many men from Tanna who went there as local labour): they had hitherto associated material wealth only with white men. The African Americans also brought their own music - rollicking gospel and guitars. In some manner, for the people of Tanna, all this seemed to fit with the prophecies of Jon Frum. The movement adopted the American flag, held military parades in imitation of the Americans, took on their music.

Jon Frum faithful gather at Sulphur Bay (photo courtesy Nathape)Now, every Friday night representatives from Jon Frum Communities all over Tanna – “companies”, as they are known in militaristic terms – assemble at Sulphur Bay for twelve hours of music and singing, from dawn to dusk. Under the light of a single bulb lit by a car battery, we sat for an hour or so as the celebrations began. A group of five or six men with guitars, one with a drum, were formally summoned by rhythmic stick beating; they formed a kind of scrum outside the open-sided hut and then shuffled in, in formation. As women brightly dressed in their best Mother Hubbards took their places all round, they sat in a circle on the ground and began a session of ten rousing songs in Tanna-ese; it sounded, indeed, just like gospel singing and an old man told us that it was, but that the songs had the aim of summoning Jon Frum back. Around the hut, in the utter darkness of the tropical forest but with Yasur rumbling eerily in quiet moments, many of the rest of the community jived and moved to the songs. After the session of ten was over, there was a pause, more beating of the stick, and another “company”, this time from our “own” community of Port Resolution took over.

We’re still not entirely sure what Jon Frum is all about: everyone seems to have a different theory. The red crosses on buildings that distinguish Jon Frum communities from others, for example: for some they are simply an adaptation of the Christian cross, while others say they date from the war and are in fact the Red Cross (another supplier of great bounty, like the USA). The government is ambivalent about it all: understandably they are particularly uncomfortable with hundreds of young men periodically drilling (albeit with wooden weapons) and saluting the American flag.

There are “cargo cults” in other parts of the SW Pacific, but Jon Frum (for some a distortion of “John From America…”) is unique to Tanna. But the night at Sulphur Bay was moving. These are communities where radio, let alone TV, is still unknown: the weekly music sessions brought communities together in a traditional, ancient way that we suspect survives in few other places in the modern world. And as our headlights picked out our route back, through tunnels of incredibly lush jungle and gargantuan banyan trees, the volcano rumbled on. We thought that if we’d grown up here, belief in a God of the Volcano would be entirely logical, and if a prophet appeared who said we could have wealth like the Europeans, well it would be at the very least tempting…

Back at Port Resolution, the rollers coming into the bay were starting to make things very uncomfortable, to a point at which the Captain was actually feeling seasick at anchor. More worryingly, strong Northeast winds were forecast: the bay is open to the North. Although we had only been here two days it was time to get out. This is one of the frustrations of the cruising lifestyle: the need constantly to watch the weather and the security of your boat does mean you miss some opportunities. So just after dawn one morning, we were off again, this time bound for the island of Efate, 130 miles to the NE.

Leaving Tanna (photo courtesy Nathape)The only other boat still remaining in the bay, Nathape (Nathalie and Peter…) came to the same conclusion shortly after we did, and overtook us mid-morning as we worked up the weather coast of Tanna in large swells: we took pictures of each other, and Nathape’s photos showed us almost lost from sight between the waves. It was fast sailing until evening, but rain then set in….and then thunderstorms and even heavier rain. In fact we’ve never been out in anything like it: it was like having a fire hose trained on Bosun Bird’s topsides for fifteen hours straight. Most frightening were the thunder and lightning, topped off by a climactic storm just after dawn, 24 hours out; the wind reached forty knots again, albeit briefly, with visibility near zero in horizontal rain.

But all things pass….we were soon motoring into the welcoming haven of Port Vila, Vanuatu’s modest capital, and tying to a mooring buoy among a dozen or so other yachts (one of which comfortingly told us that the weather of the last few hours was the worst he’d seen in six months in Vanuatu). 1200 miles on from NZ, we were back in civilization.

We spent several weeks at Vila. Here there was the usual collection of semi-permanent resident cruising yachts, with transients frequently coming in to rest and stock up and rest for a week or so. Less usually, there was some tragedy in the sailing community: a few months earlier an American cruiser had very suddenly and unexpectedly lost his spouse and sailing partner to an unexplained malady, and was now coping with the prospect of fulfilling their shared dream alone.

Flying fox (bats) at the marketPort Vila has a few relics of the confused colonial period when Britain and France ruled jointly under an arrangement known formally as the “Condominium”, and more informally as pandemonium: two prisons (one French, one English-speaking), one or two classy French restaurants (offering bat in a red wine sauce), French baguettes from a chain of good supermarkets called Au Bon Marche. There are some reminders, too, of the massive American presence here in WW2; notably, the three main districts of town are known as “Numbawan”, “Numbatwo” and “Numbatree” because those were the names of the three US radar stations. But essentially this is a small south-seas town with one main street, a large number of dusty Chinese-run emporia and an excellent daily market stocking all manner of exotic fruits and vegetables.

Jenny flew to the UK for a couple of weeks from Vila, leaving the captain to catch up on boat jobs and also catch a couple of late-night World Cup games; nearly all of the cars in town had the flags of participating nations on their radio antennae, with many supporting Oceania's representatives (Australia and New Zealand). Every couple of weeks the local yacht club organised sailing races around the harbour: Nick crewed on a catamaran that hit unheard-of (for us) speeds of up to twelve knots and they won their race. Once or twice a week there were open-air movies at the Numbawan Cafe; its name is not just a reference to a district in town, but in Bislama (the local variety of pidgin) also means “great” or “fantastic”; conversely it might be said of a place that is a dump or of a person that you don't like, “it/he's numbaten.” When Jenny came back, her sister Gillian came visiting for a few days: this gave us an excuse to do some sightseeing on land, notably an around-the-island tour and a trip on Bosun Bird to the nearby Hideaway Island, with excellent snorkelling.

The war museum, Port Havannah, Efate IslandRestocked and replenished, we now began a leisurely meander northwards through the rest of Vanuatu, stopping at many more of the dozens of islands that make up this great cruising destination. First stop was just around the corner on Efate Island: the vast natural harbour of Port Havannah. Just out of range of Japanese bombers in the Solomons and New Guinea, this was the assembly point for the vast American fleet that fought the Battle of the Coral Sea, and all around there are overgrown, decaying reminders of those days: there is an eerily abandoned bomber airstrip (imagine those great but now deserted expanses of cracked concrete in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, where the Flying Fortresses took off to bomb Europe, but in a tropical setting) and in a shack under the palm trees an eccentric and enthusiastic local with an American accent maintains a “museum” of WW2 memorabilia. There are bent propeller blades from P38s, unidentifiable scraps of aluminium fuselage, old jeep radiators and a huge collection of Coca-Cola bottles, each with its date and place of of manufacture (San Francisco, 1943; Cincinati 1944).

At Havannah as well, we were introduced to the pattern of daily shopping that would now be with us for months. Most mornings, a few dugout canoes would pull up alongside, offering coconuts, tomatoes, snake beans, a variety of spinach known unappetisingly as “slimy cabbage”, pawpaws, giant pamplemousse. After some chitchat, we would ask the standard question “Do you want money or to trade?”. Trading usually involved, on our part, staples not easily available far from shops – sugar, flour – and items such as school exercise books, pens, fish hooks. Locals often asked for reading matter; once we memorably traded a one-year-old copy of The Economist for two large mud crabs. It was possible to place orders; in fact the locals were often on their way to or from their “gardens” (vegetable plots), which could be some distance from their homes, so they could easily pick a few more of some particular item on our behalf.

Pawpaw salesgirl Trading for slippery cabbage, Port Havannah

From Port Havannah on Efate, we sailed 50 miles north to Revolieu Bay, Epi Island. Distances like this are awkward: with good winds, we might just be able to leave in the very early morning and arrive before dusk, but we found it safer and more relaxing to make such passages (and there would be many to come) overnight, meaning we would clear land before darkness and then have a leisurely 24 hours before we needed to be securely anchored again. A long walk south on the island took us through the remains of what was in the 1920's and 30's one of the largest copra plantations in the islands, at Valesdir; in the 20's this estate even had its own currency, with coins marked “six pence” on one side, “five cents” on the other. The old copra plantation, Valesdir, Epi IslandThe big estates were all broken up at the time of independence in 1980; copra is still harvested but only sporadically and according to rises and falls in its international price. Piglet waiting to be shipped out, Lamen Bay, Epi IslandAt the north end of the same island we called in at the larger settlement of Lamen Bay; this is a port of call for small inter-island freighters (often of the landing-craft variety) and also for Big Sista, Vanuatu's new all-passenger ferry, but it would be misleading to think of such places as towns; outside Port Vila and Luganville (on Espiritu Santo Island) there is scarcely a shop, and for items such as bread you must usually track down the villager who maintains a bread oven and make your order for the following day.

Next we sailed west and a little north to a maze of small islands and channels on the south end of Malekula Island; the Maskelynes. At the one-family village of Awei we were adopted and invited to church. Missionaries, it seemed to us, were both a blessing and a curse for Vanuatu: although they were effective in ending inter-island warfare and cannibalism, and in halting the appalling practice known as Blackbirding (the forced recruitment and indenture of men to work in the sugar plantations of Queensland), they have left behind them an absurd legacy of inter-church rivalries and bizarre practises such as the Adventists' prohibition on eating crustaceans and shellfish, not to speak of drinking tea and coffee. But absolutely everyone belongs to a church of some denomination or other and it is assumed that all white visitors are fervent Christians.

IOne man and his church, near Port Sandwich, Malekula Islandn this case, the entire village (Presbyterian; the dominant strain in Vanuatu), having been summoned by a bell made of an old diving canister, was present in their Sunday best, there was much fine singing of old English hymns interspersed with American gospel, and then we all adjourned for a feast, eaten cross-legged on the floor. The principal dish is always laplap, a kind of huge pizza, whose base is made of banana or taro paste, which is baked in an underground oven and then strewn with anything from pieces of fish to vegetables and bat-wings; the concoction is carved with the family's ceremonial wooden laplap knife (one of which we later commissioned for ourselves).

Stuart with his son and nephew; Maskelyne IslandsAt Uliveo, also in the Maskelynes, we were warmly greeted by Stuart, who had heard that we might be coming his way from friends on another cruising boat, Sunstone, who had spent time here the previous year; we were both touched and a little anxious when Stuart told us that he and his family had been scanning the horizon for our arrival “for many weeks”. Stuart was our guide for a week and also gave us carefully-worded hints on island politics: there are three separate villages on his tiny island (which is thus severely overcrowded, meaning that everyone has to sail or paddle to their gardens elsewhere) and the locals do not see eye to eye on all things. Thus when a young man from one village sold us some eggs that turned out to be bad, we were told that this was “typical” of the people from his settlement, and warned not to talk to them. And in one of the three settlements there was what was unmistakeably the debris of a large sailing yacht: someone had a mast laid out in his garden, and on the beach a few young men were lounging around in the stranded remains of a teak-lined fiberglass cockpit; “the work of wreckers”, Stuart darkly warned us.

But most evenings such rivalries seemed to be dispelled when the men would gather for a few “shells” of kava (the mildly narcotic root-based brew that is common to Tonga, Fiji and Vanuatu). Ambon, who ran our nearest kava bar and who had spent several seasons picking fruit in New Zealand as part of an enlightened programme sponsored by both governments, was our guide to kava etiquette. Kava “parties” were never disputatious. Every so often – but at gradually lengthening intervals – you would be invited to Ambon at his kava bar, Maskelyne Islandsswill down a draft (which looked and tasted much like lukewarm dishwater) as you sat around, occasionally mumbling some inconsequential phrase; as the evening went on, the silences would grow longer and longer until, in the total darkness that reigns at night everywhere outside the two metropolitan centres of Vanuatu, you were not really sure there was anyone still around. The only noticeable effect on Nick was a slightly numb feeling around the mouth and a feeling of indolence (although the latter could have nothing to do with kava...) Later, a sociologist and student of Vanuatu told us that the government deliberately encouraged the habit of kava-drinking on the grounds that it was traditional, not especially unhealthy, cheap and that it did not provoke people to be violent (all counts on which the otherwise good local Tusker beer fails the grade).

We edged our way north up the east coast of Malekula Island, spending several days at the well-protected natural harbour of Port Sandwich. James Cook was here in July 1774:

“About nine o'clock we landed in the face of about 4 or 500 Men who were assembled on the Shore, with Bows and Arrows, Clubs and Spears....The people of this country are in general the most Ugly and ill-proportioned of any I ever saw...”

Sea snake in Bosun Bird's cockpitThe locals today are friendly, French-speaking at Lamap on account of the Catholic mission school, English elsewhere. There were sharks in the bay, they warned us, and they had once eaten a child; accordingly we should swim “only with care” (!). But Jenny was more worried about unwelcome visitors that had now come to see us three times: highly venomous metre-long black-and-white sea snakes. These seemed to have made their way up the cockpit drains from the open sea; one slipped right into the main cabin and slid across Jenny's legs as she sat tapping away at the computer.

Cooking lunch for Independence Day, Ambrym IslandThe high point of Vanuatu's year is Independence Day on July 30th. We participated as honoured guests in a whole week of festivities at Ranon, on Ambrym Island. Every day there were “futsal” soccer matches on the sloping field behind the settlement, with fiercely-contested games involving the girls; a volleyball tournament; speeches (tending to the long and turgid) by local dignitaries; an “island dress” competition; and a string band contest. Vanuatu string bands are 10 or 12-person outfits whose principal instrument is always a kind of double bass made from a wooden tea-chest, which is accompanied by ukuleles, banjoes and guitars. The music, which owes much to the presence of Afro-American troops in Vanuatu in the war, tends towards the tinny and repetitive, but this did not deter the crew from securing two entire CDs' worth. For the Big Day itself, the government had made available to every settlement in Vanuatu a sack of rice and a cow, so we joined the whole village in beef curry for lunch.


Traditional sailing canoe Island ladies, Ambrym Island


The next island to the north, Pentecost, is famous world wide for its land-divers, the original bungee jumpers: every year, so as to ensure a bountiful yam harvest, young men leap head first off specially-constructed wooden towers, their ankles secured by long vines, in near-suicidal jumps that – if all goes well – leave them grazing the earth with their noses. The season had been and gone; and the tradition is the source of some controversy in that its timing has been slightly altered for the sake of tourists, who are charged very high fees. But it was interesting to see the still-standing towers at the south end of the island, while pondering the rights and wrongs of the commercialisation of age-old tradition in places such as this.At anchor, Pentecost Island

Further north again, at Asanvari Bay on Maewo Island, is another location favoured by the yachties' grapevine. Here Chief Nelson and his son Nixon maintain an informal “yacht club”: a large straw building where Nixon (who has at times worked as a professional chef in Luganville) will dish up delicious curried freshwater prawns or a river cress salad. The “chiefly” system in Vanuatu is still quite strong (certainly more so than in most parts of the Pacific). It does have its virtues, especially as and when the Chief is relatively well-educated, fair and non-corrupt; in locations too remote for “government” otherwise to reach, he (for the chiefs are always men) can be a vital source of stability and continuity. But the system is not directly compatible with the system of parliamentary democracy to which most of the island groups (including Vanuatu) aspire and it can be stifling of free enterprise; Nelson had simply ordered Nixon to abandon his career so as to prepare himself for the chiefly succession at Maewo, and was perhaps not as generous as he might have been in spreading lucrative commissions from the yachties (laundry, vegetables, bread) outside his immediate family.

From Maewo we edged northwest and moored in the near-perfectly sheltered natural harbour at Lolowai, on Ambae Island. We made a particularly interesting visit to St Patrick's College, one of a number of boarding schools dotted around the islands; they were all founded by churches (in this case the Anglican Church of Melanesia) and are a response to the huge financial and logistical difficulties that would otherwise be associated with providing secondary education in an island nation with little transport infrastructure. St Patrick's is located in an isolated set of clearings in the jungle, an hour or so's walk from Lolowai. Among its illustrious former pupils was Fr Walter Lini, who led Vanuatu to independence. We chatted with Ezekiel, the school chaplain, who hailed from the Solomon Islands. He told us that although the inhabitants of his native archipelago were outwardly “extremely Christian”, more so than the ni-Vans, he had found that his new charges to be more Christian in their outlook and general way of life. Ezekiel was not exempt, however, from the inter-church rivalry that still bedevils the entire Pacific: he told us gleefully that only this week he had converted to his church two boys who had been raised as Seventh Day Adventists (we wondered what then parents would have to say when they collected the boys on Speech Day).

Ambae is James Michener's Bali Hai: he could see its looming whale-like mass from the island of Espiritu Santo, where he was stationed for much of the war, and it was to Santo that we sailed next. We bypassed the island's capital, the WW2-vintage collection of decaying Quonsett huts known as Luganville, because its anchorage is exposed, and instead edged through a tiny gap in the reef to a superbly protected anchorage at Peterson Bay and off a plush resort. Throughout Vanuatu we had favoured anchorages with shelter from the prevailing easterlies but had worried about how exposed they would be in the event of a westerly change; in fact, over four months, we had at most a few hours of SSW and need not have worried, but the security of Peterson Bay was nonetheless comforting.

The old tam-tams, Gaua, Banks & Torres IslandsJust behind Peterson Bay was another eerie abandoned airfield to explore – known in wartime days as Fighter One – and we also explored by dinghy. An hour's row up a quiet creek led to its source: a deep, round, blue-coloured and deliciously cool pool of fresh water known simply as the Blue Hole. Down at Luganville, reached via an easy hitch-hike, we snorkelled on a vast underwater heap of wartime debris, at Million Dollar Point. At the end of the war, the US authorities asked the returning British and French governments if they would like to buy up some of the road-building and other equipment that they would otherwise have to ship stateside; the British (cannily, they thought) said “No”, guessing the American would leave it anyway; they did leave it, but bulldozed it into the sea rather than let the Brits have it for nothing.

We left Espiritu Santo from the old mission town at Port Olry, sailing overnight to the Banks Islands. Gaua was eerie: a few months earlier the entire population of the island's lee side, where we anchored, had been evacuated on account of poisonous sulphur fumes belching from Gaua's active volcano. Already the grass huts of the villages were disappearing as the lush undergrowth reclaimed them. Leaning against a tree behind one village we found a group of moss-covered ceremonial tam-tams (semi-pagan images), left behind to guard the place against malign spirits.

Our visit to Vureas Bay on Vanua Lava Island was a highlight. The anchorage was indifferent in the gusty trade-winds we were now experiencing: forty-knot “bullets” sent us reeling first one way then the other, and had the bizarre effect of unravelling some 3metres of our three-strand anchor rope just above the point where it joined chain. But on shore Chief Godfrey and his committee of Elders welcomed us and the crews of several other yachts to a week-long festival of traditional dance, music-making and magic that was truly memorable. A troupe of dancers that had been living in seclusion for a month, as tradition demands, performed a wide variety of dances in a specially constructed village above the black sand beach: some had only recently been “rescued” from the village's collective memory; others were felt to have such power that we were not allowed to photograph them. Especially colourful was the Snake Dance, for which the men had daubed themselves in lime and ashes in imitation of the sea snake.

Traditional dance, Vureas Bay, Vanua Lava Chief Godfrey, Vureas Bay, Vanua Lava Island

How “genuine” was it all? We felt that many villagers still believed in the old ways but that it had taken the stimulus of outside visitors (and the very modest USD $10 or so we each contributed to the festivities) to bring them together and “re-learn” their past. It seemed to us touch-and-go whether in, say, twenty years' time the dances would still be remembered, though. It is not that tourism will eventually and irretrievably destroy true traditional culture in these islands, for physical access remains extremely difficult. But, for better and for worse, cellphones have arrived (before electricity!), there is a (laudable) and growing belief in the importance of education, “democracy” is undermining traditional structures; and those pesky priests and ministers would like nothing better than to do away with the last vestiges of what they see as pure superstition.

Traditional dance, Vureas Bay, Vanua Lava Snake dance, Vureas Bay, Vanua Lava


Water music, Twin Waterfall Bay, Vanua LavaAt our penultimate port of call in Vanuatu, lovely Twin Waterfall Bay, also on Vanua Lava, we were touchingly welcomed by all the inhabitants of the village with their special “Welcome” song to the tune of God Save the Queen. The ladies of the village performed their equally special version of Handel's water music in the deep and cool pool at the foot of the falls, and Chief Karely cajoled all of the yachts in the bay into participating in a glorious afternoon-long potluck luncheon in his longhouse. Esau and the laplap knife, Twin Waterfall Bay, Vanua LavaFrom Esau, Karely's brother-in-law, we commissioned the carving of a Laplap knife in rosewood; it was ready in less than a day, his only tools an old hacksaw blade, a nail and a piece of glass. Esau walked with a peculiar hunch; he had only recently risen from a full year of unexplained prostration; the local “kastom” (traditional) doctor said he would only recover fully if he stayed out of the sea for a full five years.

Karely spent an evening on board Bosun Bird with us, earnestly wondering whether he should enter political life. He was an honest man of great charm and intelligence, at once worldly but remote from the world. He took some American friends on one side and earnestly asked them: could it really be true what he had heard? That a black man was President of America? He was profoundly impressed to hear the answer in the affirmative. We have no doubt that in his way Karely will go on to do much for his people.

Chief Karely, Twin Waterfall Bay, Vanua LavaAs Vanuatu's Torres Islands, the last significant island group to be discovered by Europeans, sank into the gloom and we set a course for the Solomons we both agreed: on one thing. These islands were what we had always hoped the Pacific would be, only that it had taken twenty-five years and fifteen thousand miles of meanderings through Polynesia and half of Melanesia to find it.


More: Solomons



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