Draw Card

When John and I began planning the 2012 cruising season we had a number of potential routes to choose from. Limitless would be much to far a claim, but that’s the general sense of the opportunities out there. We’d discovered that the ICA (Island Cruising Association) was planning a ten-month rally and of the list of countries included there was one in particular that stood out with enticing allure: The Solomon Islands. The archipelago is made up of 900 tropical islands, of which 350 are inhabited, and covers a large geographic footprint of about 1500 kilometers from the westernmost island group to the easternmost group. The Solomons are out of the standard cruising path and only a handful of cruising yachts travel through the region in a given year. We’ve been asked to sign ‘guest logs’ kept in some of the villages in more popular anchorages and there has never been more of a half dozen boats in the book in a season. Some of the places we’ve been we are a true novelty as the first boat to anchor there in years, if ever. Before us lay the promise of a rich and diverse region to explore with visual appeal both above and below the waters surface. After considering our options, we decided that the Solomons was our draw card and we placed our bet on the ICA Western Pacific Rally to take us there.

Our initial decision was to stay with the rally through to the Solomons, disconnect from the fleet in Gizo and make our way through the Northern Territory, Australia into Indonesia, ending the season in Singapore. Now that we are out here, however, that pace seems faster than we’d like. We have waivered between taking a faster route through to Singapore, where we planned on working for a year, or slowing down the pace and ending this season in Sydney.

The Sydney option would shorten our employment period by half and would result in a year extension of our cruising to cover the Great Barrier Reef and Indonesia in 2013. There are pros and cons to both sides, however we’ve finally agreed that a more leisurely pace is preferable and we accept the commitment of an extension to the cruising lifestyle. My theory is that you rarely travel the same place twice, and I want to make the most of it while we are out here. So far, the rewards of the cruising lifestyle are well worth the sacrifices.

One comment on the Solomons is that it has been the one destination en-route that has brought the most words of caution, the threats being both natural and human-induced. It is ranked HIGH THREAT for the incidence of malaria, but we’ve mossie-proofed the boat and put Braca on anti-malarial tablets so I feel confident we have taken all necessary precautions. Ironically, we have encountered very few mosquitoes but if they are out there, we’re prepared.

The other area of high alert is threat from hostile locals but it seems this may be focused in a few specific regions. Information available is conflicting, and it is hard to decipher what is a real threat from what was a one-time occurrence, or what may be the bias of one tribal group against another. We’ve had stories of unauthorized boarding of a yacht with machete-wielding aggressors, pirates who toss a fishing line out to foul the propeller, islands with hostile locals demanding payment for anchorage, and petty theft. Some of the definite ‘no go’ areas in some reports are stunning ‘not-to-be missed’ spots in others; it is hard to know fact from rumour. So far, we can only confirm opportunistic theft or the occasional demanding drunk.

As for Atea and crew, we’ve amassed a wealth of unique encounters in the three weeks since we’ve been here and have been wonderfully well received during our short stay. Our first port of call after Vanuatu was Vanicolo Island – not the image of a tropical paradise with its mangrove lined shores sheltering crocodiles in its shallows. The welcome of the locals in their dugout canoes was a treat, however, greeting us on entry and initiating us to the custom of trade in the Solomon Islands. Want a papaya? That’ll be one used tee shirt please. A hand of banana? Perhaps a spare tee shirt, please? A coconut? You don’t happen to have a tee shirt, please? Tee shirts of any size and any variety are valuable currency and can be swapped regardless of the item under consideration. We’ve exchanged a mixed assortment of fruit for a man’s shirt, and the very next seller had one egg on offer for the same fare. Needless to say, John’s wardrobe has been quickly reduced to a few favourites in a matter of days.

That said, shirts are not the only trade item (albeit the most common). All sorts of minor western goods are requested. Some of those we’ve been asked for include: batteries, fish hooks, sugar, rice, pens, boys shorts, toys, earrings, magazines, solar chargers (yes, in exchange for two pawpaw), swim goggles, packet of instant noodles, matches, pocket knife, DVDs… and the list goes on. We’ve traded a bra and woman’s top (thanks Mandy) for lobster; books and children’s swimwear for all variety of fruit (thanks Glenda); and children’s writing material and books for ‘feather money’ and tapestry (thanks Emma). I’ve come to enjoy this form of barter; the locals make their request and John and I delve into Atea’s lockers and stores to see what we can spare.

And when all else fails, money is still valid currency, although often second best. The price asked is often as incongruous as the items offered in trade, and the seller suggests a price with very little understanding of current market value. My favourite was a simple shell necklace on offer for US$200. I told the seller that his asking price was extraordinarily high, but then who is to judge the going price of art?

Speaking of incongruous affairs, our customs and immigration provided a little drama on entry into the Solomons. As a part of the ICA fleet, clearance had been arranged for us by flying the customs and immigration officials down to Lata so that we could clear in and travel through the southern islands rather than following standard procedure of a straight shot to Honiara, the capital, 300 miles west. A great plan, but thwarted when the officials continued postponing their arrival by plane due to poor weather.

The weather rolled over us during this period, squall after squall of torrential rain cleaning our decks but darkening our moods. We waited in a beautiful anchorage for word that things were proceeding . Each morning we were told, “maybe the plane will land tomorrow.” While on stand by, we nicked ashore for evening social hour, explored the bays and wandered along the beaches, visited the town and socialized with the locals. We were told that we were free to go ashore while awaiting the officials… or was that just our collective assumption?

A festival, or sing sing, had also been arranged for us, so while we waited for the officials to make their grand appearance we proceeded with the scheduled event and went ashore for a spectacular celebration – complete with officious introductions, church song and prayer, and the most fantastic tribal dancing we’ve seen to date. The day ended with an enormous feast and contented, gorged bellies. Braca made his usual impact, and I by association had some fabulous encounters with the women and children of the village. As we settled back in onboard Atea that evening we watched as myriad of dugouts scattered off in all directions, families returning to their villages confidently balanced on precarious wooden dugouts with tots tucked under toe. An epic day.

An epic day followed by a difficult committee of government officials who, finally, made the morning flight. Knowing that we were still awaiting clearance, the local representatives neglected to inform us that the festival was not sanctioned without the completion of proper clearance… We’d not cleared through customs, so we were not allowed to disembark from our yachts until processed. After contentious blasphemous bellowing and threat of heavy fine, we were finally cleared into the country – a week after arrival. Welcome Solomon Islands, you’ve already proven to be an interesting place to travel!

Onward we went – from the southern tip we made our way west up the island chain. Tomorrow we will be in Honiara (the “big” city) to replenish our stores and get a change from the village life we’ve been getting accustomed to.

We’ve generally fallen into the practice of sailing by night, our preference with an infant onboard as it is easier to manage Braca’s safety, and increases our own comfort. By night he dozes quietly in his cot with an occasional request for a quick nighttime feed, leaving John and I alone on our respective watches to enjoy a little time to ourselves. By day it is an entirely different affair with one eye to the horizon and one hand on the helm, and the other eye on a very industrious tot with all other body parts trying to keep him in place. An additional benefit of night passage is that it allows us to make progress in bigger bounds and arrive with morning light for reef entrances, leaving us with longer periods of time within an anchorage. Moving by day means less time to play ashore or to relax at anchor, so Atea is becoming a ship of the night.

Highlights of our experiences have been, by far, the local encounters. There are a number of moments that capture this endearing exchange. One that has repeated itself in every anchorage has been the exuberance of the children, their curiosity, and their willingness to interact. I am not used to our boat being swarmed by bodies, but here no sooner does the anchor go down and you are surrounded by children – hanging on a rich array of floating objects, clinging onto the anchor chain, peering through windows, smiling with wide grins. On occasion we’ve offered up our paddleboards for play, with much excitement, and on rarer occasion we’ve even offered to race them in their canoes. We’ve yet to come close as a contender. One afternoon we spent ashore listening to children play a musical instrument constructed of PVC drainpipes, another guided by a collection of children on tour through their village and another to an inland lake. We’ve been escorted to spirit houses that held the skulls and bones of ancient chiefs on beautifully constructed platforms. We’ve sat through discussions with chiefs listening to personal histories and folklore. We’ve had continuous offers of fruit and vegetable, an on occasion fish and lobster, brought out to the boat every day so its been long since we’ve seen the inside of a store to replenish our food. The problem is, however, lack of selection. The items on offer repeat themselves, and our fresh stores have been reduced to pawpaw, banana, coconut, and yam. While the delivery service is superb, we are desperate for a grocery store selection.

Every Solomon smile reveals red stained teeth and gums, chewing beetle nut a favourite pastime for men, women and children alike. I asked for and was given a demonstration by a cluster of women in one of the markets, amid a cacophony of laughter at my curiosity and growing crowd of onlookers. Beetle nut apparently gives a high akin to cocaine, and involves three ingredients to produce the effect. A green nut is torn apart by the teeth to extract a large white nut inside which is chewed to a mush. A fruit resembling a green bean is then broken into a small piece that is licked to wet the end. This is then dipped in a white powder and added to the nut being chewed. The combined reaction turns the white cud into a frothy red that is chewed, spat, and process repeated by continuing to add the white powder and fruit to the mix. The white powder is a lye which is made by collecting dead coral, burning it down to a coal, then pounding this down to produce the white powder – an extremely potent agent that often leads to mouth cancer and early tooth decay.

We are now three weeks into our allocated time in the Solomon Islands. Placing this country as the draw card in planning our cruising route has been well worth it, a quality destination full of the off-beat and the unique. We have just over five weeks remaining before we depart from these treasured isles, and we look forward to the lagoons that lay ahead of us, some say the ‘pearl of the Solomons.’ Our next stint should see us under the water to explore some of the famous under water wrecks that lay in the shallows within Iron Bottom Sounds. We shall keep you posted!

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Tidal Flow: The Ebb and Flood of Two Months in Vanuatu

 

 

 

Our intention this trip was to keep the posts shorter and more frequent, this seemed a great plan until we realized how sparse Internet connection is in Vanuatu. The only available connection that we have found is in the main towns of Port Vila and Luganville and as Atea has just cleared customs; we are feeling an urgent need to share some of our experiences.

Vanuatu is comprised of a chain 83 islands (69 of which are inhabited) and in its backbone lies a line of volcanoes which are separated from neighbouring countries by the Pacific Ocean and the Coral Sea. The land here is lush, fertilized by the rich volcanic soil, offering a pristine deep forest that blankets the land. Villages are speckled throughout the foliage, buried from view deep within its organic green layers.

Geology and sociology have had a significant impact in the cultural isolation inherent in ni-Van society. The geological makeup separating each individual island by a deep ocean pass was one reason for the lack of inter-island exchange; the second significant factor was the common practice of cannibalism. With the stakes high, few were wiling to take on these risks in order to meet the neighbours. As a result, inter-island exchange was near non-existent and each island community developed independently from each other until missionaries turned dining on human flesh a taboo practice. You can feel this distinction in each island and it makes each stop an adventurous new discovery.

In reflecting on our time in Vanuatu, we summarize the experience into a short list of lowlights and highlights, our ebb and flood of travel experiences. On the low side we include the list of ailments, injuries and breakages collected whilst in Vanuatu waters of which all four of us (Atea as fourth) are included. As follows:

The first incident occurred when Kia became almost totally crippled after her back went out whilst lifting our healthy – but heavy – baby boy. Bedbound and in serious pain, we celebrated her birthday with a heavy dose of painkillers, anti-inflammatories and muscle relaxants. With the help of this medicinal trifecta and slow, cautious movements we nursed her back to heath and mobility. The upside of this was a take-over from John as main parent and an increase in John’s tasks (other than those that require nipples); as a result, the bond between father and son strengthened and Kia’s boys developed a deeper connection through the process.

The next incident involved a serious breakage to Atea’ rig. The forestay fitting parted at the top of the mast, a major disability in boat terms, and potentially a crippling one had we been going to windward at the time if the break. As fortune had it, we were on a downwind sail and were able to set a temporary mast support, furl the genoa and sail for safe anchorage. Safe in the short term however stuck long term. The broken component was a very specific part of the mast rigging and we were an ocean away from a suitable replacement. We got in touch with a rigging expert in NZ to identify and supply a replacement part for the one that had failed, but because of unreliable interisland mail and obstructive customs officials we were up against another obstacle. The network of individuals involved in connecting us to this particular critical freight became a highlight event. In sum, Greg posted our requirements on Facebook and we were immediately connected to three parties leaving for Vanuatu within the week. Another friend, Emma, collected the part and gave it to friends heading to Port Vila, an island town 300 miles south of our location. We organized with a sales rep at Air Vanuatu an intricate handover from a cargo agent in Port Vila to a stewardess on a flight north, who carried the pint-sized parcel in her hand luggage. From there, we connected with a customer service agent at the airport in Luganville who – by miracle – placed the package in our hands. Kia kissed the woman a half dozen times and headed for home, six hours later, by hitching a ride into a packed tourist van to a petrol station then onward on the back of a lorry with six locals and their assortment of belongings in the dark of the night… but that’s another story.

The next lowlight was John’s infected ankle. What started as a minor blister from a wetsuit boot developed into a fully septic and painfully swollen ankle – a very common injury in the tropics, and one that can be difficult to heal in moist conditions. To be told “avoid water” whilst traveling through foreign waters by boat in the tropics…. For God’s sake, get real! We were again blessed with the generosity of strangers who directed us to the hospital to seek out a specific doctor – who turned out to be a nurse – who directed us to the appropriate parties at a fraction of the standard cost. In a “two-for-one” deal Kia received an x-ray for a chest infection she’d been harbouring for a few weeks, a penicillin butt jab for John’s infected ankle and associated medications. The doctor, a Cuban national, was pleased to entertain Kia’s poor attempts at Spanish when general understanding failed in Bislama and French. We were skeptic that we were being treated for the right conditions given the language debauchery, however a few weeks saw medical improvements and so we carry on with Captain and Admiral restored to a respectable standard of health.

A final entry in this litany of woes is Braca’s metamorphosis from “Angel Baby” by day into “Hell Child” at night. Even parents as proud as we are must admit that our darling son, as adorable in the day as he has ever been, is going through a difficult phase at night. Braca’s physical health is strong and he has sailed (pardon the pun) through these weeks with smiles and laughter, more than his parents at times, and oh, what we’d all give for a full nights sleep. But then we did sign up to the world of infanthood and the blessings Braca brings far exceed these minor discomforts.
And of blessings, gifts and marvels, Braca has provided us with many. Since our departure from New Zealand, Braca has gained four teeth top and bottom and sprouted a healthy head of white-blond hair. He has added M’s to his babble for an incessant muttering of “mamamama ma mama,” learned a relatively pathetic crawl and a very competent upright stand. We are now handholding him as he takes brazen steps forward and we all get our exercise in laps around the deck. He is developing a healthy passion for the water in the form of a deck water nozzle, plastic spa-pool, and turtle kicks in the ocean shallows.

He is also learning to be quite accepting of strangers. Young and old, men and women alike show delight when they see our little white boy. Braca is constantly whisked from our arms and taken away by these friendly and family-loving people. While a little disconcerting the first time, we’ve adjusted to losing sight of our son upon arrival at any given village. He’s accrued a lifetime supply of kisses and has a healthy start in the world knowing that he is well doted on by family and stranger alike. Villagers will pinch his cheeks or his thighs and call him “fatty, fatty” to whom I proudly display his routund belly and bulging legs. Fortunately he is too young for a complex and intrigued by the cluster of faces that crowd him.

On the subject of locals, the men deserve a mention for their physique as magnificent athletes. Both men and women alike gape at the hard-bodied men and you can see where they get a solid reputation as warriors. You can also imagine a healthy reputation as lovers when you see the men dressed in the traditional garb of vines and leaves. We visited the island of the Big Mambas and Little Mambas, thus named because of the size of a man’s mamba (penis sheath). John was not averse to visiting the tribes of the “Little Mamba’s” where the penis is wound up in a scrap of leaf tied by a vine around the waist. Despite Kia’s interest, however, a visit to the tribes of the “Big Mambas” was not on the skipper’s itinerary.

While in many Pacific island nations the traditional dugouts have been replaced by fiberglass hulled boats and roaring outboard motors, traditional outriggers dominate the shores of Vanuatu. Men silently paddle up in their outriggers, toddlers underfoot, welcoming us to new bays and offering local produce or a morning’s catch for trade. It is always a pleasant exchange and has often led to invites into the community or their company on deck for an afternoon exchange.

We have also been made welcome ashore within the villages. The ni-Van’s are very friendly, hospitable people and we’ve delighted in the opportunities we’ve had with them. In several island’s we’ve been privy to local dancing and traditional feasts, a local pig invariably served as main course (whose screeches and bellows were loudly broadcasted only a few hours before). We’ve had a unique exchange whereby we were ‘adopted’ into the community by a local family, who offered gifts of woven baskets and homegrown produce. Our ‘sister’ worked at the dispensary and took us on a tour of the clinic; a run down unit in the middle of the bush with little on offer but a rusted metal bed in a overheated cement room and a maternity unit that held stale air, a torn and wilted mosquito net and a cold-metal bassinette for the newly arrived.

Onward in our list of highlights, we’ve been pointed in the direction of human skull and crossbones, the sacrifice unclarified of origin – local dispute, a debt paid, or the last nosy cruiser – and went on a wild hunt for the horrid remains. We were repeatedly reassured that we’d found the site, a secluded bat filled cave tucked up in a small coastal cove, but on clarification the remains have been finally put to rest beneath the sandy surface.

We’ve witnessed the audacious custom of land-diving, unique to Pentecost Island, where men dive from a 60-foot tower to be arrested only inches from the ground by vines strapped to their feet, their head touching the ground in a blessing for the earth and good yam harvest. Another highlight in the category of local custom is the “Water Dancers” of the Banks – grass skirted women who stand waist deep in the ocean and make a tune and beat using only the seawater they are standing in. Who would have thought that water could be whipped, pounded, flicked, scattered and beaten to produce a percussive masterpiece.

We’ve hiked to glistening waterfalls, swam in blue-hole water pools, glided down fresh water rapids – bare rumped and wide-eyed. Of salt-water treasures, we’ve been privy to some fantastic dive sites, namely the world famous “President Coolidge” and “Million Dollar Point.” The Coolidge is a luxury liner that was sunk by an allied-mine during World War II and still well preserved. We were guided through her innards and buzzed with excitement as we floated through ghostly halls and holds, over bombs and ballrooms. Million Dollar Point is an underwater scrapyard from the end of the WWII effort, created when departing US forces left tanks heaped on planes, heaped on ships and jeeps and trucks – all stockpiled at the waters edge on a white sandy beach.

Also worth comment when mentioning deep-sea treasures are the living beasts within the sea. Dugong, also known as manatee, have approached us while on paddleboard and given send-off as we’ve cautiously edged our way through shallow passes. We’ve swum with sea turtle and been surrounded by shimmering reef fish, and even had a five-foot shark take our lure. We were about to wrestle the shark to retrieve our lure on a salvage mission before the line broke – a fortunate event for our intact digits. We’ve dined on delicious tuna, wahoo and fresh lobster – either caught on Atea or delivered to the boat by locals for a trifling sum. Kia’s even been slapped in the face by a acrobatic squid breaking the water’s surface for a quick French kiss in passing.

We’ve sat on the rim of an active volcano and listened to the deep rumble and the firework display of spewing lava – apparently the closest you can get anywhere in the world. I am not sure which was more awe inspiring: Being that close to the boiling pit or the audacious drive up and down the mountain to get there. The drive was an adventure in itself, the truck expertly maneuvered through muddy ruts, near drop-offs and sheer cliffs. Braca and Kia were given the front seat for some false-sense of security while the corralled passengers in the bed of the truck dodged tree branches and held on with white knuckles. The driver became alarmed when we passed two tourists on the side of the road, then settled and made an interesting comment: “It is okay. They will be safe. White people are safe here in Tanna. The Chief told us that they are taboo. ” Well, at least we won’t be served up as dinner in this spot!
And of course, we can’t conclude this entry without mention of Atea and her champion efforts this season. While our cruise last year was plagued by fuel and mechanical issues, Atea has been going well this year and the recent refit seems to have been money well spent. We are well stocked up and living in comfort onboard, aside from the occasional craving of decadent luxuries. The decision to join a rally has provided us with the support and camaraderie that we hoped for, and the group of cruising boats with us provides varied and interesting company. Baby sitters when we need it, drinking buddies when the sun gets over the yardarm and familiar faces around us as we get further and further from our families and home.

And so we conclude our experiences – both good and ‘compromised’ – from our stay in Vanuatu. We’ve recently paid our dues and said farewell to the custom’s officials and so from here we enter the realm of illegal immigrant as we continue our journey northward. For the next two weeks we will unofficially be sailing through Vanuatu waters, stopping in the northernmost group of islands in the Torba Province as we head for the Solomon Islands. As of this morning, our GPS went on the blink and the backlighting has failed us, a significant obstacle in that it renders the screen unreadable. John’s foot continues to seep and Atea continues to weep rust stains down her bow. That said, the sun is shining, the water is clear and warm and we enjoy each day filled with the delight of new possibilities and the potential for unexpected adventures. Stay tuned for our next list of high’s and low’s.

Solomon’s – here we come! Know of anyone heading that way? We’re keen to get replacement GPS brought up in some hand luggage….

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