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….


2 Replies to “Tidal Flow: The Ebb and Flood of Two Months in Vanuatu”

  1. Craziness, and I do plan a 4-5 day excursion through the San Juans with Daughter Tiona, Son-in-law George and three kids all on Pene, that’s the highlight of my excursions. We did get 1st in class and 2nd overall at Swiftsure, but Wiggle Room is not doing so well, I may need to retire from that sailing.


  2. Great to hear you guys are having such awesome adventures… and manageable misdemeanours. We’re cruising along, although I am starting to get a bit tired of the winter chill. Is it too early to start counting down to Spring?

    Olivia has just cut her first top tooth so that’s a grand total of 3 now. And while she has been happy just sitting and watching the world revolve around her, she’s been making some fancy moves that look like she intends to crawl pretty soon.

    Take care, and keep the updates coming

    Cathy x


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