Monday, June 30, 2008

Rolling along

What a difference a day makes; the wind has been moderating all day, giving, by early afternoon, the resumption of normal trade-wind conditions - blue skies dotted with puffy clouds and 15 knots of SE wind. The seas are still reducing so we've postponed the celebratory papaya crumble again, but we managed to eat well today anyway.

Sometimes ingredient shortages enable culinary creatively to move in new exciting directions; the lack of coconut milk prevented poisson cru, but I remembered the ceviche we first sampled in the Galapagos. Even cooked fish loving Charlotta conceded that some raw fish dishes might be worth trying back home - progress. Ceviche for lunch and the last of the tuna in steaks for supper finishing with banana custard - a dessert I don't think I've had since I was in primary school.

We headed a little more south than necessary over night on our broad-reach so in a brief flurry of activity this morning we poled out the genoa, enabling us to steer more westerly with goose-winged sails. Since then the boat has more or less looked after us. A couple of chaffing ropes to attended to, and a sheered off nut joining the boom to the mast which we'll keep an eye on, but probably won't fix until we find a peaceful anchorage inside the Great Barrier Reef.

Our flying fish count this morning: 2 large 1 small. With our fridge devoid of fish it looks time to dust off the flying fish recipes.

Position @ 19:00 (GMT +11): S13° 14' E157° 59.8'
Distance to Raine Island Entrance: 819
Daily run: 157

Sunday, June 29, 2008

A day of two halves

Up until midday we had nearly perfect sailing conditions; full sail in 15-20 knots with a moderate sea. Soon after lunch we were hit by the first of a succession of squalls and have been gradually reducing sail as the sea has built all day. It's unnerving watching the waves rear-up behind us, looking as though they are about to crash down into the cockpit. Fortunately most pass under us unnoticed, but a couple of times the cockpit has been flooded as waves have either smashed into our side or broken over our stern. Once the flood has subsided, I'll emerge from shelter and survey the boat for damage and check that nothing has been swept away - so far so good. The first of these breaking waves surprised both of us. We'd failed to fully secure the saloon hatch and water streamed through and over a startled Charlotta who was rudely-awoken from an afternoon snooze on the leeward bunk.

As I write this we've passed well to the south of the "Indispensable Reefs". It's always eerie passing these deadly unlit obstacles at night - although the guess work is mostly removed with GPS, there's always a concern, particularly in the Pacific, that the chart was made way before the days of GPS and the reef's charted position, might not accurately represent it's position in the ocean.

We've now set course for the Raine Island entrance of the Great Barrier Reef - 970 miles west. We'd planned to mark the passing of our first milestone, with a celebratory papaya crumble but think we'll wait for slightly easier conditions - hope the papayas will survive. Charlotta's turn cooking today and she came up with a massive (we're still eating it) and delicious tuna risotto - not a raw fish in sight.

With the fridge still well stocked with tuna neither of us fancied preparing and frying up the three plump flying fish that landed on deck overnight - wonder if we'll start wishing for a morning bounty of flying fish as our stores diminish.

It seems we've entered the Coral Sea. Not sure where the official eastern bound is, but I guess it's appropriate that I've noticed as we pass to the south of the Indispensable Reef a 60 mile long coral formation.

Position @ 12:00 (GMT +11) S13° 11.26' E161° 19.3'
Distance to "Indispensable Reef": 44.8
Daily run: 158

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Thundering first night at sea

Most of yesterday and during the night we had overcast skies with short showers which briefly robbed the wind from the area and left the boat rolling on the swell with the sails flogging. Still by manually steering through these calms it was possible to continue making headway and after about an hour of concentration at the helm, the wind returned and the ever vigilant wind-vane could take over again. With cloud covering most of the sky and the moon not rising until after midnight, the night was very dark, with just a few stars breaking through the clouds. With no visible horizon the world seemed to contract around us. That was until lightening flashes in the distance briefly illuminated the sea beyond the confines of the cockpit. The electrical show continued throughout the night. As we got closer, we heard the accompanying thunder which seemed to be transmitted through the water before reverberating through the hull. Fortunately the gap between the lightening flashes and thunder rumbles remained sufficient for us not to be too concerned for our safety, although the flashes got noticeably brighter and the rumbles louder.

The other event of note was seeing two fishing boats in the night. Our radar detector, which has remained inactive since we left New Zealand, started flashing and eventually the lights of the radar wielding boats came into view.

Late yesterday afternoon we caught a decent sized tuna - perfectly timed as we'd finished the last of our fish. That said we decided we should use up some bacon we bought in Santo which had been sadly neglected in our recent seafood bonanza. Seems we're always eating what's just about to go off. We made a mixture of green bean, bacon, potato and yam which could have turned into a hash but we were saved mainly due to the delicious locally cured bacon. Today was been tuna feast day. Last night I used the last of our coconut milk to make poisson cru, which we polished-off for lunch. Even in our most enthusiastic whiskless mayonnaise making moods, it still seems like too much work to extract milk from raw coconuts. We've tried - stripping out the coconut flesh then wringing the milk out of it - but only once. So now our cans of coconut milk are exhausted we'll have to think of other inventive ways to use the tuna. Fortunately we've plenty of wasabi and soy sauce for sashimi but it seems to be an acquired taste - I've acquired it, whereas Charlotta is trying not to acquire it, "you eat THAT but it's raw..". As a comprise tonight's menu was marinaded tuna steaks on rice.Once the showers cleared this morning, we've had a great day's sailing, making around 6 knots on a reach with 10-15 knots of wind from SSE in a small swell. Couldn't wish for an easier start.

Position @ 11:59 (GMT +11) S13° 08.4' E164° 01.7'
Distance to "Indispensable Reef": 201
Daily run: 128

Friday, June 27, 2008

Farewell to Vanuatu

We made our final stop in Vanuatu one of the Torres islands - Hayter Bay, Tegua island. With 50 miles between Ureparapara and Tegua we made another early start to ensure we arrived before nightfall. Initially the wind didn't help us, blowing only fitfully, but once well clear of the Ureparapara we made steady progress under full-main and polled out genoa, arriving with just enough light to pick out a sandy-patch between the coral to drop our anchor. The water in Hayter Bay had some of best visibility we'd seen in Vanuatu - we dropped the anchor in 14m and could easily see to the bottom. There were plenty of large edible fish; large groupers, parrot fish and giant trevally, but we kept the spear gun in the boat as the fridge was full with the lobster and crab we'd caught in Ureparpara and into which we added a small tuna which we landed on the journey to Tegua.

Hayter bay was perfect image of a South Pacific anchorage; sandy beach at the head of the small bay covered in coconut palms, surrounded by lush diverse vegetation with tall cliffs enclosing the bay on the south side. We swam ashore and met a few members of two families living in the bay. We still had some items to trade so gave away some of our t-shirts and fish hooks for the offer of a couple of crabs - enforcing our exclusively seafood diet in an concerted effort to free up some fridge space.
I'm constantly amazed what is possible to trade, in Santa, Charlotta managed to swap a lipstick for a huge bunch of bananas, all the more surprising as I've yet to see any Ni-Vanuatu using any form of cosmetics. She also managed to swap a dress for a couple of phones cards in Gaua. I wish we'd brought more staples in Luganville - all the islands further north seemed to be in need of flour, sugar and rice. Also I'd try to find some old masks and wind-up/shakable torches if I come again. Apart from enjoying the fantastic visibility, we've been busy preparing the boat for the passage to Australia - scrubbing the hull, cleaning the cabins, checking the engine, painting an Australia courtesy flag and washing clothes.I also sorted through the charts we keep handy and searched for those of use on the trip to Darwin. With some sadness I finally put away my NZ charts and pilot guides. I was unusually superstitious about this, keeping them accessible until we were well clear of New Zealand. Somehow I thought that if I stowed them too soon, some calamity would occur forcing us to return. This seems to happen with annoying regularity with tools and spare parts; I think I'm not going to need it, then soon after, I spent half a day unpacking lockers to retrieve the recently stowed part.

I guess it's always best to leave wanting to spend longer, although this feeling is particularly strong with Vanuatu. The sailing has been great, with the next island within sight and a day sail from the current, but it's the humblingly generous, inquisitive, friendly people that set Vanuatu apart from other places I've visited. Sometimes their curiosity results in unanticipated turns in the conversation. A friend related a discussion about the climate and agriculture of northern Europe he'd had with a villager, the response was incredulous, "you mean you don't have coconuts and papaya growing there". Hard to imagine life without fresh coconuts and papaya...

Still we have lots to remind us of our time here, with bananas hanging from the bimini and lockers full of papaya, pamplemoose, lemons, limes, and assorted root vegetables. We've set ourselves the task of finishing them off before Australian quarantine confiscates the remainder.

Our bislama still isn't great, but as usual knowing some of the basics can go a long way. A few more words we've had some fun with:
mountain - bigfala hill
sunny - bigsan
mentally retarded, hafmad
centipede, handredleg
recover, kamgud
swallow, salemdaon
child - pikinini
womb - basket blong pikinini

Seems a little "Newspeak" like, but without the sinister intent. It also seems to be a great language for dyslexics:
tree, tri
taxi, taksi
teacher, tija
water, wota
who, hu
yesterday, yestedei

We've made a slow start, in light winds, but fortunately just enough wind to keep the sails full as the boat rolls on the swell. Although it's approx 2100 miles to Darwin, there are plenty of obstacles/places to stop on-route. Our first waypoint takes us south of the intriguingly named "Indispensable Reef", then we head south of the Louisiade Islands before heading to the Great Barrier Reef and our first planned Australian stop at Thursday Island in the Torres Straights.

Position @ 12:06 (GMT +11) S13deg 15.0' E166deg 13.4'
Distance to Indispensable Reef": 332

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Sola to Uraparapara

If we hadn't promised to deliver Lazarus to Sola on Saturday it would have made much more sense to remain in Gaua. Sola was shut for business until Monday. The anchorage remained horribly roly, despite our attempts to keep the boat's head into the swell with a stern anchor. Still we spent our time productively; washing clothes in the local river, attempting to fix the wind/water generator and for Charlotta trying, unsuccessfully, to find a phone which worked. "Perhaps they'll work when sun has been out for a while and the solar panels have charged the batteries, but perhaps not", "someone from Luganville will come and investigate phone problem on Monday". Mobile telephony is already prevalent in the Port Villa and Luganville and the mobile company is rolling out masts to the remaining islands. It will be interesting to see if it proves more reliable and if so, how that will affect the more remote island communities.

The customs, police (immigration) and bank/post office all opened reasonably promptly on Monday. Along with our clearance we arranged for our passport exit stamps to be post-dated to the end of the month, allowing us to legally visit the northern Torres Islands. We need not have worried about obtaining clearance in Sola, customs would happily provide it, but it might have been difficult to withdraw the anchorage fee from the bank, with no ATM and no working phone lines, so although the bike trip into Luganville was strictly unnecessary we were pleased we organised our fees and exit papers there.

As soon as we had finished the formalities we headed off to Divers' Bay in Ureparapara, 25 miles north. Our course took us close to the appropriately named "Reef Islands" - small uninhabited islands with a large reef extending two miles from the coast. It was a little disconcerting to know that they were close, only to have any useful visibility disappear in sudden downpours. After one of these rain squalls we found ourselves disconcertingly close to the reef. Still the bonus was the abundance of fish. Initially we caught a small yellow-fin tuna. Then we decided to try to catch another fish as a gift for the villages in Ureparapara. Soon after the line went in, we hooked a large mahi-mahi, only to lose it just as we were pulling it over the rail. Clearly our fish-drill ((c) Revision II), still needs some work - particularly our gaffing technique. Just before we entered the bay in Ureparapara our line screamed out again - a massive fish this time - only for the line to break at the reel. Definitely a good place for fish-drill practice.

One of the first questions we were asked on our arrival was whether we'd caught any fish we could share. It seems odd that with excellent fishing close-by, the villages don't appear to have canoes able to catch the large pelagic fish we occasionally manage to land. I wonder if it's because there is no refrigeration in the village - why catch a big fish if you can't keep it. I guess a couple of reef fish easily provides a meal for the family. That said, frequent large feasts appear to be a regular occurrence and what better reason for a celebration than catching a large tuna or mahi-mahi? I'm also surprised that I don't see any sails in use on their canoes. Apparently one area in the north of Malakula build sailing canoes, but still surprising compared with the San-Blas islands where every canoe possessed a small sail, which was used if the wind was in the right direction. In all other aspects the villages are amazingly self-sufficient but in this regard they appear to have no desire to build larger, canoes for sailing between islands and instead rely on the intermittent arrival of a supply boat. In Ureparapara the supply boat hadn't visited for over two months and all basic provisions, that they don't grow themselves, were running low - sugar, flour, matches, batteries, soap etc. Perhaps there is no tradition of building sailing boats as they don't produce cloth. Or perhaps even with sail material it would be difficult to build a sailing canoe that went well against the wind. Final thought, perhaps the lack of desire to sail to other islands is due to fear of the welcome they'd receive - the last case of cannibalism was as recent as 1969.

Divers' Bay in Ureparapara is spectacularly located in the remains of a volcanic crater; one side blew-out creating the bay. Supposedly the view from the crater rim, provided spectacular views of Banks and Torres islands, however the high island seemed to act as a cloud magnet with low cloud obscuring our view of the rim during our stay.

Ureparapara was the first island we'd visited where we were greeted by an armada of canoes. These were attractively painted, which I hadn't seen before either, apparently a legacy of spare paint from an EU funded local school. The salmon pink paint was also conspicuous around the village, used to highlight the bamboo weaving patterns on the sides of the huts.

Our sailing guide says, "Chief Nicholson is a rather boisterous man who is inclined to take over the organisation of your stay in the bay." So when Chief Nicholson introduced himself and I heard Charlotta say that we'd read about him in the guide, and open the guide to show him, I was concerned our stay might end-up being shorter than intended. Fortunately Charlotta realised her mistake in-time and rapidly changed the subject

True to the guide, Chief Nicholson took upon himself the organisation of our stay. Initially directing us from our chosen anchoring spot as reflected waves off the shore gave a roly anchorage. After Sola I was happy to find a more comfortable location, but when we rapidly jammed the chain around a coral head in the spot he guided us to, resulting in nasty shock loads on the bow, I started to wonder about the quality of his information. Still Charlotta dived down to investigate and reported a better spot further out. The Chief was suitably impressed with Charlotta's diving ability; she can stay down and dive significantly deeper than I can. A compromise was reached and we found a coral free spot, clear of too much swell.

The Chief then organised our trading, finding out what we had to offer and what we needed. Although the island was recovering from a cyclone earlier in the year, he assured us that there was enough produce to spare. We also mentioned our keenness for nocturnal lobster fishing and offered him some torch batteries as an inducement. Unfortunately our flour and sugar supplies had been decimated by our mid-summer feast and our hopes of replenishing in Sola were dashed as they had very little themselves. Still we had some spare soap, matches, cigarette lighters, batteries, fish hooks and clothes and in some swift trading we exchanged them for eggs, aubergines, green beans, limes, spring onions, pamplemoose, bananas, papaya and a promise to head out to the reef in search of lobster.

Once the boat was loaded with fresh produce we set off in the dinghy with chief Nicholson driving, Harry, myself and Charlotta as passengers. At the designated spot on the reef, Chief Nicholson remained in the dingy and the rest of us entered the water, Charlotta with the catch-bag, myself the spear gun and Harry searching for the lobsters. This time the spear-gun was largely redundant as Harry was adept at grabbing them before they had a chance to escape. Although on one occassion I chased an escapee; it's movements and appearance made it look as though it as straight out of John Hurt's stomoch in Aliens.

The reef at night appears almost desolate compared to the rich colourful life it supports during daylight. An occasional small red noctural fish swims past, although we've also seen a single eel, squid and eagle ray, looking all the more impressive in the small field of vision provided by the torches. Harry and the Chief were also after fish and for the first time we saw sleeping fish. Very bizarre the way they sleep tucked into a rock at whatever angle will enable them to blend in the best. Shooting a sleeping fish didn't seem terribly sporting, but encouraged by Harry we soon had three large parrot fish in the catch-bag.

The final count was six lobsters, two crabs and three fish. In the water we noticed that Harry was ignoring the tasty red-crabs and we made some half-hearted efforts to grab them ourselves trying to avoid the strong pincers which clamped Charlotta's still recovering finger in Banam Bay. Back in the dinghy we questioned why he ignored them and he said we'd only mentioned we were interested in lobster - you have to be careful not to be taken too literally.

We kept two lobsters and a crab with the reminder distributed around the village. Our two lobsters allowed us further cooking experimentation. The traditional method appears to be to boil them, but the duration in the pot clearly depends on the size. I haven't found any mention of a relationship between weight and boiling time, not that it would be very helpful as we don't have scales onboard. We've tried cooking the tail separately, from the body and legs. We boiled the whole lobster for a few minutes, then separated the tail meat and fried it slowly in butter, oil, garlic and lemon. It is more time-consuming but allows careful monitoring of the cooking progress. We experimented frying the meat for differing lengths and the difference between underdone, overdone and just right is astounding. Underdone remains chewy, overdone starts reassembling the consistency of old-boots, but just-right is almost worth travelling half-way-round the world for. Any thoughts, crustacean loving friends? It's a nice problem to have.

Chief Nicholson was a prolific builder and as well as building a yacht-club, surely the most under-utilised building in the village, he was busy finishing off a shop. Unclear what the shop will sell, but perhaps every self-respecting village needs to have at least one shop and yacht club.

We're currently sailing to Tegua in the northern Torres group of islands. It will be our final stop in Vanuatu before heading to Darwin.

Mid-summer's day in Lusalava, Gaua

Some friends arrived in Peterson Bay, just as we were preparing to leave, telling us of their too close encounter with the coral on the way in. I tried to suppress a rising feeling of smugness when we successfully wove our way through the coral heads and escaped the anchorage with the last of the light. They made up for their navigational error with an admirably laid-back attitude - "we've probably just lost some bottom paint". I'd like to be as relaxed about such mistakes but still have some way to go.

I was looking forward to a easy night sail to Lusalava Bay in Gaua, but it wasn't to be. We started well - reaching into 15 knots of wind - but once clear of the island the swell built up and the wind died. After an hour of dispiriting attempts to sail, I furled the genoa, secured the main, set the egg-timer for half an hour and went to sleep. After a couple of hours of fitful slumber, the wind returned, bringing squally rain showers and giving me a soaking while I reefed the main. Still at least we were sailing. Later in the morning as we rounded the north coast of Gaua I discovered I'd made a tactical navigation error by approaching on the leeward side. I realised too late, that Lausalava lay on the windward side of the north-coast, resulting in three hours beating against the strengthening wind in short-steep seas to make 6 miles along the coast. We took turns alternately helming then huddling under the spray hood to avoid the worst of water from the waves breaking over the bow.

Eventually we found the break in the reef marking the anchorage and slowly made our way in. What a contrast, at the entrance we'd been clinging on to the rolling boat to stop us loosing our footing but quickly found ourselves in a well-protected anchorage with background accompaniment of the surf crashing on the reef protecting us.

The chief came to meet us at the landing spot. After introductions, I attempted to comment on the beauty of the village, but was cut-short, the chief pointing out that we'd yet to be given the tour. After this unpromising start, I think we warmed to each other; I enjoyed his sense of humour, especially as he appeared to enjoy my jokes.

The women from Gaua have created a unique musical form - water music. They splash about in the sea and different sounds emerge as though they're hitting assorted underwater drums. There was much excitement in the village as ten women have been selected to perform at the UN water conference in Zaragoza, Spain in August. Most of the party haven't travelled outside Vanuatu before, some of them haven't travelled outside Gaua. I'd love to hear what they make of Spain and what Spain makes of them.
The following days the children of the village became less wary of us and started heading out to the boat in dug out canoes, with gifts of fruit and vegetables. Invariably the eldest was the paddler and the youngest employed bailing out the leaking canoe. We raided our stores for reciprocal gifts and offloaded oatmeal bars, tee-shirts and fish-hooks.The day following our arrival, the Swedish yacht Eos arrived, this generated much excitement from Charlotta as she was looking for fellow Scandinavians to share celebrations for mid-summer day. I didn't realise the significance of this festival in Sweden. A whole day was put aside to preparing banana cake, lemon madeleines, papaya crumble and home-made mayonnaise.We'd been night fishing the previous evening, with chief Paul, from the neighbouring village. We provided some torch batteries, the dinghy and spear gun and he supplied his knowledge and expertise. In the water Charlotta and I supported Paul with the spear-gun and catch-bag, struggling to keep-up as he beckoned us over to yet another lobster he'd discovered. The final count was ten lobsters and one crab.On the way back to shore I glanced at chief Paul driving the dinghy, it was a dark night, but could clearly make out his huge smile; Cheshire-cat like he'd almost entirely disappeared leaving only his bright smiling teeth.We kept two decent sized lobsters for our mid-summer celebrations and the remainder was distributed around the village.The home-made mayonnaise was my idea to accompany our lobster. Mayonnaise making without a whisk turned out to be a lot of effort and without mild oil, the end result was disappointing. Still the remainder of the food was delicious, we shared most of the desserts at a water music practice session, and then returned to Eos, for lobster, followed by Janson's Temptation and runny chocolate cake. I wonder if the Druids enjoy this kind of feast annually at Stonehenge and do they allow single day membership?

We'd arranged to give Lazarus, the village baker, a lift to Sola (Vanua Lava) for a relative's funeral. On the morning of our departure I met him at the boat landing surrounded by a large party. Not sure if this was a normal farewell crowd or a gathering to get the last glimpse of Lazarus before he risked all on the voyage with the "waetman". He proved a enthusiastic and able crew on an uneventful sail to Sola, answering our questions about island life and pulling all the right lines when asked. We waved him farewell at the beach in Sola as he set off at a cracking pace for his four hour hike across country to a village on the other side of the island, leaving us with a freshly baked loaf and great memories from our stay in Gaua.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Further dinghy adventures in Peterson Bay

Full of stores, water and fuel we made our way 15 miles up the east coast of Santo to Peterson bay. Just before entering the anchorage I noticed that it was Friday 13th, Charlotta pleaded that we should stop immediately and remain motionless for the remainder of the day, instead I chanced all and threaded our way through some coral heads into the calm of the inner anchorage in Peterson bay. We shared the bay with a Belgium boat, Gaia, who cast doubts on our plans to obtain our clearance for Australia from Sola in Vanua Lava, further north. They had managed to obtain a post-dated clearance for Papua New Guinea from the customs in Luganville. To be safe we decided to delay our departure for the northern islands until customs reopened on Monday.

Initially the enforced weekend wait was frustrating, but in Vanuatu days fill-up with planned and unplanned activities and we quickly found we had a full agenda. Peterson Bay contains two rivers leading to blue holes - clear deep springs. The trip up the rivers twists through diverse dense bush until finally revealing a deserted clear deep swimming hole with handy creepers allowing attempted Tarzan impressions into the water. We drifted back down the river through floating hibiscus with swooping swallows overhead and the occasional bright-blue king-fisher - worth the wait alone.As we emerged from the river we were greeting by a couple of fishermen who asked us to pay for our river-trip. Our guide-book warned us there might be some cost, but instead we offered a couple of tee-shirts and a fish-hook, which was happily accepted and rendezvous arranged for the morning for some fruit exchange. At the appointed time we exchanged a couple more tee-shirts for pamplemoose, papaya and bananas and they offered to show us where to collect oysters.

The trick is to take the oysters from mangrove roots, not rocks where they are nearly impossible to remove intact. I mistakenly thought Scandinavians were brought up on a diet of raw fish and seafood, but it appears not, as Charlotta claimed she'd never tasted oysters before. Raw oysters didn't inspire her, but she found them more palatable when lightly grilled with butter and garlic and energetically set to work opening the shells with a heavy hammer on shore. Slightly too energetically, as she soon hammered her finger onto a rock, resulting in a nasty wound that tested our medical kit. I attempted a Bislama explanation to our new fisherman friends, which they correct as: "Charlotta i killem finger blong em wetem hammer. Emi bugerup finger" - Charlotta hit her finger with the hammer, wounding her finger.

When the fishermen heard we were staying for a couple more days they invited us to one of their children's third birthday party, to be preceded by a night-time lobster/fishing expedition. We headed off in the dinghy with Philip, Ricky, Joe and myself; Charlotta staying behind to nurse her finger. Philip and Ricky headed off with the two spear guns and torches while myself and Joe provided the dinghy backup. Joe rowed and kept close to the reef without catching the large swell - "bigfela wave".My job was to take the fish off the spear and reload the gun. The box was starting to fill-up when a sharp fin on a fish, "like a razor", badly cut Ricky's finger - "Fis i cutem finger blog Ricky, emi harem sore." We abandoned the fishing and raced back to shore so Ricky could find some medicinal leaves with the fish-box and contents taken for the next day's birthday.
It seems that in Vanuatu a third birthday isn't simply a chance for the toddler and friends to get together and cover themselves in cake, instead it appears to be used as an opportunity to bring together the extended family and friends. Humblingly we were treated as honoured guests and received the first Kava shells as well the choice from the impressive food on offer.Finally Monday arrived and off I set to Luganville on the folding bike. Three punctures later and turning-down numerous offers of assistance I finally gave-up and gladly accepted the offer of a lift into town. After much waiting and lobbying we have our clearance to Australia post-dated to the end of the month so we can cruise the northern islands unconcerned about the vagaries of the custom procedure in Sola.

Peterson Bay: S15° 22.725' E167° 11.422'

Dinghy adventures in Luganville

We sailed directly from Banan Bay to Luganville, Espiritu Santo, anchoring to the west of the town just after dark. Anchoring is prohibited directly off the town; the warning on the chart reads: "Former mined area in which mines could present a hazard to anchoring, fishing or any form of submarine or seabed activity" - pays to read the small-print!

We raced to Luganville so Charlotta could compete in a 2.6 km swim ( from Luganville to the resort on Aore Island. So while Charlotta was off wining third place, I cycled round town, visiting customs and provisioning for the reminder of our time in Vanuatu and the 2000 mile trip to Darwin, Australia.

The following day the wind and swell dramatically increased making the anchorage uncomfortable and the dinghy trip to the now surf-breaking beach hazardous. Undeterred we continued our provisioning and filled the dinghy with three cans of diesel, two of petrol, a folding bicycle, computer, 24 eggs and ourselves balanced on-top and paddling frantically against the swell. We made it back without mishap and without needing to cook an emergency omelette.

The second dinghy adventure took us to Million Dollar Point with Gif and Patty from Phoenix. Along the shores of Santo the US military built a huge base during the Second World War. At the end of the war, the US forces found themselves with more equipment than they could realistically repatriate and in August 1945 they staged a massive clearance sale, selling a ten-ton truck for $25, a patrol boat for $300, etc. Rumour has it that the Vanuatu government assumed all the unsold equipment would be left behind, but the US forces called their bluff and dumped most it into the sea at Million Dollar Point. Throttles were jammed and tanks, jeeps, ambulances and bulldozers propelled themselves into the water with their engines still running.

I've been wanting some dive gear onboard since we left the UK, but always seemed to have other priorities, however slowly from cast-offs and boat sales, I've patiently been acquiring the missing pieces. The completion of the enlarged cockpit locker in NZ finally provided storage for a tank. In Port-Villa I aquired the final piece of my dive gear - a tank harness and bouyance device straight from the early Jack Cousteau films. So with some excitement I got to try them out, and in the experienced company of Gif and Patty, who lent Charlotta some spare gear.We set off with our dinghy loaded with myself, Charlotta and my dive gear. Our 8hp outboard wasn't powerful enough to plane the dinghy, with this load, so Gif offered to take Charlotta in their 15hp powered dinghy. Unfortunately this merely swapped the problem. I was pondering how I could suggest trying a different combination of crew without hurting any feelings, when Gif, obviously more experienced in these matters than myself, found a face-saving solution and transferred another tank to our dinghy. With this optimal loading we both made fast progress to Million Dollar Point.

Initially we appeared to be diving on an indistinct scrap heap, however slowly the shapes of trucks, tracked vehicles, fork-lifts, bulldozers and the wreck of a ship could be distinguished from the mass of bent rusty metal. The tyres appear to last longest while everything else was slowly disappearing and being colonised by coral.I'd hoped for a some green military paint with "US forces" in white letters, but instead enjoyed the diverse colourful coral fish who have made the dump their home.
It seems a shocking waste that the equipment wasn't left to the inventive Ni-Vanuatus. We've seen steel matting used by the US forces to construct bomber airfields, dug-up by the locals and shipped around the islands to use as racks for the coconut husks in cobra production and old plane wings used as water tanks; imagine what use would have been made of all the surplice equipment if it had been left intact by the departing forces.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

RIP Humphrey Lyttelton

I see from the bulge in the comments section that we have another letter from a Mrs Trellis of North Wales. She writes
Dear Mr Knox-Johnson,

Oh dear, well you've brought it on yourself haven't you dearie. No boozy celibration as you head up the Thames for you eh. Would have voted for Ken again if it wasn't for the newts. Oh well chin-up keep that hair bleached, can't stand coloured roots myself.

Yours etc

Mrs Trellis (North Wales)

Friday, June 06, 2008

Cultural sensitivity in Banam Bay

We've swapped the somewhat roly anchorage with inquisitive turtles and dugongs in Lamen Bay for a perfectly calm anchorage with dolphins and flying-foxes (giant bats) in Banam Bay, Malakula Island.It was difficult to drag ourselves away from the wonderfully hospitable, generous people of Lamen Bay. We left with the potato locker full of assorted varieties of tuber, a big bunch of bananas hanging from the bimini and enough giant pamplemoose to keep us going to Australia.

However in Banam Bay we've also been welcomed by amazingly generous people, and have received gifts of green peppers, cucumber, more pamplemoose, big bunch of "island cabbage", papaya, coconut and some giant beans that resemble long-thin cucumbers.

Today being Sunday we were invited to Church. Here some differences emerged between myself and Charlotta. Although an atheist myself, I thought a Church visit would be an interesting experience and show a degree of respect to the cultural values of the village. Militant atheist Charlotta, appeared to find the idea of church an anathema, but after some persuasion reluctantly agreed to join me (if I was being unkind I'd swear I saw the sulky bottom lip of a reluctant child appear). We were welcomed and given a seat near the front, a hymn book in Bislama and two bibles in English. The service followed the usual pattern; prays, readings, hymns, announcements, most of which we struggled to understand, although we could follow the hymns, and became swept along by the enthusiastic singing. I think Charlotta felt some justification towards her stance when my bible opened at an old-testament passage comparing foreign women to narrow pits and condemning them as thieves.

Afterwards we joined the church elders and a line formed to shake the elders, then our hands. We'd planned to walk to a waterfall after the service, but instead were invited for lunch with the village in which each family had prepared laplap and we were given a choice from each. The selection included laplap made from taro, yam or cassava, with fillings/toppings including, pork, fresh fish, canned fish!, octopus (my favourite), island cabbage and beef.During the feast I asked more about the waterfall and thought I detected some hesitation. Further inquiries revealed that a trip to the waterfall was felt inappropriate for a Sunday. It seems that Ni-Vanuatu people don't want to displease you by giving a contrary answer. We experienced this problem in Lamen Bay when we invited Isabelle to the boat for supper, she readily accepted, but I thought I detected some conflict, and on further questioning revealed that she was also invited to drink Kava that evening with some visiting dignitaries and she gladly postponed our invitation to the next day.

I'm sure my friends will readily agree that I don't always have an abundance of sensitivity, but feel that after experiences in Cook Islands and Samoa that one should adopt a policy of caution toward Sunday activities. Inquires about the waterfall, "is it OK to visit the waterfall today" receive a "yes", however asking, "should we not go to the waterfall today", elicits, "yes better to go tomorrow". It's difficult to phrase a non-leading question. Charlotta concludes that each answer has equal weight, and that our missionary ancestors are to blame for strict Sunday adherence so it's about time we undid some of the damage they did. I adopt a precautionary policy not wishing to cause offence and not go. The same problem applies to swimming in the pool at the falls. "is it OK to swim" gives "yes", asking, "do you take your drinking water from the pool so perhaps we shouldn't swim", also gives "yes", again I would choose not to. Charlotta is looking forward to a fresh-water bath and would prefer not to ask the question which would prevent her from having a wash....

That said, hypercritically we're off to look for lobster tonight with some of the villagers. I'm sure fishing isn't a Sunday approved activity, but I legitimise my act of Sabbath betrayal as I expect only the four of us in the dinghy will ever know. That is unless there is some omnipotent being who takes offence to Sunday lobster snaring....
Banam Bay: S16°20.32' E167°45.45'

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Waterfall trek/wild pig hunt

We'd heard mention of an impressive waterfall within walking distance of Lamen Bay and originally planned to trek to the falls on my birthday, returning to a modest birthday feast and an early night. Fortunately Isabel had other ideas and persuaded us to save the trek for another day.

Enquires in the village, gave us time estimates varying from one and a half to four hours each way, although a frequent response was that that it was a long way - apparently not good a sign. Undeterred and after a day to recuperate from the festivities we headed-off in the dinghy, shortly after first light, for the neighbour-but-one village - Alak. We soon had the usual intrigued gathering around us, helping to lift the dinghy clear of the surf and tide, then launching a search party for the chief who introduced us to Andrew, Jeffrey and Philip our guides for the day.

Off we set with Jeffrey setting a cracking pace and accompanied by his five dogs with the rest of us following behind and attempting to keep up and not stumble on the damp slippery jungle floor. The dogs remained quiet during the trek, apart from a brief interlude when they harassed a feral cat cowering in a tree, when suddenly, after three hours trekking, they came to life. They'd found a wild pig and the hunt was on. Quickly branches were cut and machetes transformed into spears then Jeffrey and Philip disappeared into the jungle in pursuit of the dogs.We waited until the excited barking and encouraging yells from our former guides disappeared amongst the undergrowth. Andrew confidently told us that we'd all meet-up again at the waterfall, so our depleted party headed off on the increasingly overgrown "path", Andrew leading and setting a more sedate pace as he cleared the way with his machete.
As predicted we'd spent about 20 minutes at the impressive 200m waterfall enjoying a power-shower and lunch when the others arrived euphoric and full of tales of the chase.
It didn't take too long to retrace our steps and find the pig, which was speedily butchered for ease of carrying. Off we set again with Jeffrey carrying the bulk of the carcass, Philip carrying a leg and head, Andrew taking the remains of the carcass and a leg and Charlotta and I carrying a leg each.

The return journey was noticeably slower, Jeffrey still leading, but making frequent rest stops. Even the dogs seemed exhausted, sleeping as soon as we stopped. I enjoyed the easier pace, but still counted down the sights we'd passed; seven river crossings, treacherous slippy section next to a sheer-drop, two large banyan trees, copra production shed, a couple of mango trees, three cows etc.
I imagined that we'd stroll into town and be greeted as returning heros with Charlotta and I earning our place in tribal history with our leg carrying efforts. In the event, half a mile before the village we were greeted by fellow villagers and gradually pig parts were offloaded, we gave up our legs and Jeffrey and Philip headed off in other directions. When we arrived in the centre we had nothing to mark us out as intrepid pig hunters and returned to the dinghy unnoticed. Still a great day's trek and finished with a delicious roast dinner courtesy of the generous hunk from rear right leg we were given. How about that for food-traceability? I doubt even London's wondrous Borough Market could match....

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Turning 40 in Lamen Bay

Isabel took celebrating my birthday seriously; she wasn't interested in simply organizing a cake and meal in the evening, no, she'd planned a whole day of activities culminating in a feast with half the village.

The festivities commenced at 7am with a trip in the back of a pick-up truck to her family’s garden. The trip was memorable for the occasional low branch which threatened to decapitate the unwary, the drive along the grass runway where we waited for the plane to take-off and the diverse lush green bush we passed through en-route.
Isabel happily answered our gardening questions as we dug the dinner yam, picked the laplap leaves and attempted to recognise different varieties of yam, cassava, taro, kumara, kava, laplap and nuts. By the time we'd returned, laden with fruits and vegetables, the birthday pig had been dispatched.
In my mind, there's a big difference between the concept of a roast pig dinner and actually seeing the pig laying motionless but still warm on the grass. Still no time for sentimentality in Vanuatu, so the next few hours were spent in its preparation working with Ambata burning and scrapping off its hair under the watchful eyes of some older neighbours who frequently chipped in with advice, "tutting" and a few chuckles.A brief lunch then back to work, heating pumice stones in the fire, placing a few of them wrapped in laplap leaves in the pig's belly then weaving a coconut frond protective basket around the pig before covering it with the heated stones, plants, sheets and finally earth.

While the pig was roasting, Charlotta and Patty (from Phoenix, another yacht in the anchorage) were learning how to make laplap - lots of yam grating, though they both escaped the hard work when they grated their knuckles one too many times. After adding grated coconut the mixture was wrapped in laplap leaves and placed in its own heated stone oven.

Isabel is one of two female members of parliament and while the food was cooking she gave us some great insights into Vanuatu politics, the parliamentary system versus the traditional village organization as well as answering questions on the status of women in village life from Charlotta and Patty.

The preparations finished with the kava making, and when we returned a feast had appeared on the table including two birthday cakes; one from Charlotta and one from Vanessa, Isabel's daughter.Isabel took charge of the proceedings and I found myself in a bright island print shirt with speeches made in my honour by Isabel, the youthful chief Willy and the pastor during which I was presented with a garland of flowers, a walking stick (as I'm an "oldfela" now) and a fan (perhaps I'm smelly as well as old?). All very humbling and somewhat overwhelming given the effort everyone had made.

Each crew from the three yachts in the bay, were applauded as we downed kava and tucked into the meal to recover from the dishwater taste. Meanwhile the men disappeared for serious unlit shirtless kava drinking and the remainder of the guests tucked into the feast.

Thank-you once again Isabel, family and friends for welcoming me into your family and organizing such a memorable celebration. Your generosity, kindness and friendship has made our stay in Lamen Bay one of the highlights of the trip.

Lamen Bay, Epi: S16°35.73' E128°09.81

Monday, June 02, 2008

Lamen Bay, Epi

We just made the 60 mile trip to Lamen Bay, on Epi before the tropical darkness descended on the anchorage - the transition between day and total darkness takes less than 20 minutes.

Our guidebook mentions a large friendly male dugong (sea cow), who has made Lamen Bay his home, so at first light the next morning (5.45am), we were both in the water looking for aquatic Friesians. What the guide failed to mention were the large number of turtles who also seem to enjoy munching the sea-grass covering the bottom of the bay. We've thankfully swapped monster baracuda of Ouvea for a couple of turtles who have made a temporary home under the boat.
Enquiries ashore turned-up that the male dugong has decamped to Lamen Island a mile to the west to be with some female dugongs. Fortunately I'd spent some of the morning fixing the outboard, so with the full-range of throttle available to us once again, we set off to the island. After an hour searching for what I imagined to be large doggy-paddling creature, Charlotta was in the water freeing the dinghy anchor when she spotted a female dugong swimming with her calf. The visibility wasn't that great so we kept losing her, but for a few minutes she circled us - no doggy-paddling in sight just the usual aquatic fins, with a cow like face. As the weather was deteriorating, we headed back across the water determined to have another look tomorrow.

I've spent the last week dropping less than subtle hints about the type of birthday cuisine I'm looking forward to on the 3rd June. I've tried to instigate the idea of practice sessions and raise my own game in the galley so that we reach a peak of culinary excellence to coincide with my birthday. To this end, when we arrived in Lamen Bay, I made poisson cru from a small tuna we caught on the way here and "lemon chiffon pudding cake" for dessert. Delicious. The result is that tomorrow we're off to Isabelle's garden to pick some veggies and fruit and then in the afternoon create lap lap in her house - not sure what to expect, but I'm sure it will be memorable. Isabel was one of the many friendly villagers we met whilst exploring ashore.

Lamen Bay, Epi: S16°35.73' E128°09.81