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.

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