A birthday and the Banks group.
Espurito Santo was good to us.
We had stunning weather and good friends to be with.
Dinners together under star lit skies with gentle warm breezes blowing to cool the heat of the evenings.
Beaches and blue holes, wakeboarding and dislocated fingers and a special birthday for our 10-year-old daughter! Where does 10 years go? It feels like a blink of an eye and here she is, as gorgeous, hilarious and witty, determined, kind and generous as anyone could wish a daughter to be.
As time has marched on the last 10 years, that have flown, so has time been marching for us in Vanuatu.
We had spent several idyllic days in Lonoc Bay, with Waterhorse sitting pretty in 4.5m of azure blue water. Lonoc Bay was a dream, a true sight for sore eyes.
We walked and played in the softest sand we have seen yet, and bought bread off the old lady in a hut, down a lane filled with flowers.
We had a bonfire and marshmallows on the beach for the birthday girl and explored some of the area when we walked to Behov’s Secret Garden on the day of Emelia’s birthday.
This was a sprawling garden a man has set up over the last 10 or so years on his family land.
He took us for a tour to the 10 attractions he was showcasing. Coconut crabs and how to catch them, fish that were caught in a natural tidal pool as the water receded that we could feed, a bat cave that has no bats anymore after an earthquake cracked the back open (but was still equally as stunning as if there had been bats) and many of the plants that the Ni Vanuatu grow for medicinal purposes. We learnt about Kava and saw his Sandalwood trees dotted around the garden.
His family cemetery was also here, and he explained the heathen customs (his words) of when someone died, which was fascinating to hear. People were buried in their house, under the floor. A period of mourning was taken by the women in the house with the deceased for days, then the whole village came together for a feast, to honour the women who had done the mourning. The house was then shut up and never used again. Left to rest with its inhabitant, forever crumbling back into the dirt.
It seemed like an extraordinary amount of work to have set this place up. He is an older man, who must work tirelessly to maintain this beautiful place that few tourists would make it due to its isolated location.
All in all, Lonoc Bay was one of our favorite places and it was hard to leave, but leave we must, as we needed to get away from the ever-present ash cloud that was hanging around, blowing toward us on the trades from Amebae and her eruptions.
We left Santo, from Hog Harbour and sailed north for 7 hours, 7 bumpy but fast hours to the bottom island of the Banks Group, Gaua, or as it used to be called Santa Maria.
This area is very remote and few boats or tourists come here.
Pulling into a black sand anchorage, with little visibility due to passing squalls, and a chart that has you basically driving onto the land was an interesting experience.
A lady was paddling in her dugout with her 2 young daughters. We called out to her to see if there were any reefs to avoid and the dugout rapidly paddled toward us, with her giving us the lay of the bay.
We had caught a fish on the way in and gave it to her. Our freezers were still full from shopping in Luganville. She had been fishing with her small daughters and their only catch was several tiny reef fish. She was delighted! Dinner would be taken care of for the entire village that night, not just her immediate family with the fish we gave.
Once anchored we had another visitor from the other tiny village in front of us. Apparently, there were 2 in the bay. A large one, the Big Village and a smaller village of 5 families. John from the smaller village had come to greet us. He told us it was his son’s birthday tomorrow and they were going lobster hunting tonight, did we want any?
Of course, our answer was yes and we agreed we would happily take a couple off his hands in return for whatever he wanted us to trade with him.
The Ni Vanuatu are this way. They don’t want money in these islands, they want to trade for practical things.
We made a plan to see him either tonight or tomorrow morning with the lobsters and make a deal.
Morning rolled around and we were greeted with a stunning sight, the water that the night before had been dark and uninviting had magically transformed into some of the clearest water we have seen off of a black sand beach. The 11m to the bottom was like looking through a window to another world. Every patch of sea grass was clearly visible. It was a delight for the children who eagerly jumped in.
Soon John came by. He had caught the lobster the night before but it had got late and he hadn’t wanted to disturb us at 8pm, so had taken them back to the village and cooked them for us to make sure they were still good in the morning.
This thoughtfulness was another indicator of the kindness of these people.
A trading deal was struck, fishing set ups with line hook and sinkers and some clothes for him and his kids plus a little bit of pre-mix petrol for the one longboat with an engine that we had seen on the beach.
We gathered all the goods to trade and headed into the beach to meet with him and his family.
We were eagerly greeted by about 15 children, running down the black sand from the shelter of the giant Banyan trees to see us.
It must be something amazing to suddenly have a family from another country pull up in your bay and come wandering ashore for these kids – and adults alike – who don’t fly on planes around the world or have internet or head off for the weekend to some other destination in their car.
These islands are remote. No one has cars, none of the islands have many roads, no one goes much farther than their own island, or even village area. Everything is done within the confines of your family and village, sometimes extending to the Kastom village gatherings, but this is generally the extent of it.
We spent several hours in there. The kids playing soccer with Noah’s ball we brought in, handball with some little bouncy balls we took to give away and then our 3 being taken on an adventure to the Big village down the beach to eat mangos off their humongous trees.
We sat with the adults. I chatted with the women, mostly with Chief’s wife, Susan, who was a mature and knowledgeable lady and spoke excellent English. She was less shy than the other ladies. Susan had a book to keep record, a visitor’s book as such, for all the yachts that have passed in the last 3 years. There weren’t many.
Chae tried to fix the village’s only speaker, and we ended up coming to more trading arrangements for bananas, eggs and beautifully woven baskets in exchange for more clothing, sugar and rice.
When they heard where we were planning to go that afternoon we were asked to take a woman and her 17-year-old son with us, as she needed to see a doctor and the clinic was in the bay we were headed. Of course we said yes, how can you refuse?
The trip was a short one, 2 hours or so and Una and Augustus were delightful to have on the boat. He was the eldest of 5 children so was a perfect older friend for our kids. The 4 of them sat drawing, reading and mucking around for the trip. He was fascinated with the kid’s national geographic magazines and the number of books we have.
She was content to sit outside with Chae and I and watch the world go by.
Both were very interested in how the boat sailed and worked, as they had never been on a boat like ours.
I made lunch for us all and we sat together and shared a meal.
The trip came to an end as we approached the fringing reef that held the bay we were headed into. We anchored and dropped the dinghy to take them to shore.
Greetings at this village were the same, with very welcoming and curious people.
We said goodbye to our new friends as they walked up the rocks by the beach to the medical clinic, which was somewhere behind the trees in the ‘big’ village.
2 days and nights were spent in this bay, tucked in behind the reef which gave us calm and clear water.
We caught up on some school (never enough…!), ordered the things we needed online for the upcoming visit of Chae’s parents while we had internet, swam a lot to get out of the oppressive heat and tried to snorkel, but sadly most of the coral was colorless and grey. Dying from the heat of the water maybe or the pollution of the world finally getting to it all.
From here, we headed north again, leaving with the morning light to aid the pass through the passage and before the daily squalls picked up, to the island of Vanua Lava. Another bumpy and fast 4-hour sail took us to the western side, hooking a shark on the way was the only bit of excitement.
The kids we fascinated to see a shark up so close and we happily let him free to live another day.
The twin waterfalls that head the bay we were to stay in came into view, we slowly inched our way toward the shelter of the black sand bay while watching a large pod of spinner dolphins playing around us. The dugouts were sitting fishing and watching them too. It was quite a sight.
As in the previous villages, a boat is a huge source of interest and excitement. Our arrival means trading prospects for the village people and also a glimpse into a life filled with things we may think is basic, but they probably dream of.
It often makes me think, coming places like this, how we feel we dialed our life back so significantly to move on board, selling and giving away most of our possessions and taking what we think were the bare minimum.
Yet we are still living on a vessel that has 2 water makers giving us as much fresh water as we could ever need, which runs out of taps when we open the faucets.
We have solar panels and battery banks to provide us with power whenever we need.
We have electric lighting at the flick of a switch, appliances like a toaster, coffee machine and blender.
We have dry beds, and clean sheets that we launder in our full-sized washing machine along with fridges and a freezer.
These folk have none of this, yet they are the happiest and most kind people we have met. Maybe there is something greater we should be learning in this…
A man named John (another one!) and his sister, Anna-Marie, were the first to the boat, asking if we had caught any fish. When we told them about the shark their eyes lit up, until we said we had let us go. They thought we were completely mad! I guess if you are living off the land and sea in remote areas, you keep what you can catch in your dugout canoe and if that happens to be a shark then so be it.
They offered us fruit and veggies for trading along with the local specaility of Fresh Water Prawns from their Twin Waterfall. Yes please was our eager response, so John and his sister left, promising to come back in the afternoon with goods to make a trade.
In the meantime, we swam in the cool deep blue water and sat staring at the incredible le scene that lay before us.
The bay was like something prehistoric. It was lush and green, vines dripping down the mountainside, the sun streamed down on us allowing the water to turn transparent and we could watch the fish swim below the boat.
Soon John and Anna-Marie were back. Dugouts filled with tomatoes, spring onions, mango, banana, tiny delicious capsicum and a bucket of fresh water prawns she had just caught for us, squirming in the bucket trying to make a break for freedom.
They wanted clothing and fishing gear in exchange. We provided it and everyone left happy.
The afternoon passed with many visitors to the boat. Local children interested in our kids and adults all came for a look at the ‘white man’, as we were called, in our boat.
We tried to get some school done but the interruptions were so frequent not much was achieved.
Come evening, they all paddled back to their villages and we set to the task of cooking and shelling the bucket of prawns.
It became a hilarious family affair, with much laughter and mess and ended with a delightful meal. They were certainly very tasty! We felt spoilt as we went to bed that night.
The next few days passed in a blur of torrential rainstorms.
We left to visit the waterfall and meet with our new friends again to go to the village but had then to leave back to the boat when the first downpour started as several of our hatches were left open. Wet beds are never a good thing!
The rain continued throughout the night and well into the next 2 days. Our water tanks were filled many times over from our buckets we had out to collect it.
I thought often of the local people and wondered how dry their houses were in a situation like this! I was incredible glad to be sitting in our watertight boat.
As it let up one day we decided to go out for a spot of fishing. Our fishing game has not been strong in Vanuatu. Sure, we have managed to land a few big fish, 2 Wahoo very early on in the country, and Chae got his dream GT, which we let go as it was so monstrous we decided it may not be so good for eating. All we wanted was a tuna, we had been eating tuna by the bucketful in Fiji, catching 1 or 2 almost weekly and so were getting desperate to catch a fish again!
Well catch a fish we did….an absolutely enormous Sailfish, that flipped and leaped and jumped around like crazy, across the calm water during the torrential downpour.
It was magnificent. I have never seen such an incredible looking animal and as it came alongside the boat, Chae leaned down to flick the hook back out of its mouth. We all decided very early on that we would never keep a Sailfish. I would be too upset to have to kill something that stunning.
It swam around the back of the boat for a few seconds then dove back down to the depths where it came from.
We had one other strike on the line, but whatever it was got off before we got a chance to bring it in. We were fishing failures again.
We have maybe 2 more weeks in Vanuatu. We will be meeting Chae’s parents in the Solomon Islands in early October and are now looking toward checking out and continuing our trek North, to even hotter weather and hopefully less rain!
We will explore the Torres Islands on our way North and just hope we have enough t shirts and fishing lures to keep us in fruit and vegetables.