Vanuatu – excitement overload…

Trying to scare the visitors….πŸ˜€

We sailed into Port Resolution in the southern Vanuatian island of Tanna at about 9pm in the pitch black! There was no moon, no stars and no lights from the land so we just dropped anchor and hoped for the best. The next morning we moved deeper into the bay and realised what a wonderful anchorage we had chosen. There were only a couple of other boats who had also come from Fiji.

After breakfast we headed into the village. We met Stanley who is the self proclaimed agent for Vanuatu and he called the authorities to come and check us in. We spent the morning with him and some other guys from the village who were trying to fix an old car. They only have one car in the village so regularly cruisers help to fix it as we tend to use it as well. One of the other cruisers mentioned that she had a sewing machine and next thing all these sewing machines came out to be fixed! Some were beyond repair but some were fixed up well enough to be used again.

Tanna used to be quite a hub for cruisers with a ‘yacht club’ that served some meals and drinks but since Covid it had fallen into disrepair- we were the first group of cruisers to come through since 2019 so hopefully it will all start working again – the villagers rely on cruiser donations and we love to support them so I’m sure it will be up and running next year.

There is nothing in village in the way of provisioning- sometimes you can trade for some vegetables but to get anything else it’s a 2 hour rough 4WD journey to Lenakel on the other side of the island. The customs guys met us at the yacht club and then drove us over to Lenakel so that we could get SIM cards and get some Vanuatu cash to pay them. It was a fascinating drive as there had been massive flooding and the roads were in a terrible state – huge pot holes and whole sections washed away. We bumped and bashed our way across the island picking up many locals on the way – most of whom were known to the customs guys. Lenakel is a smallish town with a central market and not much else. Stanley had come with us and he showed us where to get what we needed and then arranged with a other guy to drive us back. It was at this point we realised they hadn’t stamped our passports so we arranged to meet the immigration guy again on the way out. We then had paperwork completed and passports stamped on the back of their ute!

On the way back we again had a bunch of locals jump in the back – this time though one of them had a 6 week old baby so the dad just opened the door and gave him to me to carry – he was adorable and so good but a bit surprised to be sitting on my lap!

The landscape changed dramatically from lush jungle to barren volcanic rock. The main attraction on Tanna is their active volcano Yassa and the landscape around it was eerily moonscape like with no vegetation at all. The volcano dominates the region and we called in on the way back to climb to it’s summit where you can see and hear the eruptions.

The incredible landscape around Mount Yassa

We were joined by another cruising family and headed up to the summit. I had been to a few volcanoes – but this one was by far the most exciting. The loud roar every few minutes followed by an eruption of red hot lava was quite frightening at first and as the sun went down it got more impressive. The only safety was a young guide pulling her bare foot along the dirt about a metre from the edge leaving an indent in the dust with the instructions not to stand over the line! I couldn’t even go that near but had my selfie stick so I could take some photos. We stayed for a while until we got cold and then left with our ears ringing from the loud roars and memories of being the closest to a live volcano people can get. A bumpy journey back to the beach to find our dinghys ended a very adventurous day.

Mount Yassa in all its glory.

We couldn’t spend long in Tanna as our daughter Emily was flying into Port Vila a few days later so we bade farewell and headed to a small island further up the chain en route to Port Vila. We called into the small village of Erromango on Ontovin Point and were promptly visited by the local chief who invited us to his home. He makes his living by acting as a local guide and giving cruisers lunch in his home and so we spent a lovely day exploring Erromango.

Our guide and village chief.

We were shown all that the village had to offer including the school, the clinic, the church and the river that they got their water from – they are pretty much all subsistence farmers and as with most islands, their children go off to boarding school from 11 years. We ended back in his house which has flags from all over the world adorning the ceiling donated by cruisers. He is justifiably proud of his ‘club’ as was thrilled to have some cruisers back. As Vanuatu only opened a few weeks ago after the COVID shutdown we were the first but hopefully many more will now come through. We gave him some milk powder and sugar as well as some cash which he was very happy with.

The village river where they get their fresh water from.

Mike’s club with all the donated international flags

A couple of days later on our way to Port Vila we not only caught a big Mahi Mahi which we landed but also caught a marlin, but as it was thrashing on the end of the line it got away! I was not quick enough with the camera but we were not unhappy to lose it because friends on Tanna had landed a marlin and it had ripped their canvas sides on its way into the boat. A marlin was way too big for us…

Our Mahi Mahi – a special treat for Emily

I was really excited to arrive in Port Vila as I was going to see Emily after 3 long years… We celebrated our 36th wedding anniversary at the yacht club and the next day headed out to the airport. She walked through the gates at about midnight and it was hugs all round – it was so fantastic to see her again and we stayed up till past 3am talking – very happy campers on board.

Another celebratory gin and tonic with raspberries

We spent a few days in Port Vila visiting the markets to provision for the next 3 weeks. We bought some reef shoes and stocked up on meat but hope to catch some fish as well. The markets are large and well stocked and we even found some raspberries for our drinks. They use homemade baskets to keep their produce in and there are no plastic bags which was nice to see.

Their homemade baskets on display.

Emily unfortunately gets quite seasick so we didn’t want to have to sail any long journeys – the weather gods were kind to us and gave us gentle winds so we slowly headed off to the Maskelyne islands calling into some small bays on the way.

Just before we arrived at Peskarus we caught another Mahi Mahi so Emily made some cervice for lunch – we are eating well on this trip…

When we arrived at the anchorage we were invited by another cruiser to go and drink Kava with the head of the village. We hadn’t tried Vanuatian kava and and been told it was stronger than Fijian kava so wanted to compare. There were a few guys there as women don’t drink Kava except for visiting women and so Emily and I were the only girls. The kava was really quite strong and Ian and Emily were encouraged to have a couple – I abstained! They said they felt their lips tingling and felt quite light headed. We spent a delightful evening chatting to the villagers, most of whom had visited Australia in their youth to work on the fruit farms for a couple of years to get enough money to return to Vanuatu, buy a house and get married. They had fond memories of their years away but said they much preferred the village life of the islands.

The village of Peskarus

All kids enjoy lollipops!

The next day Rob took us around the island – he knew everyone and he even took us to his parents home where he grew up. He showed us the fruits they eat which just seem to grow everywhere but he assured us that they were all owned by someone. We visited some of the eldest villagers who are well looked after by all the villagers. We ended up having lunch in his home- a typical Vanuatian lunch of fish, papaya, rice and eggs. His wife gave me a beautiful mat made of rags which were twisted tight and wound round and round. We had given the village some clothes and we think that these mats are probably made from some of the donated clothes- I wonder if any of my old dresses will end up as a mat!

A Maskelyne house –

My beautiful mat made from rags

That afternoon we went out with another guy from the village to look for Dugongs. We didn’t see any and unless we were right beside them we would have missed them because the water was so muddy. We spent a couple of hours looking but gave up in the end.

The next day we went around to Sandwich Bay to see if we could find a dugong. This time we were in luck and saw a couple in the water but couldn’t swim with them because again it was too murky to see anything.

We slowly made our way north to Luganville the main town on Espirito Santo – the second biggest island in the chain. We had a few glorious nights all by ourselves in stunning anchorages – walking an the beaches and finding abandoned houses which we suspect were a result of COVID.

We visited a couple of villages giving the kids footballs and lollies. They loved seeing us as they had had no boats visit for a long time. They walked along with us and one young boy of about 10 told me that they had buried his father yesterday up on the hill. I asked how he died and he replied ‘witchcraft’ He told me his mother lived in Port Vila and he would now live with his grandfather. I felt so sad for him but he seemed quite accepting of it. We found out later that he had died of cancer but any illness untreated is called witchcraft.

All the kids walking us back to the dinghy

We arrived in Luganville and anchored off a resort which added an element of western luxury to our journey. That evening we took the dinghy in and enjoyed a cocktail beside the pool. The resort was devoid of tourists but the Australian army were there and so it was full of young soldiers. The resort was a few kms from the town so we decided to go in the next day.

Luganville is much smaller than Port Vila but still has the large market in the centre of town and a couple of supermarkets. I had seen some shopping baskets in Port Vila that I liked but there was nothing like that in Luganville – in fact it didn’t really cater at all for tourists. We found a nice cafe for lunch and a hotel that had a happy hour which we thought would be nice for dinner but other than that it was very quiet.

We decided to dive the Million Dollar Point dive. An interesting dive as when the Americans left Vanuatu after WW11 they offered all their jeeps and equipment to the French and British at a low price but the English and French knew they couldn’t take them back and assumed they could just help themselves after the Americans had gone so the Americans just dumped millions of dollars worth of supplies into the water. Jeeps, Tractors, Guns, Trucks, Bulldozers etc… over time these wrecks formed a magnificent reef covering a huge area in crystal clear water. We booked the dive for the following week as all three of us have got the sniffles and we assumed we would be better by then.

We found a village just outside Luganville that performed local dances and showed you how the Vanuatian villagers used to live. Ian was not feeling very well so Emily and I grabbed a taxi and headed off to find the village. The village comprised of the men’s hut and the women’s hut- they were always separated. Everyone was dressed in traditional dress and one lady spoke good English so she told us all about how they used to live.

We were given a display of how they made fire using sticks. I had seen that before but they produced fire in about minutes… We were given kava (of course) and told about boys initiations. The women’s hut was similar but they don’t make the fire so a man is allowed in only to make their fire and the women have to keep it going day and night.

Two young warriors

Kava and more Kava!

Emily and I drinking Kava – yuk…

The men and women both performed dances for us and then the women showed us their famous water music. These women have taken this performance to Australia and Fiji and are well known. They stand waist high in the water and bang down hard making a hollow sound – they beat the water in time and it literally sounds like music. Each musical performance represents a different story which was explained to us as they played.

The men and boys dancing

The ladies performing their water music

One wet morning we decided to go out for lunch. It was a Saturday and we thought somewhere would be open but we were disappointed that everything except the supermarket was shut. We met some Australian ex-pats who told us of a restaurant a few kilometers out of town that did a great lunch in a beautiful setting and would we like a lift to it. So we piled into their Ute and went to this restaurant. It was gorgeous overlooking the bay and we got chatting to another couple who told us that they ran a vanilla plantation and would we like to visit. We were thrilled and said we would visit in a few days.

We had the brilliant idea of flying Emily down to Port Vila from Luganville which would give us an extra 3 days and she would not have to do anymore sailing, so we bought her ticket and organised for her to spend the night in a hotel before flying back to Australia.

The next day we upped anchor and headed off to find the bay that Chris had told us to anchor in. We found it easily but it was too shallow so we anchored in the next bay and dinghied back and found Chris waiting on the beach for us. He then took us on a tour of the plantation. It was interesting as Chris and his wife Paula manage the whole place and are experimenting with other products. They run cattle, have a holiday house for rent, grow all sorts of vegetables, citrus trees and pepppercorns for steak sauce. He also had tried various other crops like avocadoes but the soil was wrong. Originally from Zimbabwe, he was very interesting and we were very impressed with what he had achieved. He showed us the process of producing vanilla and how it’s packaged and marketed along with how the peppercorns needed special conditions to get the flavours.

The Venui vanilla plantation

Chris showing us the top quality peppercorns

The next day we went back to meet them both for coffee at their holiday house. Set high up overlooking the private beach and the bay, we had coffee on the verandah and heard all about the cyclone that had gone through a couple of years ago and stripped all the foliage from every tree on the estate. It had decimated the crops and put them back years. They had worked so hard to get it back to production and they were winning. The holiday cottage had been a very good idea and was quite lucrative – they had done a fabulous job including a bath on the verandah with a view to die for. They are heading to Perth in the not too distant future so hopefully we can catch up again

A bath with a view

Their private beach below the holiday house.

We spent another night in the bay snorkelling and beach walking. It was so peaceful and private but we had to think about heading back to Luganville as Emily only had a few more days. On the way back we stopped at another secluded bay and spent a day on the paddle board, eating big meals and swimming. It was a lovely day but that night there was a thunderstorm and at 3am one of our biggest fears came to fruition…. We were struck by lightening. Ian had already put all the portable electronics in the oven – ie the computers, phones etc and Emily was sitting up in the saloon watching the lightening. When it struck our mast Emily felt her heart racing and she was quite worried. She was actually sitting right under the mast and we think she may have taken some of the force – she was ok after a while but it was scary. The next day we found that all the items in the oven were ok – so that’s a good thing but that anything at the top of the mast was broken. We lost our wind instruments, our navigation lights and our satellite communication. Luckily our autopilot and inside instruments were ok and Ian thinks it may have been because we have a stainless steel wire that hangs in the water acting as a lightening conductor. People have often asked what these wires are for and when we tell them they look a but surprised and ask if they work. Until this happened we really didn’t know but we are quietly confident that they had something to do with saving a lot of our electronic gear.

We were now down to one engine, no nav lights, no anchor light, no wind direction and no watermaker! Good job we are heading back to Australia.

We visited one last island before heading back and found lots of wrecks in the bay. There was also a small hotel about to open up and they invited us to come and look around. Emily and Ian still had a blocked nose so we sadly cancelled our dive at Million Dollar point and went back to spend the last day or so in Luganville.

One of the wrecks just sitting in the Bay

Our last day enjoying the beauty of Vanuatu.

We got back to Luganville around lunch time and went into town to check out of Vanuatu as Emily was flying down the next day and we were heading straight to New Caledonia. It took a few hours to sort out but we were all checked out and set to leave so thought we would stop for a spot of lunch and spend a lazy afternoon by the pool at the resort. We passed the Air Vanuatu office and called in just to check that everything was ok with the flight. Luckily we did as they told us it had been cancelled! No other flight until Friday – 2 days away. We had no option but to sail down but we had to leave there and then.

We rushed back and set off. The one thing we hadn’t wanted was for Emily to have a long sail and now she faced 36 hours of rough conditions. Poor thing chucked the whole way down. I had some strong anti-sickness drugs which gave her a bit of relief but she had an awful time. Couldn’t eat or drink, felt terrible and kept chucking. We pulled into Port Vila at 10pm and got her into a taxi at 4.30am to be at the airport for 5am. We went home to get some sleep and she texted me at 7am and said there was an hour delay. We found out there’s only one aeroplane working at Air Vanuatu so she had to wait for that plane to return from wherever it had gone… she was worried about her connection to Perth. 4 hours later the plane flew in much to everyone’s relief but then she texted me and told me it was on fire!! They put out the fire and the 150 passengers boarded but she did miss her connection so had to spend a night in Sydney and fly home the next day. Our brilliant idea of flying her down to avoid sailing fell flat and Emily ended up taking over 3 days to get home….. not the best journey!

Putting the fire out on the plane!

After we knew Emily was safely on her way we set off for the 250nm sail to New Caledonia. Vanuatu had given us so much excitement – volcanoes, lightening strikes and fires on planes but it had been a wonderful country and we had really enjoyed it but now it was time to go our last country before we hit Australian shores – can we really be that close?

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