Efate – Vanuatu

I didn’t think we would ever lose our mojo on this trip but I’m afraid that is pretty much what happened in these last three weeks.

We had an easy run from Tanna up to Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu on Efate. We left within an hour of Tika and Stop Work Order. Tika saw a pod of Humpback whales at the entrance to the bay; we, of course, saw zip! It was good watching Stop Work Order in all her glory smash passed us as we transited Mt Yasur heading up the coast of Tanna.  The overnight sail N was tedious and sloppy. We even had a couple of hours with no wind. 20 miles offshore, there was a hole to the W of Erromango. We ran into it and Time Bandit had the same issue. We both thought we would be far enough downwind to be clear of any island effects. We were wrong. Stop Work Order went to the E of the island and had a far better run although they did have a far bigger sea to contend with. You make your choice and pay the price….. Vanuatu

We did have success with the rod again. A lovely Yellow Fin Tuna took the bait. About 10kg, it fed us, Stop Work Order and Lionheart of Clyde comfortably. Eleanor, on her last passage took charge of the gutting although I did the filleting.

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Port Vila is the capital and is a booking in port. Having had permissions to ignore the Customs and Immigration Officers of Tanna, we stuck up the full regalia of flags as we approached the excellent harbour. We anchored at the yellow quarantine buoy at the N end of the bay close to Stop Work Order and behind Lionhart of Clyde. Booking in was easy, if a little disjointed. The immigration office is in the middle of the town in a somewhat beat up office undergoing refurbishment. Customs is by the cruise ship dock a few miles around the bay. Both staff were excellent and quick. We paid our $50 for entering the country at Tanna and then an extra $60 for the letter required from Immigration to allow Louise to re-enter the country after she dropped Eleanor off in Sydney.

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We decided to go along side at the Waterfront Marina as the price difference between a ball and alongside was $5 a day. With the added convenience of never ending water and an walk off/on to the dock and town, it was an easy choice. It gave us the opportunity to try and clean the rest of the volcanic dust off Skylark.  We had noticed that even with all the buckets we had had used, a black sheen still reappeared every morning. What was worse was the port winch had started to get v sticky. When I took it apart to check it,  it was clogged up with the black powder, requiring a full clean. Not a difficult or time consuming job (I actually find it rather satisfying) but once you have done one winch, you know you may as well do the lot. They were all clogged to a greater or lesser degree. The boat got to smell of diesel for an afternoon but the winches always sound so good running smooth afterwards! 

Lou found the laundry lady and we offloaded all the sheets and most of the wardrobes for a good hot water clean. Prices were reasonable at $8 an industrial load with a line dry and fold in the price.

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The sea front at Port Vila is undergoing a huge facelift. With the majority of tourists arriving with cruise ships and few escaping the town centre where all the tax free shops are, the town has been investing in making the centre prettier. The walkway around the sea front is a pleasant boulevard with grass gardens to decorate it. It formally opened whilst we were in Port Vila to the backdrop of a concert and fireworks for the great and good.

I’ve got to say that the sea front is not representative of Port Vila. Just a few hundred metres inland and you find shanty housing with no electricity and no obvious sanitation. I understand the need to attract the money of the tourists but it doesn’t seem to go anywhere to the public good.

The kids found the play park and we enjoyed translating the signs in the local lingo, known as bismala, as we toured the shops. You have the choice of Chinese made tat at bargain basement prices or the tax free shops with high end goods and little else. However, there were several high quality ice cream shops so we stayed happy. Bar One, an excellent little eatery which showed films projected into an outside screen a couple of times a week was a good find and the new Thai noodle restaurant just around the corner is well worth a visit too.

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One place you did see locals was at the market, half way along the high street. Vibrant, cheerful and noisy, there was a good variety of fruit and veg on offer. Prices were set and were on a par with the Fiji market of Savusavu even though the average wage here is less than in Fiji. The one thing very noticeably different between the populations is the far smaller number of overweight individuals and increases in gleaming white teeth. I had a conversation with an Australian dentist on this peculiarity. She suggested that the diet in Vanuatu remains a basic local one which does not include the sugar based products now so liked (and affordable) in Fiji which causes a brown discolouring. A lack of processed sugars in the diet means whiter teeth and a leaner people.

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On 25th Aug, Eleanor said goodbye to Skylark and started her journey home to the UK. Lou was to travel with her as far as Australia and a friend was kindly going to look after her as she moved the rest of the way back to Granny Joyce and the Tuckers in the UK. It started badly. Getting to the counter to book in for their flights, we were informed that we had no clearance to travel to Australia.

“But I’m British. I don’t need a visa to travel to Australia”

“Sorry, Mrs Henderson but you do”

“No I don’t!”

“Yes you do……”

On the basis of not fighting the pink and before she said something inadvisable, an irate Lou was sent off to look up the rules on the internet whilst I paid one of the desk agents large amounts of money to right the wrong and get us a e-notice approval from Aus Immigration. That done, a still fuming Lou at the indignities our colonial friends had heaped on her, departed after final cuddles with Eleanor.

Lou was away for a week. I had originally thought of travelling N to join up with Tika and a few others at the Ambrym festival but we would have had to leave that night to get there in time. In the end we sat at Port Vila, having fun at the market, working out interesting spicy soups and dishes to make, something not really possible with Eleanor around whose inability to handle real heat is well known.

Scotch Bonnet chillies to the fore! Hannah had great fun experimenting and produced (with a little help) some excellent fare.

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We also did the touristy bit and with Lou away, explored the town in detail and hit the ice-cream shops a bit harder than we would normally do.

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Of course THE big event was the McGregor/Mayweather fight and Hannah and I enjoyed it in the company of the owner of the one micro brewery in Port Vila. I think Hannah was the youngest there by some way. She caused some amusement by announcing loudly that boxing was stupid and spent her time reading and rolling her eyes at the idiocy of her father and new friends whilst we shouted our support!

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We also got in a little more formal education. We had been told about the National Museum in Port Vila and the man who drew pictures in the sand. We went to visit and I am so glad we did. Edgar is the resident sand drawer, the traditional method of telling stories handed down the generations. Still practised in the outer isles, Edgar suggested it is an art form that is just about holding on. It was wonderful to watch his techniques. You start with a rectangle split into segments and then, never removing your finger from the sand, tell the story and emphasising the story with the drawing, never using a straight line. It was beautiful to watch and had us and some appreciative local ladies entranced with his expertise.

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Hannah just had to have a go and after we had looked around the museum she went back to the sand board. Edgar, seeing her interest spent half an hour giving her a private lesson which she loved. I’m not sure she will remember how to do the turtles or lizards she drew, but the pig using E, e, M and two W is firmly fixed in her mind! Our thanks to him for a great afternoon’s education.

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Hannah had a go at the Vanuatan traditional wood instrument, made up of pipes vibrated by hand. I’m standing beside the senior chief of the island’s totem pole, carved with five heads to show his  status. The more heads, the higher the status. Note the cut in the wood which allows the pole to be used as a drum.

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One morning as we walked in to town we went past a crowd of people washing kava roots. We stopped for a chat and ended up meeting Johnathan Napat, the owner of the business. Life is sometimes swayed by small things. After he mentioned he had a sandalwood plantation and I said I never used anything else other than sandalwood soap to shave with, he smiled and offered to show us around his estate in the hills. As well as growing sandalwood trees, the estate also grows a large amount of kava, fruit and veg (he directly supplies the public hospital of Port Vila) as well as another couple of exotic hard woods loved in the Middle East, used for expensive inlays.

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We had great fun looking around and learning his thoughts on doing business in Vanuatu. As the son of one of the Vanuatu original government ministers at Independence in 1980, he offered a fascinating insight in to the realities of life. We sadly didn’t get to meet his Mum, an English lady and obviously an adventurous soul,  who moved from England in the 50’s and stayed to marry his Dad. She must have had an interesting life. Remember Vanuatu’s last known occurrence of cannibalism was 1969 so it wasn’t a civilised country when she first arrived!

He also gave us an understanding of the land rights and naming rules for those born in Vanuatu. Your name describes exactly where you are from. Think of a hand. The main island is split into five segments and each segment is split, just as your fingers are, into three parts. Each of these segments have a number of allocated names for men and women so simply giving you full name describes where you are from, be it by the sea, inland or the hills and your mothers family ties through blood. A man is the tree, tied to the land he is born on; the women are doves and may go where ever. Beautifully simple.

Since independence, only citizens of Vanuatu may own land. If you are a foreigner, you may lease land for a period not exceeding 75 years, used because it is the productive life period of a coconut palm. Johnny has a large track of land which we is continuing to clear. Ultimately he intends to split his efforts into several separate businesses. His sandalwood stock smelt amazing. He is working hard to bring his production techniques up to international standards to allow tracking down to individual trees and plant level, required when the produce is used for medicinal purposes. He is a man on a mission and doing well.

We didn’t manage to hit the small library in town but Hannah was happy visiting the magazine counter in the very good supermarket mainly used by the ex-pat community at the top of the hill. Kindle is great but having a real book in your hands seems far more satisfying!

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Lou arrived back having packed Eleanor off and we continued to feel pretty flat with her gone. It didn’t help that I caught some sort of horror bug which left me coughing my guts up and voiceless too (sometimes not a bad thing, I’ve been told…) , meaning that my planned diving had to be side lined too. We wombled around, tidying the boat, getting some school done but not really enjoying ourselves much. After so much time together, we realised we were missing a vital cog and, I’ll admit it, we missed the arguments!

Saying that, it wasn’t all navel gazing. Just outside Port Vila there is a river walk through the rain forest up to the Mele Falls. We visited it twice, once without Lou and then a second time with the Cerise and Cameron from Stop Work Order. It is well worth a visit. The pools are lovely and the falls beautiful. The view back down on to the bay is pretty good too.

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We decided that we needed to move on and, on the basis that we wanted to see as much of New Caledonia as we could without having to double back on ourselves, we decided to join the Island Cruising Association (ICA) Rally. A roundtrip affair from NZ, we had seen the Rally in a couple of ports in Tonga and Fiji. We realised we actually met the organisers, Amanda and Nigel,  all the way back in Opua in November 16 when we had given them a lift to the shops in Kerikeri. By joining the Rally we could cheat and enter New Caledonia via the Loyalty Islands as the Rally would organise for the Customs and Immigration team to come out to Lifou to clear us in. We signed up, got the battle flag and prepared to leave.

We had time for one last show. We had been told of a fire show at the Beach Bar near Hideaway Island, six miles outside town which came highly recommended. Craig and Aron from Reoa had seen it as they moved N through the islands and thought it a very good evening. We took a taxi out to the bar. It went the slow route by way of a number of shanty towns on the outskirts of Port Vila which was a bit of an eye opener. 

The bar was full when we arrived and the beer and food was going down well. We ordered pizza after watching them being made in the wood fired ovens at the side of the bar. The show was fantastic. We did have an interesting conversation with one local who suggested not going too close to the front as “ even if they are getting better, they still sometimes set some of the audience on fire”…… I thought it was a joke until I watch one lad jump up when an overly large spark landed in his lap! Health and Safety doesn’t exist here yet.

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The few kids in the rally, spurred on by our own little entrepreneur decided on a money making venture before we left to add some pocket money to their accounts. Here we have the kids from Kena (Annabelle and Olly), Varekai (Ella) and H (the smart one holding the money….) out selling cookies, friendship bracelets, necklaces, etc, etc. Over a couple of afternoons, they made $78US which Lou collected and converted into XPF for New Caledonia spending.

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We didn’t do Vanuatu justice. What we can say is we enjoyed it for the first few days in Tanna when we were all together. Losing Eleanor to the reality of school and the UK kicked a bit of stuffing out of us.  I think we all realised as well that our own idyll was coming to an end all too soon.

We left Vanuatu with lots of company for the short sail across the Coral Sea to Lifou, one of the Loyalty Isles in our last country to visit this time around, New Caledonia. 

Time to buck up and enjoy it whilst we could.

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