December 1, 2012

Back to Vanuatu


We set sail from the northern most Loyalty Island of Atoll d'Ouvea after spending 6 amazing weeks in New Caledonia for a 200 mile sail back to Vanuatu in the 3rd week of October. The weather had been stormy all week and we were having a rough crossing the day we left and were being slammed by crazy big waves and 25 to 30 knot winds. The weather didn't stop me from fishing though and several hours into the trip we had a huge fish on the line. After an hour and a half of fighting this monster in the rough seas I don't know who was feeling worse, the fish or Daria and I. Downtime was being tossed around by the 12 foot waves and I was fighting one of the biggest fish I had ever had on the end of a pole! The fish would take in seconds the hundreds of feet of hard fought line that took what seemed like forever to reel in. At one point as the 40 foot leader finally started winding on the reel we got a mere glimpse of this 7 foot shinny silver/blue monster before he made one last run under the boat and cut the leader on the rudder. My hands were bloody from being slammed against the rail and my arms ached from the constant pull of this monster but I was somehow glad that he managed to get away because it would have been several more hours of hard work to cut him up and put in the ice box. Well that's the story of the fish that got away….

The seas and winds did not let up as we bashed our way to Port Villa on Efata Island, the capitol city of Vanuatu. Needless to say we arrived tired and hungry since neither Daria or I had much of an appetite due to the rough weather on the sail over. We dropped the anchor just in time for a big rain squall to wash the salt from Downtimes decks and found ourselves ready for something to eat and a long nap.

Port Vila is a one of the major cruise ship destinations in Vanuatu and there is a new ship on the dock 6 days a week. This would also be one of our last chances to get provisioned at any major grocery store for the next few months. The supermarkets here were well stocked and we did some major shopping during our stay. This would also be one of the last chances to find a decent restaurant and we tried a few with mixed results. The best was a French restaurant that has been there for 40 something years and the food and service was amazing. They also had a few local delicacies on the menu one that I will most likely never see again, Flying Fox (Bat) and the other wild pigeon. Daria just had to try the Flying Fox and she said it tasted a little gamey. I passed on even trying…. We had been seeing these amazing creatures flying over the islands since Tonga but this is the first time we saw one on a menu. For the main course Daria had a plate full of slipper lobsters and I went for a pasta dish and a cup of French onion soup.

It rained almost every day during the week we were there and it made shopping miserable. On our last day we went to the local vegetable market and stocked the produce fridge on Downtime and were ready to set sail and explore the northern islands of the country. Too bad we were still too early in the season for mango's , we seem to always be just a month early in the last few islands we have benn?

While I was stowing everything and preparing before we set sail I checked all the lockers and to my surprise found 2 inches of diesel covering the floor of the fuel locker! I have to say I was not a happy sailor at this point! One of the stainless steel fuel cells must have cracked on our sail here? Luckily I was able to pump the fuel off the floor and through a special filter we have and put it back into one of the two undamaged tanks. Now that the mess was cleaned up we had to decide if we wanted to spend another week here getting the tank fixed or brave sailing the 1000 miles to Kiribati with 100 gallon less fuel aboard Downtime? We raised the anchor and threw caution to the wind and headed to the next island. It is what it is after all….

Our first stop was just 15 miles to the north and we anchored on Eretoka Island and went for a dive. Unfortunately being this close to a major city we did not see very many fish left on this reef. The water was in the mid 80's, crystal clear and it sure was nice to be diving again. Later that afternoon we continued up the bay in hopes of spotting a Dugong ( a large plant eating mammal related to the manatee) known to live here but we not so lucky in spotting one and dropped the anchor along Moso Island unknowingly in a marine preserve. With the boat safely anchored we went ashore to the Resort and spoke with the manager about diving and he told us for $200 he could arrange a diving trip and for another $30 we could see their turtle preserve. Well in my mind for $30 I can buy 2 six packs of beer throw my dive gear in SD and go find our own turtles! So thanks but no thanks…This is a country where people make $2 an hour after all? We thought oh cool there should at least be some great diving and snorkeling here in the preserve right? Wrong! The coral here like many other places is being killed by over fishing and The Crown of Thorns (a coral eating starfish looking thing) . The preserve is just the start of the long process in getting the reefs to heal but it will take many years to restore centuries of damage that has been inflicted on them. What happens to many reefs is that the locals catch ALL the fish. Some of those fish are the house keepers and some the builders and with no one cleaning the reef gets covered in algae and coral suffocates. that's my opinion…..No fish=No Reef

In the morning we continued sailing north and attempted to stop at Emae Island but the combination of the wind direction and lack of accurate charts made it too dangerous for us to attempt anchoring there. We were finding more and more that our chart plotter was not very accurate and was offset by up to a few hundred feet from island to island. Our back up plotter was not much better and it was a rare occasion when they both agreed on the exact same location?

We had just 3 hours of daylight left and navigating at night was out of the question and we had to find a place to anchor. We motor sailed 12 miles north to Epi Island. The pass between the two islands was were two tidal currents met and the ocean had wild waves crashing into each other as we sailed through. We anchored on the SE side in a bay to our selves next to stunning thousand foot high rock cliffs. In the morning we took SD back to explore a few the small islands that we had missed in our rush over the afternoon before. We were looking for a place to dive on out lying islands, but found just one point close to where we anchored and Daria was able to snorkel with a turtle.

Lonely Planet said there was another Dugong preserve on the north end of the island and we motor sailed our way up to go search for them. The winds were still out of the S-W and the anchorage on the west side was not going to be too comfortable so we found a spot out of the wind on the north end of the island in a small bay. This turned out to be a very special anchorage with a view of 3 active volcanoes! As the sun went down and the sky darkened the clouds above the island of Ambrym began to glow and amazing orange color and there was a faint glow over Lepevi Island which is shaped like a huge inverted cone. We have seen several volcanoes here in Vanuatu, but being this close to so much energy and power just never gets old, I found myself staring at them for hours….

The next day the winds settled down and we were able to take Downtime around the corner to the west and anchor in front of a small village. We were welcomed to the village by the chiefs daughter Wendy and her brother who came paddling out in a dugout canoe. We gathered our gifts and went ashore and met the village Chief and the village traded vegetables and fruits for hats, tee shirts, toys and candy. There were about 150 people living in this village. While we were talking with the villagers an American came walking up and it turned out he was a peace corp. volunteer from Minot ND of all places! This was his last day of a 2 year commitment to help the villages on the island and later that day he would be flying home to the snow and ice. We asked him what he had accomplished in the last two years and basically he said things in the islands move really, really sloooooowwwww and a few things were in the works but not much has been achieved. Later we took SD in another search for the illusive Dugong to no avail…Lonely planet claimed these were easy to find and friendly? After our search we set sail for Molekula Island just 20 miles north.

 We dropped the hook in Gaspard Bay on the south end of the island after a near miss with a coral head on our way in (darn charts)! The bay was part of another marine sanctuary but anchoring was permitted and we found ourselves surrounded with some of the thickest jungle we have ever seen. The vines here were growing wild on the mountain sides covering everything including the palm trees!

We set the anchor and we immediately started seeing turtles surfacing for air all around the boat. Turtles to me are as interesting to me as volcanoes and it just never gets old watching them. Oh there's one! And another! Too much fun!

In the morning we lowered SD and went to see the rest of the sanctuary. The weather was nice and warm and we brought our snorkel gear and set off for another adventure. Along the way we stopped at a few nice reefs and saw some beautiful coral and fish. We headed toward another village and on our way found three boys going out fishing in their dug out out-rigger canoe and we gave them hats, shirts and candy. On another small island we found a large sign with a map of the reserve and we discovered we were anchored in a Dugong feeding area! We raced back to go search for this illusive creature!

Finally we were in the right place at the right time and got a glimpse of these wonderful mammals! But we soon found out that watching Dugong's is like watching turtles race, they only surface every 20 to 30 minutes just long enough to get a breath of fresh air and back down they go. At least your anticipation builds while you wait for that brief sighting….the rest of the time you are wondering which way are they going and are we still in the right spot? OH well Dugong's are off the bucket list!

Our next stop was Ambym Island the home of the two active volcanoes we had been watching for days. The anchorage on the N-W side of the island just next to Ranwakon Point which provided good protection from any southerly winds but was wide open to the north. The village here is small but has several guides that will take you to the volcanoes and do a 6 hour hike through the lava fields to the crater.(weather permitting) Daria went ashore and booked the trip for the following morning and we hoped for good weather.

It had rained most the night and by morning the clouds were breaking up and we thought the hike would be a go. I took Daria to shore but the guide had decided it was a holiday due to the elections going on, so no hiking today or the rest of the week for that matter? Oh well….With the hike canceled we decided to go check out the north coast in SD and drove east along the black sand beaches in search of the inland lake that was supposedly just 6 miles away. The beaches here have the most amazing sand, pitch black with shiny specks that sparkle in the sun! Oh and the sand gets burning hot from being so dark so shoes are a great idea! Along the rugged coat we set the anchor and swam to shore to ask a local where the lake was since we were totally lost…he told us we needed to go two more miles and then hike inland a half mile. We anchored in a small bay with the beach to ourselves and once ashore we headed into the jungle along the path in search of the illusive lake. Well either Lonely Planet went to a different lake or we were in the wrong spot again….the lake we found was covered in algae and not "spectacularly" clear but the hike through the jungle was interesting.

Election time here in Vanuatu is a BIG deal and everyone gets involved. There are big parades, marches and lots of parties for weeks. The percentage of people voting here has to be much greater than back home.

Daria was not able to hike to volcano, but she did a good job to giving away coloring books for kids and costume jewelry to the women back in the village. In exchange the local people brought for us a big bag of mangos! Yummy! We finally have mangoes!

The snorkel in this bay was amazing and Daria thinks it was one of the best spot in Vanuatu because of contrast of colorful fish with bright mushroom corals growing out of black-black sand bottom with crystal clear water! Simply amazing! It's a shame our underwater camera didn't work!

We set sail back to Molekula and anchored in Port Stanley an met Carl one of the only people in the small village who did not go the mainland to vote on Uri Island. He paddled his out rigger canoe out just after we anchored and asked us to charge his two cell phones. In the morning he came back out to get his phones and brought us bananas and popo (papaya). We asked him if he could find a few lobsters and he offered to take us along to catch them. We dove on a few coral heads nearby in the bay and within an hour had caught two nice sized lobsters! Carl made it look easy and knew exactly were these spiny creatures hiding places were. In trade we gave him a set of snorkel gear and a Downtime hat.

The next island to the north is Santo where we would clear out of Vanuatu in Luganville. We had trolled lines for days and just before the pass we finally had a hit over a sea mount just before the pass and landed a nice Wahoo. We made our way through the pass and picked up a mooring ball at Aore Resort just off of Aore Island for $15/day next to our friend Paolo on Super Mario who we had last seen in Fiji.

Luganville is the second largest town in Vanuatu, but nothing special, the dingy dock costs $1000 ($10 US) for 4 hours, but at least someone is watching it for you. We went ashore for lunch and to check out the markets since this would have the last shopping of any kind before leaving Vanuatu.

We would also need to top off the diesel tanks here before we left with duty free fuel at just under $5 per gallon US price.

Getting fuel was an adventure in itself…..We had to first clear out. This involved going to the Customs office and filling out clearance papers, then to the harbormaster to pay our fees(about $100) then we were able to get a duty free form for fuel. We then had to bring this form to the fuel station (they said just 2 kilometer down the road) actually 2 miles……We walked…At the fuel station we had to guess how many gallons (Liters) and we needed and pay in advance for that amount… then make an appointment for delivery…Back to the dock master to pay dockage fee for fueling another $45... and then back to customs to let them know when the fuel was coming and let them know when we would be leaving. Wheeeww!! Well…the fuel was to be delivered at 4 pm and we were tied to the sea wall were the cruise ship would be docking in 12 hours and patiently waited. And waited…..Finally a little after seven the truck showed up and the fun began. Our friends would fuel first and had tied along side Downtime and we drug the two inch grimy fuel hose across our deck and they began fueling. The truck operator dispensed fuel 5 gallons at a time and we needed a abacus to keep track of how much we received! At this rate to took 45 minutes to fill Super Mario and then it was our turn. I told the guy to give me 100 gallons (400 liters) to start with and fueling process went much faster until the time the tanks were full and we still had 30 gallons left. It was either take it or leave it with no refund so we decided to put it in 5 gallon cans. I got to tell you filling 5 gallon cans with a 2 inch hose in California would be a environmental disaster on the front page of the LA Times. I wrestled the hose and was able to get the majority of the fuel into the cans and finally this messy job was finished.

In the morning we went back to town to the fresh market to get out last supplies with sunny skies overhead. Daria got all the produce shopping finished and I brought it all back to Downtime and went the Customs dock to finish clearing out while Daria got a few last items at the supermarket. About the time she got the shopping wrapped up and most of the people were debarking from the cruise ship the skies darkened and it started to rain. Not just a little rain but a deluge and everyone was scrambling to find a place to get out of the rain. There we at least a hundred vendors that had set up tables selling trinkets and souvenirs all franticly covering them up with tarps or whatever they could find. The cruise ship only comes to this port twice a month and it was a shame the weather had to be to terrible for all these people. I bought Daria an umbrella which was the fastest selling item at the moment but I just continued walking in the warm rain back to SD which by now had 20 gallons of rain in her.

With all the shopping finished we set sail for Million Dollar Point to do a dive with Isabelle, Paolo's new crew from Switzerland , Daria and myself on a bunch of old war equipment the military dumped into the sea when they left the island after WW2. There were trucks, airplane engines, old boiler tubes, old tires, an old ship and lots of other junk that created a reef for thousands of fish to live in. We saw a several large groupers, a huge Napoleon Fish about 4 feet long and a foot long Cuddle Fish. (our first ever)

After the dive we sailed 15 miles north and anchored next to Malono Island, barely making it thought the pass before sunset. We went ashore in the morning to one of the nicer resorts in Vanuatu. The Oyster Resort was located on a beautiful lagoon and there were only 15 to 20 small bungalows for guests to stay in. I was thinking that this would be an awesome place to get away from it all. Just across the bay was a river that went inland a few miles and you guessed it we took SD all the way up. The river was spring fed and became clearer and clearer as we went up. It was really a amazing feeling driving in such clear water and gave us the feeling that we were flying a few feet over the ground. At the source of the river was a hundred foot wide blue hole surrounded with jungle. The water was cool, clear and very refreshing to swim in.

Our next stop on the sail north was Hog Harbor were we anchored next to a reef with hot springs coming out of it. Daria spent and hour snorkeling all around this reef feeling the water continually changing temperature. This must have also been a favorite place for bait fish to hang out because schools of predators fed for hours while we watched the bait fish jump frantically out of the water trying to get away from their hungry prey.

We spent the next night in Port Olay just 15 miles to the north hoping the winds would continue to blow the right direction for our sail to Santa Maria in the morning.

Well, the winds started out blowing out of the SE which was perfect. Then the squalls started blowing mid morning gusting 20 to 40 knots and from mostly the E and NE which is not at all the right direction when your course is NE! As we motor sailed closer to the island the sky began turning a smoky pink color from a great plume erupting from the center of the island. Our first anchorage we tried to stop at on the SW side was covered in this smoky sulfur haze and we decided to continue on to the next bay on the NE side of the island where our friends Paolo and Isabelle were anchored at in Lesalav Bay. We arrived just before 5 and luckily received and e-mail from Paulo stating that the charts were off over a half a mile! Sure enough the pass was no where near close to where the charts showed they were! We made the adjustment and cleared he pass and were able to safely get the anchor set before the sun set and the rains started again.

The main attraction here is a small village in Namasari that does a water music show. Well by the time we got ashore it was pouring rain and there was plenty of water so it should be a good one! We first met with the chief in a small hut and learned a little about their village while the ladies got prepared for the show. I had no idea what to expect? They took us down a trail through the village to a small bay where the ladies were standing waist deep in the ocean dressed in headdresses and baiting suits. The music was made with slapping the water with different hand movements and rhythms. I have to say it was a very unique thing to experience and will never be forgotten. The rain was pouring down and the village kids were all holding banana and elephants ear leaves over their head to stay out of the rain.

The pink smoke continued billowing out of the center of the island the whole time we were there and it made a amazing contrast to the lush green jungle of the island. The chief told us he would take us on a two day hike to see the lake that this pink smoke bubbles up through but I for one could not leave the boat alone for that long and the thought of two days in the muddy jungle was too much even for Daria.

The next island to the north is Vanua Lava and we anchored in Port Patteson. The small town of Sola would be were we officially cleared out of Vanuatu. The town is built along the bay and at most has 500 people living in it. Paolo had the great idea to get malaria tests at the hospital here and a local gave us a ride a few miles down the road in his Toyota truck that looked to be a member of the million mile club. The medical station was just a few small rooms and the doctor sold us 4 tests and 4 treatment packs for just $20.( I hope we never need them) We were not so lucky as to get a ride on the way back and walked the whole way. Later that afternoon Isabel cooked us spaghetti balanies on Super Mario.

The next morning we continued north and decided to see a few more places in the islands even though were officially cleared out of Vanuatu. One was Waterfalls Bay where we swam in a pool with a huge waterfall pouring into it. The village had just one family living in it and Chief Kerely and his wife were very welcoming and served us mangos and popo. They have a 'Yacht Club" here and each year up to 20 sailors visit the small village.

We had anchored Downtime 5 miles away and Local paddled out to welcomed us ashore to see his village and offered to be a guide to the waterfalls. We went to shore with our gift bag full and met his Father, the Chief and the rest of the village. The chief asked if I had a metal file that he could sharpen his machete with and later when I brought him one he traded me with a bag full of mangoes! The rest of the village gave us fresh green onions, tomatoes, coconuts and a few popo's! The chief told us he had 10 children and most of the people living here were his immediate family and he was very fortunate to have so much land to take care of them all.

Our guide took us south along the coast to Waterfall Bay in SD and he showed us many interesting points along the way. One of which was a big sea cave and another a natural spring that flowed out of a rock cliff where the paddlers would stop for a drink while they traveled along the coast. While we were at the falls he went to his in-laws for a visit, happy that he did not have to paddle 10 miles to do so. He came back an hour later with a solar panel and asked if I could hook it up for him? Back At Downtime I gave him some wire and a power tester, so now he can charge his radio battery.

The next stop was the Rowa Islands which are no longer inhabited due the fact that the highest point is now only 2 feet above sea level . We anchored out side the reef in hopes of kite surfing the following day in the large protected lagoon. But as my kite surfing luck would have it there was not strong enough winds and none of any strength forecasted for the next few days…..

Vanuatu, the land of volcanoes has been truly amazing and it turned out the last island Norbarbar was saving the best for last. After all the volcanoes we have seen during our time here from afar this island would be one where we could actual anchor inside a sunken caldera in Lorup Bay! The island is 4 miles across with a big bay (middle of volcano) open to the east that is 80-100 feet deep surrounded by the steep 1500 foot high mountainous sides of the volcano. We anchored in 40 feet of water at the head of the bay and were greeted by the village Chief who paddled out in his out rigger canoe. We were asked to stay aboard until he could come back and formally greet us. An hour later he returned with freshly made magnolia flower lei's and asked permission to come aboard Downtime. He first welcomed Daria with a fairly long traditional welcome greeting and then he did the same with me. After the ceremony he welcomed us ashore to his village. This was the first time in our travels that we had been formerly welcomed and received flower lei's !!

The village was immaculate with many of the palm covered homes recently recovered. The whole village was well laid out and seemed very quiet for as many homes that were there? Chief Nicholson explained that the election was last night and their party won and they whole village celebrated until sunrise and were now all sound asleep. This was also the first time we had seen small sailing canoes and we left them with one of my old kites to make a sail out of. The chief promised to e-mail a picture when he gets it all sewn up!! We sat in the village and shared stories for hours and it was so interesting to learn how they life in such a remote place where running water is a actual river and the only electricity is made from a small solar panel that charges a battery bank. They are too remote to even have generators because the only supply ship comes just twice a year! In an emergency someone has to hike to the top of the mountain to get a cell signal and call for a boat from Sola 20 miles away.

Vanuatu has been a wonderful experience and a reminder that life is really simple…We really do not need a whole lot of stuff to be happy. Food, Family and friends on an island in paradise seems to work for these few lucky souls. I want to thank everyone in Vanuatu for their warm welcome's and many, many happy smiles'!

We say good bye to our friends on Super Mario who are hearing to the Solomon Islands, see you in Palau!

Later that day we set sail for our next country, Kiribati. But that's for another story!! Until then, get out there and live your dreams!!

Peace! Pete and Daria

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