Monday, July 16, 2012

Vanuatu (2012)

We arrived in Vanuatu on May 25th after our 935 mile passage north from New Zealand.  The country was formerly known as New Hebrides, until 1980 when they won their independence from both the British and French.  The archipelago, made up of 82 islands, stretches north to south over 800 miles. There are around 220,000 people occupying the islands, most of Melanesian descent. 

We arrived at the southernmost island of Anatom, and anchored in the protected bay on the south side where the largest village of Anelcauhat is located.  Anelcauhat just recently became a port of entry in 2011, which was very convenient being the first island from the south.  After the anchor was set, we rowed to shore to clear in with customs and immigration. 
We had a couple of stops to make in the village.   The first was the bank in order to exchange US dollars to Vatu, the official currency of Vanuatu.  The second was the building that housed the customs and immigration office so we could complete our clearance paperwork and pay our fees.  In the village there was a row of small structures just off the beach, including a school, store, bank, the customs and immigration office and some houses.  There were no signs on anything, so it was hard to tell which was which.  It took us several inquiries before we found the right place, and we felt like we were walking around in someone’s back yard.  After we cleared in, we rowed back out to the boat, had some dinner and were in bed by 6 pm, tired after a long passage. 

The next day, feeling refreshed again, we decided to do a bit of exploring.  There is an estimated 1,250 people living on the entire island spread around the coast in small villages.  Like most of Vanuatu, people live in rural isolated villages.  There are no roads, just trails leading along the coast from one village to the next.  There is no electricity on the island, although the bank and customs office had solar panels to run a few basic appliances.  The people still live in small huts with thatched roofs, and eat primarily what grows in their gardens or fruit trees and from catching fish.  They still use dugout canoes with outriggers to get around.  Some were rigged with sails made from tarps and other fabric scraps.

Anelcauhat Bay and village
We enjoyed walking around and stretching our legs after eight days at sea.  We visited a few villages and found the people to be very friendly.  In addition to the local dialect of the island, Aneityum, most of the islanders spoke at least some English.  We also stopped by the local store.  They didn’t have much in stock, except a few canned items and sodas. They did, however, bake bread most days, which was nice to have.  They even had some labeled “bread with meat”, which we decided to try.  It turned out to be baked with some sort of greens and fish with lots of bones still in it.  We only had a couple bites of that and did not return for seconds.
It had been about six months since we had done any swimming, and we were excited to get back into the water.  There was a pass between Anatom and a small neighboring island about a quarter mile from the boat.  We rowed out on a couple of afternoons with our snorkel gear and dropped the dinghy anchor in about 30 feet of water.  The water was exceptionally clear, and we had a good time exploring the coral heads that were teeming with fish.  We also saw a couple of large sea turtles.  We spent a total of five days on the island before we decided to move along.  The weather looked good for a day sail to the next island north.

Anatom Island
There are several active volcanoes in Vanuatu, including a few underwater.  Our next stop on the way north was the island of Tanna, which we visited in order to see one of those volcanoes at Mount Yasur.  Tanna is about 50 miles north, which we could cover during daylight hours if we left Anatom at first light.  The winds were SE 15 as we sailed out of Anelcauhat Bay, but they lightened about 10 miles out, prompting us to put up our small gennaker.  By the time we approached Tanna, the winds had built to SE 20-25 knots.  It’s not fun wrestling that light air sail down in strong winds, especially with a ten foot swell.  Fortunately we managed to get it on board just before a squall hit with winds reaching 30 knots near the entrance to Port Resolution.  We anchored in the shallow waters of the protected bay with seven other boats just before the sun went down. 
The next morning, we rowed to shore to organize our trip to the volcano.  We met one of the locals, Stanley, who said he would arrange transport for us and to meet back at 3 pm.  This gave us plenty of time to wander around the village, where we found a small store selling produce and a few craft items.  It was a treat to have bananas and papayas on board again.  Then we made our way across to the windward side of the island.  They had a nice white sand beach, and we spent a couple hours walking around and watching the big breakers coming in, glad we weren’t out there. 

Port Resolution on Tanna Island
We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the villages and then met Stanley back on the main road.  We found the other cruisers in the anchorage had the same idea.  There were 17 of us, so we split up into two groups and piled into the back of the pickup trucks for the very bumpy half hour ride up to the volcano. 
Mount Yasur is an active volcano that has been erupting nearly continuously for over 800 years, although it can usually be approached safely. It is one of the most accessible live volcanoes in the world.  You can walk right up to the rim and peer down into its fiery belly.  Standing close to the edge of the crater can be a bit frightening, however, as it erupts several times an hour.  When it does, loud explosions from inside the crater shake the ground and lave shoots high into the air. Three people have been killed over the years because they wandered to lower areas, and were hit by pieces of lava.  Despite this, there are no safety talks or warnings.  Our driver just drove up and parked, while we jumped out and headed up to the rim. 

There were a couple of view points, and we first went up to the south end, which seems to be a bit higher.  Unfortunately we were a little downwind and the gasses were blowing in our direction, which burned the eyes and smelled really bad.  We moved to the other lookout that was more up wind and sat up there for a couple hours.  The idea is to go up before sunset and stay for several hours until after dark.  The darker it is, the better you can see the hot lava shooting up into the sky when it erupts.  It was quite an experience, although at times it felt a little unsafe.  When it erupted, lava would often shoot way over our head, and some of it would land high up on the crater on the leeward side.  We kept our fingers crossed that we didn’t get a sudden wind shift. 

Mount Yasur
About an hour after sunset, we headed back down to the truck with our flashlights and woke up our driver.  It was another bumpy ride back to the boat with a beautiful full moon overhead.  Our plan was to stay for only two nights to see the volcano and walk around the island a little.  The wind was forecast to shift to the east, which meant that the swell would enter the anchorage in the following days, and we wanted to leave before it got too rolly. 
We left while it was still blowing from the SE, giving us a nice downwind run north to Efate.  We covered the 140 miles north to Port Vila in about 23 hours, and picked up a mooring ball, tucked between the waterfront and the small Iririki Island.  Efate is the most populous island in Vanuatu (approx. 50,000 people) and the third largest.  Most inhabitants live in Port Vila, which is the national capital.

We found the city to be a bit too touristy and crowded, but they had modern conveniences like wifi, grocery stores and fresh water, which we were excited to see.  We were especially looking forward to doing some shopping for fresh food, and frequented the central market where people were selling fruits and vegetables.  Most of the vendors were women from the outer villages that would come in with their produce and stay for a week at a time.  Many of them slept on the floor under their tables.  You could stop by anytime, day or night, and buy some produce.  We stocked up on pineapples, huge avocados, papayas, bananas, and eggplant. 
There were also small food stands where women would cook, and they usually had a table and a few chairs outside.  You could buy a huge plate of food with rice, vegetables and fish or beef with curry for 400 vatu ($4 USD).  We ate several meals here, and they were quite good.

Port Vila market
On our way into the bay, we were happy to see our friend Kevin on Tuatara in the anchorage.  He was there with his new crewmember, Joan, a backpacker from Spain that he picked up in New Zealand.  We hung out with them a bit while we were in Port Vila and even spent one evening visiting a nakamal, local kava house. 
Vanuatu has the highest density of languages per capita of any nation in the world.  With 113 indigenous languages, it comes out to an average of 2,000 people per language.  Walking around Port Vila, we mostly heard the national language, Bislama.   This is a pidgin language, now a creole in urban areas, which essentially combines a Melanesian grammar with a mostly English vocabulary.  We thought we would be able to understand it, but it was spoken quite fast, and we never really got used to it.  For example, you would say “tankyu” (thank you) or “yu oraet” (how are you).

After about a week, we decided it was probably time to be moving on, but we checked the weather and it looked like a low pressure system was going to move through in a few days.  This meant that high winds from the west (trade winds usually blow from the southeast) would be coming.  We didn’t want to sail against the strong winds, so we decided to hang out for another week.  Unfortunately, it also meant the swell would be entering the usually protected harbor in Port Vila.
As predicted, the westerly wind blew hard for a few days and large swells did enter harbor.  We were tucked up behind the small island of Iririki, so we didn’t get any of the big waves, but it was rolly for a few days.   It was also difficult getting to shore in our little dinghy, and we were usually pretty wet by the time we tied up.  The local boats that were usually moored along the waterfront moved out to the moorings as well, and it got a bit crowded out there. It was a good thing they did though, as the swell was breaking on the waterfront wall near the market, dousing the normally dry walkway and vendor stalls. 

big waves in Port Vila
We kept busy preparing Saviah for our next passage, stocked up on provisions, and checked out with customs and immigration.  It also gave us a chance to take care of some final paperwork we needed to do in advance for Bali.  After a few days of westerly winds, it turned around again, and we needed to get going.  We only spent three weeks in Vanuatu and didn’t see any of the northern islands at all, but we have a lot of distance to cover this year.  So, we left on June 16th and headed northwest toward the Torres Strait.