It’s the people. If I were to end with that sentence alone I would still not have missed the essence of our experience in Vanuatu.
Certainly when assessing a nation as a cruising destination, one must include the white sand beaches, the emerald green jungles, smoking volcanoes and coral gardens. And I will describe
But I have found similar backdrops elsewhere, without the same social effect. There is something special happening here, something specific to this small cluster of islands and yet universal in its importance. It’s called happiness.
Making an entrance
Admittedly, in Western terms this nation is struggling in its attempt at modernisation. This became apparent upon our approach from the Loyalty Islands to the capital Port Vila, as the country’s most important aide to navigation, the Pango Point Light, was extinguished.
It was of little concern to us because the Roger Henry had ripped off 200+ miles in 30 boisterous hours, making for a perfectly timed dawn landfall.
We anchored in the designated quarantine area and by VHF notified the several bureaucracies concerned of our arrival. After two hours without a visit, Diana decided it was safe to take a bath in the cockpit.
She was no sooner soaped up than a boat buzzed alongside and, without so much as a “by your leave”, several uniformed men jumped aboard catching her in all her splendour. Had there not been a trail of bubbles leading below, I would have sworn she disappeared into thin air.
You couldn’t call Port Vila pretty. It is a run down, dusty town yet surprisingly charming. That’s due to the atmosphere on the streets, one of vibrancy and contentedness. Everyone has a warm smile for you.
I believe it is a convergence of several factors: Vanuatu won its independence in 1980, just late enough to have developed a keen longing for self-determination, yet early enough that they did not experience protracted conflict and inherit a bitter legacy.
Next is its land, so lush that it amply supports the slim population of 210,000. Virtually every citizen is assured access to a productive garden and fishing spot.
They have one foot planted in the reaffirming past with a cohesive system of tribal affiliation and another planted in a democratic future with an informed and active citizenry.
I do not mean to romanticise the lives of the Ni-Vanuatu (of Vanuatu), for there are issues of health, education and economic opportunity. Nor do I mean to evoke Rousseau’s sentiments of “Lo, the noble savage”.
Recently a Prime Minister was caught with his lava-lava down, counterfeiting 23 million dollars. He was jailed briefly but after the usual “let the healing begin” he was pardoned by his handpicked successor. So you see, they are learning Western ways.
But they are a free people, shaping their own destiny and clearly happy to do so.
Yachting World in Port Vila offers moorings in the central harbour at a reasonable rate, plus fuel, water, rubbish disposal, a secure dingy dock and a classy waterfront restaurant. Vanuatu beef is reputed to be the finest in the world and I will not dispute that.
A local brewery produces quite a quaffable beer served at a temperature to tame the tropics. Each night a stunningly talented band plays beneath a thatched pagoda.
The bustling open market of Port Vila is a colorful hub of daily life. Flowers, firewood and an amazing array of fruits and vegetables are trucked daily from the outlying regions. Wild looking vendors hawk coconut crabs, penned pigs, caged chickens and fried fish.
Down an alley of plywood stalls Diana and I sampled foods totally unrecognisable to us. In her enthusiastic pursuit of local weaving, basketry and art, Diana discovered artist and activist Juliette Pita.
In spite of her growing international reputation, Juliette appears barefoot daily in her little stall on the waterfront where she sells her unique interpretations of custom dancing.
As founder of Nawita Association, Vanuatu’s first women’s artist group, she carries on her work of promoting women’s rights and eradicating domestic violence with a humble yet determined nature.
The Melanesians are an attractive people. The men are well proportioned and heavily muscled. I have always been a fool for a pretty face and my goodness the girls here are easy to look at.
For some cruisers the Vanuatu experience ends here and you can’t blame them, it’s seductive, lovely and lazy. But we had come to see the wilder side of the fabled ‘New Hebrides’, so named by the renowned explorer Captain James Cook in 1774.
But Cook was by no means the first European to set foot here. It is believed that Pedro Fernandez de Quiros was the first with his landing in Santo, one of 83 islands, way back in 1606.
The first missionaries arrived in 1839. They were promptly killed and eaten. This discouraging trend slowed the rate of ‘progress’, but ultimately did not deter the invasion of sandalwood profiteers, black-birders and colonising powers.
As a rare example of Anglo- Franco cooperation, Vanuatu was run as a condominium between those two nations right up to its independence.
As a boy I wore out the issue of National Geographic that pictured young men of Pentecost Island hurling themselves off a rudely constructed tower of bamboo and vines. Only a jungle vine tied to their ankles arrested their head-down plunge towards the earth.
If the old shaman who cut the vine had calculated its length, stretch, the height of the tower and boy correctly, his head hit the earth firmly but without injury and the boy passed his rights into manhood. If not, well, the gods had spoken.
I had burned in envy at the exotic daring of it all and even tried to sail here almost 30 years ago in the hopes they might allow a dim-dim (pidgin for white man) to join them in their sacred ceremony. Cyclone Fredrick thwarted those plans.
I still hoped to witness the strong custom life that is too soon to vanish from this world. A mile from Port Vila the paved roads turn to mud, the electric lights to kerosene lamps and the automobile traffic to the soft cadence of human footfalls. The veneer of a western civilisation peeled away with each mile we sailed north.
Balmy breezes carried us into Havannah Harbour on the NW side of Efate Island. In spite of the simplicity of the thatched housing in the main village, the paths are swept clean, the yards orderly and a sense of pride prevails.
Through a complex and sometimes confusing system, every tree, coconut, stretch of reef, and body of water has an owner. It was our responsibility to ferret out the correct owner should we want to anchor, dive, hike, or fish.
In spite of being with three local guides while diving on a reef, I was dressed down by an elder for not having specific permission from the correct chief.
However, once we established the pattern of immediately upon arrival presenting ourselves, gifts in hand, to anyone even pretending to be a local chief, we were never denied a thing. In fact yachts are welcomed as the sole source of income in many of the outlying islands.
Cash aside, even the simplest of our throwaway items are treasured – a plastic bottle, old clothes, a rusted fish hook or file. To see a lovely family paddle by with their clothes literally falling off their backs is a heartbreak.
The sailing community has responded generously as most yachts arrive packed to the gunnels with bundles of clothing, school supplies and fishing gear to distribute.
Old salts are constantly lamenting the changes in the number and nature of cruisers today. The days of lonely anchorages and trading old T-shirts for valuable artifacts may be gone, but the affluence and attitude of the modern fleet has been a blessing for this small nation.
Along with food, medicine and a few mechanical skills, I decided the most valuable thing we could offer was respect- that is take a sincere and personal interest in the people we met and express that with a simple invitation onboard our boat and home.
In anchorages that had seen hundreds of yachts, almost every family we invited up onto our boat told me they had never been on, much less in a yacht before. Their entire intercourse had been from canoe level looking up.
The boat’s interior was a marvel and a mystery to child and adult alike. We think of the Roger Henry as a modest yacht, but it electrified these people to see the complex systems of a small city in operation – propulsion, water stowage, electrical generation, waste disposal, food preparation, mechanical workshops.
For the children the galley foot-pumps were a big hit. They could have gushed the South Pacific through that pump and not lost those amazed smiles.
But the real sensation was Halifax Of The North, no one had even seen such a big cat. When she came thundering up the companionway a two hundred plus pound man asked me if it was safe to come on board. Once assured of her gentle nature I thought they would pet the fur off of her.
When I told them the story of how she once saved my life as an infallible polar bear detector, her legend grew. As we walked through villages I could hear her name being whispered in our wake.
Meandering north we stopped in Revolieu Bay on Epi Island. A freshwater river dams up just behind the beach forming a deep jungle pool.
Now Diana will tell you of the time she watched Nureyev dance in London, but down deep she is still a farm girl that appreciates the basic necessities like fresh water – lots of fresh water. A commodity I have denied her through these many years onboard.
She enlisted me in a major laundry effort that included bedding, clothing, cushions and bodies. I lost much face with the local men who clearly consider this a ‘pink job’.
Chief John invited the three yachts anchored in the bay to his home for a feast. It was a wonderful experience for all but the pig. Wild pork and cassava bathed in coconut milk was wrapped in banana leaves and baked to perfection in the ground.
Why is there war when men worldwide are so alike? After the banana leaves were cleared away a big smile swept the men’s circle when John suggested a little drink.
Kava, a drink once reserved for chiefs, is now as ubiquitous as our cold beer after a hard day’s work. From Fiji west through Vanuatu and up into the eastern Solomon Islands kava is the drink (or drug) of choice and plays a major role in the daily lives of the men.
John diced the rough root with a machete, ground the pieces into a pulp and then mixed it with water. The slurry was squeezed through a cloth several times and the pulp then discarded. The remaining liquid was a muddy astringent drink that best described as ‘an acquired taste’.
Its effects are easier to get used to. It is soporific, in that it puts the men in a contemplative mood gilded with a sense of mild euphoria.
In each island I was asked if I had ever tried kava before. When I told them “yes, in the last island”, they would dismiss that with a wave. “No, no. That’s not real kava. They make it too weak there. Now our kava! Four cups and a man can’t find his way home!” Diana intervened before I could test that assertion.
There is some concern regarding the effects of kava on the liver. However, kava does not incite the aggressive behavior of alcohol and because it grows so prolifically the men do not feed their habit at the expense of the meagre family budget.
On northern Epi we stopped in Laman Bay to swim with the dugongs. Here the island chain splits in two. To tack west for Malekula and Espiritu Santo meant missing Pentecost and Maewo to the east.
After a difficult deliberation we set sail for Malekula, attracted to its geographic, cultural and linguistic diversity.
Vanuatu has the world’s largest number of languages per capita, of which Malekula alone contributes 28. The island is best known for two tribes: the Big Nambas and Little Nambas, so distinguished by the differing size of the traditional penis sheaths the men wear. Both tribes still fiercely cling to their traditional ways.
After a week of snorkeling in the Mescaline Islands at Malekula’s southern tip we beam reached up to Banom Bay to find five yachts anchored there. Our arrival must have created a critical mass because the chief announced that the village would present a traditional dance for our benefit and their profit.
We gathered at the sacred dancing circle and a hush settled over us.
Suddenly, twenty armed men rushed out of the bush dressed (if you can call it that) only in leaves tied around their … well, nambas I assume.
These sheathes were held up at a proud angle by sennit running from their tips around the men’s waist. Frightening masks and high hats added to the exotic atmosphere.
Drums and ankle bracelets set the spirited rhythm to war, fertility, birth, circumcision and burial dances. The women, dressed only in grass skirts, followed with quieter dancing and harmonious singing.
I have no quarrel with these people charging a modest fee for viewing their traditional ceremonies. It might be viewed as a renewable resource that bridges their strong connection to the past with the demands of a fast-changing, cash-oriented future.
But when reports came in saying that in bays to the north surly youths were charging yacht crews for simply landing on a beach, we decided to leapfrog northern Malekula on to the nations second largest town, Luganville on Santo.
We set up camp at the Aore Island Resort, separated from Santo by the mile wide Segond Channel. It was pure luxury being able to catch their ferry across to the hot and dusty town for provisioning, fuel and repairs, yet retreat to the idyllic atmosphere of the resort by evening.
Here we said our goodbyes to the yachts we had befriended coming north for, without exception, they were all heading west to Australia or south to New Zealand for the cyclone season.
An exhilarating dive deep into the bowels of the sunken S.S. President Coolidge was the highlight of my stay in Luganville.
In spite of the amenities of civilisation, I had no regrets when we headed out for the remote Bank and Torres Islands.
Once through the narrow entrance, we found Port Peterson to be scenic and snug enough to be considered a true hurricane hole. We took the dinghy up a jungle river searching for a ‘blue hole’ noted on the chart. As the stream narrowed, water lilies blocked our way.
But in a river a mile to the south we found a spectacular blue hole, surrounded by steep cliffs, lush jungle and raucous bird life. We swam for hours in the bottomless blue water and floated home quietly, clean and refreshed.
Our experience in each of the high jungle islands to the north was largely determined by the personality of the chief. In the village of Lusalava on Guau Island the chief monopolised our time and gift giving.
In the less traditional regional capital, Sola on Vanua Lava, we were free to mingle and form friendships more naturally. In all the islands, however, we were awed by the scenery, impressed with the thatched villages and touched by the warm reception.
The government has all but abandoned the people up here. The clinics are poorly staffed and stocked and the international aid seems to dry up long before projects can be completed.
The churches have stepped in where the government has failed and, in spite of their reputation as cultural imperialists, now provide many of the essential services.
Rich in so many ways
This is a land on fire. We sailed past a string of smoking volcanoes glowing ominous orange in the night. When Uraparapara blew it rent a hole in the crater wall; seawater flooded in.
We passed through the narrow passage formed and anchored right in the bowels of what we hoped was now an extinct volcano.
In the Torres Islands we walked down beaches so white we had to shade our eyes. We dove on rich coral gardens through clouds of fat fish. We sailed through water so clear that I thought we were running up on shoal ground until the depth sounder confirmed we were in 60 feet.
Perhaps it was fitting that the last people we met in Vanuatu were Johnnie, his wife Lea and three beautiful children, a pioneer family barely scratching out a living on the west coast of Tegua Island. Their worldly possessions would not have filled our dinghy and yet they kept offering us gifts.
We spent three months energetically exploring this verdant nation. Nevertheless, we feel that we had barely tapped its potential. But it certainly tapped ours. We were forced to reassess our own lives and admit and appreciate how relatively wealthy we are.
On that topic of wealth, we learned how to differentiate poorness from poverty. For the people of Vanuatu are poor, but not impoverished in spirit. These people, who want for so much yet long for little, have found an affirming sense of place. They lead humble lives in harmony with nature.
They do so happily, emotionally anchored to each other, spiritually connected to the past and hopeful for a meaningful future.
– Alvah Simon, recipient of the Outstanding Seamanship Medal for his 13-year circumnavigation, is an author, a contributing editor for Cruising World and anchors Boating New Zealand website. He and wife Diana, are preparing their 36’ steel cutter for their next voyage.
This article was first published in the July 2013 issue of Cruising Helmsman.