Walking through the Pages of the National Geographic

Well, I think we can safely say that Vanuatu has been one of our favourite destinations so far. It really is like walking through the pages of a National Geographic Magazine. My only regret is that we must move on so quickly. A month has flown by and we now find ourselves with very little time to make the many thousands of miles that we must make in order to cross the Indian Ocean before the Cyclone Season there gets into full swing.

Following on from where Sarah left off, we sailed North overnight to the island of Ambrym. We’d heard about this island from two sources. The first was Thomson, the gardener who so kindly gave us a guided tour of the ‘closed’ gardens on Efate. He told us that his grandfather had moved to Efate from Ambrym when his village was threatened by a particularly violent volcanic eruption. The second was when we met Philip at the Volcano Centre in Port Vila. He showed us some amazing photographs of a boiling lake of lava on Ambrym. It seemed to us that this might be one of those occasions on which we might have the opportunity to see something truly spectacular – something that people specifically travel half way around the world just to see – on a spur of the moment just because we happened to be in the vicinity. We were not disappointed.

Philip had given us a phone number for a guy called Joses, who is a volcano guide.

“Hello! We would like to climb your volcano please and see a boiling pit of lava. Tomorrow if possible”, I said (or words to that effect).

“Sure! Bring some food, some water and some sleeping bags”, said Joses.

We turned up at an appointed place at the appointed hour the next day thus equipped, not knowing quite what to expect. What followed was an arduous but exceptionally rewarding experience. It started with a 10km hike through a dry riverbed and then a rainforest path up to an elevation of about 750m. Here there was a makeshift camp already constructed in the local style, with a couple of palm-leaf shelters and an open fire for cooking. We dumped most of our stuff and then set out to visit one of the volcanoes, making the most of the fair weather because you never know when it’s going to go foul on you when you are at the top of a mountain. From the camp we climbed a dune of black sand, and when we reached the top we found ourselves facing one of the most incredible landscapes I have ever seen – miles and miles of ash plane. The ground was dead flat, black sand covered in fibres of naturally-produced fibreglass that is regularly ejected from the volcano. In the distance were fumaroles – small vents billowing volcanic gases – and the cones and craters themselves. The wind was a moderate 17 knots that day from the East, but up there there was a fresh breeze and the craters billowed out dense clouds of smoke that would blot out the sun one second and let it through the next, such that racing bands of shadow galloped across the landscape and off into the distance. It was eerie and surreal. We hiked for another 6 kilometres and up another 250m to reach the crater of Mount Marum, across the ash plane, through the shadow of Mount Benbow and then up the cone of Marum itself until we stood on the edge of a precipice and looked directly down 400m to a lake of boiling lava. It was bubbling away quite merrily, throwing huge gouts of liquid rock out onto the surrounding rock face. The thing that really impressed upon me however was the sound. It sounded just like the ocean beating against a rocky shore. Who’d have thought the rock itself could make that sound?

 

Much of the hike to the camp was through forest such as this. Joses and his fellow guides cut these paths several years ago with machetes. It must have been a long, hard job. I wonder who found the route in the first place……..

 

One of the local guys serving as a porter. These guys hike up to the camp and back down again in one day. Barefoot.

 

The ash plain.

 

More ash plain, this time with a backdrop of craters angrily billowing smoke

 

The smoke would collect in dense clouds that seemed not to readily diffuse. This one was nearly stationary. We came prepared!

 

One of many stunning volcanic landscapes.

 

Our reward for all that walking!

 

Sarah was happy to sit perched right in the edge. Meanwhile I crawled up to it and peered over the edge much more cautiously.

 

This is me standing near the edge of the crater, posing as requested by the master camerawoman.

 

And a short video of the boiling lava lake:

 

We slept that night in one of the shelters since we had no tent. Sarah laid out her yoga mat and slept in the sleeping bag while I cocooned myself in a blanket. I don’t remember what I dreamed of but it was probably something fiery.

 

Our accommodation. As we entered to go to bed our torch light revealed a cockroach that quickly scuttled beneath my blanket and a rather large spider perched where Sarah’s head was going to be. For a wildlife enthusiast she didn’t show much enthusiasm for the wildlife! Paul and Monique, you may recognise the blanket. Thanks for that!

 

The next morning we had hoped to visit Mount Benbow but the weather had turned overnight and an ascent was no longer advised by Joses. We had been very lucky just to be able to visit Mount Marum. One of the other guys there had travelled all the way from France to visit the volcanoes. He had visited twice before and had stayed up on the mountain on each occasion for over a week. In all that time he had never seen the lava lake at Mount Marum, and we just toddled up there for one night and took it for granted. These volcanoes are not to be trifled-with. People have died while viewing the volcano on the island of Tanna, and at the moment Luganville is overcrowded with the population of one of the Northern islands which has been officially evacuated by the government as a temporary state of emergency due to volcanic activity.

By the time we got back down we had hiked about 36km in 36 hours, which is the most that either of us have ever managed. My right knee was giving me a bit of grief (I must be getting old!) but it was a small price to pay for that experience.

After a good night’s sleep we left Ambrym the following afternoon and made the short hop to Banam Bay, Malekula. This was a destination that I specifically wanted to visit because my mother visited here about 8 years ago and I wanted to visit the same place that she had been, and meet some of the same people. Another friend had given me the name of a family that lived there and asked me to pass on their regards, so I had some kind of starting point by which to introduce myself and, I hoped, form some kind of relationship.

Well, we certainly didn’t need to try very hard to make friends! From the moment we arrived we barely had a moment to ourselves. Locally-made dugout canoes nestled astern of Bob for the best part of each day, their occupants sitting in Bob’s cockpit drinking coffee while we all exchanged ideas and tried to explain our vastly different ways of life to one another. I’m not sure that either party fully understood what the other was getting at but it didn’t matter – we enriched one another’s lives in a very profound way I think. The people of Vanuatu have an incredible amount to teach us as we run around going about our western lives. Vanuatu has apparently been voted the happiest place on Earth for a couple of years running. It is certainly the happiest country I have ever visited, and it is also one of the poorest. The villagers have very little in the way of possessions. A few items of clothing, a few cooking utensils and a machete. Everything else they make themselves – their canoes by digging out a ‘white tree’, their houses by weaving bamboo for the walls and palm leaves for the roof. They cook over an open fire. They bathe in the sea. They have little, yet they are rich. They own their own houses, which is more than most people in so-called developed countries can say. They need never worry about going hungry – food can be found in abundance, produced by the land. We human animals need only three things to sustain life – food, water and shelter. All of these things are provided free of charge by the environment to the people of Vanuatu. Anything else is a bonus. We have forgotten this in our culture. We get hung up on the most trivial, meaningless and unnecessary problems that we create for ourselves. They are not really problems at all. My grandmother used to say “if it’s not life-threatening it’s not worth worrying about”. The people of Vanuatu are testament to the truth of that statement. They don’t always realise it of course. They see us as rich because we have more money and access to more stuff, but when I pointed out to a new Vanuatuan friend that I had no land – that my boat was only a glorified version of his house and much less sustainable – when I explained that some people in our countries really struggle to feed themselves, and that a minority of people actually own anything meaningful at all (not their own houses, not a source of food, nor a source of water) this man who lives simply in a palm-leaf hut on an island here in Vanuatu actually expressed pity for people in the developed world. And the really shocking thing is that I think perhaps he’s right to pity our way of life. After all, he is one of the happiest people on the planet so he must be doing something right!

 

Here I am ferrying Colin, Estelle and some kids out to Bob in the dinghy.

 

While we gave vast quantities of things to the villagers – things like antibiotic cream, books, fishing equipment and other sundry items that they can use – by far the most rewarding opportunities  were when I was able to actually do something to help them, not just give something. One of their canoes had developed a crack and was more or less unusable in that condition. Here I am putting a fibreglass repair over the crack:

It’s quite a spectacle as a lot of modern materials and processes are completely alien to them. I doubt any of them had ever seen someone working with fibreglass before.

 

A typical rural Vanuatu village.

 

Here is Sarah with the Saitol family, whom my mother has met and who I had a kind-of introduction to through a mutual friend. They invited us over to their house for dinner on our final night in Malekula.

 

Here’s a picture that we really like. Contrary to how it looks these are not members of a child militia, but two very smiley village kids who chose just this moment to wipe the smiles temporarily off their faces. A four-year-old clutching a large knife is not an unusual sight. They learn to use them from a young age as the tool of choice. As the boy gets bigger so does the knife!

 

Our time in Banam Bay was far too short but we are being forced to move on. We left yesterday morninge at 0200 and arrived here in Luganville – the principal town in Northern Vanuatu – at 1730 on the same day. We started provisioning for the 10-day passage to Papua New Guinea today and figuring out what else we need to do to prepare for that passage. I’m also looking ahead to the Torres Straits, which will probably be one of the more tricky navigational sections of our voyage. 200 miles of shallow, narrow channels through reefs in the company of large quantities of shipping traffic. There are also some wicked tides to content with, with tidal streams running up to 8 knots in addition to currents produced by the heaping effect of winds and the fact that the entire Pacific Ocean is trying to squeeze through a narrow gap into the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Indian Ocean, where the sea level is lower. It’s going to be a tiring next few months, with not a whole lot of time for sightseeing unfortunately.

Fatu Iva or Fatu Hiva?

Most of the charts we’ve seen and relevant books we’ve come across always seem to refer to ‘Fatu Hiva’ as the southernmost island of the Marquesas. However, when we first arrived in Baie des Vierges (or Baie des Verges if we’re to use its original name) all those months ago, I saw a large signpost to welcome sailors and other tourists which clearly referred to the island as ‘Fatu Iva’. Since then I’ve got it in my head that it’s called ‘Fatu Iva’. As the locals clearly refer to it as this, I will continue to use ‘Fatu Iva’ opposed to ‘Fatu Hiva’, but to save any confusion I want to make it perfectly clear that I am, in fact, talking about the same place – Fatu Iva.

Last November, we arrived in the Marquesas Islands for the first time and our very first stop was here, in Fatu Iva. We we’re in a bit of a rush to pick up my friend, Charline, who was coming to visit and flying in to Hiva Oa. As a result we only had a quick pit stop in Fatu Iva before heading off to our next destination. Now we’re back to see the island properly. As the maintenance work on Bob is finally done and we’ve left the boatyard, we have some time to simply enjoy the places we’re visiting without having to worry (too much) about boat work.

People often refer to Baie des Vierges as one of the most beautiful anchorages in the world. It certainly is stunning with towering rocks protruding out of the ground like skyscrapers and lush green forest as far as the eye can see. Many people arrive here after sailing for many weeks, sometimes months, from Panama or Galapagos and I can completely understand that after so long at sea, arriving here could really take a person’s breath away. We first arrived here from the Gambier Islands where the mountains, whilst not as grand, are just as lush, the white sandy beaches are deserted and the water is crystal clear with the colours of the reef shimmering proudly in the sunlight. Whilst I can still appreciate the beauty of Baie des Vierges – the cloudy water, black sand and the beginnings of a new breakwater combined with a bright yellow crane was a little underwhelming. It was difficult getting Alex motivated to come back here to visit an island that we’ve already been to, and moreover, is a complete detour to where we want to go next. I’m really glad we did though, there are so many hidden gems that we would have missed if we had bypassed this place.

We spent a day trekking 17km from the bay to south (in Omoa) back towards Baie des Vierges. This is one of the stunning views we saw on the trek. If you look really closely (and have excellent eyesight) you can just about see Bob anchored in the bay.

After 4 hours hiking up hill, we were greeted by this picnic bench. This bench not only marked the time to have lunch, but also the highest point of our trek. After 4 hours of steep uphill walking – this is the best picnic bench I have ever seen in my life!

There is nowhere to buy sandwiches, salads or any lunch materials in the one shop we found in Omoa at the beginning of our trek. This was the best we could do. Luckily we were hungry enough to enjoy it.

Another day we took a much shorter hike (less than an hour this time) through some tropical jungle to this beautiful waterfall. What a lovely place to take a nice, cooling swim.

We also took the dingy to explore some of the coast. We came across an ancient settlement that was flattened by recent landslide. We also found this cave hidden by rocks about 2 miles north of the anchorage. There’s a small beach inside with water you can swim around in.

On our final night in Fatu Iva we decided to anchor in Omoa, a bay to the south of Baie des Vierges and where the main village is located. We had originally planned to sail to Tahuata, but a very large lightning storm prevented us from doing so. Instead, we anchored in the safety of Omoa bay and waited out the storm before leaving. Although the sea swell meant we were rolling around a bit, the bay is scenic, the village lovely and the people very friendly.

While we were on shore in Omoa we stopped briefly to talk to some fellow sailors, and when I looked down at my feet, to my horror I saw a dark cloud of tiny blood sucking midges – ‘nonos’. I’ve been bitten by the black nonos in Nuku Hiva and the result was hundreds of large, itchy, angry red lumps all over my body on any ounce of flesh that I had foolishly not covered with clothing. I looked like I was in the primary stages of small pox and would not have been surprised if people turned and ran in the opposite direction for fear of catching some contagious disease! Given that past experience, I started doing the hysteric chicken dance in the middle of the street whilst frantically trying to pull the insect repellent out of my bag to lather my legs in. It may have looked strange to everyone else, but I considered it absolutely necessary! Unfortunately, I knew that I’d been bitten a number of times before I got the insect repellent on (despite my dancing efforts). However, to my delight and amazement I hardly noticed the bites over the next few days. It turns out that the species of nono in Fatu Iva are different and nowhere near as nasty as the ones in Nuku Hiva. So luckily, I didn’t have to suffer another week of itchy skin welts. Thank. God.

There’s one shop in Omoa with good supplies and a bakery open in the early mornings. Like with many of the islands in French Polynesia fresh food is difficult to come by, but there are many mango trees growing at the side of the road towards Baie des Vierges which you can help yourself to. I had also heard that the dancing here in Fatu Iva is the best in the Marquesas. Unfortunately we weren’t able to see any performances, but if anyone else is thinking of visiting, it sounds like it would be well worth checking out.