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.

Hiking and Other Arm-Shrinking Activities

Being cheapskate unemployed bums we are required to strictly prioritise what we spend our money on. Bob comes pretty high up the list. After all, a neglected Bob could revolt against us and leave us in a rather sticky – or at least wet – situation. After Bob comes food, fuel etc. and there isn’t really a whole lot left over for frivolous recreational activities. So with what activities do we occupy ourselves in our impecunious state?

We tried sailing our dinghy again. Those of you who have been following our adventures and misadventures for a while may remember that our dinghy was unfortunately rendered unsailable by the loss of the dagger board (and a paddle, an oar, Sarah’s shoes and an anchor) during a moment of stupidity on my part when I failed to secure the dinghy properly one night way back in the Marquesas Islands last year. Well, we finally made a new dagger board (out of cheap plywood this time) and took Numpty (that’s the dinghy) out for a sail in a stiff onshore breeze among the beautiful inlets around the North Coast of the South Island. As we were sitting in the van waiting for a violent rain squall to pass it did occur to us that perhaps this wasn’t the best idea, but we shoved that thought aside once the sun made a fleeting appearance through the clouds, headed to the beach and pushed out from shore. Numpty performed beyond expectations. She was remarkably stable and carved to windward like a champ. Unfortunately, just as we were about a mile from shore and thinking of turning around there was a slightly gustier gust than usual, we heard a loud CRACK and half the dagger board appeared floating on the surface to windward. Well, at least it was a downwind leg back to the beach. We eased the sheets and bore away but the next thing to come down was the mast, which shattered spectacularly and turned the sail into a sea anchor. Jury-rigging consisted of me standing up and spreading my T-shirt (between fits of laughter) while Sarah diligently kept us going in vaguely the right direction. I really really wish we’d thought to get some before and after shots to post here. Needless to say, Numpty looked a bit sorry for herself back on the beach and is now without a sailing rig once again. Perhaps she’s trying to tell us something?

Another activity that has been popular with us is hiking (or ‘tramping’ as it is often called here) . It has been a top-rated activity for us for three reasons:

1. It’s not something we’ve really had the opportunity to do on account of Bob’s limited range of hiking destination options.
2. It’s free.
3. New Zealand boasts a phenomenal range of mind-bogglingly spectacular sights and experiences that are only accessible by hiking. So, while my arms waste away for lack of ropes to pull, my legs are getting stouter and our general fitness has noticeably improved.

“What ‘sights and experiences’ speak thee of?” I hear you clamour. Sarah has written about the Tongariro Crossing in an earlier blog. Since arriving in the South Island we have also visited some amazing caves and no less than three glaciers.

We have learned, among other things, that when the New Zealand Department of Conservation posts a sign somewhere giving information or warning you of some sort of hazard it is wise to pay heed to it. When they say it’s a 6-hour hike they don’t mean a six-hour stroll for an overweight lady pushing a wheelchair and stopping to have a chat with everyone she meets, they mean a six-hour hike for someone far fitter than either of us when weather conditions are perfect and without taking any breaks. Similarly, when they say to be mindful of heavy rain because the trail (which involves several river crossings) may become impassable they really mean it. We set off along a trail looking for some caves and took a wrong turning at one point. The trail appeared to lead directly into a river that was barrelling along at a rate of knots and didn’t look at all friendly. I waded in to literally test the waters and found myself waist-deep pretty quickly struggling to keep my footing in the current. We sensibly gave it up as a bad idea. Just then, however, a red-jacketed lady appeared on the opposite bank wearing an expression of curious surprise mingled with no small quantity of fear. She and her partner were stuck, had no tent to spend the night in and the only other way out was an eight-hour hike in the opposite direction. When they had crossed the river just three hours previously it had been no more than 10cm deep. Now it was definitely impassable. I can’t express how stupendously lucky they were that there just happened to be a random guy blasting up the river in a jet boat who was able to ferry them across. The chances of such a serendipitous eventuality occurring must be phenomenally low. But, there we are! We were fortunate to learn a valuable lesson the easy way. What’s more, it turned out that we didn’t need to cross the river at all in order to reach the caves, which were perhaps the best I have ever visited.

Here I am ‘testing the waters’. The other side of the trail is marked by the orange post on the other side of the river, upstream from our location:

 

Here’s the guy in the jet boat (finally! A use for jet-driven boats!) blasting past us. The depth of the water is perhaps 10cm – you can clearly see the rocks beneath the surface. Apparently these things are even able to become airborne if necessary in order to clear logs and whatnot:

 

Here he is ferrying one of the stricken hikers across the torrent:

 

And here was our destination for the hike – this cave. Pretty cool eh?

Next up were some walks to visit several glaciers. Glaciers are really cool (har har). Basically they are rivers of ice. Snow falls high in the mountains and as it funnels down the steep mountainsides it gradually becomes more and more compact until it is ice. MASSIVE forces are involved which drive the whole lot down the mountainside, tearing away huge chunks of rock and shaping the mountains and valleys of the land. During the last ice age much of the South Island was covered in glaciers. All have receded but a few are still around to be seen…… for now at least. Global warming is accelerating glacial retreat to unprecedented rates. Franz-Josef is receding at a gargantuan 100m per annum. That’s a kilometre in the last ten years, and it’s been fairly well documented since the first photographs were taken back in the late 1800s.

It was a gray, rainy day so the light wasn’t great for photography. Nevertheless Sarah managed to get this one of the Franz-Josef Glacier. The source of the river is meltwater, and it is coloured grey by suspended rock particles that were scoured from the sides of the valley and incorporated into the ice matrix, only to be released as the ice melts:

 

In the picture above, the position of the glacier in about 2008 more or less corresponds to the line where the greenery turns to yellow/bare rock. It is starkly depicted by this picture of a picture from an information board. Each of these was taken from the same viewpoint, just 4 years apart.

 

We tried to visit the famous Fox Glacier next, but unfortunately a recent cyclone has destroyed the trail (yes, cyclones are now hitting the SOUTH island of New Zealand – a country that supposedly ‘doesn’t get cyclones’) so we were only able to get a glimpse from afar.

This is as close as we were able to get, and to manage this we had to bend the rules regarding ‘closed’ tracks a little:

 

The third glacier, which was extra-specially-cool – is the Rob Roy Glacier in the Mount Aspiring National Park. To get there we had to take Jacangi down a harrowing 30km stretch of gravel road and across eleven nerve-wracking fords (places where it is possible, in some conditions and with the right vehicle, to cross a stream or river by driving through it. Generally a 2-wheel-drive camper van would not be considered ‘the right vehicle’) before hiking 5km up a mountain and 5km back. It was totally worth it.

Here’s a beautiful long-exposure shot that Sarah got of the river:

 

And a view of the glacier itself from our viewpoint. Being high enough to be just above the tree line we had a good, unobscured view:

 

Finally, on the way back from Rob Roy we took a detour up to the Treble Cone Ski Area, which is the highest ski resort in New Zealand. It’s not open yet for the ski season but it was an amazing drive up and a spectacular view from the top. Jacangi protested furiously at the climb by producing lots of black smoke (due to the thin air I think………) and we had to stop twice to avoid overheating the engine, but she got there and is none the worse for wear.

Here was our reward:

 

Oh, I should mention that Sarah did not accompany me on the drive up to the ski area. Instead she chose to travel up there Mary-Poppins style 🙂

 

Our adventures continue. Tomorrow we’ll drive the five hours or so to the famous Milford Sound, which is purported by some to be the most beautiful place on this island full of beautiful places.