Our Diary Fiji (Part 2), Vanuatu & New Caledonia

With setting sun we stole up the river - the rhythmic sound of primitive Tam Tam drums adding a mysterious air to the place. You can feel eyes peering at you through the lush green foliage on the banks, and strange thoughts run through your head… This is twenty first century Vanuatu and it's been over 100 years since Reverend Williams' outline was carved into the rock before he was cooked and eaten by the natives! We drop anchor and watch the fruit bats fly in to roost while we give a toast to Captain Cook for charting such a superb anchorage that he called Port Sandwich - but who was in the sandwich, we mused?

This is such a contrast to the holiday hot-spots of Fiji and the French colonial decadence of Noumea in New Caledonia (where I am currently sitting).

Our parts finally arrived safely and since then we have been trying to make up time - we had so much we wanted to see and do and had lost a precious month! We waved farewell to Savu Savu and headed for the Yasawas the western chain of islands in Fiji. These are known for their resorts, clear waters and stunning beaches, but our first stop was at Yandua, a little isolated island not often visited by tourists or yachts. Its main claim to fame being the only refuge for a crested green iguana whose habitat is off limits (but we did see a photo on the side of the warden's boat!). We arrived on a Sunday and after a hike across the hills reached the village at Yandua which is very traditional - and had to postpone our Sevu Sevu (the ritual presentation of Kava roots to the Chief) until after the church service. It is a social blunder not to offer Sevu Sevu and basically all it involves is to visit the Chief's hut, chat a little, be very respectful and earnest, present your bunch of Kava roots, clap a lot, have tea, while the Kava is pounded and mixed with water, and then take a bowl of the ghastly stuff. It's like very weak cough mixture and is the colour of brown dish water and although neither alcoholic nor narcotic, induces a state of relaxation. Once you have done the Sevu Sevu ceremony, you are given permission to wander round the village, take photos, etc. Although we were prepared for this, what we weren't prepared for was the church service - where we made our BIG social blunder. Our host Pita invited us to join his family at the service, which was slightly special in that there was a singing competition after the service. Unfortunately we had neglected to bring any money ashore with us so Pita kindly gave us a dollar each for the collection (FIRST

blunder) - although we had brought him a huge bonito that we'd caught, so didn't feel too bad about this. We sat through the service which was in Fijian, with a very fire and brimstone preacher and some lovely harmonious hymns, no collection though! Most of the locals then left the building, we were told to sit tight as the singing was about to start, groups of people then came in and gave lovely renditions and after the song put money into baskets, which was then emptied out and counted, We were now totally confused - what was going on? In the best tradition, if you're not sure what is going on then wait and see (SECOND blunder). After the last group had finished singing we realised we had better put our money into the collection basket so up we went and did so (THIRD blunder). Everyone milled around and some huge cakes appeared (tea and cake after the service we thought). But, no! The church went silent and the results of the competition were announced - the cakes being the prizes and the score being the amount of money in the baskets. It was then we realised we had voted for the wrong team (FOURTH blunder)! But we kept our stiff upper lip and kept smiling - fortunately Pita's group did win a prize and we did have tea and cake afterwards.

Our stay here was too short and we needed to set off across Bligh Water leaving at sunrise - nervously navigating through the narrow coral channel with little light, narrowly missing the reef at one stage. You really do need good light in these waters! Eleven hours later we arrived at Yasawa Island, with another nerve wracking entrance in poor light! The Yasawa Group of Islands is a popular holiday destination and we "day hopped" to all the popular haunts - our week long cruise turned into a bit of a resort crawl; beer in every port, etc. Top on our list was the Octopus resort and the most disappointing being the Blue Lagoon.

We ended our Fijian cruise at Musket Cove - this "cruiser friendly" resort has been a magnet for yachties for years; this visit (our third) coincided with Regatta Week which is a great excuse for all the cruisers to party 'til they drop! Lots of free food, booze and silly events, culminating in a prize giving with some great prizes. There were so many happenings during this week that this newsletter could turn into a mini novel, so here are just the highlights: pirate invasion of Beachcomber Island a nearby resort (we teamed up with Lucky White Heather, drank lots of beer limbo danced and generally made fools of ourselves), beer drinking competition, tug-of-war, hairy chest and wet t-shirt contests on a sandy spit; treasure hunt around the island (teamed up with the crew of Libertee); hobie cat racing, a yacht race around Malolo Island, etc. And those were just the daytime activities - there was no time recover, though, as evening activities included Karaoke, Island Princess fancy dress contest (for the men), a "Why I hate sailing" contest (for the women) which Christine entered, and barbeques - all of which kept us in the party spirit.

Of particular enjoyment was the Hobie Cat racing and the Round the Island race; our special thanks go out to James & Liz and Patrick & Danielle. James' wife Liz dropped out of the Hobie Cat team at the last minute (being pregnant and not feeling too good - a reasonable excuse!) and I volunteered to help out. James is an excellent helmsman and over the next few days he steered us to the semi finals, where excessive gear failure and light winds brought our campaign to an end - great fun none-the-less. Patrick, Danielle and John from Long Shot helped crew Poco in a very blustery sail around the island, she went very well and finished a credible sixth. Christine was a little concerned as we touched 8.5kts close hauled with 45 degrees heel and the gunwales awash!

Patrick and Danielle had to leave for home before the prize giving night and, unbeknownst to us, Patrick had won the golf tournament and had donated the prize to us! A night in a 5 star luxury adults only resort on the island - so we enjoyed a night of luxury at the Lomani Resort including a massage each, and dinner under the moonlight… Very romantic! They also won the treasure hunt and had donated the prize of dinner for four at another resort to the crew of Long Shot and WMD great guys who were cruising on a very tight budget!!!

We waved a sad farewell to Musket Cove as we sailed past it on our way to Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu. We had decided to go direct to Port Vila to apply for Keith's multi-entry visa to Australia - the whole process only took a week thanks to the help of the friendly staff at the Australian High Commission. Our stay in Port Vila coincided with a Trade Fare and we were able to watch the various activities and enjoy the dancing groups from different islands.

Vanuatu (previously New Hebrides) is a very new nation, having only been granted independence from the French and British, who were joint governors of the Islands, in 1980. This has left a very mixed legacy. The many islands were not heavily colonised and missionaries did not have a huge presence there, so many traditional ceremonies and religions still remain. Each island is different, with many dialects, beliefs and customs. On Tanna and elsewhere there is still a following of the Cargo Cult whose central belief is that all food and luxuries will just appear from the sky if you wait! They are still waiting for John Frum to return laden with gifts ('John from the USA' arrived in the 1940s and handed out vast amounts of Red Cross aid). I believe that some tribes on Tanna still see the visiting cruise ships as proof of the existence of John Frum! We were often asked about our religious beliefs in the islands and once were asked whether they worship cows in the UK!

There are 83 islands in the group lying on a north south axis for 1,300 kms. We had originally planned to spend most of our season in this jewel of the Pacific but had to cut short our trip after the delays in Savu Savu. Nonetheless we made a fair attempt at visiting this wonderful country! Leaving the cosmopolitan and attractive town of Port Vila with its clear blue harbour we headed north; first stop Epi, where a swim with a friendly Dugong (large sea cow) was the highlight; we then crossed over to the Maskelyne Islands off Malekula where we spent some time with the village on Avokh Island.

Ni-Vanuatu are extremely friendly and are keen to talk with you and learn; they view trading as the way of life and have little use for money. Outside of the main towns of Port Vila and Luganville there are very few stores. Trading with yachts is their main way of obtaining "luxury goods" such as towels, drinking glasses, tinned and dry goods. And in return you get fruit, vegetables and beaming smiles. As in Fiji, kava is commonly drunk by the men, but is not so ritualised. Unlike Fiji, the kava from Vanuatu is very strong; I found that after two cups I was in a very relaxed state - which lasted two days! I'm convinced that kava could be the cure for menopausal women! The main difference between Fijian and Vanuatu kava is the method of preparation; in Fiji it is dried and pounded, in Vanuatu it is the green roots that are used. Traditionally these are chewed then spat into a bowl before mixing with water - thankfully they now more commonly use meat mincers to grind up the root - a little bit more hygienic…

We found that most villages were very similar - with life revolving around farming. They have extensive growing areas carved out of the tropical rain forest and grow coconuts, bananas, manioc, sweet potato, papaya, taro and other less common plants. Copra is their main cash crop which is sold to the local trader. Cooking is done on open fires in communal kitchens and protein comes from fish, chicken, fruit bats and others. Pigs and cows are slaughtered on special occasions - of which there seems to be many excuses; births, deaths, marriages, circumcisions, dedications, etc. A visit to a village must start with a visit to the Chief; no ritual, just a chat with lots of laughing and smiling. Apart from their own local dialect most Ni Vanuatus speak French or English and Bislama (a sort of pigeon English) so you have to sort out a common language. If you're an English speaker you can sort of follow Bislama. If you speak phrases such as taim i ren (rainy season), nam bilong mi (my names is...) you'll see what I mean. We saw no Europeans living in the islands and the old colonial planters' stone or concrete houses were in ruins - when we asked whether Independence was a good or bad thing we got very mixed responses. Most villages had access to electricity, often this was restricted to a couple of hours a day and only in the church or central meeting place. However, Digicell have set up a huge mobile phone network and most islands have access. Often cruisers are asked to charge phones and other devices - on one island we were asked whether we could charge a young girl's I-Pod! DVDs were also in great demand. All very incongruous, but progress comes in strange guises. The main form of transport was the outrigger dug out canoe, sometimes fitted with sail; these were everywhere. There are very few roads and trucks and cars are an uncommon sight. I have dwelt a little on the culture of Vanuatu as it is so different and special - and one could easily spend months there discovering so many things.

Luganville on the island of Santo was a major US military base in the Second World War and is now the second largest town in Vanuatu. They have turned their legacy into major tourist attractions; the first being the worlds largest diveable wreck the "President Coolidge" a pre-war luxury liner converted into a troop carrier. In 1942 it hit two "friendly" mines and sank 100 meters from the beach. The 210m ship was loaded with 5,440 troops and equipment; all the troops, bar two, got off safely, but the equipment remained. I did two dives on the wreck and it is huge. Shells, guns, helmets, plates etc. cover the sea bed, inside the holds are full of light artillery, trucks, jeeps, medical and other supplies all slowly succumbing to the rigors of the sea. I'm not a fan of wreck diving, but this dive is a must! The second is a snorkel off Million Dollar Point. When the Americans pulled out at the end of the war, they offered to sell lots of equipment and supplies to the local planters for a nominal amount, but the planters (hoping to get the goods for free) declined so the Americans built a ramp and drove millions of dollars of equipment into the sea. Today, rusted generators, building equipment, jeeps, and drums full of who-knows-what litter the sea bed.

Santo was the furthest north we went; turning south we visited the outer islands of Ambrae and Pentecost. Pentecost is famous for its land diving (AJ Hackett from NZ took this ritual and turned it into bungy jumping). During April and May when the liana vines are ready the young men from the south of Pentecost build huge wooden towers and jump off with the vines tied around their ankles as a right of passage. We were hoping to see one of these towers on our visit, but were told that they break them up for firewood, although we had a pleasant few days anchored off Wali village.

The favourable winds we had enjoyed turned unfavourable and our gentle reach turned into a hard windward beat; we dipped into and out of anchorages on our way south, eventually getting a nice steady breeze and sailed into Port Vila for a second time where we provisioned and checked out. Our last stop in Vanuatu was Tanna Island famous for its live volcano. The date was November 5th Guy Fawkes night! Late afternoon we had an interesting drive up to the rim of the volcano and were party to a spectacular display as fountains of lava and plumes of volcanic dust and rocks were shot into the air with tremendous force. Each mini eruption was preceded by a deep rumbling far below as the ground shook - which added to the suspense. Amazing!

With nothing left to hold us in Vanuatu and cyclone season approaching, we raised our anchor and set sail for New Caledonia 400 miles to the west. New Caledonia was to be our provisioning stop for the 800 miles crossing to Australia. We are currently anchored in Baie des Citrons, Noumea, a lovely bay which could have been plucked from the Cote d'Azur. What little we have seen of New Caledonia has upset our sense of justice. It appears that New Cal has been plundered - first deforested and then scarred by open cast mines in search of nickel and other metals. The local Kanak people have been sidelined and the French Government have poured millions of Euros into the Noumean economy - very little of this money reaches the outer islands or pockets of the indigenous people. Saying that, Noumea is a very pretty city and everything is available here in the French supermarkets and chain stores.

We will probably leave for Oz in a week or so and are hoping for a nice easy passage to round off this year's sailing season - although we have one eye open for early cyclones.