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Sea Whisper's Adventures Continue: Vanuatu

Lionel Dobson and Barbara Erickson

Sea Whisper
Fraser 50 Ketch
April 16th, 2015

After a 4 day passage from Fiji to Vanuatu, at 0900h August 25th Sea Whisper enters Lenakel on the island of Tanna to clear Customs and Immigration.  We are in a new country – the ‘Happy Country’ we are told.  We are looking forward to meeting the Ni-Vanuatu (ni-Van) people (Melanesians) in their villages and learn about their culture and customs.  We’ve heard and read about active volcanoes; shipwrecks; traditional ceremonies; Rom dances; friendly villages; Kava bars; hikes; jungles; dugongs, trading goods… and more.

Enroute to Lenakel, Tanna Island, Vanuatu

We will begin our exciting adventures of Vanuatu, a country, which in 2005, was selected as the only South Pacific country to receive a grant for sustainable economic growth.

History of Vanuatu

The country dates back 3,200 years to the Lapita people, who crossed the sea from Tahiti, Hawaii and New Zealand and then much later; the Polynesians and Europeans.  Some facts:

Capital City          Port Vila, Efate Island

Population            300,000

Currency               Vatu

Languages            Bislama, English, French and 100 plus local languages. Each village has their own language because, long ago, the villages were separated by mountains and rocky headlands.

Greeting                Alo

The Bislama language will make you laugh!  Really cracks us up when we hear:

“Do you speak English?”           Yu tok tok Engglis?

“Sorry I don’t understand        Sore, mi no save!

Mother Hubbard Dresses, Beaches and a Boiling  Volcano

Upon Sea Whisper’s landfall at Tanna Island, we see activity on the shore. We’re curious about the gathering in the square under the big Banyan trees.  Peering through the binoculars, it appears to be a local market with ni-Van women wearing long colourful dresses.  Hastily, we launch the dinghy and head to shore to find the officials and commence our paper work with Immigration and Customs officers.

Women in island dresses selling their wares at the Port Vila market

At the market, we weave through the women, young children and babes in arms.  We discover huge shimmering mounds of papayas, grapefruits, tomatoes, spinach, banana hands and ‘LapLap’, the country’s traditional food.  LapLap is mashed taro and beef, or corned beef wrapped in a banana leaf and baked in the Lovo, the earth oven.  The women are wearing Island Dresses or sometimes known as Mother Hubbard Dresses!

These traditional, roomy, colourful and uniquely designed garments, with scallops and epaulettes, look more like a costume than an everyday house and garden dress. In the middle of the 19th century, these dresses were introduced to Vanuatu by the missionaries.  Everywhere we look, there are women draped in a blaze of colour.  We love the Mother Hubbard Dresses.  At the shore we meet Ruth and Mari and admire their Island dresses and I ask “Where can I buy a Mother Hubbard dress?”  Ruth responds in perfect English, “I have one for you at my house. Wait here; I will go and get it.” I have only known this woman for three minutes! I am so excited. Skittishly we wander off through the dirt roads and pathways to her humble grass hut.  She presents me with an Island Dress:  the fabric hand-painted by Ruth in the traditional ni-Van design and then sewn and made into a lovely dress. Wow, now it’s mine… my very own Island Dress. I quiver with excitement and her wide smile tells me she is thrilled to pass her Island Dress on to me.

At the beach, we stroll around and the sights are intriguing:  women are bashing clothes on the rocks with sticks and scrubbing and rinsing the daily laundry in the fresh water pools near the shore. On Tanna Island, there are underground thermal springs that continually flow out to the ocean.  At low tide, the fresh water pools become the laundry tubs for the village people.  And then the hand-wrung laundry is sprawled all over the hot rocks and secured with bigger rocks to dry. Should we consider bringing our boat laundry to the fresh-water spring laundromat? Kids are everywhere, splashing in the warm water and playing games at the beach. And some of them are helping mum wash the buckets of clothes and spread the garments on the hot rocks to dry.  The families are wandering along the beach, taking in the little pleasures of the day.  This is the local life in Vanuatu.

Mount Yasur Volcano

A two hour ride in a 4WD on a bumpy road, through villages, rainforest, and coffee plantations, brought us to the ash plains of Mount Yasur, an active volcano.  The landscape suddenly became an enormous, barren-gray desert.  Any moment an Alien may appear!  Along a steep path up to the crater rim we climbed.  The ground started to tremble! And then roar, roar, roar!  It was very scary.  Lumps of red-hot molten rock shot well above our heads, followed by golden fireworks.  Suddenly all goes quiet. And then another big bang and the ground shakes again and the lightning flashes.  Somewhat terrifying, but we were cautious not to go too close to the crater.  Recently, one woman coaxed her guide to accompany her to the edge for photographs.  They were both killed instantly with the hot molten rockets of magma.

Meet Dr. Jeff Unger from Victoria

Another curiosity was to check out the hospital up the hill in Lenakel, Tanna, where we understand that Victoria, B.C. doctors have been working for several years – Dr. Lewis and Dr. Hildebrand, to mention a couple.  We walked up the steep hill out of town to find the 40-50 bed hospital, with a maternity ward, a men’s and a women’s ward, a children’s ward, tuberculosis ward and an operating room for minor surgeries.  What a delight it was to meet Dr. Jeff Unger and his wife Carla and their two daughters, Marin and Neva. This lovely family from Oak Bay in Victoria plan to put in a year in Vanuatu. They have a house on the hospital grounds, where there is a volleyball net for the staff to play volleyball. In the hospital, it was interesting to see how many ni-Van family members were visiting and supporting their loved ones at the bedside.  Especially mothers and grandmothers. And the women were sporting their Island Dresses! Oh Yes! There were 2 babies born the day we were there, and it was interesting to see Dr. Unger’s daughters engaging with the new mothers.  The scene was all very casual, with families and pets and open doors.  Bravo Victoria Doctors!

Dr. Jeff Unger and his family from Victoria work at the hospital on Tanna Island, Vanuatu

Climb Every Mountain, Ford Every Stream

Mt. Marum, 1270m; Village Ranvetlam, Ambrym Island

Distance/duration:   25 km.

Day 1:  Hike up to the volcano crater and camp overnight on the caldera.

Day 2:  Hike out.

Team:  2 Canadians, 3 Mexicans, 1 Pole, 1 ni-Van Guide

Supplies/gear:  2 Tents, sleeping bags, foul weather gear, sunscreen, water, 2 lunches, 1 breakfast, 1 supper, bug spray, large cooking pot, coffee and chocolate

Weather:  Iffy?   Cloud and possible rain

Trailhead of the trek to Mt. Marum, Ambrym Island - 2 Canadians, 3 Mexicans, and 1 Polish crew start out for the summit

Through the jungle and bamboo forests we hiked, climbing through lush green mountains and valleys, for 3 hours.  We keep going, with our packs feeling heavy and finally reach the ash plain with its lush vegetation.  Plans have changed.  We will not be heading up to the caldera due to the inclement weather.  We will be stopping at the hut. It’s raining and still several kilometers of hacking through scrub and old lava to reach the hut. We all press on.

After a long hike on the ash plain, the hut becomes visible through the scrub and small trees. “A hut?” we ask.  Our eyes glare at a small platform with half-moon horizontal logs and a roof of palm branches.  There are no walls. Hmmm. The wind blows, the rain falls.

We pitch our tent on the ash plain beside the hut. We are tired and hungry. We make dinner plates out of palm leaves.  The tent leaks.  Our guide, Yanick, builds a campfire that crackles and we huddle around the burning sticks. We start to dry our wet socks and boots.  We eat our sandwiches and then Yanick asks the big question.  “Do you want to carry on and hike up to the volcano rim?”  Two more hours up and two hours back to the camp.  We take a vote.  Five out of six decide to go for it, despite the weather. We are so eager and hopeful to be rewarded with a view of the active volcano doing its magic, despite the weather.

We hack our way through the wet underbrush of the ash plain, and the old lava and reach the riverbed. And the hard work starts.  Up we go, traversing side to side, hopping over the big boulders, forging through the riverbed and the flowing stream.  Onwards and upwards, determined to reach the volcano rim and see the smoke and the red-hot magma, and then return to the camp before dark.  March, march, march.  It’s a blessing we don’t have the weight of our backpacks. We reach the narrow razor-backed ridge and slowly and carefully make our final ascent, still hoping to catch a glimpse of Mt. Marum and Mother Nature doing her thing! However, the weather is deteriorating.

Destination reached:  we can barely see one another in all the mist and fog.  A brief stop.  A misty photo-shoot as we hope for a break in the mist to see the crater.  No luck…just a whiff of sulphur and smoke and ash!  “Please let’s go down,” I called to our guide a little anxiously.  Down, down, down.  The steep trail, not so forgiving, led Yanick and the team back to the river bed, with the water much higher now. The boulders of the riverbed became more challenging. Picking our way through the clumps of bush, scrub and fog, we were back down on the ash plain. Arriving at the hut and our make shift camp, we were all soaked to the skin.

Ah…it’s time for a sip of Tequila, some hot tea. Alejandro, a professional chef, took charge and concocted an enormous pot of hot, delicious curry.  Our guide roasted bananas. We told stories, laughed and recapped the day…our long and arduous hike up the mountain.  And then some of us collapsed into the tent, which now had a second tent on the bottom to stop the seepage from the ground.  The others sprawled out on the hut platform with the rippled floor boards.  After a bit of sleep in the wilderness, it was early morning. It was into our damp clothes.  Huddled around the fire with hot coffee, bread and jam, we strapped on our packs and headed back to Ranvetlan village.  Even though we missed seeing the fiery volcano, four nations had joined together for an out-of-this-world wilderness experience!  “ ‘Tankyu’ Yanick!”

Nambas – Penis Wraps and Bare Breasts

What a beautiful bay with great protection from prevailing winds. We lower the dinghy and almost instantly a flock of naked kids come running along the beach to greet us.  We secure the dinghy and are mobbed by kids between 2 – 10 years.  John Eddy Saitol accompanies them.  He is the spokesman for the village. Everyone is so friendly and speaks fairly good English.  We notice how poor they are.  The women are wearing torn and soiled dresses and the children are running around with little to no clothes. But the smiles and hospitality is uplifting and they are delighted to see us.  The village is small but the spirit is big!  While I am visiting the ladies, Lionel is arranging for the men and women to perform a traditional ceremonial dance.

This cultural dance group wear "Small Nambas"

Tomorrow comes and we are asked to show up in the forest at 3:30 pm. Before we go, we learn that the two major cultural groups are the Big Nambas and Small Nambas.  The Small Nambas’ men wear only one pandanus leaf around the penis and tucked into a bark belt.  The testicles are exposed.  Big Nambas men wrap large purple pandanus leaves around their penis.  The loose ends are secured in a thick bark belt.  As we arrive we are greeted by the ‘Small Nambas’ men.  They shake our hand and present a fresh garland of leaves around our neck.  The Tamtams are ready to beat a rhythm and the dance begins.  There are chants and intricate steps back and forth on the earth dance floor in the forest. It’s awesome, it’s wild, and it’s extraordinary! The costumes, the movements, the tamtams, the spirit – all stunning.  We love it!  And above all, it was a Birthday surprise for me!

The women are not to be outdone by the men.  In another part of the forest, we find a robust energetic group of women and several children ready to perform for us, in their flowing grass skirts and bare breasts.  The chants begin and the dancing begins with the beat of the Tamtam echoing through the trees of the jungle. Tamtams beat. Bare feet stamp the earth. They smile and invite me to join in.  I want this forest-dancing experience to last forever.  Some of the small children are shyly perched on the periphery and taking it all in.  The jungle-forest, the dancing, the beautiful smiling ni-Van women and their ancient living culture…never to be forgotten.

Thank you Lionel, for my unforgettable birthday present.

My Village, My Garden, My Island

In the outer islands, the ni-Vans’ mission and purpose in life is to protect the land.  The islanders boast of their lifestyle, “I can go to my garden; go fishing; lie under a mango tree; play with my children and grandchildren; weave; carve; sit and tell stories; dance, walk and dream.  If we have our land, we can have this life.”  However, in our travels throughout the remote islands of the South Pacific and its villages, we can see that things are not always rosy in the outer islands. Most people have little money to educate their children and see that their families have proper health care.  Members of some families are forced to move to the ‘city’ to find work to help support their families in the outer islands.

For two Canadians, we are here in Vanuatu to celebrate the culture, the land, the beauty and the extraordinarily happy people of the villages, who have smiles a mile wide. During the day in the village, children play under the glittering sun.  Women are coming and going from the family garden, the weaving assembly and the meeting hut where they sell their goods, i.e. baskets, purses and mats.  The woven purses are irresistible – I now have a dozen of these gorgeous, fine-woven gems.  The women are also busy looking after the babies and preparing the evening meal. We take it all in.  It’s exotic.  The culture, the traditions, and the spirituality overwhelms us.  How fortunate we are to experience such happiness and peace. Men are taking care of their crops, and some are fishing, hunting, or building outrigger canoes.  Others are carving, drinking Kava and meeting in the Nakamal, the men’s clubhouse, where they talk about matters of their village and country.

Thank you to the cooks for preparing the dinner of traditional island foods

At Lolong village on Pentecost Island, we feel at home with the hospitality extended to us.  Michael and Mary are preparing a dinner of all local foods for the sailing yachts Sea Whisper, Windkist and Don Leon.  The Chief of the village, Joseph, walks us all along the dirt paths and roads through the village. People are going about their day, many of them silencing themselves under the shade of a large banyan tree. We meet and greet many smiling women and children.  We chat.  We buy handbags. We look and see. Exotic. How fortunate we are to experience such peace and happiness.

Diving in Fiji and Vanuatu

Lionel and I experienced some wonderful underwater adventures on Namena Island in Fiji.

Spectacular colours

Spectacular colours

In the warm waters of Namena in Fiji, we dove Grand Central Station, The Rainbow Wall and The Pillars.  What a thrill to experience such a grand underwater tropical garden of soft and hard corals, an amazing number of fish species, including barracuda and white and black tip sharks.  Awesome!

In Vanuatu, we dove the luxury-liner/troop ship wreck of the USS President Coolidge. We were able to dive through various parts of the largest and most accessible shipwreck in the world.  This ship was sunk after hitting a friendly mine in 1942.  Five thousand troops were rescued.

It was a bit spooky, diving through cargo holds and bathrooms, etc.

The dive site of Million Dollar Point is where thousands of tonnes of military gear and equipment was discarded and dumped into the ocean, rather than give it to the local Government who refused to pay 6 cents on the dollar.

Sea Whisper’s adventures to be continued in 2015.

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