New Caledonia and Vanuatu

August 15, 2004

Our last message to you was written in March. Some of our friends have been worried about not hearing from us in such a long time and have written to us via our boat e mail. Thanks for your concern. Sometimes our lives are moving slowly enough not to have anything interesting to write. Sometimes it is just TOO complicated to get to an internet to transmit a group message. In Noumea the keyboards were set up for French and the cost was $12 per hour!

We left New Zealand about the middle of June after a tremendously successful haul-out in Tauranga, about 100 miles south of Whangarei. We patched up our dent from the reef-kissing incident, totally replaced our propeller shaft (it was time!) and repainted the bottom. The trip north was not much fun but that space between NZ , Fiji and New Caledonia is nearly always rough. Keep in mind that it is winter here in the Southern Hemisphere. During these months one Low Pressure system after another marches across the southern end of Australia into the Tasman Sea from west to east. When it reaches the Tasman it is free to push its way north and then hits NZ and that cruising area with a lot of force. We had one night with 40-45 knot winds and very big seas. Actually, that was not bad compared to our Aussie friends on the other side of the front who had to ride out those winds for more than 60 hours!

We spent about a month in New Caledonia and enjoyed being back at anchor. What a relief it was to let the checking account balance build up a little. We did spend a lot of money in New Zealand on all the boat projects! All in all, New Caledonia was rather boring though and we were happy to land here in Vanuatu on August 8th. We had stayed in touch with our Aussie friends, Tim & Alison, with the idea of meeting up in Vanuatu and were lucky to see them sail into the harbor just a day later than Satori.

Vanuatu is a chain of 82 islands running basically south to north for 500 miles where two tectonic plates meet deep beneath the Pacific Ocean. It is also the most hurricane-prone country in the South Pacific. Cruisers love this country but usually clear out to the north or south by October-November.

As we approached the southern island of Tanna very early in the morning on the 8th, we scanned the skies for any sign of the active volcano, Yasur, that we had heard so much about. As the sky seemed to fill with a huge plume of gray smoke, we realized that the volcano would be very close to our anchorage. See Photo #1. It was a beautiful Sunday morning when we went ashore with a few other boaters to check out the village and make arrangements for land transportation across the island in order to check in with customs and immigration.

Vanuatu has a very interesting history involving French and British occupation. During the time of WW I and WW II, these two countries ruled Vanuatu jointly in a “Condominium” style government. Hard to believe the French and the Brits ever worked together on anything, but they did. They agreed not to make any changes unless both sides agreed. During the 70’s the people were successful in gaining their independence, but the two influences have remained. In our village there is a primary school and two separate secondary schools – one using French and one English. The local families send half their children to the English school and the others to the French.

The culture is diverse as well in this country. In the interior of the islands, villages still practice the “custom” way of life. Men wear only penis wrappers called ‘nambas’ and the women – only grass skirts. Most are patriarchal and still use bride prices. Women in the custom villages have a much shorter lifespan than men as they are expected to do just all of the work…no surprise there!

During that first day, while wandering the village and the area, we heard several loud booms and belches from Yasur. Within swimming distance from our anchorage several sources of steam come pouring out of the hillside. How delicious to swim close to the outflows with the warmth from the hot water and to see the gorgeous and varied coral life that the warm water produces!

With Tim and Alison we made the trek across the island – two hours in the back of a pickup – in order to check in with the officials in Lenakel. Alison mentioned that if we had not been navigating that dirt road in a truck, one might have thought it to be a river- bed. Half way there we came close to Yasur and had to cross a dessert of ash and then back onto the pitted and twisting road. All along the road we passed people walking and children playing. Most of them would wave and then giggle when we waved and greeted them with smiles. They are a very gentle and rather naïve people. The children would call “Good Bye, Good Bye” and a few of them would race along back trying to catch the truck.

Because we arrived at lunchtime, Stanley took us to a tiny grass thatched hut where Auntie Mary (Photo #2) produced plates with a huge pile of rice in the middle, some greens and fish on the side…$2. I took a picture of Auntie Mary in her very tiny kitchen – about 4’ X 10’. Since Auntie Mary was about that big herself, we marveled at what she could accomplish back there.

After the trip across island a front came through the area and we were all quite restricted to our boats with 35 knot winds. We got together with Tim and Alison each day sharing a meal and good company, but all of us eager for a visit to see Yasur in action at night. We had to organize this activity through Stanley again. The procedure is for Stanley to go to the single telephone in the village of 400 people and use his phone card to call Tom, the pickup driver who lives on the other side of Yasur. Tom was due to arrive about 3 PM. Since there were 17 of us who wanted to go, Tom would need to take half the group to the volcano and then return for the other half about 4 PM. As seems to be the normal state of affairs here, everything operates on “island time”. The group of 17 Americans, Aussies, and Kiwis stood around visiting for a while near the yacht club and then wandered into the village for something to do. Since Tom was running late we had time to check out the local West Marine hardware in a special hut there in the village. About a year ago a 62’ yacht was grounded on the local reef. As a present to the village that saved them from their sinking boat, the boat was given to the local people to salvage. Rigging, electronic gear, masts, winches and many pieces of gear were removed and stored there in this hut.

Later a cruiser came along with a West Marine catalogue and helped them price all this gear. It did provide good entertainment while waiting for our ride. About 5:30 most of the cruisers gave up and headed for home. Six of us hung around a little longer listening to a fellow named Samson, 57 years old, tell us some of the history of the island. When we had finally decided to give up – about 6:30 PM Tom finally arrived and off we went for our volcano adventure.

The village owning the land of the volcano charges a $20/person admission fee. We have all decided that they deserve the money as they must live within the shadow of that glorious but frightening monster. The pickup took us nearly to the top so that we had a very short walk up to the rim of the crater. We feel quite humble at this point…trying to describe this experience. Looking down into the crater we could see the magma that had been spit out recently still glowing in large chunks. There was a constant rumbling sound and as Yasur was building up to an explosion there would be an extra loud hissing – similar to the sound of a jet plane doing its run-up prior to take off. Then it was time for the most spectacular 4th of July fireworks that you can ever imagine. We would watch a particularly large chunk of magma – sometimes the size of an automobile – fly high into the sky and then settle back within the crater with a loud “PLOP”. See Photo #3. We think that the village here at Port Resolution is special enough to merit its own group message. In that way we can also include a few more photos. It is really difficult to decide which photos to include. Nice to be back to a place that is just “that special”!

We send our best regards and hope that some of you will have some questions or comments about life in Vanuatu for us.

Jane and Sander