IT’S OFF TO THE ISLANDS OF VANUATU

Efate Island and Nguna Island, Vanuatu

July 2023

Monday 3rd July and it’s time to leave Port Vila. Firstly, though we needed to refuel.

It’s not a very big fuel wharf.

We were supposed to be a lot higher, that poor fender is doing a power of work.

And by the time we found Willy to help us get out of the berth (9am Vanuatu time turns out to be sometime after 10am) we had missed what would have been a far more comfortable higher tide.  But the actual process of de-berthing, coming alongside and refuelling was simple.

We did not fill the tanks all the way to the top, as we would need to refuel anyway prior to leaving the country and at $2.70 AUD / litre, it is not a cheap exercise.

Both Peter and I were heading out with something more than a little trepidation, as we would now be heading into remote islands and there was some nervousness about having to meet tribal chiefs and work our way through local customs, trading goods and sourcing fresh food. And Taz has put in an order for only flat mill pond like seas.

To ease back into cruising and due to how close the islands are, we intended to only do short 25-30Nm trips each day. We had some information from a source called the ‘Rocket Guides to Vanuatu and New Caledonia’, which is recommended reading for cruising here.  While it is very helpful, as it shows recommended anchorages and information on the local area at each anchorage, we have since found some of the information to be quite dated.  This was exampled in our very first anchorage in Havanah Harbour on the western side of Efate. 

In the guide it was shown as a remote bit of coastline. When we arrived in the afternoon, we found that quite a few villas had been built along the foreshore and it was well populated by wealthy locals and expats. By road it is probably only 30 mins from Port Villa and is a beautiful area, so it had become quite popular. Not to worry, as it was a very calm anchorage and an easy start to our exploration (and no-one from the houses complained that we were anchored in their front yards).

And Taz was most pleased, as we did anchor in mill pond conditions.

The next day we cruised up between Efate and Moso islands to a quiet anchorage at the top of the inlet. On the way up the inlet we passed a sad (and sobering) sight.

‘Blue Gold’, a 50m superyacht, has been like this since she came to grief here during cyclone Pam in 2019 (she was firmly anchored, until she got hit by another boat! Responsibility for her is still in dispute).

As Peter was up the front of the boat getting ready to drop the anchor, he suddenly gave a great shout. It turned out a very large pilot whale had surfaced right in front of him which startled him. Unfortunately, it had disappeared by the time I rushed out, but the area was full of sea life, with smaller dolphins and turtles making an appearance.

Today’s beautiful anchorage.  Peter tried to drop the anchor on a whale! A dolphin came over to settle the situation and a Turtle appeared to be taking notes.

We were both surprised that it is quite cold (for someone used to Nth Qld, I think my blood is thinning).  But I’m thinking of cracking out my jacket, and I need to clean that locker anyway from the salt ingress (enroute to Vanuatu) and the mould is probably mounting another attack as well (just a tropical constant). It is pesky stuff and I’m having to wipe every surface with vinegar; hats, coats, books, and then spray the lot with Teatree.  Taz was not impressed as he had to walk through the haze of smells to get to his kitty tray.

You clean and you find (usually mould or salt, but sometimes a job that needs attending to).  I’m not sure if Peter really likes it when I pop my head up to say that I’ve found something.  This time it was the humidity tub from the pilot house, the contents of which had trickled down into my wardrobe, but I now found had also seeped into the front room linen and mattress. I’m hoping that the lack of humidity here has slowed progress down and the layers of mattress-cover gave some protection.  [Nope, the mattress has a disturbing crispy texture on that corner.  But nothing much I can do there until we get to New Zealand].  I also found a porthole screen that had been torn during the crossing (time to dig out the spare fly screen from under the bed).

Just found these; a bit late to read them now – hahaha

At least the anchor is always coming up clean in these lovely sandy anchorages.

Not far from where we were anchored, and pretty well hidden in the coastline were several high-end tourist resorts.  So, after a peaceful night we decided to head away from Efate and relative civilisation, to our first island. The island of Nguna, just north of Efate.

The passage was lovely, with calm seas, not much wind and swarms of flying fish (schools doesn’t sound right when they are in the air).  We pulled in and anchored around lunchtime.

This is a country of volcanos – this one is not active.

It’s a good thing we waited to go into shore until the afternoon when the tide was higher, as it is a doozy of an entrance for dinghys.  And stress levels were already high as this would be the first time for us going in to visit the local village and paying our respects to the chief.  The entrance to the beach was through a narrow break in the reef, but it was still very shallow and we ended up having to drag the tender over the second lot of reef to get to the shore.

Peter with Shem (the tender is wallowing on gravel in the middle background and Opal Lady is anchored in the right background)

As we approached the beach, we could see a man standing waiting for us.  His name was Shem and he was the chief of the village we had parked in front of.  He had a huge grin, which we came to learn was a standard feature for the Vanuatu people (NiVan). He spoke pretty good English and gave us a 40 minute tour of the village. The neatness of the village was a standout feature for us. The houses were a mixture of bamboo huts with palm frond roofs with the occasional cement brick building.  There was very little rubbish about.

Each house had a little garden with beautiful ‘living fences’ [The Burao Tree is a tropical hibiscus.  It has a delicate pale yellow flower with a magenta center.  To make a fence, people just push sticks of this plant into the ground, in a line, and they grow into a beautiful green fence! We came across this fencing all through Vanuatu]. The population of the village was about 500 people and they only use solar power.

As we had come in on the tender we noticed some very large white tent buildings, these turned out to be the current school.  The original buildings had been de-roofed in the recent cyclone and school was now taught out of the tents (donated by the Red Cross).  Even though they were just tents, it was all very neatly laid out and divided into various age groups.

It was interesting that everyone seemed to take the cyclones and the damage they caused in their stride.

Shem talked about how they were happy to be mentioned in the ‘Rocket Guide’, as it meant that they were a regular stop for cruisers and often did Feasts for them. Shem then asked if we would like to taste the local food at a dinner the next evening. Unfortunately, he had to go to Port Vila on business, but he organised with his wife to prepare a meal (often called a Feast for tourists).  We would pay his wife the agreed price once we had eaten. We were quite keen to see what the local food was like so readily agreed.  After asking permission to snorkel their reef the next day, we left on the promise of returning for tea the following evening.  

We went snorkeling the next day, on the south side of the anchorage.  The north side had been declared a marine reserve by the village.  We could have snorkeled there but couldn’t quite work out who we were supposed to pay the fee to and how much it was.  (Declaring a Reserve means that as well as nominating someone to look after that area, the village can also charge a fee for cruisers to use it). There was a lot of small marine life amongst the rubble (we assume multiple cyclone damage).  The number of fish, although small in size, along the wall of the channel entrance was impressive.

Lots of rubble, but lots of small colourful life as well

We headed back in around 5:30pm the next evening and were met on the beach by Gladys (Shem’s granddaughter) and Richard (her cousin).  These two lovely young people helped us with the tender and guided us up to the Nakamal building (the cups and bowls were laid out on the little bar for drinking Kava later), it had been decorated with cloths and flowers.  [Every village has a Nakamal, even if it is just an area with benches – the Nakamal is like the local Kava pub.]

Me chatting with Gladys.  Yes, others did join us eating, though not most of the adults, as they were waiting for their evening Kava (and most people don’t eat before drinking Kava).  We have since worked out that even though we had agreed on 5:30pm with Shem, it would probably have been more polite for us to come in earlier, as then they would not have had to wait for their evening drinkies – live and learn, and they didn’t seem to mind much. (The alternative would be to come in for the Kava session and then eat the feast after).

Peter being polite about asking “What is it?” There was a colourful array of foods laid out on the table and we both sampled all of the offerings.  The foods included roasted pumpkin topped with coconut cream, steamed taro, manioc in cabbage, tuna done two ways and watermelon.  All of it was good, although I wouldn’t be going back for the taro.  None of it was as bland as we, in our ignorance, had expected.

As we ate, more of the children joined us to eat as well.  They were incredibly shy, not like the cat or Sweetie the Piglet (seriously, that was its name).

Once the meal was over, I asked if any of the primary school teachers were around.  I presented them with several books and timetables charts for their library which were received with yet more huge smiles. We then thanked Shem’s wife for all the food and paid for our meal. We suspect we paid too much (the perils of this being the first stop for many cruisers), but it was a very successful first for us and everyone was happy.  Gladys and Richard made sure that we got back to our tender safely; it was pitch dark by now.  At least the tide was in, so we didn’t need to worry too much about the trip back to the boat.

Feeling very pleased with ourselves, no-one had been offended and everyone left with smiles, we had a good night’s sleep prior to heading off to our next island adventure.

Taz Talks:

And I am left on the boat to hunt down bits of ash from the fires that are burning on every island. At this rate we may end up with more ash than my fur on the boat!

Boat Works:

Secured the bar across the top of the anchor roller (drilled and inserted a circlip through the existing latch piece)

Navigation Notes:

[This is a record of our experiences and is not intended as a recommendation for others. We measure our depths from the lowest point of the hull (add 1.6m for actual water level depth) Dates are in standard Australian format D/M/Y]

Anchored Port Havannah; 3/7/23, at 17 36.269S, 168 14.664E, in 9m water with ~0.4m tide, 40m chain.  Winds SE <10knts, full moon.  Sandy bottom. [Rocket Guide to Vanuatu, Chesher, 2023]. Anchorage was directly in front of a private property.

Anchored Moso Island Channel, Port Havannah; 5/7/23, at 17 31.859S, 168 18.009E, in 8m water with ~0.4m tide, 40m chain, exit angle 308o.  Winds SE <10knts.  Sandy bottom, widely spaced bombies. [Rocket Guide to Vanuatu, Chesher, 2023]. Quiet anchorage.

Anchored Nguna Island; 6/7/23, at 17 25.599S, 168 19.448E, in 13.7m water with ~1m tide, exit angle 170o. Take care negotiating the dinghy channel to the beach. There are wooden poles marking the northern side of the channel. [Rocket Guide to Vanuatu, Chesher, 2023]

Banner Photo: The island of Nguna

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