Emae and Epi Islands, Vanuatu.
Saturday 8th July, and we are off on a 25Nm hop to Emae Island enroute to Epi Island, where we intend to spend a few days. With 83 islands to choose from, we are using the ‘Rocket Guide to Vanuatu’ and the comments from other cruisers posted on ‘Navionics’, ‘PredictWind’ and other boat blogs to identify some ‘must visit’ places.
The weather was perfect for our 4 hour cruise; 7 knots of wind, 1m of swell but on a comfortable 7 second period and bright blue sunny skies with just the odd fluffy cloud. It was so lovely that Taz decided to ignore the rules and go outside for some sunshine, while the boat was still moving.
Someone hasn’t read his ‘boat procedures manual’
Dad spoiled his fun.
By 1pm we dropped anchor off a black-sand beach in Sulua Bay. We didn’t put the tender down as we were only intending to be here overnight. Peter baked bread and we settled in for a restful afternoon.
The sailing boat ‘Fragancia’ came into the anchorage a bit late in the evening. That is their mast light at the bottom left of the photo. The bright light at the top right, near our boat pole, is Venus which has been incredibly big and bright since we got to Vanuatu.
The next morning, we continued north, bound for Revolieu Bay, which is about halfway up the island of Epi.
Again, it was a short trip, in overcast conditions but quite pleasant. I did get a bit of a shock rounding the headland into the bay, when the depth sounder went from 100m up to 12m quite quickly. It seems the headland reef extends an awful lot further out than is shown on the charts. Fortunately, from our experiences in Nth Queensland, we are always cautious approaching new anchorages and have a healthy caution regarding the accuracy of charts in remote places. Otherwise, it was an easy anchorage to negotiate.
The headland extends a lot further out from the end of the breakers. View looking south out of Revolieu Bay.
We could see teenagers doing what looked like PE lessons on the beach and in the late afternoon, there were people riding horses (not tourists doing the slow walk, but real galloping along the sand). Unfortunately, it turned out to be a very rolly anchorage, even after we’d put out both flopper stoppers.).
According to the Rocket Guide, Lamen Bay, a bit further north is home to a group of dugongs, has friendly people and was definitely one of the places we should spend some time. So, for the third time in three days we lifted anchor and headed further north (I must admit I prefer to just sit in one place for a wee while absorbing the scene; not so much of this go-go-go. Peter knows this and schedules big stops regularly). Family and Friends have suggested that the boat seems to have a BIG say in scheduling some of our longer stops (to have some maintenance done), and while that is true, it is just a part of boating and I like to think that the big girl knows I like staying in one place for a while.
The clouds were gradually lifting as we headed for Lamen Bay, until we had lovely sunshine and blue skies for anchoring – well that has got to be a good omen. It was easy to see, from the shape of the bay, that it would be quite a sheltered anchorage. We dropped anchor in 9m of water about 600m from shore (as per the Rocket Guide recommendation) and after a short rest we headed into shore. It all looked very picturesque.
The wharf has been broken since at least 2018 (it was mentioned in another boater’s blog). It was a cyclone that took it out, but the engineer in us both couldn’t help but notice the complete lack of steel reinforcing in the concrete; the poor thing never stood a chance (it does make a lovely ‘failure’ photo though).
We found the Sunshine Bungalows along the front road and met Joshua the owner. He was very friendly and we organised to go back in for a meal that evening. I was expecting fish for tea; his brother, Douglas, was heading out in his fishing boat as we came in. He had very kindly stopped to help us anchor the tender – we are trying out the bungy anchor for the first time and while I am sure we will get to the point where we look like we know what we are doing with it, we are definitely not there yet. Never mind, I’m used to wading through water holding an anchor and the poor tender is used to lolling about along a shoreline.
Joshua told us we should anchor a lot closer to shore as we would be more sheltered. Sounded good to us, so once we got back to the boat we moved forward until we were only 300m from shore (but still in 8m of water over black sand). There were some very obvious bombies to steer clear of, but with the sun shining, Peter at the front of the boat could pick them out easily and there was good swing room between them.
Shortly after, a large catamaran flying an Australian flag pulled in. We popped over to introduce ourselves and let them know they could move in closer (they too were following the Rocket Guide). Tracey and Jeff then headed inshore and we agreed to meet up for dinner that evening at the Bungalows.
‘Zero’ (the racing catamaran) is anchored next to us on the right. The Dutch cat on the left stayed further out (they didn’t stay very long). The island in the background is Lamen Island (home of the dugongs).
What we didn’t realise until we got into shore that evening, was that they had booked a meal at different set of bungalows (turns out there are two along the foreshore and another further inland – who knew?) So, we ended up eating at different restaurants! Our meal was a little later than we expected as the stove had run out of gas, but we passed the time playing with two of Joshua’s children. Peter had little Helen in stitches playing peek a boo, and I was taught a clapping game by Lena. After the gas cylinder arrived and the dessert was in the oven (Lemon Meringue – I know, how unexpected is that!) we had a lovely meal (Tuna fish caught by Douglas). We were joined by two lawyers who were staying in the bungalows. They were on the island to represent the different parties in a land dispute (there are lots of land disputes in Vanuatu; mostly to do with traditional owners reclaiming land that had been sold by the French – they don’t seem to like the French very much). This particular case was a huge deal for the locals and had been going on for 20 years! They couldn’t talk about the case especially as they were on opposite sides, so our dinner conversation was mostly about the Pacific University (see Research Ravings below for details).
The next day we met locals Benny and Kenneth, with whom Tracey and Jeff had dinner the previous evening. What a lovely couple; Benny runs the bungalows and restaurant, and Kenneth is the Pastor on the nearby island of Lamen. Jeff had organised with Kenneth to visit the island of Lamen to see the village and school, and to go snorkelling for those dugongs. We each travelled over in our own dinghys, Kenneth travelling with Jeff and Tracey. We enjoyed a pleasant afternoon walking around the village, learning the history and meeting the locals. The neatness and prettiness of the village impressed us all.
Kenneth introduced us to his son, the Principal at the primary school, and I presented him with a parcel of reading books.
Peter slipped back into ‘Africa’ mode; discussing the water and power supply for the village with Kenneth. Peter is very good at starting conversations, asking people questions and is genuinely interested in the communities. It is always impressive to see the efforts people have made to make a good life for themselves in whatever circumstances. The photo shows Peter and Tracey surrounded by giggling children on their way home for lunch (I think they detoured for quite a while to follow us.)
The streets were lovely shady avenues of fruit trees.
My sister commented that everything looks nice a green in the photos, and I had to tell her that Kenneth had been complaining that it is very dry and dusty at the moment (I had a conversation with him about the difference between what ‘dry’ meant in Vanuatu and in my home town of Kalgoorlie-Boulder. He didn’t like the sound of the desert at all.
We eventually went snorkelling in the small harbour. Conditions were not great for snorkelling, it being overcast, windy and choppy, but we thought we’d best give it a go. Amongst the large amount of coral rubble, Peter found a Lionfish and I found a truly huge blue Sea Star. What we did not find were any dugongs. Most probably the dugongs have cleared out to find food, as the recent cyclones definitely ripped up the seagrass meadows here.
During the afternoon the large, rather ugly, inter-island ferry called “Big Sista’ came in and anchored very close to us all. I’m pretty sure they weren’t adhering to the loading rules for getting people into the tenders and then to shore. Kenneth had told us there were a lot of people arriving for the land case. After finally getting all the people unloaded, the tenders then spent the afternoon ferrying filled white sacks onto the ferry. I asked Benny about this later and she said that the sacks contained Cocoa, that the islanders sell to raise some cash income. If the sacks were black or blue then it would have been copra. We went on to notice that many islands would have a pile of sacks stacked on the beach above the high-water mark waiting for loading onto a ferry or barge.
‘Zero’ offered to host dinner that night and we contributed Australian steak and Chocolate IceCream (when talking about their visit to Australia some years ago, Kenneth mentioned that what Benny had really enjoyed was eating ice cream on the beach and fortunately I’d made a batch the day before). Neither Kenneth or Benny had eaten Steak since last year and really enjoyed their meal. They were very interesting to listen to speaking about the local politics and history of the country. Benny is very literate and something of a go getter in these parts. She is very proud that Vanuatu is a safe country for tourists and boaters; “You can leave your doors open, not like in the Solomons”, she informed us.
I am always impressed with how well the big cats are setup for entertaining out the back. ‘Zero’, even though she is built for speed, is a very comfortable craft. As we were leaving to take Kenneth and Benny back to shore, Benny announced (told us really) that we would all come in tomorrow for a cooking lesson.
We had a great deal of yummy fun the next day making coconut jam and a local food called Simboro.
To make coconut jam you first have to grate your coconuts. It’s quite therapeutic and a superbly simple system, being just a rounded metal blade on the end of a long paddle of wood that you sit on. Benny said boys and girls all knew how to grate coconut properly and quickly, by the age of 10 (there was definitely the hint that we weren’t there yet). The grated coconut was then squeezed of milk and the solids put aside for feeding to the pigs. A diabetes inducing amount of sugar was then melted over a fire of sticks until it caramelised and the fresh coconut milk added. Voila, coconut jam. Tracey and I later raided our boats to supply a motley collection of small glass jars for Benny to use for selling this jam to locals.
The “piece de resistance” item of the cooking lesson was the Simboro. And we’d want to get that right, as that was to be lunch.
A big root was stripped and grated (this was Manioc that we had seen being sold in the markets). The pulp was then wrapped in Island Cabbage leaves, layered in a cooking pot and covered with the fresh coconut milk. This was cooked on the gas stove back at Bennys restaurant.
Jeff proved to be an Ace at wrapping Simboro. Tracy was stripping Rosella flowers to make jam back on her boat.
While lunch was happily bubbling away, we had coffee and discussed the appropriate amount to pay for the tomatoes and cucumbers that Benny had bought for us at the Market that morning. We had come in at 8am, but it had sold out by then. The market is only held on Wednesdays, starts at 6am and at the moment there wasn’t much fresh local produce as the gardens had been devastated by the cyclones and wild pigs coming down from the mountains.
I ended up taking tomatoes, cucumber, the oddest looking bean I’ve ever seen (and you only needed the one as it was 2’ long) and 3 pamplemousse-s. The islanders grow both Grapefruit and Pamplemousse (Pomello), they are similar and often confused, but pamplemousse are less acidic and sweeter (I don’t like grapefruit, but these pamplemousse were yummy). I explained that I couldn’t take 6 of them as Peter wasn’t allowed to eat grapefruits because he was on blood pressure and heart tablets (Grapefruits contain compounds that mess with blood pressure and the action of various drugs). Benny found that interesting as the Vanuatu Dept of Health is encouraging people to eat grapefruit to keep blood pressure healthy – which make sense and works with what is available to the islanders. She made sure Kenneth ate a grapefruit every day.
Can you ever get tired of looking at Clown Fish?
That afternoon we snorkelled around some of the local reefs which, although there were no large fish, were quite pretty.
There appeared to be a bit of competition between the bungalow operators and we thought it best to share ourselves around. So, we had Joshua, of Sunshine Bungalows, organise a tour of the village surrounds for us. The guide for the tour was Joshua’s nephew, Michael an interesting young guy.
Michael’s sister’s kitchen – what more do you need?
Michael’s tour turned into something of a grocery shopping trip. They have their main big gardens are up in the hills, but each family also has a house garden. He was keen to show us what the local crops looked like. There are gardens that looked like my backyard vegie patch and then there are sections of bush that look just like bush and turn out to be native foods.
If we mentioned a vegetable or looked twice at a garden plot, he was in there like lightning hacking away with his machete to provide us with armfuls of fresh produce straight out of the garden/bush. When I mentioned that we were thinking of trying to make Simboro on the boat, he practically uprooted half a tree to find manioc roots that were worthy. He also showed us the house he was building for himself (lovely blue tiles on the floor), along with one he had started for his parents. These were concrete brick houses and the materials were very expensive. He funded his building by working in New Zealand and needed to do one more work trip to be able to finish his houses. This was becoming very common as we travelled through the islands and seemed a key way the islanders were improving their living standards.
On the way back we met Michael’s Dad who was rebuilding a kitchen that had been blown down in the last cyclone. When we got back to the boat, Peter dug out those nails that we’d bought in Port Vila and we delivered them to him next morning.
That afternoon, Peter and Jeff tried their hand at fishing, but with no luck. I’m thinking that the only fish of eating size here are living in the deep waters between islands, there is certainly nothing around the reefs.
When Peter went in to collect a loaf of fresh baked bread from Benny (take a shopping bag with you, Jeff looked hilarious driving his tender while holding his hot loaf aloft in one hand) we found out that the locals had won the court case so there was to be a celebration the following day, to which we were invited. Benny also wanted to show us some ancient trees at the end of the airstrip.
In the meantime, we were going to try our hand at making Simboro.
Peter did a good job (especially as we had to grate the manioc using our little ginger grater) and we had Simboro and meatballs for tea. Island cabbage, harvested off a tree, has a lovely spinach flavour. The manioc cooks to a solid jelly texture, but is a good carrier for other flavours. I’m thinking it might be a useful idea to look up some other recipes for using manioc, as it is so freely available in the islands. Mind you, the whole ‘having to cook it until the natural cyanide has gone’, is a bit off putting. And you really have to use the root within the day it comes out of the ground (no storing this vege). That could be said of many things in the tropics, it’s fresh but will go off very quickly.
Next morning, we set off for a lovely walk along the beach (if somewhat damp due to the rain that day).
The trees are said to be hundreds of years old – they were certainly impressive. Benny also found some of the large seeds to show us. They are used to make Temanu oil which is rubbed on the skin to treat insect bites, tropical ulcers, varicose veins and arthritis. [wiki research revealed that scientists are currently looking at the antibacterial properties of the oil, with a view to sourcing new antibiotics for some of those more resistant bugs. I would warn Benny to take care of their trees, as the westerners are coming, but the Calophyllaceae tree is found right across Polynesia].
The funniest thing about the day was that while we were away, the men were supposed to be cooking up a feast. They were butchering a slaughtered cow when we had headed out, but Benny was very unimpressed when we got back and they had barely progressed (lots of Island time happening) so we stopped at the shop to buy some fish and she took us back to her restaurant and cooked us lunch instead. It was delicious, and to be frank, having seen the butchering of the cow underway, none of us were disappointed to miss out.
The weather for Saturday was not great so we decided to stay put. Unfortunately, Tracey and Jeff needed to be in Luganville (on the island of Espiritu Santo) to meet their daughter. So, they headed off and we agreed to meet up when we got there.
We invited Benny and Kenneth on board ‘Opal Lady’ for morning tea on Saturday. Benny and Kenneth were impressed with our home and had seconds on the apple pie and ice cream (I’d made more icecream, as I knew it would be a hit). Later that afternoon I printed and laminated a photo of all of us on Jeff and Tracey’s boat, so Benny could hang it in her restaurant. I also gave a picture book to Joshua’s little girl, for her to read to her sister.
We thoroughly enjoyed our time at Lamen Bay, but the weather was looking good for leaving, so it would be off to Malekula Island on Sunday.
Kenneth is the current Big Chief for Lamen Bay. Instead of the gift of food that is usual for anchoring permission, he would prefer a donation to the church.
Donations for schools; reading books (lower years especially), uniforms (royal blue shorts/skirts and white shirt).
Money Matters; Tour of village 1000V, Vegetables 1000V (very large shopping bag), Donation to church 1000V for school/church tour, Fresh baked loaf of bread V200, Evening meal (includes dessert) V1000 /person (both restaurants).
Benny’s Bungalows; Bookings for accommodation via Facebook (Benny’s Bungalows). She needs a few hours notice for a loaf of bread, but can whisk up a meal with next to no notice.
Sunshine Bungalows; Run by Joshua is a bit older. His meals feature fish caught by his brother.
Both restaurants provide a plat de jour (there is no choice, it’s based on what is available). Both Bungalows are located at the southern end of the beach. The town and market are at the northern end and the shop is between (it’s a long beach).
The small shop stocks basic dry goods, long life milk, eggs (not always available) and locally caught fish.
The University of the South Pacific came into being in the 1960s in an attempt by twelve nations to provide vocational training specific to the needs of Pacific Islander peoples. It is based in Fiji, but has campuses in various countries of the Pacific. The lawyers we had dinner with, both studied in Vanuatu as that is where the Law Campus is based. Agricultural studies are out of Samoa and Education is in Tonga. I did ask if that meant there were more Tongan teachers and NiVan lawyers in the Pacific but was assured that this hasn’t been the case. The system seems to work well and ensures that a range of further education is available to people from relatively small (often under resourced and funded) nations.
Seastar is the now correct name for what our older readers would call a Starfish. Marine scientists have started the arduous task of trying to remove the ‘fish’ reference to an echinoderm that is in no way related to fish.
Coco Beans are an important cash crop in Vanuatu, especially for small farm holders and villages on the northern islands. In 2021, Vanuatu exported AU$3.4M worth of cocoa beans (source; Observatory of Economic Complexity, 2023). The locals also enjoy eating the fresh fruit. The pulp surrounding the seeds is vaguely lemonade-ish in flavour and the seeds are covered with a rather off-putting slimy jelly. It’s not unpleasant, but I don’t go back for seconds when it is offered.
Copra Production; In 2021 Vanuatu exported AU$12.6M worth of dried coconut flesh. It was the 4th largest exporter in world. We would see many obvious coconut plantations on the islands as we travelled.
[This is a record of our experiences and is not intended as a recommendation for others. Phone reception on ‘Opal Lady’ is assisted with the use of a StarLink satellite system. Dates are written in standard Australian format D/M/Y. We measure our depths from the lowest point of the hull (add 1.6m for actual water level depth).]
Anchored Sulua Bay, Amae Island: 8/7/23, at 17 02.978S, 168 22.213E, in 15m water with 0.5m tide, 60m chain, exit 280o. Winds SE 14knt. [Rocket Guide to Vanuatu, Chesher, 2023]
Anchored Revolieu Bay, Epi Island: 9/7/23, at 16 43.560S, 168 08.593E, in 8.5m water with 0.54m tide, 30m chain. Winds ESE 6knt. Very rolly anchorage (both flopper stoppers out). Reef at the ends of the bay, while 12m below, extend far further than charted. [Rocket Guide to Vanuatu, Chesher, 2023]
Anchored Lamen Bay, Epi Island: 10/7/23, at 16 09.886S, 168 09.886E, in 4m water with ~0.5m tide, 30m chain (via anchorage at 16 35.654S, 168 09.706E, in 9m water with 0.9m tide). There are bombies, but they are easily spotted in afternoon light, from the black sandy bottom. Second anchorage, to south behind reef was recommended by locals, as less swell (they were right). Wind ENE 11knt. [Rocket Guide to Vanuatu, Chesher, 2023]