OF LEAF UMBRELLAS AND MONEY CHANGERS

The Islands of Malekula, Uripriv and Wala

July 2023

Sunday 16th July, we left Lamen Bay, Epi Island under a very promising rainbow, bound for the island of Malekula.  This is a very big island with many tribes, speaking some 30 different dialects.  Our intention was to head for the southern end of the island, Lamap or Port Sandwich, but…

… the promised happy conditions didn’t last. Once we cleared Lamen Island (the little island that the bay is named for), those persistent and downright annoying South Easterlies were hitting 20 knots (and later gusting up to 30 knots). The swell was beam-on (hitting the side of the boat causing her to roll – boats don’t like beam-on anything; nor do Taz and I).  Peter checked the charts and we decided to head more northerly (putting the wind and swell more to our rear) and go to Banam Bay further up the east coast of Malekula.  We knew this bay would be sheltered from these ongoing strong winds.

Taz wasn’t happy doing the ‘Captain of the stool-inching-across-the-carpet” again, so I anchored him down with diving belts.  It really doesn’t take much to keep a boat-cat happy.

Our more northerly route to Malekula Island

After 5 hours of RocknRolling we reached Banam Bay and carefully worked our way around the main reef into the sheltered anchorage closer to shore.  Almost as soon as the anchor had dropped, a dinghy left the shore (it was a very industrial looking aluminium craft – very unusual, as most small boats we’ve seen are either the local poly jobbies or wooden outriggers).  A local by the name of Alex had brought his kiddies out to say hello.  We had a short conversation about which village we were parked in front of and let him know that we were very tired and would pop into shore tomorrow. 

One of the anchoring entries we’d read before arriving here, spoke of badly behaved teens scaring the boaters, so we were a bit worried we’d made a mistake choosing this anchorage.  But we did not find this to be the case, with everyone being very friendly We always let people know straight out that we don’t give away anything but are happy to trade.  And we don’t trade cigarettes or alcohol at all.

Unfortunately, the following day the rain and wind really set in, so we elected not to put the tender down.  Peter took the opportunity to service the genset. Finally, on Tuesday, we headed into shore and were met by a gaggle of small kiddies, with big smiles, who walked with us into the village. There we met Chief Stephen who was very friendly.  When we mentioned the waterfall, he agreed to show us the way, right there and then! We knew about the waterfall, as Mother-in-Law had gotten to Banam Bay before us on her iPad and requested a photo of me in front of it. [It makes things a bit smoother if you’ve done a spot of research before rocking up somewhere, as then you have an idea of what you can ask to see/trade for].

We hadn’t really come prepared for trekking.  We had planned to just come in between showers, pay respects to the chief and retire back to the boat for a quiet afternoon.  But there we were, Peter in his ‘best’ thongs (flipflops) heading off along the beach.  After a few hundred metres we headed inland to cut through the village.  The village was quite large and spread out, with a mixture of traditional huts and houses made of bricks.  One of the houses, sporting a roof but no sides, had a group of ladies out front.  They were busy beating lengths of split bamboo flat and weaving the fibres into the distinctive panels to make new walls.  It was fascinating to watch the skill of these ladies.  One of them assured me that these walls didn’t fly away in cyclones, because they work with the winds.  There were certainly some very old walls around that were still in place after the recent cyclones, and some very obviously absent roofing.  One village we visited later, told us that they removed their metal roofing panels as part of their cyclone preparation, rather than have it ripped off and destroyed or cause serious injuries.  [The story about the resilience of the bamboo panels made me think of the housing in the Goldfields where I grew up.  As the open pits grew bigger, the ‘nice’ brick homes built by management in Kalgoorlie started to crack, whereas the timber framed houses of the workers homes in Boulder ‘swayed’ with the blast waves.  My Mother used to chuckle about this – I was raised in a very timber frame house.]

We then walked through a cocoa plantation.  I’ve never known much about where my fave dessert flavour comes from.  Turns out that it comes from large oval fruits that sprout out of the branches and trunk of a lovely leafy tree.

By this time, it was raining again, and we resigned ourselves to getting thoroughly wet.  A couple of the kids just cut down large palm leaves to use as umbrellas.  Ingenious – but I’d never have let my boys loose with a machete of the size these kiddies were wielding.

By now the trail was quite slippery, so Peter was relieved when we started to walk the final 200m straight up the flowing creek – he could take his slippery thongs off and trust those hobbit feet to do their thing. 

What do you mean Hobbit Feet?

The waterfall was quite pretty and if it had been a hot day, would be worth going in for a soak.  But as it was quite cool, we just took the expected photo and headed back to the village.

The youngsters who walked up with us, raced ahead to climb across the tree roots and then rocks with water flowing over them into the middle of the waterfall.  I fear they wanted to do a spot of showing off, by jumping into the water, but we convinced them that was not necessary.  I was terrified we’d be taking a broken leg to the nearest medical centre.

Back at the village we invited Chief Steven to the boat and couldn’t say no to the kids who were on the beach. 

Some cups of raspberry cordial and a packet of biccies later, and we were invited back in for some Kava that evening.

Peter sharing Kava with Chief Steven. I didn’t get a photo of Peter drinking any… and he had 3 cups!  Which impressed the village immensely.

I was too busy having a chat with the Mums.

And a laugh with the girls about my “Big White Hair”

Peter did a lot of gas bagging as well.  And it wasn’t just about trading for the fruit and vegies we’d asked for; Casava, Grapefruit, Cucumber and a big bundle of Island Cabbage wrapped neatly in a banana leaf.  We traded powdered milk, rice and sugar for the vegetables, and a packet of nails and a hammer to Stephen for the Kava session and as a gift for anchoring in their bay. 

One thing that stuck us was how neat these villages are. The villages are swept daily and the sweepings piled into a rubbish pile.  This pile is scavenged by the chickens, cows and pigs.  When the pile gets too big it is set alight [One of the first things I noticed amongst these islands is that like in Australia, there always seems to be somewhere on fire.  These fires are smoky jobbies that played merry havoc with my sinus’ – so remember the antihistamines for cruising Vanuatu].  There are no mobile phones in this village at all and reception is next to nothing.  The village has no electricity and their only light came from solar powered lanterns.  We saw rows of small lanterns sitting on a bamboo mat out in the sun charging up.  Other villages have lanterns permanently mounted to poles or trees around the village.  Along the shore we came across more cyclone damage, mostly fallen trees. 

I love that you can’t see the villages from the water as they are hidden behind a nature strip.  The trees protect the houses from direct wind and if people want to look at the view they just walk down to the beach!  It’s not until you see the solar lights glittering along the streets in the darkness that you realise just how big some of the villages are, or how many villages there are located on a single bay.

The next day we popped back in the morning, to deliver a pair of reading glasses to Stephen’s mother, GrandMa M, before lifting anchor to leave for our next island.

We were quite glad we had stayed for a couple of days here, as the weather outside the bay was not great.  Even in the bay we had to put out a flopper stopper to ease the rocking due to the swell sweeping around the point.  In the afternoon we watched a poor cabin cruiser pass the bay, looking very uncomfortable bashing it’s way south.  I think I prefer cruising in the cyclone season.  It is ‘all or nothing’, but the nothing is really delightful.

By Thursday the weather had eased up and we headed to our next stop at Uripiv Island further north along this coast. Enroute Peter caught a large tuna but was devastated when it got off just 20m from the boat (Taz was also unimpressed).

Anchoring at Uripiv Island. [I LOVE these headsets (the battery is in the frame so there are no wires, and the microphone is voice activated so there are no buttons to push). It takes some of the stress out of those “are we going to hit a rock?” situations.] 

As usual we went in to meet the chief but ended up meeting a number of chiefs from various villages around the island who had gathered for a chat. We gained approval to go snorkeling and the local chief said he would arrange for someone to meet us at 9:00am the following day to go for a walk around the village and visit the local primary school. Peter asked about any help they needed and confirmed he would bring in some tools and nails.

The next morning it all got a bit weird. Early in the morning a large freighter pulled into the bigger town just across on the mainland called Lakatoro, and a stream of small boats headed off to meet it to get fresh supplies. Meanwhile, we went into the beach just before 9am as agreed, but there was no one to meet us. Walking around we met a pair of teenage girls who took us for a walk through the village and up to the local primary school (then they headed off to the mainland too). One of the teachers there was kind enough to show us around the school and we ended up with a little entourage of older students (who had come to school, but their teacher was ill so they were on their way home). We took the opportunity to pass on some books to add to their library. The primary school was well laid out and seemed comparatively well setup compared to what we had so far seen in the islands.

I fear I am going to run out of Primary School books and Timetables charts.

[When we go ashore to meet the Chief as a sign of respect, I always ask if there is a school nearby.  It can be difficult sometimes to work out what is the appropriate/expected ‘payment’ for getting permission to walk around and do things like snorkelling   on the reef.  And, unfortunately the Vanuatu way is simply to give what you think is ok!!  So far, we’ve traded milk powder, rice, sugar, a saw and coffee bags (I’m working on a spreadsheet of appropriate exchange rates).  Anyway, I always have a pack of books in my bag for the local school, just in case we get it wrong, as books are worth more than anything we’d normally trade.  (and anyways I’d set out on this cruise with the intention of donating as many schoolbooks as ‘Opal Lady’ can carry).  Tracy of ‘Zero’ let me know that she had found some books in Luganville, so I can restock there.  And I have a printer and laminator on board, so I’ll be making times-tables charts when the generator is running in the evenings. I found it is more useful to give a class number of charts each time (20 or so), than just a few.] Back to the Village

After leaving the school, we wandered around the village.  The village paths were well delineated and everything was nice and tidy.  But there were few people around, so we gave up in the end and went back to the boat without passing on the tools and nails as planned (there was no-one to give them to).  We did a spot of snorkelling instead.

I really liked the purple colour of this coral tower.  I got the impression of it being an apartment block, with all the small fish swimming in and out of its growth.

Our route along Malekula Island

Coming into Wala Island the next day, we saw just in time that there was a snorkeler in the water and quite a few more people snorkeling the northern reef.  We always take extra care coming around reefs into anchorages – it would be bad form to run someone over as you arrive.

As usual, once we arrived and anchored securely, we went into shore.  We were met by Charlie, who spoke good English and was very familiar with cruisers. We agreed to meet later that day for a village tour with his wife, Elisabeth.  She is a power of a woman, who gave us a constant narration as we walked through the village and up to the clearing where they do Custom dances, when there is a big enough group of tourists.  [One of the downsides to cruising on our own is that two isn’t a big enough group of tourists].  I was interested to find that the chickens are all community property.  I had been told in a previous village that they identified the ownership of chickens by cutting off a toe or two (the chickens not the owners – I’m sure the toe-less chickens would have preferred the Wala way).

Peter and Elizabeth standing in front of an impressive tree in the Custom area

After visiting Elizabeth’s house, we took her and Charlie out to our boat.  Charlie spotted Peter’s lures, from the ‘nearly’ tuna and immediately asked if he could have one – Peter was happy to share.  [We did wonder what he would use such a big lure for, when the island coral reefs have such small fish, but they use the poly boats to head out into the channels that are 200+m deep and quite well stocked].  It was very clear that Charlie and Elizabeth were used to dealing with  yachts and had no hesitation in asking for what they needed [Which felt a bit pushy, but I reflected that the alternative was me wondering if we had misunderstood and left villagers feeling unhappy with our cruising contribution to the islands – you can’t complain if people are direct, and you can always just say no]. Elizabeth had a bit of a shopping list; reading glasses, rope to tie their cow up in the market gardens and paracetamol. Their gardens were on the mainland, as there is no room on the island. Elizabeth also asked if we could change Australian coins into Vatu because the local banks would not change coins. We said we would try and help and arranged to meet them after church the next day. They did ask if we wanted to go to church, but Peter said he would be hit by a bolt of lightning if he entered the church, which Charlie thought was very funny.

While I was cleaning the waterline of the boat…

Peter made what was possibly his best bread yet.

The next day we headed in to give them the reading glasses and rope, and then the fun started.  Apparently, Elizabeth had announced to the congregation that ‘some Australian money changers’ were here.  The next hour was very funny (although I found it quite stressful) as people turned up with their Aussie and New Zealand coins. We found it fascinating that although the cruise ships had stopped in 2013, they still held onto these foreign coins in the hope of changing them out.

Me, in my counting house, hoping that I have enough small Vatu so as not disappoint anyone.  It only came to about AU$50 all up, and I had enough small Vatu for that.  Elizabeth was very quick at working out the exchange, but I did make it clear that we knew we were being very generous with our exchange rate.

The little kiddie in the photo brought up the worlds grottiest 20c piece and just about exploded from smiling when he got ‘real’ money back.  A friend commented that you wouldn’t want to shortchange the rather intimidating looking chappy in the photo, but he was the nicest bloke who was very relieved that I counted out his margarine tub of change (I don’t think he could count and was a bit nervous about that). He wore a huge grin when he walked off with petrol money for his boat.

We had a canoe paddle out to the boat later in the afternoon as they’d missed the message that Elizabeth made at church.  When they had left there was not a single Vatu coin left in my shopping purse, but we are heading into the ‘Big Smoke’ of Luganville, on the island of Santo.  I’ll pack the Australian coinage in the bowels of the boat until we get back home.

We have since found out that large cruise ships used to call into Wala. This stopped in 2013, when there was apparently some dispute over what payment was suitable for the tourists off the boats. It was interesting that no large cruise ships have arrived since, yet everyone we spoke to thought (perhaps hoped) they would be back at some point.  The cruise ship company had built an appropriately sized wharf and toilet block, but we were staggered to think how this little island, 900m x 100m across, would look with the huge numbers that these ships have on board.

‘Brenda’

This is typical of the style of runabout used in the islands.  Think 1970s when it comes to the colours; orange, red, yellow and green.  This one is set up for fishing, with 2 modern Alvey reels and 2 local versions.  I love the engineering of the local version of the Alvey reel; it’s square and made of bamboo and works a treat.  This is the first fishing boat we’ve seen with modern reels and belongs to Charlie.  Boats without the reels are used as taxis throughout Vanuatu.  It is scary how many people can fit in one, and the speed they will happily scoot around at, and the seas they are happy to take these little jobbies into (we regularly see boatmen bailing out their craft after a particularly bumpy passage).

‘Spirit of Tasmania’

The name of the green boat gave us a giggle; ‘Spirit of Tasmania’.  For those who are not aware, that is the name of a HUGE car ferry that plies the incredibly rough Bass Strait in Australia.  Little green has aspirations!

By now both Peter and I were ready to catch up with Tracey and Jeff, of ‘Zero’, so after a good night’s sleep our next stop was Luganville on the island of Espiritu Santo.

Cruisers Comments:

Waterfall tour cost 3000V (2000V is probably the more usual price, but who are we to argue).

Village tour in Wala 600V per person

Being asked to change foreign coins is not an uncommon request. Keep a stock of small notes and coinage in Vatu just in case.

We stocked up on 1.5 magnification reading glasses before leaving Australia.

If you don’t want small boats to stop and talk, just wave politely and step inside.  Only once did we have people knock on the hull for attention (and that was just for a chat as they hadn’t seen a boat for quite some time).

Boat Works:

Genset service – oil and filters.

Navigation Notes:

[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 Banam Bay, Malekula Island: 16/7/23, at 16 20.317S, 167 45.268E, in 8m water with ~0.8m tide, 40m chain, exit 320o.  Winds SE 30knt. Anchorage became very rolly and uncomfortable. [Rocket Guide to Vanuatu, Chesher, 2023]

Anchored Uripiv Island: 20/7/23, at 16 04.382S, 167 26.712E, in 8.5m water with 0.0m tide, 40m chain, exit 200o.  Winds ESE <10knt.  [Rocket Guide to Vanuatu, Chesher, 2023]

Anchored Wala Island: 22/7/23, at 15 58.613S, 167 22.439E, in 8.5m water with 0.24m tide, 35m chain out.  Winds SE <10knt.  Anchor scudded across rocky bottom on first attempt to anchor at the northern end of the jetty.  Given co-ordinates are further out and in sand.  The approved anchorage at Wala seemed very close to shore.  The shore is very rocky for tendering in, but they are mostly large and easily spotted.  [Rocket Guide to Vanuatu, Chesher, 2023]

Banner Photo : Rainbow over Epi Island

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Does it get a bit tiring always having to try and work out permissions/exchanges/etiquette etc at all these new places?

    1. Honestly Alana, I do find it stressful, but it does get easier with practise. And all the stress is on my side, as the NiVan are quite relaxed about it and happy with whatever eventuates. I can’t quite settle into the “what I’m comfortable with” thinking as opposed to “what is expected or appropriate” type thinking. It is just another skill that we have developed for cruising among these islands. And I always get smiles with my books. Klem fra Suz!

  2. Well that was a real treat this morning to read more of your adventures whist having my cuppa. Well done with the narrative

    1. Greetings Jill, I hope your cup of tea didn’t get cold while you were reading this one, it was quite a long read. Look out for the next post, there are more waterfalls. Suz

  3. Wow so amazing ! You must have to stock up big before heading to the islands . Love that there’s a Spirit of Tasmania!

    1. Greetings Lisa, As I knew we were going to be cruising the Pacific some time ago, I starting stocking up on kiddies books back when I was still teaching. We left Perth with over 200 Scholastic books on board. I think I’ve handed out about 100 by now (I have mostly High School readers left). There are a lot of Mem Fox and ‘Wombat’ books around the islands now. I thought you’d get a giggle from the Spirit of Tasmania. Suz

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