Erromango

Our visit to this fascinating island was cut short by a menacing weather forecast. We would have loved to stay a bit longer but Dillon’s Bay on its southwestern corner is a funnel wide open to the West. This provided us with spectacular sunsets and surprisingly calm waters protected from the mighty swells of the trade winds doing their furious dance just around the corner. At the end of an enjoyable downwind turn from Tanna we rounded the rugged limestone cliffs of Ontovin Point and sailed into completely flat waters propelled solely by gentle williwaws tumbling down from the green wooded mountain ranges. At the bottom of the bay the Williams River had carved out a narrow valley into the raised coral plateau and nowadays spills its fresh water into the salty sea flanked by two terribly unattractive grey shingle beaches. Behind the northern beach lies the township with the exotic sounding name of Unpongkor, where a good portion of the islands entire population of just over two thousand souls must be residing.

erromango - 1That number had been mentioned to us by Thomas, whom we met on our stroll along the verdant banks of the William’s River and into its winding valley, where cool waters licked dark round stones that most certainly must provide good housing opportunities for tasty crayfish. He was coming towards us from the other side of the river and was now balancing his bundle of freshly peeled sticks on his left shoulder, while his wife followed shortly behind with a good load of palm fronds on her head. Even the youngster in tow was loaded with materials for what Thomas described as the “new grass house” they were about to add to their property in town. “We’re better off here on Erromango”, he rambled on once he had forded the river on the row of boulders protruding from the flowing waters, referring to the considerably lower population of his island compared with its southern neighbor. Tanna is listed as one of the most heavily populated of all the Vanuatu islands. Its surface area might be a good third smaller, while its population is listed as just under 29’000 in the 2009 census. “Over there you can’t just go out into the bush and start your very own little garden,” he now elaborated on his reasoning, “every spot is already taken! Here there is still space. But if you go up north, it gets even worth.”

We continued chatting for a good quarter of an hour about this and that, returning again and again to man’s need for land to feed himself and his family. Rural Ni-Vanuatu work intensely in their gardens, as we had just seen along our way, where we had admired nicely manicured plantations of manioc, taro, yam, banana, papaya, sugar cane and even corn, lettuce and other veggies. Here and there a machete wielding youngster would look up shortly and wave a friendly hello before returning with vigor to his work. That ancient work that will fill his and his family’s bellies and with a good bit of luck also nurture their happiness for generations to come.

By the time our important conversation had exhausted common courtesy and Thomas was eager to continue his return to an expanding homestead, we realized that the sun must be setting soon and there was no sense in going on along the narrow footpath on the other side of the river. It would have lead us further into this land of subsistence farming up into a densely wooded interior. On our way back to our precariously floating home we stopped at the school grounds on the upper end of town and visited principal Bobby, who has a good two hundred students under his wings at the local secondary school. We proposed to him to do two performances of our little show with songs of the world. Half of that promise we would unfortunately not be able to keep, as that same evening when consulting the weather forecast a trough crossing the horn of Australia’s Northwest promised westerly winds coming towards us over the coming weekend. This meant that our tranquil anchorage could easily turn into a nasty roller coaster.

So we were able to do only a single performance the following day at the school and shortly thereafter the last light of the day saw us weighing anchor and depart for what was meant to be an overnight passage towards Efate, Vanuatu’s central island, where on just about the same area as Erromango a staggering 66’000 people live and love. A misjudged strategy trapped us in the fluky lee of the island, where we were bobbing up and down with sagging sails all night. It was not until the afternoon of the following day that finally the hazy outlines of our new destination materialized from behind a dark grey squall line. During that long and lonesome night I had also discovered that our navigation lights were out of commission. The thought of entering busy Port Vila Harbor at night in stealth mode did therefore not particularly appeal to me. A quick glance at the Navionics chart on our iPad revealed a tiny anchor symbol printed at the very bottom of a mile and a half deep bay along Efate’s southern coast. That bay seemed just barely reachable after sunset at our present speed.

erromango - 2Without further due we entered Teouma Bey just as an orange fiery globe was setting in the West. We dropped the hook in barely five meters of water, off a brown sand beach and night fell around us. Looking around in the twilight to confirm the holding of our newly set anchor I realized a couple of rocks sticking out of the water between us and beach I had not noticed previously. On a closer look there were plenty more, much closer by and soon I saw them all around us. And holy molly, those things were actually moving and coming straight towards us! I jumped back to the cockpit and grabbed the flashlight. A narrowly focused cone of bright light danced nervously on the dark waters and what just a second ago was menacing rocks revealed itself as bundles of floating green leaves with wilted white flowers dipping lazily in the wet. But it was not until the next morning the full script of this rather disconcerting spectacle unraveled.

There happens to be a river mouth at the end of the bay. When the rising tide makes its entry into the meandering flats of the outflowing river behind the dunes of sand, it washes out junks of a leafy vegetable growing along the banks and then flushes them out into the bay. The whole show happens in one brief moment and is over in a couple minutes. It just so happened that we had dropped our anchor at that precise moment in time and space.

There were times not so long ago when man would listen up whenever the gods were speaking and adjust his life accordingly! And we did sleep divinely and like a rock that night.

erromango - 3

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