Archive for 2016

At Loggerheads with the Loggers

September 16, 2016

The Timber Rights Hearing was supposed to start a ten in the morning on Thursday, September 1 in the little village of Pala. It was now past 11:30 and we were waiting. We were waiting comfortably, very aware of the lazy flux of island time, under an ample shelter of corrugated iron roofing on a minimal timber frame. Around noon the government officials of the Temotu Provincial Government started to trickle in and sat their heavy weights down at the row of tables that had been set up for them. There were rumors that each one of them had been generously compensated with 6’000 Solomon Dollars (about US$770) by the logging company for their tremendous effort to be present at this public hearing. This by local standards is a good chunk of money.
The affected landowners from around the proposed logging area and their entourages, who surely must have paid for their transportation out of their own shallow pockets, had slowly materialized. Most of them sat down a careful distance away from the shelter alongside the houses of the village scattered around it. 

At a certain time in history, in the year 1595 to be precise, this same village at the bottom of Graciosa Bay on the island of Nendo, Temotu Province, Solomon Islands, had been the scene of the second attempt by Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendaña to establish a settlement in the newly discovered specs of land in the South Seas with the declared purpose to subjugate its inhabitants under the global reaches and aspirations of the Spanish crown. The experiment in colonization didn’t go down too well. Its life was terribly brief and it all ended in abysmal disaster, ripe with miscalculated murder, treacherous and petty thievery, deadly fevers of malaria and finally once proud ships miserably and helplessly sinking somewhere in an unrecorded emptiness. 

These days the village of Pala is once again torn apart by a new wave of invasive colonization. Malaysian logging companies have established fake companies in the Solomon Islands with fancy sounding names like: ‘Green Tree Company’, through which they try to negotiate lopsided contracts with local landowners to extract valuable timber for the hungry world market paying fat kickbacks to anybody willing to help them advance their greedy and destructive cause. 

Within the Solomon Island constitution there is a solid and almost progressive sounding legal framework in place, which on paper protects the locals from such abuse. But the real dealings are done behind gated fences and the good-sized kickbacks that find their clever ways into the local government officials’ pockets are creating tempting incentives to work around such legislation. While most landowners are clearly aware of the catastrophic damage logging operations would inflict on their still mostly virgin lands, there are a couple of bad eggs in town, who would like to get their hands on that quick and dirty cash. They are not the most amicable characters around, and we have been threatened one evening while walking the short stretch of dirt road from the village to the beach where we leave our canoe. A round face guy with a dark green T-shirt and a black Bolshevik cap had pulled up beside us in a white pickup truck and gave us a warning: ‘Hurry back to your boat now and go back to New Zealand. You are making the people here think the wrong thing!’ He was on his way to the ‘bottle shop’ down that same road to satisfy his tropical thirst for a couple beers. 

That same guy was sitting on a white plastic chair once the hearing had gotten under way, taking notes on a brown clip board. Behind him sat a decrepit looking Asian guy in impeccably white sneakers. He got up every twenty minutes to smoke a cigarette, which made him cough and clear his throat from the thick phlegm of conscience. As if that wasn’t enough for any gentle soul to feel intimidated, the police presence was heavy with mean faced agents in light blue uniforms standing stiffly all around the perimeter of the village square and throughout the procedure they would be staring sternly at anybody who mustered the courage to stand up and take a stance. 

We had waited until 12:30 for things to get started, when finally the last group of land owners had overcome the challenges of island transportation and settled down amongst the now probably a good two hundred strong crowd. It all sounded quite official with the hearing’s designated chairman, the deputy secretary of the Temotu Provincial Government, following to the letter the procedure prescribed by the legislation. Apparently many of the landowners had been coerced to sign a letter of consent, many without knowing the content and others even saw their names signed with other peoples’ signatures. Some of them now mustered enough courage to voice their concern about the environmental consequences and insisted in withdrawing their consent. Only a small group of speakers, which were quite clearly associated with our round faced friend, voted for a continuation of the negotiations with the logging companies. 

The hearing dragged on for over two and a half hours and was for us yet another crash course in Solomon Pidgin English. Using our acquired basics from Vanuatu’s Bislama, which is very similar in structure, we were able to follow the outlines of most of what was said, eloquently and passionately that is, by a people who seem to have been just very recently given the opportunity to express themselves freely in public. 

Once the procedural hearing had come to its long awaited conclusion, local food was served and the gathering relaxed. The village of Pala quite obviously had put a great deal of effort in the logistics of the meeting. Unfortunately we cannot yet be sure that the clearly manifested opposition to any form of logging at this hearing will carry its weight into the murky realm of reality. Any acknowledging of such at its closing was carefully avoided, we spectators cannot even be sure that everything was duly recorded. No protocol was published and rumors soon started to float about, that the loggers had received the go ahead to start their ugly business in certain areas. Since we have taken a seat in the same boat as our local friends, we are in a state of limbo and wait-and-see, contemplating the possibility of future actions should things turn nasty. If there is any hope at all of progress for the human race, it most certainly must consist in that the simple folks who tend the lands manage to free themselves from the shackles of ignorance, make their voices heard loud and clear and ready themselves to resist peacefully but with bitter determination any form of commercial exploitation of their ancestral lands. 

Five Degrees of Separation

September 4, 2016

The winds promised to be gentle on the morning of August 24 and we hoisted Aluna’s big number one mains sail before weighing anchor in tranquil Suranda Bay on the Southeast coast of Espiritu Santo at about 15.5˚ southern latitude. We had checked out of Vanuatu the day before, which once again turned out to be a horrendously costly affair. It could have been even worse had we not caught the ever cash-hungry government officials of the Ports and Harbor Office trying to charge us double for our first month in the country. That little incident, which took a good half hour of persistent explaining to get corrected, was nothing but the culmination of a considerable affront consisting in having to pay over NZ$500 in government fees for our stay of close to three months in Vanuatu. While the tiny island nations of the South Pacific certainly have every right to milk the cows of tourism, when considering the fact that a great portion of public moneys in Vanuatu suffer from systemic misuse and abuse, which we have now supported with our sizeable ‘development donation’, it does seem justified to recommend against visiting this land of friendly people for budget conscious people with socio-economic sensibilities.

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Leaving Suranda Bay astern

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Crawling up Espiritu Santo’s east coast

The benevolent promise of the weather gods on the other hand was kept for the best part of the roughly 300 miles passage north to the easternmost Solomon Islands. Just barely enough wind to keep Aluna moving had us slowly creep up along Epiritu Santo’s east coast throughout the day, and the sun prepared to set over the solid mountain ranges on the far side of the Great Bay just as we left Cape Quiros astern. Darkness fell and we continued to putter along until shortly before midnight the waxing moon rose on our starboard beam to drape a shy silver hue across the seascape. The morning dawn revealed the first one of the Bank Islands a good distance to the East, its mountains being high enough to steal most of the already fickle wind. For a good couple of hours the going was very slow until finally the winds started to gain a bit of strength again. The same ritual was repeated with the two other main islands of the banks group during the day, while by late afternoon on the opposite side the much lower and smaller Torres Islands crawled aft on the horizon under a soon setting sun. Occasional rain squalls kept us on our toes once again in darkness. The moon made its appearance a bit skinnier and almost one hour later at half an hour past midnight.

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Cape Cumberland far in the background

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Convective energy

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The last of the Banks Island

With that we had left Vanuatu behind us and the next morning our first sighting of a reluctant member of the Solomon Islands emerged from the dark purple of dusk straight ahead. I had drawn our course towards Vanikoro Island as prudence dictates to the careful mariner to always stay a good bit to windward of an imaginary rhumb line connecting the departure point to that of the destination. The wide island came closer and closer very slowly, straining the sailor’s patience, but as once again a full day had passed through our lightheaded consciousness, its southern shore was close enough to distinguish tiny human settlements in a verdant drape over the island’s rounded hills. Also clearly visible was a ochre brown scar in that lush green along the coastline that could only have come from a clearly careless logging operation, an issue spread out in our minds as part of our commitment with OceansWatch, which is on a mission to assist the local population of the Temotu Province to resist such blatant abuse of their lands.

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Is there something at the end of the line?

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You better believe it!

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Now comes the nasty part…

The ocean was a good bit more forgiving and gifted a good size tuna at the end of our line. We fried a junk of it for diner and cooked the rest and bottled it for later use. Fresh food from the ocean, it does not get any better than this!

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Vanikoro far

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Vanikoro close

Once again, and we should have known better this time, Aluna got caught in the lee of the island. Amazingly from one moment to the next the comfortable wind of around 15 knots vanished and only very reluctantly came back during the following hour with little huffs and puffs. By that time I had adjusted Aluna’s course to the Northwest, now heading definitely towards our destination around and up from the Southwest corner of Nendo, the main island of the Santa Cruz Islands. Before that during yet another night with even less of moonshine we would pass by Utupua, which already peaked above the horizon ahead as a handful of separate and dark purple bumps as our earth’s life bearing star was again getting ready to set.

surandatolata - 10The lazy patience of the weather gods did run out however early next morning. It had just crossed my mind while waking from my passage slumber mode with the first light that this might be our first multi-day passage for a good while that had been accomplished with the big main sail up all the way. Right then I noticed a dark line of clouds growing overhead, approaching wicked fast from above the now visible outlines of our destination island of Nende. Within ten minutes the winds picked up considerably to the point of the two of us scrambling out of the cockpit to brail and strike the big main sail and on a heaving boat surrounded by now foaming crests we hoisted our very trustworthy main sail number two. Another ten minutes later rain was lashing the cockpit cover over our bent down heads, and with eerie fascination we peeked out through the little portholes to see how the sea around us had become angry. Under a leaden dark grey sky white fuming crests danced across almost black waters. Curtains of rain temporarily hid the nearing land behind them and again and again poured their drenching load over Aluna’s decks. Our diligently acquired easting was all of a sudden paying off big time. The whipping winds had gone clearly to the north of east and we were barely able to keep their fury aft of our beams. It is always astonishing how fast the sea builds when whipped up by ferocious winds. Soon enough Aluna was accelerating while surfing the newly churned up waves, sporting fancy peaks of thirteen and fourteen knots on the GPS. The good side of all this was that the southwest point of Nendo Island was approaching at breakneck speed.

Once around it and heading north up the coast towards the western entrance to Graciosa Bay we relaxed a bit in the calm of the lee. During that peaceful half an hour the skies broke open and an enormous mass of dark cloud passed slowly on to the west. It was a squall of monstrous proportions that left behind a good bit more of furious winds, which we had to brave once more. They came straight at us once past a stretch of reef, where the coast bends eastwards again. Gentlemen don’t go to windward, it is said, so we stripped away our tuxedos and with stern faces began a taking exercise into the foaming crests, inching our way closer and closer to the entrance a mile and a half away, where a labyrinth of treacherous reefs was awaiting us.

As we approached it our little outboard motor had to be called in for help. It managed to barely push Aluna against the gale force winds. Only by zigzagging and motor tacking were we able to advance in the right direction. One of my eyes glimpsed down at the little screen of our navigation iPad just behind the motor controls, where a graphic depiction of the coral maze helped making correct decisions as to where to lead the vessels course. Just under a mile of reefs took us close to an hour to negotiate but finally and with considerable relief we found the exit through a narrow channel between boiling green and turquoise waters, and we had entered Graciosa Bay.

We still had to cross this two-mile-wide bay before finding protected waters at its eastern banks. Exhausted we dropped anchor in a little bay with a very picturesque shoreline. Unfortunately the anchor dragged while angry bullets of wind found their way through the bracing row of coconut palms, and it had to be pulled up again and reset closer to shore. Gingerly checking position I found that this time it had found solid hold somewhere ten meters down in the translucent waters. Being Saturday afternoon there was not much more to do than strike the sails and hoist our shade cover to protect us from the brazing sun, while our southern latitude had melted away to 10.5˚.

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surandatolata - 14Officialdom was on hold over the weekend and check-in would not be possible before Monday morning, so we were confined to our vessel flying the yellow quarantine flag, and forced to take a good and long rest, which neither of us minded at all.

Espiritu Santo

August 23, 2016

This largest of Vanuatu’s 81 islands received its name from Spanish explorer Quiró, who named it such at the relief of finally having discovered the Australian continent. That’s at least what every tourist guide regurgitates as the official version of history. As a seafarer the story does not make much sense. You do not have to travel very far up or down the coast to realize that this is a rather meager continent, but man’s brain is always eager to see what it longs to see!

In contrast to the other islands a spirit of desolation reigns here. Just yesterday we travelled on the only asphalted stretch of road from our tranquil anchorage at Suranda Bay up the east coast to Port Olry right at the tip of the island’s thumb, if with a bit of fantasy one sees Espiritu Santo’s outlines on a map as a gloved hand about to pinch the Torres Islands spread out to the north. Coconut plantations of an astronomical scale line its entire fifty some kilometers. They seem to linger in various states of abandonment, some with still smoldering furnaces where the copra is dried over wood fires, surrounded by shabby shacks with rusty corrugated iron walls, to stretches where quite obviously no human hand has wrought the orderly rows from the verdant power of native vegetation, and where from most of the palm trees only a somber stalk remained aimlessly trying to scratch the sky for mercy. Prices of copra on the world market have long sunk way beyond the point where one could edge a half way decent living from such venture, but man sticks to the old even when it only provides him with misery and pain.

At the prettier spots along the coast the remnants of a once spectacular beauty are now harvested with a string of fancy resorts, who cater to an eclectic assortment of backpacker tourists, who are diligently entertained with rustic furniture in thatched huts and cold local beer at exorbitant prices. The atmosphere is friendly, the service, while not exactly agile, is well intended. But the capitalist mentality, if I may call it such, has a dominant foothold on the land and its people. This much is very painfully clear after our now almost three months stay here in this island nation: The Ni-Vanuatu do have a special flair for money. They see no shame in asking for fees to ‘visit’ even the most desolate place crudely prepared for showing off some little thing that remotely looks like something traditional, and even the hitchhiker clinging on to the rusty railing of a pickup truck bed is expected to pay his fare to ride into town. That inborn love for the cash must have something to do with the fact that the Vanuatu currency, the Vatu, is amazingly strong when measured to international standards. This is a bit of a mystery to me as my understanding of economics is rudimentary at best, but I suspect there must be a good bit of dirty business at its root, with offshore banking just the tip of the iceberg. The prices for goods and services here are on par with New Zealand, some things actually being more expensive here in comparison. The sad truth in all this being that the global monetary system with each and every one of us as its willing slaves favors the greedy, rewards the ruthless and serves the exploiters.

The main town of Luganville, or Santo, as it is called locally, is a non-descript stretch of road along the northern shores of the Second Channel, lined with businesses of all sorts with the hustle of commerce stirring up an angry dust and people rushing from place to place no longer with gardens on their minds, but their hands cramped close to keep their purse strings tight. The market square being a kind exception to the rule, where once again colorfully dressed ladies of all sizes squat behind heavy wooden tables laced with grapefruits, pawpaws, bananas, cabbage, beans, cucumbers, yams, kumaras and much more of the tropical bounty. Even a dead fruit bat can be had for the humble sum of 400 Vatus. Its vendor stretched out its lifeless wings for us to take a picture, sensing very well our exotic ethical concerns.

The time has now come to leave this prosperous nation and continue our track north towards the Temoto province of the Solomon Islands, one of the poorest on earth. We are approaching the area of our present mission to track the state of the two Wharram sailing canoes on Anuta and Tikopia. While we have received good news from the Anutans, who seem to make good news of the gift bestowed upon them by sailing back and forth between their home island and the province capital Lata on Lendo Island, the same sadly does not seem to be the case for their Tikopian brothers. Lapita Tikopia apparently lays abandoned somewhere under the sun and our only reliable information comes from Westerners having visited the island. According to them the hulls are still in decent shape while the beams seem weathered and the lashings and probably most of the rigging has been pilfered for ‘other’ purposes. Klaus Hympendahl, together with the Wharrams the driving force behind the Lapita Expedition and friendly liaison between the West and the Tikopian chiefs, had before his sudden and surprising passing managed to arrange that the canoe be brought to Vanikoro, where a community of Tikopians promised to make better use of it. Unfortunately there is no evidence to anything having happened in that direction either. Our task therefore becomes one of assessing the will amongst those once proud island people, a feat that has been done before mostly with disastrous consequences. We promise to do our best to nudge this well-intended white man’s gift into a more fruitful and sensible direction.

Decent internet access being confined to the two main islands here in Vanuatu, while being marginal in all the other islands, we expect this to deteriorate further as we move from a relatively wealthy nation to one of the poorest on the planet. So please be patient and forgiving if the reporting becomes a bit sparser and poorly illustrated with fancy pictures. I’m convinced that your well nurtured imagination will be readily able to compensate for that lack of visual entertainment and your ever inquisitive minds will generate their own optical emotions into what you will be extract from my upcoming verbal barrages.

Tomorrow Aluna will be setting sails again on a northerly course and after a hopefully benign journey of about 300 sea miles we plan to anchor in the beautifully named Graciosa Bay, have a friendly chat with a gang of government officials in the township of Lata, and then get to work on our gracefully intriguing project.


August 18, 2016

From the little we have seen there are some very smart people living on the island of Malakula. The highlight of our visit has been the second day of the Port Sandwich Art Festival. I’m not usually a big fan of these organized events, they mostly only present a watered down version of whatever they pretend to demonstrate and very rarely are ‘worth their money’. Well, here we happened to chance upon a delightful exception. The inhabitants of the small village of Penap proved to be quite skillful at presenting their rapidly dwindling culture to a small handful of yachties, who had arrived at the tranquil bay of Port Sandwich for that specific purpose. The admittance fee to the two-day festival, like just about everything else in Vanuatu, was rather steep and we decided to skip the first day and attend only the second. We had at that time heard the enthused comments of our friends on their return in the evening of the first day.

The excellent organization of the festival’s producers included transportation from the little hamlet of Port Sandwich, where Aluna and most the other boats laid at anchor, to the village of Penap, which is situated on the outside of the Lamap peninsula, in view of the smoke spewing island of Ambryn and conveniently protected behind a vast reef running up and down the coast. That reef was laying bare and ochre brown abandoned by the salty sea at low tide as we arrived midmorning on August 6, sitting knees under chin in the bed of a white pickup truck. It had pulled into a clearing amongst a group of those majestic looking banyan trees adjacent to a village of huts with palm leaf thatched roofs and plaited bamboo walls. There what must have been a good portion of the village population was assembled to welcome us into their midst and after a brief overview of the program expecting us in the course of the day we were lead over a short path to a circular arena in midst of a garden of banana and pawpaw trees.

The first ‘number’ on the program was the women’s dance. They soon appeared from behind an entrance screened by woven palm leaves. Dressed in pandanus skirts their worn bodies started stomping the ground in circle formation while a diffuse moaning slowly turned into a retained chanting. A slight drizzle floating down from the heavy grey clouds overhead polished their dark brown skin to a charming shine. The younger girls had their breasts prudently covered and looked uncomfortable with all that public attention boring through them, while two babies sat frolicking on the ample mats in the center staring at the whole world at once and chewing on a short stick of sugar cane. Round and round the procession went, then all down on their knees and slapping the wet earth with their hands and passing green oranges from one to the other. The last dance was a hunting ritual, with a bird being chased across the circle with an imaginary bow and arrow. Then the multigenerational cast retired in impeccable formation behind the green plaited curtain, but reappeared kindly for the customary photo-op for the picture hungry toursist, just like gang of seasoned actors would do after premiering their latest comedy on New York’s Broadway.

2016-08-06 P.Sandwich Festival (18)We were now lead back to the village square where the remainder of the women demonstrated all kinds of domestic skills of old, from the preparation of the traditional laplap, which includes grating green bananas on a spiny stalk and wrapping the mash into a carefully folded banana leaf, to palm frond weaving of all kinds of handy things like roofing panels, various forms of carrying baskets, hats and a row of smaller trinkets to adorn that lovely dark curly hair of Melanesian stock.

All this curious watching made us tremendously hungry and at lunch time a buffet of delicacies had been arranged under a tin roofed shelter. We were all given a plate fabricated from a couple layers of banana leaves topped by one of a dark purple vine, which made the whole contraption absolutely water- or sauce-proof. Once again the organizers proved to be thoughtful enough to lace the culinary feast exclusively with local goodies, not like in some places where we’ve been served Asian rice with Australian corned beef at such supposedly traditional events. We all loaded up our leafy plates with morsels of laplap, kumara, yam, boiled island cabbage, tomato and cucumber salad and then gorged on the freshly cut fruits for desert.

In the afternoon it was the men’s turn to show off their dances, which they did with much pride, their bodies painted with streaks of light-colored clay and clad solely with the famed namba, which consists of a penis sheath tied around their waist with a string. Buttocks and lose testicles bounced up and down to the rhythm of their deep-chested growls, while in their midst the young chief worked the slit drum, that stood two men high and was crowned with two sculpted faces, all the while the village eldest, from what I had heard eighty years strong, kept a menacing gaze on the spectacle while gingerly leaning on a walking stick with his back weighted down by a great amount of time. The rhythmic stomping of the muscular bodies made the ground shake during the peaks of their cathartic choreography and the audience of cultured white folks hid politely behind their many sophisticated machines of mechanized memory, standing in a half circle around the dust raising spectacle, while themselves being watched by an additional circle of women and children, who seemed just as eager their guests from the other side of the world to get a good eyeful of the action while allowed to do so. We were informed that at all other times of the year these rituals happen carefully and purposefully hidden far away from their passionate gaze.

2016-08-05 P.Sandwich Festival (64)Back in the village the mood lightened with the end of the festivities in sight. A string band strummed contagious rhythms built on a box base line, an instrument, which must require a good deal of practice to master adequately. One foot stands firm on a two feet high plywood cube, from the top center of which a string is strung to the top end of a stick, the bottom end of which sits in a notch at the edge of said cube. The player pushes the stick forward with his left hand to raise the pitch and relaxes it backwards to lower it, while the left thumb plucks away on it to create the pulsating beat. All kinds of guitars join in the acoustic party, a smaller, solid bodied and ukulele like string instrument weaves in a slightly tighter rhythm while nasal tenor voices overlay the whole experience with man’s eternal stories of longing love, tempered lust and gently deferred despair.

I heard explaining that this kind of music had emerged from raunchy Bluegrass music implanted a good while ago by American troops stationed here during the fierce battles of the Western Pacific towards the devastating finale of World War II. It seemed to be an exclusively male affair, but soon enough the local women folks in their colorful dresses decided it was time to loosen up and started a gentle swirling dance, which in turn proved contagious enough for the better halves of the wind-worn yachtsmen to join in with joy. All throughout the day there had been plenty of intermingling across the racial divide, which makes me think there must be a sound solution to the mad crime of social injustice that plagues the many corners of the world dominated by Eurocentric thinking. Cultural information streamed back and forth between the care takers and the annihilators. Nature must have smiled slightly for a little while, relaxed a wee bit and lowered its wounded guard just enough for the windows of change to swing open and let a stiff breeze of awesome possibilities blow through the human mind.

2016-08-06 P.Sandwich Festival (28)A long and loving goodbye rounded up the soothing experience, our ladies received a colorful addition to their maritime wardrobe. Many speeches assured us that the dynamics of the festival, which apparently emerged half a decade ago from the mindful presence of a American Peace Corps volunteer, will continue to expand the conscious of humanity, with the hosts of next year’s edition receiving the flaming torch wrapped in a bundle of rose red flowers, promising to make every effort to improve upon the existing tradition. There was talk of reclaiming an overgrown area further down the peninsula, where a sacred place once stood before the arrival of white bearded men in blood stained missionary robes, and demonstrate the spiritual dimension of the circumcision of an adolescent male, ritual of utmost significance in all the Vanuatu tribal culture.

An eerie calm reigned in the back of the pickup truck that brought us back to our floating homes just as darkness settled down from the high crowns of the coconut palms. Most certainly it was not just borne of a long day’s tiredness. It seemed as if each one of us was obliged to look inward and witness the emptiness left by our own cultural origins. Our addiction to material things and accumulated virtual riches has deprived us of much of life’s real and raspy meaning, so much so that we have to wander endlessly around the globe in search of hand- and footholds with sufficient solidity to allow temporary mending of our broken selves.


August 11, 2016

There are these places on our lovely planet Earth that just have a weird feel to it, and you can never quite put your finger on what exactly it is. We had cut up our passage up north from Efate to Epi Island into two segments, biting into the wind for the first day and then spending the night anchored on the lee side of Emae Island, a small speck of land with three rounded mountains on it neatly arranged in a line from northeast to southwest. In the vast field of coral where the anchorage was indicated on the charts we only found one narrow strip of light blue sand to put our anchor in. The manoeuvre had to be done with military grade precision, and we did sleep lightly during the night. But still it was way better than bouncing up and down all night long out on the dark and moonless sea. The next day was a brisk downwind sail up along the west coast of Epi, which showed itself full of fantastic rock formations tempered by a very verdant cover of luxurious vegetation. Lamen Island sits just off the northwest tip of the island and shelters a wide bay to the east on the main island that sports the very same name. A sizeable village lies behind the dark grey sand beach with a red painted market hall, a good sized secondary school surrounded by boarding houses and an grassy airstrip from where a worn wind sock was lazily dangling in the tempered trade winds that tumbled down in harmless williwaws from Epi Island’s mountainous interior.

It was a Friday night when we arrived in Lamen Bay and we were told that in the main village of Covo Beach, a couple of bays further to the South, the festivities for the 36th anniversary of Vanuatu’s independence would come to an end tomorrow with a grand closing celebration. The place was clearly too far to paddle to with our canoe and with our painfully gained knowledge of the amazing prices for transportation in the local flatbed trucks we decided to brave the rising mid-morning heat and started out on foot on the dusty two-wheel track. It soon started climbing a rather steep hillside before dwindling back down on the other side. We walked past a nicely manicured village along the bay that followed and walked up two more similar elevations before arriving at the location, where a small stage had been set up to one side of a football field. From there a persistent MC kept trying to enthuse the loosely spread out crowd to congregate. Alas his worthy efforts where mostly in vain, as the locals continued to sit in their clan like clusters here and there around the market square, in the shade of some giant mango trees, where they kept laughing and giggling unabated. We sat down on one side of the market square and dusted off our shoes as best as possible. Two ladies soon entered the covered area and performed a short dance with swinging hips sinuous shoulder moves, apparently with the intention of definitely setting the festivities in motion.

Unlike with other places we have visited there was no friendly invitation to sit and join in, quite to the contrary there was an impression of being sized up by slightly clenched eyes and getting coldly mustered from afar. Right after the initial dancing the honorary guests where invited up to the little stage, introduced with names and their public functions and a group of important looking ladies decorated them with colorful leis made of local flowers. Those honorable men then started an impressive series of political speeches, which unfolded just as it would have at any other place on the planet. Stale ideology squeezed out of clenched teeth, pretty promises were made that will never be kept and a heroic sounding history hurried alongside to cover up the miserable facts of the poor listeners factual existence. I rarely get bored, because boredom only happens to the one who doesn’t see, but in spite of my efforts to listen to the nuances of Bislama and to spot the precise mechanism of indoctrination, my backside soon started itching and we got up to go for a stroll towards the beach. A group of musicians sat in the shade further away from the blaring loudspeakers. They were waiting just as we were for their turn to show off artistic skills later in the patriotic program. Then a group of somber looking youngsters didn’t reply to our repeated greetings at all. In the back of a large concrete building some ladies were hanging up laundry and their happy chatting gained the acoustic upper hand to the slimy speeches that were now dragging their sticky feet far in the distance.

We decided against waiting for the announced string band competition and passed by a food stall on the far end of the football field to purchase refreshments in form of two nicely peeled drinking nuts. A deep fried local donut called ‘kapo’ was tasted alongside. Good for the taste buds it was, but not exactly healthy nutrition. We then set out to walk back towards our home in Lamen Bay in the now scorching midday sun and along the dusty road we met a trickle of additional visitors to the festival who had their timing better arranged than ours.

A couple days later we made the acquaintance of Chief Timothy and his wife, a very friendly couple in charge of Lamen Bay village. They had seen a good bit of the modern world, enough at least to feel soundly rooted in their island homes and gardens. They informed us of a peculiar group of ladies from the Solomon Islands, members of what they described as a marching choir, who had followed the invitation of a local minister to participate in a fundraising event to take place the following day. The chiefly couple had intentions to travel to the neighboring village on the island’s east coast with their children, and we were invited to tag along. Since the Solomon Islands are lying on the planned course of our travels, we were happy to jump on the opportunity of getting a first glimpse at their culture.

On Tuesday afternoon we therefore paddled ashore to our rendezvous with Chief Timothy’s family. A good long bit of island time passed on into eternity until transportation could finally be organized, which left me with lingering doubts about the chiefly authority wielded by our hosts. Once that organizational hiccup had been overcome we hopped onto the back of a growling pickup truck and soon started climbing another rather steep hill. From its top through the billowing clouds of dust raised by the speeding vehicle a splendid view unfolded with white surf crashing shoreward along Epi’s east coast, and in the distance the rugged hills of Paama Island and the even more mysterious 1’400 meters high volcanic cone of Lepovi. The latter sat there majestically shrouded with a sturdy collar of puffy cumulus clouds.

A hair rising decent later we arrived at the village where the festivities were supposed to unfold. We were led to an improvised enclosure, surrounded with a fence of dried palm leaves and bamboo sticks. A small payment was required to enter and we settled down on the lawn amongst our dark faced friends and the ever present pack of bone dry dogs, which received considerable mistreatment by a deranged looking fellow in a rumpled military uniform. This sad character had nothing better to do than sneak up to them and kick them cruelly with his heavy black boots. Part of his sinister motivation must have stemmed from his success in garnering the admiration of the present lady folks, who to my amazement cheered him up with their supportive exclamations. It always sends shivers down my spine to see these manifestations of adoration for the spectacle of violence, so very much engrained in the fabric of the human mind.

Maneuvering past the distraction of this rudely intruding reality a group of local youth stood in the center of the arena nicely divided into rows of separate genders. The boys in jeans and the girls in black knee-long skirts soon started to bounce about to the menacing rhythms of techno sounds overlaid with robotic intonations of a clever rendition of purely Presbyterian doctrine. The boys were moving with considerable enthusiasm, while the girls seemed quite obviously subdued, executing the same routines with only a fraction of the kinetic energy of their testosterone driven peers. In between the performances accounts were given as to the present state of the events fundraising, the climbing numbers promptly being applauded with somber reverence.

After a good while of more and more of the same the main number of the evening was finally approaching. From behind the audience out of a grass house a single column of ladies emerged, all dressed in impeccable white robes bordered delicately with fine red accent lines. They wore speckless white shoes and matching white socks and had their hair tied up in very compact buns. They marched gracefully into the center of the arena, where the one single column split up into four parallel ones, all while marching in perfect synchronization. Once arrived at the center a first hymn was chanted, accompanied now not only by the steadily stomping feet, but also by rhythmic tapping of a stick against a wooden block each of the ladies held in their hands. At the end of that stick a pompom like whip of colored strings protruded, which danced frivolously in the wind to the monotone pulsations of the song. The marching never stopped and the columns turned in different directions, which resulted in elaborate maneuvers, the choir constantly changing its formation, sometimes in the shape of a square, then transforming into a circle, before becoming a moving rectangle. At the end of each number the marching stopped and the choir received a short applause, but almost immediately continued to intone another song. The performance went on for a considerable amount of time, sadly without much variety in the presentation. About half way through it all the director, a stern, straight backed lady with an imposing forehead, grabbed the microphone and provided an explanation for what the different colors of the whips were meant to symbolize. The red color of the Lord Jesus’ blood was duly mentioned as was the white purity of the believer who has accepted Him in his heart. The green belonged to a more universal grammar and simply stood for hope, while the yellow had again a liturgical connotation, as it stands for the gold bestowed on him who has received the gospel (sic!).

epi - 1The quite obviously good hearted lady soldiers made their way through more and more numbers and I started to suspect that they were repeating the same song over and over. Before I was able to definitely ascertain my suspicion the darkness of dusk began to approach and the final number won the hearty applause of relief. With that the marching choir maneuvered its way out of the public eye. The time had come to start the return journey with our hosts. This again included copious amounts of dust ending up in our lungs along the way. It turned out that this transport once again, in agreement with Vanuatu ‘kustom’ I must suppose, ended up costing a small fortune of money. One is never quite sure, if one is being ripped off or if things really can be that expensive around here.

To sum it up, the strange island of Epi had provided us with two rampant manifestations of indoctrination, the first of the political kind, the second of the so called spiritual realm. Those two must work together, quite clearly with many other poorly hidden strings that behind the scenes of daily living pull the human being through a slump of reactionary sadness, where social injustice and exploitation are allowed to freely flourish and corruption continues to solidify the status quo. Could it be then that most of our misery, economical and emotional, is actually self-inflicted? Is it possible that the key to solving the riddle of human slavery, which continues to thrive unabated into the very heart of modernity, instead of having to do with a dark and somber ‘system’ that clips the innocent wings of our freedom, consists in breaking the chains of my very own attachment to things like comfort and security?


August 3, 2016

We finally found our maintenance bay. In the north of Efate is one of the most protected harbors in Vanuatu. Famous for its role as a staging point for the American fleet battling the Japanese during World War II it is today a calm backwater and Aluna has been laying at anchor in absolutely calm waters for almost a week now, lazily allowing a few alteration projects to slide off the to do list into the realm of reality. The watch bunk in the cockpit is seeing greater use lately as we are much more on the move as during our previous cruising life. Since in its original design it allows for one person to nap we have ended up taking turns between the two of us during passage making. By adding a 20cm extension in front of the bunk we have now a not quite queen size double bunk and can huddle up the two of us if the need arises. We will be testing out the practicality of this new arrangements tomorrow on our passage to Epi Island.
Parallel to this work on creature comfort a crucial advancement has taken shape towards Aluna’s ever present efforts to go greener and greener. Her port motor well has been serving the peaceful purpose of fresh water storage since the abandonment of our two cranky outboard second hand outboard motors and their replacement with a single but brand new 6hp motor back in American Samoa. Now in a process of multi-functionality it will share that space with a new electrification experiment. Already back in New Zealand two sizeable 6V lead acid batteries have managed to sneak in there after being rescued from the marina dump in Opua. Those have now received their very own battery compartment, as close as possible to the location where a 62lb electric trolling motor should soon find its home. I hope it will provide our vessel with minimal maneuverability in the zero pollution realm. As mentioned cautiously, this is an experiment, advancing slowly amongst many more urgent tasks, but you should hear more about its achievements as it receives greater attention in the near future. 
This being the tail end of our experience on Vanuatu’s main island Efate there’s much more to talk about than maintenance and repairs. Once we had made our way out of our peaceful hideaway on the South Coast we found ourselves anchored on a shallow sand patch sprinkled with amazingly virulent coral heads right off downtown of the capital city of Port Vila. It is a noisy corner and we got our share of marching along dusty roads, breathing in plenty of pollution from the frantic minibuses that clog them all day long, and even at night the pounding beats blaring out from tourist friendly restaurants across the harbor waters cut deeply into our sleep. But once you force yourself to overcome the shock about Vanuatu’s exorbitant prices of just about everything there is a practical side to all this. We are after all once again provisioned up for a good while to come. 

As for the experience of it, this town with its laid bare opulence is in sharp contrast to the humble life we have been witnessing in the outer islands. There is no doubt that Vanuatu’s society is a feudal one with very few living on the backs of many. While not easily visible corruption must be rampant to say the least from what one hears behind the curtains and reads beyond the surface. Public moneys are pocketed, tampered with, speculated with and generally used and abused in a whirlwind of back room deals that never see the light of day. Subsistence farming on fertile volcanic soil keeps the lower classes busty but well fed and quite apparently allows this creaming off to continue unabated without major drama. It seems that for the time being revolution has all but subsided and given way to dull resignation.

We did get an interesting insight into the dirty entrails of Vanuatu politics during our joyful visit to the charming folks at Wan Smol Bag Theater troupe. They reside in a sizeable cultural center just outside of Port Villa town and for a staggering 25 years this British couple have been producing cutting edge community theater right here in this cultural waste land. Their center sports a no nonsense reproductive health clinic for local youth and Peter, the director told me with considerable pride that they provide salaried employment for no less than 140 hungry mouths. 

This example of performing arts deeply engrained in the fabric of the community was for us all too good to be true and we sat through their full slate of cultural offerings during our week and a half stay in the capital. First off was a set of health education plays produced by their group of disabled actors. Between rolling laughter and well-versed songs we learned of the importance of washing our hands and keeping our toilets clean. These short half hour plays will tour the schools and community centers of the islands and I’m convinced they will breach the threshold of functional art and make a difference wherever they go. 

Two nights later we were back for more and saw a professionally produced feature film titled “Yumi Go Kale”. The story line was about a family man caught in the web of blatant corruption, where a new minister grudgingly kept a single one of his promises, but only to cover up his dismal splurges of substance abuse, rape and related forms of cultured violence. No happy end covered the trail of revelations, skillfully left in suspense the spectator got out of the projection venue with strings of thoughts planted in his brain that continued to unravel for days to come and cannot help but sharpen the perception of what he’ll find around him. 

As if that tumultuous revelation was not enough we thought it worth the effort to mobilize our small circle of cruising friends for the Saturday night presentation of Wan Smol Bag’s latest oeuvre of stage craft with the catchy title “Hotel Kalifonia”. We arrived with one small gang of eight and soon took our hard wooden seats up in the steep rafters of the semicircular seating arrangement. During the following two hours we endured a crash course in Bislama, the third of Vanuatu’s national language besides French and English. You might have already spotted its clever phonetic annotation of English terms, where California becomes Kalifonia, and One Small Bag transforms into Wan Smol Bag. A densely crafted comedy unraveled in a mock-up of a local restaurant, where an impromptu birthday celebration for the minister quickly turned into a tenacious struggle for power with shifting alliances, outrageous fits of jealousy, drunken bouts of geniuses, hilarious revelations of highly visible secrets and even some hints of truly visionary leadership. Once stripped of the powers of public office our ‘minister’ turned its attention to a gang of lowlifes for a new following and soon returned to challenge the status quo dressed clearly in a different uniform. Once again the treacherous happy ending of cheap comedy was narrowly but very cleverly avoided, which left our amused giggling with a dissonant ring, pointing a persistent finger on our own encrusted status quo, where much work is left to be accomplished in order to stay awake and responsive to the many social misfits in our own environment. In short: what an awesome delight to find such elaborately engaged art of the performing kind amongst the rubbles of colonial South Seas abandonment! 

Our stay in maintenance bay is now winding down with the epoxy cured and functionality added. It’s once again time to hoist the sails and weigh the anchor to continue our trek north. We’re now arriving at the bifurcation in Vanuatu’s Y-shaped cluster of islands, where the eastern branch runs up with another active volcano island named Ambryn, then the two thin strips of land, famed Pentecost and Maewo Islands, and ending up in the Bank Islands, while the western arm sports the fatter isles of Malekula and Espirtu Santo before tattering out in the Torres Islands. Plenty of things remain to be seen and explored!


July 14, 2016

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


July 6, 2016

Now this is a whole other ballgame. There are no cruise ships, at least just yet, here in Port Resolution at the eastern tip of the island of Tanna, thus named by famed Captain Cook after his very own ship. Today this small protected inlet would not be suitable for the valiant and certainly resolute explorer with a uniform depth of three to four meters. Apparently the land has uplifted sometimes during the global upheaval shortly before the middle of the last century in an upheaval of the volcanic kind. World famous Mount Yasur must have been involved in it with its fuming rumblings and fiery Stromboli type explosions that nowadays awe tourists from all over the world. Its towering ash and vapor cloud overlooks our anchorage, during the day like a giant wind direction indicator wiggling its way up into the stratosphere, and at night with a pink-orange glow on its underbelly that comes and goes to the rhythm of the eruptions in the caldera below.
Not having the fat cows of their southern neighbors to milk, the inhabitants of Tanna do their best to suckle from the smaller and skinnier ones. The steady stream of yachties passing through their lovely bay has given them a set of persistent tools of trade they are not shy to use and abuse. The day we arrived it was a lazy Sunday afternoon, at least once we were safely in the harbor after a rather turbulent passage up from Aneityum with Aluna riding white-capped seas churned up by full-blown 25 knot plus trades out of only a slither south of east. We had barely put our anchor down, when a fellow approached paddling his nice little one-man outrigger canoe made from a single breadfruit log. He extracted two mobile phones from a plastic bag in his water-soaked bilges and asked us if we would be so kind to charge them. As much as we have observed so far, this is an experience shared by every arriving boat in the bay. We have later learned that when they go to charge their phones at the computer lab of the small local school, they have to pay a small fee for it. They are of course very much aware, that on their second attempt most of their asking will be in vain.

But coming back to the outrigger canoes, they are beautiful little crafts and are the main means of local transport on the water. Every morning except Sundays a fleet of them starts skimming the rippled waters of the bay, paying out nets and following instructions by a couple of guys shouting down from the twenty meters high cliffs where the dusty remains of the Port Resolution Yacht Club dwells on memories of better times long gone by. During the course of the day their watery bilges fill with bundles of tasty mackerels, which around noon are dispatched with four wheeled pickup trucks to the market in Lenakel on the other side of the island. The afternoon catch is then distributed on the beach and feeds the local bellies.

The Lenakel market we had the pleasure to visit a couple days after our arrival. Transportation had to be arranged the previous day and we were cited to be ready at the Yacht Club at six thirty in the morning. Coming ashore the following day we were kindly informed that the truck would leave at seven thirty instead because the driver needed to finish watching the soccer match. We were lead to the community hall where a sizable group of early risers were watching Spain vs. Croatia of the Euro Cup blaring with French commentary from a small TV set up on a raised stage. Lucky enough our liaison was able to drag the driver out of there during half time break and we got going at eight. The trip started out on a grassy two-wheel track through dense jungle with interspersed banana and pawpaw gardens. Every now and then the “road” would transform into a riverbed like gulley where our driver shifted into four-wheel mode to negotiate bumpy hops from one big round boulder to the other.

After a little over a half hour drive we arrived at a large clearing and were told that this was the entrance to the volcano’s visiting area. We drove along an interspersed concrete brick wall under construction behind which a grass field extended with erect figures sculpted in black lava rock up the gentle slope of the now visible majestic cone under the telltale cloud top. On the opposite side of the road bungalows awaited eager tourists to rest their bones and for the more demanding tastes there were two colorful tree lodges lodged atop majestic Banyan trees. 

A mile or two later the vegetation abruptly disappeared around us and we were catapulted out onto a dark grey moonscape, the volcano’s ash plane to the West and Northwest of the cinder cone. The “road” now consisted of a multitude of tire track marks running parallel, sometimes as wide as a Los Angeles six lane freeway. Black lava boulders of different sizes sat strewn across the plane and to our right the gaze was able to scale the smooth sides of the volcano decorated at its top with dark streaks, remnants of ejecta sliding down from the crater’s rim. A small river had to be forded once we had made our way along the volcano’s base and little by little the vegetation reclaimed the landscape as we started to ascend the high mountainous interior of Tanna Island. Climbing up a winding road up Snake Mountain we were treated with a splendid vista up the northern half of the island with a distinct white line of ocean surf delineating its eastern shore.

Unsurprisingly Lenakel on the West coast, the island’s administrative center and main port, turned out to be a noisy little town full of shops selling wares of all kinds. On the market square in the shade of a gigantic tree ladies in colorful dresses were selling the goods of their gardens. Fruits from mandarins to pineapples and many kinds of bananas were presented alongside a wide range of tubers like taro, yam, cassava and kumara. We stocked up with what we could fit in our rucksacks and bags, knowing well that what we were not able to purchase here we would have to extract with tenacious trading from our local friends back around the rolly bay of Port Resolution.

Over the next couple days we delved into the social dynamics of our hosts. In conversations ashore and aboard we learned about vicious feuding between the handful of villages, power struggles around the few steady sources of income, ideological divisions between those who favor tradition and those who promote development and finally got wind of the outrageous plan to start building a thousand meter long airstrip within a couple months’ time, that will allow the landing of international flights on this side of the island to funnel even more tourists up the slopes of the rumbling mountain. Visions of bright white resorts along the still pristine banks of the bay started to cloud my eyes whenever I looked around the anchorage but apparently the resistance to this outrageous assault in the communities here is feeble and in a state of utter disarray. The Chinese had won the construction bid, presumably to be paid by their own government’s large chunks of aid money, and were already busy clearing the road we had used to cross the island, where I had seen heavy construction equipment driven by slit eyed characters and a fat supervisor sitting on an even fatter tricycle wearing the telltale hat of Chinese rice farmers while his ill-humored and yellow cheeked face was shouting orders to his dark colored subjugates, who in turn were wielding shovels and picks in their hand.
As it turned out the world famous volcano, the gloomy glow we admire at night above our temporary resting place, will have to do without our visit. We had been warned beforehand about Vanuatu’s outrageous prices for visiting its famous landmarks, but the 7’000 vatus (about US$75) entry fee to Mount Yasur, which is per person, plus another 2’500 for transportation up to the entrance makes this adventure inaccessible to our tightly stringed purse and seems to us just a little bit over the top! We are getting conflicting information whenever we ask where exactly this money would go, but none of it sounds anything even remotely close to fair trade standards. There seems to be no stopping once the lust for money has gotten hold of a man’s heart and mind. And as much as the heavy milking of the tourism industry by poorer nations is an understandable temptation, there can be no good future coming out of such blatant abuse. The Ni Vanuatu, who at every turn pride themselves to be a very friendly people, might have a bit of work laid out before them to bring their self-image in accord with their actual deeds. That is of course easier said than done and anyway, with our own societies in absolute disarray, who are we to judge?

As a replacement for the costly adventure of visiting the fiery volcanic spectacle it was suggested to us to go and visit a ‘kustom’ village about a two hour walk down the road. Bislama, the national language of Vanuatu is a pidgin English, which uses English words on the grammatical structure of an indigenous language. Here a traditional village is meant that still cultivates its folkloric customs. It was a rainy day, but our friends from SV Capastro had to sail on the next day and were eager to get some sort of adventures under their belts. Anyway, who cares, in the tropics rain is quite an agreeable affair. Your clothes dry quickly between downpours.

Peaking around us from under our rain coats we were soon treading along the same dirt road that had brought us to the other side of the island, but this time on foot. It took a good eye and a bit of inquiry with the locals to glimpse the turn off from the main road that lead up the mountain, then through a palisade like gate over a three foot deep ditch up to a hilltop, where a manicured village sat in the dampness. Chief Jack soon appeared in a red T-shirt out of one of the bamboo plaited and palm leave thatched huts and with a bright smile welcomed us to his village named Taupau. A price of 1’000 Vatus per head was agreed upon and we were lead into a hut and told to wait until his people were ready in full ‘kustom’ costumes. A good half an hour later he reappeared in grass skirt with a penis mock up sticking up frolicking in front of his belly button. He told us to follow his bare buttocks down to a round flattened area flanked by three majestic Banyan trees. One of them had a tunnel cut through the bundle of trunks through which soon a group of chanting dancers appeared, the whole scene fit for any grand royal opera house!

The group of nine dancers, two bare breasted ladies, three straw penis clad men and four children with hints of obliged demeanor, performed four numbers for us consisting of chants supported by stern hand clapping and vigorously stomping feet. Chief Jack gave us his well-worn explanations about their content, the first being a general welcome for us visitors, the second an emulation of jumps to avoid falling boulders of lava expulsed from the volcano, the third an abstruse story of jealousy in a banana garden and finally the last one a hearty and thankful farewell for us travelers who “had come from such great a distance to visit us!”

Here under the cathedral like banyan trees the brutal exchange of paper currency seemed softened, akin to a fair exchange of goods with a defined price in any other trading post around the world. Of course our charming host was unable to refrain from a persistent instruction for us to “tell all our friends to bring some little Vatus to Chief Jack and his people.” I guess here the healthy South American expression of “El que no llora no mama!”* comes to shine its light of popular wisdom onto a lad grabbing by the hand the opportunity when it happens to present itself before his needy eyes. 
* This translates into something like: “He who doesn’t cry does not get to suckle the titty!”


June 21, 2016

We’re bobbing up and down in the cross swells on the leeward side of Aneityum and the mist shrouded peaks of this mountainous island are disappearing slowly in the distance. Soon we’ll be catching the cool and resolute winter trades here in the higher tropical Southern latitudes, and before their rocky white horses will wipe away our memories for good, let me sieve through the remaining morsels of remembrance, leftover traces of our initial meeting of the Vanuatu people. Our direction of travel takes us from the outer islands towards the capital, a great privilege reserved to seafaring voyagers here in this island world, allowing us to see the gentle first and then the harsh. From the very day we arrived in the wide bay of Anelcauhat we were taken under the wings of Kenneth who just couldn’t keep his fascination with our unusual vessel under wrap. He jumped on board and told us with pride that he had built a traditional canoe himself with the same type of sails as our big crab claw sails. As we soon found out during our first visit ashore he has good reason to be friendly with foreigners. He is in the hospitality business and is the proud owner of a little island resort at one end of town right along the beach, where a half dozen small huts huddle around a carefully manicured coral walkway, and guests can stay and relax while on the island on business or holiday. His friendly and generous ways we hope to see more of as we move up the island chain.

The source of the apparent wealth of the town folks with their rows upon rows of sizeable fiberglass skiffs powered by high horse power outboards parked all along the beach became clear the second day after our arrival. A shoe box shaped colossus had parked itself just beyond the reef at the entrance of the bay in the wee hours of morning and by the time I had clambered out of bed a steady stream of orange water taxies was ferrying Australian and Asian tourists to the little island to the South, which at their very service had been re-baptized from its traditional name of Island to the non-descript moniker of “Mystery Island”. Another steady stream of locals in those same fiberglass skiffs was flowing across the bay to the left and right of us to meet the onslaught of pink and yellow skinned cruise ship denizens in search of the ultimate South Sea adventure. A veritable amusement park had been created around the grassy airstrip on that coral island with prices marked in Australian dollars on brown cardboard pieces. On offer were snorkel tours, transparent kayak rentals, short sailing stints on traditional outrigger canoes, hair braiding, relaxing massages and a special photo opportunity for the tourists to look out of a staged island cannibal cooking pot into the eager camera of a loving family members or the trigger happy smartphone of a jittery honeymoon co-conspirator. 
Once or sometimes twice a week this spectacle unfolds and must inject a good deal of cash into the coffers of local households, not only of this little town, but as we were told also of the many smaller villages up and down the coast. In the evening the traffic flowed in opposite directions and right before sunset after having hoisted the couple dozen water taxis antlike up along its vertical sides the cubistic behemoth belched out a hollow horn blast across the rippled waters, cranked up its anchor and soon disappeared into the freshly falling darkness. Once back on their home turf the locals seem quite happy to continue living in their palm thatch covered houses with their woven bamboo walls and continue to tend their beautiful gardens, where cassava, taro, yams and kumaras grow in between banana and papaya trees transforming the dark volcanic soil into nutritious food as it has for thousands of years before. 

It’s hard to put a wrap on the sustainability and the overall carbon footprint of this economic interchange between the first and third world. On the surface it all seems astonishingly benign and maybe the Vanuatu people are blessed with a natural happiness that allows them to bridge the gap of arrogant wealth and humbling poverty. The smart phone and selfie craze that has certainly gotten the better of them seems less stringent here than in other parts of the modern world. The bright white smiling teeth in the dark and fuzzy haired faces does much to soften the sting of our egocentric malaise with the ecological collapse luring just around the corner.

A New Beginning

June 11, 2016

The forecast was in fact less than ideal. On the morning of Monday May 30 we were up at Christian’s house, who had been keeping his keen eyes on Aluna for us over the last two years while she sat patiently on one of his moorings. A good part of the 86 years on his square German shoulders have been spent on the sea and this is the kind of people you listen to when they speak, because their advice is priceless. “Looking at Monday or Thursday, Monday is not as bad as Thursday,” he said looking at the screen of his laptop, “but for the first two days your tea cups will not stay on the table!” I had come to a similar conclusion myself in the early morning hours and decided not to follow the contrary advice of maritime weather guru Bob McDavitt, who had recommended Thursday as the ideal day for departure.  The promised westerlies for Tuesday and Wednesday had been compromised by a trough that had materialized in the weather models overnight. It was supposed to sneak up along New Zealand’s west coast by Tuesday, then concentrate into a circulating low pressure system and chase our tail before by Thursday being sucked off abruptly to the east by the jet stream aloft. All the models however coincided in predicting something brewing up in the islands at the end of the upcoming weekend, which in turn conjured up the hope of making it into port before that if departing now, while a Thursday departure clearly meant having to deal with the disturbance half way through our journey.

In my nervous mind’s eye the fickle lure of postponing departure, which in my view promised no more than a period of prolonged anxiety, was unable to overrun the promised discomfort of having to pound our way through a beam-on sea. It boiled down to man’s archaic choice between action and non-action and life had taught me hard enough that in these critical moments there really is only one correct option. In spite of the concern shining in Beatriz’ eyes, in spite of the slight tremble in her voice and the many buts and what ifs in her speech I sternly said: “We’re leaving!”

For the last time we paddled our outrigger canoe across the Elizabeth Channel over to Opua to go and complete the check-out at the customs office, take a last warm shower and shout a final goodbye to our friends. Once back on board it was midday and it takes me a good two hours to transform Aluna from a comfy floating home into an ocean going vessel, disassembling and securing the canoe, hoisting the sails, tying down the hatches, all in a long frantic string of furious activity that soothes the mind and keeps it from going berserk. In the meantime Beatriz had cooked up a hearty meal with plenty leftovers to hopefully keep us well fed for the following couple days where cooking in a roller coaster galley promised to be great torture.

Shortly after 2:30 in the afternoon we were ready to let go of our last connection to New Zealand soil. The orange float and the rope loop of the mooring splashed into the murky green waters and after a 180 degree turn to starboard we were riding the outgoing tide towards Russell and then out into the bay with the many islands. By night fall we had watched a couple rain bands coming off the land, move overhead and then out into the darkening sky to the east and had left Nine Pin Rock, the northern sentinel of the Bay of Islands, astern. As we moved further and further away from the shore the winds started to freshen and a long, lonesome and dark night later we were getting pounded beam on by persistent Westerlies that did their very best to make our lives truly miserable.

Those Westerlies were in the twenty to twenty-five range, so Aluna with her clean, slick and freshly painted bottoms shot along, jumping from wave to wave, quite clearly enjoying the fact that she was being slapped broadside by onrushing, white capped wave trains again and again. The shudders this wave smacking action sent through the hobby horsing catamaran resonated profoundly in our entrails and food was at the very bottom of the list of desirable things, some of it  in upheaval actually reversed its intended direction! I don’t get seasick easily but there I was: green as a rat in sewer pipe, twisting and turning on my watch bunk, sliding closer and closer to the edge of the realm of impaired physical functionality. And this definitely is not a good thing to happen to somebody on a fickle boat out on the middle of the open ocean.

This devilish dance went on and on, every time the hopes towards improvement found a little spike to notch their longing into, they saw themselves dashed by a yet stepped up howling of the winds and churning of the waters. Eventually after three days of rough and tumble a cold front rumbled over us, at night of course, as fronts seem to fear the daylight and never develop the same fury when they’re being seen. The hypersonic hiss in the rigging ripped through my fatalistic state of mind, but nothing moved. “Let it break!”, my withering life energy lisped and I did not rise from the bunk to brail the mizzen sail as caution persistently dictated. My leaden arm barely managed to raise the mobile phone from the little ledge beside my head to check up on Aluna’s break-neck speed. A little number there danced rhythmically up to 13 and then down to nine, up to 12 and down to 10, up to 13.7 and down to… In the early morning hours of Thursday the howling slowly subsisted and for once my phlegmatic gamble had paid off. The mizzen sail sat faithfully up in the wind above the deck pod. Its foot had managed to dislodge the bracket where the mast passes through the roof of the deck pod and twist it to one side, but that was clearly a minor affair, and a peek up at the tell tales fluttering on the shrouds confirmed that finally the winds had shifted South of West.

The riding then got gradually easier as the winds continued to back. At Thursday noon I was fit enough to plot our position into the phone and it revealed a staggering 380 miles of our journey laying behind us. We were by now a good 100 miles to the East of the rhumb line between the points of our departure and destination, but that didn’t have me worried in the least. There was another great piece of advice from the master sea salt rummaging around in the backrooms of my mind. Christian had said it a good four times during our strategy meeting early Monday morn: “Go plenty East, almost like heading to the Kermadecs. Then keep to the East! It’ll be like money in the bank!” I did adjust our course though to now run parallel to the rhumb line and two days of nice, smooth sailing followed. The winds continued in the twenties, but running with them you could care less, their grip is considerably softened by the movement of your vessel.

Saturday evening our ritual of contemplating the color-hued spectacle of sunset was hampered by a light grey bank of clouds stretched across the western sky. During the day already a slurry of high cirrus clouds had announced possible trouble brewing ahead. They raced in the opposite direction as our surface winds delineating the meanders of the jet streams with their icy crystal maze. Sunday morning awoke with a leaden sky with different shades of grey, many of them clearly on the dark side. Curtains of rain hung from the underside of the most somber clouds and sprinkled Aluna’s decks with soft tropical moisture. The winds had returned from the good to the not so good, backing way more than needed to a good bit north of east. Temptation was imminent to renounce a wee bit of our easting to make the going easier, but I held sternly to our course, fearing that conditions might get worse. As a good Swiss I labored to keep our money in the bank!All too soon we were back to the broadside smackers, however with the waves now crashing into us from the opposite side. Salt water squirts had made their way into our sleeping quarters during the first part of the voyage finding their way up from below and under the main hatch washboard. They were now threatening to do the same on the galley side and ruin our comfy carpet flooring there. Some hastily squeezed rags had to prevent this from happening while other visits to the galley became once again a rare undertaking. At night the squalls were hard to spot under the moonless sky, but their roaring made it clear they were up to no good. This time I did heed the warning and brailed the mizzen sail to have Aluna run through the darkness of night under the number two mainsail alone. By late Monday morning the skies finally started to clear, the winds steadied but were still threatening to creep forward of our beams. By now our easting capital had matured to the point of wanting to pay out some dividends. We were approaching the latitude of our destination and I gently notched the dial of our autopilot a good ten degrees to the West. What a difference that made! Our ride smoothened out and the smacking diminished considerably. But no more than that! What if the wind turned further to the North or even to the West and transformed our final approach into a terminal nightmare?

Like an interplanetary space probe fine tuning its ballistic trajectory by midnight I did begin to fine tune Aluna’s course over ground further and further until by Tuesday daybreak we were heading due West. Out of the dull darkness in front of our twin bows, just as the twilight spread from behind our double sterns a flat shape emerged above the horizon with gentle inclines on either side and a cap of boiling cumulus heaps that soon started to gleam in rose colors, leaps above their still grey peers around them. Quite obviously revealing its volcanic origin, the island of Aneityum, the southernmost speck of land in the Republic of Vanuatu was laying before us.

With the sun breaking through the clouds and climbing higher into the sky the flattened and weathered cone became a verdant platform of paradisiacal aspirations. Bright white jets of sea salt froth lined its ragged coast, jumping frantically up into the misty air while we made our way past the southwestern tip. Here and there even blowholes puffed their shoots of spray like angry dragon’s blustered nostrils expelling prehistoric pneumonic phlegm. The treacherous task of landfall was imminently spread out before us.

At the island’s southwestern tip a massive reef jots a good mile and a half into the ocean and we had to make our way around it and then enter the natural harbor of Anelcauhat from the West. Now in the lee of the 850m high mountains the going slowed to a trickle, with time to sort out our vessel’s gear for arrival. Make sure the anchor is ready to deploy, zoom the chart plotter in enough to see the details of the harbor entrance, untie the outboard motor from its stowed position and lower the well, open the fuel tank vent, pull out the choke just a tad, give a couple of hearty pulls on the starter cord and… Nothing! Maybe in the tropical warmth there’s no need for the choke, so back in it went. Pull, pull and pull. Nothing! Not even a sputter to give me a hint that this piece of metal intended to collaborate! My temper quickly flared and a couple of wicked curses later I realized that once more Aluna was going to sail into an unknown harbor under sail alone!

The wind was fickle and the translucent heaving backs of crashing waves were near. Still we were moving in the right direction albeit at just barely over a knot. Not for much longer however. Soon the characteristic whining of the autopilot trying to keep a still standing boat on course while it banks away from puffs of oncoming wind alerted me to the fact that radical action was needed. I dug for the 3 meter long paddle stored for just this kind of occasion on the starboard tumblehome roof and dipped it over the side. I hadn’t done this in a good while and the position was rather awkward to say the least. So it took me a while to get into the motion, but once a good rhythm is established Aluna will move under oar power alone. You can get her out of the irons in a calm or like then get her moving at a knot and a half when fickle puffs of wind tried to lure her in dire straits. But boy, good exercise it was and after fifteen minutes of it I was at the brink of exhaustion. But we had rounded the perilous corner and found a feasible wind coming down the western side of the island. It was weak and on the nose. There was no way we could make good use of it with the number two main sail up. It needed to come down and make way for the big main sail with its close to 40 square meters of pure wind power. Now we were talking! One long tack later we were sailing towards the small group of houses that huddled at the bottom of the bay that by now had opened up to the north of the reef.

The anchor dropped into the azure water and soon took firm hold in a new soil. An unknown land and people lay there in front of our exuberated senses, waiting to be explored with raging passion and caressed with bottomless curiosity!

Aluna between two worlds