Impressions from Vanuatu

Jimmy Cornell is currently en route to Panama onboard Aventura. As the terrible destruction wreaked by Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu, one of the places the Blue Planet Odyssey is due to visit later this year, he writes: 

I have wonderful memories from my visits to Vanuatu on the previous three Aventuras, and once listed Vanuatu at the top of my favourite cruising destinations, primarily because of its wonderfully welcoming people. I’d like to use what I wrote in my book ‘Passion for the Sea’ to inspire people to do something – anything – to help those poor people.

Sailors are probably more prone than ordinary people to keep looking back nostalgically to a golden past when there were still countless unspoilt places to explore and you could sail around the world on a shoestring. It is probably true that cruising in the 1970s was generally more rewarding but there are still a few places where things have changed very little.

Such a place is Vanuatu, formerly known as the Condominium of the New Hebrides once administered jointly by Britain and France. When we arrived there shortly before independence in 1979 we came across some of the most isolated and undeveloped communities that we had seen anywhere. Quarter of a century later life in the outer islands has changed very little and a way of life can still be found that has disappeared elsewhere.

Stretching in a long chain from south to north the twenty-odd islands have everything one could wish for: calm anchorages, welcoming villagers and some of the most interesting sights in the Pacific.

There are two highlights that stand out above all others: Yasur volcano on Tanna and the land divers of Pentecost.

Young and old dancers from a custom village on Tanna

Having bypassed both islands on my previous visit, a pleasant overnight sail took us from Maré to Tanna where we anchored in Port Resolution named after Captain’s Cook ship who was probably the first European to set his sights on these remote islands which he called the New Hebrides.

A young Ni-Vanuatu man greeted us warmly as we stepped ashore on the beach at Port Resolution. Pointing to a couple of thatched huts on the headland behind him, he exclaimed, ‘Welcome to the Port Resolution Yacht Club. I’m Wherry.’

To make sailors more comfortable and encourage them to stay longer, Wherry’s uncle, Chief Ronnie of the neighbouring village, had built a large hut, now adorned with flags and club burgees, to be used as a shore base by the crews of visiting yachts.

A public telephone was also the central feature on the village green at Port Resolution, where it stood proudly in its own thatched hut next to a solar panel and a large antenna. Two objects lying incongruously in the middle of the village green caught my attention: a large boom and a spinnaker pole. Wherry explained later that these were among the few things left from a 53 foot yacht that had been lost there the previous year.

Yasur has been active for many years and on dark nights its reddish glow can be seen a long way off, a welcome pointer in a country where lighthouses are unheard of. Wherry offered to arrange a visit to the volcano but explained that it had been reclaimed by the villagers who live on its slopes and they were the only ones allowed to guide visitors to the rim of the mighty crater. Looking shyly at the ground and speaking in a whisper, Wherry also told me, sounding almost apologetic, that the villagers made a charge for this. I told him that there was nothing wrong with that and that I was happy to pay.

But I still felt that something was not right so I asked him. ‘Wherry, what do other visitors do?

Some people are not happy to have to pay but there is nothing I can do because a custom village has the right to charge.’

In that case there is no need to worry because, as I said, I’ll pay… but can we also visit the village itself?’

Oh no, the village is taboo, and outsiders must not see the women, but occasionally the men will put on a performance for visitors.’

By now I had realized that everything had to be extracted out of Wherry with a lot of patience.
Very good, so why don’t you tell the custom village chief that I am very interested in seeing both the volcano and the performance.’

The following day Wherry told me that the chief had agreed and was expecting us. Wherry also arranged for us to be collected by the one and only local taxi, a battered 4WD pickup truck that I knew too well from my bone crushing trip to Lenakel.

Although I had been in Vanuatu on several occasions I had never had a chance before to visit a custom village. In the narrow sense of the word this usually meant a traditional village where people had returned to the ways of their ancestors, both in their day to day life and in their animistic beliefs. The chance of meeting people from a custom village on Tanna was made even more attractive by the fact that it was here that the John Frum cargo cult originated during the Second World War. Its followers believed that all their needs would be satisfied by goods falling from the skies, their conviction probably inspired by the many aeroplanes that they saw flying over their islands. Even if those expectations have come to nothing, the movement has survived in some villages whose people had turned their backs on the doubtful benefits of the modern world.

A short walk along a narrow muddy path took us to a clearing that was hemmed in on all sides by an impenetrable jungle curtain. Through a small opening at the foot of a gigantic banyan tree, a row of chanting men emerged slowly. They were of all ages, from very young boys to gnarled old men. All were naked with the exception of a tiny skirt at the front, their private parts enclosed in a wrapper called a namba sheath, that once was common throughout Melanesia. Chanting and stamping the packed ground with mighty thuds they danced around in a circle, never raising their eyes. It looked straight out of the stone age and something that I had never experienced before.

At the end of the performance the men disappeared through the banyan curtain and we made our way slowly to the rim of the volcano. This was about as close as one wanted to get to a live volcano, as even at the safe distance of one hundred meters the spewing volcano was a sight to behold. Every now and again a deep rumble foretold of a more forceful eruption when large boulders were thrown sky-high. The sight was awesome and so was the pestilential smell, and it was easy to imagine where the vision of hell had originated.

The land divers of Pentecost. After a safe landing the ankle ties are cut off by a chief.

The best known custom village on the island of Pentecost is Bunlap, home of the famous land divers of Vanuatu.

This special ceremony is normally held at the end of the yam season, a root vegetable that is a staple diet in this part of the Pacific. Young men perform this unique feat of daring to appease the gods and ensure another good harvest.

An overnight sail from Port Vila brought us early one afternoon to Waliap, on the SW coast of Pentecost. Friends in Port Vila had offered to help and for several days had tried to send a message to Chief Willie, who reigned over the area and we had been assured was the only person who could help us see a land diving performance. When we landed on the beach we were met by a large reception committee made up mostly of children but among them was also Chief Willie. My friend had already been in touch with him by phone, so the chief was expecting us and told us that although we had arrived one day early the men were ready to do the land dive that same day.  Several members of Chief Willie’s large family accompanied us to a nearby forest where a tall tower stood in a clearing. Diving towers are normally only used once and take about one week to build. The divers were from Bunlap, the famous land diving village, and Chief Willie had somehow managed to persuade them to use their tower for an extra performance for our benefit.

The tower was much higher than I had expected and must have been at least eighty feet high. Pairs of lianas were hanging down from platforms inserted at various heights. There were seven divers as well as two young boys, one of whom cannot have been more than seven and who looked quite terrified as he prepared to jump from one of the lower platforms.

Before jumping, the diver stood on the edge of the platform, calling out in defiance to the other villagers and, apparently, being free to shout out any indiscretion he liked. He then threw himself forward, as if into a swimming pool, the fall being surprisingly swift as the diver fell rapidly towards the ground. The impact was lessened by the lianas tied to his ankles, the green vines having enough stretch in them to slow down the fall. Even so, what I had not realized, was that the diver actually hit the ground, and, as part of the ceremony, was in fact supposed to touch the loosened soil with his forehead. How hard they hit was difficult to tell as on landing they curled up in a foetal position. A chief would quickly came to help the diver on his feet, who still looked rather stunned, and cut with a machete the vines that had been tightly bound to his ankles with strands of pandanus fibre. The diver then retook his place among the dancers at the base of the tower. Throughout the performance several dozen men, women and young boys would dance, stomp and chant, while the divers made their preparations for the jump.

Neither words nor photographs can describe the sheer excitement that I felt as a spectator, as diver after diver hurtled towards the ground, the adrenaline coursing in my veins as if it was me and not them who had taken that awesome death-defying leap.

Unexpected head winds slowed our progress as we made our way north among the islands and by the time we had reached our destination, the small island of Gaua, it was night. Although I always try to avoid entering a bay or even a port at night, as we slowly approached Lakona Bay we found it bathed in bright light by a full moon. The forward looking sonar helped me find a good spot and we dropped the anchor in eight meters. In the morning we reanchored in shallower water closer to the shore where the solitary occupant of a small outrigger canoe paddled out to welcome us on behalf of his father, the local chief who sent his apologies for not being able to come himself as he was sick. Apparently he had been attacked by some wild dogs and had been badly bitten. I asked the young man if his father needed help and he admitted that they were at a loss at what to do as the only clinic was on the opposite side of the island and there was no road across.

Water music performance

We found Chief Johnstar moaning softly in a darkened hut. The bites looked infected so I gave him a treatment of antibiotics and by the time we were ready to leave a few days later, the infection was on the mend and Chief Johnstar could walk around unaided.

As a farewell gesture the chief’s family put on a performance of water music. Standing up to their waist in the shallow water they slapped the surface with slightly cupped hands then moved their hands from side to side, the resulting hum sounding like a deep organ.

As we were leaving the young man who had been the first to welcome us, paddled out in his canoe that had been filled with fruit and vegetables for us.

Double waterfall at Sasara in Northern Vanuatu

Our last stop in Vanuatu was at Sasara, on the west coast of Vanua Lava, better known among sailors as Double Waterfall Bay. I remember it being deserted when we stopped there with Aventura I, but as we entered the bay with Aventura III, an outrigger canoe, carrying a man and several children, headed towards us.

The man introduced himself as Chief Kerely and invited us ashore. We landed later in front of a cluster of houses, where all the family members were gathered and, as we stepped ashore, they all burst out singing ‘Welcome to Waterfall Bay’… to the tune of God Save the Queen.

We were then welcomed into what Chief Kerely grandly described as the yacht club. He told us that having worked for several years on various islands, he decided to strike out for himself, so took over the tiny settlement that had been started by his grandparents in the early 1980s. He gradually constructed a small village, with everything built from traditional materials. Later he was joined by his brother and family and by the time of our visit the expanded family had grown to over twenty people. Kerely admitted that they depended greatly on the services they provided to visiting yachts. Indeed, the interaction with visiting sailors seemed to be more pronounced here than at other similar places I had come across, and evidently quite essential to the villagers’ well-being if not survival.

Various things had been done to make visiting sailors welcome and encourage them to stay longer: an airy club house, trips in outrigger canoe or jungle walks, visits to the family burial cave as well as providing meals ashore and dealing with laundry. Some services were paid for in money but trading goods were usually preferred. The previous year, as Sasara started to be visited by more and more yachts, Kerely decided to organize a sailors’ get-together. The word must have spread because a total of 28 yachts showed up for the feast and virtually filled the bay, the visiting sailors being joined by people from surrounding villages who came over for a weekend of dancing, singing and games.

From Jimmy Cornell’s book “A Passion for the Sea

Cyclone Pam Appeal

Oxfam is leading the coordination of the Vanuatu Humanitarian Team, a network of non-government humanitarian agencies working on the response effort to the devastation caused by Cyclone Pam, alongside the Vanuatu Government. Find out more and donate if you can

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