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New Caledonia and Vanuatu

Having escaped the Bass Strait and the 40s, a pleasant SEly saw us virtually all the way up to Sydney in a single hop. There we indulged ourselves in cosmopolitan delights, but mostly caught up with friends. Our primary activity, however, was reassessing our cruising plans. In our thoughtless way, we had assumed that we would make a few long hops up the coast to Brisbane and then cruise our way up Queensland to Mackay or Townsville. From there we had planned to make the passage to New Caledonia or perhaps Vanuatu and thence to New Zealand in October. The more we looked at this in the cold light of rationality - and comfort - the more we realised that we would be spending a very large amount of time on the wind. Much as 'Sunstone' likes to go to windward, our feelings are more mixed. As a result we decided that it would make far more sense to head to New Cal straight from Sydney, then to Vanuatu. It would then be relatively easy to go back to Queensland. The trip back to NZ would be a bit longer and probably harder, but then it usually is where ever you start from. Of course there was another extraneous factor. Timing our cruise in this way would also allow us to indulge in another race 'fix' at Hamilton Island Race Week in August. With this decision made, it was clear that we should really leave pretty soon. There was a cyclone up north in early April, but by Easter things looked more settled and on 24 April we headed off into the Tasman once again. Apart from the first night when we had an unpredicted 35+ knots from the SW, it turned out to be a very gentle passage and we did a lot of motoring to arrive at Noumea in about eight days.

Unless you stray to the suburbs, where the third world intrudes, Noumea could easily be a French provincial city, with an unusually well mixed ethnicity. It is a very pleasant cruising destination, but very unlike the rest of New Caledonia. A very active immigration policy after WWII insured that the indigenous Melanesians are outnumbered by other races, but most of the latter live in and around Noumea, while the rest of the country is almost solidly 'Kanak', as the Melanesians there call themselves. As in French Polynesia there have been some tense moments politcally and socially, but the relative prosperity of New Caledonia has tended to overcome any desire of the indigenous population for autonomy. Once away from Noumea and the mining centres, primarily on the west coast, the country is very sparsely populated. Though we didn't have much time, we were determined to get to a few anchorages on the East coast on our way to Ouvea in the offshore Loyalty Islands. We stopped in four well sheltered anchorages, three of them beautiful. Though there were small villages near two of these we saw hardly a soul. It was early in the season so we had every anchorage to ourselves. But it has to be said that few cruisers stray far from Noumea, the Southern Lagoon and the Ile des Pins.

The fringing reef which surrounds most of the main island gives superbly sheltered sailing - or often motoring - from anchorage to anchorage. We made our escape from the lagoon via the Passe de Thio for a night passage to the tiny island and lagoon of Beautemp Beaupre (BB), NW of Ouvea. The catch of a four foot Wahoo saw us on our way. BB is a beautiful spot, a mile long island at the southern end of a five mile wide lagoon. It was once inhabited until the then chief decided that it was too small to give a future to his tribe, which he then moved to one end of the island of Ouvea, ten or fifteen miles to the SE. With its beautiful beach and protected lagoon it has many of the attributes of tropical paradise, but we could see why it would be claustrophobic for even a small community. Ouvea is superficially similar, but on a much bigger scale. The lagoon is 20 miles across and the island, though narrow, runs along the entire eastern or windward side. It has a mixed Kanak and Polynesian population, who are known for their fiercely independent attitudes. Unfortunately the scale of the lagoon makes it only a mediocre anchorage and it is difficult to visit the more interesting outer islets on the lee side of the reef unless an uncommon westerly sets in.

Another night passage saw us on our way to the Ile des Pins. We had decided to go via the more direct Passe de Sarcelle rather the the more usual Havannah. After a relatively windless night, the wind steadily increased to fresh from behind in time for our passage of the pass. With standing waves raised by wind against tide, charts which did not directly allow plotting of GPS positions and relatively few landmarks, we had an interesting half hour getting through. We then caught a large trevally by way of compensation. Though it is a bit touristy and periodically overrun by cruise ship passengers, the Ile des Pins was the most attractive and varied part of New Cal that we saw. Away from the main harbour, there are some very pretty traditional villages and the scenery varies from a kind of tropical moorland to dense pine forest. Determined to get some exercise, we hiked up the the top of the highest local hill and the next day got out the bikes and cycled round the island.

Back in Noumea, we stocked up on French goodies, in anticipation of much more limited supplies in Port Vila. We also firmed our plans to link up with the Island Cruising Association's rally from Opua to Tanna. To visit the latter island it is normally necessary to beat back, having first cleared in at Port Vila. However, the Rally organiser, Brian Hepburn, had made arrangements for clearance at Tanna. It was an opportunity too good to miss, so on 1 June we headed for Tanna. As sometimes happens we actually went too fast, arriving near Port Resolution just as light was fading rather than at the following dawn. Though we had some good waypoints from Jeanette and Jim on 'Dancer', we decided to follow our usual practice and wait for light the following morning. Anyway, getting the various bits of heaving to and slow sailing just right so that you are in position for entry the following morning is always an interesting exercise.

We had never taken part in a cruising rally before, and probably won't do so again. Nevertheless, some of it was good fun, even if it involved sitting in one place for rather longer than we normally would. We also met some interesting people among the cruisers. But what we most enjoyed was the Tannaese. In the 19th century, Tanna suffered terribly from 'blackbirding', the high-jacking of men to work in Australia, NZ and New Cal, supposedly under indentures, but effectively in a limited period of slavery. Not surprisingly, for a long time the Tannaese, were extremely opposed to western influences and generally antagonistic to whites. There are also many 'custom' villages in Tanna, which try to maintain a traditional lifestyle and practices. Finally Tanna is the home of the John Frum cargo cult, the adherents of which believe that at some time John Frum will return from the USA, where he is currently, bringing with him a cornuacopia of western goods for his believers.

None of this sounds very promising at first sight. However, we found the Tannaese delightful. They were neither hostile nor servile to white visitors, but maintained a natural dignity and confidence in their own way of life, while being hospitable and tolerant toward their visitors. During our stay at Port Resolution we walked from the village there around the base of Mount Yasur, the local active volcano, across an ash plain to the village at Sulphur Bay which is the center of the John Frum cult. Some young men showed us round the village and told us a bit about their beliefs. Though the practices of the cult were still clearly followed in the village, we had a feeling that what beliefs still existed were being rapidly eroded by increasing contact with and knowledge about the world in general and westerners more particularly. What was far more revealing about the people of the village was our walk back to Port Resolution along the steep jungle path which the villagers follow everyday to reach their gardens. It was late afternoon and they were returning with big bags of taro and sacks of yams, in addition in many cases to babies balanced on hips. Despite their loads people repeatedly tried to make way for us on what was their path. Virtually everyone wanted to shake our hands, greet us, ask where we had come from and whether we were enjoying our stay. Most younger people in Vanuatu speak three languages, their own local language of which there are about 150 in the country, Bislama or Pidgin, which is the national language and English; sometimes they also speak some French. Though many Melanesians, particularly the men, appear initially to have set facial expressions which are at least stern and in some cases aggressive, we found that the moment we looked someone in the eye, smiled and said hello, their faces lit up with friendliness and interest. Though we do a lot of walking and biking, we found the hike a tough one, yet the villagers managed it as an every day necessity, from small children to ancient grandmothers.

In Vanuatu everything is an exchange. The people are not only interested in the background and customs of western visitors, but also want to give you an understanding and often an experience of their own way of life. We found this both at Tanna and again at Aneityum, the most southern major island in the country, where Carol, an educated young woman spent several hours guiding us round the area and telling us about the island and the life of its people. When Vicky gave her a number of small gifts, Carol sat up late to make her several beautiful shell necklaces. The tourist guides tell you reassuringly that there has been no documented case of cannibalism in Vanuatu since 1964. The taboos against eating 'long pig' did not apply in Melanesian cultures as they have in European. However, neither of us had any qualms about Vicky ambarking on a long muddy walk up to the waterfall at Aneityum accompanied by two large men with machetes. Their attitude to her was typified by their need to apologise every time she slipped on the muddy path or became tangled in the jungle growth. She felt entirely secure the whole time.

From Aneityum we made a passage north to the capital, Port Vila, on Efate Island. Though nothing special compared to Noumea, it is a surprisingly cosmopolitan centre. Following a restock with essentials, we set off on the longer stage of our cruise of the islands. Though we visited one or two harbours on most of the islands, the highlights follow. The anchorage behind Awei Island in the Maskelynes with 'Dancer' and 'Moonshadow' was delightful despite some unseasonably cool and cloudy weather. Unusually for Vanuatu the people of the Maskelynes use sailing outriggers to travel among the islets. Despite the poverty of the nearby village, which had been badly hit by the recent cyclone, when we visited its primary school, virtually all the children were in clean and tidy uniforms. Robert, the hereditary 'custom' chief of the village acted as our guide, and we found that virtually every village we visited had a kind of 'ambassador', who was personable and spoke good English.

 

 

At Banam Bay, we saw lively 'custom' or traditional dancing in which virtually the whole village took part, men and women separately. Here the cyclone had defeated their attempts to encourage tourism by destroying the major building in their complex of bungalows for tourists. With irregular communications and unpredictable weather it is difficult to build up conventional tourism for the outer islands. Yet at Asanvari, we saw what astute leadership by Chief Nelson could do to encourage visiting yachts. The village has a beautiful situation, with a sheltering bay and waterfall that tumbles down to the sea, but Nelson has made the most of this, establishing a small center he calls the yacht club, where he holds events for visiting cruisers. This includes very varied and lively dancing and kava drinking. Many westerners are wary of the latter after tales of kava being prepared by chewing and spitting out the root, which is then mixed with water. Kava is a kind of pepper plant which is a mild intoxicant. Unlike alcohol it does not make the drinker boisterous or aggressive, but calm, contemplative and sleepy. At Asanvari the Kava root is ground in front of you with coral stones, then mixed and strained, while Nelson tells legends and stories about Kava. Though it won't live in our memories alongside our favourite wines, kava drinking at Asanvari was still a memorable experience.

At Losalava on Gaua Island in the Banks Group, we took a day walk up to the Lake in the crater of the volcano. This is another potential Krakatoa, the explosion of which would change the world's weather for years and darken the skies for months. However, it was placid for us, with only wisps of steam from the vents on the far side of the lake - unlike the firework display which we had seen when we visited the more active Mt Yasur on Tanna. Though the Banks Group have the reputation of being the most primitve and deprived of the outer islands, the reality belied this. We found some of this best educated people here as well as some of the most beautiful traditional architecture. Here there was also considerable independence shown by individual families, which in several instances had moved away from the village to establish homesteads in the jungle where they carved out gardens and plantations.

Despite the conventionality of its beauty, the white sand of Champagne Beach is very striking, though by the time we reached it, both of us were suffering from different stages of a flu bug. As a result we pushed on to Luganville where we could sit quietly for a few days on a mooring off the Aore resort, recovering and preparing for our passage back to Australia, for which we departed on 25 July.

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