Kava, Golf, and hunting wild pig in Vanuatu
We almost never see British magazines or newspapers in the Pacific, so
Damian kindly acts as our media correspondent. He advises that there are 2 references to
Intrepid in the November issue of Yachting World: our article on Sailing
with Friends, (the Editor changed it to 'More Fun with Friends' I believe),
and a photo ('with a girlish looking Nicky') within the article on yacht
types that cross with the ARC. I have also updated the
www.intrepidofdover.co.uk website with photos and our planned itinerary
As I write we are almost becalmed, 20 miles from Efate, the main island in
the Vanuatu Group of islands, heading for Port Vila which is the capital of
Vanuatu, (used to be called New Hebrides, so named by Captain Cook
because they looked like the Hebrides islands west of Scotland - but he
can't have had the temperature in mind - its a humid 30 C here). Although we
can't see land (its 2am, and there are very few lights on Vanuatu), for the
last day we have had the signs of land - a long dark cloud hanging just over
the horizon in the direction of Efate, more birds, including boobies, and
the smell has changed and is quite distinctive.
In fact this smell is exaggerated by two factors: 1. having been at sea for five
days, our sense of smell (and taste - the two go together) is much keener and less
overwhelmed by fumes, so food tastes better, as well; 2. (bit of a give away
this) there is an active volcano on many Vanuatu islands.
We finally sailed s l o w l y through the night to arrive at
8am, and came in on the leading lights - a simple approach - to the
quarantine buoy. Our charts of Vanuatu are not perfect as they run on our
laptop, and we have to transpose our position from the GPS manually onto
this. We called Yachting World (not the magazine but agents for the quay) and they arranged for
quarantine to come aboard. One form and 3500 Vatu later (which sounds bad but
is actually 18 pounds) we were cleared. We did Immigration (2000 Vatu ($18)) and
Customs (V7000 ($60)) in 2 hours more, and were
legal, the fines for missing the formalities are about $2000.
The Waterfront bar provides quayside mooring for 1600 Vatu/night (8
pounds) so we now stagger to the lively bar and packed out restaurant most
nights. I am afraid to say that the first night we swapped fishing stories
with 6 New Zealanders who had come for a week's big game fishing - and hadn't caught
anything in 3 days. So we explained that we tried hard NOT to catch
Marlin and still caught 3 and 3 sail fish....I feel bad about this, but we
did buy them a beer.....
Many people on yachts seem to venture no further than the supermarket
when they arrive, which seems a waste having sailed umpteen thousand miles to
get here. Efate island is about 140 kms around. We do our best to see the more remote
places, on most islands, and arranged a ride to Bethel Village almost exactly half way
round, passing the US World War 2 naval anchorage where US Navy warships were based
before the battle of Guadalcanal, in the deep anchorage on the northwest
between 2 smaller islands and Efate itself. At the time, Japan had conquered
the Solomon's, so Vanuatu was the front line.
Later the US Navy moved its main base to the more northern island of
Espiritu Santo where 100,000 military were based including war correspondent
James Michener who wrote South Pacific (actually the book from which the
musical was taken) based on his experiences in Vanuatu, and where the Navy dumped
tons of equipment as the war moved away, stimulating the John Frum Cargo
Cults which are still active.
Vanuatu is a string of 83 islands, with 9 active volcanoes, about 1400 miles
north of New Zealand, and 500 miles west of Fiji. It was ruled by a
condominium government of UK and France (imagine!) until 1980 when it
gained independence - France was a very bad loser in
this game, resisting granting independence until the movement was
overwhelming, then destroying most of the facilities it left, then stirring
up Espirito Santo so it tried to secede from the newly independent nation,
and Lini, the PM had to ask Papua New Guinea to send 1000 troops to put down
the rebellion (which they did with no loss of life). Now Vanuatu is a poor
but independent nation, with coalition governments.
Many of these Pacific Islands now have small populations for the land area they
have, mostly because of the devastating effect of western diseases - those
converted died faster in Vanuatu, probably because of the close contact with
missionaries. The people living further away survived better, which resulted
in a few missionaries being eaten just as they thought they were getting
somewhere, as the local people saw only death resulting from their
conversion, not the promised riches. (If ever you are about to be eaten by a
cannibal, bear this in mind - apparently white man or woman meat is very
bitter and stringy - not worth eating - it
may save your life, or at least your body).
The coastal plain is dominated by coconut plantations, which are being more
or less successfully transformed into cattle ranches as the price of dried
coconut has fallen so low that it is not worth harvesting, even at rock
bottom labour costs. Inland on the volcanic slopes, the people grow Kava to
satisfy the huge local demand as well as some export. Vanuatu Kava is
reckoned to be the world's strongest, and after a few shells people are apt
to find their legs give way temporarily.
A few ways in which Kava is better than alcohol: (really - this is from a
leaflet on kava).
1. Its best drunk on an empty stomach - the effect is stronger, and after
drinking , you dont want food much so you save money and control your
2. Vanuatu women prefer their men to drink Kava, because after alcohol the
men are often angry and energetic, and beat their wives; after Kava the men
are quiet and want gentle sex.
3. After Kava your mouth becomes numb so you can't taste the rest.
4. After Kava you just want to sit and contemplate nature, instead of
becoming rowdy and annoying your neighbours. Most of Vanuatu's 100's of Kava
bars (Nakamuls) are closed by 9pm.
5. Its cheaper - one shell (half coconut) at a Kava bar costs 50 Vatu (25p
or 50 cents), a beer costs V400 ($4) in a bar.
There is currently a vicious trade dispute between Fiji and
Vanuatu - Vanuatu for some reason refused to allow in some of Fiji's
biscuits, so Fiji banned imports of Vanuatu Kava. However this is something
of an own goal, because Fijians like the strong stuff, and traders with a
nod and a wink from indigenous Fijian ministers tried to get round this -
but the Fijian Times got wind of it, and the stuff was lying at the ports as
Trade is important because it was often (apart from war) the only
communication between even two neighbouring villages. Vanuatu was particularly
ferocious - the women did all the work in the fields, so the men had little
to do, and status was measured by your prowess in battle, (as well as how
many pigs you owned and killed) so there would be raiding parties on the
neighbouring village to ambush a man, kill him and drag him back to be
eaten. An arm or leg would usually be given to villages nearby as a friendly
gesture. This lead to reprisals on the offending village and their 'allies'
and so on.
It was so bad in fact that when the Western Traders came to Erromango island
in Vanuatu for sandalwood which could be sold for fabulous sums in China for
use as an offering in Buddhist temples, (it was about the only item that the
Westerners had that the Chinese wanted in exchange for porcelain etc -
although later the West got them hooked on Opium leading to the Opium Wars),
the traders after losing lots of people, had to insist that the
sandalwood was left on a deserted beach, and only then would dare to collect
Islanders migrate from time to time in search of better land or because a
volcano drives them out. Bethel Village was created when some islanders from
Tongariki (Shepherd islands) 60 miles north of Efate needed more land and
were given 3 hectares by the owner of Ekipe. They built a traditional eating
area, and started giving lunches to tourists, then when other villages did
the same thing, and diluted their earnings, decided to build some tourist
But Joel (the chief, who had worked as accountant for a resort) needed
capital for this, and an Australian tourist, David Hughes, got talking, and
eventually invested $100,000 and as importantly about 6 months work over 2
years to construct 7 chalets (one for himself, 6 for tourists). Almost everything
(including plywood) was bought in Australia and shipped out in crates.
David's wife died during all this, so it is an emotional
project for him. We were their first guests, and talked to David about the
whole project starting with clearing the jungle, dragging (by hand) logs in
to form some of the pillars, weaving the fronds for the roof etc etc. At the
Toc Toc (tourist trade fair) they won 1st prize for their exhibit, and
gained lots of interest from eg Quantas, so we celebrated with them on
Intrepid next morning.
We had already donated money to the next village who need to get a better
water supply because their source 3 kms away is drying up and becoming
contaminated. John (a ship's engineer who lives in the village) is leading a
team to build a 5 km long 2 inch polypipe from a new source higher up that
an old man discovered while hunting wild pigs. 2 inch pipe comes in 50mtr
rolls at about A$250/roll, and connectors are $A25 each, so they need 100
rolls and 100 connectors plus a strainer, (say A$30,000 or US$22,000 or
Nicky worked it through with them and the project seemed
sound; she reminded them of the need to test the quality of the
water. They will build a new holding tank to give better water pressure. As
so often, the problem is translating this into action - the
villagers have raised US$1000 (a large sum for them) by selling vegetables,
and they need the Vanuatu rural water supply agency to find them a charity to pay
the rest. We could not find out clearly how this works and there is
certainly some mistrust between villagers, but they are due to meet on
James took us to his Revival Church. It is covered with inscriptions about how
the Lord told the minister that the 2nd coming would be on 1st June 2000 at Epi
island, then the day before the Lord had changed his mind because there was
a spirit of distrust and corruption so someone had to pay for the minister's
airfare to another island where he had another vision and ....so on. Pretty
scary when you think that the Mormons started in just this way...and now are
one of the world's largest manufacturers of arms. Finally we 'hitched' a
ride back with Marlene and Roger who were in Vanuatu for a week from
Newcastle (Australia) and were touring the island.
Want to hear classic skiffle? (a type of jazz with a bass often made from a
packing case, a broomstick and single string, plus a guitar or 2?) Come to
Vanuatu where music fashions stuck in the 1950's - very effective actually, then jumped
straight to hip hop (pretty awful) and Zion revival (miming to American
gospel CD's) - equally awful. We heard all 3 at the international music
festival held in Vila to coincide with the TocToc.
I have avoided playing golf for 13 years now, since I last played in Borneo.
I succumbed this week, (I carry 5 clubs on Intrepid), and accompanied Dan
from Bachus who is a scratch golfer on the day before the Vanuatu Open.
Luckily my first drive went straight down the fairway, lovely shot, others were, well, a
little less well navigated but overall OK. As we went round we picked up a
following as local kids and adults wanted to play with us, and we ended up
with 9 people all playing, ranging from two 13 year old caddies to the
Vanuatu national champion (really). Great fun, we kept a reasonable pace by
all playing at once, which also kept us alert for the whistle of in-coming
golf balls, and encouraged a steady flow of conversation:
" What language do you speak at home?"
" Our local language, but I also speak Bislama, English and French"
"When do you finish school?"
" I am 13, I have already left school, I am the youngest of 5 children, my
parents could not afford more schooling, so now I caddy for golfers"
"I want to run a plantation when I leave school - beef cattle - that is the
future, not coconuts"
Dan tried to persuade him to consider being a vet, I suggested improving the
(fairly tough) Vanuatu breed of cattle. There is so much to do here.
I had as much work done on Intrepid as I could think of - people cleaned the hull,
and polished the coachroof and stainless, and Nicky became tired of
having people always on board. Some of the work was done very well, (John 1
especially) some to be honest we could have done better ourselves in 1/10th
of the time (John 2), but at least it passes on some money and is better
than just giving it away. Often the best aid is trade. (The EU and US have
just announced a relaxation of trade barriers to developing countries for
agricultural products - an enlightened move, especially seen from here).
I lent our dinghy to John 1 to try to get more work from other boats, and
when this wasn't successful got his team polishing Intrepid's sides. This is often the best
advertisement, and within 1 hour he had 2 more biggish jobs from other
yachts who had seen how well his team were working. We help ourselves too, because
Australia have stringent new rules to prevent the entry of marine organisms
from abroad, and the cleaner the boat is the better.
2 cruise ships came in over the weekend, and lots of slightly bemused mainly
Australian tourists poured out to 'do' Efate in 6 hours. Some played golf,
some rented scooters, some got drunk, some just shopped in the duty free
shops for bargains that weren't. One couldn't figure out why the ATM's
didn't give out A$.
I mentioned that Bernard and Beryl had very reluctantly had to cancel coming with
us to Brisbane for family reasons. We put up notices in Vila, and Tom Lais
saw them and is now sailing with us after mutual interviews. He is German, a
carpenter from the Black Forest, who has been travelling helping for example
to build hurricane proof houses. Tom is the only person I know who travels
with a carpenter's saw tied to his back pack. He was going to fly to Brisbane, but
figured sailing was a better way. He has only sailed about 12 times before,
but has spent about 2 years on fishing boats in Alaskan waters, so knows the
sea and likes cooking (and Kava). Nice chatty guy, he wants to stay in
Some of our best decisions are NOT to go. We tried to leave on Monday as the
forecast was perfect, but reality differed. We got out of the very sheltered
Vila harbour to find 25 knots from straight ahead, and waves starting to
build. So having tested the water, we turned back, had a pleasant evening at
the Waterfront, and set off early next morning and had a
romping good sail beating close to the 14 knots of wind and making 6+ knots.
We get lots of compliments on Intrepid's looks after her recent polish and clean,
and she sails as well as she looks.
We usually try to avoid coming into anchorages at night, but this time we
knew we had a full moon, so although the 80 miles to Erromango island took 14
hours, we slowly came into Dillon's Bay anchorage in almost perfect light
from the moon at 9pm, and dropped anchor in exactly the right spot.
Erromango (the name means 'good' - maybe the fruit was called 'good' as
well), had a ferocious reputation for killing and eating almost anyone
who came near. They ate the first missionary, having first made a silhouette
on a rock of his short and fat body as a sort of trophy. This enabled them
to resist traders as well, but finally they got religion (or religion got
them?) and with it came traders,disease and all the rest, so the population
reduced from 10,000 to just 1700 in an island roughly 24 miles by 18 miles.
They are slowly re-building with the help of sales of wild sandalwood (mainly),
and Kauri timber (huge trees similar to teak). The village of Dillon's Bay
(Unpongkor) exports about 80,000 kilos of sandalwood (just the heart of the
wood) which sells for Vatu700/Kg ($5), so an income
of some $400,000/year. The sandalwood tree grows in about 15 years, and
until recently the villagers had to search through the jungle to find wild
sandalwood. Since 2001 though, a few have started planting sandalwood,and
David showed us their 10cm high saplings, ready for planting out. They aim
to plant 1000 this year, and increase this to 2500 (about a hectare), first
harvest will be in 2016.
Some of this money goes to buying corrugated iron and making concrete
blocks for houses. The villagers buy sacks of cement for Vatu1000 ($8) which
with washed sand makes 20-25 blocks from a mould. Tom told them of a new
shape of block which interlocks and makes 50 blocks from a bag of cement -
so new technology can be introduced even here. Some new construction though
seems a backward step: the houses are almost all now built of expensive
corrugated iron and cement blocks, because they last for (they say) 50
years, whereas the traditional thatched roofs and woven palm frond or wooden
walls are hurricane resistant and more importantly MUCH cooler. However they
have to be replaced every 7 years or so.
A significant part of the $400,000 goes on Kava - the west coast of Erromango is
too dry to grow Kava so they import high quality Kava from Tanna at V500/Kilo, or go to
Vila and really blow the money at Nakamuls, which increasingly are promoting
cigarettes (V50 each) and beer (V400 a glass) to go with the Kava. So even
in Vanuatu marketing reigns. I gave them some Kava I had brought from Tonga,
and they were as ecstatic as members of CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale)
introduced to a new beer they had not met before, or wine connoisseurs
tasting a rare vintage. My Kava was examined, bits chewed and spat
into the bowl ready for water to be added, and appreciative noises made. (In
Vanuatu, Kava is generally chewed by old men before being mixed with water -
in other islands it is pounded). For the next 2 days I was complimented on
the quality of the Tongan Kava I had brought.
Nasik is 25, he paid 2 pigs, some money and some local food for his wife,
and now has a baby daughter as well, so it was a good investment. This year
he gathered 150 Kgs of sandalwood heart in the 3 months allowed for this -
July, August, September.
Vanuatu is one of the few places I have heard Pidgin English (actually
Bislama is similar but not identical to Pidgin) in day to day use. I asked
Nisak what he did with his money (which must have been about V105,000
" There is no bank now in Eromango, so I bought some materials to repair my
house, and some food, and about V20,000 I spent on Kava, about V1000/day"
"Would you prefer to live here in Erromango, or in the West?"
A pause: "Mi stap long West blong Vanuatu; Long Vanuatu mi savvy makem wan
something mi wantem. Long West, mi got truck long money, ali people oli
tellem wanem blong makem".
(" I prefer to live here, because I can do what I like, when I like,
and talk to my friends; in the West, I think time is money and you are
always having to do things for other people. So even though I would have
money and trucks and everything else I would not be able to enjoy them as much
because my time would be controlled by others, so I prefer to live here").
And Dillon's Bay is a beautiful village - on the right bank of a river that provides a
large swimming hole just upstream, neat houses arranged along a path, mango
trees every 30 metres providing shade and food, dug-out canoes to fish from
(I helped to caulk David's new one that was splitting a bit, which stopped
the leaks and they went fishing next day.) Plantations in the hills provide
as much food as they need for little work, sandalwood provides money needed
for medicines, kerosene for lamps (V50 for 2 days), soap and a few other
similar luxuries. Only one truck is needed to drive people to the airport or
bring back sandalwood. I donated 20 litres of diesel and a litre of oil.
An Australian used to farm here, when he left he released all his livestock, so
there are wild cattle, pigs, and horses in the jungle. The villagers have
re-domesticated many of the cattle and some horses, which graze peacefully
at the edge of the village, much like a pastoral English scene.The neat
village school has an English and a French stream, we gave 50 schoolbooks we
had bought in Vila to the headmistress.
But the drinking water pump is being repaired so water has to be brought in
buckets, and the boat of the owner of the sandalwood factory (British
mother, Vanuatan father), sank last week (one of the 250hp outboard engines
came undone and cut a hole in the boat which sank), so there is a shortage
of diesel, and the string band cant get to Vila to record their CD. So not
everything is perfect.
"What would you like to say to Western people?"
"Cam Vanuatu, mi look ali kind people" ("Come to Vanuatu, you will see lots
of kind people")
"Long Vanuatu mi walkabout long forest; mi look bigfella Kauri tree, mi
likem blong diver, mo fishing. Mi likem string band music 'Erro String Band'
mi wantem makem CD mo mi hope sie buy mi CD" (In Vanuatu, I walk in the
forest and see big Kauri trees; I go diving and fishing, and like string
band music especially 'Erro String Band'. I want to make a CD and hope
people buy my CD).
We had dinner with David and his wife Anna in their small house together
with most of the village, and a full 7 piece skiffle/string band (the Erro
String Band) playing the whole time, fantastic atmosphere, 4 or 5 faces
peering through each window listening to the music by the light of a single
kerosene lamp casting a lovely yellow light, Nicky in a handmade Mother
Hubbard dress they gave her, Jules (Davis's brother) had cooked the food, a sort of yam pizza
if you can imagine that, Anna baked lovely bread with the 10 Kg of bread
flour we gave her, I played the ....I am not sure what it is called, but its
a Tea chest with a stick and a string, and produces a booming bassish
sound, Tom stayed on for more Tongan Kava...and never made it back to the
boat at all that night.
I had arranged for a trek the next day, which grew into a pig hunt as well.
The only truck drove us 4 kms up to the plateau, then Nisak, Jules and 5
dogs and Tom Nicky and I set off into the interior, through secondary forest
and along red earth dry river beds, dogs sniffing this way and that and
rushing after scents then returning, until after 2 or 3 hours we came to a
huge Kauri tree. The five of us linked hands and could just encircle the
trunk - (not really tree hugging, just measuring, honest) and this was a
relatively young tree - older ones require 10 or more people to encircle
Meanwhile the dogs had picked up the scent of pig, and gave chase. They are
trained to corner a pig around a tree and bark, injuries are common. Nisak,
Jules and I crashed through the jungle after them (well actually crashed
sounds fast, in this dense jungle it was a slow crash), and found a small
pig the dogs had already caught. The others got away, but the dogs had eaten
(they only really feed on game).
We returned via more dry river beds (it hasn't rained for 3 months) Nisak
got lost, and had to cut a way out using his machete, more alerts as the
dogs rushed off, one got lost, and we finally made it back to the truck one
hour late. I paid in advance for a copy of the Erro String Band's next CD
which may or may not be sent to us in UK, and we said a sad good-bye to a
beautiful village people. Because tomorrow is Friday and Friday is the day
of the Cargo Cult on the next island, Tanna.
With all best wishes from a very rolly anchorage just off Erromango.
Andy, Nicky and Tom the crew of Intrepid.
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