Sunday 27 September 2015

New Caledonia - Loyalty Islands

Loyalty Islands, New Caledonia: 6 September – 25 September


The journey from Port Vila to Lifou was only 200 miles so a day and half sail. We had very light winds for a change - we sailed for 8 hours in 12 knot winds and then motored the rest in even lighter winds which made for a restful passage. We arrived into the bay at Lifou at 7pm the following day in the dark which is always fun (depending on your definition of fun!). Lifou is one of the three Loyalty Islands to the east of Grand Terre which itself is the third largest island in the South Pacific.

Lifou: 6 September – 13 September

The first day we were confined to boat awaiting Bio-Secruity, Customs and Immigration clearance. I ran the water maker during the day and noticed after an hour that the bilge pump was also running – not good news. I found that water maker had developed a serious leak, filling up the bilge with sea water at an alarming rate. Taking the water maker apart, I found two of the bolts holding it together had the threads stripped – they had been over tightened in Fiji when we had it rebuilt and they had used PTFE tape round the threads to try to get the bolts to grip what thread was left. We are now without the water maker and with very few places to actually get water before we get to Nomea (the capital of New Caledonia) in six weeks’ time.

During the clearance procedures, Bio-Security found a jar of honey from Spain (unopened) in the search of out boat and they impounded it. It was the only thing they found – we had been scrupulous in checking we had no banned products on board (which includes all meat and vegetables) and indeed honey from Europe is allowed. Honey from Spain, we were told by Bio-Security, was not allowed although Spain was in Europe the last time I looked but clearly not so on their atlas. However, they did waive the $30US destruction fee which was something.

It was good to be off the boat and we walked along the road to see the village which has a bakers and a small shop. Lifou is very different from the small islands in Vanuatu, Tonga and Fiji.  There are proper roads and electricity to every village. New Caledonia is a still governed by the French and they provide a lot of investment which is evident.  The indigenous population are the Kanaks who live mainly on the Loyalty Islands and in the north of Grand Terre making up 45% of the total population. The other 55% of the population are mainly French nationals with a small number of Asians. There is a vote for independence in 2018 although talking to the locals they do not expect to win independence since they are in the minority.

That night the village laid on a traditional feast, mainly of yams and other root vegetables cooked in a variety of sauces. Not my favourite food and it certainly would not persuade me to become vegetarian but the evening was jolly with the locals providing music and songs.

All the boats had to throw away any meat and vegetables on the passage so the ICA organised a bus to take us across the island to the supermarket in “We”, the capital of Lifou.  There are only a few small shops, a supermarket and the administrative centre in We and these are spread out over a couple of miles so you never get the sense of a town. Most of the produce came from France including the wine although New Zealand is only 1000 miles away compared to the 15000 miles to France.

As the Post Office had closed at 3pm we missed the chance of buying a SIM card (the only place you can buy them) and so the next day organised we organised a taxi to take 12 of us to the Post Office. We tried to short cut process to get SIM cards by one person buying all 12 but they would not have that. They did agree that four of us could buy three each but we had underestimated French bureaucracy – each SIM had to have a separate contract made out, photocopies of the passport attached to the contract and each one signed. It took three hours to complete! 

I helped a few of the boats set up their SIM cards and one of them, David who was an engineer, looked at our water maker to assess the options to repair the stripped threads. He came up with a very good option which was simple (using a threaded rod the next size up and re-tapping the holes) and all we needed were the materials – 3/8” rod and a 3/8” Tap in a country where they only have metric sizes. That was going to be challenge.

Driver cum local musician
North end of the island
Weather closed in again and three days of wet and windy weather so stayed in Lifou. We organised a tour of the island for 24 of us with a picnic on route and the drivers entertaining us with songs and music during lunch.  While we were eating,  Glen from Malekite asked how I was getting on with the water maker and I explained what we needed. He sent a text to his father and a couple of hours later he received a text back to say he had bought the materials and would bring them out next Wednesday (five days time) when he was coming to Ouvea - what a result!  

Next day I organised a trip to a restaurant for lunch for 18 people. Having phoned one restaurant which said that they did not open on a Saturday, I booked the hotel in We which was the only other option for lunch. The lady I spoke to said she did not speak English so I made the booking in French, only for her to confirm all the details back in near perfect English!  Very enjoyable afternoon and we left there four hours later – that is what I call a lunch.

Weather was due to break the next day so we set off for Ouvea, 40 miles to the east.

Ouvea 13 September – 19 September

The attraction of Ouvea is that it is an Atoll – volcanic islands surrounding the sea to form a large lagoon which is about 7m deep with a beautiful white sandy beach along one side of the lagoon.
The local cafe
Waiting for the coffee with anticipation
The following morning after we arrived we met up with the six other boats at anchor near us to walk along the shore. Coming across a café, we stopped for a café au lait which was on the menu and something that made us all excited – good coffee. After 30 minutes we were presented with a cup of hot water and a jar of Nescafe (which they had to go and buy) to help ourselves – but no milk so we had to forego the “au lait”. A little disappointing.

Lunch at the resort
The walk to the resort
We all walked back along the road in blazing sunshine and it was very hot. Everyone else decided it was too hot to walk any further and went back to their boats. Catherine and I decided we would walk to the resort along the white sandy beach to have lunch. An hour and a half later we arrived at 1:30 and just managed to get lunch before they closed the kitchen.  It was a hot walk along the beach but well worth it - the setting was beautiful, overlooking the lagoon and shaded by trees outside. The food was very good albeit expensive.

The following day we decided to change anchorage to outside the resort (where we had lunch) to get out of the short chop which made our current anchorage uncomfortable. The other boats had the same idea and in all we ended up with 10 boats anchored off the resort.  A relaxing day on the boat and after a short walk to explore the area we joined some of the boats for cocktails at the resort. One of the boats had hired a scooter for the day and both Chessie and ourselves signed up for the following two days. Alas the scooter did not survive the for long the next day when Chessie took it out and they abandoned it at a restaurant and managed to hire a car.

We took the car for the following day and set off to explore. The roads were tedious, long straight
The Blue Hole
roads going through uninteresting countryside and there were few sites worth visiting. The Blue Hole was one of the main attractions in the guide book which turned out to be a big hole in the rocks filled with fresh water (which was actually blue in colour). But there is only so much time you can spend staring at a hole even if it is blue. Lunch proved to be the best part of the day, eating in a local restaurant with good fish on offer and a good view of the bay. Shame it did not open in the evening.

In the afternoon we tried five times to find the path to the Turtle lagoon after many abortive attempts along dirt tracks off the main road (no signs of course). So we gave that up and went to the supermarket to re-provision for the next week.

On the Wednesday Glen’s father duly arrived with the parts for the water maker and four hours later it was back working. It was tricky to re-cut the threads to ensure that they were absolutely straight otherwise the top part could not be bolted on. Three of the four hours was working out how to do it since I would have only one chance to get it right and then it was actually quite simple. A refreshing change to my normal approach of doing it and then spending three hours working out how to correct it!

That night we had rum punch on-board Huck along with Chessie. Both Huck and Chessie are long term live aboards – Huck have been sailing the pacific for three years and Chessie are on their second circumnavigation. They are both great fun and we had a very enjoyable evening.

The next day was just rain all day and we stayed on board.

Beautemps-Beaupre 19 September- 23 September

The atoll of Beautemps has a very small anchorage (6 boats at most) and many of the rally had already come back from there extolling its virtues. So we set off in 2 knots of wind the next morning and a glassy sea to cover the 25 miles  – for the first time we did not even bother to put up the mainsail and just motored. We saw some whales on route, one of which jumped out of the water and breached, creating a huge splash – the first whales that we have seen. Beautemps is one of the most beautiful anchorages we have visited, surrounded by bombies (Coral Heads) which makes the entry very difficult but provides excellent snorkelling.

Start of the walk was easy
Beautemps is uninhabited with a very small anchorage - enough for 6 boats only. We walked around this very beautiful island in the afternoon and came across nesting Swifts on the beach. As we approached it became like a scene from the film The Birds as they circled around us, swooping down very close and screeching to scare us away! It was quite a sight and at first very unnerving. The baby birds had hatched and were walking around the beach, unable to fly yet so we were very careful. Later on we came across a colony of Boobies who were sitting on their eggs and seemed totally unphased at us walking past. 

Walking along the rocks
As we got to the last part of the walk, we had to walk over the
volcanic rock by the edge of the sea. It was very sharp and despite being advised to wear solid shoes, Catherine and I had gone out in flip flops. These were fine for the most of the walk but not the last 400m over the very sharp rocks. We had been walking for an hour and a half round the island and decided that we would cut across the island rather than walk all the way back round. Not a good idea when the middle is jungle.

Starting to get very dense
After an hour of making slow progress through the dense bush, we were not certain that we could get through to the other side and had no visible route back with all the twists and turns we had made. So we carried on and eventually came to the beach the other side - or rather to the top of the cliffs which were covered with impenetrable vegetation down to the beach (and steep). A further half hour of scrambling through the undergrowth, following the coast line as close as we could we finally found a way through. What a relief that was - just a few scratches as a consequence.

We spent three very socialable evenings at anchor. The first night we all congregated on the beach around a fire for sundowners, about 20 people in all. The second night we went aboard Serendipity (Chris and Sharon from Australia) together with Chessie (Jutta and Jocken from Germany). It was a late night, drinking the rum punch that Jutta had made (tastes of fruit juice but absolutely lethal) and a consequently very slow next day! The last night we had drinks on our boat and, as we were all heading back to Ouvea at 6am the next morning, we had a relatively early finish (relative to the previous night that is).

One of the reasons for going back to Ouvea was that there was a supermarket there where we could stock up before going to the Isle de Pins where there are only small shops. We all met up for drinks at the resort in the evening (where we had been before) and dinner making another very sociable evening.

Next morning, we headed off the 150 miles south to the Isle of Pins with the forecast of light NW winds.

Thursday 3 September 2015

Vanuatua Maskelynes

Maskelynes 25-27 August

The Maskelynes are low lying islands just south of Malekula and one of the reasons they get so few tourists is that it is one of the islands that still has cases of malaria. Not to be put off by this, and taking precautions with mosquito nets and plenty of mosquito repellent, we set off from Ambrym in calm seas and gentle winds. That was until we passed the end of the island and spent the next two hours sailing into 35 knot winds and big seas while a big weather front went over us. Once it had passed it was a pleasant sail and all we had to do was find the anchorage.

Destruction from Cyclone still evident
The entrance to the large bay was about 40 metres across with reefs just under the water either side with depths in the entrance dropping down to 4 metres at high tide. Once inside we were the only boat in the anchorage. We were surrounded on all side by mangroves, forest and three villages along the shore all of which had been badly damaged by the Cyclone. Children on shore were waving and shouting ‘Alo’ as we came in.

Our first trip ashore in the dinghy was tricky as we negotiated the reefs inside the bay but managed to get ashore to meet Stewart who was the local guide. We arranged for a tour of the village the next day with an afternoon visit to the clam sanctuary.

Stewart's family at their home
The next morning we went ashore at low tide, only to find there was not enough water over the reef to get to the beach. We found a route that got us within 50 metres and then walked through thick mud to get to the shore, tying up the dinghy to a stick that Stewart brought out to us. He arranged for someone to bring our dinghy ashore when the tide rose which was very kind of him.

Founder of the village and now 106!
After a little clean up to get the mud off our feet we met his father in law, Paul, who was one of the founders of the village – he was 106. The village was located on another island but the earthquake and subsequent Tsunami in 1965 wiped out the village with the villages getting onto their canoes to escape the waves as it destroyed the village. The village relocated to their present location on the shore of main island.

Making bricks from cement
 Stewart took us on a tour of the three villages – all very and surprisingly different. One had a few island shops, one had beautiful bougainvillea and one had the big school. One thing that
the villages had in common was straight paths laid out in a grid and all had traditionally built houses made from bamboo and leaves. In fact one of the main exports from the village to Port Vila are the leaves woven in lengths to form thatch which are sold in the market or to a middle man. Some of the houses have a base wall built out of brick which they make themselves using cement brought from Port Vila.

Local Kava Bar - one of many!
The kindergarten
Water is short on the island as it so low lying and water has to be gathered from the rain they do have. Their main garden is on another island which is an hour’s boat ride away and they spend each Saturday there to tend the garden and pick the fruit and vegetables.

Inside the Church
The church in the village is one of the biggest that we have seen in the South pacific and it took them 35 years to complete. The three villages come together at Christmas to attend the Carol Service at this church and they stay with the villagers overnight. Stewart explained that before the missionaries came in 1896, the villages were always at war, capturing and eating people from the other villages but that all stopped when Christianity took hold. The villages have been at peace ever since and has changed my somewhat jaundiced view of missionaries (in this case at any rate).

One of the villagers in another village we visited had obviously done very well for himself in Santo where he now lives and had invested the money to build some holiday homes for rent in a small complex complete with a café – the only one on the island. The homes were built from brick and the small complex well designed and finished to a western standard. It was a stark contrast to the other homes on the island. He hopes to attract more visitors to the island (to help the economy) but it will be tough. The journey from Port Vila involves either a long ferry crossing which arrives once a week or a plane trip to Malakula, a ten hour truck ride through the jungle followed by a two hour boat crossing.  And having seen the ferry, that is certainly not an easy option. But it was heart-warming to see someone invest back in their own village despite all the difficulties.

In the afternoon we went to meet the owner of the clam sanctuary and to take the journey by outrigger canoe to the small island. I sat in the front with Stewart and the owner at the back with Catherine in the middle. I was handed a paddle as we made started the 1 mile trip against the wind and the incoming tide. After about 30 minutes I was getting tired and we seem to be making slow progress. I turned round to see our guide was talking to the owner at the back and I was the only person paddling! No wonder they sat me at the front. Thereafter we did make better progress.

The clam sanctuary was created in 1991 to avoid the extinction of the giant clam population and many of the clams are brought there by the villagers to help the conservation.  Once you have seen a few of them it lost its appeal but the reef and the fish were spectacular. We saw many types of fish we had not seen before and the colours of the coral were so vivid. A worthwhile trip.
On the way back we stopped at the Café for a drink. Our guide Stewart was very keen to do this as it is real treat for him. They had to open the café for us since they do not have guests yet and the beer was warm – the fridge is not yet connected. The setting was perfect, overlooking the sea and the café itself had been well designed and built.

We took Stewart back to the boat to collect some medical bandages and antiseptic supplies for his sister who had cut her hand that day with a machete. They had no supplies at all and it was wrapped in some very dirty rag. The nurse on the island was away and would not be back the following day – plenty of time to get an infection!

Back to Lamen Bay 28 – 30 August

The trip back to Lamen Bay was something we were not looking forward to. Directly into the strong wind and steep waves which meant the 18 mile trip took 6 hours. There were two other boats from the rally in Lamen Bay and we joined them for drinks on one of the boats  “On The Double” – a catamaran.  We left them at 9pm after a very enjoyable evening, swapping stories about where we had been and what we had done since we left Port Vila.

The next morning we were alone in the bay as the other boats headed off. But not for long as another four of the Rally Boats joined us in the afternoon. The snorkelling was unmemorable but I did see some giant turtles but not Dugongs.

Return to Havannah Bay 30 August – 2 September

With an easterly wind forecast it meant that we could sail south back to Havannah Bay without tacking into the wind. The seas were not as rough as they had been and we made the 60 miles journey in in 7 hours giving us plenty of time in daylight to anchor. We saw Chessie anchored off the reef and so joined them for drinks in the evening to catch up on their adventures.

We snorkelled to check our anchor the next morning only to find it stuck under a large piece of coral. In fact there was no sand where we had anchored, only rock and coral so we decided to up anchor and move. I had a brilliant idea of using the dinghy anchor to hook the front end of our anchor upwards to clear the coral head under which it was stuck. An hour later and after half drowning in the attempt, I consigned that idea to the scrap heap with some of my other brilliant ideas.

The other option (and the only one left) was to try and move the boat forward over the rock and force the anchor out. I was not sure it would work and we had little room to manoeuvre as the sea bed rose rapidly towards the shore. But with me on the helm and Catherine pulling up the anchor it came out relatively easily and I was quite pleased with our effort. That is until Catherine asked me to look at the anchor and we had broken off and hooked up a huge piece of coral on the anchor. Had I not made the original attempt at freeing our anchor with the dinghy anchor I would have been even more devastated about the damage to the coral. I think we will keep that little episode quiet.

We anchored with some of the other rally boats further along the shore (in sand this time) and went ashore for our first meal out since leaving Port Vila nearly two weeks earlier. The restaurant was very nice, overlooking the bay and afterwards we joined Mike and Chrissie from On The Double for a walk along to the resort – it did not look far. After a good hour and a half’s walk along the shore, climbing over rocks and wading through the water, we arrived at the resort and sat down for cocktails as the sun set over the horizon. There we met up with some other Rally Boats and we were late leaving with no option but to walk along the road back to our dinghy, still at the restaurant where we had had lunch. 

The road up from the resort to the main road was long enough in the dark and we had no idea where the original restaurant (and our dinghies) was. After ten minutes of walking we saw headlights approaching and we put out a thumb for a lift. The truck stopped and three of us joined the five people already in the back of this small truck while Catherine sat in the front. We stopped a couple of times to ask directions and after fifteen minutes arrived back at the entrance to the restaurant.  It would have been a very long walk otherwise.  Twenty minutes later we were back on our boat exhausted.

One of the people we had met along our walk was the manager of the beach resort who said we were welcome to use his mooring buoy if we wanted to come back to the main resort – it was a short dinghy ride from the buoy. As we had planned to eat in the resort in any case, we upped anchor the next morning and took him up on his offer.

We set off in the dinghy for the resort at lunchtime to book a table for ourselves and Mike and Crissey. We had planned to have a lazy afternoon reading on the beanbags in front of the resort overlooking the sea. The wind came up as we left and by the time we arrived we were soaked as the waves became steep with the wind blowing the spray over us. We dried out a little before going into order some drinks and settle down for an afternoon’s reading.  We had a very pleasant lunch of smoked fish before heading back to the boat and changing for the evening.

The trip back was much easier as the wind had subsided and we arrived dry. We had a few cocktails while the sun set and then and some excellent food as we passed a very convivial evening with Mike and Crissey. Even the journey back was easy although we did have to use the torch to wend our way through the reef most of the way – it was all very shallow and a couple of times we had to avoid the bombies that come just below the surface.

The next day we had a slow motor back to Port Vila in very calm conditions which made a very pleasant change!

Vanuatu Port Vila and Ambrym

Port Vila 17 -20 August

The sail overnight was challenging to say the least. Catherine and I did not have any sleep and the other six boats that left that evening had the same problem with the swell coming from one direction and steep waves coming from the opposite direction – anything but relaxing.  After completing the quarantine requirements in Port Vila (basically they wanted the money and did not seem interested in visiting any of the boats) we went back to the boat as did the crews on the other boats for some sleep. So we wrote off that day and surfaced at 5pm for Happy Hour along with the other boats at the waterfront bar.

The weather had closed in again and it was clear we could not leave Port Vila for a few days with high winds and rain. A trip to the cultural museum left us with more questions than it answered as it seemed a random collection of items with next to no explanation of any of them. On the plus side we found a French supermarket on the way back where we could re-provision with many of the items we had not seen for a long time.

A wet dinghy ride in the evening from the boat to the shore did not bode well and after an hour’s walk through the town unsuccessfully dodging down pours we ended up in a pizza bar which if nothing else offered shelter. And the shelter was better than the pizza turned out to be so that is one restaurant off our list.

One of the delights of Port Vila is the market which offers a huge range of fruit and vegetables. Each island is allocated a day on which they can sell their produce and the market stays open 24 hours, six days a week. Apart from the lack of fruit because of the cyclone, the quality and range of the vegetables was fabulous. It was almost a pleasure to go shopping. On the other hand, the trip to the French supermarket was just something that had to be done and we stocked up for the next two weeks while we would be visiting the northern islands.

Port Vila is on the island of Efate. It is very different from the other islands. It has one main sealed road where the other islands either have no roads or just tracks. It has several supermarkets, resorts and some large western style houses. Vanuatu (formerly known as New Hebrides) was ruled by a condominium of France and England up until 1980 when they achieved independence. During that time the two powers never agreed, there was intense rivalry and even now there is bitterness about having to speak English and French to work in government positions. Their official language is Bislama, then English and then French. Some children go to French schools and some to English, however most villages away from Port Vila speak their own language. There are over 30 languages spoken in Vanuatu.

Some of the shipt wrecks in Port Vila
Port Vila was also struck by the cyclone and you could see many boats wrecked on the beaches. It has
however recovered quickly as it seems a lot aid (and there was a huge amount) has been spent here and not managed to get to the other islands.

Just as we were about to leave, the skipper of Gallant Cavalier who had already gone up to the northern islands had to be flown back to Port Vila for medical treatment. A small cut on his leg incurred sometime in Aneityum (he cannot even remember getting the cut) had become infected and he developed septicaemia.  He made the decision to fly back rather than travel back with his crew as he felt so ill, arriving 24 hours ahead of them. The doctor who treated him said that he would not still be alive if he had waited the 24 hours to travel back on the boat, it was that close. It will take him weeks to recover before he can think of sailing again.

Ambrym21 -25 August

Rainbow on route
We made two overnight stops on the way to Ambrym as the sea was rough with the strong winds –
one at Havannah Harbour and the other at Lamen Bay on Epi. On route we were greeted with a rainbow very close to the boat and where we could see both ends touching the water. We wanted to spend some time in Lamen Bay to see the Dugongs and sea turtles but that would be for the return journey.

Main school room
Pupils work on display
We sailed to Ranon on Ambrym so we could see the famous Rom dance and as we anchored, Geoffrey who is the local guide came out to us in his canoe. He arranged for us to take a tour or the village the next morning and he explained about the history of the island, the people and how they live now. The village has one of the largest schools in the island group where many of the people from the other villages across the island send their children. They board at the school since the journey along unmade roads is very difficult and impossible for the children to return home other than during the school holidays.

Dancing in mid flow
Rom Dance
The next day we took a 60 minute trek up the mountain to a village where they performed the Rom dance – a traditional dance with the principal dancers wearing masks and covered in banana leaves.  Four of the dancers wore the masks and banana leaves with 8 others in the centre singing traditional village songs, taking it in turns to take the lead. The square in which the dance is performed is sacred, surrounded by giant wood carvings which were magnificent. Some of these are hollowed out to form drums (called Tam Tams). We were allowed to take pictures but were warned not to touch the banana leaves of the dancers as this was strictly taboo.

The masked dancers
Tam Tam
The Rom dance is now a tourist attraction but they still perform the dance as part of the ceremony for the aspiring Chief to earn his next “grade”. Grades are how the Chief earns respect among his people and the other Chiefs on the island. The man finds someone who has a mask design which he pays for with pigs and money. The masks for the Rom dance are then made by the men in secret and each design is subtly different. The men practise the dance and it is then performed only in front of the men in the village with the masks being burned afterwards so that the spirit of the dance doesn’t stay to make trouble in the village. Ambrym is the island of black magic and although not practised often it is still believed despite the efforts of missionaries. The masks used for the tourists are not burned and anyone can see the dance (if you can get there!).