Thursday, 3 September 2015

Vanuatu Aneityum

Vanuatu: 7 August – 12 August


We were delayed five days in Musket Cove waiting for a weather window as the unseasonably strong winds and rain continued. We left on Friday 7 August with north winds predicted for the first day and then south easterly winds – all fairly benign according to the forecast. Indeed the first day was good sailing in the north winds and then the winds turned south at midnight and we found ourselves going to windward in 22-28kn winds with steep 3m seas coming towards us. After 24 hours or waves crashing over the boat and very uncomfortable conditions, the winds eased along with the waves and the rest of the journey was very straight forward.

One of the boats, Sweet Disorder, lost its rudder halfway on the journey and without steering was forced to call the New Zealand coast guard who co-ordinate rescue operations in this part of the South Pacific. The nearest vessel was a fishing boat that went to give them a tow back to Suva which was the fishing boat’s destination.  However, they would not agree to provide the tow until they had confirmation that they would be paid which delayed getting the tow in place. The insurance company agreed to the cost and they had a slow and difficult tow against the wind and waves back to Suva.

The fishing boat stopped before arriving at the island and refused to continue until they had confirmation that the money was in their account.  The insurance company made the payment and at that point the Fijian navy came out and took over the tow, taking Sweet Disorder to Denarau Marina for repairs. They were greeted with a Navy Band playing on the dock as they arrived to a big fanfare with the Navy taking full credit for the rescue of a sailing boat on the edge of disaster! It will take six weeks to get the boat repaired but undaunted they plan to continue their trip once it is fixed.

Aneityum 10- 12 August

We arrived at the anchorage at 7pm, just as it was getting dark and we anchored without problem. It was noticeably colder in the evening than it had been in Fiji although we were only 180 miles further south.

We had a very busy day the next day starting with the tour of the village by a local guide. There are one thousand people living on the island in three main villages. We visited one of the settlements where they live in traditionally built houses from palm tree leaves and bamboo. The villages are very well kept and beautiful with the villagers taking obvious pride in their village and their way of life.

It has been six months since Cyclone Pam devastated the island, stripping all the fruit off the trees, knocking down many of the trees and stripping the leaves off many of the remaining ones. The guide explained how they prepare for cyclones, storing bananas preserved in a pit in the ground covered with leaves and stones, and cooking the roots of a particular tree which provides sugar and water which they eat in the immediate aftermath.  The root of the tree has to be cooked for 3 days and two nights and according to their tradition, three men must tend the fire, sleeping next to the fire and must not eat and only drink water – otherwise the root will not cook and cannot be used. They have a cyclone every couple of years although none as devastating as Cyclone Pam. The villagers took pride in their ability to be self-sufficient in the aftermath before any aid can be delivered. As they are the southernmost island, they are last in the route for the supply ships and they were one of the islands worst hit.

There is still no fruit on the island as the trees have only been growing for six months now and it will take another few months before they start producing fruit – bananas, mango etc. Vegetable crops were also devastated but recovered more quickly. Many houses were destroyed but they have started rebuilding again 

The main village
The main village has a primary school and secondary education is on Efate at Port Vila so children have to leave the island at twelve. One of the downsides of formal education has been the loss of skills passed on from generation to generation. The children used to work
A traditional fishing net they still use
with their parents day to day, learning the skills and traditions and the skills are gradually being lost – something that they are actively trying to reverse since their way of life depends on them. Some of those skills are being taught in schools now although the guide said that the skills taught in schools are not the practical skills required but more of an academic learning.

In the afternoon the villagers took us to the reef to snorkel among the coral and fish.  We were taken in a long boat and dropped off to allow the tide to bring us back across the reef with little effort. That is little effort until the last 100 metres swimming across the tide to get back to the island which made the swim seem that much longer.

Our dinner
Later that afternoon we were invited to Mystery Island which is just off the main island for traditional dancing and a feast. There were about 30 of us from the yachts and the islanders had gone to a lot of trouble, spit roasting a pig over an open fire and cooking many of their traditional foods – taro, kasava and sweet potatoes. The dancing was fearsome and you could see that the roots as warriors.  We had Vanuata kava which is supposed to be much stronger than either Tongan or Fijian but after one cup we decided that beer tasted a lot better and fortunately we had brought some supplies with us, as had the other boats.

The Queen (of England) named the island “Mystery Island” and the name has stuck ever since. It is
Traditional dancing
The Chief (centre) welcoming us
used by Cruise Ships who bring a couple of thousand people on shore each week for a two hour visit to see the dancing and buy souvenirs. This is something that the village has cultivated over many years to bring in currency to the small island which otherwise has little means of earning money. We were lucky that we were such a small group which allowed a lot of time to talk to the villagers about their way of life which apart from the cruise ship visits is spent as any other village. They were expecting a cruise ship the following week the first since the cyclone.

Making fire
Two minutes later!
One of the interesting demonstrations is how they make fire. They   It never happened like that when I was a boy scout!
use a particular tree which is very dry and use a branch from the tree against the trunk to quickly generate enough heat to light some kindling. It took no more than two minutes to have a blaze going.

Many of the boats left the next day but we stayed on so that we could see more of the main island and talk to the locals. Everyone was very engaging and one even apologised that they could not offer us any fruit to take away with us which is what they would normally do for visitors from boats. Apart from yachts, very few people visit the main island on Aneityum as it is not easy to get to.

PeaceCorp worker in school library
We met two girls who were US PeaceCorp workers on the island who had signed up to two years living in the village  to provide help – one in the local school sorting out the library and the other at a medical centre in one of the other villages. They live and eat with the villagers with no internet access, no trips home during the period and limited conversations with a few people who can speak English. Both of them have been learning Bislama which is a common (but second language) in all of the islands – each island has their own native language which is different in each island and often different between villages on the same island. Both girls had been upset that they had to leave the island just before the Cyclone hit, at the insistence of the US PeaceCorp, to be flown to safety while the villagers did not have any option but to stay – they have great attachment to the people of the village. 

To celebrate the survival of the Cyclone, the PeaceCorp produced a video showing how the villagers coped and were in high spirits in the aftermath despite the hardships incurred by all the villagers following destruction of their crops, houses and fruit.

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