3703Cruising in Vanuatu
- Aug 22, 2014
Our website updates are always lagging where we are, so thought I’d share a note I wrote about Vanuatu so far. It’s kinda long, so no worries if you don’t have time. We’ve been cruising in Vanuatu for two months now. Although we wouldn’t rate it our favorite cruising area, but it’s been nice overall and we’re glad we’re seeing it. As you may know, it was one of the largest bases in the Pacific, second only to Pearl Harbor during WWII. Over 500,000 service men passed through here during the war on their way to fighting on the other islands. They had two bomber airfields, two fighter airfields, a seaplane airfield and an Australian airfield on Espiritu Santo where we are now. They also had four large hospitals here, which I suspect were terribly busy at the time! When the Americans left the islands at the end of the war, they offered all their equipment to the local government for next to nothing. Apparently the local government (joint French/English – now there’s a recipe for chaos) couldn’t decide whether they wanted to pay, so the US built a pier and dumped it all in the ocean. It’s now a dive site called “Million Dollar Point” – we did a dive here the other day and it was spectacular. Lots of bulldozers, graders, jeeps, carry-alls and heaps of other equipment. Critters were great too – saw a crocodile fish, octopus, stone fish, nudibranchs, and lots of others. And who said war is such a waste – it creates dive sites! Hmmmm . . .
Espiritu Santo is also the place where James Michener was stationed during WWII and was his inspiration for the book “Tales of the South Pacific” and subsequent stage play and movie “South Pacific”. We watched the movie yesterday afternoon when it was raining. It was pretty cool being here and seeing it.
The diving has been one of the highlights here. We’ve done some absolutely wonderful dives and seen a number of critters we’ve never seen before. Vanuatu doesn’t have all the beautiful soft corals of Fiji, but the other corals are generally very healthy and beautiful. We’ve dived some beautiful walls and reefs that can only be accessed by your own boat, which makes them relatively untouched except by cruisers. People who have come before us have passed on GPS waypoints for the best sites, and we just follow in their wake. One of the things we’ve loved in Vanuatu is the nudibranchs. There are more here than we’ve seen anywhere else in the world. For you non-divers, they are actually worms, but look nothing like your idea of a worm. They are anywhere from smaller than your little fingernail to about 6-8 inches long, and come in the most amazing variety of beautiful colors, patterns and shapes. Jan’s been taking lots of pictures with the new Canon we bought, and we’ll have some on the website when we get around to it.
There are also a lot of wrecks around here as you may surmise from its War history. We did two dives on the USS President Coolidge, a WWII converted troop ship carrying 5,000 troops to Espiritu Santo. The Captain went down the wrong channel coming into port and hit a “friendly” mine. That’s their term, not mine – it actually wasn’t friendly at all! It blew a hole in the bottom and sunk in a very short time. Fortunately it was only about a 100 meter swim to shore and no one perished other than a couple of guys in the lower deck where the mine exploded. We’re not big wreck divers, but it was interesting to see this one. There was a lot of equipment inside all jumbled up (the ship came to rest on her side) – jeeps, half-tracks, howitzers, etc. – and we saw the barber shop, toilets, dispensary and other stuff. Both dives were deep though – 131 feet on the first and 108 feet on the second. Our computers went into a decompression dive condition (can’t surface until you wait at a shallower level for your body to rid itself of nitrogen that has built up). Otherwise, you’re at risk of getting the “Bends” which those of you who are unfamiliar may have heard of. The first dive we had to stay at 15 feet for about 15 minutes before our computers cleared, but the second dive we had to stay there for about 37 minutes (buildup is cumulative). That got a bit boring. But all was well, and neither of us got “Bent” – good news, because they don’t have a hyperbaric chamber here to treat bent divers! Only once before had I ever gone into a decompression dive (Cozumel) in over 260 dives to date. Kinda gets your attention!
The other day we also went diving with a couple from another cruising boat on a plane wreck they had found. It was a Dauntless Dive Bomber that had crashed when returning from a mission. I’m glad they told me what it was, because it really got broken up. We did find the propeller, a wheel, and lots of miscellaneous pieces. But the best thing for us was all the nudibranchs! We’ve NEVER seen so many in one place! And a couple of kinds we’d never seen before. As you might guess, we love this stuff! Our dive compressor is being put to good use filling tanks!
Vanuatu is also one of the poorest countries we’ve visited. The only other one we’ve seen in the South Pacific that is about as poor is Tonga. The country got its independence in 1980, and it’s been stagnant or downhill ever since. Prior to that, the country was governed by a joint British and French coalition. As anyone who reads history knows, the French & British have never gotten along, so parts of Vanuatu speak occasional French and other parts a bit of English. But each tribal village has its own dialect, and normally people from one village to the next cannot understand each other. Their common language is Bislama, which is a form of pidgin English, albeit very unevolved. It’s actually one of their big economic handicaps. It’s funny reading signs here. For example, for Tusker Beer the sign says “Me wannum Tusker – Yumi” You can sort of figure it out sometimes. To tell someone your name it’s, “Name blong me Richard,”; to ask someone their name it’s, “Name blong you?” – actually I think in Bislama “Name” is spelled “Nam”. The best one that cracked me up is Lonely Planet says Bislama for “condom” is “ruba blong fak fak” – say it phonetically a few times and it does kinda make sense! Not sure what the “blong” means but it’s thrown in regularly.
But all has not been fun for us. About three weeks ago after Jan had done a bunch of laundry (yep, we have to do it in a bucket here) and I had made a 23 liter batch of beer (priorities, you know), I started the genset to run the watermaker, turned it on and it blew a fuse in the genset and wouldn’t start. We were down to about 20 gallons of water in our tank. And the villages here define primitive, so drinking the water they have from the local stream is not an option for us Westerners who don’t want parasites. A couple of days later some friends surprised us by showing up in our anchorage, and gave us a good bit of water over a couple of weeks which allowed us to stay out in the islands with them a bit. But then when they moved on we had to come in to Espiritu Santo to try to find the part (a start capacitor on the electric motor had melted). After a few days of searching here in Vanuatu without success, we determined there was no such thing in the Country. Keep in mind, it’s primitive here; the two largest cities, Port Vila on Efate and Luganville on Espiritu Santo, have the only two paved roads in the entire country – and they only have one each. So we got to an internet connection, found the part in Australia, and had it shipped to us here. Fortunately it fixed the problem, and we’re back to our less conservative life!
Fortunately we had five three liter milk cartons that I had saved, and we filled them with the local water and used it in a sun shower for bathing, and in a small water bottle for washing and rinsing dishes. That saves a lot on tank water consumption, which we only used for drinking and teeth brushing. Our on-board water tank holds 125 gallons, which we can make last about three weeks if we don’t use it for bathing and I don’t rinse salt off ourselves or the boat. Compare that to the normal dirt dwellers’ consumption. When I worked for a water district in college the average two person household used about 3,000 gallons per month – that’s 100 gallons per DAY! So we’re pretty conservative. But I think I did start to smell! And I HATE not being able to rinse the salt off the boat and off me when I snorkel. We’re spoiled!
The people here are said to be of Melanesian stock. I’m not sure of the genesis of that, but they look quite African with the very curly hair, dark coloring and facial features. Interesting too, in Bislama they call their kids “pikininies”. That certainly wouldn’t go over too well in the ultra-PC USA! They’re a quite primitive people with a subsistence lifestyle on the islands. Fortunately, food like taro and yams grow all year round without them doing much, and they also have lots of pigs. Pigs are highly valued in their society, and are an indication of wealth. It’s also a very patriarchal society, and we understand that the husband values his pigs higher than his wife. Again, probably not too PC! Interesting too, the people rarely fish despite there being lots of fish here. But that would mean they would have to build a boat and go out in it. Mostly they tend to just lie around. But they are VERY friendly to visitors. We’re always greeted with a smile, a handshake, and a “Nam blong you?” or “where you from?” I’m not sure but at times I wonder if the friendliness is left over from the relatively recent history in which cannibalism was routinely practiced. I wonder if we’re “the other white meat”. But normally I don’t get too nervous.
We did attend a “Circumcision Ceremony”. At about age 8-12 they do this and the kid is theoretically transformed into a man – I thought the two kids we saw had a ways to go yet . . . But nevertheless, it was interesting. This was the village Chief’s grandson, so quite a big event. There was a lot of native dress – for men this is a “Namba”, which is a penis sheath made of woven palm leaves, held up in an erect position and supported by a waistband of tree bark. And that’s IT! Yep, the “boys” are just dangling there along with bare asses and bare everything else. Jan was going to get me one, but I think they are all too small – she laughed at me; I don’t understand . . . Anyway, it was rather interesting to see a native in this getup standing there talking on a cell phone. A real cultural leap!
Remember how I said they really value pigs? Well, this is the main “gift” given at the Circumcision Ceremony, in addition to a pile of yams and taro. Since the one we attended was for the Chief’s grandson it was a big deal. There were 14 pigs brought out trussed to a pole by their feet and unceremoniously dumped on the ground in a large cleared area. After a bunch of stomping around in Nambas and women topless in grass skirts (no, it was NOT a pretty sight!), they gathered a group of about five young guys in Nambas and one picked up a big tree limb and proceeded to bludgeon each of the pigs twice on each side of the head. As an old farm boy, it didn’t particularly bother me, but some of the white city folk with us were a bit put off by it. I wasn’t too pleased with their efficacy though, as they only dispatched about half the pigs they bludgeoned – the bigger ones were just knocked senseless and bloody, and eventually came too and started squirming around and squealing. But they were shortly cut up into pieces shared by the relevant families. They also had a couple of cows they had dispatched previously. They cut them in half for some reason and hung them on a pole. It was a little weird coming around a tree and coming face to face with the front half of a cow carcass. All very interesting and quite different than any experience I’ve had in the USA!
There is a bit of weather here now with about 25-30 knots of wind and rain showers, so we’ve moved to a more protected anchorage about ten miles from Luganville. There is some very nice snorkeling on the reefs here and we went out this morning to see the critters. As a side note, there is a problem throughout the South Pacific with a starfish called “Crown of Thorns”. It’s a starfish with these really terrible thorns sticking out all over its body. Their only known predator is the conch and throughout the Pacific there are virtually no conch because the natives ate them all. So the Crown of Thorns population has exploded. The bad thing is they eat the coral! They move over a coral reef excreting an enzyme that dissolves the coral which they then eat. They can devastate a reef in a very short time, leaving nothing behind. Most of us cruisers, particularly those who dive, are trying to help. We have a metal rod about two feet long with a 45 degree bend in the last couple of inches. We use that to get under the Crown of Thorns and lift them off the reef. They tend to wrap themselves around the rod, so we then put them in a heavy 50# flour or rice bag we can get here locally. Then we either take them ashore and bury them or let them hang off the back of the boat for a couple of days until they die, then dump them out. For all you PC people reading this, I provide lengthy death counseling to them prior to any of this, so they all die quite happy and well adjusted! Anyway, today we liberated the reef from about eight of the buggers!
You can’t just carry a dive knife and kill them in the water. Apparently if you cut them up while alive, they just regenerate multiple copies of themselves. Some folks are better equipped and have an injection device that enables them to carry a bladder of ascetic acid (powder form mixed with water) and inject the Crown of Thorns with it while in the water. This apparently kills them on the spot. One boat reported killing over 4,000 of them on one big reef – don’t know how they kept count! Using our method we have to be very careful not to get stuck with the thorns. One of our cruising friends told us he got one in his finger and it’s still numb after three years. So we try to be very careful.
Anyway, that’s enough for now. I’m sure some of you who are accustomed to the three second sound bite environment and frantic pace of the first world have long since dozed off and never made it this far. But for those with patience, or just too old to have anything better to do, hope this gives you an insight into some of the stuff we’re doing. One last comment – we’re really excited. After four days of checking daily in all the stores in Luganville (the second largest town in the country), we finally found some eggs and were able to buy three dozen for about $24USD. We think they are the most expensive eggs we’ve ever bought, but we now have eggs to make chocolate chip cookies! They have heaps (NZ term) of chooks (NZ term for chickens) here, but I don’t think anyone can find, or bothers to collect the eggs.
All the best,
s.v. Slip Away
In Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu
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