Thursday, 6 July 2017

Land Diving and Volcanos and Caves, oh my!


I am a little behind on my emails, but I am going to catch up before the kids and I fly to Canada on 9 July (Port Vila to Halifax via Brisbane, Australia, Los Angeles, and Toronto).

Honey had a one-month visa in Vanuatu, and had arrived from Fiji a couple of weeks before we showed up from the Marshalls, so we had about ten days together before they needed to head for Port Vila to clear out.  Victoria and Johnathan kept asking *why* hadn't we sailed south from the Marshalls sooner, and we kept saying one word to them: "Donna" (as in Cyclone Donna, which was immediately followed by Cyclone Ella - both of which hit the area in the month of May, ie after the normal Cyclone "season").  These last two cyclones didn't seem to have checked their calendars to find out that they were unwelcome!

Given our short time together, we made the most of every moment, managing to visit what seemed like a month's worth of anchorages in the week that we had together.  We saw the village and waterfall in Asanvari, the Moon Cave and Petroglyphs at Sanasom (both on the West coast of Maewo), the Land Diving at Pentecost, and the Volcano at Ambrym.  As our tour guides, Honey had recce'd most of these spots on their previous visit to Vanuatu in 2015, a month or so before we met them in Fiji.

Maewo is a long, narrow island running north/south and about 30 nm long.  It is famous for its waterfalls (and its rain, which did not stop for the first 24 hours we were there).  After Sunday pancakes, Sunday visiting, and Sunday fish curry for dinner, followed by the first of many mix-and-match sleepovers for the kids, we headed ashore to visit the village on Monday.  While the parents walked around the school and gardens near Asanvari Bay (including a visit to the school library, which Honey had helped to construct two years ago, but which had been temporarily moved to another building in the nick of time when the roof was about to blow away during Cyclone Donna), the five kids walked along the shore to the waterfall.  I am not entirely sure where they hiked (not the usual path to the waterfall - it seems that this was too tame for them) all I know is that at one point, it was steep enough that they passed Benjamin from person to person to go down a hill (chain-gang style, in Honey's terms).  They were pretty pleased with themselves when we rejoined them.  I was pretty pleased that Benjamin had graduated to having adventures with 'the kids'! 

During our walkabout, Jude and Tim discovered that a couple of people wanted to return to their village in the vicinity of Betarara (north end of the island), and offered to take them aboard Honey. Given that we had one of their kids, and they had one of ours, when they left the next morning with five ni-Vanuatu onboard, we decided to join them :)  Our plan was to drop off the villagers and anchor near the site of the 'Cave of the Moon' and some petroglyphs.  We had a lovely sail with the wind behind us for much of the day (although it crept up towards 20 kts and choppy seas at times) but when the time came to anchor, Betararara was unsuitable as a night anchorage (despite appearing in one of our guide books), so we turned around and headed south again.  There began a bit of an anchoring adventure: numerous points were marked in our guide near the Moon Cave, but the waypoints were neither precise nor suitable, so eventually we anchored a little further north off the village of Nasawa.

The following morning dawned bright and clear, so we loaded up our two dinghies, and set off for the Cave of the Moon, the location of which Honey's guests had pointed out the previous day. Legend has it that  that Te Kero (I think he is the local god) lived in the cave with his mother before there were entrances or light.  She had trouble seeing to weave her mats, so Te Kero took the Moon down from the top of the Cave (where there is now a large circular cavity) and threw it to the East to let the light in, then threw it South and again to the North.  These three entrances provided plenty of light for his mother!  I had assumed that the cave was a walking tour, but Honey was a little more prepared, and brought fins and snorkels.  Everyone had a tour swimming around the cave, with the Fluentas swimming in our clothing :)  As it turned out, there were some beautiful corals in the cave ("This is the best snorkelling I've done, Mom - you've got to go" in the words of one of my big kids), and it was well worth the effort.

We understood that the petroglyphs were just off the beach a little south of the moon cave, so we headed to the shore and decided to stop for a bit of a picnic.  Of course, a picnic is not a picnic without either ants or rain, and soon we had both in abundance, to the point that they chased us back to our boats.  As it turned out, the rain was no minor squall, and the downpour continued for most of the afternoon.  This gave Max and me a chance to troubleshoot our generator, while eventually the rain stopped and Jude and Tim went ashore to bring our greetings and to see about arranging a guide to see the petroglyphs the following day. 

The next day was quite extraordinary, well worth the delay, and the effort to arrange a local guide.  It turned out that the petroglyphs were about a 30 min walk from the village, and we ended up with three men taking us there.  Kevery was our main guide, and he spoke very good English, and two older men, the current chief and the former chief.  Chiefly roles are different in different parts of Vanuatu - in this village, the chief is chosen for a certain period of time.  The chiefs seemed to have a better sense of the history and the stories, but had less English.  As we walked through wet grass and mud, we were offered mandarins directly from the tree - it turned out to be the tree belonging to our guide, and he was sharing with us.  I had no idea that mandarins could sometimes be so sour!!  Benjamin (who was along for the ride on my back) and I ate a few segments, but I happily shared with Johnathan (and the ground) after a while.  To our right was an area where the trees have been cut down and the local young men have been going through with machettes to clear the land: one day soon, there will be an airstrip allowing tourists to come to see the Cave and petroglyphs.  I wondered how these airplane tourists would react to a path where they had to pick their way around fresh cow patties and where the mud sometimes wanted to suction our shoes off our feet, but I figured that these minor issues would be resolved by then :)  The subject of change vs tradition (Kastom) came up several times during the day, and I was left with a sense that the Chiefs have a strong sense of the importance of transmitting their culture to the younger members of their community. 

While we walked we learned a few sentences of Bislama, but I must admit that Jude was a more dedicated student than I was!  Because it is, by definition, a second language, it was actually quite fun to learn, since so many words are similar to English.  [Aside - we have learned since that Bislama developed in the cane fields of Australia, where many ni-Vanuatu had to find a way to communicate with one another even though they had very different village languages.  People from neighbouring villages can often understand each other, but when they came from further away, they had no common ground.  Bislama evolved as a combination of English and French words, with a local ni-Vanuatu syntax, and enabled workers from around the country to speak with one other.]  I had a funny reminder of how easily small children pick up languages that evening when Benjamin started muttering to himself onboard the boat: "Nem blong mi Benjamin" (Name belong me Benjamin - my name is Benjamin!)  Without any effort on our part, he was absorbing what he heard us saying :)

Our walk took us back to the beach where we had landed the dinghies the day before and to a short path into the woods.  We found ourselves standing before a rock wall with a shallow cut away about the height of a person that formed a long shallow cave (likely formed by water over the centuries, perhaps when the whole structure was under the ocean).  Over the years (centuries), people have carved designs and pictures directly into the rock.  It was a little hard to understand the stories, given our lack of either the local tribal language or Bislama, but it seemed that many of the patterns would be unique to a tribe, and that many different tribes would come to that same cave to make their mark.  It was tabu to mark in someone else's space.  It also seemed like some of the designs would be repeated from place to place, as a way of marking a group's territory, or letting others know that they had been there.  There were even more recent images (probably about 150-200 years old) of the first sailing ships that the local people saw coming to visit them. 

It seemed that we were about to be taken back to the village, so I asked whether it would also be possible to see some rock formations we had read about.  After some animated discussion in their local language, our three guides agreed that they could take us, and a few minutes later, we were filing into a cave that was as deep and narrow as the previous one had been wide and flat and shallow.  In this cave, the local people had placed flat stones under the points where the mineral-laden water dripped from the roof.  Over the centuries, the rocks had become part of the unusual rock structures themselves.  The cave clearly had a sacred energy for our hosts, and the former chief told us that this was the home of the god to which he prayed (even when the missionaries asked him to pray to the Christian God).  He was fiercely proud of his tradition and his faith.  We felt honoured to be there, and grateful that they were willing to share their sacred spaces with us. 

On our walk back to the village, we stopped by one of the chiefs' trees, where he asked a couple of the men threw stones at the high branches: if there are no young boys around to climb for them, this is how the men harvest the nuts from the tree :)  He used a machette to open the hard outer covering to reveal a tasty white nut about twice the size of an almond inside (called a navele in their language).  Once it was discovered that we liked them, a growing group of men were sent to gather more (with great theatrics as the nuts were a good 20-30 feet in the air), and soon the chief came to us with a couple of dozen nuts held up in his t-shirt, the way the kids gather eggs at their grandparents' farm.  This was typical of the kindness and generosity that we experienced at every turn.

On our return to the village, Kevery had another surprise for us: he had asked his mother to make us 'lap lap' and fish so that we could try it.  As best as I could understand, lap lap is made from grated vegetable (in this case yam, but it could have been another food such as green bananas) which is then combined with other ingredients, wrapped in leaves, and baked in an earth oven, and drizzled with coconut cream.  It was savory rather than sweet, and quite tasty.  As I said, we were welcomed with generosity!

We had a few hours in the evening before our departure for Pentecost, so Jude, Tim, Max and I cooked up a plan to return some of the generosity we had experienced: we invited our Kevery and his parents to have tea with all of us on Honey (there are definite advantages to the cockpit size on a catamaran!)  I was planning to bake oatmeal scones anyway for the following morning, so it was easy enough to double the recipe and have some to share.

Having tea with our hosts wasn't something we 'had time' for, as we had plenty to do to get ready for our midnight departure on an overnight passage, but it was one of those things that seemed like it would be a shame to miss - it is the moments of connecting that make our village visits memorable.  Kevery and his parents seemed quite tickled to be invited to visit in Honey's cockpit, and we all had a nice conversation together. 

With darkness approaching, we said our goodbyes and went back to Fluenta to hoist our dinghy onto the foredeck.  Johnathan (and sometimes Victoria) has become instrumental in this evolution.  Once Max and I have hoisted the outboard onto its mount at the stern of Fluenta (using a block &  tackle setup with a lifting arm), Max maneuvers the dinghy around the bow of Fluenta and we fasten the starboard spinnaker halyard to the painter of the dinghy, then Johnathan grinds on the winch at the mast, Max keeps the boat steady as it ascends with its tubes touching the lifelines, and I hover to make sure that nothing gets caught.  Once the bottom of the tubes are clear of the lifelines, Max swings the dinghy over to hang vertically above our liferaft (where I make sure that the mats are in place underneath to prevent the corners of the dinghy from cutting into our vinyl cover).  Johnathan then eases the dinghy down gently, and Max steadies it while I make sure that the staysail (which is generally in its bag and swinging above the deck) will not be in the way of the bow of the dingy.  Once it is nearly down, Max and I lift the stern together to put the transom aft of the liferaft.  At that point, my job is done, and Max & Johnathan stow any necessary gear under the dinghy, cover it with a large piece of Sunbrella (a former water-catching tarp) and secure it in place with a combination of 2" straps and segments of line that Max has cut to the proper size. All of this sounds really easy, but it can be exciting if the wind or the sea-state is boisterous; every time we do it, I am grateful that the big kids are now old enough to be 1/3 of our dinghy hoisting crew :)  In this case, everything was pretty calm, and we were able to get most of the upper deck jobs done before it was totally dark (easier said than done with sunset before 5:30 pm!)

After an early dinner, Max went straight to sleep, and I stowed necessary items in the saloon and galley to prepare for a potentially bouncy trip.  It was only about 9 hours of travelling, but the seas promised to be steep, and the wind was likely to be on our nose.  All was well for most of the evening, but at one point, the energy monitor made an Alarm sound, and went blank.  Max woke up, wiggled a few wires, the display came back on, and he went back to sleep.  It went blank again shortly thereafter, but I didn't think much of it: I figured I would wake him a few minutes early so that he could wiggle the wires again, and all would be well for our passage. 

As it turned out, the Energy Monitor got its power from a wire from the forward (Windless) battery bank.  When I woke Max just before midnight, we decided that we didn't want to set off into the sea with some unknown issue with the windless bank.  The windless bank is under the mattress in the V-Berth.  I suspect that it doesn't take much imagination to picture our lack of enthusiasm at midnight for moving two spinnakers, three kites, two kiteboards, an autopilot (still in its shipping box), a duffel bag full of books, and various and sundry other spare gear and out of season clothes (not to mention a six-month supply of toilet paper and paper towels making great use of Max's Navy sea bag!) but most of these things had to migrate to the saloon or at the very least move aside so that Max could lift the mattress to even access the battery bank.  With volt meter in hand, he shimmied his way into position, and began to poke around with his volt meter.  It turned out that somehow the fuse between the Energy Monitor and the batteries had blown. He was able to replace it, but we kept the gear out of the way for a few days to make sure that we didn't have a recurring problem; in the fullness of time, he will add another fuse near the chart table to further isolate and protect the Energy Monitor.  For once, I even had a hand in an electrical repair: I re-connected the Energy Monitor at the chart table while he kept his volt meter on the various battery voltages in his cave in the V-Berth.  With building seas/wind/swell, it was becoming more uncomfortable by the minute.  Gasping for breath from a combination of close quarters and sea sickness, it was with great relief that he finally emerged from the V-Berth and we were able to get underway, a mere two hours later than planned :)

For me the rest of the passage to Pentecost was completely uneventful:  after we secured the anchor on the foredeck, I went to sleep, expecting to be shaken around 4am, only to wake naturally at a very civilized 9:30 to find that we were nearly there, and Victoria had spelled Max off on the dawn watch :)  For Max and eventually Victoria, however, it was a different story - the seas were steep and rough, and the wind was on the nose throughout the passage. 

Both of us had heard about the Pentecost Land Diving for many years, in fact, Max remembered reading about it in the National Geographic magazines when he was a boy.  We had called earlier in the week, and made arrangements to see the Saturday show.  With only one other boat in the anchorage, we pretty nearly had a private performance!

The same man has been organizing the Land Diving on the island since he was a bright-eyed teenager in 1978; two years later, at twenty, he went from his village in Pentecost to the stage of the Sydney Opera House to speak to hundreds of travel agents about his village traditions, and the rest is history.  What used to be a one-time event (with extra charges for photo/video equipment - the larger the equipment, the greater the fee) now runs more than weekly through April, May, and June; we were fortunate to arrive before the end of the season.  The villagers build a tower of trees, poles, and vines, which develops a Spirit of its own with which they told us that they communicate to keep themselves safe.  There are a number of platforms built into the tower at various levels; the platforms actually break away when they are used to help break the fall of the jumper, who is expected to touch his head to the ground as he falls.  Thankfully, the landing area is actually the side of quite a steep hill, where the earth has been loosened, but still, it was unnerving to watch the divers.

The performance seemed to involve many in the village, as there were both men and women performing traditional dances beside the tower, as well as many men assisting the jumpers, all of whom were wearing traditional dress.  I believe that boys as young as eight or nine can jump, although the youngest ones we saw were 13 and 14.  The jumpers search all through the jungle to find the vines that will eventually be tied around their ankles, sometimes dragging them several miles back to the tower for an older man to inspect.  We were told that we would see six jumpers; however, there was a problem with the tallest two platforms, and we ended up seeing only three jumpers, from the lower platforms.  As much as the islanders have been doing this land diving for generations (centuries, perhaps millennia), it is still a dangerous activity: two weeks before we were there, the husband of our young guide fell on the ground, injuring his back and shoulder.  One of the men in our show spent quite some time on the second-highest tower preparing to jump before deciding that it just wasn't advisable for him to jump from that platform on that day; as much as we were disappointed at the curtailed show, it was an uncomfortable feeling to be standing with a camera poised, waiting for someone to jump, possibly to his injury or death.  We admired their ability to listen to their intuition. 

It was quite fun later in the morning to meet the two young boys who had jumped and to see their quiet pride in their accomplishment.  It would not have been the same experience at all to have been there the following week when a cruise ship was to visit, bringing 1600 spectators to see one show!

Rather than rushing to sail to Ambrym, likely arriving there in a race against sunset, we elected to take our time in Pentecost and visit the neighbouring village after lunch, which was provided by one of two ladies who offer a meal service.  The other boat in the anchorage was French, so we walked with them down the road to the French village.  Five minutes in one direction the previous afternoon had taken us to a village where the school (and therefore the population) was English; ten minutes the other way took us to the village of St Josef that was similarly French.  Even though they live very close to each other, neither their colonial language nor their village language was the same! 

All the villages were very pretty and well-maintained, with thatch roofed houses and colourful paint jobs on their woven walls.  We were shown around the village and the school, met some ladies at a tiny local market, and were even taken to the nearby hotspring.  I had assumed that it would be used for either cooking or bathing (no chance - way too hot) but in fact, it was used as an area to pluck chickens and skin pigs!   

The following morning, we woke bright and early for the three-hour sail to Ambrym to seen Honey (and hike up to the volcano).  When we arrived, they were just returning from church and from arranging our tour for the next day.  Some people hike up one day and hike down after overnighting at a camp site, but we only had time to do it all in one day.  The truck picked us up at 6:30 Monday morning for the 1100m elevation hike; after a quick stop in the village to pick up our guides (and drop off Tim & Jude) we were taken to a point part way up the mountain where the road ended and the one-person track began. 

In response to my request for free writing, Johnathan has written about the hike, and I am going to send his account separately; for now, I will just give you some numbers: we hiked for an hour (mostly steeply uphill) from the truck to reach the 'ash plain' which was blessedly flat (Benjamin kept asking if I was OK because I was so out of breath on the steep bits ... it turns out that after five years of mainly sitting on a boat, my cardio fitness leaves a bit to be desired!)  We hiked about two 1/2 hours on the ash plain to reach the last ridge before the summit, and it took about 20 min of steep/slippery (high consequence of lost footing) climbing to reach the summit.  In total it was about 3:45 hrs to the summit from the truck.  On the way down, by the time we reached the truck stop, we had been hiking for 7 hrs, and we reached the village at 8 hrs.  We were gone from Fluenta for 11 hours in total. 

For me, the funniest part of the hike was the last 20 minutes before the summit.  I was *not* happy on the slippery / narrow track, and one of the guides could tell this.  I had already become used to their assistance during the three hours that I carried Benjamin at the beginning of the day (I gave him to Max for the steep bit at the end, and then Max carried him for the rest of the hike), so it wasn't a great leap to have them take my hand for the final climb.  What I didn't anticipate was the speed with which we would make the ascent - I was held firmly by a strong hand, and we literally ran to the top!  My feet were in disintegrating running shoes, while my guide had his flipflops in his pocket.  With each step, I watched his strong toes dig right into the earth, and I felt very safe.  We were like an express bus passing congested rush-hour traffic, as we passed by all the kids and Max with Benjamin on his back :)  I have to say that I was relieved when we got there, as I was beginning to feel that my legs just might refuse to go any further, regardless of how strong my will or determination might have been. 

We were fortunate with our experience of the crater itself: when the Honey family had done the hike two years ago, the summit was completely closed in with choking clouds of sulfuric acid fumes; they couldn't see the lava, and had to leave almost immediately.  Although we had intermittent periods of clarity and clouds, we could generally see, hear, and feel the lava bubbling orange 400m below, and could see the sides of the crater across from us.  We had been warned that the wind at the top would be strong, but I was still caught off guard when Johnathan's hat blew out of his hands and into the crater.  We were all just glad that we had lost a hat instead of a child!  Even the kids were nervous when Benjamin was let down from the carrier, and we kept a constant grip on his hand while we ate our picnic lunch on the exposed side of the ridge.  On our way down, a different guide held my hand (we had three for our group of seven) and he very patiently helped me step down slowly, slowly.   You will have to watch for the pictures of this adventure, as it is hard to describe the barren but beautiful scenery, and the steep, volcanic paths. 

By the time we walked down to the beach, we were pretty shattered, and it was nice to take Jude up on her offer of coming over for chicken soup and another visit aboard Honey!  I thought we would have an early night after our long day, but as usual, the conversation flowed from one topic to another, and once again, we solved the world's problems well into the dark hours.  All four big kids had decided to have a sleepover on the trampoline, so eventually we bundled up Benjamin and headed home to Fluenta. 

Inspired by Honey, we have begun to keep a 'memory book' on Fluenta.  I left our book with Jude overnight, and was delighted to pick it up again in the morning with a new painting and a new poem in it: the bar has been raised for our future guests!  In a lovely trade, I gave Jude some flour, and she returned half of it to me in the form of a lovely loaf of fresh bread, inspiring me to get back to baking aboard Fluenta.

Our week-long kid boat hiatus came to an end around noon time as all the kids returned to their own boats, and Honey headed off for Port Vila and the check-out procedure.  We are hoping to see them again in New Caledonia after we return from Canada.

As for us, we took an additional three weeks to make it to Port Vila, stopping at some lovely anchorages along the way ... a journey which I will make the subject of another email :)

Love to all,
At 2017-07-05 10:46 AM (utc) SV Fluenta's position was 17°44.72'S 168°18.74'E

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