Thursday 15 September 2016

Meghan On Amelie-Vanuatu

Written on October 3, 2016 (a couple of days before we left for Australia) 

"Welkam to Vanuatu!" As they say in bislama (the local language here, also known as "pigeon English"). We have been in Vanuatu for nearly two months and it has been super duper awesome!

Aneityum and Mystery Island
Aneityum Island was our first stop in Vanuatu. After a quite rough and rolly 3 day crossing from Fiji, it was so nice to walk through this beautiful and serenely peaceful town.

There is one car on the entire island (a well-used land rover) and there are no television antennas and barely any electrical poles. As you walk through the little village, people are walking back from the fields carrying miscellaneous fruit and veggies over their shoulders and wishing you a good afternoon. I also met a young boy in the village who invited the two boys from SV Perry and I to come up to his house and help him feed his three pigs.

By the river just outside the village

Just across from this little village is a very small, uninhabited island called Mystery Island. It is a picture perfect paradise spot with a white sandy beach and beautifully blue water. And we are not the only ones who have noticed this... The cruise ships have too (duh, duh, duh!) ! About once a week, a huge cruise ship anchors in the bay and about 1000 tourists pile onto Mystery Island! The locals from the village come over in longboats and set up crafts markets, hair braiding stations, and all kinds of different tours. Then, the day after the cruise ship leaves, there is not a soul. The crafts market and tour booking huts are empty and there is not a sound to be heard! These kinds of experiences are the things I really do appreciate about this lifestyle. 

Mystery Island Airport: where your boarding terminal is either Terminal A or… Terminal A!

Tanna Island and Mt. Yasur Volcano
Port Resolution on Tanna Island has a beautiful little village and a yacht club on top of the hill with a great view. However, it is not this so much that attracted us to this island, it was the... VOLCANO! Every single one of our cruising friends who have been to Vanuatu told us that Mt. Yasur volcano on Tanna Island is a MUST-SEE. Mt. Yasur is the sixth most active volcano in the world and is quite possibly the only very active volcano you can get this close to. Honestly, if you could get closer to a volcano more active than Mt. Yasur, that would be pretty dangerous!

We left for the volcano tour mid-afternoon and headed up to the yacht club with cameras, running shoes (and the dreaded socks), and excited spirits! We all piled into the back of the pickup truck and drove off to the volcano.

We first stopped at the volcano tours new visitor's centre (that only opened in April this year) where there was a dance performance called "the volcano dance" that consisted mostly of the dancers stamping their feet. I think they were either trying to imitate the volcano or they were trying to talk to the volcano. There was also a safety briefing but it was quite unique because I've never seen a safety briefing before where the guide simply asks the village chief's to talk to the volcano to ensure our safety.

The trucks dropped us off right at the bottom of the rim (where the viewing platforms were). It was warm enough down there but the minute we got up to the rim of the crater, the wind was blowing really hard and I needed my jacket. It's ironic how the one place in the tropics I needed my jacket was when I was observing a volcano that was over 1000 degrees celsius inside!

When we got up there, we couldn't actually see the volcano crater itself (where all the lava is) but judging by what we could see exploding from the volcano, I bet the crater was pretty active and I think it would have been pretty scary to see! Every two or three minutes (and sometimes even more often), the volcano would produce this monstrous roar and then, dozens of pieces of molten rock would come flying out from the crater down below! Some would be shot about 150 feet above the crater! Then, the molten rock would land "like wet blankets" (as my dad said) on the cliffs sloping down towards the crater! At first, I didn't think the pieces of molten rock were all that big but after a while, I started to realize they were actually frighteningly large: the smallest about were maybe a bit smaller than me and the biggest were about the size of a small car!

The "wet blankets" on the cliffs surrounding the crater

There were two viewing platforms: the lower one and the higher one. The higher one was more exposed to the wind, was louder, but also got you a better seat for the show! You were kept more on you toes up there though, because the molten rock did fly a bit closer to you and one time, a large enough piece landed only about 20 metres down the cliff from our platform. Luckily, we knew when it was going to explode because of that great bellow the volcano would make. I am so glad we went on the evening tour because we got to see the caldera and terrain as well as the landing of the molten rock in the daytime but when the sun went down, we got to see the best, best, BEST fireworks show ever!

My heart didn't stop racing until we got back to the beach but I don't think I'll ever see anything like that again. Plus, this is definitely going on my list of epic field trips: I saw a very active volcano exploding liquid molten rock and then I saw the process of the molten rock cooling down really quickly to form extrusive igneous rock!

Malakula Island
Malakula was a memorable stop and it really showed me the true meaning of "down to earth" and "peacefulness". Like Aneityum, there were no signs of televisions or radios and barely any cars or electrical poles. Also, I don't think they had any motorized boats on the island: only the traditional, wooden, outrigger canoes.

The Village on Malakula Island

 They have one tiny general store but either than that, everyone is completely self-sufficient. Everyone has their own cattle and chickens and they grow all their own produce in their gardens. No one needs a refrigerator in their kitchen and their ovens are simply firewood powered. It is no surprise to me that Vanuatu is said to have one of the highest population of happy people in the world!

We established a nice relationship with a man named Rex and his wife Trudy. My dad and Rex exchanged different tools and fishing lures. Trudy baked us some delicious bread buns and so we gave her some dried goods and toys for her kids (Rex and Trudy have four or five kids). Trudy also invited me to play volleyball with the women in her village who play every afternoon. Just seeing Malakula's simple and yet beautiful way of living is what made my stay there so special.

Ambrym Island: Another Awesome Volcano Experience
Tanna's Mt. Yasur is definitely not the only volcano in Vanuatu. There are quite a few volcanoes here and so we visited another famous one on Ambrym Island. This one, however, was not as easy to get to. No, for Ambrym's volcano, we really earned our show by walking three and a half hours through dense jungle, vast ash plains, and finally the up to the rim of the Marum Volcano caldera. In case you are wondering, the ash plains are a long, flat plain made of volcanic ash and igneous rock pebbles.

Walking down the cliffs that lead up to the volcano rim
Finally, after the very steep uphills at the end, we made it to the rim of the volcano where we were able to observe from above the enormously wide and deep caldera of Marum. The coolest part about the caldera was the boiling lava pit at the bottom!

It wasn't shooting out molten rock like Mt. Yasur but it was still very active, bubbling, and spewing lava at times (we could even hear it bubbling from where we were standing). After having lunch in one of the most scenic places I will probably ever picnic, we strapped our backpacks back on and headed back down. Even despite the steep parts and the heat, the hike was well worth it and Vanuatu has certainly given us the best volcano experiences ever!

These are only four of the many islands we visited here in Vanuatu so here are some pictures of some other great places we stopped at here.

Nautilus shell which we carved in half that we found in Aneityum   

David, from Erromango Island, in his handmade, wooden outrigger canoe

Sacred burial caves we visited on Erromango Island

At the market in Port Vila

Now, we are on the island of Espirutu Santo and we are getting ready to sail over to Australia in a few days now. I am quite sad to leave the South Pacific islands behind. The things I have seen in the last year and a half (from Galapagos to here) have absolutely BLOWN MY MIND and they have definitely been the best two years of my life! There is not one regret though and I know the memories I have of these places are priceless! Now, I'm pretty excited for Australia which I've been wanting to visit ever since I can remember!

Thursday 8 September 2016

Vanuatu Part Two : Erromango and Efate (Port Vila)

Thursday September 8th, 2016
Cannibals, burial caves and genuinely friendly people !

Still feeling the thrill of our close encounter with the volcano, we headed further North up the chain of Islands the next day, and arrived into Dillon Bay, in Erromango by lunch time. Dillon Bay is a protected anchorage and it is also known as Williams Bay, because of John Williams. No, NOT the composer, but rather the missionary who, along with fellow missionary James Harris, unwillingly became a martyr, after being killed (and eaten!...) on Erramango in November 1889.
Unlike the unfortunate John Williams, we had a MUCH more welcoming experience on wonderful Erromango

This island was another pleasant surprise for us. The day after our arrival we took the dinghy into shore to visit the village. We were greeted by Jason, the chief’s son and by David, our friendly and patient tour guide. David took us around the village and through the farm lands and bush and to a favourite fresh water swimming hole where the kids had a refreshing dip. 

Meg going for a fresh water swim

We then had a lovely lunch at another villagers house. Donald and his wife had prepared an absolutely lovely spread for us, all made from local vegetables and fruit, fish and rice. Our host, so generous and inviting, was also amusing: I had to smile when, as part of his welcome speech, he told us that he calls every new comer he meets by either “Mom” or “Dad”. What ever his reasons, I think it is also a very clever way for him to get away with not having to remember everyone’s names ! 😉

Donald and his wife

Donald went on to share his life philosophy with us: That no matter what our religious beliefs or the colour of our skins; we are all part of the same big family and together we all form a unit, we are all connected to one another. This is something one may have to get used to here, being openly called “white skins”! This is completely without malice or any negative intent. It is so far from racism although, perhaps hard for some of you to believe, it is simply a fact to them; we look different, and they find no reason not to mention it, they sincerely appear to mean no disrespect at all. It just made a few of us giggle when we first heard our new moniker.

Chris (from SV Scintilla) serving herself to our lovely lunch

 To prove his point, the beautiful meal he provided for us was offered absolutely free. If  there was anything we had to offer in return, he would gratefully accept, but there were no obligations. And so, when we found out that Donald’s wife ran a preschool all on her own (Some days up to 49 kids show up!) we were happy to donate a whole bunch of craft supplies, and Mark also offered  to help Donald fix his freezer. We were happy to give back. 

The Sacred Burial Caves

The burial caves.
It wasn’t until after the arrival of the missionaries (after John Williams), that the people of Erramongo started to burry their dead in the ground. Before this, they used to bring their dearly departed into some sacred caves, where they were left, uncovered, for all of eternity. We had the privilege to be invited to visit this sacred site. 

Before entering the caves, David had to “introduce us” to the spirits, so that they would not be angry with our intrusion and take revenge by haunting us in bad dreams later that night or tormenting our children. In order to achieve this he said a few words to them in bislama and then we were told we could enter.

We entered two grave sites. The first cave, which one had to enter through a narrow opening, had been damaged by a recent land slide...but the bones and personal effects (bracelets etc..) had been lovingly recovered and placed back on the surface of the ground inside. The second was a former chief’s grave. We had to climb up a steep face to a ledge in the rock where the chief, his wives and former assistant had been laid to rest.  

Meg entering the first burial site

The climb up to the second site

After a steep climb, Meg reaches the top burial cave.


Yu Tok Tok Bislama ?  
Bislama, the “pigeon english” they speak here is a phonetic language. When you first read the public notices scattered around the villages, you don’t understand what you are reading. As soon as you start to read it aloud, however, the message starts to decode its simplicity and down to earth way to communicate. 

wat nem blong yu ?  (What is your name ?  “blong” literally means “belongs to”)
Nem blong mi M-C  (My name is MC)

Can you decipher this Bislama Public notice from the local Health Authority ? Hint:This is a recipe for making an electrolyte solution for children (pikini) who are suffering from  a certain unpleasant digestive disorder  (Sit Sit Wota). Wan= one Tu= two 

Efate and the Capital, Port Vila
After one more day sail, we arrived at the Island of Efate, and the capital of Vanuatu: Port Vila. We were happy to be able to go out for dinner and eat ice cream again. We fetched some groceries and got reconnected to the internet. Other than these guilty pleasures, we went to visit the excellent National Cultural Museum and the great handicraft centre with its small but very informative Volcano Museum. 

“Sandroing” (Sand Drawing)
I was simply rendered speechless when Edgar, our museum guide, demonstrated this ancient and unique tradition of Vanuatu for our group. He started by making a precise grid in the thin layer of white sand with his finger.Then, he put his finger down into the sand once more, and with his soft voice he took us on a journey, his finger tracing a curved and repeating pattern over and over and expanding outwards, making a more and more elaborate design. Each drawing is done in one slow continuous and flowing movement, his finger never stopping and never lifting out of the sand

Edgar doing Sandroing

Each drawing is a story, passed on from generation to generation. It may be told or sung as a song, each drawing is different. The first one represented the expression of deep love for another, the second the arrival of the English “Black Birding Ships” into Vanuatu and so on. I think I speak for everyone who witnessed the demonstration by Edgar when I say that it was mesmerizing, visual arts but in its most “alive” form, what a thrill ! And, just so you know, I am not the only one who thinks so: In 2003, UNESCO proclaimed Vanuatu’s sandroing to be a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”. 

We also were treated to some traditional wooden flute playing and an interesting tour of the fascinating displays of the history of Vanuatu (Which, you may know, used to be called New Hebrides, I found out today). If you are ever in Port Vila, do yourself a great favour and go and see it for yourself !

Coming up: We travel North again, exploring more of the stimulating and wondrous Islands of Vanuatu! Until then, as always, we are sending you lots of love, from the 4 of us here on board S/V Amelie! 4Ms at Sea 

Saturday 3 September 2016

VANUATU PART ONE: Aneityum and Tanna

Dug Out outrigger canoes, Vanuatu

Saturday, September 3rd, 2016
Aneityum Island

I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, what was it about Vanuatu that I like so much ? It is my second visit to this country and I was surprised to see that upon arriving I was filled with the same peaceful feeling as I'd had five years ago, so, what is it about this place ? I wonder 

After the first few days, I think I’ve finally figured it out: It is the “Zero-Energy” of the place. The absence of noise and technology. It is the quiet, soul-nourishing peace of the place that I love so much !  

So? How is that different from every other place you’ve been in the South Pacific?”, I hear you ask. 

Well, in direct contrast to the lovely and lively people of Fiji, the people here are very reserved. They are polite and welcoming, but not in a festive way like their neighbours to the East.You can wonder around the still villages, and not encounter anyone, those you will see in the distance are aware of you, surely, but they go about their business, carrying the firewood or fruit on their backs. If you go to them and say hello they will happily speak to you and welcome you, but that is all up to you it seems. We are utterly left alone here, and that is just what I was yearning for it seems...

Add to this an uncommon natural beauty of the surroundings. Aneityum, the first island we visited, has a very tidy village, reminiscent of the cleanliness you see in the French Polynesian islands, it must be from the European influence.

Mystery Island:
What is unique about Aneityum though is that they have an island which was designated specifically for the purpose of entertaining cruise ship guests. It is an idyllic white sandy island, complete with turquoise waters, surrounding reef great for snorkeling and swimming. The island is set up with the traditional bamboo thatched houses that we see in the “real” village in Aneityum, except that these houses are completely empty on non cruise ship days. 
The island does not have any inhabitants. 

It is an interesting concept to us that these islanders have figured out a way to keep their everyday life separate from the craziness that comes with the arrival of thousands of tourists that land on the shores across the bay from them, on those days the villagers hop into their long boats loaded with crafts and souvenirs to sell at the “market” stalls of Mystery Island. Also kids dressed in their traditional grass skirts greet the passengers with song and dance. The make shift signs are all announcing tours, “Swim with Turtles!” “ Traditional Dance Displays”, Kayaks to Rent” etc...We enjoyed visiting the island one cruise ship day and then the next day when we had the whole island completely to ourselves, this gave us a chance to feel so privileged to have seen life in Vanuatu, behind the emerald curtain.....
The beach on Mystery Island

Mark enjoying a dip, all alone, on Mystery Island

Mt Yasur, Tanna Island: 
“TAKE ME TO....THE VOLCANO!!!!”                           (Joe Banks in: Joe Versus the Volcano)
For fans of the movie…please note orange soda product placement ! 

After leaving Aneityum, we high tailed it to the next island called Tanna, to get our volcano fix ~   Mt Yasur, is the 6th most active volcano in the world, and maybe, perhaps, the only one you can get so close to the rim to witness all of the intense power of the volcano. As you step out of the truck, at the base of the stairs leading to the top of the crater, a moonlike landscape surrounds you. Black ash and extrusive igneous rocks abound. As a welcome, the volcano lets out a mighty roar and smoke billows into the sky, yellow, black, brown, grey  pyroclastic clouds, then your ears drums pop and you see a burst of red lava erupting upwards above you, the lava is expelled in clumps, some larger than the others and these partly solidify before landing with a “wet blanket thump" on the ground around the crater. This show consistently delivers thrills such as these, in intervals of only a few minutes.and each time, more terrifying than the next, the crater breathes and sounds like a massive dragon! The power of it all is quite mind boggling really. 

Awesome Mount Yasur

Family portrait on the rim of the volcano

When the sun sets, the spectacle inspires even more wonder from us all....the lava is now fluorescent red and each explosion is like the most epic of all fireworks display every seen....

Matthew silhouetted in front of a very active Mt Yasur !

Natures most awe inspiring spectacle 

Powerful eruptions, coming one after the other

When I was here with Mahina Expeditions back in 2011, the  volcano tour was a lot more low key. Our captain had hired a driver from the village near Port Resolution and we were driven to the crater, as we were on this day, but now, they have organized the tours more formally. Our group was greeted (in both French and English) at the Mt Yasur centre, and we were given a safety briefing, then a safety officer was designated to your group along with your guide and we are given specific instruction: “not to run away from any eruption”, to avoid anyone getting hurt!

The Volcano Dance
At the centre we were also treated to a traditional ceremony complete with songs and dances and an offering of kava to the traditionally clad chief. One of the dances performed before our ascent to the crater was called the “Volcano Dance” and it ended with each of us receiving a necklace of flowers to protect us from the volcano. There have been a few rumours of accidents happening at the site over the last few years so it is nice to see that some safety precautions have been put in place, but still, there is no greater adrenaline rush than to know that you are this close to danger and that the safety standards put in place here are very different than those that would be in place back home. There is just NO WAY anyone would get away with this back in Canada or the U.S. To really emphasize this, just as everyone was leaving the top crater,  one particularly large “Lava Clump”  (the size of a large coffee table) landed on the spot where our friend Matt’s backpack had been resting only ten minutes before, that REALLY brings chills that are hard to forget ! All and all  we had a fantastic experience and we give Mt Yasur Volcano : Two Flaming Thumbs Up !
Meg takes a photo of the eruption while Matthew watches 

Next stop: Erramongo Island!
We are now safely anchored in Dylan’s Bay in Erramongo Island. Site of the last cannibalistic event in Vanuatu’s known history. More about this and other adventures in our next blog.
Until then, we send you loads of love from the 4 Ms at Sea