Alabama anchored in Lamen Bay
Finally the day that we will sail on an expedition around Vanuatu comes. Our plan is to spend at least a month in the region as the typhoon season hasn’t yet finished in the northern hemisphere so sailing to Korea now would be dangerous. Instead we will travel around Vanuatu and in this way we will also test the yacht for any defects.
Geographic location of Vanuatu in the Pacific Ocean
It is the last day and we are in a hurry to finish everything on the boat and buy whatever is needed for the sailing. Our new friends, the Korean family, move on board. With two mothers with five kids in addition to the previous crew we are now 17 people. It is total madness. We raise the anchor at dusk and shortly after this the waves, which look like freshly opened champagne poured in a glass, take us and start rocking us… as always. History repeats itself later: people start vomiting and the hydraulics fail, so we have to navigate again manually. The good news is that our next destination, Epi Island, is just 60 nautical miles away north so we expect to have been arrived by tomorrow.
Sailing towards Epi
We glide by Epi with a good speed of 7 knots only on sails. We have spotted a nice bay on the north side of the island and approach the coast as the waves subside. For the first time my sea-sickness disappears mysteriously and I am able to walk up and down the deck, do stuff and talk to people!
In the early afternoon we arrive at Lamen Bay famous for its sea turtles and sea cows – dugongs. The island looks like coming from a fairy-tale – rocks and beaches with jungle and coconut trees. Finally we will be able to experience the real traditional life of the Vanuatu villages.
We hop on the dinghy and reach the shore. All the people we meet are smiling and with open hearts. The village consists of several thatched huts and a small shop. We walk on the main street, which goes along the sea and reach the airport. It is just one abandoned building with a long grassy strip where the planes land and take off. There is one flight every week.
The airport building and the landing strip
People can top up their phones here
The beach at Lamen
The plants, the flowers and the palm trees evoke feelings of paradise and fairy tales. The locals keep their gardens extremely beautiful and clean. We become even more joyous when we think of the fact that we are somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. All Melanesian villages and cultures look quite alike, but Vanuatu, with its amalgamation between pure wilderness on one side and calmness, safety, cleanliness and beauty on the other, is the most attractive.
A street in the village
People here on Epi make jam from this flower
There is a group of dolphins jumping in the water around “Alabama”. Sometimes we see sea turtles who show their heads above the water and then go back down on the sea bottom to graze algae. Mr. Shushtari and I embark on a small expedition around the rocky shore with the dinghy and discover incredible beaches with corals and interesting plants and trees.
In the afternoon we go around the village’s gardens together with the French Sebastian and the Argentinian Alejo. Alejo had spent few months on Vanuatu during his former sailings and knows all the plants and the trees. We eat unknown to us nuts, put medicinal leaves on the scratches on our skins and gather some small stuff.
In the gardens
In the evening we make a big fire on the beach together with the locals. They bring us gifts – pumpkins and home made beer beverage with sweet taste. There are around 30 people around the fire. All the time there are people playing on flutes, guitars, drums and tambourines. One can hear Italian, English, Japanese and French songs, and even Goran Bregovich! The Japanese Aska spins fire, the Taiwanese Arfa dances wildly, everyone is laughing. It seems locals like our “gypsy-style” group 🙂
Aska from Japan
Afra and Tom perform acrobatic tricks
In the morning Alejo goes to visit the chief’s son Mike, who respectively is the leader of the local youngsters. He brings with him the cacao grinder machine to show them that you can not only sell cocoa cheaply but can also make delicious drinks with it.
The Argentinian Alejo
The cacao grinder, which was quite busy all the time
The chief’s wife invites all the “Alabama” crew at their home in order to show us how to make traditional cake from cassava and coco-nut milk, which is then baked in banana leaves on a traditional fireplace with hot stones. The dish is called Lap-Lap. Everyone is excited and we all grate cassava using some special utensils made for the occasion. The Korean kids are overjoyed, they chase each other, jump and play in the sand. Soon the thick mash is ready.
Step one: grating the cassava
We make two-meter-diameter disks with the banana leaves, then we seal everything well and put hot stones on it.
The Lap-Lap is enveloped in banana leaves, ready to be baked
The Lap-Lap is covered in hot stones, more leaves and some cloth
It stays like this for several hours
Video of how we grate the cassava:
Video of the coco-nut milk being added to the cassava:
Putting the hot stones on the banana leaves, which cover the Lap-Lap:
As it is the tradition Mr. Shushtari and I head on an expedition to the near village while waiting for the Lap-Lap to become ready. Aska joins us. We walk on the only dirt road on the island surrounded by coconut trees, papaya trees, banana trees and calmness.
The main and only road on the island
We reach a wide glade with a low nakamal made of carved, dark palm wood and a roof made of palm leaves on it. Aska speaks the local language Bislama and starts talking to two Nivans (Vanuatu people). One of them shows us the beautiful village. He then climbs skillfully on a palm tree and brings one coconut each. We run to the top of the hill and see a beautiful view of the bay where “Alabama” is anchored.
Nakamal – a place for tribal gatherings and drinking kava
A young Nivan girl
In the evening we go back to our village. The Lap-Lap is ready. We gather around it. The Korean Urin has a birthday today. I think that even in her wildest dreams she has never imagined that she will spend it in such a marvelous place with a huge cassava cake on top of everything. We are in joy. Mike’s mother, who everyone now calls Mama, cares for each of us and wants to be sure we all eat enough. We agree with her to prepare jam from the flowers of the strange tree tomorrow.
The Lap-lap is ready
The morning starts – “another day at the office” by diving with a giant turtle. She is very beautiful and lets me come really close to her. The turtle is colorful and swims graciously going to the bottom from time to time to graze algae. Later the Italian Marcelo and I swim above amazing corals.
The repairs on the boats continue. Today we fix some leaks on the pipes for sweet water and two toilets and while we work on the latter we have some not so pleasant surprises with “stuff” coming out. Alejo climbs the 30 meter (90 feet) mast to solve the problem with the big roll. We plan to sleep on the beach but the work is so much we leave at dusk.
Later after finding a beach among the corals we walk on it and see two coral snakes. Good that their mouths are too small to be able to bite us so they aren’t dangerous. Have in mind though that their poison is one of the strongest in the world. Being again on land is awesome and we sleep sweet on the welcoming ground.
Alabama in the sunset
In the morning we set fire, drink tea and enjoy the pleasure of not doing anything. At noon “Alabama” calls us. The French pirate Sebastian comes to pick us up with the dinghy and after some short arrangements sails are lifted. The front sail, called jib, is stretched, the tiller for manual navigation is set, engines are then turned off and we fly on the wings of the wind.
Magy navigating with the manual system
Somewhere among the islands of Vanuatu
Our route in this post
In the evening we reach Poama Island. Captain Tom decides that the boat should spend the night here. The wind is strong but we find shelter on the north side close to the slope of a pretty high mountain. In the distance one can see the silhouette of Ambrym Island. There are two active volcanoes on it and because of this Ambrym looks like a daemon with two fearsome glowing red eyes. We sleep on the deck of the boat.
We sail towards Ambrym, our next destination, which is few hours away. The island is famous for its active volcanoes and its black magic. Our idea is to reach Ranvetlam Village on the north side where one can follow a pathway that goes to the volcano. The sea is calm.
We steer with the manual tiller. For the first time I don’t have sea sickness and I learn to navigate the boat by myself. After a whole day of sailing we anchor near Ranon Village in the late afternoon.
It is a windy night. Mr. Shushtari and I sleep on the roof. At some point the wind is so strong it feels like it will blow us away. During the night we find out the anchor has unhooked and we float and crossed a mile in this manner. We turn on the engines and go back closer to the shore.
In the morning we move to the next bay, which is closer to Ranvetlam. We go to the shore after breakfast. The feeling is enchanting – black volcanic sand, thick banyan trees with wicked roots, little straw huts and smooth high cliffs by the coast. Locals are strange too. First they seem a little bit distant. We pass by a small house for drying copra (the meat of the mature coconuts) and in ten minutes the path takes us to the village.
The crew “attacks” a banyan tree
On the path
The house for drying copra
The cliffs of Raventalm Village
It’s been a long time since the last rain and all is covered in volcanic dust. Pigs and hens run around everywhere. People greet us in a friendly manner. All want to know if we will climb the volcano. To do so one needs to pay for the climb and a guide. The village seems enchanted – I don’t know if it is because the volcanic scenery or the smoked houses made entirely with materials from the jungle, but it does resemble a village of some strange wizards like in the fairy-tales.
Some houses are on piles while others are built on the ground. They are so much smaller than the Fijian homes. There are no shops, asphalt on the roads or electricity. The only thing reminding of civilization are the SUVs that pass by from time to time. We haven’t had any Internet for two weeks now, since we left Port Vila.
A house and a piglet
People wear shabby clothes and don’t have much material things, if at all, but they seem really content and joyous. Around their villages they have everything they need – coco-nut and papaya trees, cassava and vegetables. Locals make money selling copra and kava and recently there is some tourism emerging. While walking around the village talking to different people here and there, we meet the person who guides people to the volcano, Ruben. He is quite grumpy, obviously used to communicate to rich yachtsmen.
The entrance fee is quite high 2 000 Vatu (20 Euro) per person plus 2 000 Vatu for the guide, but we are too many, so we will need two guides. The budget of the expedition is only for food and repairs so we have to pay this by ourselves if we decide to enter. We leave saddened. It will be impossible to enter secretly as we are 15 people and the land leading up belongs to different families and this might be quite a problem if someone sees us, so we leave.
Resting a little
Later, when we get back on the boat, we come up with a new plan: to perform at the village and try to convince them to let us climb the volcano for free. That’s namely how the crew payed for entrance fees during previous sailings – making music and performing dances and circus style tricks.
In the evening we go to Ranon Village, which is kind of the central village of north Ambrym. It has a school, a shop and some other establishments. There are several houses with tin instead of straw roofs. The local nakamal is 4 square meters and inside a guy gives all the time coconut shells full of kava to all the men who come here before dinner. Each of them takes their shell, goes away a few meters and drinks it, then they spit ritually on the side. There are no women in sight. Our people drink few shells and then we head back to our bay through the dark jungle.
Night kava drinking
Today is a notable day. First early in the morning Tom decides to go and trade things with the local chief: the deal is some rope for a stone statue totem. Tom thinks the rope he’ll give is more expensive than the statue and the chief thinks the statue is more expensive than the rope. So there is no deal. Instead of trading Tom and the chief decide to give their things to the other as a gift, not as a trade. So Tom got the statue and the chief had the rope 🙂
At noon Afra and Alejo poison themselves with uncooked piece of stem of taro, which is very toxic if not cooked well. They vomit all the time, breathe heavily and their throats are hurt. Luckily they ate just a little so we don’t need to try to find a doctor where there anyway is none. The rest of the day we jump off the roof of the boat into the sea, train kung-fu on the rocking deck and teach Korean kids how to swim.
Gecko on my back
The dinner is pumpkin pie and a bottle of rum – pirate style 🙂 Then Mr. Shushtari and I pack our rucksacks and go to sleep in the forest on the beach. We still cannot believe how stabilizing and energizing is to be on the ground instead of rocking above sea abysses. In addition we need some alone time as on the boat one is always surrounded by people and there is always something going on. Because of the excessive time spent on the boat we feel like we still haven’t seen and connected well with Vanuatu and its people as we had done with other places before when hitchhiking and sleeping in the tent, always surrounded only by locals.
Some houses have solar panels
The magical Ambrym
24. – 25.08
Today our crew goes to a picnic where we plan to train for the show, which will take place over the beautiful cliffs of Ranventlam Village. Marcelo catches a fish and we barbecue it on fire. Mr. Shushtari and I continue training kung-fu as we will perform a funny sketch fight with weapons. The show is set for tomorrow evening. This is yet another dream come true – I have always wanted to be part of a travelling circus group.
Preparing for the show
The amazing cliffs
On the next day some of us go to spread the news for the show around the villages and the other continue training and perfecting their choreography. Finally we are ready!
Magy creates the belly dance part of the show
We head on foot to Ranon Village. One of the kids Harin starts announcing the show shouting and Afra beats the drums in the meantime. We gather on the football field and start singing. Soon a crowd gathers and then we perform the kung-fu fight and the Oriental dances. Then Aska performs with fire and at the end is our biggest spectacle – Marcelo eats fire. Looks like locals like the show and laugh all the time. We go back in a good mood.
We still haven’t explored Ambrym Island, so we head on the coastal road. The weather is rainy, there are no cars to hitchhike but we advance slowly. The villages are natural and the people are friendly.
The Taiwanese Afra and a local with interesting dreadlocks
After several hours of walking it gets dark. We talk to some locals in a village when a SUV stops by and we decide to take it and go back. The driver turns out to be the head master of Ranon’s school. He agrees to take us and we jump in the body work at the back. Before we return we pass by Fenla Village, which is in the mountains, in order to leave one of the passengers there.
The chief of North Ambrym lives in the village, the title he wears is inherited. Fenla is more mystical than the other villages, it is surrounded by giant banyan trees. We get to meet the chief – a nice old man with white beard and a cigarette in his mouth. Then we unload quite a lot of kava. Before we part our ways with the head master he gives us vegetables, which we accept gladly.
Root bridge in the forest
Today it is time to see whether we can climb the volcano. A small delegation is sent to the village to speak to the guy responsible for the tourist trips. There are seven adults and two kids who will climb the volcano and we have 10 000 Vatu (100 USD), which is around half of the fee. Locals are used to rich tourists but after the show they decide to make a exception and accept our offer.
We will climb the volcano tomorrow at noon and will sleep at a small hut next to the crater. While going back to the boat several women call us and give us three baskets of vegetables. There is no fresh food on the boat so we are really grateful. People here are so nice! Although tourism brings commercialization slowly, people are still innocent and friendly.
A typical bathroom in Vanuatu
In the afternoon we sail 5-6 miles to a wild bay with hot springs. All the evening is dedicated to preparing our rucksacks and baking bread for the expedition tomorrow.
During the night we sleep on the deck but it is cold and windy. It is new moon so all is dark. Some people from the crew are tipsy and make noise.
We wake up at 7 a.m. from the sounds of the flute played on by Alejo who calls us to wake up and go to visit the hot springs before going to the volcano. The springs form a small river going into the sea. As all the scenery on the island this one is strange and surreal. Steam is rising from the springs and all are flabbergasted by the surrounding volcanic rocks, thermal algae and the new, unknown sounds of the jungle.
It is time to go back to Raventlam and meet the guide at 1 p.m. Slowly we head up walking through coconut and banana gardens, papaya trees and cassava plants. There are 3-4 hours of walking to the camp where we will sleep. The guide John is nice and all the time stops to pick up and give us coconuts and papayas. He tells us about the island’s traditions, the past cannibal customs and the tribal wars that took place before.
Resting during the climb
First two hours one walks on a dirt road among the gardens. Many lazier tourists hire a jeep to cross this part. Then one enters the real jungle full of unique palm trees, strange plants and giant banyan trees, which sometimes form tunnels over the path.
Finally we reach the edge of the giant caldera. Its bottom is covered in black sand forming the so called Ash Plain.
The Ash Plain
There are several different cones of active volcanoes in the caldera, the closest one being Marum (1270 m. or 4 200 feet) and we can see the lava in its crater. We have climbed many volcanoes but we have never seen lava so far. One of the few places one can see a lava lake is namely on Vanuatu. Most tourists prefer to go to the easy to reach Tanna, where the lava explodes like fireworks and the climb is just 30 min. The entrance fee though is 60-70 USD per person.
In the Ash Plain
We walk an hour through the Ash Plain, which is covered in very interesting and unique bushes and palm trees. The moment we enter the caldera our guide makes a small ceremony and throws wooden arrows before we step on the sand. It gets dark and starts raining. Everyone walks in line all hidden under a big cloth. No one is equipped for the rain and we are shivering from the cold. Finally we reach the hut exhausted and lay around the fire. Then start drying our clothes and eat bread.
Men set up two big tents where people will sleep before the final climbing. No one has sleeping mats and sleeping bags so everyone sleeps uneasily. At 3 a.m. it is still raining so the beginning of the last climb is postponed.
At the camp
At sunrise all is in mist and clouds. One can barely see Marum. Still sleepy we head up. It is an hour to the edge of the crater. It still rains a little. At some point we see an astonishing view towards the Ash Plain and the smooth slopes of the volcano – a green and black sea of still lava.
Sea of ash
The crater hole on the top is filled with clouds. One can hear a deep noise coming from the ground. We stand still respected by the power of the volcano. Because of the low visibility lava sea stays hidden for us. It is cold and everyone is wet, so it is time to go down.
The clouds at the top
After having breakfast in the hut we head down. We didn’t see the lava but the whole trip in the unreal volcanic scenery recharge us. Back at “Alabama” in the late afternoon and ready to sail as the Korean families and the French woman Celine want to catch the ferry from Malekula Island to Port Vila tomorrow. Their two week vacation is coming to an end. There are 50-60 nautical miles to Malekula which means we will probably sail the whole night. Everyone is tired but we raise the anchor and say goodbye to the black, mystic Ambrym. Sailing goes smoothly.
Here is some more info for Vanuatu given to us by Tihomir who studies rare languages on Vanuatu and is currently in New Zealand:
“An interesting fact is that Vanuatu has been common colony of England and France at the same time – the so called condominium. In 1980 there were two administration offices, two law systems and so on. They even took this on the roads! The French drove on the right side and the British on the left side. Independence came in 1980 because of the British. French didn’t want to give back the country as they were worried that New Caledonia will want independence too and there is a lot of nickel there.
Well, this year new Caledonia will have referendum regarding independence, but they are unlikely to get enough votes. British don’t have even an embassy here anymore. Their policy since the 70s is to delegate their influence in the Pacific to Australia”
You can read Tihomir’s great stories of the countries in the Pacific here: https://carelesswhistler.wordpress.com/category/melanesia/
The magical Abrym