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Story & photos by Vicki J, SY Shomi 

It is always a busy time getting a boat ready for a passage, and so it was for us. Kuna was now registered internationally, had new sails, rigging, batteries, gearbox, computer with sea map and GPS interfaced, new dingy and outboard, lines, LED lights throughout, anchor chain regalvanised, stores aboard, slipped and repainted, then at the 11th hour the faithful fridge gave up the ghost. We watched another $800 fly out the hatch, and groaned.

1st thing I wish we'd known before we began, we could have travelled in Indochina for a year on how much it took us to sail to Vanuatu for 3 months.

Finally though, it was all systems go and we had our passports ready and were clearing customs in Aquarium passage, Brisbane. The light northerlies turned to no wind (wouldn't you know). We had made it through the bar only to bob around. I didn't know it could be so tiring running around setting sails as soon as the slightest breeze began to fan us. 10 minutes later the sails would be flapping uselessly and had to be furled. This set the pattern for the next week. One day we actually went backwards. Meanwhile our new fridge wouldn't work.

Then it began to blow and then some, for 3 days and nights. We approached Tanna Island at the witching hour, with too much sail up, and the bullets coming over the volcano blasted us in the pitch black. Then I heard from the nav station,' F- - k, the GPS says we are on the reef.' This is NOT something I wanted to hear.

2rd thing I wished we'd known. The charts are up to 2 nm out where no ships go. Seems they haven't been updated since Cpt. Cook's era. 'Don't panic' came the shout. 'It shows on the chart there's a navigation light. Follow that.' ‘What light?' is what I want to know, and soon. We are by now doing almost 9 knots into the unknown.

3rd thing I wish someone had warned us, there is no power for navigation lights where ships don't go. 'Just keep the land to starboard' comes the voice from below.

I can't even see my hand let alone the land. 'I tell you what, YOU keep the land to starboard. I quit this crazy shit.' What is said next cannot be repeated as I go below and yell out course bearings above the dreadful din of the wind. We dare not alter course to port without a nasty jibe. Finally sanity prevails and the order is given to lower the sails and we floundered about in the howling, starless black. At 5am a boat full of locals guided us in and we paid them with a tank full of fuel. After we found the bank, waited for it to open to change oz dollars to Vatu then found fuel for sale. By then we were stupid from sleep deprivation

4th thing we didn't know is that immigration, customs and quarantine are scattered over the island and the only way to each, is to (sleep) walk. After all this was done we crash and wait an extra day to catch the local markets. After we loaded up with fresh organic produce at ridiculously cheap prices we left for the paradise that is Port Resolution, on the eastern side of Tanna, sailing by sight alone, when the rain squalls allowed. As we approach all we could see are rocks and reef around but not our way in. Eventually the whiteout cleared and we inched our cautious way in with a New Zealand vessel astern, coming from Fiji. The charts and GPS tell us we are anchored inland. Great!

As I rowed ashore to book us into a trip to the resident volcano, Yassah I was serenaded by the local string band. They were jamming in the yacht clubhouse, an open sided affair with a roof and concrete floor, festooned with flags from around the globe. I stayed to enjoy the music and one elderly native with a gappy grin motioned for a dance and that is how I was introduced to island life. What better way? A trip to the renowned beach hut restaurant on White Beach with the best views and native food to be had in Vanuatu, at 7.50 AUD comes a close second. Third is a party, a couple of days later with the very enthusiastic Port Resolution string band, all the couples from the 10 yachts anchored in the Port, 4 backpackers and all the village children to boot.

Two couples from USA were taking the trip to the volcano for their second time. I figured it must be good when I saw our means of transport is in the back of a 4WD Ute on hard wooden benches up a very rough road. Little did I realise at the time that this is the ultimate in luxury anywhere outside of Port Villa. We approached what looked like a black Luna landscape. On foot we walked to the unfenced lip of the crater. Through the sulphur haze I spotted what looked like a tiny campfire on the far side. I was expecting a bubbling cauldron of fiery lava. For 15 minutes I wandered about finally expressing my disappointment at such an unimpressive sight.

As if Yassah heard me, there was a deafening roar. Molten rocks the size of Mini Minors erupted into the twilight sky. The volcano began to breath like a giant dragon sending more and more lava heavenward. Our chests and ears compressed with the force of nature. Then one almighty blast sent crimson boulders above our heads. There was a stunned silence from the 20 or so people madly scanning for an escape route with one eye, and keeping the other trained on a monster red hot rock as it hissed its way toward the group, landing on the slope behind us with a sloshing thud.

5th thing I wished I'd known, a tourist and her guide had died on the same spot as I was standing. The trip should come with a warning that it could be detrimental to ones health.

Many yachts had been waiting more than a week for a break in the strong winds and rain. Finally they consulted the native weatherman who possesses magic rocks. He conjured up the requested 15 knots E-SE and sunshine. We left with the convoy to Eromanga Is., home of the sandalwood trees.

6th thing I'd wished I'd known; rice, flour, powdered milk and sugar, are welcome trade items there. Pity I didn't buy more while in Australia. However solar garden lights are by far the most valuable item on any of the Islands, where kero is a drain on an almost non-existent income. DVDs, CDs, magazines, reading glasses, painkillers, torch batteries, welding equipment, fibreglass and sikaflex for boat repairs as well as know-how were also some of the many items in demand. The biggest treat for adults and children alike is a glass of COLD water. I'd been politely serving hot cups of tea, until one visitor actually asked for something cold, An apple is highly prized.

Aromanga's tourist sights are rather macabre. First a trip to a cave full of their ancestor's bones through which one must shuffle to enter. Second is Missionaries Rock where they pegged out the hapless missionaries who dared to try to convert them, before eating them. Due to a massive outbreak of mumps two thirds or the island's population died. This may be the reason they are now the most devout Christians in all the islands.

Port Villa, is the expensive playground of the rich white race while the natives live a vastly different lifestyle. Two weeks wages doesn't even buy them one meal in a restaurant. There were not too many happy, smiling native faces in a place that emphasises such disparity. However the markets provide excellent food at native rates. Lobster and crab can be bought and taken back to the boat to be cooked. There is also cooked food at lunchtime, mostly Vanuatu's famous beef served on a bed of rice. 5 AUD serves two, if you can tolerate the flies that want to eat right out of your hand, and off your plate.

7th thing I should have been able to work out myself, the wind and tides around the islands create movement very similar to that inside a Simpson automatic.

We sat out another big blow for almost a week at Emae Island in Tricky reef. By now the sensation of being watched at all times by curious eyes, began to wear on us. We really learnt to appreciate the solitude of the Great Barrier Reef. What amazed us at Emea are the sacks and sacks of what looked like undersized mud crabs the natives collected along the beach among the trees.

Steffen bought lollies for the children at a tiny store in one of the villages and thereafter had a huge following as word spread that Santa Clause had arrived on the island.

8th thing we didn't know was that most of the reefs around the islands are fished out. We saw no fish of eating size, no shark, ray or even beach de meres.

We stayed so long at Epi Island we became almost fixtures. The winds were ferocious and the rain bucketed down. Yet when we motored across the expanse of water to Laman Island in our trusty Walker Bay, to attend a native wedding to which we had been invited, the day was calm and sunny, even hot. The local weatherman had been consulted with his own magic rocks. The ceremony was Christian (very ho hum) but the reception was pagan and totally fascinating. The hospitality of the population is famous. Over 700 people attended from many of the surrounding islands. 7 cows and 3 pigs were slaughtered for the occasion. Sacks of rice along with tons of local fruit and vegetables were provided. The groom was 19 and his bride 18. The well water used was within meters of the pit toilet. We went to the bay to wash our hands. Nevertheless Steffen, along with many natives became very sick within 48 hours of the feast. It was a very scary flu. Normally a person who never gets sick, after 3 days of delirium from a raging temperature, I was very alarmed.

9th thing I wish I'd thought about more seriously is that no doctors are available for emergencies. The antibiotics we brought with us would not have helped with this flu. Thankfully his fever broke but with the captain too ill to go anywhere or do anything but lay about in a stream of sweat, unable to eat and half dead for 10 days I became an honorary family member of Atis Jack and Helen his wife. Helen is a great cook and as interested in western food as I was in how they prepare their staples. They live in a spot dubbed 'Million dollar view' and Atis not only runs tours of native medicine plants, he also makes the strongest Kava to be had on any of the islands.

10th thing I wish I'd known, Kava causes you to throw up if consumed after a meal. Kava is the primary reason most men sit around during the day seemingly stoned. The women in Vanuatu are to be seen doing a lot of the work. While I had all this time on my hands I was able to talk among some of the women.
I mostly wanted to ask about the signs on all of the islands in local language about domestic violence.

In a meeting of 30 women held by the MARC Team, when asked 'who is beaten by their husband' only one didn't put up her hand. When a girl marries she leaves her own family and village to live with her husbands'. Sexual abuse of minors as well as incest is also rife, I was told. The high school students brew their own alcohol from bananas and go to school under the influence, if they attend at all. This info came from a teacher. It seems social ills dominate even these primitive people.

During this time waiting for the skipper to recover, I was taken to swim with the tame, curious resident dugongs at Laman Is. As I set out to leave, three very big native men were waiting for me so that they could catch a lift to the island. Our 8ft dingy, and 3hp outboard struggled in this rather exposed patch of water. It was a slow, wet ride across and even then the biggest had to stay behind.
By now we were long overdue at Sakau Island where the MARC team were building a Warram cat for the purpose of taking very sick or injured patients to the nearest plane at Port Sandwich or Epi. The weather, which had gone back to screeching winds and torrential rain as the wedding ended, cleared just as Steffen was able to stand again and we got ready to leave. Suddenly all our engine oil scummed the surface of the water around us and the other boats on anchor. We had sprung an engine leak.

11th thing one must take into consideration when travelling to these out of the way places, they are not set up for mechanical repairs. As luck would have it, the local game fisherman, an aussie called Pete has our eternal gratitude for taking an engine part, a high pressure oil line with him to Port Villa, having it repaired and sent on the next plane to Epi.

12th thing, which would have altered our plans for the trip is that with all the bad weather and the hold ups we arrived in Sakau the day after the Warram was launched. This was a great letdown for us both because the trip was primarily planned to take part in helping the locals. One thing we did know thanks to T.C.P. was to insist on a receipt after emailing Australian Customs from Santos notifying them of our intended arrival date. Thank goodness because the worked up Custom's officials in Gladstone were all set to fine us for non-notification until we produced proof not only of having sent the email but that it had been received. They claimed they received no notice. (See editorial)

Poor rundown Steffen developed Santos belly before we cleared and his weight dropped to an all time low, as did his spirits. This along with the 13th and final thing that clouded a long love affair with building and sailing boats is that the rudder and skeg almost parted company with Kuna on our sail home (swinging onto too many reefs under anchor) and even though the weather was perfect and our dream was to visit the Chesterfield Reefs we dare not untie the securely lashed rudder to navigate the reefs and sadly had to pass them by. That is when he announced he was selling Kuna. As this goes to press the new owners are sailing her (after we performed yet more repairs) to the Solomon Islands to film a documentary.
One endearing memory stays with me from the trip. Around 3 am between the Chesterfields and Australia, on a glorious starry night I was woken to watch the most amazing display as a pod of dolphins raced Kuna creating fireworks of phosphorescence lighting up the ink black water.


TCP note; It isn't easy to provide captions foe all photos so please read story to make sense of them... Below are more of the great photos Vivki J took, in no particular order

  “In Havan Harbour a very large military boat approached us and let down an inflatable with 7 p.o.b. in uniform. One on the outboard, one on a camera, another on a radio, the next one to hold onto our boat, one to come on board and the other two as interested bystanders or trainees, I'm not sure which. It was Customs.” (TCP note; high powered RIB full of beefy blokes with practised scowls, skin head haircuts and blue jump suits... wonder where they got their training and equipment?)
 Bob’s note; I asked about the white powder that was thrown over the wedding party. Vicki said that was talc as a replacement for the volcanic ash that was custom from the island of the groom. Also, the different colour gowns were to note the various families.

The best man and groom after the custom

Chief Willy and Family with Stephan

 lamon island

 Dancers At Maliluka

 Kuna at anchor

 Lamon island

 Tanna Markets