Tank yu Vanuatu

John & Susan Simpson
Sun 24 Sep 2023 06:50
The islands of Vanuatu are relatively close to each other so we were able to do day sails from Tanna to Erromango and then from Erromango to Efate.  Like Tanna, Erromango has also featured in a UK news story.  You may remember the story about a Pacific island where today’s residents wished to make amends for killing and eating two missionaries back in the 1830’s.  Erromango was an island where cannibalism was practised as a sacred ritual; killing and eating your enemy was supposed to be a means of absorbing the threat they posed.  

The Reverend John Williams was a very successful missionary who had travelled the South Pacific for 20 years on behalf of the London Missionary Society.  Unfortunately, in 1839 some European sandalwood traders had killed a number of Erromango residents in a dispute and so when Reverend Williams and his fellow missionary, James Harris, happened to arrive in Erromango only a few days later they were met with a hostile reaction.  Both men were attacked and killed on the shores of Dillons Bay, which is where we anchored Casamara on our arrival.  Modern day Erromangoans had felt that they were under a curse because their ancestors had eaten the two men and so the Government of Vanuatu approached the British Government offering to make amends.  In 2009 descendants of Reverend Williams were invited to Erromango for a reconciliation ceremony on the 170th anniversary of the killing.  Descendants of those responsible for the deaths queued up to ask the Williams family for forgiveness and there was a symbolic ceremonial offer to the family of a young child in compensation for their loss.  The Williams family accepted the apologies and agreed to take on responsibility for the education of the child, who remained in Erromango.

I don’t know whether the people of Erromango hoped that lifting the curse would help them avoid some of the vicious weather systems that plague this area but, if so, they will have been disappointed.  As we anchored in Dillons Bay a man in a dugout canoe approached and introduced himself as David.  Thankfully David didn’t seem interested in eating us but he was keen to tell us that the island had been devastated by two cyclones earlier in the year and they were still struggling to recover.  He invited us to come ashore the following day and to donate any food we could spare.  We had decided to press on to Efate early the following morning so we didn’t go ashore but were able to leave a big bag containing essentials such as flour, sugar, and cooking oil with one of the other yachts for them to give on our behalf.  Apparently it was well received and those who did visit the village had a very warm welcome from the local people.  As well as food gifts our fleet was also able to give some more practical help.  Andy from SV Manuia is a Dentist and he set up an impromptu dental surgery for local people to attend.  Katy from SV Tam Lin is a Midwife and she was able to give some reassuring advice to a young mother experiencing problems with breastfeeding her newborn baby.  We were all very proud of them for stepping in with their skills.

It was a long day’s sail to Efate from Erromango so we left at dawn and arrived in Port Vila on the island of Efate just as the sun was going down.  Port Vila is the capital of Vanuatu and after so long in remote places it felt odd to be coming alongside a dock in the middle of a bustling town.  In exploring Port Vila we found it quite sad that there were people from the same nation living on islands not a hundred miles away who were desperate for food and living essentials, yet here in Port Vila there were streets upon streets of shops with everything the islanders could possibly have wished for and more besides.  We visited a large DIY store, very similar to a big B&Q store at home and just as well stocked, as well as supermarkets with shelves groaning with food.  Lack of infrastructure outside the capital seems to be one of the issues.  We saw a pile of breeze blocks stacked on a beach and asked what they were for.  These had been bought by a guy living on one of the islands across from Port Vila so that he could build himself a house.  The only way he could transport the blocks to the island, which was only about a mile offshore, was to take them across a few at a time in small boats.  The arrangement was that he left his blocks on the beach and anyone from his island who came across and had room to spare on the way back could pick some up and take them back for him in exchange for a beer or two.  It was going to be a very long time before he could even start to make those blocks into a house!  

It’s easy to forget that Vanuatu’s independence was only gained in 1980 so it is a very young country facing some huge difficulties.   It is on the front line for environmental issues caused by rising sea levels and weather disasters whilst also trying to deal with problems arising from population growth (Vanuatu’s population is growing at about 2.5% per year against a world average of under 1 percent).  It was really noticeable just how many children there were everywhere we went.

The World ARC Pacific Rally fleet moored stern to the quay in Port Vila, Vanuatu.  Casamara is roughly in the middle, conveniently located by the bar and restaurant!

As mentioned previously, prior to independence Vanuatu was jointly held by the UK and France.  English and French are widely spoken but the first language for the local people is Bislama, a type of pidgin language.  It was fascinating to listen to and after a few days we realised that we were starting to be able to read the written signage!
Useful phrases if you’re ever in Vanuatu

Signage on the approach to the Cathedral in Port Vila, Vanuatu

We saw lots of references to things being Nambawan - aka Number One!

Covid-19 infection management instructions Bislama style

The gathering of the World ARC Pacific Rally 2023 fleet in Port Vila marked the end of the event for us.  The official end port for the Rally is Mackay, Australia but going there would put us out of the range our yacht insurance covers for cyclone season so we decided to head instead for Brisbane to maintain our cover.  Many of our fellow sailors faced the same choice so, whilst we were sad to wave goodbye to those who would finish in Mackay, we will still be travelling towards Brisbane with 8 boats from the original rally fleet.  We enjoyed many social occasions in Port Vila with our fellow rally crews, including a ‘ladies lunch’ for Katy's (SV Tam Lin) birthday, a ladies snorkelling tour, a men’s off-roading expedition and a Fire Show at a restaurant on the beach which was preceded by the most amazing sunset.  Thank you Vanuatu, you were fabulous!
John and Andrew (SV Walkabout) get muddy

Ladies from SVs North Star, Escapade, Mary Doll and Sidetrack get ready to go snorkelling

Vanuatu sunset