Vanuatu: Efate, Malekula and Espirito Santo

At 10.30 on Sunday morning (18 August) we left our mooring ball in Port Vila and headed out through the harbour to head north towards Malekula. The winds were very light at only six knots so we motor sailed for a while until around 15.00 when the wind filled in behind us so we went wing on wing making good speed at 6+ knots. We also saw two whales in the distance as we watched the vapour from their blow holes but sadly they didn’t come any closer.

At 21.00 the wind moved forward and we were on a beam reach having a great sail under a nice moon. There was a lot of boat traffic around which surprised us – we were also accompanied by another three yachts who had left Port Vila. By 03.00 on Monday morning the wind eased so we motor sailed again. At 12.25 we had anchor down in Port Stanley, Malekula opposite the village of Litslits. We got ourselves cleaned up and chilled for a while having completed the 132 mile passage.

At 2pm we realised that we were dragging. Damn! The anchorage is listed as average holding and the bottom was very rubbly. So we picked up and got set again. By this time the tide had fallen exposing the coral / rocky seabed near the beach, which isn’t great for landing the dinghy. So we decided to have a quiet night on board, enjoying our first sunset in Malekula.

Tuesday morning we were up early and headed ashore just after high tide. We were met by numerous children on the beach who decided to help us bring the dinghy up the beach – lots of little hands and laughing faces.

We entrusted dink to their care and walked to the main road, got a truck ride into town (which is a form of public transport and I was lucky enough to sit in the cab while Richard climbed into the back). This costs V100 pp each way (less than a pound). We were dropped off at the showground and went through ready for our first taste of the National Arts Festival. This is only held every five years so we were extremely lucky to be in Vanuatu to witness this cultural event.

We took a seat in the stand and listened to all the speeches, including from the Prime Minister of Vanuatu.

We then watched our first Kastom dance – with tribes coming from all over Vanuatu to take part. Each island has its own distinct culture and tribes so the costumes were different and the dances were telling different stories. The men were often wearing little more than penis sheathes…and some of them had less than that with everything on display with them proudly propped up on woven penis shelves! The dancers were predominantly men although there were some women groups too. Interesting public announcements were made during the day primarily focused on hygiene telling people to wash their hands after going to the toilet; before they eat; and after changing nappies. There was also free toothpaste and toothbrushes available in the medical tent.

At lunchtime we headed off to find some local food in the outlets lining the arena and Richard found a fish laplap which is the national dish of Vanuatu. Breadfruit, bananas, taro or yam roots are grated into a vegetable paste which is then wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in an underground oven with coconut milk. Basically it was grilled fish sitting on a gloopy yellow brick with the consistency of wallpaper paste. It was horrible! I just had tiny sweet bananas and pamplemousse (sweet grapefruit) instead which was fine. We both, however, loved the huge sweet doughnut things…..

We headed back to the village after a day of dancing, foot stomping, drumming, magic and other delights .

Back at the village we sat on the beach and chatted to the kids while we waited for the tide to come in enough to get dink afloat. Dink was absolutely filthy and filled with sand, and numerous small handprints kind of gave away the culprits LOL. The village is very poor and living conditions are primitive as the houses have virtually nothing but four walls and they cook outside over open fires (although they do have running water and electricity). The village church was overrun with dancers from other islands who were using it as their sleeping base during the festival.

Wednesday was food day and this time Richard tried shrimps in a coconut paste cooked on a fire inside a bamboo pole. He enjoyed that (and helped the lad finish it all off) and we found out that the origin of this dish came from climate change. They explained that with increasingly frequent El Ninos in the Pacific they have more drought periods which means they can’t grow their staple crops so this simple dish sustains them during those difficult periods (plus crabs and other fish).

Other food tents were set up showing how they prepared traditional meals and it was very interesting to watch the women at work. They were also highlighting other handicrafts such as wood carvings and traditional mat weaving.

Oh yes, and we also literally bumped into the Prime Minister having a bottle of water (having just taken some kava) in one of the tents.

The magic tricks performed by some of the tribes got the best responses from the crowd who rushed to the barriers to watch more closely. The local kids loved to chat too.

Another day of Kustom dances so here are some more photos – most memorable this time was the guys holding the red flowers without realising, at first, that they had black and white snakes attached.

During the day they announced ‘public’ dances where all the locals could rush into the centre of the showground and join in the fun after a Kustom dance had been performed. Vanuatu people are supposed to be one of the happiest in the world and they certainly appear happy most of the time. It was delightful to watch their pleasure and to hear their laughter. Also loved the sound of the TamTams (traditional carved wood poles they use for drumming).

Arriving back at the village and we looked out to see that Morphie was missing from her spot! OMG. We then spotted her behind a catamaran, realising that she had dragged again in the winds that had strengthened during the day. We rushed back to her in dink, picked up the anchor, and dropped it again. Heart stopping moments or what?!? She had dragged back almost 20m (and luckily alongside another boat and not into it). So we had a quiet evening in the cockpit taking readings and continuously checking everything. Thankfully the wind eased overnight.

Thursday morning and the wind remained light so we were comfortable about leaving Morphie again in the anchorage. Heading into Lakatoro it was more of the same. Only this time one of the Kustom dances took a darker turn when it turns out a pig has to be killed every time this dance is performed. So they dragged this tiny piglet across the grass by his legs and one of the dancers came out of the troop and bashed him over the head so he was left twitching on the ground to die. All very brutal but it appeared to be to the delight of the crowd, including the children. I guess the pig would have been cooked for food later so can’t criticise just was a bit surprised as we weren’t expecting it. But then there was a lighter side to the show with a specially designed dance done by a cultural group who called it the tourist dance and showcased lots of photos being taken and bums being wiggled – the crowd (and us!) were in hysterics. So funny….. Also loved the gull headdresses that flapped their wings as they danced around.

In the afternoon we visited the large town market before heading back to Morphie. Lots of lovely fruits and vegetables on display and all carried in leaf baskets – no plastic bags here.

Back in the anchorage we went for sundowners with Asa and Don (SV Bla Ellinor) and Jeff and Katie (SV Mezzaluna). We talked about the weather as it was forecasting strong winds of around 30 knots on Friday night and into the weekend. Well, with our experience in the anchorage, there was no way we were staying put. So we decided that we would leave early Friday morning (sadly missing the last day of the Festival) and we all looked at possible anchorages on Espirito Santo. Back on board we moved the outboard onto the rail, raised dink onto the arches and got ready to go to sea.

Friday morning by 6.10 we had weighed anchor and were motoring in light winds away from Malekula north towards Aore Island. This is opposite Luganville (which is the main town on the bottom of Espirito Santo) and has a resort with a few mooring balls which are sheltered from the prevailing winds. So we motor sailed there being joined by a large pod of dolphins for a while, which always makes us smile.

We arrived to find no mooring balls were available (operated on a first come first served basis). But during the trip we had downloaded the spot weather forecast again to find that the strong winds were now not due until later on Saturday. So we headed across the pass to Luganville Bay and anchored down after another 43 mile passage, relieved to find a sandy bottom with good holding. But in the cloud and gloom it certainly wasn’t inviting.

Bla Ellinor, who also left Malekula that morning, decided to continue around the corner into a more sheltered bay on the east coast of Espirito Santo when it became clear that Aore Island was not an option. We planned to move to join them there in the morning if the winds started to fill in.

This morning, Saturday, however, there was hardly any wind at all and it looks like the sun might even come out. The anchorage is quite comfortable and is opposite a cruiser-friendly resort, Beachfront, with easy bus access to Luganville (so that we can re-provision). Later on the wind did pick up – but nowhere near the forecasted strength – so we plan to stay here for a little while (if the weather permits). We want to go diving on nearby famous dive sites (the wreck of the President Coolidge and Million Dollar Point where the US army dumped all their equipment after WWII) so this is as good a place as any to do this from. Fingers crossed for settled weather for a while.

So, to finish, here is my favourite costume and dance of the whole Festival. We had an amazing time and feel that by seeing this spectacle we understand a little bit more about Vanuatu culture and their customs. It is truly an absolutely fascinating place.

Bye for now