01 September 2013 | Honiara
Well, we are as far north as we are going! Arrived here a couple of days ago and are now in the midst of handing the boat over to Oceanswatch...who have a crew of 8 taking her back to Fenualoa! They will be working there for a couple of months, then taking her all the way south again to NZ to get out of this area before the cyclone season. We fly to Aus in a couple of days then back to the UK on the 18th. Mixed feelings about leaving the boat, but hugely excited about seeing friends and loved ones.
The end of my last post had us regretfully leaving Vanua Lava, and heading 10 miles further north to a dramatic anchorage inside the crater of a volcano on the island of Uraparpara. The whole side of the island was blown out in a massive explosion which allegedly sent rocks hurtling as far as 25 miles away.. Not sure whether that is legend or fact, but no matter. It was a pretty impressive place and again a lovely welcome. (The volcano is now extinct by the way!) Surprisingly the boats that came to greet us were no longer roughly made dugouts with outriggers.. Instead they were swift sleek canoes, beautifully built .. a skill learnt, apparently, from the Solomon Islanders. Interesting that there was such a big difference with only 10 miles separating Uraparapara from Vanua Lava. I wonder why. It was not really obvious where best to anchor, so we took the advice of the locals and ended up very comfortably and picturesquely adjacent to a house on stilts someone had built for fun in the middle of the bay... We were slightly nervous that we might swing the wrong way in the night and demolish it, but luckily that didn't happen.
It turned out that that the house on stilts was built by a delightful man called Thomas for his son Roger, a musician, who sat on the apex of his roof for a good part of the next day playing his bamboo pipes. He was delightful too and by mid afternoon he had migrated from his roof to our cockpit, trying to vain to teach me how to blow his pipes, but rewarded at last by Simon who got the knack straight away. By early evening we had set up the Anna Rose cockpit recording studio, magnificently equipped with two iPads ..recording him on one, then recording him playing again, accompanied by the first recording and so on until we had a built up 6 or 7 layers of variations. Sounded dreadful, but it was fun!
Jerry the son of the chief and Riley, who said he was also the chief's son, and then said he wasn't (?!) helped us fill our water containers from a bamboo pipe and carry them back to the dinghy, then proudly showed us round the village. They are very remote and cut off, but life didn't seem hard for them. They seemed to have all they really needed, and the time and energy for fun things like Roger's house on stilts. The medical centre was definitely a bit spartan tho.. we gave them as many of our plasters and dressings as we thought we could spare and 1/2 our stock of painkillers.
We had been warned that it would be harder to get fresh fruit and veg in the Solomons so we put the word out that we would like to trade grapefruits (which keep well) and whatever else was available. Sure enough a succession of canoes arrived late in the afternoon as they returned from their gardens. By nightfall we had 16 beautiful grapefruit, several pawpaw, bunches of spring onions, snake beans and capsicums, and our bag of t shirts, fish hooks, reading glasses and pens was considerably lighter.
It was 70 miles or so to our next anchorage in the Torres Islands, and we set off at midnight (having gone to bed at 6.30, trying in vain to convince ourselves that it was bedtime!). Although it was a dark night, finding our way out of the crater was straightforward, and we were soon on our way with a lovely breeze and not too much swell, easily arriving at our destination with the sun still high enough to help us pick a good spot to anchor. The bay was uninhabited and unremarkable, but we had no expectations of it other than as a place to sleep, which we did, then set off at first light on the 170 mile trip to Lata, the southernmost customs check in place in the Solomon's. We arrived about a fortnight ago and I have already written about most of our time there in my last post, and so will move swiftly on....
We hadn't made a firm plan re our rendezvous with Chris from OceansWatch and were a little disconcerted when all our attempts to make contact with him drew a blank. We eventually met up with him tho about 10 days ago and sailed with him and a local guy the 40 miles or so to Fenualoa in the Reef Islands (not to be confused with the islands we went to off Vanua Lava... also called the Reef Islands!) We were glad to have them on board as the route through the very extensive reef surrounding the islands was complicated, tortuous and inaccurately charted. I don't think we'd have risked it on our own, but all was well and we found ourselves in beautifully sheltered waters, anchored off a low lying coastline with the 5 or so villages which OceansWatch are working with set back from a long white beach.
The most immediately striking thing was the light. The horizon was huge.. Like Norfolk, and the blues and turquoises in the water (not like Norfolk!) had a marvellous luminous quality, emphasised by grey, thundery clouds which hung menacingly above the horizon. The sun was getting low by the time we went ashore and the effect was even more spectacular. It is the season for collecting breadfruit, which they dry and store, as food is sometimes short. There were canoes laden with them, their lime green skins and the deep brown woodiness of the boats a perfect finishing touch to an already breathtaking scene. A photographer or painter's paradise! As if all of that wasn't enough to stimulate the senses there was a lovely smell of woodsmoke hanging in the air and the orange glow of fires being stoked for drying breadfruit and the preparation of evening meals.
Chris was excited to be back and excited to show us round and introduce us to people in the villages and explain about the projects OceansWatch is working on. It is very impressive.. They have installed a VHF radio so the small boats which regularly cross the 40 or so miles from Fenualoa to Lata can be in radio contact all the way across. It is a rough and exposed bit of water and there have been many lives lost. The radio will make it a lot safer. There is a coconut oil processing project.. Several women's cooperatives have been set up and loaned equipment to help them efficiently produce coconut oil, which is then sold at a far higher price than unprocessed copra, which otherwise would be collected and processed elsewhere. It is a small pilot scheme at present, but with great potential economic benefits. On the environmental front there are several initiatives; a sea cucumber conservation project, the establishment of voluntary marine protected areas, extensive monitoring of the quality of the reef, and planting of vetiver grass to help slow down the rate of coastal erosion. And then those 5 medical boxes, which we brought from Port Vila. Much to our satisfaction and delight they were finally delivered, one for each village. Little did we know where it would lead when we agreed back in Whangerai in April to take one box from NZ to Port Vila!
It was fascinating to see what OceansWatch were doing, and the commitment of Chris and the volunteers, and indeed the commitment and enthusiasm of the local people. We were formally thanked by the chief for the contribution we are making in lending Anna Rose, then garlanded and sung to, and had our hands shaken by everyone. Another regal experience, which we appreciated more than we liked... We hadn't made any real connection in our own right with people there and it all felt a bit forced and stilted.
We anchored beside Magic Roundabout, the other Oceanswatch boat, and were soon joined by Rob and Kate on Toyatt, who are committed conservationists and were keen to see and be involved with the OceansWatch work. We spent an easy going three or four days all together. We had a fascinating time one morning with Ben, an English guy whose parents settled on Pigeon Island, a small uninhabited island just off shore. His mum was a model, and worked for the BBC and his dad was a photographer. They sound like they were quite an unusual couple.. they sailed from England in the '50's in a Brixham trawler, and decided to settle in the Reef Islands. She was very into carpentry and built a small guest house and store, as well as a house for themselves.. which Ben has now inherited. It is all exactly as it was when she built it, and Ben lives there with his local wife and 1yr old adopted daughter, eking a living mending outboards and catering for the occasional guest.. Mainly NGO staff and visiting government officials. Only the most intrepid of tourists would find their way there... The only way is by boat...and unless you can cadge a ride on a yacht, that means a 40 mile trip in a small open boat. This is however all about to change: An airport is being built which will link the Reef Islands with Honiara. What a difference that will make.
We left Fenualoa for Honiara on Sunday morning with Chris. It was almost 400 miles and we made good fast progress for the first couple of days with the wind more or less behind us, but there was an uncomfortable sick making swell, and that edgy feeling of having to watch carefully for wind shifts so as not to accidentally gybe, so it wasn't a particularly pleasant trip. I would have hoped to have well and truly got my sea legs by now, but apparently not. Honiara is not the nicest of places, but It was quite a relief when we finally got here. Much to our delight we had a dolphin escort for the last few miles. They are the most wonderful joyful creatures, We stood on our bowsprit for ages watching them playing in our bow wave, getting more and more ambitious with their manoeuvres. They really do seem to know they are being watched and to rise to the occasion. How lucky we were! What a wonderful way to end our voyage
So here we are. At journey's end for the time being. We are satisfied with what we have done.. For us it has been quite a challenge. Chris's wife Julia flew in a couple of days ago and we are all now working towards a smooth handover of the boat. It is strange to have strangers on board, slowing taking over our lovely boat. We are very happy and excited to be going home tho, and glad that she will be useful, and that we are not having to rush into selling her to the first buyer, or worry about her deteriorating unused on a mooring somewhere. She really has done us proud and has earned a special place in both of our hearts. Who knows what or when our next Anna Rose adventure will be!