15 November 2008 | Ambrym Island
We got a pretty early start today and were underway leaving Epi by 6:30AM. We motored out of the lee of Epi and then shut down the diesel for the 40 some mile sail to Ambrym. Ambrym is the fabled capital of Magic in Vanuatu and also home to seven volcanos (two underwater).
It was a very overcast day but not as bad as yesterday. We didn't have to dodge any squalls and we actually had some good patches of blue sky mixed in. I wasn't feeling super so I let the girls run the boat and took a nap. I'm sure they were happy to be rid of me and they did a great job of making short order of our trip.
We found ourselves coming into Craig's Cove a little after noon. Craig's Cove is a small village of 200 people near the commercial center of Ambrym. The folks in Craig's Cove speak their own language and Bislama (pidgin English), as do all in Vanuatu. There are many local languages and the folks here have come to use Bislama, their very interesting version of English (barely or unintelligible to us), as the communications conduit between them. In addition to these, each child will learn French or English depending on which church sponsors their village school. If it is the French Catholics, the village will be catholic and the kids will learn French as their 3rd language. If it is the English Anglicans, the village will be Anglican and the kids will learn English as their 3rd language. This is perhaps a bit of a simplification but fairly accurate. Many folks learn some English and French regardless.
When we entered the cove we carefully traced the 30 foot contour to get a look at things. The South Pacific Anchorages guide suggests poor holding off of the quay (there really isn't a quay just some rocks that look like one). Well I can tell you after swimming there that any holding you get there is a gift from above because the entire area is lava rock, coral and the like. A thin layer of black sand exists here and there but I wouldn't try to anchor in the south end of the bay unless you stay in deeper water. Unfortunately this is where you will find the best protection from the swell if it is running.
Our chart identified a coral bottom in the south part of the cove and suggested a sand bottom toward the north. The 20-50 foot ledge is wider here as well. We anchored in about 30 feet and put out 200 feet of chain to lay back into 40-50 of water. Oddly we setup facing to the north, as the island has a pretty big affect on the breeze. The wind has been light but mostly East to Southeast. Here in Craig's Cove we saw North at noon, Southeast in the late afternoon, and Northeast at sunset. At 7PM we are experiencing a nice gentle East breeze. The holding is good and we set first try. It is a lovely anchorage and the folks in the villages near by, the French of Craig's Cove and the English kids around the point, are all super friendly and very polite.
Once we were settled we had a mind to drop the dink and find the lake just inland from our location. I was thinking we could dinghy up the river to it. As we got ready to get an expedition mounted, Francis from Craig's Cove stopped by in a dug out canoe. Francis Maguekon, the local Ambrym Tour Operator (Phone: 5460762) is a wonderful guide and speaks much better English than our French. He did humor us though. We agreed to meet at the beach on Craig's Cove at 2PM.
We arrived on the beach at 2:30 (hey it's Vanuatu!) and Francis jumped in the dink. It was a bumpy 20 minute ride north around several points to the beach near the lake. I had been mistaken about the lake having a river that lead to the sea. As it turns out the lake was originally the site of the hospital for the English settlers who were raising coconut among other things here at the turn of the 19th century. Unfortunately for them one of the volcanos erupted in 1903 and wiped the area out. Shortly thereafter the basin created where the hospital had been filled in with fresh water. If you snorkel there you can still see the concrete elements of the old hospital.
The surf coming on to the beach was not too bad but the beach is very steep. Our dink is heavy and it takes a huge effort to tow it up an incline like that. We hit the sand and immediately set about getting the dink up the hill. We got pooped once in the process but the battery box protected the battery well and I pulled the drain plug to let the ocean go back to where it belonged. After quite a bit of effort we got the dink up the beach enough for a 30 minute hike into the jungle. The tide was rising but the range is only 5 feet spring.
After tying Shooting Star up to a palm tree we began hiking back into the primeval world. These islands show no lights at night time, only cooking fires. Cell phones are found in every village and some VHFs but I guess they must charge them with solar panels or something. The hike was an awesome but short trek back into the bush of Ambrym. We saw several of the huge coconut crabs (not the land crabs you see in Polynesia) hiding in their holes along the way. The foliage was think and so were the mosquitos. I kept seeing two or three feasting on poor Francis. I wanted to smack them but I didn't think he would appreciate that. Francis took the mosquitos in stride and claimed they didn't have lots of mosquitos in the village and that Malaria wasn't a big problem for them. Hideko had dosed us up with sunscreen mixed with 80% deet. Talk about gnarly stuff, the mosquitos didn't come near me. I am now a true believer in high concentration deet. I watched a hoard of the little vermin slurping on Francis and carefully checked myself over and didn't find a one.
The lake is an interesting site but don't expect to be awed. It is not huge but it does give you a wonderful panorama of the valley and the hills/volcanos beyond. It is worth the trip just to do the hike and be there. It was also the only real excursion we could do in an afternoon. The volcano trips sound fantastic but they take either an entire day or two days with a camp out on the ash cone (which sounded like a blast).
After a text book surf launch (thanks to the girls) we shot back to the cove. We dropped Francis off ashore and he invited us to see pictures of the volcano. He brought us into the village and everyone was very friendly. They gave us a couple Papayas and a very strange cucumber which smelled of watermelon and was the largest cucumber relative we had ever seen (Hideko cooked it in soy sauce and it was very tasty). It was sad to see trash all over the outlying parts of the village. These people are totally self sufficient but when plastics and coke cans come in from the outside they just don't know what to do with them. They didn't make these objects and don't have the means (or the training) to dispose of them correctly. I was tempted to tell Francis that the plastic on the ground would stay there for 7 generations and could kill wildlife of various types that may try to ingest it.
In the village Francis took us to a nice little pandana and wood hut that he serves lunch in when he has tour groups visiting. He showed us some carvings he had made which were very nice. The photos he had showed the heavily costumed Rom dancers, famous in Vanuatu and native to Ambrym. He also showed us the massive wood drums which are carved in the form of two meter tall tikis. We had a great time and thanked Francis heartily. The tour cost us 1,000 vt ($10) and a 1,000 vt fee to the land owner of the lake. We're glad we had the tour guide, it is the only way to go even if we had been able to find the place ourselves (which in retrospect I'm certain we wouldn't have).
Back at the boat there were three outrigger kayaks full of kids hanging about from the English speaking village around the point by the airport. The kids here are very curious about visitors. They are gregarious but shy at the same time. They answer all of your questions with a cheerful "yes". I sang them "Swingin' on a Star" on the uke and then they started to loosen up. Margaret and I went swimming as they paddled around and laughed. The water here is amazing. It is so warm (84F) and clear, particularly so due to the black sand.
We waved goodbye to the kids as they set off before the sun set. The dinghy came back on deck and we enjoyed a lovely Hideko dinner before bedding down in anticipation of an early trip to Espiritu Santo.