The Banks islands and beyond
29 August 2013
Written on 17th August at Graciosa Bay, Santa Cruz, Solomon Isles.
Phew.... Major catch up time! We have had such a lovely, busy, interesting, fun time since I last wrote this. I really haven't had a minute to stop and write about it, and it will now be hard to do justice to it all! Also we have no Internet, so I won't be able to post this for a while.
Anyway I will begin with where we are now.. We have made it to the Solomon isles and are anchored in a very beautiful spot at the head of Graciosa Bay. We are a few miles from Lata, the main centre in the Santa Cruz islands (the southern most islands in the Solomons), where we had to report our presence to the police and quarantine people. Having done that we are now allowed to spend a couple of weeks in the reef islands (where OceansWatch are working) before we get to Honiara where we can complete customs formalities. It is a substantial trip in the dinghy across quite an exposed bit of water to Lata, or a long walk, but we have been warned that to anchor nearer is dangerous and this is reinforced by the wreck of a large boat 1/2 sunk at the wharf! Besides it is gorgeous here.... A lovely friendly village, a sandy beach and a river with the most beautiful clear water.
It rained absolutely torrentially pretty much constantly for the first 48hrs we were here, but I am pleased to say I have changed my attitude towards rain. I have set up all sorts of water catchment arrangements and now welcome it, knowing it means we can wash up in fresh water, wash our clothes, and freely and frequently wash ourselves! It is so much more satisfying to hear it trickling, gushing even, into my myriad of strategically placed buckets rather than simply soaking the boat then sluicing out through the scuppers! I must say though that the weather gods here don't seem familiar with the concept of moderation. We could have filled our tanks several times over!
Lata is a scruffy place but extremely friendly. Kate and Rob, who we have met before, are here too and we went together yesterday in our very small dinghy across the very large bay to report to the police and have a look round. The first thing that struck us was how much rubbish there was .. We had to wade through old cans, bottles and goodness knows what to get to the shore. Quite a shock after all the lovely remote villages we have been to Vanuatu where we seldom saw any rubbish at all.
Anyway the rubbish was more than made up for by a lovely little experience.... Having been to the police we were just walking along beside a market, regretting that none of us had any Solomon Island Dollars so we couldn't get any fresh veg, when a guy in a van called hello to us.. We went across to chat and he asked if we were going to the market. We said we couldn't as we had no money. Without hesitation he simply reached into his pocket and insisted on giving us some. It was extraordinary, so unexpected and kind, and welcome. We each were able to get snake beans and cucumbers and aubergines and tomatoes. He then followed us into the market and bought us each a coconut as well! We invited him back to our boats later and much to our delight he came so we could repay his kindness. He had never been on a yacht before. We gave him a cup of tea, some biscuits, a DVD and a present for his 3 month old baby. It was a lovely heartwarming thing to happen.
Loaded with our veggies we retraced our steps to the dinghy and were approached by a man wanting to show us his carvings. We explained we had no money but he seemed undeterred and eventually, much to the amusement of a crowd of onlookers who had gathered, we swapped the old and rather threadbare lightweight waterproof tops we were wearing for a beautiful carved bowl and a traditional arm bracelet. Highly satisfactory all round, even for Kate and Rob, who could sit smugly in their waterproofs on the dinghy ride back when the heavens opened (yet again)! We are delighted with our bowl tho. It was well worth getting wet for!
Our small experience of the Solomon Islanders has so far been very positive. It has a completely different feel about it to Vanuatu (although every island in Vanuatu had a different feel as well!). We were welcomed when we arrived by a variety of people in canoes, including a delightful feisty lady called Margaret, who we subsequently spent quite a bit of time with, quickly learning that she was quite a force to be reckoned with. She didn't like the place we had anchored at all, and pretty much insisted we move to a much better place close to her village. She was in fact quite right and we are glad we listened to her. Where we are now is absolutely lovely. Having got us anchored to her satisfaction we were then told to report to her house in a hour or so, which of course we did, and were treated to a wonderful little tea party.. We sat on a mat on a raised platform in her kitchen, drinking '3 in one'. (An extremely sweet powdered mix of coffee, milk and sugar which I can see you could eventually develop a taste for) and eating breadfruit and cabbage cooked in coconut. An unusual accompaniment to the sweet coffee, but actually quite delicious!) She sat in state on the platform with us, issuing instructions to her long suffering 13 yr old daughter, to whom all domestic duties, including pretty much full time care of 3 younger brothers appeared to have been delegated. 1/2 the village was squashed into the doorway watching the spectacle. We felt a little of what it must be like to be the queen on a state visit. We were released eventually as it was getting dark, but not before we had promised to be at her door at 8.30 the next day to walk into Lata with her!
This we did, in fact we spent the whole day with her and it was both fascinating and good fun. It was a substantial walk each way, through several villages fringing the bay. She was good company, her forcefulness tempered by a great sense of humour, and a compelling openness and desire both to listen and to talk. We liked her very much. She taught us how to say hello and thank you etc in the local language and then giggled delightedly at the surprised response of the passers by we greeted (we assumed it was our pronunciation, but now I think about it, perhaps it was something else entirely that she taught us!) We shared a delicious lunch with her bought in the market .. Kumara and cabbage (again), served on a banana leaf, and washed down with fresh coconut water. The latest healthy thing apparently. Much needed as it was a long hot walk back. We briefly called in to her house to issue further instructions to Alexandria the saintly daughter, then all went back to the boat, which Margaret wanted to see. I'm not sure how it came about but I taught her to knit, which she took to like a duck to water and we spent a gentle couple of hours together, Margaret avidly practicing her stitches, Simon catching up on boat chores, and me trying to make a Solomon Islands courtesy flag out of material scraps. It was only darkness falling that brought it all to a close. I rowed her ashore, to where Alexandria was patiently waiting to ensure that her mother got home safely before it was completely dark.
Enough about Margaret... lots else to catch up on... We had an easy uneventful (very happy with that!) sail to the Solomons from the Banks islands... which we fell in love with and found it hard to drag ourselves away from. We had a good strong breeze behind us and raced along mostly at 6 or 7 knots, stopping briefly overnight in the Torres islands then covering the remaining 175 miles in less than 30 hrs. That is our last big sail on our own, as we will have Chris from OceansWatch with us on the journey up to Honiara. It is very satisfying to feel that (barring accidents) we can now do it! We were so nervous and inexperienced to begin with. We are far from complacent, but do feel pleased to have come have come all this way together.
My last post was written as we were approaching Luganville to check out with customs, re-provision and meet up with Catnapp to say our farewells and receive a battery .. All of that happened easily and we set off up north to the Banks islands about a fortnight ago. 1st stop was Gaua, a small island with a live volcano about 75 miles north of Luganville. We set off into a very dark night at 2.00 am, so as to be sure of arriving in daylight. The charts of this area are not very reliable, so you really do need daylight to eye your way in to avoid the reefs and to make sure that you drop the anchor in sand rather than on coral. I like early morning departures. I have a childlike sense of excitement getting up and setting off in the middle of the night, and I love sitting on the foredeck watching the sky slowly lighten. We have consistently had pretty much perfect winds all the way north....strong enough to get us going nicely and from a great angle...the SE trade winds. Fantastic. As long as you are heading North!
We were surrounded by people in canoes at Gaua before we had even got the anchor set. Whole families precariously squeezed into small dugouts just coming to say hello and welcome. Gaua gets visited by a supply ship only every eight months or so, and very few yachts go to the bay we anchored in. There is no road. Just a path across the island to the airstrip, or a fairly rough boat ride. It was a lovely village, which they were in the process of rebuilding as they had only recently returned having had to move away a few years ago when the volcano became particularly active and spewed ash out all over them. They seemed basically to be all one very big family and had very little, but were disappointed that we were leaving next day and they did not have time to go to their gardens to get vegetables to give us. We were sad to go too, but keen to keep heading north. We gave some reading glasses to a lovely old fellow called William, who seemed to be everyone's grandfather, and tried to straighten a sewing machine needle for one of the ladies (how annoying to have a sewing machine and a bent needle and an eight month wait until the next supply ship!) They were all delightful and we spent a happy hour or so just chatting and exchanging stories about our respective lives.
One of the things that has developed over the past few weeks is the Vanuatu cruisers net, which 'meets' every morning at 7.30 on HF 8230khz. It is a very informal way for all the cruising yachts to keep in touch (all 5 or so of us!), exchanging weather information, good anchorages and generally keeping an eye out for one another. We love it. Simon has become quite the doyen of the airwaves.. He even became net controller one morning! It is actually great.. Not only does it keep us all a lot safer as we all check in with our positions daily, but we can help the islanders too.. For example we have now arranged for the next yacht to go to Gaua to take some sewing machine needles with them.
After Gaua we went to Sola which is the administrative centre for the Banks islands, but it both looked and was reported by other boats to be so dull that we didn't bother to go ashore and set off instead the next morning for Letelwut bay on the NE side of Vanua Lava. It was a good decision Not only did we have a really memorable and wonderful time with the local people there, but we formed a delightful and what we hope will be an enduring friendship with Colin, Liz, Zinnia and Cosmo.. a family from Bosham who we first met a few weeks ago. They have been travelling for the past 3 or 4 years in their very comfortable catamaran Pacific Bliss. We ended up staying for 4 or 5 days, and each day simply was even happier and more fun than the one before. We were very sad to leave. They are still there and are not planning of leave until they really have to start heading south again and back towards NZ to avoid the cyclone season.
It was a small bay and Pacific Bliss were the first to arrive. As we entered we could see people on the beach who canoed and swam out to meet us, helping us to find a spot to anchor that was coral free. There was a terrific feeling of celebration and happiness that we were there. The others were already ashore and we joined them as soon as we could and were formally welcomed by Pascale, the custom chief, and members of his family, including his elderly mother, for whom I developed a particular fondness. They had made flower garlands for each of us and prepared Kava for Colin and Simon (a ritual I am very happy to be exempt from being a mere woman). Everyone sat with us under the shade of a big tree on the beach for ages.. Is funny thinking back now to then. We got to know them all really quite well, but at first it is hard to remember who is who and where everyone fits, and at that stage they were just a very friendly bunch of people who made us all feel incredibly welcome. They also told us that in the neighbouring village that evening there was a special celebration, with a bamboo pipe band from a nearby island. So we all zoomed off to the next bay in our dinghies and were as warmly welcomed there. It was a wonderful evening, an event which everyone in the village seemed excited about and joined in with.... Lots of dancing and general happiness and such a sense of (very well founded) pride as they showed us round. They have a lovely kindergarten and are in the process of rebuilding their school. There were flowers everywhere and a beautiful big dancing/playing field. Cosmo (aged 8) had a fantastic time playing soccer with all the boys (big and small!) and Zinnia (who is 11) found some mates to do sand drawing with.. Its a tradition on a number of the islands.. They make beautiful designs, which represent different stories or legends. It is done either with a stick or a finger, but all in one long graceful movement. Zinnia is becoming quite an expert.
We were glad of Pacific Bliss's company on the way back in the dark. It had become quite squally and rough and it definitely felt as though our tiny dinghy was way out of its depth as we plunged and rolled our way out through the reef, round the point and back to our anchorage. Arrived back very sodden, but all full of excitement about what a great time we had had.
Somehow or other a plan was hatched that evening and the next day we set off together to visit the Reef islands which lie about 8 miles offshore. They are very beautiful, very low lying and no longer inhabited, but were once lived on by the forebears of the people of the two villages, who are the custom owners and clearly hold them close to their hearts. They are too far offshore for them to easily visit in their canoes so we each took a family with us. We also took Zinnia who fancied a change of scene and company. That was a particular delight, and the foundation for a very lovely and happy friendship between her and me, which developed over the next few days. it was altogether a fabulous day... A perfect sail both ways and such a pleasure to see the smiles on the faces of the couple of lads we had on board when we let them steer the boat. None of them had ever been on a yacht, or been to the islands before. The islands were lovely; white sand, coconut palms, coral reefs, turquoise water, big multi coloured fish. We rafted up with Pacific Bliss and had a lovely pot luck lunch on their capacious aft deck... (Well more like a patio than a deck... Since getting to know PB I have become a bit of an catamaran convert... There is so much space it really is like an apartment... And wonderful in this climate having such a massive deck space with easy access from the living area. Very civilised!)
We paddle boarded, kayaked, fished, snorkelled,walked and chatted the afternoon away while the locals searched for megapode eggs and washed up plastic containers which they could reuse to store water. A satisfactory haul of each was collected and we eventually set off for 'home' with just enough time to get ourselves back inside the reef and safely anchored before night fell. PB capped it all by catching two magnificent yellow fin tuna on the way back. One for the village, one for the boat, which feasted on with them for the next few days, starting with sushimi that evening. It was a truly memorable day, full of warmth and laughter and lovely cross cultural exchanges. Megapodes are a type of duck, whose eggs are huge and greatly prized.. They found loads of them and carefully wrapped them in pairs in banana leaves, tied with bits of dried grass. Who needs egg boxes! We were given one which we scrambled. It was delicious. They also found a live chick which was brought home and is going to become a pet!
Next day we had been planning to leave but the day just unrolled into another magical one and somehow we didn't manage it! First we were summonsed ashore and ushered into a tiny building on stilts just back from the beach which serves as their church and a general meeting place. We were presented with a most wonderful selection of fruit and veggies from people's gardens to share between both boats, then proudly shown round their gardens. It was fascinating. They are very productive and absolutely central and essential to people's lives, both in terms of how they mostly spend their time (especially the women) and how they feed themselves. I feel as though we hardly scratched the surface in terms of knowing what they grew and how or why, but alongside the staples (such as taro, yams, cabbage, pumpkin, capsicums and spring onions) they grow particular plants for different situations, such as a particular type of taro for nursing mothers, and of course kava for pleasure and relaxation, and reputedly to ward off Malaria. Everyone has their own garden, with new areas being cleared and cultivated for the youngsters as they grow up. We have talked more to other people about gardening since then and it seems to be a very sociable and cooperative affair. Although every family has their own garden the women especially often work together in each others.
The rest of the day centred mainly round food. Zinnia and I spent a happy couple of hours together making Tzatziki (heaven knows how you spell that!) and salad and we all had a magnificent lunch consisting of that and six lobsters which PB had been given as a thank you for the day before! They were very delicious, especially accompanied by a bottle of cold NZ Sauvignon.. PB's last, which they very generously shared with us! Hardly had we had time to digest that before we were summonsed again to go to the next village, where Brian, the son of the chief and his wife Rose had prepared a feast for us! We were garlanded with fresh flowers and treated to freshwater prawns, fresh Tuna, megapode egg omelettes, more lobster... It was very special. Brian's father the chief, known as ol' fela (a name now adopted for Simon by PB!) was there and Brian's other brothers, and all their children. We didn't go by boat this time and it was about a 1/2 hr walk along a small jungly path back to 'our' bay afterwards. We were not very organised about torches so their was a good deal of hilarity finding our way back in pitch blackness, especially when we came to the bit where you had to balance on the fallen trunk of a coconut palm to cross a boggy patch! But we were guided by David, a local guy who did have a torch, and serenaded by Cliff who didn't, yet managed to sing to us and play his guitar all the way without pause... even crossing the boggy bit! Another lovely lovely day!
Next day we really did have to leave, but not before church which was at 8.00 in the tiny building on stilts where we had been given our veggies. It was just set back from the beach, and the locals, who must have been up 1/2 the night, had constructed a flower arch and lined the path from the beach with stones and flowers. The building was transformed too, with an altar made of beautiful fresh hibiscus and frangipani, and about 30 people already squeezed in, but space left especially for us along one side. They call it their glorious church and it really was glorious and incredibly moving to be taken into the midst of this tiny community in the way that we were, and to see in such an intimate way how central to their lives their Christian beliefs are. The service was taken by Patricia, the wife of Levi the pastor, and was conducted in English for our benefit. I am finding it hard of find words to express how affected by it I was. There was a purity and simplicity about it that really spoke to me, and moved me deeply. The rich and natural harmony of each person unselfconsciously singing with no accompaniment, everyone dressed in their best island dresses, the easy compassion and understanding they had for one another, their gratitude and appreciation for what they had, and the generous way in which we were included. The Pacific Bliss/ Anna Rose scratch choir sang 'Morning has broken'.. Nothing like as tunefully as they sang, but they (and we) were glad we had made the effort, and at the end they sang a beautiful hymn of farewell for Simon and me, and all came up and embraced us. MiniRose and her family, (who we had taken to the reef islands) gave us a beautiful carved pig, and the younger girls had made garlands for us. I have to say I was in floods of tears, as were Liz and Zinnia (who weren't even leaving!) It is hard to explain, in fact I know I can't and it will probably sound stupid, but we felt really blessed and loved and hugely loving in return, and that we had made a real connection with people which completely transcended our short acquaintance, the language barriers, and the knowledge that we are unlikely ever to meet again. The mother of Pascale and Minirose, a beautiful, gentle, old, frail lady with an extraordinary stillness and depth in her gaze held me close to her, and I held her back, reluctant to let go and let the moment pass.
It took us a very long time after church to say goodbye to everyone from both villages and get back to the boat. Sadly we also had to say goodbye to Liz, Colin, Zinnia and Cosmo on Pacific Bliss, as they were staying put for a while then heading south, while we needed to get on up north so as to make our rendezvous with Oceanswatch. Liz made a delicious risotto for us all and we had a lovely final lunch, sorry to be saying goodbye, but happy to have had such a wonderful few days together and with firm intentions to stay in touch. It was well into the afternoon before we managed to drag ourselves away, but we only had 10 or so miles to go and the there was a good breeze behind us.