To start – Big News. Altair now has a Nespresso Machine! If you come to visit, please bring pods. Couldn’t find Nespresso pods anywhere in Vanuatu. Shocker.
Altair departed New Zealand from Opua and headed north for Vanuatu. We had a decent sail for the most part and we made it in just over six days. Had a bit of everything with gusty high winds, squalls, and choppy and confused seas. Then no wind at the end as we reached the archipelago.
So, as we all know (ha), Vanuatu is a South Pacific island nation. The archipelago was originally inhabited my Melanesians. Eventually Europeans showed up as they always do, with Spain, France and England claiming various parts until 1980 when Vanuatu became an independent republic. Before that the islands were known as New Hebrides – named by Captain Cook. The islands are volcanic and some are still active. 80% of the people live in thatched hut villages with a traditional tribal lifestyle. Most of the land is covered in thick rain forest.
We didn’t have a lot of time scheduled in Vanuatu so we had to plan to hit the highlights: Mount Yassur Volcano on Tanna, the Land Divers on Pentecost, the dugongs on Epi, and as diving as we can squeeze in. Plus we had to go to Port Vila on Efate to finish checking in with customs (“biosecurity”) and to provision.
The fleet had set up a special arrangement with Vanuatu Customs to let us clear in at Port Resolute on the island of Tanna. Tanna is home to Mt. Yassur, an active volcano. Pretty much everyone wanted to go to the volcano so it was a logical choice for us.
We arrived at Port Resolute at about 3:00 am and could see red fiery clouds above the mountain. It is a large harbor and could accommodate our fleet. There’s a “yacht club” there in the village which serves as sort of the hub where we’d meet with customs, have a welcome party, set up transportation to the volcano, etc.
The harbor is home to a lot of local fishermen in small dugout boats. They fish with nets and are guided by fish spotters based in trees on shore. They also catch lobsters. Yes! The village is very basic and the homes are simple. There is a substantial school and church. The people were grateful for anything we had to offer them; clothing, school supplies, first aid supplies, fishing lines, rope, etc. Vanuatu was devastated by cyclone Pam in 2015 and the people are still struggling to rebuild.
A large group of us crowded into pickup trucks to do the rough trip across the island to Mt. Yassur. This active volcano is obviously a major source of tourism income for the locals. There was a welcome center where we were entertained by local dancers and greeted by the chief. We then hiked right up to the crater’s edge as the sun started to set. On a scale of 1 to 5, the volcano activity was probably 2 or 3, any higher than that and I don’t think we would have been allowed to get so close. Lots of noise as well as smoke, sparks and flames that became even more vivid as it got darker.
From Tanna several Oysters sailed to Erromango, the fourth largest island in the archipelago. We anchored in Dillons Bay, also known as Williams Bay after a martyred missionary. The site of the missionary’s murder is a popular site for visitors. Apparently some people were still practicing cannibalism in Vanuatu as late as 1969. We went ashore for a tour of the village and met the chief. Rambled around to see their gardens, the school, the swimming hole, etc. We were also shown a sandalwood tree. There were large reserves of sandalwood once, but over the years Erromango was invaded by various parties (including Hawaiians!?) hoping to harvest and export the wood. In addition to wiping out the sandalwood, these groups brought in diseases which decimated the local population. At the end of the village tour, David, our guide, and his wife sent out a buffet of local food – root vegetables and fish. The people were very friendly and grateful for any items we brought them. Later in the afternoon there was a tour to see the caves which Erromango is known for. One of the caves is where the bones of their chiefs are kept.
Headed to Port Vila, Vanuatu’s capital, on the island of Efate. The marina is right in the center of this town, which is quite developed compared to the villages of Tanna and Erromango. Ten minute walk to a super market. Many businesses along the waterfront are geared toward the cruise ship crowd. Oyster’s crew guys managed to find the casinos and a strip club. Very resourceful, our boys.
Nautilus Dive shop is right next door to the marina, so we booked a few dives with them around Port Vila. After doing some pretty crazy diving with big currents and large scary things, these dives were mellow and we were able to take our time and appreciate our surroundings. A nice wreck dive and then a reef. As we descended on the reef there was a dugong scratching his back on the dive mooring chain. This marine mammal is related to manatees and has a flat tail and flippers like a whale. Dugongs can be elusive so we felt pretty lucky.
To get a break from Port Vila we headed around the corner to Port Havannah. Lovely anchorage, diving, snorkeling, a fun bar, a nice restaurant and a “yacht friendly” resort which was not really yacht friendly at all.
The US Navy constructed a base in Port Havannah during WWII in order to be able to bomb the Japanese forces in Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.
Speaking of WWII, a few other Oyster yachts had sailed north to Espiritu Santo to dive on the USS Coolidge. The Coolidge was a US luxury liner turned troop ship in 1941, sunk by mines at Espiritu Santo in 1942. Another dive, Million Dollar Point, was created when the US abandoned their base and dumped millions of dollars’ worth of equipment into the sea rather than leave it for the British and French to use. Altair opted for the Land Diving instead of going north to Espiritu Santo.
The land divers are on the island of Pentecost. We made a reservation to fly up and see this precursor to bungee jumping. It is a rite of passage for boys of this island and is performed as a sort of offering to ensure a good yam harvest. Men and boys dive off wood towers 20 to 30 meters high with no safety equipment other than the tree vines tied to their ankles. There is much dancing, chanting and clapping by the locals dressed in grass skirts or nambas (penis sheaths). Quite a spectacle – no wonder it has developed into a tourist attraction! We watched about seven divers take the leap, ranging from about 10 years old to grown men.
We then flew to Epi for lunch and to snorkel with dugongs. The dugongs were a no show, so we really felt lucky that we saw them on our Port Vila dive. Flew back to Efate, looking down on our boats anchored in Havannah Harbor.
Tranquility Diving in Havannah Harbor took us on another really lovely dive before we headed back to Port Vila to provision and check out in preparation for our Coral Sea passage to Mackay, Australia.