Swimming with sharks, eating turtles

Don’t know about you, but I feel that the films Doctor No and Jaws may not have sold sharks to us in their best possible light. Didn’t, perhaps, bring out the softer, touchier side of these toothy critters. Maybe, after all this scaremongering, they are deeply misunderstood and simply need a cuddle? Like it or not, if you’re snorkelling around Pacific Ocean reefs, sooner or later you’re going to encounter them; and encounter them we have in spades whilst spearfishing around Marovo Lagoon this week.

Some of the reefs here and in Vanuatu are truly spectacular, the one here in places resembles an over-ambitious aquarium where the proprietor has run out of space and shoved every conceivable fish into one small patch of water. We’d heard that the Sarasumu anchorage had good spearfishing on the outer reef, and we’d taken turns cruising along the drop-off, amazed at the fishlife. In the space of 20 minutes we saw turtles, giant trevally, schools of aggressive-looking barracuda (nasty buggers, they have a mean over-hanging lower jaw and sharp little teeth, they patrol the reefs looking like a gang of school bullies), small tuna, groper, a manta ray, a ball of baitfish hanging in the water, and hundreds of tiny colourful reef fish. Makes you wonder how they all live in such a small space? Quite amazing.
And of course there is the ubiquitous shark. The one thing that you immediately notice about the sharks is that they’re not worried about you. Most fish tend to keep an eye on you, with a view to a rapid departure if you look threatening. Not the shark (or, for that matter, they’re under-study the barracuda). They know who’s boss, and it ain’t you. Having said that, the white and black-tipped reef sharks, by far the most common here, are not usually aggressive and seem to have a generally short rap sheet. But there are also tiger sharks here, and no doubt many others. Most stories you hear from the villagers involving an attack, seem to have dead or struggling fish near a diver as their theme; but not all, so we have to be careful. And during this particular hour-long dive there would have been only a few minutes when there wasn’t a shark in sight, so we’d had to work out a method for keeping things safe. Our approach has been to drift dive with the current, hanging off the dinghy, and any sighting of a shark then prompts an undignified but fast climb back into the boat. As time has gone on, though, we’ve become abit less terrified, as it becomes clear that most sharks are either just as nervous of us, or simply aren’t interested in us at all. We’ve had one or two sharks take a more active interest, in which case our heroic retreat seems to work well.
One day back at Losalava, Gabriel and I were out spearfishing with a couple of villagers and spotted a large shark resting on the bottom. They started shouting shoot it! shoot it! at me. In a true demonstration of Kiwi fearlessness, I offered them the opportunity to shoot it and promptly hopped into the dinghy to watch. Gabriel muttered these guys are crazy as one of my friends then dived down and took a shot, the spear lodging briefly in the sharks tail before it took off, leaving spear behind. It was at this point, having shown my true colours, that my Ni-Van friends announced that this particular shark has no teeth. One more blow to the Nolan family credibility.

We have seen turtles both in Vanuatu and Solomons, and they’re always a real pleasure to watch. I was a little horrified, whilst spearfishing in Vanuatu some while ago, when a Ni-Van in a canoe came up to me for a chat, and I mentioned that I’d just seen a large turtle. Shoot it! was his reply. Now, I know that eating turtle goes against the grain for most of us whiteys, but I’m not entirely sure why. Are they endangered? (oh for occasional Internet access to check this sort of stuff out). I thought I’d enquire further into this turtle-eating business with my friend Ronald the Pastor at Losalava, and asked him if he ate them. Oh yes was his reply, but you’ll need to give us 12 hours notice if you want us to catch you one. Ooookaaay. Tempting though that was, I declined. I declined because of this vague but unsubstantiated endangered species thought, and of course because they’re just so darn cute. But I do recall seeing a show on TV where they explained that for decades during the 19th century the British Museum or some such revered institution had commissioned ships to capture giant turtles alive in the Pacific and bring them back to the UK. Many had been captured, but because they were so damned good to eat, not a single one made it back alive. You can just imagine all those well-intended scientists, anthropologists and zooligists sitting on these ships, looking at their collection of turtles after weeks at sea eating only hardened weavil-infested ship biscuits, thinking oh bugger it, maybe just one more wafer-thin turtle…?

What do the kids do on passage?

Yesterday we notice a large red bruise on the end of Jacob’s nose, sufficiently large at least to warrant the uncharitable nickname Rudolph from his brothers. Further enquiries reveal that Jacob has been a willing participant in a game invented by one of his brothers, entitled The Funky Chicken. This is not a sophisticated form of entertainment, but entertainment nonetheless it is (at least for Luca and Gabriel), for whom it largely involves grabbing and tweeking Jacob’s nose and yelling…. yes, I think you can guess. Needless to say, we rule this new game disallowed amidst howls of protest, interestingly the howls coming from Jacob as much as his older brothers. Quite what’s in it for him we can’t fathom.

Which begs the question: what do the kids do to entertain themselves on passage? We get asked this abit, and it’s certainly been a challenge to find ways to break the boredom and monotony of the long trips. Once we get to our destination it’s not a problem, but getting there can be tedious. Ironically, we’ve found seasickness helps pass the time. I mean, when the kids are feeling queasy or are bent double over a bucket, the last issue they’re focussed on is boredom! Now that sounds mean I know, and we’d never wish sickness on them. So what else do they do?

Well, they get to watch the occasional DVD on passage, and Rebecca downloaded several audio-books which they listen to avidly. How to train a dragon is the current gripper. They still do music lessons (we brought Luca’s keyboard), altho’ Gabriel’s guitar playing has fallen by the wayside and needs more encouragement. They read a lot, altho’ of course reading is not conducive to seasickness if it’s rough. They write their journals (generally under some protest), listen to music, have home school lessons if the weather is settled enough, and spend a fair amount of time inventing things. Gabriel, our rampant fisherman, had taken to creating fishing lures, lovingly constructed out of shells or bottle tops (for the head), strips of sailcloth material and silver pipecleaners (for the skirt), and a fair amount of sailors’ waxed cotton and epoxy. We haven’t caught anything on one of these contraptions yet, but we reckon it’s only a question of time. Luca invented a whole new game of (like Top Trumps), using the meanest and nastiest creatures yet to be penned by a boy, completed on individual cards.

Being the Nolan family there is also a regular stream of imbecilic behaviour, often involving one or more parents. We bought a huge loo plunger in Luganville to try to resolve a holding tank problem, and discovered the loo plunger tummy dance – yes, the plunger sticks to your tummy and will stay there for some time. Luca has a camera which he uses to make home videos, typically involving Jacob having been persuaded to do something ridiculous. We seem to have started a slightly unfortunate practice of making up silly names for village chiefs. So far these have been kept within the privacy of our own home, but I’m sure will trip us up one day. No guesses how much mileage Chief Willy got. (We really should stop this?) Add to this the dodgy diving daks competition (yes, boxers don’t really work underneath a wetsuit, so something short, tight and decidedly budgy-smuggler-like is needed), and a host of word play games and you get the picture. Actually, we pass off some of the wordplay games as home school, in an effort to teach them alliteration, onomatapia and collective pronouns. Ask the boys to invent a collective pronoun for a group of fat talkative women, and see what you get. Or an onomatapia to describe the sound of someone being slapped across the face with a limp fish whilst trying to sneeze. Generally good value.
Incidentally, for anyone’s interested in where we are….we are at 08 degress 29.9 South 158 degrees 08.9 East.
Marovo Lagoon, Western Province, Solomon Islands, having finally arrived at our planned stop-for-awhile destination where we’ll spend a week rediscovering our non-passage routine. What a relief!

Deliverance, Solomon-style

We were within 24 hours reach of Honiara, but Fred had spent the last day struggling with a bug he’d caught off one of the boys and with both of us pretty shattered from the last 3 days’ and nights’ sailing, we decided to stop at a tiny island off San Cristobel that was mentioned in our Solomon’s cruising guide. We’re entering the country with precious little info, this guide being over 12 years old, we figure maybe not a lot has changed? It mentions this island is uninhabited, but as we sail through the reef system into the sheltered bay we find a beaten-up shed and a small family on the beach who point out the best place to anchor. We duly pay our respects ashore in the dinghy. This, our first Solomons encounter, proves to be very different from Vanuatu.

On the surface the island is an exotic paradise: low-lying coconut tree-fringed white sand beaches, with coral reefs and crystal clear waters. But ashore we find a tiny village of 30-odd adults and young kids, who’s closest contact with the outside world is the 3-monthly copra boat or a 2 hour boat trip across a difficult strait. In stark contrast to the beautiful thatched huts and proud village communities in Vanuatu, we find a tiny group of tragically broken-down corrugated iron huts, hopelessly inefficient water collection system and sanitation, no attempt to grow vegetables (“the pigs eat them” is the explanation..you’d think a surmountable problem?), and a group of islanders who appear to have given up on any type of vibrant life and sought solace in constant beetlenut consumption. They are friendly towards us, but appear more perplexed by our visit than anything else. Why would anyone want to come here? seems their tone. There’s a real absence of pride in the place with rubbish everywhere, huts pitifully constructed and appearances wild and dirty (quite aside from the alarming red mouths and rotting teeth shared by all beetlenut-addicted adults). We’re introduced to chief Willy, who is crashed out mid-day on the deck of the only decent hut in the village and we spot him first by his belly, sticking up from the floor. His place is surrounded by a number of gizmos completely absent amongst all other huts. He has a solar panel, music system and other stuff, he’s even more beetlenut-stoned than the rest of them. Mmm.

Add to this the presence of crocodiles and the long mangrove swamps surrounding the village, and we almost expect to hear a banjo start up (I mean in “The Deliverance” sense, for those of you who’ve seen the film). Both R and I get abit spooked by the place. It’s not that these guys are poor and clearly surviving on very little – of course we get that, that’s much the same in other Pacific islands. It’s more that they seem to have given up entirely. So we offer them some food from our supplies as a thanks for the anchorage, and move on as soon as I’m recovered.

.on to Honiara, where we’ve just completed a record-breaking day and a half clearance and re-provision, which even by our standards is pretty remarkable. We had set out to minimise our time there as we’d heard about some of the theft and burglary problems they’ve had since the troubles here, and we had braced ourselves for a purely functional visit. Now, I’m sure Honiara has many things going for it, but for us it was a hellhole to escape from as quickly as possible. We arrived early morning after an 24hr passage, and dropped anchor in an area of poor holding with frequent and violent squalls that have previously put several boats on the rocks – the only anchorage here. It’s heaving with people, a customs/ immigration/quarantine admin process that would test the patience of a saint, and a low level but unmistakably aggressive under-tone amongst the large numbers of young guys hanging around the beetletnut stalls . We are greeted by an Australian cruiser who warns us that a yacht had been boarded at night a few weeks ago, so we strip the decks of anything worth stealing and shut ourselves up at night. The final nail in the coffin for us is the water, which is revoltingly polluted, so no swimming for the boys. Other than that, it was lovely! So we heaved our usual loads of 25kg water and diesel cans, topped up on essentials, did a quick clothes wash and took off like scalded cats the following afternoon.
One interesting aspect of the place was how they handle money. Almost everywhere you go, be it a government office, hardware store, charts shop, whatever, the person who sells you the goods is separate from the cashier. So this means that you discuss the item you’re buying, establish the price, hand over the cash, and then have to follow the person along a corridor (or in a couple of cases to a separate building) to obtain your receipt and change. I couldn’t figure out whether this was because they didn’t trust people with cash, but Lord it has to be the most unnecessary and timeconsuming practice.

Anyway, we got our stuff and took off, and are now on passage again, this time only a 24hr over-nighter, to somewhere else. Anywhere else! We’re heading for the Marovo Lagoon, hoping to find a quiet anchorage where we can rediscover our faith in the Solomons. I’m confident we can.

Solomons, here we come

We’re writing this blog 3 days into the 3-4 day passage from Vanuatu to the Solomon Islands, with a likely landfall at Honiara. I say likely, as we’ve reserved a couple of options for stopping-over in outlying islands on the way, in case we feel we need the rest. And the way this passage is going, I think we will.
We left on Thurs with a strong 25+ knot SE tradewind, which of course with us heading NW means a lovely downwind sail. The first day and night was exactly that, sailing with just a double-reefed mainsail and enjoying the speeds as the 3m swells pick the boat up and push it downhill. Amazing for a boat this size and weight, she’s still “picks up her skirts” (as the old salts would say) in relatively small waves. Mind you, 3m isn’t all that small, and the boys got quite a kick out of recording their personal best speeds …”Daddy, we just topped 12.5 knots!” Lovely to have the fast passage times, but the trick is keeping all this manageable, which we did for the first 24hrs. Once you’ve got used to it, sailing like this at night is a less apprehensive business, as you can’t see the approaching waves and everything seems calmer somehow as the boat bowls forward from wave to wave.

Calmer, that is, until the morning of the second day, when I’d just be gazing knowingly to windward and pronouncing to Rebecca that I reckoned the winds were all localised, and likely to fall away. Sure enough, they do exactly the opposite and rapidly rise to 40 knots with a building sea. The “Yeeehaa, we just topped 13 knots!” comments were starting to be replaced with “oh shit, we just pulled 16 knots, that felt scary”. Time to reduce sail.

Now, reducing sail downwind is never an easy business. I won’t bore you with details, but I’m still searching for a method that avoids having to round up into the wind and waves, not an inviting prospect in these seas. The rounding up itself needs to be timed with the waves to avoid being side-on at the wrong time. On this occasion, it’s also pouring with rain so Rebecca and I strip off down to lifejackets only, and take our stations: she at the helm, and me at the mast ready to reef. We’ve done this before, but not on a catamaran this size or in this sea. I find that the sight of my wife standing naked at the helm of an offshore yacht doesn’t incite the usual reactions, a sure sign that things must be serious. But it all goes smoothly, Rebecca does a fantastic job, we round up with the wind howling and seas crashing over the boat, drop sail and head back down..both mightily relieved.

And on with the journey. We’re running a 2.5hr watch system starting at 8pm, so Rebecca and I grab sleep in short spells with the offwatch person on standby for assistance if needed. This works pretty well, but with just the two of us and three demanding kids during the day, of course we get knackered anyway. At least the kids seem to sleep well at night regardless of the weather.
Seasickness is abit of a constant companion unfortunately. We’d hoped that moving to two hulls would improve it, but despite the clearly more comfortable motion of the catamaran, it doesn’t seem to. Most sailors have a favoured remedy, I remember my father’s used to be large consumption of beer (some dubious theory about the carbonated liquid releasing gases, a theory I was happy to embrace as a teenager). Rebecca has some well-established methods, mainly involving getting up on deck and eating salt and vinegar crisps. This is starting to be automatic with the boys now, which is good. It is miserable, of course, being sick on passage, but the cynic in me can’t help but consider that “Mummy I’m feeling abit queasy” comment generally results in postponed school and a bowl of crisps… what’s not to like?

There’s a lot of electrical activity around at the moment, with sheet and occasional forked lightning going off every few minutes at night. I’m not sure the cause, something I think to do with electrical discharge in the tropics. It makes for spectacular flashes of ocean scenery as the lightning illuminates the waves. Getting struck by forked lightning is one of a sailors’ worries, with no consensus on how to avoid having all electrical equipment on board fried to a cinder. Not sure how often it happens to yachts, but it seems to dominate cruisers’ conversations enough. Some people believe in protecting electrical gear by unplugging and putting it in the oven, so we’ve been doing this with our main navigation computer. I’m convinced we’re going to forget one day, and find we’ve got baked laptop for breakfast.

Birthday party restores family credibility?

Luca’s birthday party looked precarious as it poured with rain all morning, but the rain eased about 30mins before the afternoon slot, and we figured we should go ahead with it. As it turned out, the families who own the land by the swimming hole where we’d decided to host it had been busy sweeping the site, putting out a table and preparing flowers. We gathered by the sea with beautiful tropical flowers adorning the ground, and in the style of Vanuatuan feasts that we’d previously attended, laid out all the food we’d prepared. Cake, biscuits, popcorn, chippies, bread and jam, a few lollies etc… All birthday treat food, but Lord knows what impression this would give our supremely healthy Ni-Vans who took this as our typically daily diet.

We ended up with about 30 people, at least half of them kids, and the pastor (my spearfishing buddy) announced he would chair the proceedings and led the group with a couple of rousing songs and a speech. Not to be outdone, and wanting to meet all village expectations of long-winded and unnecessary speech-making prior to eating, I then spoke (with the pastor translating into Bislama for me). I held the audience in the cup of my hand, wooing them with my rapier-sharp wit and stunning them with my rhetorical skills. I jest, of course: these Ni-Vans are a tough nut to crack, most of them simply stared at me stoney-faced throughout.

Rebecca had baked a banana cake (yes, we’re finally found a resolution for our banana glut), layered it up and covered it with icing to resemble the active volcano that sits, and usually smokes, over the village. At the end of the speeches I suggest that Rebecca talk everyone thru’ the cake, and all the Ni-Vans looks utterley non-plussed as Rebecca attempts to explain what would in NZ or UK be a quite normal jokey look what a ridiculous cake I created, made to resemble something silly etc If there was a common expression amongst them as they contemplated their (possibly sacred) volcano being re-enacted in cake form, it must have been along the lines of what the….?!

Nevertheless, if the explanation of the cake fell on stoney ground, the cake itself seemed hugely popular and was quickly distributed by the boys and wolfed down by all. Wolfed-down, though, barely describes what then occurred, as we encouraged people to come to the table and help themselves to the other goodies. All semblence of social niceties fell away in the mad scramble for grub. I’d just met the father of some of the kids who introduced himself as Edmund Hilary, and so intrigued was I by his name and why his parents in a remote Vanuatuan island would have named him after NZ’s most famous mountaineer, that I continued to engage him while he cast doleful glances over my shoulder at the food table. The whole conversation lasted only minutes, but by the time I suggested he should get some food, the table had been decimated with one small manky piece of grapefruit the only remaining survivor. I suspect he’ll be looking for a name change prior to the next party.

Anyway, the kids worked off the sugar hit with endless bombs off the rocks in the swimming hole, and the party came to a slightly early end when Luca scraped himself on some coral and incurred the traditional birthday injury. Reflecting on the whole thing, I should point out that the Ni-Vans have a wonderful diet of fresh fruit, veg, fish, chicken it’s very rare to see an overweight Vanuatuan, or for that matter an under-weight one but they probably don’t have much opportunity to tuck into the processed sugary treats we roll out for birthdays. Thus the feeding frenzy – and we’ve all had that urge, right?

Birthday party preparations

We’re starting to live very much on plans based on our consumption of essentials: diesel (we carry 360 litres plus 4 extra 25lt cans, so have pretty good coverage); petrol for outboard (generally not a major problem), LPG for cooking (increasingly a constraint, as we’re finding few places able to fill our bottles and we’re now baking bread most days and using a fair amount of gas), and of course water and food basics. We have 800lts water tanks, plus we carry 6 * 20lt containers, so we carry a fair payload. We’ve finally constructed a watercatcher for the forepeak when it rains, and I think we’re in good shape. We haven’t run ourselves down to empty yet, but I’m confident we have at least 3 weeks, perhaps 4 at a stretch, without rainfall. Fresh water washing becomes abit of a luxury item after awhile, but we’ve managed to find bays with waterfalls, streams or fresh water springs for the much-needed bath and clothes washing. Infrequent bathing draws few complaints from the boys, as you’d imagine.

Luca has spent most of this week attending the village primary school here at Losalava – very brave really when you consider the huge language and cultural gaps – and has made 2 or 3 friends with whom he goes bird and bat-shooting with their slingshots after school (yes, they eat both, but fortunately don’t appear to hit that many). His birthday is likely to fall on one of our passages, so we’ve decided to celebrate it early this Friday. We’ve invited about 10 of the people we’ve spent most time with, plus 4-5 of Luca’s friends and their families, to a mid-afternoon picnic by one of the local swimming holes. Completely unsure how this is going to go, but given how small and tight this village is (and the level of novelty we appear to represent), very likely a good part of the whole village will turn out!

Gaua Island has a unique practice of making “water music” – they beat the water with their hands, making sounds like drumming. Improbable, but the sounds are entrancing and of course it’s accompanied by lots of splashing and hilarity, but it’s a musical form that they take quite seriously. We had a impromptu display of this by four sisters last Sunday when we were larking around a swimming hole with a bunch of kids, and it is truly amazing. Anyway, we’ve asked if they can provide a more formal display for Luca’s birthday party which they seemed thrilled to do. Should be fun. Knowing how these Ni-Vans like to turn out a feast, we’re furiously baking cakes, muffins, biscuits and other birthday treats that we can offer everyone (knowing the likelihood of having about 60 attendees!). There goes our LPG ration for the week!

Prayer with the dogs

Sunday morning, and it’s off to church in Losalava village.
We have previous experience of church village-style, having joined the church service at our last stop in Asanvari, but found ourselves sitting through over 2 hours of service conducted in a bislama and the local dialect, perched in excruciating pain on thin branches posing as seats. Even by their standards these seats seemed basic. I mean, when you have the ability to carve dugout canoes and construct whole buildings, how hard is it to make a flat bit of wood to sit on?…leading to the only sensible conclusion, that discomfort was clearly an essential element of prayer. And I thought our Anglican church pews at home were uncomfortable.
Given all this, the boys were incredibly well behaved having been drilled on the dangers of committing various social blunders (and Lords knows church is ripe for those, as me and my flatulent friends repeatedly discovered during our schooldays) but even so, asking this of them every Sunday seemed abit much. We had thought to skip this Sunday’s service in our new village, but it turned out that one of my newfound spearfishing friends, Ronald, was the pastor so I felt it churlish to miss his one primary performance of the week.

At church this morning I discover Ronald transformed from the soft-spoken, shy and friendly guy I met yesterday, to an energetic fire and brimstone preacher, delivering the service with an impressive energy and passion, at least from what I could follow. At one point Ronald flourishes two tropical flowers in order to reinforce his sermon’s message, one red and the other white. He asks us to choose one, and wanting to demonstrate my unwavering focus on his sermon I nod encouragingly, not expecting him to then call me out with a Mr Fred, which one would you choose? I immediately sense a trap, so reply “both”. Both is clearly not the correct answer, and I suspect encouraging nodding is not advisable behaviour either given the rest of the congregation’s stoney-faced demeanours, most of them sitting there determined to ensure all of the parson’s questions remain rhetoric. It turns out that the red flower represents hell, the white heaven, and I have unwittingly outed myself as a spiritual fence-sitter. Bugger.

I’m pleased to note the seats are at least flat pieces of wood, rather than rounded branches, and sit there in relative comfort (physical, if not social) next to the Chief. The hymns and prayers are sung with at least 2 part harmonies from the congregation, who are spread along the matted-leaf walls and enjoying the breeze provided by several open holes in the mudwalls. The holes let in breeze, along with an occasional chicken, dog and anything else that wanders past. Chickens are apparently not allowed and are quickly shooed out, but dogs tolerated. At least, the first one is. A second dog joins the service, no doubt as keen as the first one to seek forgiveness for recent spiritual misdemeanours. But a snarling encounter ensues between the two dogs, at which point one of the congregation walks out, fetches a stick, and returns to whack both bogs soundly with it, much to the amusement of all the kids in the congregation and utter disregard of the parson who barely pauses in his psalm-reading. I discover that there’s something comforting about having a dog curled at your feet during church, so I’m quietly pleased when the 1st dog re-appears, decides I’m the only one who won’t whack him and sits himself down with me. Momentarily I wonder whether I’ll be the next one to get whacked.

But no. Near the end during the announcements bit, the parson welcomes me and asks me to introduce myself. Of course the whole village knows of our presence, so my informing them that I’m from the boat is probably abit superfluous, followed up by some fancy verbal footwork providing a plausible explanation for the rest of my family’s absence. From the fence-sitter. I fear our credibility here is still tenuous at best.

We haven’t run out of chocolate, yet..

Having just about given up on ever contributing to this blog again, I decided that Fred was not allowed to take it over completely and I might just add a few thoughts, so in no particular order here they are..

You can make fantastic bread in a pressure cooker (really as good as the breadmaker, and faster)..

I’m still only finding time to read one book every six weeks..

The ministers at church look very formal (in a grubby sort of way), but get them in a kava bar, and they are just like all the other slightly dazed men..

I’m glad I brought lots of plasters and antiseptic cream (those beautiful coral reefs are a bugger on your feet at times)..

You can make slightly less fantastic scones in a pressure cooker too (the birthday cake attempt comes next)..

The climate is doing wonders for my skin (in the short term only, no doubt) no teenage zits, no need for endless moisturising cream (I read somewhere that sunblock is as good as all the expensive anti-aging creams around). Probably brewing a nice melanoma though..

Luca is incredibly brave in social situations going to school on his own, asking the chiefs about religious and spiritual stories for his book, taking Jacob in a dinghy full of giggling girls to keep him company (that last one was definitley under duress)..

Gabriel is the most fanatical fisherman I have ever met (Conrad has serious competition). Despite us catching less than half a handful of fish on the whole trip, he doggedly keeps trying, hassling Fred at every opportunity to go fishing in the dinghy/off the boat/with the spear gun. He is our all out hunter-gatherer in the making..

Jacob is a dolphin in disguise he is in the water for at least 4 hours a day when we are at anchor, only coming out yesterday when his lifejacket finally started creating a sore under his arm..

Fred is ridiculously cool, calm and collected in every situation (I knew that already), except possibly when that huge spanish mackerel fell off his line, again..

You can never have enough fishing gear..

You can never have enough clothes pegs..

Ni-Vans are very friendly, but there are some villages with definite underlying tension/politics amongst themselves, like ours I guess. Well I guess they have a huge amount of time to chew over the ins and outs of what the chief is doing with the village money, over their cups of kava..

Teaching the kids is fun (mostly), and you never know, we might turn them into mathematicians yet.. (not!)

The Rugby World Cup isn’t high on the agenda of most Ni-Vans, who wonder why the biggest flag flying on our boat is black with a silver fern..

Body language is a wonderful communicator. Especially when the bislama (pigeon english) alternative to offering someone your snorkel to use is ‘paep blong pullem wind’..

Provisioning for a family who love cereal, milk, cheese and most things dairy is virtually impossible in the Islands (and apparently worse in Indonesia). Once our Gilmores stock has gone, it’s gone..

The big boys eat more than Fred and I do. What are they going to be like in a year or two? (or three?)..

Three year olds can swallow foul tasting pills if there is a gummy bear to follow..

We have some very clever, talented and generous friends every day I marvel at our mosquito nets (big and small), our storm boards (which fit like a glove every night), our lovely greenstones, our wonderful All Black/NZ gifts, our rain catcher which would have been impossible to sew in any room but the Chads, our confidence in being able to handle this beast of a boat (thank you Jason)..

I marvel at our luck, that the cake tins fit perfectly inside the pressure cooker so we can make bread without burning it, our cushions actually fit (thanks to our cardboard cut outs we took along to our South Auckland seamstress), our water filter system actually seems to work (after many hours of discussion and work)..

We need to find another fishing book for Gabriel when he is not fishing, he is pouring over the fishing books, guessing which fish got away.

Lukim yu afta, Tata

Admin in paradise

It’s going to kill us, you know, the admin involved with this trip. You may have romantic notions that we’re out here free as birds, sailing where the wind takes us, drifting aimlessly from anchorage to anchorage whiling away our days pulling ripe bananas from trees, dripping coconut milk from the shell into each other mouths, swimming casually over untouched coral reefs and conversing on the downside of developed civilisations. Well, OK, some of that is true. We are pulling bananas off our enormous bunch that we bought in Luganville, once again all ripening at the same time ensuring a banana glut that would test the intestinal fortitude of your most avid banana-lover (which is me, incidentally). And some of the reefs are quite amazing. But there’s still boring stuff to do.

For example, Luganville (effective capital of Northern Vanuatu, small dusty town with 2 banks, 2 petrol stations and a few stores), was a short pitstop made necessary by our pending visas expiring. So we dropped anchor near the main wharf, as it turned out immediately downwind from a copra factory that burned dried coconut husks 24/7, filling the boat with the smell like a candy shop on fire. Our challenge was to re-provision and resolve immigration issues within 48 hours. This involved carrying 25 litre containers of diesel (100 litres), petrol (50 litres), and water (600 litres) from the shore in our dinghy to the yacht, completing a 2-month supermarket stock-up on anything available (also ferried via dinghy), refilling 10kg gas bottles and chasing down immigration and customs officials around town. No doubt you’ll be fascinated by these numbers, but I mention them to illustrate what paradise costs – sore backs!

On top of provisioning, we have been dogged with issues with insurance, and the painful process of applying for an Indonesian cruising permit, both quite tricky without regular broadband access, but hopefully to be resolved soon. And on top of that, our route needs careful planning to clear us in and out of friendly ports, whilst minimising individual ocean passage-times. There’s a lot to think about (beyond the dripping coconut milk etc).

Anyway, we achieved our goal, and sailed off for our next, and probably last decent stop in Vanuatu before heading North to the Solomons. We arrived yesterday after a long and tiring sail that started at 3am, with an early departure through the reef unfortunately delayed by poor visibility and rain, so eventually made a safe departure closer to 5am. Reached our destination island (Gaua Island) mid-afternoon, and spent an anxious couple of hours negotiating a literally uncharted coastline, eyes leaving the depthsounder for only nanoseconds at a time to check wind etc! Arrived at the remote village of Losalava, having made a successful entry through their coral reef following coordinates and advice provided by a previous cruiser. Sailing around these islands requires constant vigilance given the poorly charted, or at best inaccurate charts, and the many reefs that surround islands (and occasionally stick up out of nowhere mid-ocean). Landfall needs to be made in good daylight with the sun overhead in order to negotiate coral, so passages need to be planned carefully with arrival times in mind. This one was touch and go, as we arrived around 5pm which is definitely getting late for good visibility, but all ended well.

..so here we are, anchored off the village for only a day and already making friends onshore. Our cautious arrival yesterday drew quite abit of interest from the village, and by the time we’d dropped anchor, lowered the dinghy and gone ashore to pay our respects to the chief they had already pulled together something of a welcoming committee, Chief Astin standing proudly there to greet us surrounding by several adults and hordes of whooping and laughing kids. A chat this morning with a passing canoe led to a spearfishing trip with two locals on the outer reef, which was followed by the inevitable kava invitation, and Rebecca has already made friends with the school headmistress with a likely school attendance for the boys next week. And so it begins. These Ni-Vans are shy but so friendly, immediately ready with a smile, and many of them intrigued by us. It’s a mutual fascination. And fortunately the few yachties who have previously visited (for this is probably the only contact most of the village would have with non-Vanuatuans), seem to have done so with good grace, generosity and lots of respect, meaning that we seem to be generally welcomed. More soon.

Getting stoned in paradise

As you may know, Vanuatuans (Ni-Vans as they’re known) are very keen on their kava, and as it turned out the island we’ve been visiting is the keenest. Those who’ve been to Fiji will be familiar with the ceremonies they’ve created around the disposal of used dishwater…the clapping of hands, shouting of mutha(sp?) and the faint numbing of the tongue falling a long way short in compensation for imbibing what has to be the single most revolting drink known to man. No disrespect to Fijians, but your average Ni-Van will spit on their kava drinking as the plaything of mere children. Vanuatu claims to make the strongest kava in the world, some 10 times stronger than their neighbours.

And so it was with some trepidation that I accepted an invitation to drink kava with Justin, the primary school headmisstress’s husband and some of his extended village family.

The preparation of kava is a painstaking process, digging up the root, grinding it into a pulp, mashing it with water, straining it etc.. so understandably the guys feel justified in getting a good long sit-down and quietly getting stoned at the end of it all. They get together before dinner, anytime after sunset, in a quiet clearing lit by a dim kerosene lantern. The kava is drunk as one long shot either from a half coconut shell, or for the truly macho straight from an old beer bottle. No question that it is quite revolting – a fact well recognised by the Ni-Vans who are voluble in their hawking and spitting, and eating baked taro or banana to get rid of the taste.

Despite all local claims to it’s non-addictive and entirely healthy narcotic effects, kava seems to take no prisoners amongst over-indulgers, one shot too many leads to prompt vomiting…so I took it easy. One bottle, and following some peer pressure a half-shell, and I was sitting around feeling quite at peace with the world, exchanging quiet conversation with my host and friends under the moon and stars, occasional visitors drifting in and out of the lantern’s circle of light and a slow smile spreading across my lips. Bats flit overhead, a village pig snuffles past and the serenity is only interrupted by violent hawking and spitting as another kava shot is consumed. For those of us ‘brought up proper’, the nose & throat-clearing conventions take abit of getting used to.
Tonight is the farewell for another school teacher, and we are invited to the feast. Once again, a hugely generous spread of food has been prepared for us and others, and lengthy speeches can be anticipated. I quietly suspect the kava drinking prior to the feast is timed to ease the burden of listening to the speeches, but it turns out my host is abit of a wind-bag himself, albeit a wonderfully friendly one. Speeches precede the eating, but take place right in front of the laden tables making the wait all the more trying, and when the final speech has been made and eating is announced to begin, the group fairly fling themselves into the food.

Halfway through our meal I spot my host once again making a speech, this time in local village language to a circle of women on the side. When I ask what he’s saying, it turns out that he’s reprimanding them for someone leaving their pig untied and letting it roam around other people’s gardens. When I quietly suggest that I imagine everyone knows who’s pig it is (everyone knows everything about everyone here, after all) I receive a knowing smile.

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