Saturday, 18 July 2015

Vanuatu

Silver threads of rain glisten in the glow of our deck lights as we ghost into Port Resolution bay. It is pitch black with no moon. We follow the waypoints on our chart to take us between the reefs and into the shelter of this deeply indented bay.  It is very unsettling anchoring in a shallow bay at night with no ambient light and reefs and shoals on all sides.  I kill the engine and the silence is profound.  This is the island of Tanna, in Vanuatu, devastated by a hurricane only a few months ago and we are here with much-needed supplies for the villagers.




Morning dawns in Port Resolution and we get our first glimpse of our surroundings. Heavy cloud hangs over the wooded bay where a handful of yachts are anchored; the rest of the fleet is still to arrive.  Clouds of steam trail from the water where hot springs flow from deep underground in this volatile geological hotspot.  As the clouds lift, the slopes of the mountain emerge, looming over the bay and a red glow seeps through the mist from the volcano erupting in the distance.   Fishermen are all around us in their simple dug out canoes with wooden outriggers; they cast their nets and sit patiently in the rain, waiting.  One of these paddles along side and introduces himself as David, slightly incongruous in a Henry Lloyd shirt over his sarong, a gift from a previous rally. We buy some limes and a handful of small fish that he threads onto a length of creeper floating in the watery recesses of his dugout. He chats with us in good English and tells us that the village has been waiting for us to arrive with great excitement.




On our crossing from Fiji I had received an email from Paul Tetlow, previously the manager of the World ARC until he recently resigned. There have been many people at numerous ports along our route who have expressed their fondness for Paul and his fiancé Suzanna, and here on the island of Tanna he has made good friends with the villagers over the years. Since the hurricane Paul has tried to make contact with Thomas Ware, headmaster of the local school, but with no success and he has asked me to try and track him down and see what assistance he can personally offer. Word Cruising Club established a relief fund in the aftermath of the hurricane but it is unclear how much this has raised. I take the dinghy ashore, beaching our rib on the shingle I walk up the steep muddy path to the ramshackle wooden building that optimistically calls itself the yacht club.

Hugh and Victor from World ARC introduce me to Werry, the owner of the yacht club and also the brother of the chief of the local village. Thomas the headmaster arrives and we sit at a makeshift table. He has a sheet of well-thumbed paper in his hands; an estimate from a hardware shop in Port Villa. Thomas tells me that he is unable to employ qualified teachers because he cannot offer them accommodation and so he relies on volunteers from the village. If he had basic accommodation he could attract qualified teachers who would dramatically improve the standard of education for the village children, the only sustainable way to eradicate the poverty of the locals.  I ask him about the costs of the project. The estimate for the materials comes to 1.6 million vatu, around 16,000 US dollars.  He explains that Werry looks after the bank account where the donations have been remitted – mostly from participants in previous world ARC rallies who have heard about the typhoon and want to help the villagers. Werry explains that there just isn’t enough in the account to pay for the project so I ask him to call the bank in Port Villa and find out exactly how much they have.  We spend the morning going over the numbers, adding in the labour and the expense of transporting the materials from the main island of Efate to Tanna and then a four hour trip over ground by four wheel drive to the remote location of Port Resolution.  By mid-morning I feel confident that the true shortfall is approximately one million vatu, around 10,000 US dollars. I look at them both in the eye “If we could raise one million vatu could we build these houses?” they both nod. “Then that’s what we have to do” I say.  


















By now the crews from the ARC fleet have assembled at the yacht club. One team sets to work re-wiring, while the others head to the beach to clear debris at the site for a new building to be built by Unicef.  I am impressed at the skills among the fleet and the club is soon a hive of happy activity, repairing the generator, running new cables and replacing some of the rotten beams that barely hold up the corrugated iron roof.  Everyone is delighted to be able to do something practical to help and we are all very aware that just the tools and spares on board the fleet are probably more than the combined supplies on the entire island. By the end of the morning the job is done and we get a chance to look around the village and see the devastation caused by the hurricane. We also see the new village hall, funded by the Rotary Club in Auckland, where the villagers took refuge for 12 hours while the storm raged around them, laying waste to their fragile homes. It gives us the opportunity to see the kindergarten and the site for the new teachers houses and I am more determined than ever to see this project come to life.  We return to our boats and start ferrying all our gifts ashore. There are cooking pots, machetes, mattresses, kitchen utensils, lengths of rope, tarpaulins and heavy bags full of hammers and nails.

















I have asked Hugh from the World ARC for the opportunity to address the fleet and as we assemble on the beach I get my chance to pitch the teachers project, standing on the muddy bank in the rain. My stated goal is that before we weigh anchor and leave this bay, we should have the project fully funded and underway. Within minutes of me speaking, friends from the rally are pressing dollar bills into my hand and I receive pledges from many of the boats to contribute to the project. Such is the generosity of the fleet that by the time that we gather in the evening for the welcome feast prepared by the village, the target has been reached and when i tell Thomas and Werry their eyes light up in amazement.  Thomas shakes my hand in thanks, his eyes glistening, and I remind him that Paul Tetlow was the catalyst that gave momentum to this project with his personal intervention and financial contribution. He will be greatly missed by World Cruising and the many friends he has made along the route.

We gather outside the yacht club where all the villagers are assembled in the rain. First the priest gives a blessing and then the dancing begins.  The men huddle in a circle, dressed in sarong and T shirt, and start to sing, stamping their feet in heavy unison, while the women, dressed in bright colours, leap up and down, sticks adorned with feathers stabbing the air. I am not sure of the symbolism of the ritual but of all the dancing we have seen in the pacific islands (and we have seen a lot) this is by far the most authentic. Not perfect, obviously unrehearsed, but heart felt and joyful, and when the entire community lines up to shake our hands it is a moving and humbling experience. Then comes the exchange of gifts. We give them our supplies and they in turn give us rattan hats, garlands of flowers and beautiful hand-woven bags bulging with local vegetables.  Rather than receiving charity, the villagers are trading with us; giving us their hard-earned produce in return for our easily purchased gifts, and so maintaining their self-respect. Without doubt their contribution to the trade was far greater than ours.  All the while a light rain falls, but goes unnoticed. The school children sing farewell with gusto and we return to our boats, weighed down by our gifts but enlightened by the generosity and happiness of these gentle people. 








Before we leave we are determined to visit the famous volcano. Werry turns up at the yacht club just before dark, in a Toyota Hilux and we cram no less than eighteen of us in. The women go inside while the men sit in the open pickup, bouncing on the hard floor as Werry drives us forty minutes through the jungle towards the volcano. It is a jarring ride but everyone is in high spirits laughing and groaning at each bump and bruise as we bounce over the rough tracks.  As we pull up on the black shingle slopes of the volcano the earth shakes beneath us with a deep threatening rumble. We walk a short distance further up the hillside until we are looking straight down into the caldera, glowing red in the dark and smouldering with black smoke. Then we see the first eruption. Huge chunks of magma are flung high into the air towards us and we start to look around for an escape route. A piece of rock the size of a small car spins through the air towards us and then falls back into the smoking abyss with a crunch. Not for nothing is this known as the most accessible volcano on earth. Health and safety officers in the western world would have kittens if they witnessed this freewheeling experience of nature at its most visceral. We watch the pyrotechnics from the ridge like a firework display, with ’oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from the onlookers as each explosion seems better and more dramatic than the last as darkness closes in and the fiery magma burns brighter. At last we are out of time and we bounce back to Port Resolution in our pick-up truck, slowing to pass villagers sitting on the side of the track in the dark, seemingly just passing the time in the warm balmy evening, waving as we pass on our way back to our sophisticated sailing machines; nearby in the bay but a world away from this remote and simple society.




Our next destination is Port Villa on the capital island of Niefu, where we provision our boats for the crossing to Mackay in Queensland, Australia. Caroline’s stepfather Mick, joins us for this leg and together with Jamie and Andrew we have a full crew to cross the notorious Coral Sea. The forecast is for strong to moderate trade winds, the perfect conditions for Juno and as it is our last leg with the rally we are determined to finish in style with a fast run.  The day of the start is in light airs but ahead of us is a weather front with strong winds forecasted and we lead the fleet as Vanuatu disappears into the distance. The World ARC has the ability to reach remote communities with direct aid, bypassing the multi-national relief agencies and giving help to communities along the route. This is an aspect that I had never thought of when planning our voyage and yet it has given us every bit as much pleasure as visiting white sandy beaches and tumbling waterfalls. Maybe even more. 








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