Journal 38; Vanuatu & New Caledonia
Sept. 5 - Oct. 26, 2011
We made a comfort stop in Port-Vila, Vanuatu; internet, wash clothes, small provisioning, Island tour with other cruisers that turned into a pub crawl… After that it was time to get out so we made a short trip to Hideaway Island to see a Vanuatu fire show. The performers were quite enthusiastic and the show was entertaining especialy when a performer caught his hair on fire. Since he had a bush of hair it took some doing to put it out but fortunately only his pride was injured.
We got a big kick out of this local beer label!! We then sailed north to Havannah Harbor, a large tranquil bay that was an American naval base during WWII. The bay is completely protected so the Navy established this as a supply center for the major battles that were further to the north (Philippines, Guadal Canal, etc.).
There we meant some interesting Australians, Karen & Robert. They have over 60,000 nautical miles sailing but for the past nine years they have returned to the same anchorage where they have ‘adopted’ a Vanuatu family. Karen & Robert then introduced us to Roland and this is his story and way of life.
Roland and his wife have a small garden where they grow tomato, bok choy, lettuce and cabbage. Twice a week his wife travels to Port-Vila with a load of produce to sell at the market. They have two children; an older son and a young daughter.
Roland works the soil of a garden for three or fours years and then the soil is no longer fertile. Roland’s Chief then assigns him a new plot of land. He burns the land (the ash fertilizes the soil) and plants the following year.
One of the threats to his garden is wild chickens that eat his crops and kills the plants. Roland explained the chicken trap he was building. Roland cut young shoots of bamboo and then laced them together with a thin vine. The bait is coconut meat that is tied it to the trap’s stick that props up one end of the trap. When a chicken picks at the coconut, the trap will release and fall on the bird. Roland speculates he will catch about 4 or 5 chickens per week with his trap. They also build a larger version of the same type of trap to catch wild pigs.
By tradition, girls work in the gardens but sons do not. Roland and his wife needed help in their garden so they followed the local practice of buying a baby daughter to help in their work. They still have contact with the birth mother, but the daughter calls Roland and his wife, “Mum & Dad.”
Roland’s son is planning to marry next year and they have to purchase the bride. This is a huge financial burden. All together it will cost them about $100,000 vatu for the wedding, or about US$1,200. That’s a lot of money for these people. His son already has a child by his future wife but Roland has told his son, “No more children until after the wedding, its too expensive.” Explanation: prolific breeding women are more valuable and Roland does not want to increase the bride’s purchase price.
To pay for the wedding, other family members will give Roland money. In turn, Roland is expected to do the same in the future. We visited Roland’s house and he has a huge pig, Clarence that will be delivered to the bride’s family as a partial payment. They are all hopeful that Clarence does not die before the wedding!
Brides do come with a guarantee. Another young man in the community paid for a young bride but unfortunately she died quite young. The bride’s family had to replace the dead wife so the young man married his wife’s sister (no charge).
Roland will receive a cash payment for their daughter they bought as a baby before she marries.
In Vanuatu society, men are the most valued, then the livestock and finally the women. This is difficult to understand or rationalize, but no one asked our opinion.
New Hebrides (later to be name changed to Vanuatu) for many years was governed by a shared authority between France & Great Britain. All government agencies were duplicated. Example: there was a French police force & court system and a British police force and court system. A French policeman could not arrest an Englishman and vice versa. The indigenous population had no representation in either system so the whole scheme was not workable. Eventually, France and Great Britain relinquished authority and Vanuatu became independent.
The majority of the Vanuatu population speaks French, English and Bislama, a local Pidgin English. A few examples of their local language:
-The name of a local beer: “Numbawan” (Number one)
-A newspaper ad promoting mobile phones: “mekem wan kol blong 2 minit & yu save winim 10,000VT” (make 1 call for 2 minutes & you could win 10,000 local currency)
-A local beer motto: Bier blong Yumi (Our beer)
We did the normal check-out procedures when leaving a country by getting official clearance from immigration and customs. The next country always requires these papers so it is not optional.
We had a pleasant two day sail to New Caledonia. The only event was 30 miles from Port-Vila there was a small Chinese fishing boat headed in our direction. It did not appear that he had lines
or nets deployed. Since we were sailing we had the right of way. We were on a collision course with the fishing boat and the Chinese captain did not respond to our calls on the VHF radio. But his crew was waving and smiling at us as we got closer. At the last moment we had to take evasive action to avoid a collision, and it was close; too close. Thirty miles out to sea with a whole ocean to navigate and we were within two boat lengths of disaster but the fisherman kept smiling and waving to us as if all was well!
The following day the winds died with no relief in sight we motored to New Caledonia through the inner reef to the capital, Noumea (Nu-ME-ah).
Captain Cook was the first European to sight New Caledonia and it reminded him of Scotland. So he named the island New Caledonia (in Roman language Caledonia = Scotland). New Caledonia later became part of France and the main port was named ‘Port de France’. This caused immense confusion of mail and freight with Fort de France, Martinique so they changed the name to Noumea.
Europeans have not been kind to New Caledonia. First there were the whalers; then the forests were denuded of sandalwoods and other hard woods. New Caledonia then became a French penal colony. The indigenous population, Kanacks, had all their freedoms taken away. One example: they were not allowed to travel outside their villages without written authority from the French government.
Mining was then introduced and the ochre colored hills are now scarred from years of mining. Until nickel was discovered in Canada, New Caledonia was the world’s largest nickel producer. Nickel is used for many things including stainless steel and now computer batteries. Huge mines and smelting plants are in operation that pollute the air and strip the mountains. When looking at New Caledonia’s mountains, the song verse comes to mind, “Mr. Peabody’s coal train done hauled it away.”
During WWII Noumea became the U.S. Navy’s second busiest port, second only to San Francisco. The port facilities were expanded to handle supplies and field hospitals were built to support the wounded from battles to the north. There is a nice memorial that was dedicated in 1996 for all the American military that protected New Caledonia.
New Caledonia has a lot to offer for a visitor. We have always enjoyed spending time in French Islands and New Caledonia is no exception. The food, language, services available and the highly organized government systems are all to be enjoyed. After severing the tip of my left ring finger we also found New Caledonia’s medical system to be world class. All the doctors and surgical nurses in the hospital were from France and highly professional. When I asked the staff, “Why did you immigrate to New Caledonia?” their answers were one of two: “I love to scuba dive” or “I love to sail.”
After a few days of finger recuperation it was time to get out of Noumea and explore New Caledonia. We have sailed through much of the South Pacific but we found one of our most favorite anchorages to be Isles des Pines (The Pine Islands). Our trip southeast with 15-20 knot northeast wind was probably our most enjoyable sailing trip (ever) with sunny skies and sailing between 8 & 9 knots of speed while passing coral reefs on our port and starboard sides. What are the three best words while fishing? Answer: “Get the gaff.”
We were doing almost 9 knots when we hooked a big fish. We do not have fishing poles, only hand lines, so we had to slow the boat. Despite only one good hand we were able to pull the fish close to the boat and that’s when I told JoDon, “Get the gaff.” We landed a very fat, yellow fin tuna and it was delicious. We ate so much sushi for lunch that our bill at a sushi restaurant would have been well over US$100.
Isle des Pines is smashingly beautiful with a tranquil anchorage. The water was crystal clear and the white sand beach at Kuto Bay was like powdered sugar. Mt. Pic N’ga (230 meters) is an easy climb for a fantastic 360º view of Isle des Pines and the surrounding coral islands. We really enjoyed our stay.
We later sailed back to the main island with a beautiful sail but no fish L. We went into Prony Bay which is like a New Caledonia version of Chesapeake Bay. You are still in the ocean but it is so calm it’s like being on a lake. We did some hiking and our clothes, boots, dinghy and boat were stained by the red dirt. With the red dirt, JoDon thought she was home in Oklahoma!
Hiking in the hills of New Caledonia was quite dramatic. On one day we did an all day hike into the mountains. We hiked up along a small river that included many cascades and then further into the mountains. As our elevation increased so did the fauna and flora. Within an hour we could be in a pine forest and then an open prairie, reminiscent of Big Bend, TX. Many of the trails were former mining rail tracks and abandoned tracks from the mining cars were along side the paths.
After several days of tranquility anchored in the backwoods of Prony Bay, we moved back into the ‘real’ ocean of 20 knot winds to visit the outer islands in the South Lagoon. While sailing to our next destination we were fortunate to catch a large Mahi fish. Last April we bought meat in New Zealand and our freezer has still not been emptied. There was only one other boat braving the anchorage in the high winds (they were kite boarders and loving it) so we invited SV Squander for a sushi lunch. SV Squander was four youngsters sailing and enjoying the world, between them they carried four different passports: Poland, Argentina, Holland and Australia. It was a boisterous lunch!
JoDon was able to do some ‘final’ snorkeling on the reefs of the South Lagoon. Her last was cut short when she swam over a crevice and found a 12 foot nurse shark resting a few feet in front of her. Knowing that something twice your size won't hurt you and not reacting are two seperate things. We are hoping to make the five day trip to Australia very soon with a Brisbane ETA of November 1st.
All the best to you!
Brian and JoDon