Our visit to the Maskelyne Islands would have ticked almost all our ‘bucket list’ boxes for our visit to Vanuatu if we had boxes to tick. If it had had a volcano we would have stayed here for the remainder of our visit to Vanuatu.
I will say that there was one distasteful incident which happened on a Catamaran anchored near us. A local that introduced himself as the chief dropped by while we were visiting on their boat and demanded that we pay a fine for snorkeling in Tabu waters. As our host family had told us where to go for snorkeling and hadn’t mentioned any restrictions, we refused to pay the $20 fine. We promptly left the Catamaran not wanting any further discussions with the local. We were informed the next day that he had been an impostor. Although infrequent, there are such incidents that give the village as a whole a bad reputation in the cruising community. I included this story at the beginning as it really was just a little blip to an otherwise beautiful experience and probably our favorite Vanuatu anchorages. And we loved the people.
We arrived at Uliveo island by mid afternoon and now had to find our anchorage point. The 2015 cruising guide showed an anchor icon in one bay but the waypoint indicated the anchoring in another bay. Hmmm, which one is correct? A local in a dugout came by our boat and volunteered to show us the pass. We invited him on board and then he proceeded to try to help us but couldn’t say which bay we should anchor in. Our first pick turned out to be a bust as it shallowed up really fast and there was coral everywhere. Stewart, our visiting local suggested that we try the next bay, which is where other visiting boats have anchored. It was a little nerve wrecking getting in as it became shallow quite quickly before it dropped off again. Stewart had no understanding of how much water our boat draws being used to paddling a dugout most of his life. He gave us no warnings about how shallow it would get, just three feet under the keel at one point, or where we should really anchor. Part of his reluctance to say anything may be mainly due one of the culture habits that became very apparent to us, Vanuatu people just don’t like to give you ‘bad news’ or ‘negative answers’. They would rather say nothing or tell you what you want to hear. And this has been a recurring theme while visiting Vanuatu and sometimes it got us in trouble.
We did anchor nicely in a very well protected hole. Shortly before arriving, we had caught a pretty large Barracuda and as we had some concerns about Ciguatera poisoning we gave most of the fish to Stewart. Google will tell you that Ciguatera poisoning is caused by consumption of reef fish contaminated with ciguatoxin which originates with certain algae associated with coral reef systems and accumulates up the food chain from small herbivorous fish to large carnivorous fish such as the Barracuda. It has no specific color, odor, taste but the effect of the poisoning can make one feel ill for a long time. When we asked whether they ate Barracuda the answer was “yes”. When we asked whether Ciguatera was a concern the answer was “sometimes”. It turned out that the fish was fine and they enjoyed every morsel or so they told us.
There was a small basic resort on the island and there were some NZ visitors staying there. As they had not had a taste of a cold beer since their arrival in Uliveo we invited them on board for Happy Hour. We were also craving some socialization as so far other cruising boats have been scarce.
As we had arrived on a Friday we were quickly invited to the Sunday Presbyterian church service. We arrived at Tom’s house at 10:00 for the 10:30 service. Tom took one look at us and suggested that Denny borrow one of his collared shirts and that I borrow one of his wife Esther’s ‘Island dresses’.
She came out with 3 and then accompanied me to the eating area hut and watched me try on the dresses. She shook her head to the first, second and third dress and then exclaimed I was ‘Fat, very Fat’!! Her comment took me by surprise and I found it refreshing that they had no body shame to casually make such a remark and I exclaimed that life was good. Although I was a little puzzled as by comparison to a lot of the ‘mammas’ I was not so fat?? I realized later that she was probably referring to me as being ‘Tall, very Tall’ and most dresses did not properly cover my knees. (at least that is what tells herself, and of coarse I have agree)
The church service had the usual local vibrant optimism and unabashed singing and at the end of the service they welcomed us to their village, said a prayer for our safe journey and then asked us to lead the exit procession so that we could give a hand shake to all attendees and receive many a ‘God be with you’ remark. Tom and Esther invited us to share a Sunday meal with their family and it was the first time we ate the local Lap-lap, Vanuatu’s national dish.
It was made by grating manioc, smothered in coconut cream, wrapped in banana leaves and then cooked in a ground oven of hot stones. It wasn’t Denny’s favorite but the second time we were invited for a Lap-lap meal and chicken was added it was actually pretty ‘tasty’!
We had several meals with Tom’s family and also invited them back to our boat for dinner. I am not sure if the meal was a hit but the cake sure was.
Tom invited to go fishing in his brother in-law Philippe’s power boat for a fishing excursion. All we had to do was bring our own fishing lines, lures and supply the gas. They weren’t too impressed with our lures, too BIG! Most of the fishing was done inside the reef and the tuna they were catching were no more than a foot long. Fish was actually scarce and we were told that they used to export 40 large bins of fish per week to the markets in the larger islands.
Now they can only fill up about 25 bins and that is slowly diminishing. They were actually contemplating putting a stop to all netting. difficult to do if fish is one of the main income source for the small islands in the Maskelynes. It was a great way to see the outer islands although we hit some very hard rain and wind on our return trip making it a miserable ride home. We didn’t catch any fish with our lures.
We did do some snorkeling as there were Dugong here. And I finally saw several Dugong although not with a camera.
We stayed at this anchorage for 10 days so that we could partake in the annual Canoe Race festival. This was a 2 day celebration which included lunch and dinner, watching the local canoe races and even participating in the tourist canoe race, which I won (thanks strong big arms)!
The festival took place on the North side of the island with a beautiful backdrop of the mountains of Malekula and colorful canoes scattered on the beach and ready for the races.
The day was filled with a range of canoe races which included different age groups, ladies and men but never mixed as that was Tabu, and mother daughter races.
There was a Kava making demonstration which was basically peeling the Pepper plant root and grinding it using an old fashioned meat grinder into a small bag which would be submerged in a bucket of water and water squeezed through the bag to seep the drug out of the ground root.
This process was repeated 3 times and then we were all offered a cup to gulp down. I could feel tongue and lip numbing for about 10 minutes but nothing after that. It was suggested that we drink about 4-5 cups to have the pleasant, happy, relaxing feeling. They named the kava ‘Morning Fresh’ as no matter how much you drank you would wake up morning fresh. We found that hard to believe. First cup was free but after that we had to pay.
We were good with just a taste as the sloppy, grey dishwater kava drink wasn’t all that appealing.
There was a sand drawing demonstration which I had also seen at the National museum in Port Vila. We were asked to pick a specific animal, plant bird and then the sand drawer would make the elaborate drawing all in one smooth flow, never lifting his finger until the picture had been completed. Pretty impressive!
As if all the colour of costumes and surroundings wasn’t enough, they introduced us to their local birds which I had had rare glimpses of and now could look at up close.
We were given a basket weaving demonstration and shown how the coconut leaves were used to make the walls for their huts, fans, carrying baskets used to carry the vegetables gathered from their farms and throwaway plates and garbage collection baskets. They made all this stuff with such ease and it is great knowledge to have considering plastic has now been banned in Vanuatu.
Bringing in food by dugout. The island is to small so much of the growing is done on the neighboring island.
The ‘Mamas’ gave us a traditional food making demonstration which included Lap-lap and Bunia (which stands for baked solid food and meat). The main difference between the two being the meat which is included in the Bunia.
The meals that the mamas prepared for us was very tasty. It included a buffet of shell fish marinated in lemon juice, deep fried taro patties, kumara chips, rice, curried fish and grilled fish and we served ourselves using ‘Island paper plates’ (a stack of 2-3 large leaves cupped in your hands to hold great quantities of food).
For the final meal they even roasted a piglet over hot coals. The roasting was well tended by several men that continually fanned the meat with fragrant leaves and one man manually turned the piglet on the spit as required.
The children were a constant source of entertainment with their beautiful smiles all eager to watch the races and play their simple old fashioned string games. They would come in pairs and show you what symbols they could create with 10 fingers, a long string and little help.
The closing ceremonies included Kastom dancing and singing.This required some pretty elaborate face painting and costume preparation all from local materials.
life here is much simpler but it is changing and the future is not always the brightest.