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Dining out in Vanuatu

As we
raised Vanuatu on the
horizon after a difficult four-day sail from
Fiji, my partner Les and I heaved a
sigh of relief. We were looking forward to hot showers and cold beer, and
meeting up with fellow cruisers we had met along the way. It wasn’t as
simple as that. We dropped our hook in Port Vila at 2pm, and called quarantine
to come and clear us. Yes, they would be out shortly. That turned out to be an
understatement. As we waited impatiently, 4pm turned into 5pm, our hope faded
with the daylight of getting cleared in today. After a few more VHF
conversations it became clear officialdom works frustratingly slowly no matter
where you are. We resigned ourselves to the fact that we weren’t going to
get that hot shower and cold beer after all.

Friends rallied
and brought us fresh bread, butter, a couple of pork chops and veggies. And the most important ingredient to any landfall, a bottle of rum
and cold cokes. At least we didn’t have to eat out of the cupboard
yet again. With tunes cranked, we enjoyed our sundowners, then
dug into our well earned meal. With cover of darkness, we dinghied over to join our friends on
Quintar Valkyrie

were also aboard, and well onto their way too big
hangovers!

The next
morning ran smoothly, and we were cleared in by polite and efficient officials.
We met up with the Valkyries
on the street, and they invited us over to their yacht for dinner. So, after
checking emails, going to the open-air market for terrific fresh produce, and
doing clean up after-passage chores for the rest of the day, we headed over for
what was to become a marathon moveable feast between neighbouring
boats. The next two weeks were a blur of feasting, each boat coming up with
incredible treats, trying to outdo the others in the culinary skills
department. We might have eaten alone aboard once over the two-week period we
spent in Port Vila. We all took turns and had some beautiful meals. The beef
from Vanuatu
is superior, tender and lean. We ate it BBQ’d, kebabed with sate, marinated in a wine broth and roasted.
This was such a contrast to our offshore meals, and thoroughly enjoyable. But
all good things must come to an end, and the fleet were splitting up and moving
off in their own directions. Valkyrie was off to New
Caledonia. Nikita
was sailing direct to Bay of Islands,
New Zealand. Quintar and
ourselves were cruising north through the Vanuatu
chain of islands before heading offshore to
Australia. We were keeping up the
tradition by continuing our moveable feast.

Our first
anchorage, once departing Port Vila, was Esoma Bay
at the top of Havannah
Harbour. We were greeted
by a Dugong, a local version of a Manatee, pushing his pig like snout just
above the surface of the water to catch his next breath. They are very shy
creatures, and we would hear him snorting every once in awhile, his breath
breaking the stillness. The other greeter was the local in his dugout outrigger
canoe. A procession ensued, with farmers passing by on their way back home to
their village across the bay. They were all polite, curious, and willing to
trade produce for whatever we were able to dig out of our cupboard. Rice,
canned meats, and a few treats for the kids.

They
still live by the simple code. Early to bed, early to rise.
Grow what you eat, and live off the land and sea. By 6AM, I could hear the
chatter of villagers as they paddled by on their way to work in their fields.
Les joined the fishermen to study local methods. They strung a net across a
river entrance, and the son dived belly flop fashion upstream to drive the
unsuspecting fish down into the old man’s nets. This was to catch bait
fish to use later on a hand line, used to catch the bigger prey.

We were invited
to Tasirki
Village on Moso Island
by Philip, the Chief’s brother. The four of use piled into Quintar’sdinghy for the ride across the bay.
Philip was waiting on the shore for us, and escorted us through the village,
showing us the wreck of the World War 11 fighter plane enshrined in jungle
vines. We found remnants of the radio, landing gear, wing sections, and a bunch
of other unidentifiable bits and pieces. Philip then showed us through the
village, introducing us to the locals as we went. The Chief’s wife
Elizabeth was happy to have a picture taken in front of the outdoor kitchen of
their thatched home. We had a look at the local version of a phone box, a phone
on a pole surrounded by a satellite dish, and solar panels. The new church was
almost finished, and I walked into the cool interior to check out the acoustics.
Dugout canoes lined the shore, and the shy kids would flash us a quick smile
before hiding. By the end of our mini tour, a small crowd had gathered on the
beach to see us off.

Our next
sail was an overnighter up to Lamen Bay
on Epi. We arrived early on a Sunday morning in
squall conditions. The next day we dinghied
ashore for a look around, and to meet Chief Tasso. His wife Lekon,
and daughter make beautiful pandanus mats and baskets
which they sell at terrific prices to people passing through. The village is a
prosperous looking place, with very neatly kept thatch houses and yards lined
by foliage. The local school has about 140 students who come from other
villages and board for the term. The supply ship comes into the Harbour and
picks up villagers and their produce, and transports them to Port Vila for
market day. Pontas, the resident Dugong, was being
shy, but the turtles were far from it, popping up all over the bay to catch a
breath before going back down to mow the turtle grass. Les went snorkeling to
look for the dugong, but he was nowhere to be found.

Our next
port of call was Crab
Bay. We were anxious to
get here as we had heard that it lives up to its name. Murf
had caught another beautiful Mahi Mahi
on the way up, and Les threw it into the smoker for another treat of a meal,
using Manuka wood chips for flavour.
The boys took the fish head in a net bag into the mangroves, in hopes of luring
some crabs. No such luck. So Les got into his great white hunter mode, and went
seeking lobster. After a fruitless search of a couple of hours, he came home
with one that would do for an appetizer. This wasn’t like him at all, to
bring home such a small catch, and he was demoralized-being beaten by a bunch
of crays. The next day, he went off again in determination,
and wasn’t coming home until he had dinner in hand! Well, he was out for
about three hours, and came home shivering but triumphant. Three
beautiful crays. We had another incredible
feast. Chili Cray’s, Cajun Etouffe, and Grilled
Cray’s with garlic butter to dip. And the next day being Sunday, we had
to do another round of Eggs Benedict.

We hauled
anchor early the next morning to continue on to Luganville,
Espiritu Santo. We found a number of other
yachts anchored out in front of the Beachfront Resort, owned and run by Fay and
Mike Windle. This is a very yachtsmen friendly place who supply showers, water fill up, happy hour, and
reasonably priced meals. It is a 100 Vatu taxi ride to a fair sized town
featuring a fresh produce market, a couple of butcher shops and bakeries,
restaurants, banks, post, as well as the requisite Chinese shops who sell just
about everything imaginable. There are a number of small motels who cater to
visitors, a large number being divers come to see some of the spectacular wrecks.
I went on a dive to see the President
Coolidge
, world famous as the most accessible wartime wreck of this
magnitude. The President Coolidge is
654’ long, lying on her side just off the shore in 65’ at her bow
to 240’ at the stern where the two 20’ propellers were salvaged.
This once proud luxury liner was commandeered to become a troopship, and upon
entering the channel hit friendly mines that blew a huge hole in the hull. She
was driven straight onto the shore, where her troops were able to disembark and
walk ashore. As the tide dropped she gradually rolled seaward and slid down the
shelf on which she had come to rest.

I opted
to join a group of sailors who had just been certified by Alan Power Dive
Center. We were picked up and driven to the site. The dive originates on shore,
where divers suit up, and walk out through the shallows, and start their
descent gradually, going through the coral gardens, before flying out over the
drop off into the deep blue. Divers follow a guide line down, down, down, until
up out of the gloom looms the sunken hulk. Myself and
Rob were led by a local Vanuatuan diver through the
promenade deck where relics of the war were scattered. He donned a coral
encrusted helmet and picked up the carbine rifle and mimicked a soldier firing
his weapon. Hilarious at 100’. He showed us
shells from anti-aircraft guns mounted on turrets, and the incongruous sight of
porcelain toilets mounted in a row and relatively coral free. And as you swim
along and gaze off into the depths beyond, large schools of fish hover. The
highlight was a 6’ long turtle resting on a turret, who
didn’t mind when we approached him, and even let us touch him before he
finned up to the surface 100’ above. Awesome!

A few
nights later, we caught a ride out to the sports complex where an evening of
music and dance was being held. We arrived at sundown, and the ladies were
setting up the food table. It was laden with skewers of chicken, beef, fried
fish, plantain, taro all served on banana leaves, accompanied by drinking
coconuts and, of course, the requisite Kava. Group after group of Kangkwai String Band, Ambaean Bue Dancers and Custom Show entertained us through the
night, culminating in the final act. The whole audience participates, singing
and circling the central dancers at a slow jog, to the beat of bamboo poles set
up as drums.

After one
more Sunday Brunch, we provisioned, filled with water and cleared out for our
final destination of Cairns
Australia, and
The Great Barrier Reef.

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