After the fiasco of clearing in at Lenakel on Tanna, Frank & I were torn whether to take a few days out to recuperate from our rough passage to Vanuatu, and the hassles of clearing in, or to continue on to Erromanga, where we had made a commitment to deliver donated goods and see how we could help the villagers. The anchorage at the north of Tanna provided some shelter from the sou’easterly winds, but there was still a noticeable swell, and the rugged coastline looked difficult to access by dinghy.
We decided to head off to Erromanga, eager to fulfill our promise, and hoping for a smoother anchorage.
By 8am’ish we were on the way, and although it looked to be a slow sail due to the light flukey winds, once we were clear of the island of Tanna, the wind picked up and before too long we could turn off the engine and scoot along at about 5-6 knots. The wind increased and by the time we could see Erromanga looming in the distance, we were shooting along at 7-8 knots. The closer we got to Erromanga (more often referred as ’Ero’ by the locals), so our speed improved- we were regularly hitting over 9 knots and several times hit 11.8 – an all out record for Stars End 2!!!
We rounded the island and as we sailed into Dillon’s Bay, there was the welcome sight of the yacht ‘Infinity III’ (we had met at Tanna) with Ron & Deborah on board, anchored close to the shore just off the village.
We spent the next few days rocking gently at anchorage at Dillon’s Bay. The area is mountainous and heavily forested & the main village comprising of around 400 villagers, headed by Chief Jason, is set back on the banks of the large Williams River which flows directly into the bay. Several fishing and longboats were moored along the river’s edge and it appeared a flourishing community that was comparatively well off compared to other villages we had seen. A fair number of villagers appeared to possess mobile phones, and many homes displayed solar panels to provide lighting and electricity.
It was mainly the thatch huts that had been damaged in the cyclone and were in the process of being repaired, but there were a significant number of more solid concrete homes and buildings with tin roofs, including a church and village primary school. School only ran for half a day at that time as the village was still so short of food that they could not feed the children at lunchtime, so the children were sent home. The villagers told us that it would be almost one year before many of their staple foods like yams, cassava, bananas and papaya would be ready to provide food and they had asked the Government for an extension of food aid for a further 6 months.
Several villagers owned saw mills to cut wood to rebuild their homes. We learnt that they also had aspirations to create a business for the community by logging and exporting the kauri trees that were native to Erromango in vast forests inland. Sandalwood plantations were discovered as far back as 1828, when traders started procuring the valuable wood. Today, they are constantly planting more sandalwood which they hope to trade themselves once they grow and develop a future business strategy. They lack financial support and backing to take this further and whilst they are enthusiastic, we wondered about the logistics of this ever being able to become their main source of trade without the appropriate intervention from overseas.
We found that a knowledge of how to use, let alone maintain their equipment, was sadly lacking, so Frank and Ron (from ‘Infinity III’) were kept very busy over our time at Dillon’s Bay, being led from one problem to another. Frank concentrated on the solar panel issues, whilst Ron tried to get the saw mills working since he owned the same brand on his north Queensland property. Frank wished he had brought along more regulators and spare parts to help resolve more problems.
We managed to fit in a visit with local guide John to a cave in a nearby bay that still displayed the skulls and bones of several generations of his ancestors. These caves were used as dwellings for thousands of years, and during times of war between tribes, the villagers would take refuge in the caves for weeks on end. Cannibalism was rampant in previous times- The last known incident involved an Australian sandalwood trader in 1839, when he encroached into a tabu area, and after he was killed, his body was shared amongst local chiefs to be ritualistically eaten.
One of the village men, Donald, spoke English extremely well and was most friendly and articulate. He became our guide for most of the time we spent at Dillon’s bay. He showed us around the village where we passed many of the women heading home from either working in their gardens or from the river banks where they do their washing.
There is one water tank high on the hill, providing water for the village, but it appeared to be a case of the nearest to the tank had the first and greatest access to the water before it ran out. Otherwise, all the water was carried in containers up from the river bed to their gardens or homes.
One day, we were invited by Donald to a ‘pot luck’ meal with his family & Ron & Deborah. ( he had learnt the expression from someone else!) His wife has started a kindergarten on their property for 27 children and Donald had an extensive vegetable garden and prided himself on his knowledge of growing sandalwood trees.
On our second day in the village, Chief Jason asked Deb and myself if we would spend some time with the village women in the Ladies Tent, that had been set up by Unicef, after the cyclone, as a private place where the women could go to discuss how they coped with the disaster and how they can help each other and their community move forward.
We were asked to share some stories about our life and how we have developed any skills we possess to make money. I tried to make the situation light hearted and so I told everyone how I had grabbed Frank as a worthy husband on my fifth day in Australia when I saw he had a lovely yacht and a speedboat- they had a good laugh at my story. I continued with my tale of developing a thriving business some years earlier from my love of art and crafts.
I tried to encourage them to utilize any talent they might have and after discussing various options from jewellery making and weaving, I started talking about sewing up lap laps (sarongs) that they could paint and decorate and offer to passing yachties and tourists. Well, that opened up a hornets nest! They asked if Deb & I could fix sewing machines and before we knew it, there were 11 machines- mostly hand Singer sewing machines all spread around the Women’s Tent, in various states of disrepair!
Luckily, our husbands both appeared on the scene so we all shared skills and managed to fix a number before the lack of daylight forced us to call it quits.
Whilst we were at Dillon’s Bay, 2 ships delivered much needed building supplies and food (rice and tinned meat & fish). With no wharf, the ships anchored in the bay, and the containers were loaded onto the longboats and fishing boats and ferried to the beach. There a line of villagers lifted them across the pebbled beach to their storage hut, and over the next few days, some of these supplies were delivered to the more remote communities scattered along the coastline, and inland.
Our time at Dillon’s Bay was broken with a 2 day break when ‘Infinity III’ and ‘Stars End 2’ traveled back along the coast to one of these more remote communities- Ponyelongi (or spelt on our maps as Pongkil), where we delivered many of our donations brought from Australia. (see following story).
One of the things that struck us all during our time in these islands of Vanuatu, ravaged so destructively by Cyclone Pam almost 3 months ago, was the resilience and fighting spirit of this hardy nation.
Coping on a yearly basis with cyclones, floods, tsunamis or earthquakes, they are accustomed to fighting the elements, and respecting the force of nature.
The smiling faces and welcoming friendship offered to us never wavered from island to island, village to village. We were always besieged by a veritable gaggle of excited children when we beached our dinghy wherever we landed, and their adorable shy smiles never failed to warm our hearts. These people have so little compared to us and are still capable of such a state of happiness that it humbles us and offers us a greater appreciation of the more important things in life. We learn from these experiences and realize that this is why we love cruising so much. Just look at these faces and tell me differently-