Our 2 day stay at Ponyelongi (spelt Pongkil on our charts, but Ponyelongi by Chief ‘Jif” Jerry Tiki) will no doubt remain one of the highlights of this entire cruising season.
We had not heard from our Nivan friend Stephen Able in Port Vila to know whom to contact now that we had arrived at Erromango, in order to pass on our donations, but eventually he had rung one of his many cousins, Tommasi, who lived at Dillon’s Bay, where we had been anchored for a couple of days, and he sought us out so that we could talk directly to Stephen on his mobile.
In actual fact, we had purchased a local Digicel sim card in Tanna for our mobile, but were not to know that the Digicel antenna tower on the highest point of Erromanga had been knocked down during the cyclone (it had been 60 metres high and was now reduced to 5 metres high!) and only a different network was still operating. So through Tommasi, we learnt that Stephen’s grandfather was on his way to Dillon’s Bay to meet us, and that we were invited back to their village 10 miles further south called Ponyelongi. The anchorage there is quite exposed to the ocean swell, and it is hard to land a dinghy on the beach which has many coral bombes, shoals steeply and has waves that continually break and crash onto the beach of large pebbles, all worn smooth & round by thousands of years of heavy surf pounding the shoreline.
‘Jif’ (Chief) Jerry Taki, Stephen’s grandfather, introduced himself to us that same afternoon, as we pulled up to the beach in our dinghy at Dillon’s Bay. We organised for Frank & I to take Chief Jerry and several others from his village with us on board ‘Stars End 2’ the following morning, and sail back round to Ponyelongi in company with our new friends Ron & Debbie on their yacht ‘Infinity III’.
At 8am the following morning (Tuesday 2nd June), Frank picked up the men and some of the donated provisions they had been allocated for their village from the supply ship that had delivered goods to Dillon’s Bay the previous day.
The three young men Jif Jerry brought along were fascinated with our yacht/ home and after a tour, they inquired if I had any videos to watch. It was quite an incongruous sight- three young islanders, sitting around my saloon sofa munching on homemade anzac cookies and pancakes and shrieking in delight as Charlie Chan karate’d his way around the screen on my laptop.
As we anchored in the small bay, a large ocean swell ran towards the beach where it became a rolling wave of surf that crashed with a resounding boom onto the rocky shoreline. Frank and I looked dubiously at each other until we noticed a group of village men approach the far side of the cove with a wooden step ladder which they proceeded to prop against the huge boulders that surrounded the shoreline at the water’s edge.
Frank loaded up the local boys and their supplies and I watched from the yacht as they approached the boulders at the side of the cove. It took several men standing in the water to hold the dinghy stable and stop it crashing into the rocks with the surge of the waves, as the men jumped from the dinghy onto the rocks and proceeded to clamber vertically up a small step ladder, across more boulders, and over several planks of wood that formed a narrow bridge across a deep drop, in order to reach the safety of the shoreline where you then had to proceed to clamber over more rocks, fallen trees and driftwood piled into huge mounds around the shore. Mmmnnn! Well, this is going to be interesting I thought!!! Especially with a crowd of onlookers, anticipating our arrival, and wearing a dress in order to respect their customs of appropriate attire for women.
I wore a pair of bike pants under my dress to avoid the issue of embarrassing myself with any unfeminine antics, put on my most practical shoes and packed my camera into a waterproof bag inside our small rucksack.
Frank came back and forwards to the yacht as we filled the dinghy several times with all our donated supplies to ferry ashore. At the drop off point, men formed a congo line to pass the boxes and bags from the dinghy which was held in place by the men in the water, against the buffeting of the waves against the rocks, across the boulders and onto the shoreline near the village.
Then it was time to transport ourselves! Frank picked up Ron & Deborah from their yacht anchored nearby, and when we reached the shoreline, we were inundated with willing hands to help us ashore. Frank stayed in the dinghy so that he could manoeuvre it towards the shoreline and wait for the series of waves to decrease to allow him to make a
mad dash for the beach where yet more obliging men were wading into the water chest deep in order to retrieve the boat. As the waves pounded the beach and then sucked back, jagged rocks were exposed in the foaming surf. It was up to Frank to time his motoring forward to coincide with both the waves momentarily decreasing and weaving in and out between the rocks!
With calls of encouragement from shore and men in the water, Frank understood the timing was right. He set the outboard forward and manoeuvred the boat along the memorized safe path towards the beach. In chest high water, waves began to form and break, and about 8 to 10 men all took hold of the dinghy to allow Frank to jump clear. With amazing skill, strength & ease of practice, the men timed their lifts forward as the waves pushed them forwards the shore, and it was only moments later that our 120 kilo plus dinghy was safely placed on the pebble beach above the high watermark.
We managed to take our first good look around and observed the many homes scattered across the steep hillside, most made of bamboo & thatch, a few made of concrete and tin iron. To one side of the village, was a fast running river that obviously began its life far away amongst the sheer cliffs and mountains in the distance and tumbled down the hillsides into the sea here, providing welcome fresh water for the entire community. The landscape seemed very green and lush, despite the familiar signs we were becoming accustomed to recognizing as post cyclone damage- piles of rubble & debris where homes had once stood, fallen & broken coconut palms, stripped of their leaves, gnarled trees displaying a thick burst of new life, and fenced gardens proudly displaying the green leaves of newly planted vegetables, where once flourishing gardens provided the bulk of their food.
Chief Jerry approached the group and ushered us forward towards the grass area just behind the beach where a large group of villagers were gathered, sitting on logs or on the ground, with skinny dogs and chickens searching for scraps on the ground.
We were introduced to ‘Jif ‘ Gibben who was head of Ponyelongi village as well as ‘Jifs’ Ben & Youen who had traveled the 7 kms down from the village of Happy Land, set high up the valley behind the hillside. This is where the local primary school was situated and Mike, the Year 6 teacher came over to introduce himself and would remain with us as our guide and translator during our entire stay.
As to how the village Happy Land got it’s name , we didn’t really get an answer- Mike simply said his community were so happy to live up there, and were proud to have a name for their village that is not found anywhere else in the world!
Teacher Mike asked us to take a seat and then proceeded to make a welcome speech and offered us a formal introduction to the communities of Ponyelongi and Happy Land. He expressed the heartfelt appreciation of the entire community for all our donations we had brought with us, and the trouble we had taken to come to their village. We were given an honorary status in their village and told we would always be welcome as one of their own people. Four women came forward and formally offered us each a lei made from kauri leaves, and head dresses made from chicken feathers that they put in our hair. (I have to say I felt like an absolute ninny, with these furry ‘ears’ that kept slipping over my face as my hair was too fine to hold them in place!)
A stunning handmade ‘tapa’ (woven mat), using a distinct pattern and weave indicative specifically to the people of Erromanga, was offered to Frank & I in return for our gifts, as well as several other smaller painted mats made of the tree bark fabric that used to be the traditional material used for their clothing. A trussed live chicken was placed on the mats as a final gesture of thanks! When Frank politely told Mike that we were unable to take the live chicken back onto the yacht with us, it was killed and boiled and offered to us for our meal that night!
Mike then asked one of us to make a reciprocal speech, which took us by surprise, but since Frank & I were the ones who had initiated this invitation so that we might offer our donations, I felt I should stand up and speak (I knew Frank would not be comfortable to do so).
I thanked the chiefs & villagers for their wonderful welcome and hospitality and said how happy we were to be able to come here to offer our donations to their community. I was asked to open some of the containers and boxes to show them what we had brought, so I revealed to the large crowd of onlookers the toolkits, saws, hammers, over 20 kilos of nails, tin snips, tarpaulins & iron strapping we hoped would allow them to repair some of their damaged buidlings. I showed them the boxes of medical needs & toiletries, collapsible water containers, many scores of packets of non genetically modified seeds, eskies of rice and noodles, & tins of meat and fish, plus bags of clothing & shoes.
We had several boxes of both new school materials and second hand text books we had been given, so they were thrilled with the large selection of items that would help the 97 children that attend the primary school. Mike was thrilled to receive letters and gifts from Yr 4 at Scarborough State School and said that he felt this a wonderful opportunity to form a relationship with another school in Australia where they could continue to communicate through the children.
Once the formalities were over, we talked to some of the villagers, and were invited into their ‘nakamal’ (community house) where we were offers a lunch of yams and kumala (native potato).
Afterwards, Mike showed us around the village. We walked up the hillside above the bay, and saw one of the famous kauri trees that the island of Erromango is famous for growing in large numbers. The islanders would love to have the resources for creating an income by milling the Kauri wood, but there appears to be a definite shortage of funds and infrastructure for developing the industry.
We also walked across the riverbed where the women do all their washing and lay the clean clothes on the large pebbles and rocks to dry. There were piles of accumulated logs and branches, all worn smooth by the pounding of the heavy surf against the rocky foreshores. We met some of the village women returning from foraging the shoreline for seafood- they had found shellfish and freshwater prawns.
Frank & Ron were invited to a kava ceremony with some of the village men before we left the village for the night.
Vanuatu kava is considered substantially stronger than Fijian kava, and Mike explained that here, the boys chew the root in their mouths before spitting it out, and then infuse this mixture with water to make a potent drink.
Our men were rather reticent to participate! However, for fear of offending, since it did appear to be an important ceremony that Mike insisted the men participate in, they both had one cup and agreed the drink was rather strong and not too unpleasant.
We were invited back into the namakal to eat an evening meal of freshwater prawns cooked in a wonderful sauce made from fresh coconut juice and garlic, the now deceased & cooked chicken, and more yams, prepared by the women especially for us. We were so humbled by the wonderful hospitality shown by this small village of about 170 people. Another 150 men, women & children live up at Happy Land, and since we were all very keen to see the primary school and this community set so high in the hills, we decided to stay the night anchored and return in the morning to make the trek up the hillside.
After making our plans for the following day, it was already getting dark, so with a group of men heaving the heavy dinghy back in the water, it was decided that the tide was high and conditions were ‘calm’ enough for us all to jump into the dinghy from the beach. Again, the timing was crucial, and when the breaking waves were at their lowest, everyone pushed us forward and urged us into the dinghy. Frank jumped on last and started the engine within seconds, steering us clear of the swell and hidden bombes. We waved goodbye and within a few minutes were safely on board our yachts, where we rocked and rolled gently all night long.