The next morning, we were on the beach by 7am, ready for the long trek up the steep hillside to Happy Land, some 6 or 7 kms on the top of the escarpment (there was no one who really knew the distance). This time we all went ashore on Ron’s rubber ducky which was much lighter than our own- he dropped us off at the rocks and we climbed the native ladder propped against the rocks and scrabbled along the rocky shoreline to the beach to join Ron and the local islanders who had lifted his dinghy from the water and carried it up the beach where it would be safe & dry above the waterline.
Ron & Debbie had brought in a huge tarpaulin they had been given by Samaritan Purse (Charity organization in Lenakel) which they were going to donate to the community up at Happy Land plus a large bag of second hand clothing for the school children.
Our guide from the previous day, Mike, one of the four schoolteachers up at Happy Land Primary School along with Jif Jerry accompanied us on the long walk. Plus we had 2 carriers for the heavy loads that they carried with so much ease and agility. We were staggered to hear how 600gallon water tanks, bags of concrete, building materials as well as 25 kilo bags of rice and flour are all carried up by hand over this immensely rugged terrain in order to reach Happy Land some 750 metres up to the top of the mountainside.
Overweight and totally unfit, I realized that this was going to be a challenge for myself from the very beginning and it was suggested I stay behind. However, we were told that 14 of the village children ranging from ages 7 to 10 make this climb every morning to reach school and then return back down every afternoon in all conditions, so we were in awe of their dedication and resilience. This made me all the more determined to succeed, so I proceeded slowly and carefully up the steep path zigzagging the hillside.
Mike, Frank, Ron & Deborah led the way ahead of me with Jif Jerry bringing up the rear, encouraging me all the way to take it slow and easy. The path was sometimes slippery, sometimes crumbly, but all I know is that it climbed steeply & constantly, so we were all glad of the gnarled tree roots sticking out of the ground to give a little more grip to our footing. We stopped frequently to catch our breath and gaze at fallen trees and dense forest growth re sprouting foliage after the cyclone ravaged through at 280 kms an hour, stripping every bit of green from the land.
The school children take one hour to climb the 6-7 kms to school, and I am proud to say that with yours truly acting as a substantial anchor to the team, we managed to make the climb in an hour and a half. I have to say that my heart was beating, my legs were shaking, and I had never sweat so much in my entire life (my hair was soaked as were all my clothes!)
As we reached the plateau, we started meeting Happy Land villagers who were on their own mission down the hillside to pick up donated provisions that had been delivered by ship to the larger settlement of Dillon’s Bay and then ferried in longboats to neighboring communities like Ponyelongi. We must have shaken hands and introduced ourselves to dozens of men, women & children, the latter of whom only overcame their fear of a ‘white skin’ by the lure of one of my indubitable bags of lollies!!! Many of them barefoot, they were cheerfully making the trek down and returning later that day each loaded down with bags of food- mainly 25 kilo bags of rice, and tins of meat & fish. This was apparently the last food aid delivery made by the Vanuatu government , and everyone was concerned that it was going to take another 6 months at least before their main staples like yam, taro and cabbages that they have started to replant and fruits like paw paw and bananas would be grown enough to be producing fruit.
As we reached the village, we were met with two of the other school teachers and the deputy principal of Umponyelongi Primary School They had heard of all the donations of school materials and books that we had brought with us from Australia (that were still at the main village) , and were very excited that I had brought letters and pictures from a local primary school near our home in Scarborough, as they were keen to develop a relationship.
We stopped to say hello to all the villagers we met and warmed to their friendly smiles. We passed between a number of thatched homes and Jif jerry showed us the nakamal where 117 of their village had huddled in safety whilst Cyclone Pam ravaged across their island. The thatched hut was traditionally built using wood and vines to bind the frame together, and walls woven from bamboo and leaves, but so strong that it survived the 200 plus mph winds.
We arrived at a large grassy field with a couple of modest tin roofed buildings to the side- this was Umponyelongi Primary School. As Mike proudly showed us the extension being built at one end to house a new library and teacher’s room, we could hear the chatter of excited voices coming from the classrooms and on closer inspection, see rows of smiling, shy faces peering out from behind the window shutters. As the teachers and our men unraveled a huge donated tarpaulin onto the school playing field, I approached the classrooms and introduced myself to all the curious children who were so excited to have ‘white skin’ visitors.
The students are taught in English using text books that looked tatty & scores of years old, but that didn’t affect the enthusiasm or intelligence of the children who nodded eagerly in understanding when I explained that another school In Brisbane would love to have letters and pictures sent back to them.
They spoke shyly but excitedly in good broken English with us and proudly displayed their exercise books full of neat handwriting and bright colorful pictures. They were all dressed in an ragged mismatched assortment of clothes, but most had made an effort to wear red tops and black pants or skirts as their uniform. They were all very excited that due to our visit, they were left unattended whilst the teachers were chatting with us and would finish school at lunchtime so that they could join their families to trek the 7 kms down to Pongkil to pick up supplies delivered from Dillon’s Bay and return by nightfall.
Once the donated tarpaulin and football net had been displayed, the teachers gathered the students by class, starting with the youngest.
The children waited in lines by the tarpaulin laid out over the grass field, whilst the teachers allocated an item of second hand clothing to each child according to size and gender. None of the children were greedy or demanding, but I noticed a few tentative glances in the direction of a particular item of clothing that had taken their eye.
Once they had received their offering, the children ran back to their classrooms where there was much shrieking and laughter as the classrooms became changing rooms and boys and girls soon emerged back out into the sunlight in a mixture of bizarre clothing. Pyjama tops were worn as jackets and over sized pants were hitched up to knees, but in every case, the children were obviously delighted at this unexpected windfall. For the few that missed out due to insufficient clothing or size, they were soon cheered when Jif Jerry explained that they would be receiving clothing from the bags that Frank & I had donated yesterday.
So after they all happily posed for photos, the teachers called the children together for a resounding rendition of a ‘goodbye song”. We had been absolutely enchanted by this group of youngsters who showed us yet again how being bright and cheerful has nothing to do with wealth & acquisition.
Once we return back to Brisbane,I feel very motivated to see if I can do a presentation for the schoolchildren at Scarborough Primary School with my photos and videos to share my story and hopefully form a bridge of communication between the two.
It was sad to hear 24 yr old Mike tell how the same text books were being used as when he was at the school as a young boy. There must surely be a way, I could encourage local schools at home to pass on their old text books!
Jif Jerry was aware that time was a marching and that it would take us a couple of hours to walk back down the steep track, so after offering us a lunch of yams and kumula (a vegetable similar to a potato), we said our farewells to Happy Land and started the long way home.
We had not gone far, before Jif Jerry meandered down a different track stating that this would allow us the opportunity to pass a high cliff face that gave a wonderful view down to the bay and Pongkil below.
I had no idea that this meant tramping through dense forest and scarcely defined tracks and necessitated clambering over huge fallen trees, rocky slopes and thick bushland where you could not even see where to place your feet. For anyone that knows me and my fear of creepy crawlies, or the bush, I was yet again very definitely out of my comfort zone. I struggled on, determined not to be a ‘pussy’, attempting to keep up with 71 year old Jerry who walked ahead of me with the ease of a gazelle! At least I managed to only topple over into the bush once, (thankfully landing somewhat unceremoniously on my backside) before we reached the halfway point.
Jif Jerry told us that this place was like a ‘holiday home’ for any of his villagers who felt like getting away from the village for a while. It was very lush and green and very high up!
When we approached the promontory nearby, the view was quite breathtaking.
After a short break, we continued down the much trod path that at least had steps placed in particularly treacherous places to stop us slipping down the steep slopes.
Before too long, we reached the outskirts of Pongkil village where there were many villagers loading up with 25 kilo bags of rice, boxes of provisions and bags of tins. Even tiny children carried a small parcel and made no complaint of the long walk back up the torturous track to Happy Land village.
Not wishing to delay our departure, we bade our sad farewells to Jif Jerry, Mike and all the villagers we had met, being reassured that we would be welcomed back at any time.
After the village men helped lift Ron’s rubber dinghy back into the water, we timed the waves again and at the given time, the locals yelled at us to go.
We all rushed forward, jumped into the dinghy and were pushed out into deeper water before the next series of waves could swamp the boat.
Within a few minutes, we had lifted our anchors and puttered in close to the headland so that we could farewell the group of children who had gathered on the point to wave and shout goodbye. It was a wonderful and fitting end to an amazing time spent in this little bay that is not even marked on the map as a place to anchor.
As we head back down the coast to Dillon’s Bay, we passed one of Jif Jerry’s other sons who lives further along the coast in a more isolated village of 14 people. He had picked up his own community’s supplies in his dugout canoe and outrigger and with 120 kilo of rice and food loaded precariously in his boat, he maneuvered down the coastline. We watched through binoculars as he sat patiently biding his time, for the swell and waves to be precisely right, before making a dash for the rocky shoreline where we could see a few homes dotted on the cliff.
A final word
A special mention needs to be made that if it were not for the amazing generosity of a wonderfully caring group of people, Frank and I would have not been proudly representing them, by delivering our small offerings to communities that were faced with recovery and rebuilding after the worst cyclone in their country’s recorded history.
Many of these items and goods we gave were donated through the kind generosity of friends back in Brisbane. I need to say a special thank you to my cousin Chris in England for his generous donation that allowed us to buy many of the new items such as tools, tarpaulins and water containers. Thanks lovely Deb & Nev, & Jay Drew for the new tools you also donated, and Ken & Lois, your old family tools are being utilized by villagers a long way from home!
Anita & Pierre gave so many varied and useful items as they moved out of their home , and we only wish we had been able to drag a raft behind with everything we should have liked to include. Luckily we were able to pass on the heavier, bulkier items to someone in Brisbane who was sending a container across to Vanuatu, so we know it reached grateful communities in stricken areas.
Thanks to the Austin family & Tammy, & Teeny for their contributions, Ellie and Joe (for his treasured trade tools), Isabelle & family with sweet Yara & Lanie, for their beautiful pictures, letters and toys they gave through their school, and all the clothing, text books and school items from Scarborough State School families.
Many bags of mixed donations came by way of the Hicks Family, and they will have the satisfaction of knowing their new school materials are helping the education of the 97 children in Happy Land primary school as well as offering hope and relief to many families with their generous offerings.
Now we have had the rewarding opportunity to give to others, it is time for Frank and I to take some time out for ourselves and set sail to new uncharted waters (at least to us!)
Below are some images of Cyclone Pam and it’s destruction.