Legacy vs. The Volcano

October 10, 2017

Manaro Voui volcano steams on Ambae Island, Vanuatu

The volcano on Ambae Island (here in Vanuatu) has been erupting. All 11,000 island residents have been evacuated to neighboring islands. We thought we wouldn’t be able to stop at Ambae because of this eruption, but in recent days it has gone from a level 4 (out of 5) to level 3. The island is still evacuated but as we sailed past Ambae on our way to Maewo we saw the Vanuatu police boat Takoro and since it was getting late and we wouldn’t make Maewo until after dark, we asked if we could spend a night. “It’s OK” came the reply, so we dropped anchor up at the northeast tip in a place called Vanihe Bay.

As you can see in the photo above, the volcano looked to be putting out mostly steam with little smoke. That might still be from lava running down from the cone into the lake that surrounds the cone. We didn’t see any red glow at night nor did we hear any of the explosions we were told about. All was calm in our little bay.

Vanihe Bay anchorage on Ambae Island, Vanuatu

This is a beautiful island and we hope things calm down quickly and the displaced residents can return home soon. I wish we could have gone ashore and explored but we felt like we were pushing our luck as it was. We’re happy to have seen what we did and avoided the being incinerated part of the experience. -Rich

Update: October 22, 2017

After our night at Ambae, we moved on to Maewo. All did not remain peaceful at Ambae. First we saw huge clouds above the volcano, then we heard thunderous booms. Cyndi even got quite a picture at night of the glow of the lava.

Despite this, we’ve heard that volcano is calming down and that the Vanuatu government will start returning evacuees any day now. We’re glad they get to go home.

Leaving Aore (Sad Face!)

October 10, 2017

We’re going to head out in a few minutes, bound for islands on the east side of Vanuatu. In parting, here’s why the sad face at the thought of leaving this wonderful place.

Our farewell dinner at Aore Island Resort last night.
My farewell meal – Santo Beef! This was probably the best steak I’ve ever had.

In all likelihood, we’ll be out of touch for a while. I’m not expecting much from the internet in Maewo, Pentecost or Ambrym. Eventually, we should get to Port Vila (where we’ll check out to leave the tropics for cyclone season) and there we’ll be able to update our blog. There are lots of pictures of our time here coming. -Rich

Journey to Vanua Balavu (Northern Lau Group, Fiji)

September 16, 2013

The conditions were comfortable as we started north from Fulaga to Vanua Balavu, but the wind came up during the night and we had a lot of mixed swells, making for an unpleasant and uncomfortable ride even though the true wind was aft of the beam. The combination of having too much sail up plus swells hitting us on the beam made for classic seasick conditions. I ended up losing everything I’d eaten that day, especially sad when one of those things was a fresh fish dinner.

After a nap I was up again by 3am to take another watch. Again I felt sick and had a pretty intense round of dry heaves (with nothing left to bring up) over the side of the boat. No fun, but I felt better after that. (There will be a point to this story.)

What a relief when the island came into sight the next morning. We were able to head up its lee side, getting us out of the swell although it was still windy and rather cloudy.

Vanua Balavu is an island surrounded by a coral reef; so we had a pass we had to enter. Nature, of course, played her favorite joke on us and decided to let loose some rain as we headed in through the pass. No matter what the conditions, we tend to attract clouds and rain as we head in through any given pass.

After going through the pass we motored across a large harbor inside the reef. We had two choices: anchor off Dalconi Village and do our sevusevu, which would give us clearance to head up to the Bay of Islands. Or, we could anchor off the bay just south of that, Malaka Bay and get some rest before dealing with the sevusevu thing the next morning. Below, an interactive map of Vanua Balavu showing the day’s two anchorage choices.

Malaka Bay
Draconi Village

Feeling exhausted, we opted for Malaka Bay. This turned out to be a good thing: I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and was horrified to see I had a sudden outbreak of dark freckles under my eyes that made me appear to have two back eyes! WTF?! I ran to show Rich and we both realized what it was; petechiae. It seems leaning over the side of the boat with the intense forces that come from being heeled over combined with dry heaves had produced this petechial hemorrhaging around my eyes. I looked like a racoon and certainly not in shape to go do the sevusevu ceremony. I hoped some rest and a good night’s sleep would fix it.

What a pleasure it was to motor into Malaka Bay! It was well protected, semi-enclosed by an island just off the point and surrounded by beautiful green hills, some mowed and grassy while others were covered with trees. The water was very dark but also very clear, and while there was a village here, it was hidden well back behind the vegetation. In all, while it wasn’t a particularly special spot compared to other Fijian anchorages, it was perfect for us at the time. (Click to enlarge/scroll through photos.)

After sundowners and popcorn, we headed inside for a good night’s sleep and slept very, very well. -Cyndi

The Southern and Northern Lau Groups (Fiji)

September 15, 2013

Now that we’d visited Fulaga in the Southern Lau group of islands, we were anxious to see the Northern Lau.

As I’ve mentioned before, the Lau group of islands in Fiji had only recently opened to the general population of cruisers. By “general population” I mean those not willing or able to pay the big bucks (and I mean really big bucks) for the formerly-required very special permit. Now with that permit no longer required, the islands were open to all.

The Lau Group of islands covers about 150 miles and can be divided into two distinct groups: the Southern Lau Group and the Northern Lau Group.

Fulaga and the Southern Lau Group
Vanua Balavu and the Northern Lau Group
The Bay of Islands
Central Fiji
Western Fiji

While they’re a long distance apart from each other, the Lau groups have a lot in common:

  • Both groups are remote, sitting near the eastern border of Fiji.
  • Both are hard to sail to (from Fiji’s main ports) as they require traveling against the prevailing winds.
  • Both groups had only recently been included in the general Fiji cruising permit.
  • Both groups had virtually no tourism (as of 2013).
  • Both groups required a fee to visit, payable to the chief when doing the required sevusevu (welcome) ceremony. (Yes, the expensive special permit was no longer needed, but the islands themselves required a fee.)

Both groups contain a number of islands, but in each group there is clearly one must-do place. In the Southern Lau this is Fulaga, and in the Northern Lau it is Vanua Balavu, specifically an area known as the Bay of Islands near the Vanua Balavu’s north end.

Where Fulaga and Vanua Balavu differ is in the way they look. Fulaga is an atoll containing a beautiful lagoon filled with rock islands, water in every shade of blue, and more beaches than we could count. Below, a few examples to sum up the general look of Fulaga: (You can click to enlarge/scroll through photo galleries below.)

Vanua Balavu, on the other hand, is a rather large and mountainous island with little in the way of beaches. In fact, the Bay of Islands area has no beaches at all! And while it does have rock islands, they are bigger and greener than those of Fulaga. The Bay of Islands is also known for its colorful water, but here there are as many greens as blues and the colors can seem almost electric. Below, a few photos to try to sum up the general look of Vanua Balavu:

I can also note that since Fulaga had been more isolated than Vanua Balavu, its villagers were particularly friendly and welcoming. Vanua Balavu is a somewhat large island with many villages and a higher population than Fulaga, a good-sized central town, an airport with regular flights, and in general seemed to have plenty of contact with the outside world.

Because the two island groups are so far apart, most of the cruisers had time to do only one group. Naturally anyone who had managed to do both was anxiously questioned: “Which did you like better?” While most people liked both, Fulaga seemed to be the winner. Yet there were enough people who preferred the scenery of the Northern Lau to make us sit up and take notice. It sounded like it would be well worth the effort to see it and make the decision for ourselves. The upcoming posts will reveal our answer. –Cyndi

Fulaga, Before and After (Southern Lau, Fiji)

Cruising Season, 2013

After arriving in Fulaga, we spent our first few nights in the village anchorage before heading off to stay in other areas of the lagoon. We’d already made the decision not to return to this particular anchorage, opting out of the daily goings-on in the village and Sunday church days.

For many cruisers, this would have been unthinkable as there was something very special about this village, an openness and innocence to the people here as cruiser visits were a fairly new occurrence. The village embraced the visiting palangi (foreigners) with open arms, and many cruisers relished this embrace, spending their nights at the anchorage near the village and their days in the village learning their ways, helping out with projects, and spending time with people who soon felt like family. Those with bigger boats would also entertain villagers onboard, even having movie nights. For some cruisers, there was no such thing as too much village time.

Other cruisers, though, preferred dividing their time between various anchorages in the lagoon, then opting to return to the village anchorage for Sunday church and lunches. For some, I think, this was out of a sense of obligation while others seemed to enjoy those special Sundays and lunches with families in the village.

For cruisers like us, the preference was to do the initial visit with the village, then head out to focus on the natural wonders of this place. Yes, the people of Fulaga seemed lovely, but there are lovely people everywhere. Meanwhile, there is only one Fulaga atoll, and we wanted to see as much of it as possible.

These strategies worked out pretty well for everyone, but unfortunately (as far as we’re concerned), the powers that be in the village felt that the man who generally served as Turaga ni koro (liaison for visitors, chief, and villagers) was getting too many gifts and not sharing enough with the village. So they came up with a plan for the following year.

Their plan: each visiting yacht would be assigned a host family, which would give every villager equal access to all that comes with representing the cruisers. The problem here is that this person whose influence they were trying to dilute (his name is Ty) was actually good at his job, spoke English, and seemed to understand the needs of the various cruisers.

Because Ty was off somewhere when we arrived, we ended up with a different Turanga ni koro. This was fine at first, but later our guy kind of hustled us, pressuring us into buying stuff we neither wanted nor needed, then trying to radically overcharge us for the stuff we did buy ($100 for two lobsters? We got him down to $55, still way too much). In the end we wished we had gotten Ty (who charged $15 per lobster, by the way). Even though the host family system was not yet in place during our visit and it was just our bad luck not to end up Ty as our Turanga ni koro, we got a bit of insight into one of the main downsides of the host family system: not all hosts are created equal.

We can understand the villagers desire for things to be fair for everyone and the dismay they might have felt seeing one person getting special gifts and profits when the tradition calls for sharing. But we also believe this decision stems from the same greed they were trying to offset: it’s all about the “stuff.” They don’t care that some of these local families don’t speak English and may not make good hosts–at least they’ll get access to “the stuff.” They also don’t factor in the wants and needs of the various cruisers, lumping us all into the “spend lots of time at the village” group.

Having a host family comes with a responsibility to visit them, to go to church with them, and to entertain and be entertained by them. Again, many cruisers might say, “So what? That’s a good thing.” Most others will go along with whatever everyone else seems to think: Host families? No problem! For cruisers like us, however, it’s like being put in a leash. I can’t imagine we would have been able to experience half of what we did, had we returned to the village every week. (If you’ve seen our blog posts showing what we’ve seen and done in Fulaga; I rest my case.)

Update to Cruising Season, 2014

We were interested to see what would happen when they implemented the host family protocol in 2014. We didn’t return that year, but we got quite a few reports about how it was going. Sorting through comments like “the innocence has been lost” from what was happening with the host family thing takes some thought. There are those who returned and were dismayed at some of the changes, while others who insisted that it was still the same (maybe a little too vehemently, I think, as from what I hear they wouldn’t even discuss the subject). For at least one person we know, a person who loved the village life, it had, in some ways, been ruined–he loved spending time with everyone in the village, but this year his host family would come along and pull him away from everyone else, cutting him off from his other friends because now he was supposed to be with them.

We weren’t there; so we can’t weigh in on the changes in the people as they were exposed to more cruisers, more western values (and more stuff). But there was one effect we did see from afar. I can sum it up like this: the year we went, everyone stayed for weeks, some even opting to make the nearly 200-mile trip back to Savusavu to restock and then return mostly upwind. We later met the people on the boat that came in as we were leaving. The crew member said, “Oh, you were the boat who stayed for four weeks!” Uh, no. Everyone stayed for four weeks at least. They, conversely, were the boat that stayed only a few days, an unheard of thing to do (but they hadn’t planned to come here and weren’t properly supplied; so good for them for at least checking this out).

The change in the length of a typical stay was the biggest change we saw in 2014, at least as far as the new-to-Fulaga cruisers go. It wasn’t so much the words people spoke (no one seemed to be voicing an opinion on the host family thing) as it was their behavior that was the most telling. Droves of newcomers seemed to only be staying a week–or less. This was unthinkable a year ago but seemed to be very common now.

What changed? Could it just be more people were going, and thus more people who were in a hurry? Possibly. In our opinion, though, it was the assigned family thing. With this new system, you generally go do the mandatory sevusevu then hang around until Sunday for church and lunch with your assigned family. After Sunday (probably a day or two later), you’ll probably feel compelled to entertain your host family on your own boat. After that, you might go out to other areas, but then you have to plan on coming back the following weekend, taking into account the weather (staying put if it’s going to be windy, or coming back early if winds are coming) for another round of church and lunch. Then you’ll probably want to play host to your assigned family yet again before you hopefully get to other anchorages again. This cycle will likely continue unless you have enough gumption to say no, risking disappointing your host family and the disapproval of the other cruisers. It’s no wonder people left after only a week. Fulaga had changed from a nature experience into a social experience.

We haven’t heard much about Fulaga beyond the reports we got in 2014; so we don’t know how it’s going now. Last we heard, they were still doing the host family thing. I remember the seminar we attended when we first arrived in Fiji, hosted by an ex-pat named Curly. Some of it we vehemently disagreed with, but other things he said were sensible. One thing he stated comes to mind, and while I don’t remember his exact words, it went something like this: When you do your sevusevu, tell the people of the village what kind of experience you hope to have. Do you want to be a part of the village? Do you want to participate in their work or daily routines? Or do you want to focus on other things?

In our experience this was totally unnecessary to discuss, but maybe it’s time to take another look at that. If we could speak to the powers that be in Fulaga, we’d suggest that they give people a choice in the kind of experience they want to have and whether or not to have a host family. I can guarantee that plenty of people would opt for the host family thing in a heartbeat. And for those who choose not to, it’s probably best for everyone involved to let them go their own way. After all, what family would want to host resentful guests (or guests who may not have much to give)? Many of us can barely supply ourselves, much less throw tea or dinner evenings for entire families. Let the people who have the desire and the resources partake in the host family thing and free up the smaller boats and nature lovers to do their own thing. Everyone would be happier (well except for those who would rather not have a host family but won’t admit it to themselves–they wouldn’t like seeing other people have a choice.)

Having this choice would be our wish for the future cruisers to Fulaga. Maybe if someone is feeling brave and would rather have their freedom, they could ask to opt out of the host family thing. If one person asks, then others can jump on the bandwagon. Good luck!

Now, we’ll go on to write about other places, but below a gallery of motu photos that never made it into the blog. (Click to enlarge and scroll.)

!Solitude

September 27, 2017

Why the exclamation mark before the title? It’s the logical NOT symbol used in programming to mean the opposite of the thing that follows it. We’ve had some boats anchor too close to us before, but this is ridiculous! (the regular exclamation mark).

This was at Lannoc Bay on Espiritu Santo Island and actually, he was neither too close to us nor did the tousands of people aboard ruin our day. Most of them go the nearby Champagne Beach. We only saw about four people who found their way to Lannoc Bay Beach Bungalows where we had lunch.

It did make for a fun picture though! -Rich

Final Day in Fulaga (Fulaga, Fiji)

September 15, 2103

Sadly, this would be our last day in Fulaga, but we needed to wait for slack tide in order to exit through the pass. This wasn’t due to happen until after 2pm, giving us more time to enjoy our anchorage. The blues here are ever changing, and today’s richer, darker blues were some of my favorite. Below, a photo gallery featuring this pretty shade of blue.

Unfortunately, this day was marred by that last-day-of-vacation feeling and the nerves that come with it. In this case, we were nervous about getting out through the pass and after that, an overnight passage to the Northern Lau group of islands. We were also sad to be leaving, to see this magical time ending, and having to say good-bye to our friends who were heading in a different direction.

We’d already gotten attached to the new remoras at this anchorage, and I gave them the last meal we’d be feeding them. These remoras were much more shy than the ones at our last anchorage, but we became fast friends when I fed them pork scraps.

It was getting close to 2pm when we picked up our anchor and headed off. Today the visibility in the water was the best I’d seen. Normally this would be a good thing, but being able to clearly see each and every dark spot and coral patch on the bottom was giving me anxiety attacks. I tried to direct us around the dark areas I saw, but there were too many. I just had to remind myself that we’d originally come through this way at low tide and been fine. The visibility wasn’t nearly as good then and I was so much calmer.

Now, we approached the pass. A boat was waiting outside to come in, and over the radio we all decided he’d enter as soon as we and Bright Angel made our exits. It was time to go, and we headed out first, following our track from when we came in. Thank God for that track–today’s clear visibility made all the coral reefs and rock formations look so close to the surface that I’m not sure I could have done this without suffering a heart attack. I continued to remind myself we’ve been over this before, and to appreciate how much nicer it was when I could hardly see into the water. Damn you, visibility!

After we made it over the shallowest parts of the pass, we still had some turbulent water to go through, including some 3-foot swells that threatened to become waves. Finally we were clear, and I returned to the cockpit from my bow watch a nervous wreck. Where’s the Valium?!

Bright Angel exited after we did seeming much calmer about the whole thing. After they made it, we all hovered and watched the other boat go in and made sure they were OK. They’d arrived earlier with no idea how to get into Fulaga and had put a call out on the radio asking for help and advice. We and Bright Angel told them to wait for slack tide and gave them waypoints and information about getting to the village. After all this, we now felt a little responsible for them.

Below are a few pictures of Bright Angel exiting the pass while the other boat enters, taken from our vantage point safely away from the island.

After we were satisfied they were on track, we headed off to our next destination. I was barely below when Rich called out, “Fish!” He’d put two lines out and both were zinging! We ended up pulling in two mahi mahi, a final gift from Fulaga. –Cyndi

Dawn In The Motus (Fulaga, Fiji)

September 15, 2013

After waking at sunrise and having some coffee, we took our dinghy out amid the motus and waited for the sun to rise from behind the hill, cameras ready.

Fulaga Morning (Click for larger version)

One by one the little islands started to light up. Passing clouds would send them back into the shadows, but by waiting patiently the clouds would pass and the light would be even better. This was well worth getting up for! Below, a photo gallery of the rock islands in the early morning light (click to enlarge and scroll.) -Cyndi

Sunset At The Motu Anchorage (Fulaga, Fiji)

September 14, 2013

This would be our final evening in Fulaga, but it looked like we’d be treated to a beautiful sunset. We brought our chairs outside, setting them up to face the motus while finishing the wine we’d opened. Sure enough, the sky turned golden and pink, and we watched the little rock islands darken as a blue dusk settled over the scene.

A bright half moon was up as night came on, and the water started to glow white around the little rock islands, the moon lighting up the sandy bottom through the clear shallow water. The horizon still had some light, but the sky above us was dark enough for bright stars to dot the sky. It was unlike anything I’ve seen before or since, one of those enchanted evenings where I think, “it’s all real.” It was so magical I didn’t want to go in to make dinner, so we stayed outside with our wine and continued to watch the scene. After I finally did make dinner, we brought it outside to eat and watch the motus in the moonlight.

When we went to bed, the half moon was high and unbelievably bright, lighting up the boat so much it was almost hard to sleep. Our enchanted day had continued into an enchanted evening; so much so we decided to get up early to see what dawn’s light might look like on the little islands. It would be more direct than the sunset light and probably worth getting up for. –Cyndi

A Magical Beach and a Perfect Day (Fulaga, Fiji)

September 14, 2013

From our new anchorage, it was a only a short dinghy ride to the pass into Fulaga’s lagoon; so we decided to check out the snorkeling in that area. It turned out to be pretty nice, but it was what came next that was really special. We’d noticed an intriguing beach on the arm of the atoll dividing this area from the outer ocean. Now after snorkeling, we decided to go and explore it.

To get to the beach, we needed to weave our dinghy through shallow water amid numerous small rock islands, a magical experience. (Click to enlarge and scroll through any of the galleries below.)

We soon landed on a white sand beach, maybe 100 feet long and 6 feet wide in the current tide, backed by a tall limestone cliff. Bushes and small trees clung to its sides, and we could hear the calls of the birds that lived within them plus the distant rumble of surf hitting the reef outside the atoll.

We beached our dinghy and the first thing we noticed was the sand! It was so soft as to be almost mud-like in places, but white and lovely. The shallow pale blue water here was so warm and inviting that I felt compelled to plunge into it, swimming amidst motus. This was about as beautiful place as I’d ever seen. Rich and I don’t always agree on the merits of beaches, but we both agreed that here we’d found the perfect Fulaga beach.

After spending some time here, we both thought the same thing: “Bob and Linda have to see this!” They still had their boat at the sandspit anchorage but would have no problem getting out here in their dinghy. We headed back to our boat to call them and soon discovered they were already on their way! We turned around and followed them back, anxious to give a tour of our beach (is it really a tour if you’ve only just seen it yourself?)

Soon everyone was into their own exploration and discovery. Linda found the sea snake coiled and resting in the rocks, sort of a scary and exciting thing to find. I was into playing in the warm shallow water, discovering a motu with a hole up through the middle. The last picture is of me sitting inside my motu “cave” and watching everyone else on the beach. Who was having the best time? Each of us in our own way.

After awhile, we headed back to our boat to shower and do some boat cleanup as we’d invited our friends over for drinks in our new neighborhood. High on wine and the beauty of this place, we had a great time. Tomorrow we’d be heading our separate ways, but we knew we’d be seeing each other down the road.

Here, a quote from Rich that evening:

“Not every day is like this out here and even my ‘perfect day’ could have been improved if I had a couple of oil-change elves to do the engine work for me. But there are a lot of days like this and more than enough to color the average days and even the bad days with the hope of more perfect days to come.”

Nicely said! For now, with sunset soon to arrive, we’d have more of this day to enjoy. –Cyndi