Heaven and Hell in Polynesia

After the difficult journey from Port Vila to Erromanga, we spent Monday afternoon relaxing on the boat. Our monopoly of the Dillons Bay anchorage came to an end in the evening, when a boat from New Zealand arrived and anchored near us. Prior to their arrival, a couple of men from the village rowed out to visit us in a traditional Polynesian canoe, a dugout tree trunk serving as the hull and a couple of sticks connected to a single narrow pontoon to provide stability. I was told that the boat was made from a breadfruit tree and took a week to construct. The men introduced themselves as the pastor of the village church and the headmaster of the village school and they invited us to visit the school the next day. On Tuesday morning, we headed ashore to explore the small village of Dillons Bay. Our first order of business was to secure permission to walk around the village and to obtain this permission we went straight to the top. After tying the dinghy to a palm tree, we inquired about where we might find the chief. A line of men waiting their turn to use the only phone in the village directed us to a small guesthouse and one gentleman yelled “Hey chief, you have visitors.” Chief William Mete was a kind older man who led us to a small matted shack, where we sat down at a serviceable dining table. We introduced ourselves and Chief Mete told us a little about Erromanga. We learned that with a population of nearly 500 people that Dillons Bay is the largest village in Erromanga and that the title of “Chief” has been in his family for many generations. He mentioned that his great-grandfather had been one of the most powerful chiefs in all of Vanuatu and he supported this claim by emphasizing that his illustrious ancestor had six wives. This led to an awkward discussion about polygamy and infidelity before we were able to steer the conversation back to our visit. As a token of friendship, we offered the chief several small gifts, including kava purchased in Port Vila, horrible tasting cans of sardines, a pareo that Anna didn’t want, rice that wasn’t jasmine, and a couple of containers of mustard and mayonnaise that we will not be able to use before we arrive in New Zealand, where the customs officials confiscate any food that is not produced in New Zealand. The chief was perplexed by the condiments and we finally were able to explain their proper use by suggesting that he use them on fish. Considering the odd assortment of gifts, the chief acted pleased and served us some po-po, which looked and tasted like papaya. He also indicated that we were welcome to pick any of the wild lemons that we saw growing on trees. After our interview with the chief, we walked to the school. We found the campus at the edge of the village and one of the students guided us to the headmaster. Thanks to my Mom, we had come laden with gifts. Each time my Mom visits the boat, she brings an assortment of toys, games, and educational tools for me to distribute to local children, not realizing that my interaction with children is quite limited. With the exception of the San Blas Islands in Panama and the Tuomotus in French Polynesia, I have seen about as many sharks as I have seen schoolchildren. As a result, I have accumulated a stockpile of entertainment for kids and the students of Dillons Bay were the lucky beneficiaries of my Mom’s generosity. The giveaway was much less structured than I would have preferred, but when I finally located the headmaster, he was in the middle of teaching a French class. Unsure of whether to leave the items with him to distribute at his discretion, I unloaded my bounty in the grass outside of the classroom. All of the students huddled around to see what I had brought and I felt like Santa Claus continually pulling gifts out of my bag. The children were delighted by the small containers of soapy water to blow bubbles, but they were really ecstatic when I produced a soccer ball. Two boys couldn’t contain their excitement and began dribbling towards the soccer field and the makeshift goals constructed of long sticks of bamboo. As we left, the children were positively giddy inspecting the gifts. Although it would have been nice to sit down with them and to demonstrate how some of the crafts should be used, as well as to play with them and their new toys, it was one of the pleasures of the trip so far to see the recipients so happy. I only wish that there were more opportunities for this type of interaction. The few visitors that come to Erromanga are normally drawn to the island by the superb trekking. With the exception of a few villages, the island is almost entirely uninhabited. On Wednesday, we enjoyed walking on some of the many trails that crisscross the island. Although time and budget limited us to taking a short, unguided hike, we walked about half way across the island so that we were able to view the eastern coast before we turned back. The landscape varied from verdant rainforests close to the shore to arid highlands as we passed through the interior of the island. True to its name, Erromanga does have a lot of mango trees, as well as an impressive array of lemon trees, ficas trees, and a famous kauri forest further inland. Walking along the river, we passed cows and horses drinking from the river, just upstream from where women were doing their laundry. During our four hour outing, we did not see a single person outside of the village. After three days in Erromanga, we had pretty much exhausted all of the available activities and we were eager to move on to the exotic island of Tanna, famous for its active volcano, wild horses, and cargo cults. However, the weather forecast for the passage did not look promising. Although the direct route is only 55 miles, the forecast predicted 25 knots of wind from the southeast (126 degrees magnetic, to be exact). A gale warning was set out for the area between Erromanga and Tanna with 12 foot waves predicted. Our course required us to sail 127 degrees magnetic – right into the wind, waves, and current. A prudent captain would have begun figuring out how to spend several additional days in Erromanga. Not me. I decided to go for it. There are some people who maintain that they have no regrets and that, given the opportunity, they would not change a single thing if they could do it all over again. I am not one of those people. I have many regrets and, given another chance, I would choose to stay in Erromanga for a couple of more days. Beating into 15 knots of wind is uncomfortable. Fighting against 25 knots of wind is just idiotic. We took a beating. For 24 hours, we were pummeled by an onslaught of fierce winds and enormous waves. Even with a double-reefed mainsail and staysail, we were thrown violently about. Waves continually crashed against the bow, sending gallons of spray flying into the cockpit. The cabin was in disarray. We were unable to eat, sleep, or go to the bathroom. Had I been crew instead of captain, a mutiny would have been afoot. Instead, Anna handled the difficult conditions stoically, although I couldn’t help but to notice that she regarded me with slightly more disdain than usual. In Captain Cook’s journals, he described the approach to Port Resolution as follows: “On 5th August … we discovered the island of Tana, with its volcano. On the night before our arrival we had seen the glow of its flames, and in the morning, as we drew nearer, we could hear a thunderous roar from the bowels of the earth. This roar was sometimes accompanied by heavy explosions, besides which clouds of flames were thrown high into the air, while columns of fiery smoke reared up towards the sky.” Cook went on to describe how the natives appeared on the beach and “everything conspired to make us believe they intended to attack us as soon as we were on shore.” Determined to get wood and water, the marines aboard Resolution fired muskets and cannons over the heads of the natives, securing a temporary peace. Later, during their two week stay in the bay now known as Port Resolution, Cook requested permission to climb to the top of the volcano, but was denied by the village chief who indicated that the mountain was holy and that a trip to the rim was considered taboo. Our own approach to Tanna was less spectacular. On Thursday night, our view of the island was obscured by rain and clouds, preventing us from observing the impressive natural fireworks display above Mount Yasur. At daybreak, as the clouds cleared, the island came into view and we could see clouds of brownish-gray smoke billowing from the volcano. Through eyes searing from the constant salt water spray, we found Port Resolution and came screaming into the harbor under sail before reaching the calm anchorage protected by the surrounding rocky cliffs. Luckily, our reception was more welcoming than the one received by Cook and muskets proved unnecessary. Perhaps the only advantage to making the passage in such horrific weather was that we arrived to find the large and beautiful anchorage nearly empty, presumably because most other boats were smart enough to wait for better conditions. The few boats that were anchored in Port Resolution seemed amazed by our arrival, although I don’t know whether they were impressed that we were able to handle the heavy weather or if they were baffled as to why we would venture out into the maelstrom. Aside from the friendly reception by the natives, the other major change in Tanna over the past 250 years is that climbing Mount Yasur is no longer considered taboo. In fact, Mount Yasur is now considered to be the most accessible active volcano in the world. It is possible to observe the volcano up close from the rim of the crater. Based on our reading and conversations with other cruisers, the visit to the volcano is an amazing experience. Loud explosions are accompanied by flaming boulders soaring skyward as terrified tourists scurry for shelter. Tourists have been badly singed and several have even died. In the upcoming week, we plan to visit Mount Yasur and see the spectacular display for ourselves. Even in the anchorage, the powerful presence of the volcano is acutely felt and several vents steaming sulfuric smoke can be seen emanating from the rocks less than 100 yards from the boat. Further enhancing the experience, I have an expert on board to answer any questions that I have about volcanoes. As a PhD student in geology, Anna has a wealth of knowledge in this area and has provided in-depth lectures on the phenomena that we are witnessing up close. After the discomforts of the passage, we find ourselves gently rocking at anchor in Port Resolution, unquestionably one of the most attractive anchorages that we have visited in the Pacific and the natural beauty of the island seems to be matched by the friendliness of the locals. The upcoming week promises to be an exciting one and we are eager to explore the paradise that is Tanna. We are happy to be here.

Leave a Reply