Saturday morning, a couple hours before sunrise, we pulled anchor from Ranon Bay, Ambrym, and headed north for Wali Bay on the southwestern side of Pentecost Island. By 8:30 am our anchor was set, aligned with 4 other yachts. Just as quickly as the day before, we headed to the beach. Spent phone cards broke up phone calls to the chief as he called from several different phones to guide us. We would not meet until after the diving. Plan B: Follow the crowd, and that’s what we did. The other yachties had pre-planned the land diving tour with Luke and his daughter, Aileen, the very same people Dr. Alan suggested. Again, Luke and Aileen’s faces lit aglow on the mention of Dr. Alan and Debora, reminiscing about their time spent together.
The cruisers met at the beach, ambled north toward the village of Londot where Luke met us on the way to the communal hut designate. Seated in the hut, Luke described how land diving got its start. There are various versions, but they have a common thread. A girl/young lady, to escape the unwanted advances of a male, climbed a tree, tied her ankles to something on top of the tree (the tree type and tying materials differ per version). As he approaches, she jumps and he after her. She’s saved, he falls to his death. The sport is born. Flash forward hundreds of years and here we are. A 68’ tower of sticks, tethered to a hillside, supports several dive heights. The lower diving platforms are for child beginners; the middle platforms are for teens, the highest, for the experienced adults. A male-only sport, children are free to decide whether they wish to participate or not. No shame if they do not. Jumpers apprentice under the more experienced. Injuries are said to occur only for those impure of heart and action. A successful jump lays testament to a clean and pure life. As the jumper prepares, placing himself closer and closer to the jump off point, a small crowd of topless women, older men, and young boys chant and whistle encouragement. The jumper’s ankles are tied with freshly cut vines of a particular tree, at a specific length, by those trained to select and cut the vines and tie the knots. They straighten out the vines and move away as the jumper steps forward on the end of the meter long diving board, to which the other end of the vines are tied. He takes a moment to gain his balance. The supporters’ sing louder and louder, whistling. He claps, slaps his chest, prays, and/or all of the above before finally jumping. All hold their breath collective breath as he hits the softened dirt below.
The loud, crisp snap of his dive platform coincides with his earthly contact, absorbing some of his energy before final contact. All are pleased the jumper appears unharmed as the vines are cut from his ankles with a brisk whack of a machete. Aileen proudly points out that her 14 year-old son, Willy, is to jump. He, like the others before him, is successful. Having started with the youngest jumper, we’ve worked our way up to the highest and final jump. Not just for today, but for the entire 2017 season. He is an experienced and celebrated diver from another village. He is calm, assured, and unassuming as his nearly naked body adeptly scales the scaffolding to the highest point. His leap is graceful and successful. He’s pleased. I take my picture with him and climb the base of the tower to claim one of the cut vine ends with its soft lashings still affixed.
The sailors assemble below at the seating area. Though a seating area exists, we were allowed unfettered access to photograph the event from any angle, with the caveat that women not touch the vines. Gathering together for the walk back to the seaside communal hut, we all seem slightly stunned by the shared privilege of such an extraordinary demonstration of a first people. We sailors were the only audience. Regardless of audience, land-divers jump on Saturday. They do it for themselves, for their tradition, not for tourists, not for money. The money they get from tourists ($80 per person in our case) goes to all those involved, helping encourage the young and old alike to participate, to keep the tradition alive.
At the communal hut, unbeknownst to Leslie and I, a lunch of traditional Vanuatu dishes was included, complete with a drinking coconut. To top it off, we were invited to return at 4 p.m. to share kava with the village and the jumpers. Traditionally a man-only event, the yachting women were invited to participate in the kava drinking. So we of course returned. What made the drinking even more special was the use of fresh kava made from a huge root ball harvested that afternoon. Typically kava today is served from powdered kava, soaked in water and strained. Kava, we learned, takes 10-12 years to grow before the root is ripe for drinking. Pentecost, as with many Vanuatu islands, cultivate kava for export. Bryce was allowed to participate in the kava mashing process as village chief, Peter Bebe, oversaw.
We each drank a coconut cup of kava. One was enough for me, and too much for others. Some slyly poured their undrunk kava on the ground. The boys seemed fond of it, consuming 3 cups of the mildly bitter mouth numbing solution. Kava relaxes. It’s not very intoxicating. Some suggest that were Melanesians and Polynesians to stay with kava, forgoing alcohol, they’d all be better off. That said, I heard stories of villagers drinking a lot of kava at a sitting, acting out a bit more than normal, so I don’t know . . . as always, all things in moderation.
As with the rest of our whirlwind tour, we pulled anchor early in the morning and sailed to the island just north of Pentecost where Dr. Alan described one of the world’s most beautiful bays accessible only by boat. Asanvari Bay on Maewo did not disappoint.
Asanvari Bay on the southern tip of Maewo Island is a veritable Shangri-La, complete with waterfall, beautifully tree-shaded white sand beach, rock outcrops, clear water, and excellent snorkeling. An unintended tour by a local 15 year-old gave us a quick glimpse of this isolated paradise. The village boasts 2 hyper-basic yacht clubs, small church, schoolhouse, and micro store. Wish we had had more time to meet those whom Dr. Alan had spelled out. Unfortunately, the villagers were absent, attending the funeral of a 15 year-old, who had passed away due to illness.
And yet again, with our three-day, three-island tour ending, we were off the next day, Monday, June 26th, with another early morning departure to arrive that same afternoon at our next stop: nearby Espiritu Santos Island, two islands away. Dr. Alan and others recommended grabbing a buoy at the Aore Resort, across the channel from Luganville, the main city on Santo and our port of departure. When we arrived, we discovered the 3-4 buoys the hotel maintained were claimed by other visiting yachts, and although we could have grabbed a neighboring property’s mooring buoy, with the day growing late, we elected to cross the channel and anchor on the lee shore in front of the Beachfront Resort, even though we had been warned that only days earlier, a boat was boarded and robbed of its electronics.
The resort proved very yacht friendly. Having read that Luganville had been the US’s second largest naval base after Hawaii, we were interested in getting a US history tour, as recommended by Dr. Alan. Over 500,000 troops were stationed here in the early 40’s, including James Michener, the base historian. It was from here where Michener researched what would become his “Tales of the South Pacific,” later turned into a stage musical and movie, “South Pacific.” During WWII, the US military built Luganville from uninhabited swampland; all of Luganville’s significant infrastructure comes from that period with the exception of a very new harbor presently being built by the Chinese. After the war, when leaving Luganville, US manufactures didn’t want to compete with military surplus so the government agreed not to return any of the hardware. The US offered the machinery at a very low price to the French and British who “governed” the colony. Thinking the US couldn’t possibly afford to move all that equipment elsewhere, they said “No thanks.” So US forces built a temporary jetty and drove all the equipment into the deep end of the channel, nicknamed “Million Dollar Point” after that.
We walked the beach and found many, many remnants. I especially liked finding Coke bottle bottoms with Oakland, CA and Seattle, WA molded into the glass. Additionally, several US ships sunk while making their way into this top-secret naval base. The largest, the USS President Coolidge, was a passenger-liner converted troop carrier. It struck two not-so-friendly US mines. All but 2 aboard survived: a fireman near the location of the mine strike, and an Army captain who, after having rescued 6 others, could not be rescued himself. Having heard the wreck was one of the best on record, Leslie endeavored to set us up with a dive with Allan Powers Diving Co. It was spectacular! The dive was simple. You walk in the sandy shallows about 50 yards before descending nearly straight down to the bow of the tilted hull below.
The dive guide showed us all around the shallowest part: the front half of the ship. A real tour guide, he uncovered or pointed out pieces of crusty warfare from hiding places: rifles, gas masks, plates and cups, and so on. Because we’d dove deeper than 100’, we had to make a couple decompression stops. It was well orchestrated and an experience of a lifetime, one of several we got to experience in less than 2 weeks.
For our last day, we rented a small car and drove up the east coast of Espirtu Santos Island. Having seen signs pointing out “Blue Hols,” we turned off the main road toward the first one we saw: Riri Blue Hol. Wow! The water was so clear and the setting so magical and playful; it was a jungle pool paradise, complete with rope swings and makeshift diving platforms. We had so much fun. And when a busload of Australian missionary teenagers arrived, for the first time in a long time, Bryce and Trent were surrounded by their own “kind.”
The next stops where Champagne Beach in exotically beautiful Hog Harbor and Port Olry just north of it. Champagne Beach is named for is powdered-sugar fine white sand, a place ideal for a Sports Illustrated swimsuit shoot, with knotted trees overhanging the fascinating sand.
With the sun ready to set, Port Olry was a quick stop, a place for the boys to run around on a sand spit that joined a small island with the larger. Port Olry, is not a developed modern port. It is a simple fishing village located at the end of a lovely paved two-lane road, a good distance away from the city ruckus.
The site offers beautiful beachscapes with warm friendly faces sporting fresh white smiles.On the way back, we stopped at some fruit stands to pick up some vegetables and fruits for our upcoming Darwin, Australia passage. Taking advantage of the car, we did our last minute shopping that night, provisioning Kandu for her 20-day crossing.
Vanuatu is an ancient land in a modern time. I have mixed feelings about the place. Although the people were fantastic, I sensed unease among them, possibly overshadowed by elements of international and domestic greed and corruption. A land of dugout canoes surrounded by Australian prices, a cost of living higher than that of French Polynesia, Samoa, or Fiji: it felt a bit lopsided, a recipe for future trouble. Still, it was a ‘nambawan’ dream come true: Jacques Cousteau, National Geographic’s, and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom rolled into one. Thanks to Seven Seas Cruising Association hosts Dr. Alan and Debora, our experiences of Vanuatu will be cherished forever, or until I die, whichever comes first. Between now and then, I hope I never make a mistake that causes someone to want to eat me.