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Onward to the Yasawas (Fiji 4)

Leaving Vanua Levu (SavuSavu) after only a week was like saying goodbye to an old friend, we already felt part of the scenery. We bought our kava for the villages we intended to visit, stocked up our provisions, renewed our gas supplies and headed towards the Yasawa Islands.

The Yasawa islands stretch in a chain from north to south along the Western edge of the main island of Fiji, Viti Levu, and we intended to follow the islands south towards the Mamachuk islands and eventually check out at our final port of call, Vuda Point on Viti Levu.

Into a Leper Colony

When we entered the small bay at the island of Mokogai we were expecting to see remnants of the ex-leper colony as well as a modern village. There was very little activity in evidence except for some construction on the foreshore. Armed with our predictable newspaper-wrapped packet of kava and our sulus (long skirts or wraps) we kayaked to the beach. It soon became obvious that we were witnessing a work in progress, two new round concrete pools were being tested for their imminent use as clam and turtle hatcheries – another eco project in the offing.

After a very perfunctory sevusevu (kava ceremony) with gabbled murmurings over the kitchen table by the boss of the construction work, we were led along paths to witness and hear about the historical leper colony which finally closed in 1969 after a cure had been found. The remains of the village showed it to have been an extensive and comprehensive stone-built settlement (housing, schools, cemetery, prison, even an open-aired cinema) which had held 400 inhabitants from many countries of the South Pacific.

Graves in the leper colony disrupted by Cyclone Winston

We were urged to swim and see a number of giant clams which had survived the last cyclone and had been returned to the seabed, the beginning, they hoped, of a new colony. The clams were, indeed, amazing and as Mike said, reminded him of “daring-do” and “Boys’ Own” stories in his childhood – no trapped arms or legs today though!

At our next anchorage north of the main island of Viti Levu we witnessed a little more of the ferocity of the storm and damage caused by Cyclone Winston earlier this year. We could hardly miss the upturned catamaran hull just off the beach and the pretty little yacht perched drunkenly on a pile of rocks on the tiny offshore resort. We even found an abandoned kayak in perfect condition on the beach but we couldn’t think how we could realistically get it to our friends in Naqaravutu Village – such a waste.

Beached yacht courtesy of Cyclone Winston

Sailing out of this anchorage after dark following our entry track was an eery feeling knowing there was treacherous reef on either side but seeing nothing. Again we needed a slowish night passage to arrive in good light in the morning. So much of our sailing is a leap of faith, trusting to the electronic charts and during the day to eyeball navigatio and as has often been proved, the eyes can be more reliable than the charts!

The beautiful Yasawas

As planned, we arrived at our next destination Sawa i Lau on the northern most island of the Yasawas early in the morning and entered another beautiful, islet-sprinkled lagoon enclosed by towering cliffs and edged by sparkling sandy beaches.

Sawi i Lau cove

Following the normal protocol, we wasted no time in kayaking to the nearby village with our offering of kava for the local chief. We had forgotten that it was Sunday, one day seems very like another to us, and it was only after the chief hurriedly dealt with us and our questions and sped through the necessary ceremony that we heard the singing from the nearby church and realised that he must have been summoned from his devotions to deal with us.

We slipped into the side entrance to witness the service and as usual immediately became objects of interest, especially to the children. In our scruffy t-shirts and shorts we felt very underdressed compared to the congregation, ladies in pretty flowered dresses, the children immaculate in their Sunday best and some of the men even sporting jackets, collars and ties to complement their sulus. This was a Methodist church and all seemed very much more serious than my last experience at the tiny wooden, rush-floored church in Naqaravutu. The children wandered around the aisles, paying little attention to the service and made their escape through the rear door when possible, surrounding us to practise their English when we emerged.

We had heard that the snorkelling here was good and after exploring the pretty anchorage with its weathered and rugged claim-encrusted rocks and picturesque sandy bays by kayak as the tide went down and left us high and dry, we set off along the reef. As usual our swim followed the drop off of the shore reef where the fish are most prolific. We were concerned to find several very large Crowns of Thorns – a variety of poisonous sea stars (reef predators) – which can in a very short time decimate huge areas of coral. Unfortunately, there was nothing we could do about this creature – in Vava’u in Tonga, protectors of the reef were asking for reports on their presence in an effort to control the pests, but in Fiji we didn’t know of such an organisation.

We continued our sail south, visiting a number of anchorages and more idyllic islands en route. With our kava in hand, we stopped off once more to pay our respects to the chief of yet another pretty island. The chief was, we were informed by his wife, Mila, who was lounging in the mid-day sun along with her women friends on a platform under the village meeting tree, away on the mainland at the moment. She accepted the kava from us and told us to return later when they had had their rest.

Mila’s island and the meeting tree

Mila expressed interest in my sunglasses and requested a pair! I had no spare sunglasses to offer but I promised that maybe I might find a pair of reading glasses for her. Having read somewhere that specs might be an acceptable and worthwhile present in the Pacific, I had armed myself with a bagful of varying strengths from Poundland, most of which I had given away in SavuSavu. When we returned the following day with one of my remaining pairs of plastic floral-rimmed lenses Mila was overjoyed and exclaimed with delight as she pulled out a tattered magazine, “it’s really clear now” – one happy customer and I shall always be sure of a welcome on that island!

Mila with her new glasses

A visit to the Blue Lagoon 

We had agreed to meet up with Jessie and Neil and their visiting American friends in the justly famous and beautiful setting of the Blue Lagoon film, now more commercial than all those years ago with a new resort or two but nonetheless still picturesque. We climbed to the top of the island, meeting aboard his mechanical digger, the owner and entrepreneur of the two year old resort, a hard working, “rough and ready” Aussie ex-trucker, who had worked tirelessly to get the place up and running and was still very much hands on (up at 4am and bed at mid-night!). We admired his enterprise and hard work, but what an undertaking where everything has to be brought in from the “mainland”. And to think that Mike was indignant that they asked 50c per litre for tap water when he enquired to buy some!

Blue Lagoon in the afternoon sun

Jessie and Neil had arranged to dine at a nearby island and attend a sevusevu ceremony there and we couldn’t miss out on this experience. The fine dining was a “feast” laid on for a dozen of us by a village lady in her home. With the help of mud crabs and fish caught by Neil that morning, seated on the rush-covered floor, we tucked into a selection of local delicacies. They certainly eat simply but well here.

Fijian feast – mudcrabs, fish and good company

The kava ceremony on the raised outside area of another house was, we ladies were told, for men only. The men seated themselves in the usual circle whilst we ladies “reluctantly” seated ourselves in the stalls and talked to the few “rebel” men who accepted their bowls of kava and then turned to conversation with us (much more interesting!). In addition a couple of young girls sought our company and giggling shared their boyfriend problems – women of every age, everywhere talk about the same things!

We continued our sail south. We had heard of a submerged plane just offshore and this sounded like an opportunity for a more unusual snorkel. But, first we would have to cross the intervening strip of jungle from our anchorage to the other coast, only a short walk we were told (another of those myths) and on a ready made path. We should know by now, that hearsay should be taken with a hefty pinch of salt!

Firstly, the path, when we eventually found what seemed like an indefinite track, came and went as we fought our way through the coconut-strewn undergrowth, under, over and through trailing vines, fallen trees, grabbing thorns and fighting off sticky spiders’ webs until, inevitably, I stumbled along one half hidden path and Mike losing sight of me, launched himself down another semi-track. Waiting on the far side, overlooking an endless stretch of sandy beach and five or six offshore islands with no obvious signs of anything looking like a plane, it became apparent that we were looking for a needle in a haystack. When Mike eventually emerged from the jungle with his report that the plane was somewhere between us and one of the tiny islands, but which one was anyone’s guess, we decided to call it a day and retrace our steps (well almost but with a few more side tracks) back the way we had come – mission not accomplished!

Making our way further south and in the knowledge that there was a “low” on its way and expecting winds anywhere from the north through to the south-east we vacated what we considered to be an unprotected anchorage and made our way round the corner, skirting some hazardous reefs into the expected protection of a westerly-facing bay. But, weather hardly ever seems to do what it’s predictions foretell.

Caught on a Leeshore

We had sympathetically watched some drenched tourists being transported by motorboats with their luggage and umbrellas battling the driving rain to the waiting ferry (what a way to end your holiday) believing ourselves to be wet but safe. How wrong can you be!? Without warning the wind did a sudden shift and suddenly we were experiencing the full force of it, driving us onshore with such a ferocity that within minutes the sea suddenly increased with roaring waves and wind-driven spume causing a white-out as we tossed and strained at anchor. We let out all but the last few metres of chain, powered up the engine and prayed that we would hold. With a horrible crunching and grinding as the bow jerked and juddered at the end of its tether it became obvious that we had attached ourselves to, or around, a bommie. We never thought we would be grateful for the presence of a submerged rock, but this time, it saved us from being deposited on a leeshore.

For several hours whilst the storm raged, we listened to the straining chain, wondering if it would hold, would the bommie keep us safe or would we have to ditch the anchor and head out through the reefs to open water – not a welcome prospect.

With relief we recognised that the wind was gradually shifting back behind the protecting headland to the south and we could breath again. By midnight all was calm once more and we slept in peace, wondering what we would find in the light of day.

Mike kayaked to the beach to rescue a bucket and an empty fuel can which had blown ashore (being red it wasn’t difficult to track).  Then it was time to inspect the damage and see what surprises the bommies had in store for us. With Mike in the water directing operations and me on the helm we wove this way and that untangling the chain until we were once more free of the submerged rocks (turned out to be two of them involved!) and we hurriedly took in the chain and moved to open sea once more.

Under the force of the straining chain the bow roller and stainless steel anchor channel had splayed open – that was going to need a yard to re-fashion it. Apart from that and some chain scrapes along the bow we escaped unscathed, we were so lucky once again.

Still counting our blessings and on a clear, sunny day we motored out of the fateful bay and headed down the coast. It just goes to show that one’s concentration at sea cannot slip for a moment. Too close to the shore reef and having relaxed, the sudden rasping from the hull alerted us to the fact that we had, once again, ventured too close to shore – we had made contact with the reef and looking over the side were all too well aware of the coral ledge just beneath us. The rudder had jammed upon impact and as we hastily reversed off back into deep water, we experienced that “sinking” feeling once again – now what?! Mike went over the side and returned with a relieved grin, “I’ve given it (the rudder) a kick and it’s free again”! It appeared that we had been lucky yet again, only a few minor scratches on the keel and there appeared to be no damage to the rudder. How many lives do we have on this boat? We’ve surely used up more than nine!

The unsettled weather hadn’t finished with us yet and that night after more heavy rain and wind we were glad to make an unscheduled stop in near dark at the base of some surrounding high cliffs and at the mouth of a river (lots of lovely good-holding mud). Most of the time sailing is wonderful, but there are times when enough is enough and there comes a moment when you would like to be anywhere but on that boat – not often, I admit, but it happens!

Sad Farewells

We had agreed to catch up once again with Jessie and Neil to say our relectant farewells as they continued onwards to Vanuatu and Australia and we headed south to New Zealand. A couple of days in the busy tourist resort of Musket Cove was enough, tears were shed and hugs were exchanged before we headed for Vuda Point on Viti Levu to check out, leaving Jessie and Neil about to depart for their new life in Australia. We heard just before they left that Jessie had been offered a position in her field of Clinical Psychology at the University of Melbourne. We were so delighted for her, she and Neil were so desperate to start a new life in Australia and it seems that the door is now open to them – well done!

Our long journey of three years was coming to an end and we were preparing to say goodbye to Fabulous Fiji, hopefully to return another day. We entered the tiny circular marina at Vuda Point and were directed into our narrow spot, bow to the wall. We had been warned that getting on and off the boat, especially at low tide was going to be challenging. A small wooden platform juts out from the surrounding quay to one side of the bow and it’s a giant step up for anyone at low water, let alone a couple of OAPs. Once again our little folding ladder came into its own and resting over a fender suspended from the pulpit we had no difficulty in reaching the platform at any angle.

Vuda Marina on the west coast of Viti Levu is one of the few places to check out of Fiji and a favourite for all those heading west or south. Our couple of days there gave us a chance to assess the weather for our passage to New Zealand as well as provision for the ten day trip. This passage had long been at the back of our minds with plenty of stories of dreadful weather and rough seas and we wanted to make sure, or as sure as we could be, that we weren’t going to run into one of the Tasman Sea specials. There were others waiting to leave and we agreed that the coming Thursday, 21st October, was the Day to go, so fuelled up, water tanks full, fresh food for the passage, immigration formalities completed and we were on our way to the Land of the Long White Cloud.

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Vanuatu – coconuts, volcanos and smiles

Arrival in Aneityum

 

When we left Fiji we had not anticipated the speed of our passage to the most southerly of the Vanuatuan islands and we approached Aneityum at a gallop – on a Sunday.  This was not in the plan, weekends are not a good time to arrive in a new country – the authorities usually demand a swingeing overtime payment for weekend arrivals to add to their already hefty check-in costs.  We did everything, short of going backwards, to slow down our progress, even landing two large tuna side by side, but to little avail.  We eventually crept into the thankfully open anchorage under cover of darkness alongside half a dozen other cruisers.

 

The beautiful bay of Aneityum

In the light of day we were surprised to see that all the other cruisers were also still sporting their yellow quarantine flags (not yet checked in) and a quick visit to shore in search of Customs and Immigration confirmed that there was no one to give us clearance until the following day when the guys would fly in from Port Vila to do the honours.  It wasn’t us they were keen to see but the hundreds of passengers off the cruise 

.ship due in on Thursday 


Meeting the locals

 

In the meantime, we were welcome to make ourselves at home in the tiny village and explore the surrounds.  We soon met Ken, the local entrepreneur, who was keen to show us his newly established B&B and he plied us with enormous grapefruit caught as they were knocked out of the tree, pawpaw and bananas.  (Pieter was not so lucky the next day when he returned for more pawpaw which bounced off the end of his nose as he stood looking up.)   We were introduced to a new kind of bean (snake), which in appearance resembles a skinny two foot cucumber which is scraped, de-pipped, cut into small pieces and cooked – doesn’t taste much like a bean but in an area short on greens this has proved to be a useful standby. 

 

Local colour

 

A stroll along the beach introduced us to the local butcher – one glance into the motorboat in the shallows confirmed that local beef doesn’t hang around long.  A cow had been killed that day and its bloody parts were liberally spread around the boat.  Just cut off the piece you 

.want, weigh,  pay for it and walk away with it in hand, never mind such niceties as wrapping or a bag!

 

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The local butcher

 

 

Aneityum was our introduction to overwhelming Vanuatuan kindness and generosity which we were to discover throughout the islands.  It’s hard to believe that not so very long ago we would have been the feast for the ancestors of these gentle, friendly islanders!  

 

I bought some juicy mandarins on the beach and had tried to buy a local basket in which to keep the fruit on board – the seller laughingly gave me the basket refusing to take anything for it – “it takes me ten minutes to make” she insisted.  (I know that’s not true because I made a very poor version and it took me an afternoon!!)

 

The Customs and Immigration guys eventually made the round of the yachts, unconcerned that we had all been illegally at large for a few days.  As it turned out I, as a European, was given a three months’ visa, Pieter as an Australian received a paltry one month, after which he had to extend at a substantial cost!  It’s nice to be wanted!!

 

A welcome income

 

The cruise ship duly arrived and disgorged her many passengers onto the tiny, uninhabited, except for the air strip, nearby Mystery Island where they were free to roam, swim, buy handicrafts, etc, but were not allowed en masse onto the main island.  All that day the bay was full of happy locals coming and going to the island to cater to their captive market.  These visiting cruise liners ensure a regular income for the local people without impinging on their privacy and way of life.

 

I must admit that before I reached the South Pacific, I knew nothing about this tiny island country, I probably wouldn’t have been able to pinpoint it on the map either.   The chain of 80 plus Islands which used to be called The New Hebrides (named by Captain Cook) was, until 1980 and independence, jointly ruled by Britain and France.  The Government was called the Condominium (locally known as Pandemonium!) and has resulted in its inhabitants speaking either English or French, depending on who administered the local school.  Even now it’s quite usual to find villages where people in close proximity speak, as well as Bislama the official pidgin language, either French or English but not both.  I met several families who had chosen to educate some of their children in the English school and some in the French!

 

Moving on to Tanna

 

One of the nice things about Vanuatu is that most of the islands are only a day’s sail apart and Tanna, the next island and famous for its active volcano, was no exception.   We nearly missed the entrance to Port Resolution which was well hidden tucked behind a rocky headland of crashing, surging waves.  It was a great relief to see two other yachts already at anchor in the calm waters behind the narrow entrance as we bounced and rolled at speed into the shallow anchorage.  I’ve now got used to not expecting places entitled “Port” being anything other than reasonable anchorages, no quaint little harbours or handy pub, just the odd thatched hut!

 

The cruisers’ bible had said that there was a yacht club and to look out for Stanley.  Sure enough on the headland there was a building of sorts full of memorabilia from visiting cruisers, mainly World Arc flags and I eagerly pounced on a Red Thread sticker attached to a pole – Jessie and Neil, my young American friends had been here before us – last year.  

 

Evidence of the Red Thread
Evidence that The Red Thread was here

 

At home with Stanley and co

 

We tracked down a bemused Stanley in his village.  I don’t think he quite knew what to do with us but he introduced us to his family, presented us with a bunch of bananas and gave us a tour of the village.  As poor as it was we were so impressed with everything we saw.    

The village was immaculate, no rubbish to be seen in its well swept centre with flowers and cared for gardens surrounding the simple 

thatched home 

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Stanley demonstrating the village pump

Stanley’s area of the village was as everywhere, a unit of his entire family – brothers, sisters, mother and children, all living, sharing and supporting one another.  I was introduced to his sister, Miriam and we chatted like old friends.  Miriam was a single parent (husband had left her for a younger woman and vanished “up north”) but she was cheerfully bringing up her four children on her own with the support of the family.

 

As we were to discover everywhere, the biggest concern is education.  Their day-to-day needs are simply met with easily constructed and replaced huts, family gardens (sometimes at considerable distance) growing their fruit and vegetables, fish (although becoming increasingly difficult to catch), chickens and their broods clucking underfoot everywhere and pigs to celebrate special occasions.  

 

The islands’ economy relies almost entirely on the production of kava and copra with small amounts of the more financially beneficial cacao if the conditions are right and, in some islands, an emerging coffee industry.  

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Working hard cracking nuts

 

Coconut plantations abound throughout the islands, often planted on steep mountain sides and the smoke from the copra ovens can be seen far and wide.  This is a laborious way of making an income, collecting the nuts, splitting, shelling, drying for a number of days over the wood-fed ovens, bagging, crushing and then transporting to a collection point.  The copra ships go from village to village on a regular basis throughout the islands, acting not only as collectors but as transporters of provisions to remote communities.  

 

The struggle to educate

 

The islanders struggle to raise the fees required to continue their children’s secondary education (primary is paid for by the Government, although Miriam who has worked for over 20 years as a village kindergarten teacher is still waiting to be officially recognised for the job she does and only receives a tiny remuneration from the village people.  

 

In these small island villages it’s usual for the children to go to boarding schools for their secondary education often on other islands.  The cost to the families is huge, I was quoted 35,000 vatu plus for a term (the equivalent of about £300, not much by our standards but a fortune here).  The pressures on the family are enormous and you have to wonder if the resultant educated population will benefit themselves and the country.  One mother of five, owner of the tiny village store, shook her head sadly and said that if she could put the clock back she would not have sent her children to Port Vila for their financially crippling education.  They have now all left the village and secured jobs in the capital but at what cost?  Their living costs are high, their standard of living is not so great and the village is, like everywhere, gradually losing its young, energetic workforce.  The older people recognise that education is a two-edged sword.  They want the best for their children but maybe the cost will not outweigh the benefits in the long term.

 

Anyone for a basket?

 

Miriam was anxious to show me how to weave and an afternoon session left me with a basket which wouldn’t have won any prizes but is useful for holding fruit on board.  Of course there’s a knack to everything and her fingers and ability far exceeded my clumsy efforts, but it was fun to learn.  Pieter, in the meantime, had been making himself useful with the men, supplementing fishing equipment requirements and those, together with some donated larder replacements, such as rice, sugar and milk powder ensured some happy faces 

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Learning basket weaving with Miriam

 

As we travelled through the archipelago, we were rarely out of sight of wisps or heavy clouds from active volcanos, the country is full of them.  We had intended to take a look at one, but it just didn’t happen, either too far, too expensive or just not practical.  On Ambrym, one of the most prolific belchers we were advised that the five hours trek to the top (after a long 4-wheel drive to the base) was likely to result in no view whilst being shrouded in cloud, and then a further five hours back again – hmm, we chickened out!  

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Volcano in action at sunrise on Ambae

 

Good Samaritan – water for all

 

Whilst in Port Sandwich (another of those places which despite its grandiose name offers nothing more than a small jetty and tiny store) we met Alan, a Kiwi who introduced himself and apologised for the din he was about to inflict on us with his generator.  The deck of his small yacht was almost hidden under a huge water generator (desalinator).  He explained that he was assisting some of the smaller islands who had no water or what they had, such as the village of Craigs Cove in Ambrym close to the volcano, was contaminated.  

 

He was anchoring his boat as close to shore as possible, running pipes to the village and pumping gallons of desperately needed drinking water to the locals.  Whilst he recognised that this was only a stop-gap solution, he was hoping to persuade UNICEF to do something more permanent for the islands.  Admittedly his motives weren’t purely altruistic (he owned a company selling these machines), but he was, at this point, the only one keeping the villages in water and he had been touring the islands for the past three years providing assistance.  It seems that pleas for help to government departments were falling on deaf ears.

 

A feat of endurance

 

On the largest island of Espiritu Santo I decided to treat myself to one of the few organised trips of this visit.  The trek to the huge Millennium Cave was advertised as being of medium difficulty with about 7 hours of none-too arduous trekking.  That didn’t sound too bad and I reckoned that I was reasonably fit.  Well, maybe without the added element of rain and lots of slippery, boot-clinging mud and the canyoning – they didn’t tell me about that (at that point I didn’t even know what canyoning was!).  

 

With three young couples and a guide we set off from a village in the depths of the jungle.  The first bit was a “walk in the park”, then came the mud and the near vertical homemade ladders leading down and down into the river valley.  They seemed to go on forever plunging down the rock face until we did finally reach rock bottom and the opening to the cave.  

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Going down – the easy bit

 

A quarter of a mile in the pitch dark, knee-deep in fast running water over large uneven rocks wasn’t especially enjoyable but John, the guide, held the torch and gave me his undivided attention and I made it to the other end without falling in or breaking a leg!  

 

But this was still the easy bit!  We emerged just in time to eat our picnics in a tropical deluge.  Never mind, we were going to get wet anyway!  Now, how were we supposed to overcome those huge (and I mean huge) boulders?!  Easy, over the top with a little help from a few handholds and gouged steps, a haul up from John and a seat of the pants slide down to do the whole thing over again.  This wasn’t fun, but there was nowhere to go except forward until we reached the river running freely through the ravine and were able to thankfully relax and swim in the deep, chilly water with high echoing cliffs towering overhead.  

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So this is canyoning

 

After half a mile or so of drifting and chilling, we emerged at the point of exit from our watery ride to discover that the only way out was a slippery, muddy, virtually perpendicular route with more ladders with maddeningly widely spaced rungs and sometimes no rungs at all.  My knees were creaking and groaning in revolt but no one was going to carry me out and eventually the torture ended and we emerged at the top.  When I apologised for holding up proceedings, it was heartening at least to be told by others that the pace had been fast enough – no one had found it easy.  

 

This wasn’t the end of the story – we trudged back through mud and water for another half an hour to the village for refreshments, to change our wet clothes and a short respite before we were reminded that we still had a further half an hour jungle trek in the rain to our transport (so much for dry clothes).  Was I glad I’d done it – yes, I still have very vivid memories!!, would I do it again – no!!  

 

Million Dollar Point

 

Luganville, the only real town on Espiritu Santo is famous for being a major US base during the South Pacific conflict in WW2.  And it’s claim to fame is the heap of machinery which rests on the ocean bed at Million Dollar Point – so called because when their bluff was called, the Americans refused to leave a million dollars worth of war machinery behind without recompense.  The Condominum government had assumed that they would acquire it by default and refused to pay.  The Americans not to be thwarted, bulldozed the lot into the sea closely followed by the purpose-built wharf. 

 

Part of the Million Dollar Legacy
Part of the Million Dollar legacy

 

Many of the machines have disappeared into the deep, but we were able to snorkel over the shallower areas and appreciate both machines and a large multitude of fish, large and small milling around guarding the archives.

 

Vanuatu, a never to be forgotten experience

 

There were too many villages visited, too many experiences and wonderful people to be able to do justice to our time in Vanuatu.  We were made welcome everywhere and treated with exceptional kindness and generosity given unstintingly by some of the world’s poorest (by our standards) people.  Their gratitude for the little we could do and give them was overwhelming.  When Pieter took the headman of the tiny village on Santa Maria fishing and they landed a monster tuna (it must have been 5/6 feet long and filled the dinghy) the village was overjoyed with the biggest fish they had ever seen especially as it fed them all plus the wantoks in the next village for several days.  

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A Kustom house – strictly men only

 

Vanuatu has quite simply been a delight and the two months we have spent here has gone all too quickly.  Thank you ni-Vanuatans for your hospitality and your smiles.  

 

We now sail south to our next port of call, Noumea in New Caledonia, just a few days away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another dose of Fiji

The last six plus weeks have come and gone and with it another chance to explore a little more of beautiful Fiji. As I write this on our way to Vuda Point, the marina on the western side of Viti Levu, in anticipation of checking out, there is a sadness in saying goodbye once again.

The big city of Suva

We saw a little of Suva – not a great tourist spot but the museum with its impressive Drua (the double canoe which used to cross the ocean at 25 knots – compared to our 7+ if we are lucky) and comprehensive history of the country was worth the visit.

Pottering around the large central market, we bartered for fruit and vegetables and indulged in the sweetest, juiciest pineapples and exchanged banter with the flower ladies.

Smiling faces and beautiful flowers in Suva market

On the second floor devoted to kava, tobacco and spices (a strange combination) we wandered from stall to stall and wondered at the quantity of kava drunk in Fiji – now fetching $100 per kilo for its muddy, innocuous twigs which are ground into powder, squeezed through fabric, swilled with water in a large bowl before being imbibed bowl after bowl.

Kava by the ton in Suva market

Kadavu to the south

Kadavu, the large island lying to the south of Suva was an easy day’s sail and after the storm when we had previously passed it on our way north, we were happy to have gentle winds and calm seas to waft us back there. The island is very rural with only a few tiny villages and its mountainous central ridge is heavily wooded, seemingly impenetrable from the sea.

We took our time circumnavigating its rocky coastline and not unexpectedly due to its position, found the waters off of Cape Washington at the western extremity to be the clearest we had encountered anywhere. We easily identified our anchor lying on its side in 15 metres! On the windward southern side of the island we headed for a protected harbour for a night’s stay but with rough seas and a very narrow passage we had to reverse off the reef (just a little superficial damage to the keel) and continue to the next anchorage in darkness and through the narrow channel, trusting to the GPS – how long can you hold your breath?

Onwards to the Lau Islands

We wanted to go the Lau Islands, to our east and knew that it was likely to be difficult unless the prevailing SE winds did the unexpected. The weather only does the unexpected when you least want it and after another uncomfortable, rough night we reluctantly gave up the idea of the southern Lau and made our way north to the little island of Vanua Balavu where we held the leading markers in our sights and sailed through the long, narrow entrance in the reef into a peaceful inlet with “mushroom” islets and turquoise waters.

Mushroom islets in the Lau

The world below the waves

From here onwards our snorkelling expeditions took a turn for the better and we discovered some beautiful, unspoilt reefs with spectacular coral gardens, some fringing the coastline of remote islets and others on reefs out in the middle of nowhere. One day I happily spent four hours in the water and must have covered a mile or two, taking photos accompanied by a small territorial reef shark who swam by eyeball to eyeball on a couple of occasions. Apart from the colourful corals, hard and soft, the myriad of multi-coloured fish, fire-coloured fans and little sea horses, I was passed by turtles and waved at by a lurking moray eel enjoying the current.

Can anyone identify this unusual coral?

Back in SavuSavu

Our entry into the SavuSavu estuary wasn’t without its trials. We were allocated a mooring buoy by the marina – white No 18. Finally, in desperation, and with no sign of No 18 we picked up a yellow buoy – we were running out of water. Of course, it wouldn’t do and in exasperation the marina sent out their boy in a boat to assist these useless oldies. It was under our noses but the number, well, with its slime covering, we never did see that.

Mooring off of SavuSavu

I was keen to organise a return visit to the village I had so enjoyed last year and finally managed to track down a telephone number and make a rather tenuous booking for the following day.

Naqaravutu, my home from home!

They knew I was coming, or did they?! The 9.0am bus finally materialised at 9.45 by which time I was anxiously sheltering from the rain under a tiny tree along with several other passengers, indeterminate sacks of whatever, an assortment of cardboard boxes and large muddy clumps of taro. It was Saturday morning, the bus was crowded with shoppers squeezing in and past with everything but the kitchen sink, all done in vociferous good humour.

I had the good fortune to have a chatty, friendly young woman with small baby sat alongside me and she kept me entertained and enlightened for three quarters of the three hour journey. Tema was a school teacher and I learnt much about the workings of the education system. She cheerfully admitted that she was teaching her three small boys from an early age to help in the house as she recognised that the girls who were outstripping the boys at school weren’t going to be the stay at home mums in the future – what a super mum-in-law-to-be!

What a scam

I was keen to see what improvements the village had made and hoping to hear of visitors flocking to experience real village life. It soon became apparent as I talked with one and then another that things were not going smoothly. Their trusted relation, project co-ordinator and holder of the purse strings had done the unthinkable and helped himself to the substantial funds. Not only their $30,000 worth of aid money, but that allocated to five other villages taking part in the project as well.

He was not the flavour of the month and is currently being prosecuted by the police, although in the meantime he appears not to have noticed the situation and continues unhindered around town and in the village. Without shame or conscience, he even had the cheek to respond to my email to him saying I would like to visit them again, indicating that he would be pleased to welcome me! Hijacking other visitors who contact him as a result of the the article I wrote in a cruisers booklet and pocketing the money whilst introducing them to the village does not phase him. I am informed by local expats that this is not, unfortunately, an unusual occurrence in Fiji.

With little education or business acumen the villagers were at a loss as to how to now proceed, although they were all in agreement that the no-logging policy to encourage the return of the birds, would continue. It’s overwhelming and humbling to see how these people live with so little and with none of the trappings we take for granted in our world – cars, electricity, mobile phones, and very basic living standards. They were very proud of their latest achievement to bring a pipeline down the mountain so that everyone now has clean drinking water.

Children off to school by truck

Keeping fit in the village

I was inundated with a constant stream of villagers stepping into my room, from the Headman to most of the 40+ children and plied with food, along with a detailed explanations on how it was made. I trekked up into the jungle accompanied by a guide and a gaggle of children who were already jumping from a considerable height into a cold deep pool by the time I arrived – I chickened out of a swim with the thought of slipping and sliding in soggy clothes back down the muddy path. The following day, again with many exuberant youngsters in tow, we swam out to the reef to inspect the magnificent coral and satisfying return of the fish life.

Reef inhabitant off of village

How to help!

I returned to SavuSavu with my head buzzing and trying to think how I could best help them. They need someone to advise and direct them, someone with time and knowledge. A visit to Curly, the long time New Zealand expat who runs the radio station in SavuSavu was a starting point and he promised to do what he could, as did a handful of others I’ve met along the way. From afar and without communication there’s little I can do except keep my fingers crossed.

Yadua Island

As we made our way back towards the western side of Viti Levu to our check out point, the winds rose once again and with it on our tail we enjoyed a couple of cracking good sails if not comfortable anchorages. We were happy to enter the protected harbour of Cucavou on Yadua Island but were disappointed not to be able to explore the reef with winds gusting to 35 knots and the anchor chain being tested at full stretch. We did go ashore though to explore the beautiful, tranquil, sandy beach and determined to get some much needed exercise and climb to the small mountain behind.

Up the mountain

The meandering track, if you can call it that, led back from the beach through a jungle of coconut trees (rotten and sound), twisted vines, tall sharp-edged grasses and branches at all levels to take out eyes and shins. We followed the path until it disappeared into eye level grasses and then just kept going up as best we could. Towards the top, Pieter forged ahead and I just kept plodding on until I reached a clearing with views over the island on both sides. Pieter, having assumed that I had given up and retraced my steps, stayed long enough to take the obligatory photos and headed off at full speed down hill again (on another route). With no sign of my companion, I also set off on a downward trek but completely missed the illusionary path but reasoning that I just had to keep going down.

View from. Top of Yadua Island

And down in the jungle

Without a path, and it’s never straight down, somehow I ended up at the far end of the island, having gone through a muddy bog en route – no we certainly didn’t come that way on our way up! It’s quite amazing just how you can go astray in a relatively small area when it all looks the same – and I thought I had a good sense of direction, but with all vegetation looking alike, without the sun or sound of the sea to direct me, it became, if not frightening, certainly frustrating. After an hour and half or so of fighting my way through, over and under branches, cobwebs and burrs in my hair, squelching mud around the ankles, tripping over tangling vines, and with no sign of the sea, I had had enough!! Eventually, of course, I emerged hot, sweaty, scratched and thoroughly fed up onto the beach a long way from where I had started.

OK, not exactly darkest Africa, but near enough!

As I trudged my exhausted way, back along the beach to the dinghy, Pieter emerged from the shade and greeted me with “did you have a good journey” and a big grin. I was not amused, especially as it had seemed to escape his notice that I was missing for more than an hour and as he had assumed that I had returned before him to the shore, where was I??!!

Relieved to be back on the beach

A trip to Nadi

Awaiting repairs to a sail and permission to arrive in Vanuatu (with dire threats of a huge fine if we left without the requisite paperwork), I set off to visit Nadi some 20 Ks away, mainly to view the imposing (or so it looked from the tourist picture) Hindu temple. Nadi is probably not on the list of prime tourist attractions – a scruffy town with little of interest except its elaborate new airport, a large over-priced tourist handicraft market and the temple which is currently under renovation to renew the chipped and faded paintwork before next year’s pooja.

The Hindu temple in Nadi

An oasis in the jungle

More interesting were the Gardens of the Sleeping Giant (the mountain behind) on the outskirts of Nadi. I was told they were just a short distance (walking) from the main road so I hopped off the bus and set out to walk down the dusty side road, only to find that they were probably five Ks distant. At this point a taxi ride seemed like a good idea!

Created by Raymond Burr, the actor from the TV series “Ironside” and “Perry Mason” for those who can remember that far back, to house his collection of orchids. This impressive jungle of towering trees and flowering shrubs approached through a colourful arbour of orchids is a tranquil oasis with tastefully hidden hammocks, swings and rustic benches just to relax and contemplate. It was a pleasure to wander and sit a while in such lovely surroundings.

An oasis in the jungle

I won’t go in to the return trip to the marina, safe to say that it wasn’t straight forward and I thankfully returned eventually two buses, a taxi and a hitchhike later! Travelling can frequently be complicated and obstacles unexpected!

So, sail repaired, re-provisioned (again), fuelled up, papers not back from the Vanuatu authorities, but fingers crossed and we are leaving anyway. Goodbye Fiji, you were wonderful yet again.

Farewell to Fiji

Fair winds and foul – NZ to Fiji

After three months of cruising the magnificent sailing grounds of New Zealand with boat fully prepared and provisioned to take to the High Seas, we were as ready as we would ever be to turn our faces north and head for Fiji. The NZ temperatures had dropped dramatically and a definite autumn chill was in the air, could we leave or would we have to hibernate?

By early May the Opua Yacht Club had been overflowing with others like us, anxiously pouring over computers, weather forecasts and grib files waiting for that elusive weather window. We had all became overly familiar with the large club room where we exchanged information, predictions and suggestions – when could we leave?

The 35 yachts flying their flamboyant Rally to Tonga flags were not only at the mercy and caprices of the weather, but of their own members – some were raring to leave at the first bit of blue sky and others, more cautious, reasoned for a longer settled spell. Those of the more careful ilk won and the Rally’s start was delayed by at least three weeks.

As we watched the weather maps unroll not one but two new Cyclones, “Donna” heading south across Vanuatu, followed by “Ella” approaching Fiji from Samoa, there was no choice, glumly we were forced to stay put.

At last on Saturday 13th May, two weeks after an intended departure, champing at the bit, with some boisterous weather forecast for a couple of days (but that’s OK, that should clear us from New Zealand’s shores), we left the calm waters of The Bay of Islands.

As expected the first day, leaving on the back of a low as advised, afforded us a bouncy fast sail but all too soon the winds dropped and the next few days our progress was derisory as we ploughed on, motor-assisted, through an area of light winds. There’s one sure thing at sea, the weather never stays the same or as expected.

We had decided to check in at SavuSavu, on the northern island of Vanua Levu, reasoning that this would give us options for visiting the Lau Islands, as well as being a friendly and easy place to enter Fiji. There are only a handful of check-in points in Fiji and it’s forbidden to stop en route. But the choice of SavuSavu was without the vagaries of the weather (how many times have you heard the locals say “it’s not normally like this”!?

We had emailed our complex and lengthy entry forms to Immigration as required – we were expected in SavuSavu. Half-way through our now ponderous trip, the weather station was giving dire warnings of impending storms and advising that never mind SavuSavu we should not dally any longer than necessary. Enough said, our itinerary changed to head for Suva, the nearest port of entry as they were duly notified to expect us.

As the barometer fell, we raced north clocking two of our fastest days – averaging a whopping 7+ knots with the wind steadily rising and the sails shrinking to meet the conditions. We rounded Kadavu Island in the middle of the night and were met by the full force of 35 knots of shrieking winds (not helped by the accompanying sound of the wind generator screaming at full pitch) and torrential rain – it was foul and we were careering blind through the white out! As everything rattled, shook and creaked the silent prayer was just that nothing would break. Still roaring along, close hauled and trying to keep the speed down to 8 knots we entered the lee and relative calm of Suva harbour as dawn appeared and we were, after a night of heightened stress, able to finally relax.

The storm continued to rage for another two days during which another three yachts followed us into the anchorage. Then the wind dropped, the sun shone and the sea sparkled as Fiji returned to her welcoming self and we went ashore to finish our immigration formalities (two rain-coated officials had carried out the preliminaries the day of our arrival) and explore Suva.

(Sorry no photos, will try harder next time!)

A Taste of New Zealand

Back in New Zealand

Since arriving back in New Zealand in mid-February and enjoying warm summer (for the most part) temperatures and blue skies, I’ve been adjusting to living on the water again.

Back on the water in the Bay of Islands

I joined a new yacht, a Catalina 42′ for those in the know, a comfortable, spacious and well-equipped and maintained American-made boat and her skipper, Pieter, a Dutch Australian of my vintage. The idea was to explore the coastline of New Zealand for two to three months riding out the cyclone season before heading north for another dose of sunshine and tropical islands.

The boat, “Thumbs Up”, was in Opua in the Bay of Islands and after some hasty provisioning and a few days in the beautiful nearby islands (in reality more like hundreds of miles of multi-indented mainland coastline than islands), we headed south. I accustomed myself to my new home and the intricacies of new equipment. I gingerly lowered myself into the none-too-warm local waters and admired spectacular vistas of emerald, tea-tree-clad islets both from the sea and summits.

A beautiful vista in the Bay of Islands

Fish for dinner

It was time to explore further afield, but not before landing a large and welcome Kingfish, enough to give us a number of succulent dinners. Having despatched it, Pieter left it securely tied and trailing in the boat’s wake, insides cleaning out nicely. We remembered our catch sometime later after we had anchored and rushed to whisk the fish out of the water just before two circling sharks deprived us of our dinner. Yes, sharks in New Zealand!! And not little ones either, these were a good 8′ long although we weren’t able to identify the species. Apparently sharks are not uncommon in New Zealand’s waters but these definitely weren’t Great Whites and they were nowhere to be seen when I later ventured a quick dip.

A happy fisherman with a good catch

What weather!

We had originally discussed circumnavigating New Zealand to explore far south Stewart Island and the multitude of finger-like fiords on the south-west coast. In my ignorance I imagined that we would, in no time, be able to potter serenely south along the east coast taking in a few places of interest as we went. Not so.  Firstly New Zealand is a country of weather – and what weather! I thought the UK was bad, but the daily variations in temperature and conditions here have to be experienced to be believed. One minute you can accept the claim to be in the sub-tropics with the surrounding profusion of colourful hibiscus and warm sun on your face and the next you are fleeing below to grab a warm jacket and escape the icy southerly winds blowing straight up from the Antarctic. I have learned, that however benign the day at its start, to stow everything as if expecting a tropical storm – conditions can and do change rapidly. And the winds blow from every direction and change rapidly from one quadrant to another.

As we headed south towards Auckland anchoring in some ruggedly beautiful bays empty but for the thousands of swooping, screeching seabirds and light habitation – mostly holiday homes – realisation dawned on us both that the outer limits of the South Island with their unpredictable storms and uncomfortable closeness to the Roaring Forties, were probably somewhat unrealistic, or if not unrealistic, just that bit too much like hard work, not to mention, the cold! We are not after all hardy sea farers but cruisers grown soft in the balmy middle latitudes! We opted to remain in the not so stressful area of the Coromandel and the many and varied eastern offshore islands of the Hauraki Gulf.

After taking shelter in a marina in Auckland for an unexpected extended period of a week, during which the heavens opened and the city experienced one of its heaviest deluges in recent times, we headed out to the Coromandel, but not before fuelling up in a strong off-jetty wind. Leaping ashore as Pieter manoeuvred Thumbs Up alongside gave me just enough time to secure the bow line over a cleat but not long enough to race to the other end of the jetty and haul in the stern line loosely attached by a halfway-helpful guy. As Thumbs Up nosed the backend of the motorboat in front and swung her stern out to the extent of the attached rope, no amount of pulling persuaded her to come alongside. Pieter eventually winched in the stern line and all was well. I had time to reflect that at moments like that bow thrusters would have been very welcome.

Thumbs Up in Auckland with the Sky Tower in the background

Along the Coromandel Peninsula

The Coromandel coast was spectacular, empty and wild with plenty of soaring mountains, protected inlets, lovely shell-strewn beaches and even a few sheep bleating an indignant retreat at our approach. I am in awe of the early settlers who conquered this terrain and appreciate how hard and insular their lives must have been before the introduction of roads and modern communications. Even now, the sheep stations are often few and far between with sheep roaming hundreds of craggy impenetrable miles. Collecting them must be a real test of ingenuity.

Whilst picking our way over razor sharp oyster-covered rocks along the edge of one bay and stumbling through the millions of empty shells bedecking the beach, we noticed the tips of mussels surreptitiously withdrawing into the sand as the tide retreated. What a find – dozens of green-lipped mussels, fresh and for the taking. Along with a haul of cockles we gleefully returned to the boat – most of the cockles were just shells full of sand, but the mussels stretched to two good dinners, all the better for being free.

Collecting green lipped mussels in the Coromandel

Whilst in Auckland and after the excitement of landing a second large Kingfish, Pieter had been persuaded on his visit to the chandlers to invest in an all-singing, all-dancing new rod – well it certainly looks the part! So far, his disappointment hasn’t overcome his enthusiasm, but as yet the rod has still to be blooded and stubbornly refuses to cooperate – maybe it’s got something to do with the mangling the line received as it wrapped itself around the prop when reversing – and to add insult to injury sending his best lure to the depths. Never mind, I’m sure the day will come when some unwary Tuna, Mahi-Mahi or Marlin (let’s be optimistic) will jump on the line! In the meantime, Snapper caught with the small rod and unrealistic wriggly plastic pink lures have graced the table on a number of welcome occasions.

Great Barrier Island

This easterly and fourth largest of New Zealand’s islands proved to be an undiscovered paradise. Dozens of hidden and protected bays offering anchorages for every wind direction but few signs of habitation. I was looking forward to exploring the capital of Port Fitzroy and to replenishing our dwindling provisions, but upon arrival at the little wharf, I was quickly disillusioned – one tiny general store, library (closed), information shack (closed) and clinic (closed). The general store run by a couple who had decided to return to the mainland after 20 years of frustrations, was fortunately expecting its weekly delivery by ferry that day and for a small fortune we topped up some basics. The whole island has fewer than 800 permanent inhabitants and we encountered just a handful around this sleepy hollow.

The island is one of New Zealand’s tourist spots and many locals come here in the summer months to trek the well-kept mountain paths which cross-cross the island and to camp and enjoy coastal pursuits. We thought too it was time to don our walking shoes and try out some of the easier and shorter routes, alongside waterfalls and up river valleys. By far the hardest track was one misleadingly entitled “The Old Lady’s Track”. As we struggled and puffed and pulled ourselves up a rough and brutally steep path tripping on tree roots and slipping on moss and mud, we muttered that she must have been quite some old lady. But the view far out over the bay and beyond from the rocky outcrop at the summit was worth the palpitations and we rested long enough to soak up some sunshine and lower the heart rate before tackling the equally difficult and precarious passage downhill.

Made it to the top of the Old Lady’s Track – worth it for the view!

From the Mokohinaus to Whangarei

With settled weather we chanced an overnight stop in the Mokohinaus, more a group of large rocks than islands, but nevertheless on a day with clear blue skies and calm seas, the colours were spectacular and the clarity of the water was incredible. I swam without a mask and was amazed to see the fish below me as through a window. Pieter had donned a wetsuit expecting it to be very cold but the islands must lie within the warm current which flows from north to south. We have never seen so many large shoals of fish (or seabirds) – the water was boiling – unfortunately none of them ended up on our table.

The rugged grandeur of the Mokohinaus

A straight run across the bay brought us to Bream Head and into the long tidal Whangarei river. With the tides running at 2-3 knots it’s preferable to enter or leave with the current. It takes two to three hours with a high tide from the coast to Whangarei itself to reach the town basin, so good timing is essential. We spent a few days visiting the convenient supermarket, hiding from the rain and having the boat hauled for a quick antifoul job – in and out in three days was very good going especially keeping the paint dry in between the storms. The waters of New Zealand are certainly very high in nutrients if the amount and size of barnacles are anything to go by – Pieter said he had never seen so many in such a short time!

Trekking and exploring

Exploring the coastline and trekking across tiny islands has given us the opportunity to appreciate the flora and birdlife of this lovely part of the world with no fear of unexpected underfoot nasties. Each little island has its fair share of well-maintained and signposted tracks, together with a board of rules – no dogs or cats and no rats! New Zealand has worked hard to rid itself of its unwanted and foreign species and is determined to keep it that way. The birdlife is prolific and everywhere the plaintive and unusual cry of the native Tuis (large black birds with flashes of bright blue plumage and fluffy white puffballs beneath their beaks) echoes throughout the woodland. Smaller and less colourful Fantails jealously guard their territory, flitting and chirping, tail spread, from tree to tree around you until you move on.

Tea trees with their dainty white flowers and the familiar pungent aroma cover the thickly wooded slopes reminiscent from a distance of knobbly broccoli heads supported on long, white, spindly stalks. Giant Pohutukawas (so called Christmas trees because of their profusion of red flowers at this season) fringe the shorelines of much of the coast, clinging precariously with a massive tangle of roots to rocky slopes or support their mighty weight on twisted branches buried in the beach below.

A Pohutukawa tree making its way down the beach

Goodbye to New Zealand

It’s been a thrill and a privilege to explore some of this lovely coastline with some exciting sailing along the way but the days are growing shorter and cooler and the tropics are calling. So with just a week or so left, final provisioning still to do, with a good weather window we look forward to heading for Fiji for more adventures and warm sunshine. Fiji here we come.

Cambodia – Kingdom of Wats

Christmas and celebrations in Chiang Mai 

Christmas and the New Year came and went in the usual flurry of pre-festive activities – school concerts, shopping, school boot sale, frantic present wrapping, etc and then as always Christmas Day was upon us in a blur of presents with the excitement of Santa’s obvious visit and a belt-straining Christmas Dinner. 

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Father Christmas has been, see, sleigh and boot marks!

Despite the late King’s death a few months ago and the sombreness of any public entertainment, the expat community entered the spirit of the season with its usual pizzazz and party followed party – pre-Christmas and afterwards, culminating in a riotous family evening on New Year’s Eve in the community.  The garden looked a little the worse for wear the following day and so did those of us who stayed until 5.0am!

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Sarah and I and a welcome to 2017

Off to Cambodia

With only a day left on my visa in Thailand I flew to neighbouring Cambodia to spend a week exploring the sights of Phnom Penh and the 6 hours bus journey north to the city of Siem Reap and its beautiful and world-famous temples.  With good old AirBnB accommodation was arranged in the less salubrious outskirts of Phnom Penh with a local family living in a “shop house” and in Siem Reap with a professional Ukrainian guide and his partner, I was set to go.

Chariya and her husband, Putkosal, arranged for me to be picked up by tuk-tuk from the airport and a smiling Kim Leung was there to whisk me through the chaotic traffic to my accommodation.  Chariya and her smiling, talkative toddler and baby greeted me warmly and I was ushered into a basically furnished but spotlessly clean kitchen and plied with drinks and sticky banana rice.  Chariya and Putkosal, who had returned by motorbike from his long day at a distant warehouse, both spoke good English and had realised the importance of teaching their children the language.  Asa, the two year old, spoke and understood English very well and was as quick and eager as her parents to learn new words.

Kim Leung and my chariot

I hadn’t expected to be fed but I was included at the tiny kitchen table and embarrassingly my plate was heaped with the lion’s share  – tasty soup and a chicken rice dish.  We chatted as we ate and they were happy and eager to share their culture and history, openly voicing their disaffection with the corrupt government but knowing that they were powerless to change it.  They, as everyone I met, had their stories of the appalling Pol Pot regime, before their time but still vivid in their parents’ memories.  

Phnom Penh, Pearl of Asia

Phnom Penh a sprawling flood-plain city of something in the region of two million people is situated at the confluence of the Tonle Sap River and the mighty Mekong which flows alongside the city and then meanders on its way south and onward into Vietnam to its extensive delta.  Phnom Penh has been the the off/on capital of Cambodia since 1432 and an important centre during the days of the Khmer Empire which extended over much of present day Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and even north into Myanmar.  

The busy Tonle Sap River in Phnom Penh

The city which was first established in the fourteenth century reputedly took its name from the 27 metre artificial hill (Phnom) and Penh, a lady of the time called Penh who having found some religeous relics floating in the river transported them to the western bank, constructed the hill and built a shrine to house the artefacts.  This is now known as Wat Phnom (Hill Temple) and has become a major tourist attraction.

Wat Phnom

The centre of the city is modern, sprinkled with parks and imposing memorial statues, good roads and elaborate new buildings alongside the older elaborate colonial architecture, all interspersed with narrow, shabby streets packed with commercial enterprises trading in everything from beautiful heavy wooden furniture to carved stone buddhas, tiny unprepossessing eateries and motorbike repair workshops operating right on the pavement.  From the 1920s during the French colonialist era Phnom Penh was deservedly known as the “Pearl of Asia”.

Stone Buddhas for sale

Motorbikes everywhere

Motorbikes, scooters and tuk-tuks proliferate on the busy city roads as they weave in and out of the heavy traffic on all sides.  They race laden with passengers, as many as seven on a bike, although the legal limit is three, cross-crossing the busy interchanges in a chaotic fashion.  Dad at the helm might be wearing the obligatory helmet but mum and kids squashed in behind are exposed to luck and good judgement.  Small children jostle with their scooters, transporting their classmates to school, babies feed from their mothers in transit and bulky goods are transported piled high on the pillion.  

Furniture removals in Phnom Penh!

Motorbikes seem to be the primary form of transport and their uses vary from the norm to adaptations for mobile mini-markets, to lengthy and unwieldy construction “lorries” and furniture removal vehicles.  The colourful and ubiquitous tuks-tuks are themselves motorbikes turned into pulling machines of their convenient and comfortable little carriages.

Sights of the City

My first day was to be an exhausting tramp through the city from sight to sight, starting with the climb to the top of Wat Phnom to admire the marvels within along with the teaming tourists.  Judging from the kneeling supplicants with their incense sticks and proferred dollars which are eagerly collected by temple workers there must be many more Buddhist followers in the West than I would have imagined!  Outside the flower sellers arranged the budding flowers which they painstakingly open one by one to expose the petals and tiny birds flutter in the confines of small cages waiting to be paid for and liberated to please Buddha.  I was told they dutifully return later to repeat the cycle!

Birds for sale to earn you a place in heaven!

As I walked south through the city I couldn’t fail to find the huge Central Market, an Aladdin’s Cave of goodies with its huge high domed central hall, crammed with glass-covered counters displaying gold and silver jewellery, antique coins,, clocks and watches of all sizes and designs.  Jewellers work in rudimentary little booths in the side alleys and stalls stacked high with garments (Cambodia’s primary industry), food and household goods fill the cramped spaces.

Jewellery making in the Central Market

It took me a little longer with map in hand to negotiate my way to the National Museum but the history, ancient statues and tranquility of the picturesque, enclosed courtyard more than compensated for the walk.  A brief interlude exchanging ideas and impressions with three young Japanese visitors over a cool drink was enlightening, although sadly they had not wished to expose themselves to the history of Pol Pot’s regime (they said they were “too scared” to see the Genocide Museum).

The inner courtyard at the National Museum

The Royal Palace within its sculpted gardens is a wonder of typical local architecture but was closed by the time I reached the entrance so I joined the thousands of locals and colourful saffron-clad swathes of monks, young and old, on the Sisowath.  This promenade runs alongside the river and on a Sunday afternoon attracts walkers, picnickers, flower sellers, bird sellers, food sellers and people just relaxing and watching river life.

The Royal Palace

A Gruesome History

My visit to Phnom Penh wouldn’t have been complete without a visit to the notorious Genocide Museum (Tuol Sleng or S21 Prison) and the Killing Fields, 15 kilometres outside the city.  I spent a harrowing morning with earphones listening to the sickening history of the Pol Pot revolution from 1975-79, witnessing the converted school to torture centre where 20,000 doomed Cambodians were brought, tortured and mercilessly killed for being “too white, having soft hands, being educated”.  And this was just one of the 300 such centres scattered around a country which murdered 3 million of its 8 million population during those few short years.

Tuol Sleng (S21 Prison)

The Killing Fields was, prior to the atrocities, a Chinese cemetery at Choeung Ek, but it became the mass burial grounds for those condemned to die in Tuol Sleng (only a handful survived as a result of being useful to the regime) and they were transported in their lorryloads to be brutally murdered, in barbarous fashion.  Bullets were in short supply so indescribable methods were used, such as the razor sharp branches of the sugar palm to behead and babies were beaten against a tree and thrown into the nearby pit to join the bodies of their mothers.  Seeing hundreds of mutilated skulls in the memorial building was a sobering experience which left everyone shocked and silent, horrified at the inhumanity of mankind.

The gruesome Killing Fields memorial – one of 17 levels

An uneventful 6 hour bus journey to Siem Reap passed through little villages with their wooden, stilted single-storey houses, some with terracotta tiled and decorated roofs, others with simple, corrugated iron but nearly all with pretty carved staircases.  In front of many homes grazed one or two bony, white cows looking in need of a good feed.  The villages were surrounded by acres of emerald green padi fields, many sporting white nets for the catching of insects at night, such as grasshoppers, which are prized for their nutritional value!

Typical stilted wayside houses

The temples of Siem Reap

A long day exploring the temples of Siem Reap, including of course, the most famous – Angkor Wat – left me with aching joints and fit to drop.  I don’t think I’ve ever climbed so many stairs (some of them close to perpendicular) in one day in the pursuit of examining intricate carvings, lengthy walls telling stories and depicting mythical and Buddhist history through the bas relief carvings and ancient and beautiful architecture.  The Ta Prohm temple with majestic trees intertwined amongst its still beautiful doorways, carvings and ruins is justly famous with its atmosphere reminiscent of “Lord of the Rings”.  Unfortunately, here I had to dodge the bus loads of Chinese tourists who were more interested in taking selfies than admiring the grandeur around them and at one point, I begged a break in proceedings to allow me to photograph without a Chinese addition!

Trees wrapped around the ruins

I was recommended to spend a day exploring Phnom Kulen in the National Park to the north of Siem Reap and was happy to rest my weary knees during the 40 miles drive.  The temple at Preay Ang Thom, like the others, was disappointing in its commercialism with monks at the ready to relieve eager tourists of their money and local people flanking the steps to the temple (yes, more steps) with a tradition of expectation.  The 8 metre reclining Buddha carved into its huge supporting boulder was indeed impressive, the decorations were colourful, the monks waved their batons with vigour but maybe I was just templed out.  A peaceful and unspoilt spot on the nearby river was more to my taste – the valley of a thousand lingas!  I wasn’t able to count them but in the shallow water, the well etched, square carvings stood out clearly and formed an unusual riverbed.  

Reclining Buddha – 8 metres long

 Back in Phnom Penh I spent the last afternoon exploring the Royal Palace with its beautiful Emerald Buddha, elaborate buildings and upturned roofs, State costumes and manicured grounds before returning for my last night with Chariya and Putkosal and enjoyed another speciality of the house.  As I said a sad goodbye to my new friends and Cambodia, I look forward to returning to see more of this lovely country.

 

New friends in Cambodia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the UK to Thailand

Despite what I’m often told, I claim to be an optimist.  As I continue to travel, the reality and outcome are never quite as anticipated.  Things never go as expected.  Here I am, my brief sojourn in the UK has come and gone – a month seemed like a very long time when I booked my ticket and more than enough time to catch up with the family and friends and do the odd bit of shopping, etc but not with numerous problems stealing my precious time.

Oh those banking problems!

Unknown and unexpected factors always arise which are frustratingly out of my control.  Banking problems for instance which one would expect to be sorted in a very short time don’t bear out my optimism.  I returned to a prime example and have sworn to change my 50+ years old bank account with the mighty HSBC.  It’s taken me more than four months to resolve an issue after using a “secure and convenient” bank transfer to a travel company in New Zealand, causing me to be £1,500 out of pocket during that time.  Grrrr!!!  Finally, in desperation after every department, including Customer Services (huh) ignored my pleas I wrote to the CEO and eureka, they found my money!  Naturally, it still took another few weeks for the money to reach my account!

Sporting events and birthday

I spent a hectic month in the UK in November firstly with Rachel and family in Norwich, enjoying the dubious privilege of shivering at the edge of a damp and muddy rugby field with frozen feet which had long since lost any feeling and ears glowing like red beacons.  I watched and cheered grandson Sam and a rugby team of ten year old boys mauling each other, wresting the ball and racing up the pitch, but I can’t say it really grabbed my enthusiasm.  Watching Sam, Ella and Paul perform on their respective hockey fields with infinitely more comfortable AstroTurf beneath the feet, in the weak November sun, was somewhat more enjoyable.  Sam’s indoor cricket coaching practice was, by comparison, a pleasure especially as it paid off with the ultimate achievement of being picked to join the Norfolk County squad as one of their up and coming youngsters.  Rachel and Paul will be forfeiting most of their weekends next summer to transport Sam from fixture to fixture around the country but with Sam’s contagious enthusiasm for the game there will be plenty of family support.

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Sam making a dash for it

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Ella on the ball

My visit coincided with Rachel’s birthday on 15th November and she celebrated in style with a deluge of presents and flowers and an impressive iced carrot cake made by Paul – his first ever.  We enjoyed a delicious lunch in a favourite Norwich eatery finishing with a mountain of meringue, cream and berries, returning home to cut and demolish a weight-watcher’s nightmare, the sumptuous carrot cake – all in all an enjoyable high calorie day!

Birthday lunch
Birthday lunch

Visiting friends and the joys of driving

Rachel generously lent me her car for a week to tour the south of England and catch up with friends and family.  On a wet and miserable November morning I set forth for Worcestershire in the knowledge that my transport was equipped not only with a cheering seat warmer to which I eventually found the off button but not before shedding clothing whilst underway and cooling down from puce to normal, but also the comforting Satnav.  After insistently directing me to leave the straight-forward route on the motorway, I was plunged into the depths of rural England, down narrow, winding country roads often submerged by heavy rainfall and into thick fog.  I couldn’t turn back, without a map I was lost so I cursed and continued until I eventually and surprisingly arrived in time for lunch to a roaring fire and a warm welcome by Carole, my oldest (in time) friend in a quaint country pub.  Then it was on to Gloucestershire to stay for a few days with Anna, another long-suffering friend of my youth – she (bless her) traipsed with me through the pre-Christmas crowds around the Cheltenham shops in the rain searching out a couple of party dresses for Christmas in Thailand.  

Making my way to coastal Sussex to stay with my ex-brother-in-law, Jim and his partner Mo, the car was determined to take control of my itinerary, directing me to go cross-country at every exit along the M4, M25 and M23 with me responding defiantly to the robot.  Strolling along the prom in Seaford on a glorious bright, crisp day with the gentle waves lapping the pebbles and the sun glistening on the sea brought home the pleasures of England when the sun does shine but made me nostalgic for life on the ocean wave. 

My car problems were not just with the Satnav.   As I was coming towards the end of my long cross-country drive, the engine revs without warning plummeted and recovered on several occasions until I crawled up the final hill with a long queue in my bunny-hopping wake.  As it turned out it was set to fuel-saving around town mode – not for long distance motoring.

Twenty-five years ago we lived in the tiny village of Warfield in Berkshire and it had long been on my mind to re-visit to catch up with long lost friends.  With a car and time the opportunity was one I couldn’t ignore,  Rae and John, our nearest ex-neighbours in their beautiful Moat House, were at home and after jaw-dropping surprise to see me, we spent a great couple of hours reminiscing and catching up on family news.  I’m so glad to have made the effort to see them especially as they have made the decision to sell up and return to their native New Zealand.  Silvana and Mike knew I was coming and it was another nostalgic trip down memory lane with Silvana and I chatting late into the night.  

Excess luggage and how to make it weigh less!

The last few days flew by as I anxiously watched the parcels roll in from Amazon and packed and repacked my cases with Sarah’s growing mountain of Christmas goodies.  “It’ll be fine” she blithely cooed.  “You know you can talk your way through it”!  I packed the books, presents, food stuffs and crossed my fingers in the knowledge that I was over the already generous allowance of thirty kilos.  

Was it an omen when the handle fell off the heaviest case before I even reached the bus station for my overnight bus to the airport?! I leapt from the bus in the terminal to grab the one remaining trolley, forced in the coin and yanked it from its restraining chain with desperation, to discover that there were only three wheels on my wagon – the fourth was broken and useless.  Nevertheless, three were better than none and piled high with cases and heavy rucksack I pulled, pushed shoved and dragged the unwieldy beast to the next trolley bay.

Now just to brave check-in!   My cheerful good morning elicited a steely response – “you’re 6 kilos over, that will be £254 in excess”.  What!!!  After weighing my hand luggage and pronouncing it on the limit, it was then suggested that I go away and re-pack.  So with books and heavy trays (with inscriptions aimed at stroppy teenagers), I packed a second rucksack and lumbered through departures with my now well overweight hand luggage.  I asked myself how does transferring the luggage from one place to another make it lighter on the plane?!

Bangkok to Chiang Mai

In the airport the following morning I set about re-packing once more and lightening my hand luggage.  Now I needed a taxi to take me into the centre of Bangkok.  I repeated the name of the station several times with no comprehension and only after I enacted “the wheels on the train” with accompanying sounds and whistles did the taxi driver finally say “ah you want Hua Lamphong.  Isn’t that what I said?!”

Hua Lamphong Station
Hua Lamphong Station

 

Once my luggage was safely stowed in the somewhat chaotic left luggage facility, I was lightly free to go exploring the area.  Chinatown was nearby with its famous golden Buddha statue so that was an obvious choice.  This Buddha when found was covered in white plaster to disguise and protect it from marauders and it was only later realised that beneath the thin covering was a priceless artefact.  It is claimed that this is the most valuable single object in the world.

The Golden Buddha
The Golden Buddha

Having climbed to the top of the temple and viewed the wonderful sights within, fatigue and heat drove me back to the relative cool of the spacious, domed station where I relaxed with tea and company – two Malaysian families travelling on the same train shared my table and their experiences and aspirations.  At 6pm it was time to reclaim my bags and board the new Chinese-built train for Chiang Mai.  Despite all reservations, the train was excellent, my first class double compartment shared with a German woman was superb with comfortable sleeping berths and all mod cons.  This was a great way to travel and we arrived on time thirteen hours later to be met by Sarah In Chiang Mai, what more could I ask for?!

 

 

 

 

 

                    

 

New Zealand – end of an Odyssey

It was with more than a little fear and trepidation that we set out from Fiji and headed south. The reputation of this piece of ocean is deserved, with storm after storm sweeping from the Tasman Sea over the islands of New Zealand. We had been warned by New Zealanders that it would be very unlikely that we would make the journey without at least one “big blow”. “There’s one a week” we were warned and it was going to take us at least nine or ten days at best.

During our first four days we made good progress with brisk winds but then as the winds died totally we had no option but to start the engine. Little did we know at that point that we would be chugging along for the next four days under motor as the winds stubbornly refused to return and then only in the wrong direction. In other circumstances we would probably have wallowed the time away but with the threat of a low looming we didn’t dare take the risk. We had never before motored for such a long period, but there was nothing for it but to keep going.

Eventually, a favourable wind returned briefly and we thankfully turned off the engine and hoisted the sails once again, but not for long. As we sighted New Zealand we were once more under engine with the wind on the nose, anxiously watching the fuel gauge and trying to anticipate whether we would have enough diesel to see us into port.

Arrival in New Zealand

We ignored our misgivings over entering Opua, our check-in port, at night and as the sun set we entered the long lead in between the rocky outcrops and islands. By the time we arrived at the Quarantine jetty it was pitch dark and a strong tide was beginning to run against us, but we had thankfully made it without incident and on time.

At 8.0 am the following morning, the Immigration & Customs official was on board asking all the usual searching questions before stamping our papers. He was closely followed by the officer from Biodiversity, a stickler for “doing it by the book”. He foraged through every food cupboard and examined and disposed of bags of frozen and chilled items not allowed into NZ. We were allowed to keep three of our remaining five packets of lentils, but no beans or other dried pulses! I had hurriedly turned the remaining large bags of raisins and walnuts into a supply of cakes – they were permitted. He threatened to take our one remaining orange if it wasn’t eaten before he closed his sack – he only got the peel!

A Whiskered Stowaway

Now for the major problem. A minor diversion during our passage in the guise of an unwelcome stowaway – a rat. We had, it seems, picked up a little hitchhiker whilst in Vuda Point and it had been making itself at home on board. The first clue was the large hole in a heavy-weight plastic box containing the bread flour and the liberal sprinkling of flour spread around the cupboard. It can’t have been a very nutritious diet but the rat had tried more than one variety of flour – with a preference for multi-grain it seems!

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I’m having that cheese even if I do get a headache!

Mike decided to declare our extra crew member with the consequences that the yacht remained in quarantine and we were banished out to anchor until a body, dead or alive, was produced rather than being allowed into the marina. We were allowed ashore by dinghy. Firstly though, the second battalion was brought in – the two sniffer dogs, labrador and beagle, with their little bootees, were lifted on board and taken down below to seek out the rat. They could smell him, but the rat had plenty of tiny escape channels too small for any dog to follow and he just removed himself to another part of the boat as the dogs sniffed frantically around the cupboards.

A number of solutions were suggested – traps, poison, gas.  We started with a trap – the rat was a clever rat though and the trap was sprung a number of times but the cheese and peanut butter disappeared and the enticing boxes of poison were ignored. A second super-rat trap was set and this time the rat must have become complacent. It was badly injured, judging by the blood left behind. The last I heard the rat was no more but maybe the smell has yet to rise from the bilges.

Eventually, the Biodiversity officer agreed that he couldn’t keep us in Opua indefinitely waiting for a body and he signed the clearance papers. We hurriedly left Opua before he changed his mind and continued our sail down the coast of New Zealand to the final destination in the riverside town of Whangarei.

The end of the Line

Arriving in Whangarei in rain and a very chilly southerly wind was a shock to a system more used to tropical warmth and balmy breezes, but this is still spring and summer is just around the corner.

After three years of sailing; from the Canary Islands to the Cape Verde’s, crossing the Atlantic, exploring the Caribbean and cruising from island to island in the South Pacific, my crewing days on Romano finally came to an end in Whangarei. On 8th  November I took the bus to Auckland and flew back to the UK. This was the end of an exciting, sometimes frightening, often challenging adventure with many ups and downs, good and bad times but few that I would have missed.

I haven’t finished yet, next year’s itinerary – different boat, different skipper – is in the pipeline, so please keep watching the blog!