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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

This is the end

We ended up spending 12 days in Tanna, a lot longer than anticipated due to winds from the wrong direction and then a 24hr bug that we each came down with on different days, but finally all was right for us to lift the anchor and move on to Port Vila. After a very pleasant evening on board Brio with our friends Wolfgang and Corrine from Moin, we departed Port Resolution at 4am on Thursday morning.

The SE/ESE breeze we were hoping for to get us to Port Vila didn’t come in until about midday so we motored until then. By early afternoon the breeze became a 10kt headwind so once again we turned on the engine and then motorsailed through the night to ensure an early arrival into Port Vila. We needed to use every minute of our Friday in Port Vila to make sure we could complete our check out, re-fuel and provision and do any other important business things before the weekend. All went according to plan including getting some laundry done, having a couple of decent meals at a ‘sports bar’ and stocking up from the local market.

We left our Port Vila mooring at 2pm on Sunday bound for Bundaberg, Australia, some 1100nm away. The passage took us 8 days and as usual we had a bit of everything. It did seem with this passage though that perhaps Hughie had saved his ‘best’ ‘til last. For the first day and a half we had around 10kts from the SSE or ESE so we needed to run the engine for at least a couple of hours each day to ensure we had enough battery power to run our chartplotter and nav lights. Ivan was into the groove with his various radio schedules: we were still checking in twice a day to the Pacific Drifters net that had been going since the Panama Canal, there was the Rag of the Air at 6am for check in and a basic weather report, there was the ‘David and Patricia’ show on Gulf Harbour Radio at 6.30am that provided us with exceptional and invaluable weather reports and then, later in the passage, Ivan was also checking in to a midday net that some people had set up for the crossing between New Caledonia and Australia.

By the early hours of Tuesday the wind had increased to 20kts coming from the south and we had changed down from the reacher to a reefed genoa. On checking in with the Drifters net we heard Windwalker reporting sustained 40kt winds where he was further south off New Caledonia. The wind continued to be a strong 20-25kt SE, not easing until Thursday morning. While it was uncomfortable sailing, it also meant we were counting down the miles nicely as we averaged 5 ½ kt speeds. By this time David had started to warn of an impending front that would be hitting Bundaberg at about the same time as our scheduled arrival. With estimations of 30+ kt winds and big seas we were obviously keen to arrive before the front if we could. So it was ‘pedal to the metal’ to use Patricia’s words from then on. On Friday at 1.30pm we reached our waypoint where we turned to 235 degrees magnetic and made our home run for Bundaberg, 420nm to go. Our morale and nerves went up and down with the wind. If it started to die out and our speed started to drop we would get anxious about our arrival time. We knew the change was due to come through late Monday/early Tuesday and while we knew Brio could handle it, the question was, could we?! We also had to contend with quite a bit of current against us we had not expected. We either motored or motorsailed continuously for our last 3 days of the passage just to try to get to Bundaberg as soon as possible. We were burning fossil fuel like it was going out of fashion (oh yeah, it is going out of fashion). On Monday the wind was light again so we took down the reacher and decanted some more fuel into the tank from our jerry cans to make sure we wouldn’t run out of fuel at a critical time. It was a sunny day although there was obviously a thin, high layer of cloud as the sun was weak and the light was somewhat yellow, a little like when there is a bushfire far away. By the afternoon, the NW wind had picked up again, our ETA for Bundaberg was for 8 or 9 pm Monday evening which we knew would get us in before the predicted 2am south east change. The wind was reasonably steady for most of the afternoon at 15-20kts and towards evening it increased to around 25kts. The seas changed from a 2m swell to a more boisterous chop as we entered the shallower waters of Hervey Bay. We had been using the tiller pilot to keep us on course, but chose to change to the wind monitor for a smoother ride as its faster response time meant Brio wouldn’t skew as much when buffeted by the seas. The sun set, a red ball behind a haze of cloud, and the lights of Bundaberg started to appear. We easily spotted the channel markers and motor sailed up it into the strong north westerly, until we arrived at the quarantine anchorage (or so we thought) and dropped anchor at 9.15pm by us or 8.15pm Queensland time. We chugged down a couple of well earned beers, had some dinner and without too much sentimentality said both hello and goodnight to Australia. We were very glad to be home and very glad to be safely in port.

Exactly as forecast, at 2am the strong north westerly turned to an even stronger south easterly, waking us enough to rattle the rigging and getting us to check our anchor was holding before going back to sleep.

Two days later as I sit here and type, the south easterly is still howling, there are stories of 2 multihulls breaking up in the horrendous conditions and our biggest concern now is how to clear customs and quarantine as cheaply and quickly as we can.

It’s been an adventure, Ivan has ticked an item off his bucket list and I think we are both glad we have ‘brought Brio home’ (not quite to Nungurner yet) although we each have different reasons. Ivan will now bring Brio down the east coast to Nungurner and Louise will go for a little jaunt to Borneo. We hope you have enjoyed sharing our adventure through our blog. This is the end.
 

Tanna Island, Vanuatu

Just a day’s sail away, but Tanna is quite a different island from Aneytium which we just left. Tanna is well known amongst cruisers for its active volcano, Mt Yasur. And what a sight it is. As we got closer to the island we could see great puffs of grey and white smoke and steam rising from a mountain top. Where we anchored in Port Resolution we couldn’t actually see the volcano, but not more than 200 metres from us on shore we could see steam rising from a number of vents. One of the highlights of our time in Tanna was a visit to the volcano at night. It was an amazing experience to be standing on the edge of a crater, looking down into a glowing mass of coals and then hearing a growling rumble that would grow to a roar and culminate in a display of red hot balls being tossed in the air like a jugglers festival with sparks and flares all around. Fortunately the audio on the bit of video footage we took is not very clear otherwise my exclamations/profanities at what we were witnessing would be on the historical record!

Ivan looking a little surprised by the volcano's fireworks

Tanna is much more densely populated than Aneytium. There is a road linking Port Resolution with Lenakel, the main town of the island. All along the road there are small villages of 10-20 houses, and, like Aneytium, there are children everywhere in Billabong t-shirts. From Port Resolution to Lenakel it is only about 30km, but it’s about a 2 hour trip over a bumpy road, that includes crossing a desert of ash near the volcano. Ivan spent a long day getting to and from Lenakel, just to get some cash from the bank as there is no bank at Port Resolution. While he was tired at the end of the day, he was also exhilarated by the adventure claiming “What a day, what a day I’ve had!”

Anchored in Port Resolution, it is really relaxing just to sit and watch the local men in their dugout outrigger canoes fish each day. They work as a team, including having some scouts high on the hill on shore. On seeing a school of fish the scouts call out to the men in their boats to direct them to where the school is. They use a kind of “cooee” sound that is quite unlike any I have heard anywhere else. The men then paddle furiously across to the area and lay a net in a large circle to surround the fish. Sometimes someone will suddenly leap from their canoe and swim and thrash in the water, presumably to force the school back toward the net, rather than them escaping through a gap. It was great entertainment and we admired their persistence and skill. We even benefited a couple of times through gifts of very tasty fresh fish. Although the fish was offered to us with no expectation of money, we always insisted on giving the person a couple of Vatu in return. It made us feel better at least! Often a man would come over to our boat in his canoe and ask us if we could charge his mobile phone. Fortunately we had some good winds and sun for most of the time we were at anchor so our batteries were well charged and we were happy to oblige. It wasn’t unusual for us to have a couple of phones on charge at any one time.

We became friendly with Patrick and Nellie who lived in a nearby village with their children and extended family. Ivan tried to fix Patrick’s generator for him, but was unable to for lack of a functional fuel switch. It is typical of what these people face: because there are no shops or services nearby and they have little money to pay for replacement parts even if they could easily get hold of them, equipment lies unable to be used. Patrick and Nellie, like most of the islanders, have an extensive veggie garden which they rely on for their food needs. They also had a collection of pigs. Pigs are usually slaughtered only on very special occasions, so I guess we were lucky when we attended a feast in another village and they fed us pig-on-a-stick.
Ivan and Patrick in Patrick's veggie garden
The results of pig on a stick

We were really pleased to see the yacht Mystic anchored in the harbour one day. We had first met Archie and Jo in Bocas del Toro in March and hadn’t seen them since Shelter Bay, Panama. They had two friends aboard and they were all going to visit a ‘custom village’, Yakel, the next day. At Yakel the villagers live a traditional lifestyle eschewing western ways. It’s all bare breasts, grass skirts and penis gourds in these places. Archie and Jo’s friends were particularly interested to go to this village as a filmmaker friend of theirs had make a documentary come reality series on the villagers. After a long drive across to Lenakel and beyond to Yakel, we finally came to the village, where as custom dictates all the men from our vehicle were introduced to the village chief while we women stayed in the truck. Ewan explained how it was his friend who had made the documentary and was told that Jimmy Joseph (JJ) the documentary’s narrator was in another village practising for the Toka festival. The Toka festival is a once a year event where there is much traditional dancing and feasting as part of a ceremony for men to find a wife. We eventually found the village JJ was in and he came back to Yakel with us and gave us a really interesting guided tour of the village, explaining the traditional way of life there.
JJ in Yakel's version of jeans and t-shirt

The boys were invited to drink cava with the local men and then we were all treated to a dance about planting taro. We felt really lucky to have been able to visit Yakel and get a better understanding of life there without it being an organised tourist event. The day was not over yet though……JJ then invited the boys only again to go and watch the men’s Toka dance in the neighbouring village. Once again we women waited in the truck, entertained by young boys nearby who were practising bow and arrow shooting and listening to distant singing and stomping of the men’s dance practise. The 2 hour drive back to Port Resolution was interrupted by a flat tyre. The wheel nuts were completely and utterly frozen on and no matter how many men tried and how many methods were tried, that wheel was not coming off. At one stage it was looking like we would be staying the night on the floor of a village hut, but then the decision was made that we would drive back on the flat tyre. And so we did, wincing all the way at the horrible sound the flat tyre was making.
Taro planting dance at Yakel

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Ile Aneytium, Vanuatu

Many of the trappings of modern living are yet to appear in the village of Anelgaohat on the island of Aneytium in southern Vanuatu. There is no electricity network, there are no roads or cars, the water supply is via the mountain stream or what is caught on the roof and there is very little produce in the handful of grocery stores. The ubiquitous mobile phone has made it here though!
We arrived here on a Sunday morning, day of rest and church for local people, and as such we expected to just spend the day aboard cleaning up and resting after our passage. The anchorage we were sharing with 7 other yachts was nice and flat and we were enjoying just being. In the late afternoon however Timothy and Kevin, the local police/customs and immigration officers, arrived at our boat in the police launch and we duly filled in the sheaves of forms handed over to us. We completed our check-in the following morning when the bank opened, enabling us to change some money and pay the required entry fee. The islanders have their own language, but most people are also fluent in English. As we walked along the narrow dirt path everyone would wish us a good morning with a huge smile. Here again there are many skinny dogs, but unlike in other places, these ones are much more friendly and will come up to you for a pat (probably looking for food more likely). We spent a day walking with 6 other yachties and Keith, who guided us, to a waterfall in the mountains behind the village. There was no way without Keith we would have found the right paths from the network around the village or have been able to follow the trail as we neared the waterfall and rock hopped and zig-zagged across the stream. It was a beautiful walk, starting alongside the small woven pandanus and thatched huts that are home to the locals and then winding its way up, mainly under the canopy of trees all shades of green. A village dog kept us company the whole way and she was variously called Ginger, Foxy and Speedhump (due to her propensity to suddenly plop down on the path in front of us for a scratch). The 3 hour trek to the waterfall was worth it alone for the refreshing swim at its base when we got there.
That evening we sauntered along to the cava bar that opened each afternoon at about 4.30pm. On this island where no alcohol is sold and can only be ordered from Port Villa for personal consumption, cava is the drink of choice for relaxation. It is openly acknowledged that it tastes awful, but the mildly sedative effect it has on one is supposed to make it worth it. Louise had already had a taste of cava in Tonga at the local fire station no less (that’s another story!). Ivan was keen to try the cava here at Aneytium, especially since we had seen the ‘cava boys’ making some the day before and we knew it was fresh, not powdered. Keith who was also at the bar, explained how we were to drink the cava; after paying 100 vatu (approx $Aus 1.10) at a small window for each drink we then moved across to the next small window where two coconut shell halves full of what looked like Yarra River water were waiting for us. We took our drinks around the corner where we were instructed to scull it in one go and then immediately after to swig from a small beer bottle filled with water (in order to rinse the taste from our mouths). A good idea as it tasted like we had just been chewing on a green twig. We then sat on a bench looking out at the yachts in the harbour and waited….and waited….and waited…for something to happen. Apart from a slight tingling in the mouth we couldn’t say that we noticed any great effect. We headed back to Brio and both tired from the day’s big walk – or was it the cava actually working on us? – it wasn’t long before we were tucked up in bed. ins
Thursday and Friday were fundraising days for the local primary school. There are masses of children on Aneytium. About 120 are enrolled in the primary school and that’s out of a total population of 600 they say. Not a bad ratio! We weren’t sure what to expect by way of activities that would help raise funds, but we were told it would start early in the morning. We showed up at the grassy area in front of the school on Thursday morning and found a lot of people busy preparing kebabs, salads and other food that was to be the fundraising lunch for the day. A raffle, soccer games and a DJ playing music that no one was listening to seemed to complete the day’s activities.
We had a pleasant day lounging in the sun chatting to people, including Henry, who late in the afternoon took us to where the Lucas sawmill was in the pine forest. From there he took us along one of the numerous dirt paths, up and over a small rise, past some simple woven huts on the ridge, down into a valley of giant mango trees, and through the long grass to his son’s house. Here we met not only Henry’s son, but also Henry’s wife, daughters in law and grandchildren (only in Vanuatu would you see a 5 year old sitting n a tree wielding a machete like it’s his favourite teddy bear he’s taken up here to play with!). It was one of the granddaughters birthday so we were treated to birthday cake and lime drink. Henry’s son brought out samples of his walking sticks carved from acacia that we had come to see. We duly bought one and made our way back to Brio the short way, via the beach.

Sailing to Vanuatu

Well as I’ve indicated before, cruising is full of plans…and changes to plans. This passage was to be no exception. We left Tonga intent on a 4-5 day passage to Suva, Fiji with the possibility of pulling in a little earlier at Kadavu, in the southern end of Fiji, if the weather turned nasty. Our first couple of days out saw boisterous conditions of ESE winds of 20-25 knots, gusting to 30 during the night, with seas of around 3 metres. We were sailing with three reefs in the main and the genoa about 1/3rd unfurled. Brio was getting along well at 5-6 knots, unlike her captain and crew who were yet again paying the price for having been in a flat anchorage for too long, and were dealing with the usual effects of mal de mer. By day 3 the winds were easing, the seas dropping and our stomachs were starting to settle. Brio was lolloping along at 4 knots by late afternoon in a 10 knot east, nor’easterly, but by early evening the wind dropped to the point we started to motor and continued to throughout the night. At some point around this time, we made the decision not to pull in at Kadavu and not to aim for Suva, but to keep going to Port Vila, Vanuatu. There were a number of factors that swayed us: Kadavu is not a port of entry for Fiji, so we ran the risk of the wrath of the authorities, if not fines, if we stopped there; Suva, while potentially a harbour of ice-cream, wifi and other such delights, was also likely to be big, noisy and dirty and as we really didn’t need to go there other than to check in, the cons outweighed the pros; having just got our sea legs again, the thought of stopping in port now and then having to endure another bout of sea-sickness for the leg from Fiji to Vanuatu was definitely not appealing; and finally, and probably most persuasively, it was going to cost us around $200 in clearance fees to enter Fiji, which for the few days we would be there, was going to make it an expensive stop. Port Vila was going to be another 4-5 days sail away, so resigned to our fate, we put all thoughts of pulling in to a nice, calm anchorage to the backs of our minds and just dealt with what the weather gods tossed at us: drizzle, winds up again, rolling seas then backing down again, northerlies, easterlies….being in the South Pacific Convergence Zone, where the moist air over the ocean condenses and rises, and mixes with cool air that comes in with fronts from down New Zealand way creating rain and thunderstorms, what else could we expect? (note: this is my very basic understanding of the SPCZ. There are many books, websites and amateur and professional forecasters dedicated to the explanation and analysis of the SPCZ and I’m leaving it up to them if you want to know more! And while on this note, I should sing the praises of David and Patricia who operate a net on the SSB called Gulf Harbour Radio. They provide – on a voluntary basis as far as we could tell – an invaluable weather information and analysis service to yachties in the zone. Each morning we would listen to David’s opinion of what the weather was doing and might do in the general area. The David and Patricia Show as I called it was chock full of info fur us.) On Thursday morning, day 6 at sea, we changed our course yet again, this time to aim for the island of Aneytioum (pronounced Aneeshum), the most southerly island of Vanuatu. We had learned from another yacht on the SSB radio, that it was a port of entry. Importantly, it would also mean one less night at sea for us! That night at midnight, motoring again through lack of wind, we encountered a pretty nasty storm that came in suddenly with winds all over the place, very heavy rain and lightning. It lasted for about 3 hours, during which we motored through it. During the storm a cargo ship, the South Islander, showed up on our AIS on a heading directly opposite us. Ie. On a potential collision course. Of course, it wasn’t that dramatic though as one of the beauties of the AIS is that we can pick up vessels as much as 20 miles away. We kept an eye on it and when she was about 7 miles away we called her up on the VHF radio. Yes, her captain had seen us too on his AIS and radar and he offered to alter his course slightly so as to pass us on our port side. We were very appreciative of that as if we had had to change course, one of us (and that would have been Ivan!) would have had to go out into the pelting rain and adjust the tiller pilot. The captain of the South Islander called us up on the radio to let us know he had passed us about 1 mile to port and wished us a safe passage for the rest of our journey. In the driving rain we had been unable to see any of his vessel’s navigation lights, even though it was so close to us; a little unnerving!
Friday morning saw the rain give way to sunshine and a surprise for us in the cockpit. Louise glanced out the main hatch to see how the day was shaping up and came face to face with a booby preening itself. It was totally unafraid of us and continued to preen while Louise took photos and Ivan made a buddy of it by scratching its neck. It wasn’t too long however before we realised why Bobby Booby was so intent on preening – he/she/it was teeming with small black insects we suspect were some form of lice. What was worse was they were dropping all over our cockpit. From then on the rest of our morning was taken up with us trying to remove Bobby from the yacht and detering him from coming back aboard. He was a determined bird that’s for sure. Ivan would pick him up by the tail and legs and sling him over the side. He would land in the water and watch as we would sail away and then after some time take flight, wheel around and hone in for his next landing. Sometimes he succeeding in making it back aboard the boat, all be it some of his landings were more crash than land. We were quite worried he would injure himself. Sometimes we ‘won the round’: as he came in to land Ivan would bark like a dog and wave a red cushion in the air, while Louise had resorted to the Indian villager method of detering animals by banging on a saucepan with a metal spoon. Eventually, after many ‘rounds’ of this ‘game’ Bobby sat on the surface of water, having been returned to it again by Ivan, tilted his head to one side and watched us sail away, with I’m sure a sad look in his eye as though he was saying “but why can’t I come with you?” We were nearing our destination with more light winds and more motoring and motor sailing. With less than 100 nm to go, the wind dropped right out and we wallowed in the rolly seas. Eager now to get into the anchorage at Aneytioum we burnt some more fossil fuel and early Sunday morning we joined 6 or 7 other yachts already there and dropped the anchor. We were glad to have those past 8 days behind us.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Tonga - the Kingdom of!

We have been in Tonga for a week now, having motored up the channel to Neiafu, Vava’u last Wednesday morning. We had left Nuie the previous Sunday morning in rolly seas of about 3 metres and the wind directly behind us. We were making 6kts under the genoa which resulted in 124nm over 24 hrs – good stuff!! Monday saw the wind ease and the swell lessen although it was still rolly, so not comfortable travelling. The winds lightened off to the point that our batteries were getting too low, so at 2230hrs on Monday we started the engine to boost the batteries thereby ensuring our chartplotter, our best friend when on passage, would still have enough juice to operate. Tuesday disappeared into Wednesday as we crossed the International Date Line somewhere out there on the blue, with little fanfare on our part. Neiafu has been a great place to stop and catch our breath. We have been on a mooring in the large, calm harbour right in front of the Aquarium café/internet spot. Once again we have spent a good deal of time just catching up with friends from other yachts, doing internet stuff and eating plenty of non-traditional foods such as pizza. In fact it took us quite a few days before we did anything remotely cultural (unless you count the lady boys on our first night in town) we were having such a nice time doing ‘nothing’. I think we have reached the point one does in an extended trip away where one can ‘smell’ the closeness of home and just wants to get there, rather than exploring the nooks and crannies where one is. So I should explain about the lady boys……boys who look like girls, but are NQR (not quite right) eg. They wear a mini skirt but have really hairy legs or have breasts, but wear boys shorts or have their hair done up in a lovely bun, but sound like a man when they speak. Lady boys were all over French Polynesia, we didn’t see them in the Cook Islands at all, but here they are again in Tonga. I can’t quite work it out – some say historically it has something to do with ensuring that there is someone (ie. a girl) to stay at home and look after the parents. Regardless, they are an interesting part of the local culture and here in Neiafu, the lady boys put on a show at Tonga Bob’s, the local seedy bar, every Wednesday night. It was one of those shows where it was bad enough to be funny; we were treated to one dancer at a time coming on stage, lip-synching out of time to Cyndi Lauper or someone similar, gyrating on a pole and making suggestive motions to men in the audience. The deal was if you liked what a dancer was doing you would put cash in her cleavage. Some of them left the stage looking like an overflowing ATM! The other big thing to do in Neiafu is to go whale watching. We ummed and ahhed about the ethics, er no, it was actually more about the price of doing this, before we agreed we were unlikely to ever have the opportunity again to swim with whales – certainly not in Australia. Wow, what a great day. We motored out into the ocean on the whale watching boat with 10 other tourists. After spotting two whales in the distance we motored over towards them and Date, one of the whale boat operators, got into the water to keep an eye on them, and then signalled for 4 of us to get in the water to swim over. The way it worked was that we would keep pace on the surface looking down through our masks into the depths to a mere shadow of a mammal for 15-20 minutes. We would then see the whales start to materialise as they surfaced and came INCREDIBLY close to us. Should I swim forward or away? Gotta keep taking photos. My goodness how big are these creatures? Yoiks!! Were random, clashing thoughts in my mind at this point. We had about 3 swims with the whales all up and each time it was great. We also thought that the boat operators were really good, keeping the boat a good distance away from the whales and ensuring only 4 of us at a time were in the water hovering over them. Tomorrow we sail off for Fiji or maybe New Caledonia, depending on how the weather is as we travel along. Perhaps we will return to Tonga one day to explore some of her anchorages. For sure there is more to her than beer and pizza (and lady boys) in Neiafu.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Niue

We left Palmerston at around midday Saturday to sail west the 390nm to Niue. We set the reacher in about 12 knots of wind from the north east, but then ended up motor sailing through the night as the wind dropped. A breeze came in from the SSE at around 9am on Sunday and increased to around 15 knots so we pulled in the reacher and unfurled the smaller genoa. The winds increased throughout the day and night to 20-25 knots, gusting to 30. We were averaging 6kts with a reefed genoa. The seas were boisterous and uncomfortable. Monday brought more of the same so the cockpit was a wet place to be. The most comfortable place for each of us to take our turn on watch was from the bunk, with the timer set for every 20 minutes lest we fell asleep in the relative comfort of the bunk. We managed a cracking 135 miles over a 24 hour period. Tuesday still brought us good winds, but by now they were mainly from the east and the sky was alternately cloudy and sunny. We motored the last hour into Niue to make way against strong headwinds. We picked up a mooring ball at 4pm alongside 13 other yachts. Somewhere along the way we had lost a dorade cowl, but other than that all on Brio was intact.

Matapa Chasm
Niue illustrated to us yet again just how different the island groups across the Pacific are from each other. Stuck out on its lonesome between the Cooks and the Tongans, Niue rises straight up out of the sea like a rectangular, flat-topped chunk of cake. From a distance the vegetation all looks similar, but up close we could see some palms poking up amongst casuarinas and other trees. All the tourist brochures and guides for Niue talk about its wonderful ‘seatracks’ and how each one is different from the others. Well it’s not just propaganda we can assure you! The seatracks are, as you would imagine, paths that lead one from the road down to the sea.
Glorious Lipu Pools
They are all around the island and we had a great day in a car with Michael and Barbara from the yacht ‘Astarte’ visiting as many of them as we could. One of the highlights was the seatrack to Togo Chasm which led us through some lush forest, past a field of coral pinnacles and down a very steep ladder into the chasm where we wandered among coconut palms growing out of quite fine white sand.
Togo Chasm
As we drove around the island we were fascinated to see as we had on other islands, just how many graves were either next to houses or seemingly out in the middle of nowhere. Niue has less than 1500 people living there now. There was apparently a huge exodus of people from the island following cyclone Hattie in 2004. Evidence of Hattie’s destruction is everywhere in the form of abandoned, derelict and half destroyed houses.
Remains of cyclone
We also learned that you can’t get insurance on the island so it is easy to imagine people simply walking away from ruined homes and businesses as starting again would be financially impossible. We concluded our car tour of the island at the Matapa Bar, a delightful chance discovery. All day we had been hoping to find an ice-cream shop and/or a place to have a beer. It actually just became a bit of a standing joke as we knew that almost all places for food and beverage were in the main town of Alofi. Suddenly we saw a sign for Matapa Bar pointing down a dirt road. We didn’t really expect to find anything or anything open at least and we didn’t until Ivan leaned out the car window and asked a man who was painting a shipping container (there are a lot of shipping containers in yards!) if the bar was nearby. The man grinned, stepped off his ladder and said “You’re here. This is it”. We looked around and all we could see was a house and a shipping container, but happy to go with local knowledge when there was likely to be a cold, refreshing beer at the end of it, we parked the car. The man walked over to another shipping container and started dragging out a plastic table and chairs. We positioned them on the patch of dry grass out the front of his house and he asked us what beer would we like – Steinlager or Lion Red. He disappeared into the house and came back out with the ice-cold beers. Turns out Pele was one of the 20 (!) local MP’s on the island. We chatted to him while we slaked our thirst, not actually learning much about local political issues when we asked him, but certainly hearing all about the many countries he had visited in the world and the many prime ministers and presidents he had dined with!
Matapa Bar
We hired bicycles the next two days which allowed us to visit some more stunning seatracks, including ones where we could snorkel in pools that had layers of fresh and sea water. On Saturday morning we cycled the 10km to Tuapa village where they were having their annual festival. The order of events in the village festivals is you get there early in the day to buy some bbq food from one of the food stalls before they run out and you then listen to some speeches (mostly in Niuean so a bit meaningless to us) and then you watch some dancing put on by the people of that particular village.
apparently Jesus loves them
One of the aims of each village fair is to generate funds for the village so there is a donation basket in front of the dancing and all throughout the performances people throw coins and notes into the basket and hop up on to the stage to poke notes into the cleavage or costumes of the dancers. Sometimes the notes would drop out and someone from the audience would have to scurry over to retrieve it before the wind took it away. It was all a bit of fun. The weather was due to change with a westerly front on the way. It was time to leave. We departed Niue early the next morning, having had a great few days, enjoying the hospitality of the local people, including those at the wonderful Niue Yacht Club and saying goodbye to the whales as we headed for Tonga.



Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Cook Islands

So much has happened since our last blog post: two days at Taha’a snorkelling in the coral gardens and playing more Scrabble and cards with Dancing Walrus (by the way there is usually always an interesting story behind the name of a boat. In this case Dancing Walrus bears its name as the result of an award Ken won plus he and Joni feel the big cat lumbers along like a walrus trying to dance). We had a fast sail under the genoa over to Bora Bora, only 15 miles away. Two nights here on a mooring ball at the Bora Bora Yacht Club, a yacht club in name only as it really is just a bar, restaurant and cheap mooring balls. While Bora Bora was nice enough, there were lots of skinny, barking dogs and traffic so we decided to limit our time there in order to keep moving west and to give us more time in other places that beckoned. After concluding the endless paperchase of checking out and retrieving the bond we had had to pay for Louise to be in French Polynesia, and topping up with diesel, we bade farewell to these French Society Islands. We set sail at 3pm on Friday 10 August for Aitutaki in the Cook Islands, some 478 miles away. Our passage to Aitutaki started with steady winds from SSE of about 12 knots. The winds started to ease in the first evening and then continued to lighten over the next 2 days so by Sunday night we had furled the reacher and started motoring. We motored for around 36 hours in order to keep an average speed of 5 knots that would ensure we would arrive at Aitutaki in both daylight and high tide – essential for entering the narrow, shallow pass through the coral reef. On Tuesday afternoon the wind came in from the south so we were able to douse the motor and unfurl the genoa. Ironically, after all that motoring, as we closed in on Aitutaki on Tuesday evening and into the graveyard hours of Wednesday morning, we had to reduce sail to slow ourselves down so we wouldn’t arrive before daylight. We had a relatively small window of opportunity to enter the pass as sunrise was at 7am and high tide was at 7.30am, but we arrived in good time. It is recommended that only boats drawing 6 feet or less attempt to enter the pass and even then it should be at high tide and with good visibility. Brio draws around 5 ½ feet when loaded so we figured we’d be fine and we were, but it was still a little nerve wracking seeing the coral so close. The Aitutaki anchorage is tiny with space for around 4 yachts. We manoeuvred into a pozzie tying our bow to the nearest palm tree and putting out a stern anchor. Aitutaki is a low island, fringed by coral reef and on its way to becoming an atoll. It has a population of about 1,500 people and thousands of wild hens and roosters of all colours and sizes scurrying everywhere. Surprisingly not a dog is to be found on the island. The story behind this is that many years ago one of the chiefs sons was bitten by a dog and so he decreed all dogs be banned from the island. As an introduction to the Cook Islands Aitutaki was fabulous. The islanders are relaxed, welcoming and always happy to have a chat. We rented a motor scooter while we were there to get around and visited the marine research centre where they are breeding clams from the Great Barrier Reef to restock their own reef where the clams have died out (apparently due to chemical run off from banana plantations). We ended one afternoon watching some soccer matches “Soccer Friday” where village plays against village in various age groups. We noticed a similarity between this island and that of Moorea in French Polynesia: grandma is often in the front garden – 6 feet under that is! It seems it is more usual to bury one’s family on the family land than to put them in a graveyard. Many of the graves look like well kept shrines. It is also interesting that you can’t buy land on the island, it is passed down through the family line. We had an excellent time at Aitutaki. One of my lasting memories will be of flying my kite in the late afternoon sunshine with a couple of young boys who were screaming and giggling with pleasure while the beautiful singing from the church service nearby came floating across on the wind. Go there before it’s too late for there are plans to expand the harbour to cater for 100 boats. After 5 days taking it easy on Aitutaki we pulled in our lines and anchor at about 10.30 on Monday morning and left on the high tide, again making it through the pass without incident. Our next destination was the even smaller island of Palmerston about 200 miles NW of Aitutaki. The forecast indicated we should have one day of reasonable wind before easing to light winds. However it was not to be as we experienced winds of below 10 knots then petering out to nothing. While it meant we ended up motoring virtually the whole 2 days and nights of the passage, at least being in the middle of a high meant we also saw some fantastic sunsets. We also tried out our new 100m line and caught a nice big tuna along the way. We arrived at Palmerston at around 8am on Wednesday to the sight of a whale breeching. Louise’s first ever sighting of a whale in the flesh. If the Pacific is like a blanket of turquoise and royal blue with islands strewn like jewels across it, then we have found the brightest gem of all. Palmerston is unique, there’s simply no other word to describe it…..well actually we could describe it as we would other islands: brilliant white coral sand, surrounded by water all shades of blue, coconut palms swaying in the gentle breeze under a cerulean sky. What sets Palmerston apart though is its interesting history and local culture, including how visitors are received. Palmerston was uninhabited in 1862 when Lancashireman William Marsters came to live here with his three Polynesian wives. He divided the island and reef into parts for each family and fathered 26 children. 73 people live on the island now and all of the families are descendants of Marsters. When you arrive at the island you are met by someone in a tinny who will guide you to a mooring ball or anchor site. That person and their family then become your hosts for the period of your stay at the island. There are 6 moorings balls outside the reef and when we arrived they were all taken so we were directed to an anchoring spot (fine as long as the wind didn’t change to the west and push us onto the reef). As yachts come and go regularly we were able to move onto a mooring ball that evening. In our case Edward Marsters guided us in and once the anchor was down he chatted with us for a bit and then said he would be back at 11 o’clock to take us through the reef and to the island for lunch. The hosting is taken very seriously and responsibilities include providing us with meals whenever we are ashore, ferrying us to and fro the island, navigating the tricky, shallow pass and generally looking after every need we have. In return we cruisers scour our boats for food and hardware items, books, cd’s, clothes etc. that we can give to our host family as they only see a supply boat every 3 or 4 months if they are lucky. We were actually transporting a bag of tomatoes, a cabbage and tobacco and papers for Edward as a result of a request we had received over the SSB radio. On our first day we were also happy to hand over some of our freshly caught tuna to contribute to the lunch. Lunch was a big affair, the womenfolk preparing the food in their outdoor kitchen and about 20 people comprising Edward’s immediate and extended family and cruisers from about 4 yachts partaking of the feast. For a small island Palmerston is well appointed with a small school, a health clinic run by one nurse, a church (of course!) and a telecommunications office where you can pick up internet, phone home and check the timetable for what will be on the satellite television that night. The island generators run for about 6 hours in the morning and 6 hours in the evening to power the batteries that provide the island’s power supply. Continuous power is important as so much of the food must be kept frozen with little fresh food able to be grown here. You would think a walk around the few ‘streets’ on the island wouldn’t take long on an island that only takes 30 minutes to circumnavigate. But wherever you go people invite you to stop and have a drink or share some food or simply sit for a while and have a chat. Usually they want to give you something to leave with too – fresh eggs or wholemeal bread. Such is the generosity and open interest that people display here. We are not naïve enough to think that in such a small community there are no divisions and issues, but overall there appears harmony and a pretty united community spirit. We were sad to leave Palmerston on Saturday morning for our 3-4 day journey to Niue, but other lands, including Australia beckon.