We sailed for about six hours to reach the Maskelyne Islands in pleasant downwind conditions. I had my usual 6 a.m. dawn watch and got caught up photographing distant islands on the horizon revealed by the lifting clouds. It’s relaxing and enjoyable to make a passage sitting in the flying bridge with the fresh breeze and the sound of water swooshing along the hull. Near the end of the journey we crossed paths with a large pod of pygmy pilot whales. They altered course to meet us, but didn’t ride the bow wave as dolphins would do.
The Maskelynes are truly stunning, with a labyrinth of wide waterways meandering between reefs and lush green islands. Life here seems very traditional. The many scattered village buildings are built of thatch. The tide was very low when we sailed in and the population was out in force. Some were walking along the exposed reef scavenging for dinner. Others were out in their wooden outrigger canoes fishing by spear and fishing line. Still others paddled to and from their gardens to carry home the produce of the day. One vessel with man, woman and child aboard glided past with two dogs swimming determinedly behind. As usual, as soon as we anchored we were approached by a pair of canoes, their occupants (father and son) curious about AVATAR. The anchor of one of the canoes was a large stone securely tied to the rope anchor line. The older man’s anchor was a brass fitting salvaged from a nearby shipwreck just outside the reef. The canoes are hand made from the wood of the blue water tree, a name I find quite romantic. It takes 3-4 months to build one canoe. A couple of the outriggers even had mast and sail.
Just across the reef from our anchorage we went on an awesome snorkel. Rod towed the dinghy and the three of us floated down current admiring the view of a beautifully healthy reef in extraordinarily clear water. The coral was lush and varied and teemed with reef fish. We saw schooling paddle tail snapper and several huge coral trout; also massive bumphead parrot fish and an unusual pair of large yellow striped angelfish. We are curious about the possibility of diving on the wreck and are planning to check it out when we return this afternoon.
At the moment we are anchored in Port Sandwich (named for the Earl of Sandwich) on Malekula Island where we came in search of protection from forecast incoming weather. On the way here yesterday we were joined by an enthusiastic pod of small dolphins who did ride our bow wave for quite some time. Those dolphins in arrears would race to catch up with the leaders, arching clear of the water for extra speed.
It is drizzly and gray here in Port Sandwich, but I opted to stretch my legs for a walk yesterday afternoon after our arrival. There is a muddy rutted road that follows the coastline from the port up to the Catholic mission on the hill. I was joined by a local man named Luke who took on the role of voluntary guide. He accompanied me the entire time pointing out buildings of significance, explaining a bit about the easygoing lifestyle of the island, and introducing me to his many relatives also meandering down the road. I was introduced to the chief of Lamba Village and also to the chief of police. We walked by Luke’s own Assembly of God church, and later the expansive well-kept grounds of the Roman Catholic mission. We saw schools and a mini hospital, copra drying sheds, and traditional homes and gardens all along the way. Livestock was everywhere, in more abundance than I have seen elsewhere. Pigs and piglets, hens and chicks, herds of beef cattle all wandering loose by the side of the road. The cattle are communal but the gardens are privately owned by families. I took a few snapshots of the children, more as an ice-breaker than artistic enterprise. Nothing gets village children giggling and laughing quicker than posing for a photograph and then crowding around the camera to see the resulting picture played back on the camera’s digital screen!
As traditional as these villages may appear, modern civilization is making its inroads, at least here in the coastal communities where the supply boat from Port Vila comes weekly and yachts visit frequently. Many of the thatched houses have solar panels to provide electricity. Luke has a cellphone and I spotted a TV playing inside one home. However Malekula is a large island covering 2023 square kilometers and according to our Lonely Planet guidebook the inland cultures are still quite primitive. Vanuatu’s last instance of cannibalism took place here on Malekula as recently as 1969, and “the ritual eating of flesh from deceased relatives (to keep something of the beloved amongst the living)” continued for some years past that!
We are enjoying a peaceful morning here in Port Sandwich under gray gloomy skies, but plan to move AVATAR after lunch back to our anchorage in the Maskelynes – a beautiful spot for waiting out the weather system. Then we’ll work our way back to Havannah Harbor for a night or two, and then Port Vila so that we’re in position to catch a taxi to the airport for my flight back to Tucson and the real world.