Saturday, December 20, 2008

Merry Christmas Possums!

Greetings all! I suppose it's significant that our Christmas tree died this year. As promised, I won't be sending any cards as I am planning to put some money towards conserving the Vale of Belvoir near Cradle Mountain. It's a pretty spot where I almost froze to death a few of years ago while trying to track platypii. It is great place to watch wombats at play and also of high conservation and historical value.
If you would like to know more see

This isn't just about the money though. It's also about all those trees and postal related emissions too - (to which I am contributing enough already) -to say what? - Hi how are you? Sorry I didn't get around to writing or talking to you all year? Not that I don't enjoy hearing from you, but email me, write me a letter or give me a ring. It's all much more meaningful than those ubiquitous cards that have more to do with obligation than communication. Now what was it I learned from watching "Ratatouille" on the ferry the other day?

"Just because that's the way things have always been, doesn't mean that's how it's always gotta be."
Nice little movie by the way, especially for children.

Day Sailings on the Spirit of Tasmania II are good value at $49

We had our family celebration earlier due to the Peach family's move to Western Australia so it's going to be a really subdued Christmas for us this year. This is just as well as I don't think I could stand to hear yet again that "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." We did have our usual dress up session "Death in Venice" - and I was very pleasantly surprised to find out that not only are all accomplished thespians but that at least one offspring has quietly turned into a keen gardener and handyman. Must remember to invite him down soon.

Academy Awards all round for this fine performance

In Melbourne my sister took me to see the film "Australia" -take no notice of the critics -it's great, esp. Nicole Kidman's performance - and I also visited some long lost family friends and a few places I haven't seen since cheap airfares came in. Funny how some have thrived (thriven?) while others have almost disappeared, but more of that next year.

I won't be sorry to see the back of this one. Despite the travelling, it has been one of the worst years of my life. I'm hoping that 2009 will be much better for all of us. I'll drink a toast to that on New Year's Eve and that's the only resolution I'm making. I' m all for that Japanese custom of Old Year Forgetting parties!

Let's forget all this gloom and doom immediately and have a great one.


Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Tales of the South Seas 5 - Among the Cannibals

Back on Efate, I do some of the more conventional tours which include dancing and traditional Melanesian feasts. I am particularly taken with the one whose brochure promises that "Our friendly warriors will attack you on arrival."

They do. At the sound of a giant conch shell being blown in a forest clearing lit by torches and bedecked with flowers, scantily clad men with spears and clubs, leap out from bushes and trees. There is a bit of dancing based on events in daily life - planting crops, fishing - then a firewalk, another stringband, a taste of kava and quite a lot of cultural information - such as which plants to use to poison fish in a rock pool and which ones to use to render the poison harmless, how to make simple traps for wild pigs or chickens, how Nivans used to use spider webs to catch big fish and how to preserve food after a cyclone.

The feast though, proves a little disappointing since it includes potato salad, beetroot and orange juice as well as the usual lap lap. I would rather have had the fine prickly juice of a green coconut that I often enjoyed in the villages. I also have some misgivings about prostituting culture for tourist dollars, but as the chief explains, it is a way of keeping it alive.

His tribe which has relocated from Futuna, had practically forgotten many of the old ways - firewalking for example, had almost died out and none of the young people of the previous generation were interested in keeping it going. However, now that it's uniqueness is beginning to be appreciated by others, they are keen to do it and take a lot more pride in their heritage.
At the end I am delighted to be asked to dance - one of the first on the floor, by a very young warrior aged about twelve.

By now, time and money are running out and I've only seen five out eighty-four of Vanuatu's islands. There's no hope at all of getting to Banks and Torres, where ships only call every six weeks, it's too late for the spectacular land diving on Pentecost, as the vines are no longer suitable after June, but I do try for a little bonding with Bondas the friendly Dugong on Epi.
After waiting for four days for the arrival of the Fresh Cargo, the newest and the fastest in the fleet of cargo ships to service these islands, I learn that it has broken down in Santo and no one knows when it will be back, I end up flying again instead. Looking out I can see a circular rainbow over the middle of the island.

The whole village waits with leis to greet the returning workers

There's a homecoming in progress when I arrive. About a dozen men are returning from six months of fruit picking on farms in New Zealand. This is part of the Rural Assistance Schemes running in both Australia and New Zealand. In those countries, it provides farmers with labour when they need it most and for the participants it's a chance to earn money, travel and experience other cultures. At least that's the way it's supposed to work.

Men returning from farm work in New Zealand

Many people have only positive things to say about the scheme and have enjoyed a variety of cultural experiences including trips to the snow. Elizabeth in Santo was able to earn enough to start her own small business. Others claim it is the new ''Blackbirding." Blackbirding was a practice earlier last century whereby unscrupulous whites captured Nivans and others to work as slaves on the sugar plantations of Queensland.
At least two companies are currently being investigated for exploiting the workers and deducting unnecessary fees and charges. Some did not have enough work to enable the workers to earn anything after paying for food, accommodation and warm clothing and one supposedly non- profit organisation expected the workers to make a hefty donation to the recruiter's preferred charity. Six months is also a long time for workers to be away from their families. This has caused some problems elsewhere where married women were also sent away without the protection of husbands or the community.

Although more oversight is obviously needed - most schemes are administered by private operators - these men are for the most part happy with their experience and they are greeted like heroes. Everyone comes forward to cover them in leis and the entire village lines up to shake hands. Afterwards there are speeches and an exchange of gifts and these are followed by a feast.

The mamas sprinkle the men with baby powder.
I have no idea of the origin of this custom

The next day I walk to the east to catch a glimpse of Lopevi, another volcano. Though it doesn't do much except smoke, all the inhabitants of the island of Lopevi have been evacuated as its ashfield grows.

Another day, another volcano. This is Lopevi off the northeast coast of Epi

Despite much swimming in Epi's beautiful blue waters, there is still no sign of Bondas, but I do encounter a magnificent turtle while snorkelling.
With only a few days left, I decide to take another look at Malekula the second largest and the most culturally diverse island. Although much of it is jungle clad, it is also home to numerous cocoa plantations.

This time I head for the north where the land is rising and where the small Nambas - The wearers of small penis -sheaths, live. The last reported case of cannibalism occurred here in 1969. Chief Stephen takes me to a site where every stone represents a fallen man. When one side in a tribal conflict had had enough, they would send one of their own over to be eaten in order to end the bloodshed.
Before missionaries came, infanticide was also common. Rarely did a family have more than three children. However brutal these practices may seem to westerners, they were a form of population control that enabled people to remain within the ecological limits of their environment.

Chief Stephen who takes me to the cannibal site at Sanwiri

Each stone here - and there are hundreds- represents a dead warrior

Another ancient custom was the removal of incisors from young women who have reached puberty. I didn't see any females with gaps in their teeth, so I assume that this practice has died out. Tooth decay, once unknown on the islands, is a far greater problem as people embrace western food.
Circumcision though, is still practised on all the islands. It is an important manhood rite and part of the grading system for males, who achieve honour and higher rank in the tribe according to the number of pigs they have killed. On Pentecost the land diving ritual, where young men leap from high towers with vines tied around their feet - the Inspiration for A.J. Hackett's Bungy Jumping, serves a similar purpose as well as ensuring a good harvest of yams. Pigs, once the major currency of the islands, still play an important role in ceremonies and weddings. They are also used as fines in the event of transgressions such as sleeping with another man's wife or to smooth over a dispute with a neighbour.

Chiefly stones. The bodies of chiefs lie buried here. Chief Stephen says he still comes here to consult with their spirits if he has important decisions to make on behalf of the community

My namesake Veroniqua takes me to the village of Rano where many of the traditional customs are still preserved. The women demonstrate their remarkable weaving skills - quickly making mats out of pandani and baskets and bowls out of coconut fronds, how lap lap is made using coral as a grater and how the leaves of a special kind of plantain (a member of the banana family) can be used like gladwrap and to hold liquids.

This little boy leads us to the ceremonial site

The women are very skilled weavers, making a mat for sitting and sleeping in only a few minutes

Not to be outdone, the men demonstrate firemaking and sand drawing. Sand drawing is an ancient art that is used in a number of ways- for illustrating a story, leaving a message, for ritual purposes or simply as a work of art. A good artist can make very complex designs without lifting his finger off the work.

Firemaking using a twirled stick. It really does work

The ancient art of sand -drawing. From memory though this says, "Gone to the garden."

Then there is some of the most spectacular dancing I have seen. First the men dance alone, then the women and then there are dances where the whole tribe joins together. For some dances the men wear the head dresses associated with Rom dancing. They wear bracelets of pods on their feet and move to the rythm of tamtams.

History Lesson. Dances are used to tell stories. This one is about how three men of Malekula go to Ambrym to exchange piglets for a pig. They are murdered when they get there, so all the men go to Ambrym in their canoes and kill thirty men of Ambrym and bring them back to eat.

Thanks Veroniqua, for showing me around.

We finish off with an authentic feast - the Lap Lap put on the fire earlier, and lots of fruit. I'm glad cannibalism is no longer popular and I am not on the menu for these are among the happiest and friendliest people I have met in Vanuatu, and they are all friendly. While they might like a few more wheeled toys, a few solar panels, less corruption, more accessible healthcare and free education, they have not lost their capacity to be self sufficient if they are prepared to live traditionally.In many ways they have more choices than we do, and no mortgages and much less stress. If a person can't get a job or doesn't want to work, the tribe, the jungle and the sea ensure that that they don't starve or become homeless.

"Next time don't be a stranger," they say. "You don't stay in a rest house. You stay with us."
"Straight!" I reply in my best Bislama and "Thank You too mus."

Although I also try to visit the Big Nambas, further south, it's a public holiday and no one is travelling anywhere. I can't afford to wait and can't afford to get stuck, because the next day I fly back to Australia, knowing only too well that I have only scratched the surface here. I have a good excuse to come back, there are still seventy eight islands to go, each one of them culturally and geographically distinct.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Tales of the South Seas 4 - Under the Volcano

First Glimpse of Yasur the User- Friendly Volcano -well, most of the time anyway.
In local folklore Yasur is the resting place of the souls of the dead

I am now on the island of Tanna - far to the south of Efate and considerably cooler, to see "the world's most accessible volcano."
OK I cheated. This time I flew, unwilling to spend more time waiting around or suffering long, miserable trials by water. Besides, by the time you add in the additional accommodation costs, flying probably works out cheaper.
Tanna is one of the larger more fertile islands and apart from the volcano, is famous for it's coffee and wild horses.

The treehouse in a Banyan Tree I stayed in at the Jungle Oasis, just under the volcano.
Kelson, local chief and the owner of this fine establishment, is also a politician and has just missed out by eleven votes. There is to be a by-election in Tanna. I run into both him and Raphael Worwor from Ambrym again in Efate, also Eva and collegues from the Education Department whom I met in the hostel in Santo, and even Elizabeth, the lovely single Mum who braided my hair there.

Although Yasur rumbles and booms all day, the fireworks really begin at dusk when the glowing lava and lava bombs become visible. It is a fantastic light show and smells just like fireworks too.

For more impressive pictures see Arnold's of the same place
It was the sight of Yasur's display that brought Captain Cook hurrying to the island and anchoring in Port Resolution, which he named.

It is truly amazing to be able to get this close to such an active volcano. Again, you may not go up without a guide. The guides know which way the wind is blowing and where to stand. There are thousands of earth tremors here daily and the mood of the volcano varies considerably. If we were in Australia, there would be a hundred kilometer fence around it in the interests of health and safety or fear of public liability.
Not here. Levels 1, 2, and 3 are mostly OK, but when superheated rocks fall on the village - Level 4 - even the guides call it a day.

Speaking of health and safety, when I was in a kitchen shop in Brisbane the other day, there was a sign on the wall saying that no knives could be sold to persons under 16, even if accompanied by an adult. This made me laugh. In Vanuatu even six year olds carry bush knives a metre long. No severed fingers either and handy for opening coconuts for passing strangers, cutting down a bunch of bananas or other household tasks. You just never know when you might need it.

Not that there are too many nasties in the bush here - no snakes, poisonous spiders or large animals like tigers. There are however, insidous nasties like malarial mosquitoes, leptosporosis, head lice and rats. Beware the rats. One fellow backpacker left his M and Ms in his backpack and found a hole had been eaten through it and every last M and M gone in the time it took for him to eat his dinner.

My pet string band at Jungle Oasis. These boys may have battered guitars and holes in their shorts, but they do know how to keep a beat and they sing like angels
Just like Ambryn, Tanna also has a bit of a reputation for magic and is more traditional than many other islands. There are a number of family links between them. The chiefs here will not let me drink kava, nor let their women wear tee -shirts. It is unconfirmed but highly likely that certain places are also off -limits to women. The lodge owner was quite happy to direct a male backpacker to the blue hole and a waterfall - foreigners may not swim there at all, but not me.

While on the way to Port Resolution I came upon a tiny sign advertising firewalking. It was strange going there by night to a hilltop village and watching this performance by firelight. I have seen other versions of it since, but never to quite the same effect.

While the fire heats up, there are simple demonstrations of everyday magic - how a child can be carried on interlocked leaves of the wild Hibiscus, basket weaving etc. Then the main event begins.

Although the rocks are swept of burning branches, the stones underneath are still hot. In other places they prove this by pouring water on top and showing how it sizzles. The firewalker then goes into a trancelike state and walks slowly across. Kava may well be involved and some mental preparation is required as well.

There are some other interesting wrinkles on Tanna such as the John Frum Cult, practised in villages not far from the volcano. This is essentially a cargo cult based on the arrival of a man from the sea who promised the villages that great things would follow. Sure enough, before long the Americans began to drop equipment and medical supplies with red crosses on them. They continue to emulate these in order to attract more such divine blessings. Once a week the people come together for all night sessions of singing and dancing. However, the night I go there with another tourist, there had just been a death in the village and things are rather quiet.

Disappointed that I still haven't seen any dancing, which is said to be really spectacular, I return to Efate next morning.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Tales of the South Seas 3 - In search of James Michener's South Pacific

A storm brews over Santo

Espiritu Santo, the largest island, being closer to the Equator, is much hotter and more humid than Vila. It is also more laid back, cleaner and has home comforts like ATMS, hostel type accommodation and internet cafes. My family hasn't heard from me since I set off on that rusty ship for Ambrym.

My first excursion is to Surunda where James Michener lived. It's easy to get there but hard to get back until I run into Daniel, the driver we had on Ambrym. This happens often in Vanuatu. One reason for this is that marriage is patrilocal i.e.
traditionally the bride goes to her husband's village, but then his sister has to marry one of her brothers to keep the numbers even and to help build alliances in a country where there are hundreds of different tribes. The result is dense networks of relationships which involve much visiting between islands.

The serene house of author James Michener, wartime historian who wrote Tales of the South Pacific on which the film South Pacific was based.

It turns out that the scenes described by Michener were largely based on the nearby jungle -clad island of Ambae which was shrouded in rain and mist as I passed. Most of this side of the island is flat and covered in Japanese owned coconut plantations or beef ranches. There are however, plenty of reminders of the war years, when thousands of US troops were stationed here and there were 43 cinemas in operation in Quonset huts like this.

Quonset Hut- A typical relic of World War II. Others include plane wrecks, a bomb shelter, roads, airstrips and hospitals, most of which are still in use.

There are of course great dive sites too, like the wreck of the President Coolidge, a luxury cruise ship converted to a troop carrier that rolled over and sank in 10 metres of water after hitting a friendly mine, or Million Dollar Point where most of the rolling stock, equipment and stores went. This was supposed to be sold to the French at the end of the war, but hoping to get it for nothing, they let the deadline pass, so the Americans simply drove everything off the wharf and then blew it up.
I didn't see much of the President Coolidge as it was too deep for snorkelling, but I did enjoy the beautiful coral gardens and blue starfish the size of rubbish bin lids. At Million Dollar Point though, even snorkellers could see jeeps and ambulances, tanks and road making equipment lying in crumpled heaps, surrounded by tyres and brilliantly coloured fish.

Divers and snorkellers leave the water at Million Dollar Point. Thanks to the Allan Powers Dive School for taking me. Allan, an Australian who's been taking divers there for forty years, was instrumental in having this declared a Marine Reserve.

My next adventure is to tackle the Millenium Cave, an extensive wet cave followed by a journey of several kilometres down a gorge in rubber life rings. Initially this was rather expensive but after rounding up the Aid workers and volunteers in the hostel, it became much more affordable. Most places won't do this. It's the same price whether there are six of you or one.

Access is by way of complex ladders and bamboo bridges

No stairmaster needed. The guides are impressed with my fitness for a foreigner. Just as well I did my basic training on Ambrym. You always have to have guides and get permission and pay the chiefs in the villages to do any of these things, including visiting beaches. It is the only way the traditional owners make any money from tourism. Independent travellers are unheard of.

Exiting the Cave before entering the hidden canyon

Survivors - That's face paint not mud.

One of three blue holes we visited

Jacky's in the North East is possibly the nicest, though they all have a different character.

A little further on, we visit Champagne Beach. This picture doesn't do it justice. A perfect crescent of pure white sands set against coconut palms and turquoise water.

Alas, we can't travel further north because of a territorial dispute and no one wants to come to the vast Vatte National Park in the west with me, so our little party breaks up and I make plans to leave for Tanna, the only place guaranteed to have a working volcano.

Last Supper

Usually it's Lap Lap in the market, but tonight it's steak, vegetables and delicious kumara chips at Alice's Restaurant, Shop #3 at the market.

Tales of the South Seas 2 - Prisoner of Ambrym

The Moika is an old Indian cargo ship that has a list to port even before it's loaded. The sign on the bridge says "Safety First." Very confidence inspiring.

"Come Monday at six," the crew says. Three days later at 11.30, under cover of darkness we finally get underway. Nivans are a patient lot but no wonder a cheer goes up from the wharf as we leave Port Vila. This phenomenon is known as Island Time and drives foreigners, especially the ubiquitous and punctual Germans, insane. Mine is the only white face in the sea of smiling brown ones.

On the open water the journey is rough and the boat heaves and shudders as it is hit by house -sized waves that spray over the passengers huddled on deck. A storm hits. I'm cold, wet and violently sick. Passengers sleep wherever they can. A lovely lady covers me and her son with a sarong and later her coat. Though a crew member offers me shelter in one of their cabins, this actually makes me feel worse, so I go back outside and cling to the rails.

By morning, passengers and cargo are being dropped off via tiny dinghies at coastal villages barely visible from the sea. I escape at Port Sandwich at the southern end of the island of Malekula because I am trying to reach Ambryn in time for the annual Rom Festival. Alas, after another few days wait in Malekula, it's over by the time I finally get there.

The Brisk, my second ship, has the advantage that its flat bottom allows it to enter the fringing coral reefs although often it doesn't quite reach the shore. It travels over the water with the grace of a matchbox in a washing machine. This ship is Australian owned and conditions are somewhat better and cleaner.

Landing at Ambryn looks like the sinking of the Titanic. In the night we clamber over drums, cell tower components, bags of rice and concrete, sugar, biscuits and toilet paper, sheets of tin, boxes, bedding and furniture, even a new red 4x4 and step straight off into the ocean. Children scream. Dogs bark and hundreds of people with torches wait on the shore. It's daunting to see another boat just like this one wrecked and rusting beside the dock.

The Landing at Ambrym looks like the sinking of the Titanic

Ambrym has a reputation as the dark island, not just because of its black volcanic sands that won't grow anything except coconuts, but because black magic is said to still be very prevalent there.

However, having missed the festival, there isn't a lot to do on Ambrym, so when a German student comes to visit Mt. Benbow, the wild volcano a few days later, I agree to come along and share the transport costs.
This proves to be a bit of a trial - a 30 km walk from the nearest village. This is supposed to be done over two days, but one of the tents has broken poles so we walk out again the same day.
Despite our valiant efforts, the volcano stubbornly refuses to show its face, blowing great clouds of sulphrous smoke instead. A special medal of honour should go to Jackson, one of the two young guides, for walking barefoot and letting me wear his shoes to walk over rough cast lava until he could fix my thongs.

Wild Lunar Landscape around Mt. Benbow
Aaron and Jackson, the guides

Mt. Benbow: Part of the rim of this 14 Kilometre wide volcano, one of several active ones in Vanuatu. Local people say they have not seen any lava here since the last earth movement two years ago.

A glutton for punishment, Sacha the student, goes up again the next day revisting Benbow as well as seeing Mt. Marron, the other volcano, which is even further away, but doesn't have any luck either. Meanwhile, I have had enough for now and return to Craig Cove with some politicians on the electioneering trail.
Back in the rest house, Arnold another German, but one who lives in Canada, is preparing to go up. He boils and carries in ten litres of water and food for five days, then waits patiently in the rain day in and day out, until finally he returns with magnificent pictures showing clear skies and lava. I just had an email from him where he writes,

"I ended up spending 7 nights up on the ash plain in pouring rain before I had a few glimpses into the crater with the lava lake, which was actually present!" Now that's what I call dedication. If you would like to see some really good volcano shots you can look at his at

Back at Craig Cove, I'm told that the Brisk is due in four days, but because of the elections this extends to ten. By this time I am really broke, have read all my books, filled up my notebooks, eaten all my food and begun to write on the back of my airline tickets. There is nowhere to go that I haven't already walked to. I have tried bribing passing yachts. It seems I am not cut out for life on a tropical island after all. I spend the days swimming, walking to the villages and talking to the locals. Everything shuts down at sunset at around six o'clock.

Local people do their fishing and shopping, drop off produce at the wharf or the market and visit their friends on neighbouring islands in these tiny canoes.

Traditional transport

Charles has arrived in Craig Cove to go to church

A lonely missionary's grave.
Their legacy is an excellent education system. Most older people speak French and English as well as Bislama, the official language. Charles, who is very well spoken says that when he was young, he had to learn Spanish as well, but since Independence the young people learn only Bislama

A lovely little church near Craig Cove.
Making Kava

Making Kava 2

Chief Philip's Nakamal in the mountains

Kava drinking is the nightly entertainment for men. They meet in the chief's Nakamal (meeting house) to discuss village affairs, particularly the elections. Women were traditionally banned from participating, but I am invited to join in. Kava is made from the roots of a plant. From a pharmaceutical point of view kava is said to contain around 47 types of analgesic compounds. No wonder I sleep so well! It also has spiritual significance in Nivan culture and for a man to refuse an offer to share kava, means that he is rejecting an offer of friendship.
In the towns, a red light does not mean what it does in the west - a place of ill repute, a doctor's surgery - here it means a place where Kava is sold.

Village children

Making Copra

Electioneering Vanuatu -style. There are a record number of candidates this year. Excluding those facing criminal charges or who have not paid their rates and taxes, and one who was injured by the proverbial falling coconut, there are about 351. Raphael Worwor from here, becomes the Honourable Raphael Worwor, Minister for Lands.

Leaving Ambrym at last. My last voyage on the Brisk is classic picture - book stuff: Calm weather, a glorious sunset, passing palm infested islands...

We sit on top of the bridge the better to enjoy the view of passing islands. The other passengers and crew share their food. The crew remember me from the previous trip and invite me in to the warmth of their quarters when it starts to rain. I feel really guilty about this as other women are huddled under tarpaulins outside or in far less salubrious conditions below decks.
We pass another one of the ships, The Sarafenua, which has broken down at one of the little ports on Ambae. Otherwise it's plain sailing until we leave the lee of the islands.
Just when I think I have finally gotten my sea legs, we hit the open water between Ambae and Santo and I feel as wretched as before.