Our Vanuatu fishing season is screaming down to a close as the hot summer approaches and we wanted one last chance to explore the Banks Islands before we turn south to New Zealand. The 6-day itinerary, (written in sand at low tide) was to fish our way up the east coast of Santos, cross over to the island of Guau, fish outside of Ureparapara again, maybe do Saddle(Mota) Island, then hit Vanua Lava before returning home to Aore Island.
Garry, Jonas and I really enjoyed our previous visit to Gaua and Ureparapara, and we knew that Laetitia would enjoy seeing the remote islands as well. ( Smoking the Peace Pipe with Chiefs of the Banks Islands). We were also anxious to find some decent jigging spots for Dog Tooth Tuna, along with our usual quest for blue marlin, mahi-mahi, yellow fin tuna and wahoo.
On Thursday morning, we left home on Aore island at the crack of dawn, as we had about 80 miles to troll our way up to Gaua. Garry had promised me that we would be in early enough to enjoy a snorkel before sunset. (We normally cruise around 9 knots, trolling speed, but you have to add in time for going backwards if you are hooked up to a fish). The weather was a bit rough, but tolerable, with light drizzle. As a precaution, we had Laetitia doped up on sea sickness meds and she spent most of the day asleep in her bunk. Garry had assured her that day one would be the worst, and the weather would only improve after that.
We towed our game fish lures all day, and but didn’t expect much as we were “travel” fishing, that is, going in a straight line from point A to point B, and not trolling back and forth over some targeted sea mount. We had two hits from marlin, but none stuck. One, I fought for about 10 minutes, and then the hooks pulled. We were pretty sure the fish wasn’t properly hook as we never saw him jump. I picked up one nice wahoo along the way, which went into the chill bin to donate to Chief Willy’s village. As promised, we arrive at Ngere Aro point on Gaua late afternoon. There are lots of coral bommies to avoid and Garry carefully followed his previously plotted track into the bay. (We do have forward scanning sonar, but it hasn’t been working ever since the latest software update to the chart plotter….just another thing to be fixed in NZ). As expected, Chief Willy paddled out in his dug-out canoe and welcomed us back to Gaua. Garry presented the Chief with the wahoo, and the two men set to small talk, while Jonas, Laetitia and I went snorkeling on one of the most pristine coral reefs I have ever seen.
Apparently, while we were still snorkeling, Garry had shared with Willy that we were traveling on to Ureparapara the next morning. With a slip of the tongue, November Rain became the inter-island passenger ferry boat of the Banks Islands. The Chief’s wife and daughter had been trying to get to Ureparapara for over 2 months, but no cargo ships had passed by their village in that entire time. “Would you mind taking them with you?” asked the Chief? “My wife is from Ureparapara and hasn’t seen her family in over 7 years”. While only 50 miles of water separates the islands of Gaua and Ureparapara, but it might as well be the entire Pacific Ocean for the villagers who’s only mode of transport is a leaky dug out canoe.
At 5:30 A.M sharp, the Chief paddled out with his wife, Charity, his daughter, Josephine and his 3 year old grandson, George. We boarded our 3 passengers, and set off for Ureparapara, fishing lines trailing behind us. Poor little George became sea sick almost immediately. Our three passengers didn’t speak much
English, as we soon clued out. They were all smiles, nodding their heads and replying “yes” to any query we asked of them. I settled them in the salon with breakfast, turned the kid’s movie “Tarzan”, and doled out sea sickness tablets to Laetitia and Josephine.
We had a fantastic day fishing, starting off with a nice 130 kg blue marlin, which we released. Jonas was able to jump in the water and film the fish with the Go Pro camera as it slowly swam away. I kept wondering what are passengers thought of the whole marlin thing. Did they think we were crazy to :#1: Let the big fish go, and #2: Jump in after it.
We arrived to Ureparapara around lunch time, but to the dismay of our ferry passengers, we continued to fish around the island for a several more hours. We hooked up a half dozen or so of smallish doggies, spanish mackerel, an icky barracuda, a wahoo and one really nice-sized doggie on the rapalas/divers. We kept all the fish for the villagers of Ureparapara. Jonas hooked up on a decent sized doggie but it got sharked before he could reel it to the boat. The shark subsequently hooked itself on the lure, and after conferring with Charity and Josephine that the villagers would indeed eat shark, we kept it for a donation as well.
To Charity and Josephine’s relief, we finally rocked into Ureparapara bay around 4 p.m. We were greeted by about ten canoes, mostly full of small kids. The villagers were very excited to see that we had brought them visitors and even happier for some fresh fish. Jonas dingied our passengers ashore and reunited them with their long-lost loved ones. Jonas and Laetitia were treated to a tour of the village and took some great photos of the Ni-Van village, the church and the elementary school.
Garry later went ashore to present Chief Nicholson with a hand-saw and the guitar that we had previously promised to purchase, if we ever returned to Ureparapara. The chief was really surprised to see us, even more surprised that we had remembered the requested luxury items and he wished that we had let him know we were coming ahead of time. He said he would have arranged a special ceremony for us to present the guitar to the entire village. Garry let him know that our carrier pigeon had flown off for greener pastures, and we were sorry we hadn’t “called” first.
It is interesting to note that while a few Ni-Vans in the village do have cellular phones, which they keep charged with a community solar panel, they must rely on passing cargo ships to bring them the Digicel Top Up Cards for minutes, along with other basics such as soap, clothes, fuel and matches. So, while their children are being educated in schools to read and write in English, they must also learn the basics of subsistence living in a remote jungle island. The cargo ship had not brought matches in a long time and the villagers were rubbing two sticks together every morning to start a fire, even while enjoying free Facebook on Fridays.
The next morning, we fished outside the island again for a few hours. We had two marlin hits, but one didn’t stick and the second one straighten the light gauge hook right out. What was amazing fishing grounds the day before seem to have dried up. Fishing can be that way…. maybe it was the full super moon approaching.
We decided to head to Rowa Shoals and do some snorkeling and maybe cast some poppers later at the reef. After anchoring in 12 meters of water, all 4 of us heading out to enjoy the fish show. The visibility was incredible and we saw heaps of big reef fish, including red bass, GTs, and golden snappers. The fish were quite curious and seemed to be checking us out. A huge Maori Wrasse appear to be following me, but swam away quickly as I tried to get closer. Garry spotted a reef shark ogling us on the surface, which got our hearts pumping a bit before it swam off.
Later, the four of us took the dingy to the deserted island beach for a stroll and to look for shells. There were heap of nice shells on the water line, but most were occupied with hermit crabs. We picked up only the few with vacancy signs.. Garry and I separated from Laetitia and Jonas at one point on the walk.
As we were meandering along, I spotted a pile of giant clam shells under a tree. Obviously, the natives were having clam bakes on the beach, and leaving the evidence/trash behind. As we were contemplating taking them home, a long-boat full of Ni-Vans came puttering along the corner of the island. They beached the boat in the surf and Garry and I went out to meet them.
Only one of the men spoke English and he was translating for a man standing beside him, who turned out to be the island Chief. (The man who spoke English was wearing a spectacular pair of Ladies sunglasses. Gold chains around his neck would have set them off nicely). Apparently, the deserted island that we were standing was a private island, owned/managed by the Honorable Chief in front of us. We were welcome to enjoy the island, but we must pay a “small” user’s fee. They themselves, told us that they lived on a neighboring island, and were simply out for a day of picnicking with their families. We continued with some small talk, explaining where we had come from and where we were going, as is the Vanuatu custom. Garry inquired if they knew of Chief Willy of Gaua or Chief Nicholson of Ureparapara. Of course they did… We added that we had ferried 3 Ni-Vans from Gaua to Ureparapara, thinking, perhaps, that it would perhaps earn us some brownie points with the Ni-Vans.
The “Sunglasses Guy” was suddenly very interested in our boat, and asked how many passenger we could carry and how much we would charge to ferry a wedding party down to Gaua. The wife and her family had been trying to get there for months, so that the couple could marry. (It’s quite common for tribes to marry outside their own village and even their own island, to reduce the chances of in-breeding). We had to let them know very tactfully that returning to Gaua wasn’t in our plans, and it was not possible for us to ferry the mail order bride over to meet her prince.
As we waited for Jonas and Laetitia to return, the Ni-Van quoted a price of 1,500 Vatu per person (about $22 NZ) as the day-use fee for the island. Garry, quick to do math in his own favor, replied with, “Okay, so that is 4,000 Vatu total?” Whether they were really bad at math or just agreed to the negotiated price, we will never know. They followed us back to November Rain in their long boat and collected their extortion fee. We insisted that they issue us a receipt for the money. While they were polite and friendly, it really felt like a shake down. This was the first time we have this sort of unpleasant experience. Garry had read about similar events occurring frequently in the Solomon Islands, but never in Vanuatu.
Needless to say, it left a sour taste in our mouths and we will probably never return to that island again. Once the pirates motored out of sight, Garry returned to the island and collected heaps of discarded giant clam shells. I think we have at least our $60 worth, don’t you?
At dusk, the boys took to chucking poppers in between the coral heads from the dingy. Hard luck all around. No hits, and only 2 follows. . We knew the fish were there, we had seen them on our snorkel. They just weren’t feeding. They blame the full moon again
What a difference a day makes.. We motored over to nearby Saddle Island the following morning for some jigging and we got more action then we could handle. The lures were being hit on the way down. Jonas boated a monster doggie on a jig, estimated to be 50 kgs. He also brought in a huge barracuda and I landed a large wahoo off the trolled lures. Time to head to Vanua Lava for the night’s anchorage, satisfied with our day’s play.
It is hard to describe how really beautiful Vanua Lava is. It is a beautiful dormant volcano island, ringed with black sand and beautiful waterfalls cascading off of steep rock faces. We had never been here before, but we had fish in our hold to give away, so Garry was on the look out for signs of a village along the shore line. We found a beautiful bay around the next head land with a sailing yacht at anchor and a series of thatch buildings on the beach.
As soon as Gaz dropped anchor, three canoes appeared at the stern. A young girl, bailing water from the bottom of her canoe, identified herself as Mary, the Chief’s daughter. She shyly asked if we had any fish. After distributing the cargo, which included the 50 Kg monster, we readied ourselves for some snorkeling. A late arrival canoe came from a neighboring village, 2 minutes too late. We had already given up all our fish, but were able to supply Nixon with some AA batteries. We promised Nixon that we would stop over the next day by his village if we caught any more fish and give it to him tomorrow.
The Village Chief paddled in his canoe out to thank us for the fish and invited us in to the village later for a special ceremony. He introduced himself as Kerely, but Garry and I heard “Kennedy”. Why were the local chiefs named after American dead presidents? We were quickly corrected by Kerely to our error..
Since we didn’t want to muck around with deploying the dingy, we all swam ashore for our village tour. There, on the beach, we met the owners of the sailing yacht anchored beside us. We had a nice chat with them, comparing past and future travel plans aboard our boats. They were of Scottish and Belgian origin with 2 young sons aboard. The family had been cruising full-time for the past 3 years, home schooling their kid, and loving life.
Chief Kerely invited us into the “Twin Falls Yacht Club”, where we were treated to a special Ni-Van ceremony. The yacht club was in a large thatch hut, dedicated specifically for this purpose. Racing and yachting ensigns hung from the rafters, most of them in tatters from years in the Vanuatu sun. We were invited to sit down around a rustic wooden table with plastic garden chairs. A rusty filing cabinet stood in the corner, keeper of the club’s official documents and a book exchange table was laid out with several hard back novels.
The Chief’s wife shyly placed a hibiscus flower behind everyone’s left ear while the Chief explained the significance of the flower. He compared the short life of a flower with the short friendship between people just passing through, and how we have more in common with each other than we have differences between us. This was taught to them by the missionaries with their “Black Book”. The entire family sang us a welcoming song, which was written by the Chief and sung to the tune of “America the Beautiful”.
The Chief again thanked us for the fish we had provided and offered to show us the Twin Waterfalls which were just a few minutes from the village. Photos are the best evidence to describe the incredible beauty of this site.
Later, back at the “Yacht Club”, we were encouraged to sign the guest book and for a small entry fee, we could become life-time members of the Twin Waterfalls Yacht Club. Garry took the bait, and joined the club, earning us an officially printed membership card for our 1,000 Vatu (about $12 NZ), with life time access to the Twin Water Falls. I would have to say that it just might be the most exclusive yacht club in the world as there are only 117 members worldwide and you must pass through Vanua Lava to join. I wonder if they reproprocity rights with other yacht clubs around the world? I can imagine us rocking up to the San Diego Yacht Club with our paper membership card, dressed in clean but permanently-stained-by-fish-blood clothes.
What a different experience between Rowa Shoals and Vanau Lava. The end result was the same; we contributed to the local economy of both islands, but in completely different manners. I know which place I will definitely return too.
The sun was quickly setting and I wasn’t too keen on swimming back to the boat in the dark so we had to leave. Dark and Shark: Isn’t there a reason why those two words rhyme? After dinner, Jonas caught a couple of nice fish with strip baits, which he released.
Trolling around Vanua Lava the next morning was flat, so we decided to explore another waterfall on the island. After dropping anchor, we snorkeled to the rocky shore, carefully picking our way through coral heads right at the surf line. The waterfall really consisted of two falls, one very long 200 meter drop into a big pool, then a runoff creek which fed a second, smaller waterfall close to the shore line. Jonas and Garry scrambled up the treacherous cliff, barefoot, to reach the upper falls. Laetitia and I thought better and waited sensibly by the seaside pool, collecting shells.
As the boys were picking their way back down the cliff, Nixon spotted our anchored boat, and paddled his canoe ashore, hoping to make good on Garry’s promise of some fish. Garry told Nixon that we had missed out on fish but promised to deliver a 12 Volt Battery when we returned next year. Apparently, Garry had also promised Chief Kerely the same, and it just wouldn’t be fair to bring only one, when the two villages were so close to each other and they would be sure to compare notes on who got what. I’ve heard that tribal wars have started over less.
Nixon told us that there was a much easier (and safer) way up to the higher pond, and pointed out the path hidden in the jungle. We were off again, climbing up the steep ant-infested hill, using vines and trees branches for leverage. Once at the top, we were rewarded by the most idyllic waterfall scene. Hollywood couldn’t set a better tropical scene. Remote… wild… beautiful….
That night, we overnight at Gaua, this time looking for a spot with NO villages, as we were shy of any fish.
The last day, a long travel day, we hooked up a small marlin on the rigger. Unfortunately, I let the reel go into free spool, and the line bird nested. The line snapped and I lost the Marlin as well as the respect of the Captain. Half and hour later, a much bigger blue hit, but she was able to shake of the hook. We ended up with three marlin hits for the day, Two small rainbow runners went in the tuna tubes, and a nice 10 kg Yellow Fin was promptly butchered for our Sushi dinner. At the FAD, not far from Luganville, we picked up two leaping Mahi-Mahis and a Partridge in a pear tree. In the end, we had 8 marlin hits for the week, 3 hooks ups with only one brought to the boat. Again, we blame the fishes lack of commitment on the full moon.
We arrived home to find we were right on the highest high tide of the year, due to the super moon’s influence. The new mooring lines, anchored to the bottom, were just barely long enough, using all of Jonas’s muscle and half of Garry’s skills at the helm. Will there be enough water under the boat, six hours from now? I guess we will know for sure at 10:30 tonight. We just might be touching bottom.
Update: November 15th, 10:45 P.M. Yep, our keels touched bottom at the lowest low tide. Fortunately it was calm enough and no damage to the boat.