Long-term Vanuatu resident Nicky Barnes and her fishing-obsessed husband relate their glorious adventure in the Shepherd Islands.
Perhaps the ultimate romantic image of luxury is embodied in the 1960s slightly sepia photographs of lazy cruising. The woman in the yellow one-piece bathing suit on the deck of her yacht in the Med, her handsome boyfriend at the helm in a blue and white striped shirt, collar turned up, sailors cap at a jaunty angle. Dry martinis in the evening and deserted beaches by day.
Well, minus the attire, that is not too far from the reality of what our summer holiday this year has been. Wind forward to a more modern view, drop the yacht and replace it with a small motor boat, swap the martinis for Sauvignon Blanc or Coronas, and your man is wearing a fishing shirt. The Vanuatu islands are here and oh boy, are they spectacular! Like glowing emerald jewels scattered in the endless blue.
Having just spent seven days at sea in the Shepherd islands, 70 kms north of Efate, a dream holiday that made us feel like newlyweds drunk on endorphins, we cannot understand why more people are not doing the same. Unlike the Med, the islands in Vanuatu are pristine, untouched and secluded. If you want to get away from it all, it is guaranteed that after two nights in the islands, you will be very much there.
Leaving from Port Vila if you follow our route north, you are immediately met by a chain of islands. From Hat Island, just around the corner from the aptly named Devils Point, they continue with Lelepa, Moso, Nguna … the list of exotic Melenesian islands extends all the way up to the Solomons. All are volcanic, very sparsely populated and wrapped protectively in some of the most spectacular coral reefs in the world. The difference here is that basically on a world scale, no one knows this paradise exists, or how easy it is to access. And maybe that is not always a bad thing.
Having a husband who is fishing-obsessed means lines perpetually trailing off our boat and enough high energy excitement from time to time to ensure things don’t get too placid. Fishing is one of those all or nothing sports. When the big dogtooth tuna is on, the line is peeling furiously to match the shouting from husband (instructions on how to chase the fish in reverse), heart rates are up until the fish is on-board. Mahi-Mahi, Wahoo, Dogtooth Tuna, Groper, Poulet fish, we experienced them all. Our boat is not sophisticated, so ice is relayed from our ‘storage cooler’ to the food cooler. Meals, despite being one pot wonders cooked over a simple gas burner on board, would not be more appreciated if Nigella Lawson cooked them herself. Simple fresh fish meals accompanied by wine and matched by the most spectacular scenery evening after evening – what more could you want?
And when the ice runs low, our fishing encourages us to find more local villages. The islands are quiet and underpopulated as a general rule. So finding the villages and sharing any extra fish becomes a nice diversion and challenge. We have often been lucky, with the well-timed arrival of a traditional outrigger canoe gliding towards us, appearing out of ‘nowhere’, with a smiling local, happy and intrigued by our offer of fish. I guess we are more like aliens here, bizarrely arriving with the evening meal on board. Our offer of fish is met with smiles and a counter offer of watermelon, fresh water, nangavika (a less known tropical fruit called locally an ‘apple’ but resembling more of a plumb with watery crunchy flesh) and often an invitation to the village. Not having a tender, and not being fond of the twilight or dark swim back to the boat, means that most times we had to pass. Those on bigger boats carrying a tender have the opportunity of priceless memories and experiences, visiting local villages well anchored in the past. Ni Vanuatu are the most wonderful hosts and very relaxed about sharing with pride their village life with visitors. The quaint villages are sparsely populated, with lovely gardens that are an important part of daily life and are amazingly well-tended. There is very little on these islands and although traders will pass with rice, tinned fish, matches, sugar and all the other necessities, the luxuries lie on the land. The sweet white coconut milk and ripe fruit are the indulgences.
In Vanuatu, no two islands are the same. Epi, which is the largest island we explored, had intriguing salt-water lakes and seemed so quiet, devoid of people. We nicknamed one of our favourite evening mooring spots in the south east of the island ‘Destruction Bay’. The after effects of Cyclone Pam were very much still prevalent here with trees hanging down cliffs attached only by their roots and lifeless limbs lying about everywhere. We did see bats and birds, and their population is slowly recovering, but the effects on their shelter and food source were immense. That is not to say the scenery was generally spoilt. Just around the next bay we found a village, unnamed on the charts, that looked straight out of the movies. A mix of Jurassic park and blue lagoon, it was surrounded by spectacular volcanic peaks, palm trees, black volcanic stone beaches and glittering coral seas. Swimming into the beach with our wahoo brought out of the bushes giggling young girls with bright open smiles.
Lopevi Island, which we named Vanuatu’s Mt Fuji, is another wonder of this area. It stands straight up out of the ocean in a tall cone, like its Japanese namesake, an active volcano which often spits and spurts but gave us puffy grey displays of volcanic cloud on this occasion.
Everywhere we went, we could feel the volcanic geography of these islands present all around. The little island just off Tongoa where we stopped for our morning coffee brew, was fringed by a beach of slick black rocks which were surprisingly light like pumice and interlaced with red-brick coloured softer looking stones.
When swimming we were naturally cautious, not wanting the holiday to end in an unwelcome shark adventure and unsure of their prevalence around this area. Thankfully, a chance encounter with an older fisherman, who had spent his whole life on these islands, confirmed we had nothing to worry about. “There has been no shark attack in all my lifetime,” he boldly told us. Let’s hope it stays that way!
By far the favourite ocean animal we encountered in our sea adventure was the spinner dolphin. Pods of these joyful acrobats accompanied us many times. Their spectacular leaps out of the water and dramatic spinning motion could not bring anything other than smiles. We could hear them sing, and they obviously communicated in patterns of tail beats on the surface too. We wanted to know more, but with no google at hand, there was not much we could do except sit back and simply rejoice in the wonderful spectacle around us.
Despite the fact that Vanuatu does not yet offer fleets of self-sail boats like similar islands in the Bahamas or Tahiti do, there are ways in which this sort of holiday can be accessible to all. Port Vila Harbour will soon be home to The Point Marina, currently under construction on Pango point. This will offer a residential marina enabling families to live or have a holiday house right at the doorstep of all this adventure, yet only minutes from the conveniences of town.
Several charter fishing companies in Port Vila will take you on a tailor made holiday for as long or short as you desire. There are options where you sleep on land each night, and family friendly choices. There are also a few sailing boats for charter with skippers based out of Port Vila and Santo. If charter prices are a deterrent, I challenge anyone who has been on holiday for a week anywhere else in the world to add up what they spent on drinks, food, accommodation, tours and entertainment and I suspect the total is not less than what a few days on a charter at sea here costs. This is an adventure of a lifetime. Yes the cruise ship option is cheaper – so if you want to travel with 3,000 other people, have kids entertained at a kids club, not have to prepare food, cruises are a good option for you. If you dream of the open ocean, deserted beaches and true adventure, it is right here on our doorstep in Vanuatu. So pack your yellow swim suit and find your adventure.
GPS: 17 33.126S 168 16.991E Exposed to Wind: Strong Westerlies. Exposed to Swell: Nil. Bottom Type: Black sand. Depth: 4-10m. Suitable: Any conditions. Anchoring Tips: This is one of the most sheltered anchorages in Vanuatu and a very pleasant location. Services: Ask the locals to bring you produce from their gardens and they will that evening. Features: Lots of turtles and the occasional dugong.
Lamen Bay, Epi Island
GPS: 16 35.773S 168 09.893E Exposed to Wind: South thru W to NE. Exposed to Swell: South thru W to NE. Bottom Type: Black Sand. Depth: 4-8m. Suitable: Strong winds. Anchoring Tips: Anchor close to the beach in 4-8metres of water. Avoid anchoring too far to SE corner as the dugongs and turtles feed here. Services: Small store, bakery, market, airport (best TVL Reception).
Sulua Bay- Emae Island
GPS: 17 02.979S 168 22.318E Exposed to Wind: South west to North. Exposed to Swell:Southwest to North. Bottom Type: White sand and coral. Depth: 4-8m. Suitable: Strong winds. Anchoring Tips: Anchor close to the coral reef in the sand patches. Services: Guest house at Marae Village to the North. Features: A good stop when travelling between Efate and Epi, especially when heading South.
GPS: 16 53.071S 168 31.788E Exposed to Wind: Southwest to NE. Exposed to Swell: Southwest to NE. Bottom Type: Black Sand. Depth: 4-8m. Suitable: Settled conditions. Anchoring Tips: Anchor close to the reef north of you in the sand. There is always a slight roll here. Features: Access to Tongoa Wall dive site, ask permission first on the shore and limit payment to 500 vatu per person if requested otherwise thank them and move on.
Anchorage information provided by ‘Vanuatu Cruising – A Free Guide to Sailing in Vanuatu’. The guide contains over 100 safe anchorages throughout Vanuatu with GPS Co-ordinates, depths and waypoints. It is packed full of verified local information including festivals, events and must-see places. Download for FREE at www.vanuatucruising.info. For the latest information check out Vanuatu Cruising, or Cruising Vanuatu in Facebook.
Published by Island Life Magazine