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The magic of Vanuatu

von | Okt 4, 2023 | English, Pazifik, Vanuatu

Vanuatu is a land full of religions, myths, customs, and magic. They are deeply rooted in the „Kostom“ way of life which is carefully passed down orally from generation to generation. The island of Ambrym; perhaps by the power of the volcano; is considered a stronghold of magic.

Ambrym was the third island I visited on my trip through Vanuatu and is located about 100 nautical miles north of Port Vila. In the early afternoon I weighted anchor in Havannah – Bay and waved „Good Bye“ to Andrew one last time. The sails were quickly set and through a small pass in the west of the bay I reached the open sea again.

Up to the western tip of Ambrym the course led pretty much to the north, past Epi and the Dugong bays in the south of Malekula. The wind was blowing hard at about 25 knots, but the sea remained relatively calm. That was good! – since my trip to Australia, this was my first solo night trip.

There were no other ships on the way. I was afraid of oversleeping my alarm while lying in the comfortable bunk downstairs. In the worst case, that could make me running aground or colliding with some fishermen.

Instead, I slept in the cockpit! – Outside in the cool, fresh air, I woke up almost automatically every 20-30 minutes to keep a lookout.

I reached the western tip of Ambrym around noon. So far, the crossing has been quite relaxed, but now the wind funneled through between Pentecost and Ambrym and blew fully against me on the last 12 miles to the anchorage.

I tightened the sheets and brought WASA on a steep upwind course. It was exhausting and wet, but also sporty fun! Steering one-handed through the tacks; simultaneously using my hips to operate the tiller and my arms crank tights the headsail; letting the main rush out when one of the down gusts hit the sail and healed the boat over until the gunnel was touching the seas!

Five to ten tacks later, the anchor dropped on a patch of sand in front of a small village, not far from my friends Scott and Mia from SY TENGARAH. We had arranged to meet here to watch the „Back to the roots Festival“, together. – A festival created by the locals to give tourists an insight into their kostom and their dances.

Six yachts were gathered for the occasion! Early in the morning we all met on the beach to walk with our guide the 45 minutes to Olal, site of the event and home of Paramount Chief Sekal.

After the business was settled, there was a short welcoming speech by Chief Sekar, which our guide translated for us. Then we went a few minutes further into the bush to the Nakamal, a sacred place for dances and rituals, which is only accessible to women or tourists under very specific conditions.

I must admit, I was pretty skeptical at first: „A dozen white tourists on a little bench in the bush, watching a handful of locals dance, who didn’t even seem to know the program of their own show?“.

That skepticism vanished abruptly when the first notes were beaten on the bush drums and the dances began! Every single dancer had at least the rank of a chief (This is about as if all our mayors of the district would get together for the folk dance in the beer tent) and was „dressed“ with no more than a namba, a traditional penis holder.

The dance consisted mostly of stomping, shaking and singing. Together with the deep sounds of the bush drums, this made the floor and our bodies vibrate. The whole group fell into a trance, fixated on the drums in the center of the circle. At irregular intervals, one of them would tear himself away from the group, circle around it screaming wildly, only to rejoin it in his old place.

Back on board my body longed for a cap of sleep, but when I woke up later in the evening, I was full of energy. I decided to row ashore again and walk around a bit. On the way I met three young guys, 14 & 16, who were hunting for flying foxes. Without further ado, I asked if I could tag along. – „Sure!“

I quickly zoomed back to the boat, retrieved my slingshot and a flashlight, and then we were on our way: the three of them made some fun of my assortment of stones at first and then proudly gave me some of their good ones.

Two of us shone with strong flashlights through the tops of the coconut palms, where the flying foxes betrayed themselves by their shining eyes. When we spotted one, it was time to „Fire for all it’s worth!

Unfortunately(?) we haven’t hit anything and after about two hours, the guys had to go home again. For them every days life, for me another mega cool experience! We have chatted, laughed and PLAYED WITH SLINGSHOTS IN THE FOREST!!! – isn’t that the „little boys dream“?

The highlight of the show the next day was the performance of the ROM – Dance. It is the highest dance in Ambrym- Kastom and is practiced only in the north of the island. The dancers wear traditionally carved masks, whose colors are obtained from plants and roots of the forest.

Only members of the highest ranks are allowed to make ROM masks or perform the ROM Dance. The dance is usually performed at important Kostom events, such as the circumcision of the boys or the opening of a new nakamal: The costumes are burned afterwards to destroy the bad spirits.

A lot of sitting and little movement – This is sometimes the downside of sailing. Therefore, and because I was so excited about the Tanna volcano, I talked to our guide about the best way to climb the Ambrym volcano. He consulted with his people and made a few phone calls back and forth. Then he opened up to me: As I had already had read, that the volcano is sacred and you can only climb the plateau with a guide! He also told me that the volcano is no longer active since an eruption in 2015. – „Upsi!“, My sources were probably outdated.

This journey is my dream! If you want to support me and keep the journey going, please feel free to invite me for a symbolic dinner!

Thank you so much!

Never mind! A proper hike has never hurt anyone. I arranged a guide in the village closer to the volcano and I could even persuade the rest of our small „sailing family“ to come along! The next day, six boats weighed anchor and sailed three nautical miles along the coast back to Ranvetlam. Here the tour started and the next morning we should meet out guide in the village.

The morning became a classic case of „Iceland – time“: When we arrived at half past six in the village, no one was to be seen. From a few huts I could still see tired eyes peeking out and I inquired about Sammy our guide.

As it turned out, Sammy was the school principal and only middleman for the hike. – Most of the young men had been hunting wild cows the day before and were quite tired today. Therefore, no guide had been found yet, but he would take care of it.

Also, the answers to our questions, „how far?“, or „how long?“, the hike was going to be, as usual, were rather vague: „Ah, it’s a long way.“, „maybe 10 hours“, said the one. The other said, „it’s 10 kilometers.“. And yet another just suggested, „you should get going soon, it’s a long way.“.

We agreed to shorten the first drivable kilometers on the back of a pick up and finally a guide was found. Principal sandy came along as well! – It was only the second time that he climbed the volcano. – the last time it was still spewing lava!

The golden rule on the pickup ride was to trust the driver and every time he honked his horn to quickly pull in ones head to avoid hanging branches.

After about half an hour we stopped. – From now on we only continued on foot. We first hiked through deep jungle, always along a narrow path, up the mountain until we reached the crater’s plateau.

The plain seemed endless, enclosed by the volcanic craters on the horizon. Until a few years ago, there was only black stone and gray dust here. The air must have smelled sulfurous and the acidity of the gases made any life impossible.

Now a variety of grasses, palms and other plants sprout in the fertile volcanic ash. In addition, we were lucky with the weather. Normally, up here it rains almost permanently, but like that, in the bright sunshine it was the idyll par excellence.

In a small hut, which usually serves as a shelter for the hunters, we ate the lunch we had brought with us and had a little rest. Then we continued the remaining meters of altitude to the summit. The path turned out to be not exactly easy: Again and again small climbs or wet, slippery steep slopes blocked the way, but our group was generally fit and experienced hikers. Which was nice, because that way we could all walk together and didn’t have to keep waiting for each other all the time.

Once at the top, the view was overwhelming! In front of us the deep crater, from which still smoke clouds rose and behind us the seemingly endless, green plateau.

We lingered at the crater rim for about 20 minutes, then started our descent again. We were well on time and would easily arrive at the village before dark. Therefore, we decided not to use the pick up again on the way back down.

Shortly before reaching the village, we passed through some newly built traditional huts, whose arrangement could almost remind us of a village on its own own. In the middle of them trotted……. A Starlink antenna!

Principal Sandy explained: „About 5 years ago he founded a school here. Before that there was none, the children either did not go to school or had to leave their families and attend classes on other islands – Ambrym is much too small to attract enough qualified teachers for all different age groups.

Sandy’s idea was to set up an Internet school: Students could learn together in the classroom -teachers would be connected via video. However, the bandwidth of the Internet was far too weak for efficient teaching.

It was a stroke of luck for Sandy when Starlink donated six set-ups to Vanuatu in response to the Cyclone, last spring. Since then, classes have been running smoothly and he has even been able to expand the program: They built new cabins and currently teach children from three different islands in all grades from 1 to 13. Those who have traveled far can stay in the attached „boarding school“.

How cool is that?!

At the end of the successful day, Sandy and his wife invited us to come over the next day, after church, to eat laplap. – A traditional dish of taro or yams that is mashed and wrapped in banana leaves along with vegetables and some meat. Cooked  in a hole in the ground with hot stones it is then served with coconut cream and eaten with the bare fingers!