Thursday June 11, 11.37pm  (anchored at Laman Bay)

 
Revolieu Bay yesterday was one of those places that time seems to have bypassed. It sits with with its coral reef, its coconut palms silhouhetted against the sky at sunset, the fertile green of its jungle garden, the smoke from village cooking fires curling upwards from amongst the trees, probably much as it would have in the early days when Cook was exploring this area.

With no 240v power on board due to a generator glitch, breadmaking now needs to be done by hand. While the rest of the crew went off to explore the caverns and cliffs of the reef, I took over as captain – thankfully, the boat was securely anchored. I also produced our first loaf of hand-made bread. The first one was perfect. The second was supposed to be rolls, but glooped into a single mass of sog on its second rising, which drew hoots of laughter from our fearless leader. It’ll be just fine, I assured him firmly. “Gotta love an optimist!” was the response. A sprinkle of sun-dried tomatoes and chives and a few slices of cheese later, and hey presto! focaccia. There’s nothing like scepticism to bring out the fighter.

In the afternoon, Jen and I and our patient ferryman Jim, visited the village. Lucy Tarbo and her three-year-old daughter Katie greeted us. Katie had been on an outrigger with two of her brothers the previous evening when we’d been giving out chocolate to the kids who’d gathered around Chimere on our arrival. Lucy led us from the shore up past the Presbyterian church, which is a bamboo hut with palm thatched roof and palm woven single horizontal shutters held up with a stick. Lucy shoved a rock away from the door to let us in, and as I sat in the gloom looking at the rough wood altar and lecturn, the peace that is common to churches touched me, as if the prayers that have been prayed there have soaked into the fabric of the place.

We passed a pump that supplies the village with fresh water, past neatly kept huts the same design as the church, to Lucy’s home. She showed us her cooking hut, with a pot boiling on the open cooking fire, and their sleeping hut. The smoke from the cooking fires cures the thatch, making it much stronger, but I learned from the medical team that it also gives the women massive respiratory problems like emphysema. Lucy has five children (she had her first when she was 14 years old), two of whom walk an hour to school leaving at 6 am, and her husband catches fish on the reef for a living. Her husband has built her a beautiful bread oven, but it is unused because they can’t afford flour. We gave Lucy flour and yeast as well as chocolate for her and her husband because the children had refused to part with any of theirs from the day before, and Lucy gave us pamplemousse, papaya and sugar bananas. I guarantee we have three dozen bananas on this boat – there are definitely banana muffins on the horizon. There was pamplemousse in caramelised toffee for dessert last night. Mm-mm.

This morning dawned bright and fair – another pearler. Showers on board at this point consist of a swim then a quick sluice down with the freshwater hose on the landing platform, as the weather and the water are ridiculously warm. Jen and I treated ourselves to hair washing using a bucket and the hose today – bliss!

We motor-sailed further up the coast of Epi for all of 2 hours to Laman Bay, where there is a large boarding school, substantially established by the Australian Government through AusCare, a comparatively developed village and a tourist resort (with electric lights!). Giant turtles lay their eggs on this beach, and there is a dugong who reputedly likes to swim with visitors – and have his belly scratched. We’ll look for him tomorrow before we leave.

Interestingly, the locals here were far more reserved, less open than the people we’ve encountered so far. In talking to some of the men, Bob, Jim and Tony found out that the small bay used to be regularly visited by tourist boats, which the locals found very invasive. Eventually they wrote to the tourist commission in Port Vila, asking for the location to be removed from the commercial tourist run. Since then it has been much more peaceful. How unfortunately predictable that a higher degree of contact with people from the so-called civilised world has marred these people’s natural openness and tendency to trust.

Tomorrow it’s on to the Maskalyne Islands, Malekula and perhaps Ambrym. The inhabitants of Malekula were able to energetically repel unwanted visitors and held their custom of ritual cannibalism well into the 20th century. Ambrym is also known as the Black Island due to the volcanic ash from its two active volcanoes, one of which has been steadily building up pressure for some time now. The “Lonely Planet” guide tells us they are being closely monitored and that evacuation plans are ready(!) Paradise will be taking on some different colours, it seems.

Ann Shoebridge