Saturday 6 June, 9.30pm (moored at Port Vila)

There has been some debate as to when we should head off. The sail up to Santo will be fairly leisurely, as we don’t have to pick up Martin and the medicos until June 18th. Leaving sooner rather than later means that we have “contingency” built in – you know, in case we get a flat tyre or something. (Or a five metre swell, adds Margie, a medico from tour 1 who wondered whether she was ever going to find her feet again after an hour or two of, um, challenging seas down around Tanna). It also gives us a chance to explore a bit on the way, meeting more of Vanuatu’s gorgeous people, and seeing more of this extraordinary country that is so rich in culture, community ties and vegetation, and so poor monetarily and so difficult to access. This is one environment that is testament to the value of mobile phone technology. Although communications are irregular, unreliable and erratic, they have been (favourably) revolutionised by the introduction of mobile phones.

Enough of lauding technology. Most of you won’t be aware that we don’t get to see the website here. The report is written and sent off on sailmail to Mike Clarke, who uploads it on to the website. However, Bob has rented wireless internet for the time we’re in port, and although it’s painfully slow, tonight we at last got a look at the website and the stories about those who remain on board. I’m here to tell you it’s all true – Bob is as funny as he sounds, the food is as good as we can possibly make it (given the experimental element using local unfamiliar ingredients), the place is remarkable, and the people open, kind, and laid back. I do want to take this opportunity to clear up the small misunderstanding about the nighttime perambulations of the crew around the plank noises, though, written up in Tuesday’s log. Rob’s right; once I twigged that the din wasn’t actually a chorus of snoring crew members, I did get up because I thought someone had invaded the boat in the middle of the night. What Rob didn’t realise was that I went up on deck to demand their business and send them straight back down that plank if they were up to no good. It’s marvellous how much courage one has when not fully awake!

Anyway, the self-same plank is still making ghastly noises and in itself is sufficient deterrent to anyone who doesn’t actually have business on the boat. Its slant is particularly precarious at high tide, when the incoming water lifts the boat well above the level of the wharf. Tonight, the aforementioned medical team 1 member Margie, who has stayed on in Vanuatu to have a holiday with her husband, monkeyed up it on all fours to pay us a final visit before returning home to Australia tomorrow. Fortunately Jen and I had a last-minute shop at the market today for fresh provisions in preparation for tomorrow’s departure, so we were able to welcome Margie and her husband Michael aboard for dinner. I threw in some extra green stuff I’ve nick-named “mermaid’s tresses” from the market, Jen shoved spiced bananas into the oven for desert, and Margie regaled us with wild stories from previous tours where they’ve made as many as 28 river crossings between villages, and lumped gear in and out of tiny boats around Santo’s rugged coastline. Guess we’ll be there soon.

It would have been uncharitable to leave Efate before Jen and Tony had any chance of immersion, so yesterday Richard detailed a fried of his, Ro-Ro, to bus us up to the Cascades, a short walk through an idyllic tropical garden up to spectacular waterfalls. Much of the walk was through the river itself, which was rather like a walk through Eden might be. The rocks aren’t slippery, the greenery is lush, fruit is dropping off the trees, the water is refreshing without being cold, the water is rushing but surprisingly doesn’t push you off balance, and there are no leeches! Although Tony had announced that he doesn’t do getting wet (maybe in fear that the lurid green of his shorts would run), he couldn’t resist the pool below the waterfall any more than Jen and I could. I can highly recommend a waterfall on your back and neck to dispel tension and fatigue.

After the Cascades, we donned the fins and snorkels pulled out of the depths of “Chimere” to swim amongst the fish over the coral reef around Hideaway Island. Tony got wet again!

The simple act of using a mask and snorkel, making it possible to quietly absorb the underwater world, brings home the realisation that we live in a world among worlds on this planet. Not only are we being daily faced on this trip with people whose lives are profoundly different from our own and who are at the same time profoundly affected by our global consumerism, there is also the other-worldliness of the ocean, where environmental degradation in the form of dieback in the coral reef is a different reflection of the same thing. Right next to dead, bleached, barren stretches of dead reef are the brilliant purples, blues and pinks of the living coral, with fancifully and wonderfully shaped and coloured fish darting and nosing about. A poignant illustration of life and death.

A particular treat in amongst this day of treats was Ro-Ro driving us around his village, Mele. Mele is one of the biggest villages on the island, with a population of roughly 5,000. As we bumped over rough paths, we had a running commentary on the activities taking place in the community; preparation for the week-long celebration of a marriage, men and boys weaving palm leaves into roof thatching, Ro-Ro’s little daughter washing under the outside tap getting ready to go to school. Everywhere, the villagers waved to us with huge welcoming smiles. Ro-Ro mentioned that the village now has running water thanks to support provided by our government for the building of a pipe to bring the water to the village. He sincerely thanked us for this – another among many humbling moments.

All day, Bob and Jim were still working hard on board, tidying, repairing, preparing. They have been friends since kindergarten, and sailing buddies since they “borrowed” Bob’s Dad’s boat in their early teens and decided that it would be a great idea to sail it out of sight of land. They not only made it out through the Sydney Heads, but safely back again (minus the dinghy, mind you). The partnership has clearly continued in style, as they work together as comfortably as a pair of old shoes. Bob is one of the most hilarious, industrious, resourceful, and at the same time unassuming and laid back characters you could ever hope to meet. His propensity for letting anything go that’s not immediately essential has stayed with him. Fortunately dinghies no longer seem to fit the “dispensible” category. Presumably ship’s cooks don’t either.

Every day has a million stories – Jen buying and sharing “tutuk” with me (locally-made meat in tapioca cooked in a banana leaf); chatting to a New Zealander last night who is here for the game fishing competition and whose team brought in a 220 kg marlin which they donated to the hospital to feed everyone there; the man at the market knocking the top off a green coconut so we could drink the juice and scoop the jelly-like flesh out with our fingers and eat it; the bus to the supermarket, instead of taking us straight up the hill for a direct drop-off, going goodness knows where on the way where EVERYONE’S washing was strung out, presumably to have it done in time for the Sabbath day rest; looking at the island women sitting in family groups and at their stalls at the market, generously warm and beautiful in their brilliantly coloured dresses; seeing men hanging out with their mates down along the water front, sitting under paw-paw trees heavily laden with fruit.

Amongst it all is the steady work on the boat and anticipation of the trip north.

Ann