Starboard paddler Bart De Zwart has just landed back from his expedition in Vanuatu. The expedition evolved from found memories of sailing through the islands in 2007 with his family. A journey that made Bart fall in love with the people, nature and culture of the islands. The Dutch expedition paddler gives TotalSUP an account of his travels through the island which he did with fellow Starboard paddler Trevor Tunnington.
Vanuatu consists of 13 main islands and many small ones, an ideal place to paddle and explore on a SUP. Apart from the main island, it is remote, so remote that many villages rarely see tourists. Vanuatu is one of the least visited countries in the world. When I started planning this SUP expedition, the first thing I did was ask Starboard team mate, Trevor Tunnington to come along. It didn’t take much convincing. We were about to embark on “A SUP expedition, to one of the most friendly but also most dangerous nations (in terms of national disasters) on earth, what is there not to like?” I asked. Trevor was on board within a day.
We planned to travel light, our kit consisted of two Starboard iSUPs, the Touring 14’ x 30” and IGO 11’2 x 32”. The IGO iSUP had a double chamber which brings extra safety for crossing when we are far at sea. We also took a 3-piece paddles, a tent, sleeping mat, basic navigation gear and emergency ration packs and two water bags.
After a short flight on a very small plane, we landed in Tanna. We found a off road vehicle, who was willing to take us to Port Resolution, a village on the other side of the island, 2 hours over a muddy, barely doable, road. It is custom in every Vanautun village to go first to the village chief to ask for his permission to visit and stay in the village. Normally you should always arrive with a gift, so did we. We had brought T-shirts, lycras and hats, which were very much appreciated. After we talked to the chief, he gave us permission and a great spot to put up our tent on a cliff overlooking the bay.
Shark Bait Balls
The next morning we inflated our iSUPs and paddled for a few hours to the next village, Ipikel. On the way, we came across something straight out of the BBC Planet Earth series, a shark feeding frenzy. About 5 sharks were hunting a school of tunas. We saw water splashing and fins coming out of the water. We paddled closer for a better look, then we found ourselves right in the middle of the frenzy. A few sharks were pushing the tuna close together, whilst the others were happily biting at any tuna coming their way. I pushed my camera under water, hoping that the sharks would not mistake it for a tuna.
After it was all finished we continued our paddle to Ipikel. When we got closer, we could see someone was waving and guiding us to a safe landing spot it turned out to be chief William. A crowd gathered quickly around us as we landed our boards and gear on the beach. They were as excited to see us, as we them.If there is one thing you take away from traveling in Vanuatu it is the way the Vanuatu people live. The contrast to the way the western world lives couldn’t be more different. Chief William and his adopted son also called William showed us around whilst explaining their culture. In the village they don’t use money. They grow everything they need on their land, use natural building materials and manage to have a culture without money only trading if needed. They have a lot of time for each other and themselves. No one is in a hurry,has stress. Everyone is friendly, helpful and looks very content. It is a simple but also rewarding and happy life.
The following day we were woken up by the pigs running around our tent, which we had put up right in front of the chief’s hut. After a fried fish for breakfast the chief just caught that morning, We took off and had a great down winder to Waisisi. Again the same arrival scene, at first a villager looks bewildered, then curious, then the villagers all come out with the chief in front to see what just arrived. Waisisi chief “John” was very friendly and showed us a great place to put up our tent. He told us that most of the bay was ‘Tabu’, forbidden to go swim and fish. This is a ritual which the chiefs hold every year to give the fish in the bay time to lay their eggs. The villagers told us it is mostly a couple of weeks before the chiefs decide with a ceremony that fishing season is on again.
But the kids in the village were allowed to swim on one side of the bay,were the waves broke on the reef. We decided it was a good idea to take the kids out on our stand up boards. It turned out to be a highlight for them as well as for us. The whole village went wild when one of them tried to paddle the waves and fell off. Everyone was laughing. Not in a mean but rather joyful way. In the afternoon some of the kids asked us if we liked to get coconuts. We walked up into the jungle and a few of the kids climbed up the 50 ft tall palm trees bare foot as agile as monkeys, no fear and lots of skill. The kids here walk to school for a about 1.5 hours each way every day. And again, nobody seemed to complain, rather the opposite, they all seem genuine happy. Our last night on Tanna we shared a meal with the chief and his wife, on the ground as is custom.
The second part of our trip we flew to Ambrym. Our 12-passenger plane landed on a tiny grass airstrip. A short walk through the forest brought us a volcanic rock beach. There we inflated our boards. Ambrym is another volcanic island, it has only recently stopped being active. But there is still rumbling underneath the surface. Apart from the constant threat of the volcano, the inhabitants endure frequent earthquakes and only 5 years ago a cat 5 cyclone which destroyed everything. Although some residents now rebuild with concrete blocks most just went in the forest and build their huts back in a short time.
In Vanuatu, clearly most people don’t take more from the earth than it gives. Also because they only use natural resources directly from their back yard they don’t have any waste or garbage. We didn’t see any plastic or waste other than what arrives from their plastic consuming neighbors, like China or the Philippines.Most islands and villages have no electricity but there are a few cell phone towers. We did see more and more huts with a small solar panel for one light at night or to charge a phone. They use rain or river water to drink and cook.
After spending a night on a deserted beach along the coast we woke up realizing that one of our full water bags had a leak, was empty, leaving us without water. The temperatures and humidity in Vanuatu are so high and so is our water usage. After a couple of hours paddling I saw a river on the map. Unfortunately, the river was dried up, this meant we had to continue to the next village with a bigger river to find water. By the time we got there we were very thirsty.
That evening we camped near a village on the North East point of Ambrym after gaining permission from the local chief. We ate some fruits for dinner and paddled with kids in the waves. At some point Trevor came racing in to the beach. For a moment Trevor thought he saw a salt water crocodile. They are very dangerous but this turned out to be a Dugong! a large friendly sea grass eating mammal.
The following morning, we made the crossing to the next island, Pentecoste. The Southern part of this island is where bungee jumping comes from. Every May and June for as long as locals can remember, young men get a change to proof their bravery. But instead of a bungee cord they use forest vines and the tower they jump from is built from small trees. Making the whole tower very flexible and is one reason why most jumpers survive the jump. Although very proud, the jumpers all admit, it is very scary to do!
During the hours we paddled between the villages, Trevor and I had many conversations about their way of life compared to ours. It seems that the people on most islands live with another rhythm. They sit under the trees for hours discussing life, love and death. Kids have a lot of time play, they play without toys and love the water. Our kids in the western world could learn so much from them.
On these last two islands we began to notice that for some villages it is getting harder and more complicated to keep the old traditions alive. There are so many outside influences coming from returning citizens who have worked in Australia. They come home with money, tourists, and smart phones. Even in the most basic villages, with no electricity, no cars, no-money economy, there were always one or two phones owned by the younger men and they all knew Facebook. It will be hard to stop Vanuatu from slowly changing and modernizing. The Chinese are buying up a lot of land which worries the locals and although most try to resist, some will break, go for the money and change their lives forever. I am just afraid it will not always change for the better.
Our last night we spent close to the ‘airport’. To get to the beach we run over the runway back and forth. We got news that our flight to the main island was delayed by 4 hours, this meant that we would miss our connections and would mean a 4-day delay. Luckily Trevor’s mom back in Australia helped out by convincing Air Fiji to wait for us if we get there in time. That morning we managed to speak to the pilots on the plane and mentioned that we would be super grateful if they could come on time or even a little early. And they did come early, a whole 30 minutes. We arrived 5 minutes before our official flight time. With a little run and help of the ground crew we got to our next flight and took off right away. Fastest connection ever!
In Fiji before Trevor and I were going our separate ways home, we concluded that Vanuatu is a very special place. We saw some spectacular sites but what mostly touched us were the people. With no exception, young or old, chief or fisherman, rich or poor, every single person was friendly, kind and very generous with the little things they have. We can all learn a lot from them.