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Thursday, September 10, 2009

August 10 - 30, 2009, Part 3 Palekula Bay, Santo and Lolowai, Ambae - Vanuatu

Palekula Bay is a beautiful anchorage in a very large but shallow bay. The mouth of the bay was home to Club Nautique, which had been a decent yacht club until a recent cyclone or some such storm completely wiped it out. Now all that remains is a barren slab where locals gather in the evenings to drink kava or to congregate for a day of net fishing. There is a lot of evidence of small fire pits around the perimeter. The bay is closer to Luganville and to several favorite tourist sites and dives. The most popular and famous dive is to the USS President Coolidge, a 200-meter long former luxury liner that was converted to a troopship. In October 1942, carrying 5000 men she sank in the Segund Channel just outside of Luganville, after hitting two "friendly" (American) mines. The boat slid into deeper water as it sank, sitting on its side in 30 m to 67 m of depth and apparently remains reasonably intact. The other big attraction is called Million Dollar Point, where at the end of WWII, the US Military literally dumped thousands of tons of equipment (bulldozers, jeeps, cranes, forklifts, trucks and munitions) after a dispute with the French. The story we were told was that the Americans could not (would not?) bear the expense of transporting them back to the US when pulling out of here, so they made an offer to sell the goods to the French for pennies on the dollar. The arrogant French replied, "Why should we pay for these things when we can just take them after you leave?" Hence the US Military responded by dumping it all into the waters and along the beach and then blowing up access to the place, leaving millions of dollars of debris littering the area. Would our military do this on their own soil and get away with it? It makes a great dive/snorkel attraction for visitors. We had missed the big group dive, which occurred the day we were at Champagne Beach, but planned to go the following day. Unfortunately those who had done either or both dives the day before reported that visibility was so poor subsequent dives had been cancelled. Alas, we missed the diving but saved several hundred dollars. Maybe next time, if we return to Vanuatu.

We only stayed two days in the anchorage, and one of them was spent going back into town, via a cab that had been arranged to take groups of us to Customs and Immigration so that we could apply for our 30-day Visa extension, and to take care of whatever business we might need to, since this would be our last stop in civilization until we get to Port Vila in about 6 weeks. Our "cab" turned out to be a mini super cab pickup truck. Four of us crammed into the cab while Frank and Jock (from "Just in Time") rode in the bed of the truck. Poor guys! Thank goodness this was only a 20- minute/7 mile ride into town. In the Customs office we met another American cruising couple, Laura and Mark aboard "Sabbatical III", a 54 ft. Amel. He is a professor at Brown Univ., and sails 8 months of the year, then goes back to work for the remaining 4. Nice deal. Lovely people whom we ended up spending a bit of time with over the next couple of weeks.

Friday, Frank played golf with John from "Windflower". Somehow I ended up on the boat all day, so I just read a book. I should have planned that better so that I could have access to the dinghy or to hitch a ride with someone else to go snorkel or just for a walk on shore. It was much too far to swim.

On Saturday morning we left for Lolowai Bay on the island of Ambae, which was a great 6-hour sail. We had anticipated 8 hours, but caught great winds across the beam, averaging 27 knots, gusting to about 35, giving us an average boat speed of 7-8 knots with reefs in both sails. The going got a bit rough, seas a bit high and it was exhilarating! Lolowai reminded us very much of the Marquesas. We anchored in a deep, dark bay surrounded by mountainous terrain. The beaches were black, as is quite common in these volcanic islands. There wasn't much to the village, in fact it appeared fairly deserted with only a few homes, although it is said to be the principal center for the Anglican Diocese of Melanesia, and houses the hospital, bank and post office for this entire area. The villagers were very simple people and quite curious about the yachts. They hooped and hollered to us from shore. Next morning the local ladies set up a fruit and vegetable mini market for us on shore. We purchased some cooking bananas, kumara (sweet potatoes), pawpaw (papaya), and pampelmousse stowed our goods into the dinghy and then set off for a long group hike, which everyone enjoyed immensely. We climbed up to the caldera of the no longer active volcano. The hike turned out to be an all day adventure sometimes through rugged wilderness, often on steep rocky trails and roads, hardly seeing another soul. Every now and then we would spy what appeared to be an abandoned garden and perhaps an abandoned home, although we were told they probably were inhabited but that this is just the way these people live. The islands here are so lush with vegetation that it is nearly grown over itself. Michele and Paul's two young children, Merric and Seanna were in heaven on those trails. I kept thinking of my own grandson who is about their age, and how much fun he would have out here picking up sticks and rocks, climbing the huge Banyan trees, picking bananas and fruit, seeing lizards, frogs, baby pigs and chickens scattering along. It wouldn't be a bad place to get stranded now that they no longer eat people. After the hike we walked up to the hospital. Oh my god! It is not a place you would want to go if you are infirm! Remembering episodes of the TV show "ER", when Carter went to the clinic in Africa, I thought this place didn't even measure up to that. The patients even have to bring their own drinking water, drinking cups, and food. Their medications are apparently outdated and the place, just like some of the villages and homes we passed, looks like the remains of either a bombing or a cyclone. Very sad. Not sanitary. We guessed that the only people who go there are the Christians who do not believe in Black Magic and are so very ill they look to this as the last resort. It probably is their last.

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