[120620, 0005 UTC, Vanikoro Island, Solomon Islands, 11º05' S / 164º 18' E]
We join you again after leaving Vanikoro Island after a week enjoying its quiet ambience. Our stay at this island in the eastern Solomon Island group allowed us to catch up on repairs, projects and to rest. Our sixteen day passage, our active stay at Tikopia and our hurried departure and passage to find a protected anchorage had taken its toll and we felt a bit exhausted. Ironically, Vanikoro turns out to be a Tikopian word meaning to gather to seek shelter.
Monday morning June 11 dawned bright, though black squall clouds marched their way across the sky and these kept us alert as we cautiously approached the principal islands of the Vanikoro group which are enclosed in a broken coral reef. The easiest entrance to the group is through the NE Hays Channel, a narrow opening in a funnel-shaped section of reef where, as you approach, breaking waves on either side slowly get closer and closer until suddenly you get soundings and you shoot through a constriction into Manieve Harbor. Immediately ahead as you enter are a series of large obstructions (shallow coral areas) though thankfully we had a clear view in the late morning sunshine on the day we entered. Luckily, the chart of the pass was accurate, though we had previously overlaid a Google Earth satellite photo onto the chart and felt reasonably confident that it was compatible with our GPS datum. As such, we had no trouble weaving our way in, clearing the many reefs and making our way deep into the lagoon.
The preferred anchorage here is the inner arm of a mangrove-lined bay formed by a small pointy island about five or six miles into the lagoon. As you enter this enclosed inlet, Numbuko Bay, a pagoda-like structure is evident on yet another mangrove islet to starboard. It appears to be a small cupola-sized structure - because there is no frame of reference to the size of the mangroves - but is in fact a gazebo-sized structure, tall enough for a man to stand in. This is the memorial to the lost crew of two vessels of the La Perouse expedition, wrecked on the south side of the island in the mid-1700s. Marine archaeologists continue to study the wrecks but the mystery of the wreck has never been solved. All hands perished, either from drowning after the vessel struck the reef or (most likely) at the hands of the natives, who later disclaimed all knowledge of what had happened to the survivors. The native people occupying the island practiced headhunting at the time.
The anchorage at Numbuko Bay is deep, 24 m (about 80') and all around the edges are coral shelves that rise abruptly from deep water and loom ominous as you enter. A river or two enters into the bay and it is at these locations that large crocodiles are said to live though the village chief assured us they were "friendly". When we asked about the story of a Swiss cruiser recently getting attacked and killed by a croc while he horrified wife looked on, the chief assured us that this happened on another island - which is only 25 miles away as the crow flies - or croc swims in this case. The remains of the cruiser (what little they could find) are buried on Utupua island. We had heard this story and hadn't planned to swim despite what the locals professed.
Parking ourselves in the middle of the inner arm of Numbuko Bay, we were snug as we swung in wide circles when the promised unsettled weather to our south passed and squalls arrived from different points of the compass. Nearby Mt. Popokia was nearly always wearing a halo of gauzy charcoal gray clouds over two-thirds of its peak and old growth forest and jungle creep down the mountain sides to the mangroves near the sea. Despite its reputed cloudiness, we had two days of unclouded skies where the mountain was etched against a clear blue South Pacific sky.
At night the silence in the anchorage was complete and the stars, the Milky Way and planets shined brightly all around. The two nearest villages, Lavaca and Buma are over 3 convoluted miles away and no man-made lights are visible. The last sailboat to visit was over a year ago - the island gets few visitors. We slept well under the wide open hatch during the chilly, quiet, mosquito-free nights.
Supply vessels apparently make very infrequent stops at these outlying islands of the Santa Cruz group. It is for this reason that the villagers are quite eager to trade with visiting sailboats for the types of goods that they cannot make, grow or retrieve from the sea. If their fruits and vegetables aren't "worth" enough for a trade, they are very willing to buy things with Solomon Island dollars, never quibbling about the price. For our part, we wished only to trade or give gifts.
Eventually, we figured too many freebies gave the wrong message to these friendly people and ended up selling some things at ridiculously low prices since our original intent was to give some of our trading supplies away anyway. Paramount chief Chris Albert Ramoli, a warm friendly man with a quick smile, visited us twice with an entourage, bearing long lists of villagers' wants/needs and their cash or trading items. The second time we invited them aboard and we snacked on tea and banana bread while going through his books showing historic photos taken by cruisers of years past and talking of the island and its legends. One interesting thing the chief shared were stones called foko peni mangila which means "stones from lightning" in the local language. They are tear drop and marquis shaped stones that are formed or appear after lightning strikes the earth on the island. The stones are found in gullies in the earth and apparently tumble or fall down, perhaps propelled by torrential tropical rain. Their surface is smooth and they are almost perfectly formed (and slightly bigger than a golf ball). The chief also gave us a locally carved war club, now used only as a "priest" or billy club for subduing fish.
After our visit, the chief launched into trading and we spent hours rummaging around the boat trying to fulfill their requirements. In some instances because we so wanted to help these people we liked so much, we shared our commodity, such as our popcorn or shampoo or clothes washing soap, dispensing some to keep and then trading or selling the rest to meet the islanders' need. Finally exhausted and with the sun setting behind mightly Popokia, we said our goodbyes, promised to try to re-connect with the chief and a group of village dancers at the upcoming Festival of Pacific Arts, and sent them on their way to sail their canoe downwind back to Buma.
Some of the goods we sold or traded were clothing, towels, gasoline, stove alcohol, mineral spirits, matches, kitchen knives, rice, popping corn, sugar, tea, coffee, jam, flour, a USB cell phone charger, sunglasses, handbags, nail polish, clothes washing soap, bar soap,shampoo, D-cell batteries, bright floral baseball caps, a coconut scraper, a watch, utensils, supper plates, and our very last Carina t-shirt. In return we got a little cash, island cabbage, eggs, papaya, oranges, grapefruit, green onions, chili peppers, yams, primitive jewelry and carvings, and delicious mangrove oysters (same species as Pacific oyster). The latter we grilled on the half shell on the BBQ using a sauce of chili sauce, olive oil, chili peppers, lime juice and a bit of honey. Yum!
Another tantalizing and fascinating story about this island is the legend of the existence of the "kakamora". A brief mention in our guidebook describes them as "short, shy, hairy humanoids" who live deep in the bush on the sides of the mountains. It also asserts that one was captured in 1969 but quickly escaped. When we questioned the chief and other islanders about the kakamora, they smiled at us and swore that they did in fact exist. When questioned further, they added that even though the people are short, they are enormously strong, human, speak their own language, can sometimes be seen on shore and live in caves deep in the bush. Despite our searches through binoculars we never saw a kakamora, so we'll leave you to your own thoughts on the subject.
Now making a slow, squally passage of 300 miles to Santa Ana in the Makira province of the Solomons, we only hope that our experiences there are as wonderful as those we'd had so far at Tikopia and Vanikoro. We are optimistic.
Your friends of the yacht Carina,
Philip, Leslie and fat cat, Jake