Sailing away from anchor was a peaceful way of
departing from a tropical island, in keeping with its serenity, its waving palms
and the exotic fish in the waters. The first hint that we were under
sail came not from the motion but from the slight tilt of the deck
compared to the horizon. We were on the Coonagoola, a ketch built in
Brisbane in 1949. Only the jib and one mainsail were rigged, no doubt
out of deference to the mature age of the passengers on the tour of
Lelepa and Moso islands off Vanuatu - formerly a part of the New
Hebrides in the South Pacific.
The islands lie on the southern edge of the
Melanesian archipelago and were formed millions of years ago by volcanic action
under the sea, which pushed up immense plates of rock. Estimates of
anthropologists suggest that the ancestry of the people can be traced back some
3000 years to Indonesia and South East Asia. Their navigational skills together
with the constant westerly winds enabled them to explore over thousands of miles
of the Pacific Ocean. Today the majority of inhabitants are the 140,000
Melanesians known as ni-Vanatu. There has, however, been a strong Anglo-French
influence and English and French are widely spoken. The national language is a
form of pidgin English called Bislama. Earlier in the morning our cruise
ship, the Marco Polo, had docked at Port Vila in Vanuatu. We awoke to find
ourselves in a lagoon fringed with palm trees and were enticed onto a day tour
with stories of tropical beaches and a visit to a coral reef in a glass bottomed
boat. In fact the glass in the bottom of the boat had been damaged so that it
was not available. We later heard of our friends on another tour whose glass
bottomed boat had floated so close over the reef they were afraid it would
touch. The tropical fish had peered inquisitively at the occupants, as though
they were the novelty.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
We were not to be denied the sight of brightly
coloured fish however. Mask and flippers were provided and we motored out in the
bay on a flat-bottomed tender. It resembled a landing craft and was ideal for
disembarking from the ketch to the sandy beach. There were steps at the stern,
which made it possible to climb back on board in spite of the flippers. In those
waters it was difficult not to find your fish. There were Gold fish with large
blue eyes, Angelfish and those curious rectangular shaped fish, yellow,
frightened and darting to and fro amongst the coral.
Back on the beach a barbecue was well underway.
Slices of melon, pineapple, mango, tomatoes made a colourful sight. The steak
and sausages were sizzling. In spite of the remote setting, away from any
civilisation, we were served with a full set of cutlery wrapped in a napkin as
though we were still aboard our cruise ship. Our only need was a shady tree by
the water and we found one. Some of our group were eating their lunch while
sitting in the water. It was cooling and they raised their plates as the surf
Armed with the remains of our bread rolls we checked
on the claim that the fish would feed out of our hand. A few crumbs on the
surface of the water attracted them and helped overcome their timidity. Some
fish about six inches long appeared and snapped at the crumbs. We had some
reservations about our fingertips in the light of their enthusiasm for the food.
As a precaution I cut off a large section of bread roll so that my fingers were
well back from the point of action. Having sampled our wares, their desire for
more was strong. In a few moments there was a gentle tugging at the slice of
bread roll, which I was holding just below the surface. Soon there was a swish
of water as another swam past and bit off some more. In fact our fingers were
not considered edible for they extracted the bread delicately from between them.
Nevertheless the remains of the barbecued steak in one of the sandwiches was
considered a tasty morsel, perhaps they preferred cooked meat.
The scene of peace and tranquility was not always
like that. On the way there we anchored off Lelepa island for a walk up
to a cave. A chieftan had once lived there with a harem of a
hundred wives and children. The custom at the time had been for wives
to join their husband in his tomb. Legend has it that an extra strong
brew of the traditional Kava drink was served to them before they were
buried alive in the cave. Now the only sign of the former habitation was the
carved drawings on the walls. The only life, apart from our tourist
feet, was a slim, striped lizard scurrying over the rocks and a tiny hermit
crab walking across our path.
Other topics in this article.
Melanasian people; history; BBQ food; Snorkelling; fish; environment.
The Coonagoola ketch at anchor;
Feeding the fish;
Barbecued food with native chef;
Lunch in the water.