Saturday, July 12, 2014

Efate, Lelepa and Tongoa

Pacific Anenome fish
Flowers at Port Vila market

Water lilies

Tube worms

Warty star fish

Mystery coral?

Soft coral

Anenome fish

Lion fish

Fan corals

Coral hiding place

Dragon Margin Glossodoris

Aeolid nudibranch

Anenome fish

Banana Dorid nudibranchs

Colorful giant clam
We arrived in Efate Island’s Port Vila at dawn after a fairly uncomfortable overnight sail from the island of Tanna.  Confused seas caused lots of rolling and left me on the verge of being seasick with Mark up most of the night minding the store.  As we entered the channel leading into the inner harbor, we had to adjust our course and speed to give way to an outbound, 500 foot-long, Chinese freighter.  After dropping the sails, we motored into the mooring area and we were pleased to find a number of vacant moorings making it easy to tie up “Blue Rodeo” near the Yachting World Marina.  As the sun rose in the sky and we scurried about the boat tidying up after the passage, we noticed the lack of breeze in the harbor and found the tropical heat and humidity a bit stifling.  Even though it was Sunday, and we knew that many businesses would be closed, we headed ashore for a walkabout to see what had changed since last year and to see if we could add data to our computer modem in order to have internet access onboard.  Our other goal was to seek out a doctor who could look at a wound on Mark’s leg that was showing signs of infection. A week earlier, while hiking through the bush on the island of Anatom, Mark had gotten either a small puncture or an insect bite on his calf.  Despite application of antibiotic cream, consulting with nurse friend Heather on “Evergreen” and the beginning a course of oral antibiotics, the wound seemed to be getting worse.  Since we’ve heard too many horror stories about the serious consequences of these things in the tropical islands, Mark was unwilling to take any chances and thought he’d better see a doctor.  Amazingly, we managed to find the clinic I had remembered seeing last year and, despite it being a weekend, actually found the doctor there.  He was waiting for an emergency patient to show up and kindly offered to look at Mark’s leg in the meantime.  He prescribed more powerful antibiotics and ointment and sent us to a pharmacy.  Unfortunately for Mark, he had to stay out of the water until the wound healed but, by the end of the 6 days we spent in Port Vila, he was good to go.

While in Port Vila, we accomplished our necessary re-provisioning.  This required numerous trips on foot to the huge, open-air vegetable market and several more conventional grocery stores not far from the marina.  As is typical in the islands, one can never find everything needed at one place and requires numerous reconnaissance runs and shopping trips to various venues.  Mark spent half a day making trips by dinghy with our four, five-gallon jerry cans and lugging diesel fuel back to “Blue Rodeo” in order to fill our tanks.  I also took advantage of the laundry service offered by the marina.  I took several huge bags ashore and heaved a sigh of relief knowing that I wouldn’t have to do bucket laundry for a few days. 

While in town, we also indulged ourselves with a couple of Thai meals out with the “Evergreen” and “Gypsy Heart” crews at a cute little restaurant perched on top of a hill with a dining area overlooking the bay.  It was so nice to have a break from cooking!  We also squeezed in an outdoor movie at the Nambawan (Number One) bar on the waterfront.  The movie was so so but the real excitement for the evening came when friend Sandy and I went to the restroom and surprised a large rat lurking in the dark.  Sandy screamed and we both started cracking up.  On our last evening before moving on, we took a taxi to a beachside resort outside of town for dinner and to view their weekly fire dancing show.  It was nicely choreographed, quite the athletic spectacle and, best of all...FREE.

Leaving Port Vila in the company of “Evergreen” and “Gypsea Heart”, we set a course for one of our favorite dive spots from last season located on the west side of Efate.  Paul’s Rock is a pinnacle about a quarter of a mile offshore and rises from the sea floor to just a few meters below the surface.  The tour companies that frequent this site feed the fish there so they are rather friendly and used to sharing their habitat with us land dwellers.  There is one grouper in particular who likes to swim with you and mugs for the camera.  The area has interesting topography, lots of beautiful soft corals and sea fans as well as an abundance of fish life.  We enjoyed it so much that we dived it again the next morning before leaving for Lelepa Island.

A two-hour sail took us to a point outside the reef on Lelepa Island, another spot we thoroughly enjoyed last year.  The entrance to the area inside the reef can be quite challenging and it is imperative that you have good light to see the navigational hazards (coral heads).  We anchored in almost the same spot as last season.  As soon as the anchor splashed down, we were off snorkeling and swimming.  I could have spent a week there, tucked in behind the reefs with beautiful views in every direction.  White sand beaches and the amazing aquamarine color of the water make this island anchorage a paradise in settled weather. The next morning, we dived another favorite spot from last year.  Not far away is a splendid, undersea chasm in the rock that has large soft corals, sea fans, beautiful fish and small creatures.  We reconnected with Chief Rubin and his wife Nary, whom we met last year, later that day on the beach before taking a walk to the other side of the island and then to a huge cave.  Unfortunately, we had to leave the next day due to a forecast of unfavorable winds for that location.  We were really bummed.  Chief Rubin and Nary paddled out to say their goodbyes dropping off bags of pamplemouse and oranges at each of the boats.

While cruising, we are always at the mercy of the weather so we had to hustle on to the island of Tongoa in hopes of doing a quick dive at the island’s north reef before moving to an island further north offering better protection from the forecast winds. This dive site was our absolute favorite of last season and one not to be missed.  We alway try to be respectful of local customs and follow the standard protocol of seeking-out the island or village chief or land owner (including the offshore reefs) and asking permission before swimming, snorkeling or scuba diving.   Locating the owner, or person responsible, is often a problem.  At Tongoa, this problem is complicated by the fact that the village closest to the reef is quite a ways away from the anchorage.  In a effort to do the right thing, we picked up Jon and Heather, who had anchored nearby, and headed for shore only to be thwarted by breaking waves on the steep, rocky beach.  Jon volunteered to swim in to find the chief and, after a first trip ashore, was told by the folks that greeted him that we needed to go to another spot up the coast.  There, he swam ashore once again and disappeared into the bush returning almost an hour later with the news that, after walking a mile or more, he found only the chief’s son who said he would send a text message to his father.  After getting no response, he gave our group the go-ahead to dive on the reef.  We all returned to our boats and readied our gear but were interrupted by a sharp, insistent whistling from someone on shore.  A man on the beach was definitely trying to get our attention.  It turns out that it was the chief.  Jon took his dinghy toward the beach but, as he approached the surf line, the man swam out to the dinghy and climbed aboard.  The chief asked that we each pay the equivalent of $25 USD to dive on HIS reef which started a negotiation resulting in a fair and reasonable $5 USD per person charge.  This whole process took several hours but, in the end, turned out to be worth the effort.  The wall dive on Tongoa’s North Reef is truly spectacular featuring incredible sea life clinging to it as well as an occasional pelagic fish cruising by.  As we hovered and drifted along the wall at depths of 60 to 90 feet, we were treated to amazing sights of cowries and nudibranchs including several bright yellow and black Banana Dorids.  The dive was as wonderful as we remembered and we were so thrilled to have been able to do it, if only once before having to move on.

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