keywriter.


Of eight weeks in Vanuatu, I spent six in the northernmost province: Torba. "Torba" stands for "TORres and BAnks islands," and is without question the most remote and rarely-visited province in the nation, which is itself rather remote and rarely-visited. See the map to the right, and look all the way at the top for the Banks and Torres.

So of course I was drawn to it.

On Gaua I watched schoolchildren sing the Vanuatu national anthem as the national flag was raised, but it didn't stop there... because next, the provincial flag was raised, and the kids sang the provincial anthem, listing all the virtues of individual islands of the Banks and Torres. After a few weeks in the province, I knew well what they were singing about. In fact, there is still a song I sometimes sing in my head: on Vanua Lava a string played a song all about their love for Torba province, and the chorus just lists the names of the islands. It stays with me.

Here I will share photos and a few comments for each of the eleven Torba islands I did visit, in the order I visited them.

Gaua, Banks Islands
Vanua Lava, Banks Islands
Mota, Banks Islands
Mota Lava, Banks Islands
Ra, Banks Islands
Ureparapara, Banks Islands
Loh, Torres Islands
Tegua, Torres Islands
Hiu, Torres Islands
Toga, Torres Islands
Linua, Torres Islands
The only islands of Torba that I did not get to visit were Mere Lava, Merig (a small island off Mere Lava), and Metoma (a small island off Tegua).

Gaua starts the list, but I blogged quite a bit about that particular island whilst in Vanuatu, so I'll just share this photo:

Vanua Lava, Banks Islands

I thought I'd spend much more time on Vanua Lava than I did. I have friends who lived in Sola, the town in southeast Vanua Lava that functions as provincial capital for Torba. That means there are actually a couple of (sometimes) working phones, and the only bank and only post office in the province.

My plan for Vanua Lava was to trek to Waterfall Bay, where a pair of gorgeous hanging waterfalls drops straight into the sea. And maybe I'd take an outboard-motor boat around to the silver river, which comes through a seaside cave full of sulphur from one of Vanua Lava's three semi-active volcanos. I'm sure these sights would have been fascinating, but some other irresistable opportunities presented themselves instead.

This photo of Vanua Lava was taken from nearby Mota Lava. Note the columns of smoke rising from the fumaroles along the crest of the volcano; those aren't clouds. Apparently the vents of Vanua Lava were more active than usual while I was there, so I got to see plenty of these fingers of smoke scratching the sky.



I took this next photo just off the northeast coast of Vanua Lava, from the deck of one of the little catamarans on the PYM medical mission that I joined as a hitchsailor.



Mota, Banks Islands

My journey to Mota from Vanua Lava was on a little 10-foot outboard-motor boat, over choppy seas, which soaked me entirely. I only had a few hours on Mota. From the sea it looks like a hat, with low-lying coral reef around the edges and a rugged mountain in the center. The photo below shows our little yellow boat's moorings.



Debarking from it was a bit of a challenge while carrying heavy boxes of medical supplies, but somehow we managed to get it all to safer ground without losing it into the drink. Here is the path we had to tread after we debarked:



And yes, the water is very clear.




Mota Lava, Banks Islands

Legend has it that Mota Lava was a snake curled up in the sea, that was turned to stone. Its body now makes up the mountainous spine of the island.

I saw my first flying fish -- several of them actually -- on the motorboat trip from Mota to Mota Lava. I always thought flying fish were just very good jumpers, but they really do fly! They go incredibly fast and can fly 50 feet or more, a few inches above the waves, until they disappear into the crest of a wave. Then they either dive down and disappear from view, or re-emerge flying in an entirely new direction.

Shortly after seeing this, I made the following decision. If ever I:

1. forget that God loves me
2. feel unreasonably afraid of a challenge
3. complain of some minor discomfort
4. fail to be in awe of God and worship Him

... then may I be reminded of Vanuatu.

Mota Lava itself was incredible, rugged mountains as in all the Banks Islands, but with perfect low-lying white sand beaches for much of the shoreline. I regretted only having one night to spend there. If you're in the market for a honeymoon location, I could suggest the "sunset bungalows" on the west coast of Mota Lava, very clean, very isolated, very paradisical, and very good food. This is a shot of my bed, which is pretty typical of a guest bungalow in Torba, only perhaps a little on the clean side:



An early morning low-tide walk out into the sea revealed all sorts of starfish, sea cucumbers, and tiny shellfish. I wished I knew more about marine life. I did know a sea snake when I spotted it: black and white stripes, gliding slowly through the water. I'm glad I didn't step on it, as sea snakes are extremely poisonous, apparently with one of the fastest-acting poisons among venomous snakes. tTey are not aggressive, but as soon as I snapped this shot I made my way out of that area quick-time.




Ra, Banks Islands

Ra is a tiny island just to the south of Mota Lava. At low tide you can actually walk across the reef from one island to the other, which is what I did. Here is Elizabeth, standing on the reef between the islands. She guided me along the higher parts of the reef so that the water wouldn't get too far above my knees.



It took me about an hour to walk around Ra's perimeter, with low sandy beaches on the west side and steep, sharp coral formations on the east like the one below.



By the time I was done my little circumnavigation, the tide was coming in, and so I got a ride in an outrigger canoe back to Mota Lava. These canoes are low enough to the water that sitting on them feels like you are sitting right on the water itself. And it's hard to believe that the smaller canoes, whose main body is not even as wide as your butt, won't tip you over into the water. Over and over again I was impressed by the skill with which men, and often even little boys, maneuvered their little canoes.




Ureparapara, Banks Islands

Ureparapara is a big PacMan-shaped island, consisting of one huge volcano. It used to be a round one, most likely with a crater lake at the center much like Gaua. And then it blew. Estimates put the blowout only a few hundred years ago, but I'm sure the place warrants further study. The forces involved to blow the whole side out of a 2500-foot tall volcano must have been awesome indeed.

The inside of PacMan's mouth is referred to as Divers' Bay. We ran a clinic at Leserepla village there and then sailed around the corner to the top of PacMan's head, to a village called Lehali, where the school had an amusing set of rules:



Lehali is built right into the incline of the volcano, with houses and buildings upon successively rising irregular terraces that have been cut out of the side of the mountain. In the photo below the bare patches on the side of the mountain (yacht Another Angel sails beneath them) are gardens. These require a steep walk from the village through the bush, and are just cleared from the thickly rainforested slopes, so that working on them means that the ground is always rising at a sharp angle below your feet.



This makes Lehali bear a striking resemblance to the village I've written about in my novel, so much that I felt like I was visiting a place I already knew well. The kids were great and made the feeling of happy familiarity all the stronger.




Loh, Torres Islands

We held a clinic in Lunghariki village, on the north side of Loh, which was a lovely village surrounded by the whitest and softest sand you could imagine, almost like powder. It was also quite hot; we were truly in the tropics now. I got to hold a little yellow snake that someone had caught:



The villages in the Torres Islands are quite close to sea level and have to deal with erosion, rising sea levels, and violent cyclones. The islanders showed us the cave where they go to wait out the cyclones. We also saw where coconut palms had had their heads lopped off by a violent cyclone a few years back. And just outside of the clinic at Loh I got my favorite portrait shot of the entire trip:



Tegua, Torres Islands

The Torres Islands are a bit lower than the Banks, not rising quite so suddenly and steeply out of the water. From a distance they look a bit like layers of rock, over which the insistent tropical green bush has grown. The only bare patches are sheer rock-face cliffs where even the tenacious rainforest can't take hold.


Tegua was where I had my first real snorkel. I was in a wonderland of gorgeous coral and the most brightly-colored fish I've ever seen. My favorites were the little bright purple ones, just a hand's breadth long. Later we find out that there are known to be large-ish sharks around the tiny island just off Tegua... very close to where we had anchored and where I had had my snorkel. I did see a few tiny sharks. But when I saw one that must have been three feet long, probably a gray reef shark, waiting unmovingly at the bottom for someone to come to him... I went the other direction. Soon I saw a stingray swimming peacefully below me.


Hiu, Torres Islands

Hiu is the end of Vanuatu, the northernmost island in the northernmost chain. It is surely one of the most remote spots on earth and it was a beautiful privilege to be able to go there. Not least because the people were surely the nicest people I have ever met. The women of the village did an impromptu dance when our boat sailed into a bay. Before we even introduced ourselves we were given coconut crab, a delicacy that is either impossible to find or very expensive outside of the Torres. The coconut crabs can grow to be the size of a person's head... and that's not including the claws.

I tended to keep kosher in Vanuatu, except for when I didn't have a choice, which was often the case in a country where people live on seafood. On Hiu, to embrace the fact that the people were embracing me so wholly, I did taste my little bit of coconut crab with a yam that had been roasted over a wood fire. The yam tasted oddly like fresh bread from a wood oven. During the night I sat on the deck of the boat and watched firey torches casting their glow against the palms along the shoreline. Shine a light on a coconut crab at night, and no matter how big he is he will freeze and you can just pick him up and lash his claws together with vines. Breakfast.

Our work was at the village of Yogovegemene. Say that three times fast. Traditional ways are strong here; one old woman came for medical treatment but let her son-in-law do all the talking for her. When I asked him her name, he smiled and looked down. It is tabu (forbidden) for a man to say his mother-in-law's name there. And she wouldn't speak in his presence. So another young man had to come up and tell me the woman's name so that I could call her when the nurses and doctor were ready for her.

I managed to make a phone call to the USA from Hiu, from the ends of the earth, via the Torres Islands' only working phone. And by "working" I mean "Functioning intermittently during a two- to three-hour window in the early morning."



On Hiu the villagers did our laundry for us in the stream, showed us around, gave us a luscious feast of coconut crab (of course), kumala (sweet potato), laplap (vanuatu's very fatty national dish), plantains, cucumbers, island cabbage... the list goes on. And of course coconuts upon coconuts upon coconuts. There had been no foreigners on Hiu since a yachting couple from New Zealand came in 2003. Here is Willie, who showed us around, with his handmake ukelele.



Because cargo ships come to Torres once or maybe twice a year, and Hiu is the most remote of the Torres group, people there have to be resourceful and self-sufficient. As on many of the islands in Torba, houses are usually built with local wood and bamboo, their roofs of palm leaves tightly and skilfully woven, all lashed together with vines. Drinking water in Yogovegemene comes from a spring that is only accessible at low tide. They collect glass bottles that wash up onto their shores and keep their liquids in them; I even saw one small coke bottle that he been repurposed as a fishing reel. They cut round bouys, retrieved from the sea, in half, and use them as bowls.



When we left Hiu, the whole village of Yogovegemene came to the shore to say goodbye.


Toga, Torres Islands

Toga was a bit of a contrast to Hiu. Perhaps it was because I was a bit under the weather, but where Hiu had been welcoming and welllooked after, Toga seemed run-down and dirty. One man said that almost all the people on Toga had never left their island, even with Loh and its airport just a couple of miles across the water. These people have never seen a road. Toga has no really safe anchorage, which makes it all the more difficult for the island to have converse with the outside world. Most difficult for me, weak as I was feeling at that particular time, was that the place had no benches or chairs. There was nowhere to sit but the ground.

Sadly, Toga seems to be cursed with an overabundance of mosquitos and flies. We saw many, many little children who had small puncture wounds from coral, or bites from mosquitos, that had been badly infected and were swarmed with horrid flies. The medical team applied antibiotic ointment, passed out pills, dressed the many wounds as best they could.

Toga presented me with one of the most memorable adventures of my time in Vanuatu as well. As I said, Toga does not have a good anchorage. Our best bet was to anchor off the northern shore, since the winds were coming primarily from the south. Which is a great plan until the winds change. The night we spent there was one of very little sleep, and of course anything that wasn't strongly lashed down flew across our little boat's cabin. Including us. We slept -- or, well, didn't sleep -- with our arms and legs braced against parts of the cabin.

This beautiful passage punctured one of the team's inflatable dinghies (it was soon remedied), but I thought it was one of the most lovely spots:




Linua, Torres Islands

At the very end of our little tour of the Torres we had an unexpected sojourn ont he island of Linua, just off of Loh. Linua is where the Torres' only airstrip is, and the plan was to take the once-weekly flight back to Port Vila and civilization on a Friday. When we arrived at the airport we were told that there were some problems with the plane. Brian, the lone airport agent showed great tenacity as he called the Bauerfield International Airport in Port Vila over and over again on the radio; I can still hear his voice saying "Bauerfield Bauerfield Bauerfield Bauerfield Linua" over and over again into his mic. After several hours of waiting we were told that there would be no plane on Friday, but they would send one the next morning, and that Air Vanuatu would put us up at the local guest bungalows for the night.

So, we had an all-expenses-paid extra night in paradise, and it was lovely to sleep in a bed on solid ground again. The next morning we took the 15-minute walk over to the airport again and waited for a few more hours, only to be told that the backup plane had also broken down and there probably wouldn't be a plane until Monday. So we all trudged back to the bungalows, where we spent another day and night. Paradise was getting a little boring and I wanted out of there. On Sunday we had no hope of a plane... until we heard one overhead. With joy indescribable we all packed up our things as quickly as we could and bounded back to the airport. Before I knew Brian (below) trundled me on to an 8-seater Islander plane and I said goodbye to the Torres.



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