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Ambrym Island

Written by Cathy Siegismund
September 2003

On September 17, we left Epi Island for Ambrym Island. We decided to head for Ranon Bay on the northwest end of the island, a 40-mile trip. We had nice fast sail to the western point of Ambrym, from there to Ranon we motorsailed in light winds with sunny skies.

Route from Lamen Bay, Epi Island to Ranon Bay, Ambrym Island

Ambrym has about 8000 people living there, mostly in small villages. It is best known for its two active volcanoes, which erupted 7 times in the 20th century, and for having the best carvers of tamtams and tree ferns. Ambrym is also considered a dark island, not only because of the black volcanic beaches and frequent ash clouds, but because it is full of magic and is often referred to as the center of sorcery. We learned from a Peace Corps secondary school teacher in Ranon that although they have a few students from other islands attending, most parents don't want to send there children to Ambrym because of its mysterious magic.

We knew arriving in September that the hike to the volcanoes (four hours each way) was closed. This is because during the yam season, visitors through the mountains would disrupt the spirits and harm the very important yam crop. We were however, very interested in buying some carvings and seeing the Rom dance, which is only performed on Ambrym Island.

There were only two other boats in the anchorage when we arrived. One left the following day and the other a couple of days later. As it had been a rather long day, we again waited until the following morning to inflate the dink and go ashore.

Felicity anchored in Ranon Bay, Ambrym

The next day, we went ashore to introduce ourselves to the chief, explore the village, and to give supplies to the medical clinic and school. As Vanuatu is quite poor compared to Fiji, we decided to save most of our giveaway and trading items for Vanuatu. We had a bag of soon to expire or recently expired medications from our medical kit we wanted to give to the clinic and school supplies for the secondary school.

We first met a group of men sitting in the shade talking and carving. We introduced ourselves to Joseph, a chief from the neighboring village of Ranvetlam. We also met two other men, Freddie and Samuel. Everyone was very friendly and told us to go anywhere we liked in the village. They all asked if we were interested in some carvings and showed us a room full of carvings from different artists. Since the copra industry is waning, as it cannot be sold for more than it costs to produce, the sale of carvings is one of the only ways for the Ni-Vanuatu on Ambrym to make money. We said we were interested in buying some carvings, but we first wanted to make our deliveries to the clinic and the school. Freddie led us down a road past the village where we saw many tree fern carvings and some huge tamtams that northern Ambrym is famous for producing. The tree fern carvings are stylized male and female figures made from the lower half of a large tree fern. The tamtams are large slit gongs or drums, which are carved with heads at the top. Some of these are carved from very large trees and are over 20 feet tall. Both tree fern figures and tamtams are exported to Port Vila and New Caledonia and where you can see them displayed outside stores, restaurants, private homes, and in parks.

Freddie with a group of tree fern figures

Local man carving a tree fern

At one end of the village, Freddie showed us where the old guest house had been, but it had been mostly destroyed in a cyclone in 2000. It seemed between the cyclones, volcanic eruptions, roaming ash clouds, and of course the powerful magic, Ambrym could be a dangerous place to live. We soon turned up a steep side trail and climbed in the hot sun to the site of the rebuilt guesthouse and the clinic. There we met two visiting English medical students, Guy and Francis, who were working for an aid organization as part of their medical school training. They were in Vanuatu for about a month. The organization is Hope Alliance, a non-denominational aid organization based in Salt Lake City. They supply doctors, medical students and other volunteers during the dry season, and use three chartered and private yachts to transport the doctors and patients around Vanuatu.

We gave Guy and Francis our medical supplies that we didn't need as we soon would be in Australia. They said they were needed and appreciated the donation. The guest house is run by Douglas and his wife Linda. We met Linda, who gave us some juice to drink and got chairs for us to sit in the shade and rest on the hot day before we walked back to the village. Douglas, as mentioned in a number of guide books, is the go-to-guy to see about woodcarvings or attending a Rom dance. Douglas was away in Port Vila for another day or two, but Freddie told us he could arrange a Rom dance at the nearby village of Vanla the following afternoon. We returned to the main part of the village to visit the school. On the way, we passed a large group of women doing laundry in a spring near the high water mark. It has been a very dry year in Vanuatu and many of the streams are dry. Women from Ranon and neighboring villages were carrying their laundry to the spring and drying it on the black sand beach before carrying it, often quite far - up hill - to their homes.

Laundry drying on the beach at Ranon Bay

We next visited the secondary school, where we asked the kids for a teacher so we could donate our school supplies. The first teacher they found was Allison, a recent college graduate from Chicago who had joined the Peace Corps and was doing her two year stint in Ranon Bay teaching math and science. We chatted and told her we would like to get together with her before we left Ranon. We gave her the school supplies and a few magazines, including some soccer magazines that she said would be a huge hit with her students and that she would use them as rewards for high grades. After our visit with Allison, we returned to the carvers and bought and traded for some carvings. We ended up purchasing most of our carvings, though several of the carvers wanted to trade. Among the things they wanted were 6-volt batteries for their large flashlights, sandpaper, thick rope to tie up their cows, as the drought was causing cows to wander into their gardens, and for the first time since French Polynesia we were asked for liquor in hushed tones. Our policy, per many of the guide books, is not to trade or sell liquor to the locals. We simply, though not exactly truthfully, said we did not drink and had no liquor. This was a readily accepted answer and we were never asked more than once.

We bought several woodcarvings from Sake, who is an older gentleman who keeps a locked room with carvings from various artists.

Sake showing us a flute, Rom mask and several wood carvings

Joseph seemed to specialize in stone carvings, and we bought a small carved stone figure from him, and also gave him some sandpaper.

Joseph displaying the stone carving we purchased

Freddie had a nice mask we were interested in and wanted to trade for it. He wanted a walkman, and we had a spare cassette walkman that we were willing to trade.

Freddie happy with his walkman-for-mask trade

After returning all of our carvings to the boat, we went for a walk to the neighboring village of Ranvetlam. A grass and dirt road led past the school and the outskirts of the 200-person village of Ranon. We passed a number of people walking along the beach and always got a hello and wave from everyone passed. We also were often greeted with smiles and outstretched hands followed by introductions and questions about where we were from.

Children from Ranon Village


Tree fern carvings seen everywhere along the path between Ranon and Ranvetlam

We finally reached the smaller village of Ranvetlam, which has a population of about 80, where we also asked to see carvings. We were shown around the village and bought two small carvings and a couple of warm cokes from a small store. We met a man named Barry, who spoke excellent English, and said he had some carvings he would like to show us. He however, was from Ranon and was only visiting Ranvetlam. We agreed to meet him ashore later that afternoon back at Ranon. We did this and ended up purchasing a small tamtam replica from him. The small tamtam replicas are only models of the actual large drums that are played during ceremonies.

Barry and his tamtam

During our walk through the village, we also met Tony a man that baked bread each night for the school and also sold eggs and other vegetables. We placed a bread order and agreed to pick it up the following morning. After all of our walking in the heat, we were quite tired and had a quiet night on the boat.

The following day, we picked up our bread from Tony and walked around the village a bit more. We were stopped by a boy of about 14, James, who asked us where we were headed next. We told him Banam Bay on Malakula. James asked if we would take a letter and a bag of some clothes to his mother. We agreed and told him we would find him in the next day or so to pick up his things for delivery.

James on the right with his parcel for us to take to Malakula

Coincidentally, the day before we left Ranon an Aussie boat arrived from Banam Bay with some fresh laplap (a local dish made with cassava) for James from his mother. It was rather like cruiser FedEx.

We next went to find Samuel. He had been having some problems with his outboard motor, and Ken agreed to take a look at it. In the islands, outboards are worth their weight in gold, but the problem for the locals is they rarely know how to fix them if they break, and even if they have the knowledge, they don't have the spare parts.

Ken, Barry & Samuel working on Samuel's outboard motor

Ken ended up giving Samuel a spare set of spark plugs, but he thought the problem was probably the impeller. We may look for some spare parts for Samuel on Santo or in Australia to send to him.

We returned to the boat for lunch and got ready for our afternoon visit to Vanla and the Rom dance. We met Freddie on the beach at 14:30 for the walk to up into the hills to Vanla. It was a steep and hot walk along a narrow dirt path. We saw lots of Ni-Vanuatu walking to and from their villages and gardens on the way. We saw many men and particularly women carrying very heavy loads of water and vegetables. We learned from the medical students that the patients' most common problems were joint aches from all the walking up and down steep hills carrying heavy loads. Almost everywhere we've been in Vanuatu the people often live by the sea and then walk everyday way up into the mountains to work their gardens, where they grow Chinese cabbage, kumara, taro, yams, green onions, tomatoes, etc.

After a hot 45-minute walk, we arrived in the village of Vanla. Vanla's chief is reputed to be a powerful sorcerer, and the village has retained many of its traditional customs. In Bislama, the word kastom refers to something which is related to the Ni-Vanuatu traditional ways, prior to the arrival of European or Christian influence. Therefore you will find kastom villages, which are rediscovering their trational dances, languages, and way of life. You also are likely to meet both village chiefs and kastom chiefs, though we never fully understood the difference.

In Vanla, we were met by the chief's son another Freddie. We were greeted by smiles and introductions and were given small pieces of logs to sit on while the Rom dancers finished getting ready for the dance. We talked to several of the men in the village and watched them carve. We also bought another carving from Vanla Freddie. We were the only tourists visiting Vanla and attending the dance that day. As the dance was rather expensive and a hot steep walk from the anchorage, it doesn't seem like Vanla is overwhelmed with tourists. We seemed to be quite a novelty as the women and kids gathered around us.

Freddie's niece, Jessica was fascinated by the pictures and video we had taken of her

After a short wait, we were told the dancers were ready and we were led to the nasara, the kastom dancing ground.

Nasara at Vanla

The open area had been cleared and was surrounded by native bush, tamtams and stone sculptures. Depending on the village, there are different rules with regards to the nasara. Some are forbidden to be seen by any women or children, others are more open. At Vanla, women and children can watch from  outside the nasara, but cannot enter the dancing ground. Many of the rules for Ni-Vanuatu are overlooked for tourists. Though many of the people form Vanla had turned out to watch the Rom dance, Ken and I were the only tourists.

Two of the chiefs who were in the Rom dance

Rom dance in Vanla village, Ambrym

Visit the Rom dance photo gallery

Though the Rom dance was short and quite a walk from the bay, it was very impressive. The costumes were great and we enjoyed meeting so many people at Vanla. We again, were very impressed with the carvings and ended up buying more of them. Fortunately, Freddie was a very good sport and helped us carry them back down to Ranon.


Two of the carvings we purchased with the carvers

As it was late afternoon as we walked back down from the hills toward Ranon bay, we stopped to rest a few times and were treated to some beautiful views of the bay.

View of Ranon Bay

Cath stopping for a rest and some water on the walk back from the Rom dance

We were very hot and tired after we returned to the boat and again spent a quiet night aboard. The only other boat in the anchorage, was a Dutch boat called Delight. We had been checking in with them every day or so, they were in a bit of a bind with an engine problem they couldn't solve. They couldn't run their engine and were waiting for friends to arrive in another boat to try and help them trouble shoot. For several days, we and Delight had the anchorage all to ourselves. After several busy days, Sunday we stayed on the boat. It was hot and sunny and we mostly just read and did a few small boat projects. We  had considered leaving, but were really enjoying the village and had been invited the following night to a party being held at the guest house.

Felicity in quiet Ranon Bay at sunset

Man fishing from his outrigger in the early evening

Our time on the boat was pleasantly quiet. We learned that the village counsels of Ranon and Ranvetlam had passed a ruling that outriggers were forbidden to to out to the cruisers' boats anchored in the bay. They felt this was an intrusion on our privacy. We were flattered by their concern, and found it interesting, as they always welcomed us to walk anywhere we wanted throughout their village.

On a Saturday morning, we were awakened at about 0700 to what sounded like quite close Ukulele playing and some rather pleasant singing. As we were anchored a fair distance from shore, we were rather baffled by this. Before we could get up an investigate, we heard the roar of an outboard, followed by the universally recognizable sounds of children being scolded - even though we couldn't understand the words. We later learned that Samuel had seen the kids approaching our boat and had jumped in his boat to shoo them away so we would not be disturbed.

Monday morning, we went in for a final walk around the village. We had been asked to take photos of the bungalows by a cruiser who was helping to collect photos of all of the guest houses in Vanuatu. These photos will be combined in a CD and given to travel agents in Australia to try and increase bookings and promote tourism in Vanuatu. With this task to do, we went ashore, where we finally met Douglas and told him about the photos. He told us we were welcome to do this and we were taken up to the bungalows by Barry. Linda cleaned up one of the bungalows and and we photographed the guest house inside and out.



Photos of Solomon Douglas Guesthouse exterior, dining room, bedroom and our guide Barry relaxing

We also had asked Douglas to see his woodcarvings. He apologized that all he had were very large tamtams, as he had recently shipped most of his carvings to Port Vila.

Stone Carvings

Large tamtams

We were very impressed by the huge tamtams and stone carvings, but they were way to big to be carried aboard Felicity.

Barry then asked if we wanted to go for a tour of the village. He said there were a few other carvers we might want to visit and really just seemed to want to take us for a walk around Ranon. We spent a pleasant hour being shown around the village,  which included seeing the largest tamtam in Ranon decorated with five heads.

Ken next to a 20'+ tamtam

The carvers must apprentice and kill pigs to be able to carve the tamtams. The more heads you are allowed to carve on the tamtams, the more prestigious a carver you are. We visited the only man in Ranon who could carve three-headed tamtams. We were very taken with his carvings, but as the boat already was looking like a woodcarvings store (not for the first time this year) we had to decline buying any from him. We were met by a man named Edward, who was the only man in the village who carved pigs. Pigs are really the currency for the Ni-Vanuatu. Pigs are killed at all important ceremonies such as weddings and boys' circumcision. They are also killed as part of the grade-taking, which is how men move up the social status ladder in the village. They are also used by a man to pay for his bride. We were amused to read that the Vanuatu bride price had really began to get inflated so the government had tried to standardize it. The most prized item in the village, and one worn by chiefs is the curved boar tusk. They take great care to have their boars grow long tusks, and the more circles they form the more valuable the tusk. These long spiral tusks can take over 15 years for a boar to grow, and as they get longer, the boar is often fed by hand so he will not damage the  valuable tusk. Since pigs are so important in Ni-Vanuatu life, it is not surprising that you see so many represented in art and carvings.

Edward and one of his pig carvings

We had decided to leave Ranon on Tuesday morning, and we would celebrate our last night in the village by attending the party at the Guesthouse. We later learned that the celebration was a going away party for Francis, one of the English medical students who had been working in the clinic. I baked a cake to bring, and we headed ashore just after dark to walk up to the guest house. We were starting to feel like part of the village. Most people we saw knew us and more importantly we were starting to know them. We walked up to the bungalows where we were welcomed by Freddie and Douglas. Guy, Francis, and Allison where all in attendance as well.

Allison, Guy, and Francis

Douglas gave a  speech thanking Francis for his time at the clinic, he and guy were given small carved tamtams as parting gifts and we were then treated to probably the best local meal we've had in the South Pacific. This was followed by the Ranon village string band, who were excellent. We saw our friend Barry was in the band playing the PVC pipe with a flip flop. Our two favorite songs were "Long God Yumi Standup" and "I'm the Only Man on the Island". We ending up having a great time, with the music and dancing going until after 2300. We then hung out with Allison, Guy, and Francis sharing stories around a kerosene lantern until the wee hours in the morning.

Ranon Village String Band


Dancing to the Ranon String Band

The next day, we left for Banam Bay on Malekula, a large island to the west of Ambrym. We were pretty tired from the party the night before, but wanted to make to Banam Bay, which had received rave reviews from other cruisers.

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