The locals sharing with me a delicious nalot in Tolomako, Big Bay, north of Espiritu Santo
The locals sharing with me a delicious nalot in Tolomako, Big Bay, north of Espiritu Santo

Sometimes we have great plans and … out of the blue … nothing is left of them. And instead something unplanned happens, and maybe even more interesting. I traveled from Ambrym to Port Ory on the island of Espiritu Santo with a clear plan half a year in advance. I was to meet my local friend Jeff and a few other men from the village. We were headed for a several day hike through the jungle and mountains beyond Big Bay in the western part of the island. Jeff’s relatives live there in an inaccessible village, still following the old ways in bamboo huts, dressed only in grass skirts and nambas. One of the few people still living their own way. And we wanted to visit them.

I land in Luganville. No one is waiting for me at the airport. I make my own way to Port Ory and learn that Jeff had to sail down to Tanna Island because his wife was ill. All of a sudden there is nothing left of the plans to spend Christmas and January in the heart of the jungle. I find a place to stay with my old friend, a kind Italian missionary, Father Morlini, and think about how to spend the free month I have here. I spend Christmas and New Year helping out at the mission. Father Morlini is a courageous man, but the years of service to the mission are hard on him. For a few days I became his right hand, in fact both hands, during a dozen repairs that were needed.

On the second day of January, a motorboat arrived at the shore of the mission, coming from the other end of the Big Bay, from a Catholic annex of Pesena. I agreed with the jovial “captain” that I would accompany him on his way back and spend at least one night in Pesena. After a few hours of sailing back, we finally see a mountain range rising out of the sea in front of us. It is the larger of the two peninsulas of the Big Bay. The evening sun is shining through scattered clouds and the jungle-covered hills in front of us give off a sense of adventure. We land on a rocky beach and I immediately make contact with the chief of this tiny village. One of the first buildings I see from the beach is a Catholic church. It is clearly the work of Father Sacco, who worked for years on “my” mission on Tanna. I immediately feel more at home. I meet the local men in the nakamal. The local kava “boroko” is served and I get to know the famous local river stone pipes and the local tobacco. We talk long into the night and I realize that this is not the only night I will be staying.

The following days are filled with jungle walks, river dives, horseback riding, listening to local legends, and endless evenings in the nakamal around the kava. In the village I even find an unlikely neighbor. A young man from Tanna has found his way to this remote corner of the archipelago. Much to his surprise, I speak to him in his own language and explain that I have been living on his home island for two years.

The weather turns bad. It is impossible to return to Port Ory by boat. Instead, I take a speedboat and follow the coast south to an even more remote mission station called Tolomako. We pick up some supplies, including half a bottle of sacramental wine. Father Lino, an ever-smiling Tongan priest who serves at Tolomako, is down to his last drop and jokingly threatens that next time he will celebrate Holy Mass with kava. Since the mission was founded, its accessibility has hardly improved. It is still one of the most remote. I spent the next few days with Father Lino and the locals. The only solid buildings around are the school and the mission building, which was built last year. Before that, the missionaries lived in a bamboo hut. Life here is calm and steady, just as it was a long time ago.

Time to return to civilization. But the sea is very bad these days. On the other side of the bay the waves are said to be “as big as houses”. And we cannot follow the shore on foot. We would not pass the high water of the Jordan River and a few others. We wait for another day and then take a small speedboat to follow the coast. The sea gets worse and worse. Near Matantas we are attacked by waves a few meters high, so bad that we have trouble even approaching the beach. In the middle of the chaos, the boat’s engine dies. Our “captain” quickly opened it and fiddled with its internals. The boat is spinning on the waves and one after the other they are about to roll it over. Luckily, another speedboat appears nearby and after a few failed attempts, we manage to tie them together with a rope so that they can pull us back against the waves. After a couple of endless minutes, our “captain” manages to restart the engine and we carefully approach the beach. The waves are breaking dangerously and flood our small boat. We are ready to jump off and swim to the shore to save ourselves despite the raging sea. Finally, in the space between two waves, our “captain” manages to steer the boat into shallow water and we pull it, soaked to the skin, out of the sea before the next wave sinks it completely. On the shore we collect our soaked belongings and try to salvage and dry what we can. A few hours later in Port Ory, I take my first real shower in many days and wash off the sea salt. The unplanned adventures are indeed the best.