In the prevailing South Easterly trade winds it is not often that one gets a chance to easily get out to the Isle of Pines. We had left there prematurely on receiving the tragic news about Bruce’s brother Tim, and we wanted to return. So on Thursday morning with light westerly winds forecast we took the opportunity to head South East. We decided to take a route through the middle of the Southern lagoon motor-sailing in beautiful perfect weather on a smooth sea. There are some stunningly beautiful islands and reefs with deep drop-offs into clear blue ocean in this lesser frequented area of the lagoon and we vowed to return and spend time here in the future. Arriving at the familiar beauty of Kuto in the late afternoon, we were pleasantly surprised to see “Bob the Cat” whom we had met briefly at Nge island. Dave and Malene are kite-surfers and Dave shares Bruce’s passion for kiting in the surf, always good to find someone to do these things with to increase the enjoyment and safety factor.
In the morning we went ashore and walked down the beautiful beach at Kanumera bay and had a look at the resort on the Eastern side. A very pretty resort which we would recommend although not really our thing. In the afternoon the wind was up a bit and Lyn dropped Dave and Bruce off at “Gaby’s” beach for a kite surf. The kite launching was hectic with many failed attempts, but eventually we had success by moving further down the beach. We kited out to the reef breaks towards Moro Island and had a lot of fun in the waves there before a long beat back into the wind.
On Saturday we headed the short distance out to Moro Island, anchoring Jolifou in a really pretty little lagoon close to the protected side of the island, the only yacht there. We went ashore and walked right around the island, negotiating the really sharp coral rock and vegetation along the unusual and scenic coast. At three separate places we saw groups of up to 10 small black-tip reef sharks really close to the shore, the most sharks we have seen in one place. We had a nice skinny-dip on the warm protected beach side of the island before returning to Jolifou for lunch. On the way back to Kuto we spotted the Manta ray that we had swum with previously in Kuto bay, in a special and surreal moment it swam right up to the boat and stuck it’s head up towards us, as though saying hello! Lyn was tempted to dive in, but thought better of it in the fading light and cold wind.
Next day Lyn tried in vain to find her manta, paddling around Kuto bay, but alas it was not to be. We sailed up to Gadji around the outside of the western reef, rather than doing the tricky, coral-dodging inner western passage which we had done previously. Arriving at about lunchtime we had a look at the beautiful Ngie island (I know they all sound the same) fringing Bumbu pass before heading toward the inner Gadji anchorage. It was only a couple of hours after low tide so we knew from previous experience it would be tight getting in, even for us, but with Lyn carefully calling the way we managed to squeeze in through the western entrance. All alone in the anchorage, until Bob the Cat arrived in the late afternoon. We invited them to join us for a fire and dinner on the nearby beach, which was a very merry affair as we became better acquainted with our new friends.
For us this trip to Gadji was mostly about scuba diving, we had not dived our previous time here, which was cut short, so there was unfinished business to do. Befriending Malene and Dave and having them here at Gadji was really serendipitous because Dave is a very competent scuba diver and Malene is an ex scuba instructor, who unfortunately can no longer dive due to a lung condition – the perfect support boat! We managed to piece together a third set of scuba gear for Dave using equipment of the previous owner of the boat and we were all set. The new dive compressor really came into its own as we did a dive a day for the next 5 days in really good weather conditions, sunny and light winds.
We dived a site at the drop-off straight out from the anchorage, then the “Valley of Gorgones” and “The Garden of Eden” which are both at the Bumbu reef pass area. “The Garden of Eden” was the favourite, a beautiful deep drop-off and huge expanse of undulating pristine coral reef terrain, arches, mounds, gorges and valleys with prolific fish. The best dive was in the late afternoon on an incoming tide when there were much more fish, including a huge Napoleon wrasse, a large school of barracuda passing by us about a meter away and quite a few large sharks – feeding time I guess. This is a drift dive through the pass and the guide warns to only do with a support boat. We did have support boat on a couple of occasions, but we also perfected diving towing the dinghy on a long rope, which worked really well. With a short length of chain at the end and a rope long enough so the holder could get deep enough, it was really not a big hassle to hold the dinghy and tow it along, swapping the holder every now and again taking turns for swim-through areas. What you lose by having to tow the dinghy you gain by having the freedom to end the dive wherever you choose, and it certainly adds a lot to the safety factor.
Other Gadji highlights were:-
- Exploring Ngie island on the Monday afternoon, mostly the outside by dinghy as the interior is very difficult vegetation, then back to the anchorage by following the outer reef drop-off and by way of the East Gadji bay area.
- Sundowners on Bob the Cat on Tuesday evening and Pizza night on Jolifou on Wednesday. It was great to find out more about Dave and Malene. They are both scientists, Dave an oceanographer and Malene a marine biologist. Dave was born in Canada, grew up mostly in the UK, and in fact it turns out was a member of the youth UK Laser sailing squad at the same time that Bruce was sailing in the UK senior squad. Malene is Danish by birth. They met whilst they were both hitching rides across the ocean on yachts and now hail from Raglan in New Zealand. Their boys Matias and Luca are full of energy and the joys of life and it is a pleasure to see how well they get on, entertaining each other for hours on end with games such as swinging on the jibsheets, using the netting as trampoline and making potions (Harry Potter is big on Bob the Cat). Matias made Lyn some bravery potion which we are keeping in a special bottle for when required.
- On the Wednesday morning it was quite calm out at the dive spot and there were two French catamarans rafted up together and drifting around (not on anchor) as a few of the crew had a dive on “Garden of Eden”. There are many crazy French sailors let me tell you and these were a prime example. Later they tried to get into the inner anchorage through the wrong entrance at low tide, hitting on numerous occasions before finally getting in using the correct way, then proceeded to leave a few minutes later!
On Friday we fare welled Bob the Cat as they set off headed for Ovea in the Loyalty islands. We would love to have joined them but our time in New Cal was coming to an end. After a final dive we used the nice Easterly wind to set sail for Kuto, having a close look at Du-Ami and Du-Ana islands on the way, but neither were suitable for comfortable anchorage in the conditions. A huge cruise ship was anchored in the bay, similar to the one we will be on in April next year for Bruce’s sister Jacqui’s 50th birthday. It will be great to show the family and friends going on this trip some of what we have seen in this beautiful place. We spent a bit of time stalking a dugong mother and calf before anchoring in the familiar beauty of Kuto bay and cracking the drinks out.
On Saturday morning Lyn rode her Brompton along the beautiful coastal road to Vao market for some much needed fresh food stocks. With using the dive compressor and dinghy a lot recently, petrol stocks were also low and Bruce set off walking up the road towards the service station with the empty jerry cans. A delightful local Kanaki couple stopped and gave him a lift to the service station, waited for him to fill the tanks and then took him all the way back to the dinghy. This is an example of how friendly and helpful the locals here are. In the afternoon we used some of that fuel, taking the dinghy on an adventure through the breakers on the reef to explore Ouro bay, which was a bit disappointing. On the way back we stopped at Bayonnaise island which has a beautiful beach with sea snakes, shells and coral fragments of all shapes and sizes.
Dave and Malene had told us how much they had enjoyed the Southern lagoon islands which we had passed by previously, so with the weather forecast looking good we headed off that way on Sunday morning. An absolutely perfect broad reach in the moderate North Easterly had us arriving at Kouare island in the late afternoon. This island has the best anchorages in the southern lagoon, with 3 locations providing good shelter in all wind directions and is one of the prettiest we have come across. Unfortunately tho, there is a dark side to it. A local French sailor was attacked and killed here by a bull shark in just May this year, whilst snorkeling close to the boat. It must have been a horrific scene and is the stuff of nightmares for us cruising sailors who are often in the water and consider close to the boat as the safest place to be. Also we believe that bull sharks are territorial, so the perpetrator could still be in the area, and in fact when “Bob the Cat” was here another boat spotted a large shark in the anchorage. There was not going to be any water time here for us.
On the plus side, whilst keeping dry on the boat and enjoying drinks and a beautiful sunset, we experienced a beautiful phenomenon which we later discovered is a regular event at these outer southern lagoon islands. The brown sea-birds (sorry I don’t know the name of the species) start gathering as the sun sets and concentrating on the island, on which they sleep for the night. For some reason they don’t just fly straight to the island tho, but rather spend a long time flying beautifully back and forth, gliding close over the water before finally settling on the land. It is mesmerizing watching them as first just a few, but later literally hundreds, maybe into the thousands of birds flock across a back-drop of an orange sunset sky.
Next morning we set off for Nda island, which as far as we know has no recorded shark attacks. We were able to anchor in a beautiful spot close to the beach whilst Bruce filled the dive tanks and Lyn did the bedding laundry. In the late afternoon we did a mellow shallow water dive on one of the huge coral bommies near the island, lots of colourful fish and a sea snake that kept coming at us until finally getting a big fright and swimming away. At sunset a few birds appeared and we remarked that this island didn’t seem to have the same bird influx as Kouare. How wrong we were, as later the gathering happened and the sunset sky became filled with their graceful writhing. For a change we decided to enjoy a dinner date under the stars on the foredeck. A delicious meal serenaded by bird song and Abba, beautiful night sky with a setting moon.
On Tuesday morning we headed north to a dive site called “Ecstasy” at Uatio pass. After scoping out the exact location using the GPS on Jolifou, we anchored inside the reef at quite a boisterous location and headed off to the dive in the dinghy. Lyn was concerned about the safety with the tide starting to get stronger so elected to be support boat captain whilst Bruce did the dive solo. It is a fantastic dive site, befitting the name, with a huge deep drop-off and grand terrain similar to “Garden of Eden” and plenty of fish. Unfortunately tho it is a pretty deep site for recreational diving, even the reef before the drop-off is over 30 meters deep in places, so it is very easy to get very deep without realizing it. Diving solo, Bruce was quite conservative and didn’t go below 30 meters, with a long time at shallower depth later to ensure decompression. Nevertheless a really spectacular dive and Lyn was able too follow the bubbles the whole way for an easy pickup, just as well because the current was sweeping pretty quickly by the end. We didn’t dally at this sketchy anchorage as we set off to Ua island for the night. AFPLI Another F’n Perfect Lagoon Island. Beautiful coral, reef sharks, sea snakes on the beach, flocking bird sunset.
Next morning we sailed further northward to Mato island, which is not AFPLI as it is quite different, a high island with anchorage on the windward side protected by extensive reefs and two little spit beaches at either end. We picked the southern beach and started traversing around the island clock-wise with rock climbing moves just above the water before reaching a beach filled with beautiful stones to Lyn’s delight. From the beach we bush-bashed up to the top of the island where there is majestic aerial views of the reef (spotting groups of reef sharks), anchorage and neighbouring islands. Following the official track down to the northern beach the weather was starting to turn bad. We negotiated the rocky eastern shoreline, dodging many sea snakes and getting soaked by the rain. We would have loved to spend more time at Mato but it was not a great place to be in the building south easterly wind and rain, so we took on a rough and wet trip with the reward being excellent shelter at Magic bay, East Prony.