Erromango, Martyr’s Isle
Heforgottenisland. Story and photography by Anne and Eric Simmons.
Erromango, more often referred to as ‘Ero’ by the locals, is largely forgotten as a destination. Mountainous and forested, tourism is yet to be developed here and the main source of income is in the trade of sandalwood and kauri. Whether flying to Tanna to view the magnificent Mt Yasur or sailing enroute to Port Vila, Ero is often overlooked as a place to visit. Yet it has a bountiful plethora of historical, cultural and natural wonders to discover. Being regular visitors to Vanuatu waters, we have in the past sailed past Erromango without taking the time to stop and explore. However this year we decided to call in and investigate the many protected anchorages that this amazing coastline offers. There are two main villages on Erromango, Potnarvin in the north east and Dillon’s Bay in the north west, with guesthouses offering basic accommodation in both. The bulk of our time was spent at Dillon’s Bay, primarily because we kept finding more to see and do each day, until finally we had to pull up anchor and head off to explore the rest of the island. Wherever we went, the people were friendly and welcoming, eager to share their stories, way of life and natural wonders. Dillon’s Bay has a laid back ambience and time just seems to slip past; there is no need for hurry here. With fertile soil and no shortage of water close by, the gardens thrive and there is an abundance of fruit and vegetables. The village is set upon the banks of the large Williams River that flows out into the bay. As we meandered up the river, winding our way between the several fishing boats moored there, we came across mamas heading home from working in the gardens or doing their laundry on the river banks, as pikininis ran alongside waving to us. Once safely moored, we headed out to explore. It is difficult to walk along Williams River without being tempted in for a quick dip in the clear swimming holes. The high banks are perfect for jumping off and an hour or so walk further up the river there is a large waterfall, tumbling down from the rugged mountainous back drop. Walking down on the river bank, we paused to watch the men building canoes from the large whitewood trees. Isaiah, a skilled canoe builder, explained how Ero’s canoes differ from those of the other islands, in that the support strut is made from one tree rather than two pieces fixed together. The supporting lattice of stays is quite unique as well. E rromango has a rich and sometimes dark past history and on one of our explorations we met up with Sempert, who took us to the site where the body of missionary John Williams was laid down and measured as he was carried away from the site where he was killed in 1839. Life was brutal back then, with strict rules to follow and when John Williams stepped ashore at Dillon’s Bay he unknowingly broke a kastom law. Weeks earlier, an Australian sandalwood trader had murdered the two sons of a local chief and as a result, the Erromangans resolved to end all contact with white people. A ritual marker was built to signify the point beyond which no foreigners could go. It seems the people had done their best to communicate that this was tabu but John Williams was determined to procced and as he stepped forward he was consequently killed, along with his companion Jacob Harris. His body was taken and shared
Previous page from top left to bottom right: Clam at Veteil Point; Limestone formations in Bunmarvan Cave; Yacht Club view; children at school; David in Williams River and at the Cave of Skulls. This page right: Whip Coral at Veteil Point. Below: Handdrawings in Bunmavan cave; plaque at resting point; the lovely Williams river. amongst the chiefs, to be ritualistically eaten. It seems he was the last white man to be eaten in Erromango, though not the last one to be killed. Sempert indicates that further up the hill lie the marks where missionary George Gordon and his wife were killed 22 years later. M uch of the brutatlity in the history of Erromango was exacerbated by the actions of white explorers and the resulting chain of events. In 1828, Irish trader Peter Dillon came looking for the two ships of La Perouse expedition which had disappeared in the region and discovered that Erromango was rich in sandalwood. This led to an influx of traders from many nations, some using unethical and often violent methods to procure the precious wood. Blackbirding and stripping the forests of kauri soon followed. The Erromangans were poorly treated and it is small wonder that they learnt to view all newcomers with a mix of fear, suspicion and aggression. 1861 was a bad year for Erromango. January saw the island devastated by a cyclone and shortly after traders introduced measles and hundreds of people died. While Gordon managed to save many, he could not save the chief’s children and as he never succumbed to the disease himself, he was viewed as a sorcerer to be feared and destroyed. And so, the story goes on, with fascinating titbits of information and memorabilia to be discovered at Dillon’s Bay. Today the locals recall the actions of their ancestors and expressed their regret to the families of the
martyrs with a Reconciliation Ceremony at Dillon’s Bay in 2009, on the 170th anniversary of the deaths of John Williams and Jacob Harris. N owadays, sandalwood plantations and kauri forests abound in Erromango, with most locals planting sandalwood with an eye to the future. People like Sempert do their best, collecting seeds and planting seedlings to ensure that Erromango’s future will always include its precious forests. With a history spannning 3000 years and the vast usage of caves as dwellings and for shelter, there is so much to be discovered. During times of war between tribes, people would take refuge and hide in the caves, sometimes for weeks on end, with only roots and leaves for sustenance collected under the cover of darkness. Only a few minutes from Dillon’s Bay, behind Suvu Beach, two different and fascinating caves can be found. Bunmavan Cave, is where women and children were taken during warfare. They took refuge inside this massive cave with a few men left behind to guard them and the cave yields evidence of its past inhabitants with drawings and petroglyphs. The cave has several tunnels and amazing limestone formations that sparkle under the torchlight as well as small resident bats. The Cave of Skulls is a short distance away. The original entrance is now closed due to it being unsafe after an earthquake some years ago and the cave is well worth the clamber up to its second entrance. Only after we have asked permission from the spirits are we allowed to approach the cave. This is the cave where Chief Mete and his two wives were buried, and obviously many more by the amount of bones to be seen. Our guide David tells us that inside the main cave there are still remains of hair and jewellery from those laid to rest there long ago. It is not only on land that Erromango offers amazing cultural and natural experiences; a pristine ocean, teaming with life, offers great diving, swimming and snorkleing. We jumped in for a dive at Veteil Point to find fresh water springs 20 metres under, plenty of coral and fish life. Engrossed in photographing a huge bright blue clam, we were startled by a large trevally who was equally surprised to see us. At Dillon’s Bay, David, an Erromango local, proudly showed us the new Wowo Guesthouse and Yacht Club that he and his family are building. The Mediterranean style two-story guest house, complete with showers and toilets, overlooks the beach and is set in beautiful gardens. Suvu beach itself offers excellent snorkelling with colourful corals and plentiful fish.
The island of Erromango and Dillon’s Bay, so often overlooked, are filled with history, murmurs from the past and mystery. Yet at the same time they are so forward thinking, with a thriving local sandalwood industry and beautiful people eager to share their culture with their welcome visitors. With so much potential, don’t leave it too long before you visit.