Er­ro­mango, Mar­tyr’s Isle

He­for­got­tenis­land. Story and pho­tog­ra­phy by Anne and Eric Sim­mons.

Island Life - - Vanuatu Dining Guide -

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.

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