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Smoking the Peace Pipe with Chiefs of the Banks Islands

Updated: Nov 25, 2023

After a week’s worth of home improvements on the new homestead on Aore Island, we lay down our hammers and wire crimpers and set off for another fishing expedition aboard November Rain, this time heading north to the Banks Islands. We had yet to explore these Pacific islands, but had been assured by Kelvin and Julie, a husband/wife team fishing charter operation, that the grounds were promising for Dog Tooth Tuna and GTs.


Our first night away, we decided to stop off and visit Garry’s latest real estate purchase, a jungle overgrown but beachfront section near the Oyster Island Resort on Santo. At sunset, we dropped anchor in the bay in front of the property, dingied ashore and clambered over sharp coral rocks, huge fallen trees, piles of rubbish, and through thick jungle foliage, plotting out our future tropical home in our deluded minds. Next door to our section is a nice little eco-beachfront resort, and we trudged over and introduced ourselves to the resident manager as the new neighbors. She was very welcoming and suggested some local Ni-Van labor that could help us clear the property in just a couple of days. Maybe we weren’t so deluded after all!

Who needs a Playstation?

Who needs a Playstation?

Our second night had us anchored in a serene bay on the island of Gaua. As expected, the usual 1/2 dozen dugout canoes surrounded the boat while we dropped anchor. We keep all our by-catch fish to present to the locals who inhabit the bays we anchor in. It makes for a good neighbor policy and brings us good will, a peaceful night’s anchorage and occasionally some fresh produce in return. Often, after the fish are distributed, a few locals hang around in their canoes, making small talk, answering questions about their island, their village and their way of life. One man, named Willy, asked Garry for some small hooks and fishing line, which Garry supplied. Willy later returned with some beautiful cherry tomatoes, papaya, and short but fat bananas in hand-woven baskets, as a thank-you for the fish and gear we had provided. I was particularly happy as I hadn’t seen tomatoes for 3 weeks, and these were especially beautiful and delicious.


As a “Thank You” for our attentions, Chief Richard asked if we would enjoy a Vanuatu Water Dance show. I jumped at the invitation, having previously seen a demonstration on YouTube. Jonas and Garry were more dubious, neither particularly interested in cultural events of a dancing variety, especially if it was going to cut short their afternoon of fishing, but both reluctantly agreed for my sake. The Chief said he would arrange it with the village women, and we should be back from fishing at 3 pm for the show.

After some mediocre trolling, with only one large Wahoo to show for our day’s efforts, we returned to the bay in time for our private afternoon show. The fish was sent off with the villagers in their kayaks to be divided up between the families and Chief Richard.

Jonas caught this red bass on a popper.

Jonas caught this red bass on a popper.

Garry and I kayaked into shore, while Jonas swam to the beach. After a few minutes, Chief Richard hustled the ladies up to perform the traditional Vanuatu Water Dance for us. We were delighted to watch 4 women and 1 small child step onto the beach, chubby bodies wrapped in peek-a-boo-palm frond frocks, hibiscus crowns adorning their heads. They wading into the ocean and proceed to make the most interesting rhythmic sounds in unison, using only their hands and the waist-high water as their instruments. The video’s audio doesn’t do justice to the performance, losing the deep bass tones that we could feel in our bones standing on the shore. We thanked the ladies for their amazing impromptu performance, and later, I paddled back in the kayak with some cooking oil, rice noodles and sweetened condensed milk as a token of our appreciation.


Chief Richard brought us some coconuts later that day, and invited Gaz to sign his “official guest book”, which had been signed by a half-dozen other cruisers. He also requested Gaz take a look at the broken torch, his sole means of light after dark. Garry managed to fix the broken light switch after a few trips to the spare parts box, some number 8 wire and his Kiwi ingenuity. It would have been easier to just give Richard a new torch, but we didn’t have a spare.

Richard started making many requests, a few are first, for mostly small things; fishing hooks, sinkers, fishing line, cooking oil, and graduating up to batteries and petrol. After we had granted a few small requests, we felt like we were starting to look like a mark, and we had to start making excused about why we couldn’t fulfill any further requests. No worries, and no offense was taken at the word “no”, and Richard paddled off in his dugout to his own little neighboring bay, happy as a clam to have his torch fixed, very thankful for the cooking oil and other small requests we had still manage to fulfill.


Later, that night, while the sun was setting, Willy rowed out and silently waited in his canoe for us to notice his presence. After we spotted him, he hemmed and hawed for a bit, finally confessing that he was there to apologize for Richard’s behavior. Apparently Richard was NOT this particular village’s chief as he had represented himself to us. When we asked, “Well then, who is the Chief?” It turns out Willy was! Chief Willy was completely embarrassed that Chief Richard had hassled us for small stuff and felt like he needed to apologize to us on behalf of his village. Not all Ni-Vans are beggars, like Richard, he said. We all had a good laugh about it and told him we were happy to help in any small way we could. Chief Willy made us feel really welcome and invited to return back to his beautiful bay any time we liked.

The next morning, we fished our way up to Sola, where we were required by Vanuatu law to check in with Customs for yet another regional cruising permit. The town was teeny, only a few buildings, the government ones being cinderblock, the rest thatch huts. But there was a cell tower, so we happily caught up on Facebook garbage and more importantly, the weather forecast and later enjoyed an afternoon snorkel.

As we were distributing the day’s catch, one man in a kayak explained to Garry how he had been to New Zealand, not once, but twice, where he had studied to become a police officer. Impressive credentials from someone who lives in a grass hut and has no electricity!


The next morning, we headed into town for the cruising permit. Jonas and I quickly got bored waiting for the government office to open and left Garry to manage the bureaucratic paperwork while we headed to the beach for some serious shell collecting. While wandering along, I met a man who owned the Sola Yacht (spelled Yawht) Club, a small collection of empty thatched bungalows in a beautifully manicured garden. He was very kind in offering his advice on good fishing grounds. Sadly, he told me that they rarely had visitors anymore, yawhties or otherwise, and his bungalow hotel was empty at the moment. But he wanted me to know that the Yawht Club was our home away from home and he would help us with any of our needs.


Chief Nickleson shared withus his dream of turning his village into an eco-tourist destination, catering to tourists who wanted to experience a night of authentic tribal life. He explained to Garry how easily tourists could fly from New Zealand or Australia to Port Vila, transfer to a commuter flight to Santo, then an even smaller plane to Sola, before finally taking a day long-boat the remaining way from Sola to Ureparapara, where they could finally enjoy a night in an authentic grass hut complete without running water or electricity… As we Kiwi’s say…. Yeah.. Nah.. It’s a great idea until you realize it takes 4 days to reach the place from any major city, and after 4 days of constant travel, well… all you really want is a hot bath, good food, and a movie to watch from your comfy bed.

Chief Nickleson further explained that there was a special fundraiser scheduled for the following day, in which the Ni-Vans would exchange gifts of food with each other while make a small cash donations to the church. The cash would be used for youth programs (and to buy wine for sacrament, as we later found out). We would be doing the village a great service if we brought in more fish for tomorrow’s evening meal. But, we needed to have it back to the village by 3 pm, so that it could be prepared in time for the festivities. Nickleson was a bit like Chief Richard in his requests for help, but on a much grander scale. But to be fair, the requests were for the entire village, and not of a personal nature.

Jonas has made a lot of new friends.

Jonas has made a lot of new friends.

We woke up the following morning to torrential rain, a phenomenon we attributed to being inside a volcano. Looking out to sea, we could see clear skies beyond the rim, with a promise of better weather. However, as we motored out beyond the sanctity of the bay, we were hammered by high winds of 20 knots and rough, churning seas. Thankfully, the fishing was good that day, but after a 4 hour beating, we packed it in early and headed back to Ureparapara’s bay. The catch consisted of one nice sized sailfish (the only one we have ever harvested), 3 large wahoo, 2 spanish mackerel, 1 barracuda, 2 doggies, and 1 large fish head that remained from a shark attack. The fish was collected by the villagers in their canoes, taken ashore and divided up to feed 51 households!

Lori catches a sailfish.

Lori catches a sailfish.

All that's left of the doggie after a shark got ahold.

All that’s left of the doggie after a shark got ahold.

Later that afternoon, we took the dingy ashore and we were escorted over to Chief Nickleson’s huts, where we met his family and watched Kava being prepared by two of his sons. The root is pounded into pulp, soaked in water, and then the muddy colored water is milked out of the root by hand and poured into a plastic water bottle. The kava was to be part of Nickleson’s food gift to be exchanged later at the church fund-raiser.

Making kava

Making kava

Nickleson then ask Garry if he might be able to identify a mysterious device that he had found floating in the sea. We were invited into his living room hut to find an electronic device partially disassembled on the wooden table. Garry quickly identified the mysterious item as a satellite tracking device that is attached to a free-floating raft by commercial fishing boats. Over time, the raft acts as a fish aggregating device, attracting fish life as the raft floats along with the ocean currents. The commercial fishing boat can locate the raft by activating the satellite signal, and return to the precise location to capture the fish.


The mysterious device

Over the years, Nickleson and his villagers had found several of these satellite devices, but they had no idea what their primary purpose was. Their main interest in the items was in the value of the dozen internal D cell batteries and the two small solar panels that recharged them.


Jean-Paul, Chief Nickleson’s son

The villager had some experience with solar panels, having had a French cruiser name Jean-Paul lived for two months among the villagers, teaching them the basics of the technology. There were two small panels and one battery behind Nickleson’s hut’s that provided a small light and recharged their cell phones. Chief Nickleson’s youngest son is name Jean-Paul, in honor of his friend who help provide a night-light for the village.

Nickleson was in need of a volt meter to check if the batteries were viable, and wanted some help connecting them up to a light he had. Garry, again, with the Kiwi ingenuity, a trip to the boat for supplies and some number 8 wire, fixed the battery pack with new connectors that would support a small LED light, while allowing the batteries to be recharged by the solar panels. (I suspect we may someday meet a child name Garry, should we ever return).

In our conversations with Nickleson, we asked what necessities we could bring with us next time we returned to the island. Was it cooking oil and rice they needed? Medical supplies? No, surprisingly the request was for tools, specifically a hand saw, but more importantly, a guitar! The Chief proudly explained about was an upcoming youth musical competition on a neighboring island, and the children of Ureparapara were in need of a guitar in order to participate. Nickleson shared that a guitar could be purchased in Port Vila for 5,500 to 6,000 Vatu (about $60 U.S.). Would we be willing to contribute? Garry and I agreed that we could bring a guitar with us next time, and then the Chief asked for Garry’s cell phone number, I assume to “remind” him daily not to forget.

Well, if you don’t ask, you won’t get….

Nickleson also asked if I could let him use my laptop computer so he could view some home movies he had received from another cruiser. He had them stored on a memory stick. Again, we were happy to help, and Jonas volunteered to fetch my laptop off the boat.

By now, we could see families of villagers walk past us on the beach, carrying small packages of food, wrapped in banana leaves, decorated with jungle flowers. The villagers were heading down to the village for the church fund-raiser. The Chief and his family packed up their food gifts and escorted us to the village where we watched the main event unfold.


The village consisted of 20 or more thatched huts, some large enough to hold more than a 100 people. Though the roads were sand, they were neat, free of weeds, and lined with straight rock edges .There was no litter anywhere. Small patches of ornamental trees were planted in rows, with flowering bushes among the small gardens. Chickens wandered freely. There was a small open air hut that was the marketplace, where villagers met to trade capsicums for spring onions, tomatoes for yams. These people obviously took pride in their village and made the best of what they had.

The village market

The village market




We left with our Ureparapare friends the next morning, loaded with fresh bananas and papaya with our solemn promises of returning in a month’s time, bringing with us a new guitar and a hand saw.

We hammered our way back to Gaua for the next night, only bringing in one stinky barracuda for Chief Willy’s village, and our last night was spent off east coast of Santo, near Port Orly with zero fish to distribute. Fortunately, no canoes rowed out that night.


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