Life on the Edge of a Volcano: A Long Distance Swim, Island Style



pele island     It is four in the morning, not even twilight, the stars are still bright in the sky and I am knee deep in warm ocean water surrounded by a dozen young men who are adjusting their swim masks, snorkels and fins.The entire village is awake and has come down along the shore to participate in the first ever swim around Nguna, or to see us off. It is early January, we have just wrapped up a week-long Christmas celebration and now we clebrate the youth of our village with some hikes and this swim.

life in an islandFour boats will support the swimmers, I hop on Noel’s boat as he is young and fast with his boat so it will be fun. We slowly snake our way through the swimmers, mostly young men in their late teens to mid twenties, and we head out beyond the coral reef. Utanlang is at the far northern tip of Nguna and as soon as we leave our little ‘u’ shaped cove, we are looking north to the stunning landscape of the Sheppard Islands jutting sharply out of the ocean. It is twilight now, the sky has a hint of light blue to it, the breeze is cool, the water is calm; it is a beautiful morning for an adventure.

banana boatAs we head along the eastern side of the island, we dart 50 metres ahead of the lead pack of half a dozen swimmers. The sun is up and the tide is with the swimmers so it is easy going. I have not seen this side of the island from the water; it is as strikingly beautiful as the western side,with bigfella hills sharply sloping into the sea. The shore is lined with massive, black rocks and there are only small patches of sandy beach here and there. I lie at the front of the boat and try to take a nap before the sun is too strong. The water is lapping gently against the boat and I can hear the swimmers talking and laughing;as always there is light-hearted laughter. Their chatter and laughter catches my attention because, you have to understand, this is not a swim around the island the way we would do it in the U.S. In the states, we would know the exact distance being swum, the fastest time, the record to beat. We would have trained for months, buying high tech swim gear, flippers, head to toe suit, goggles. There would be registrations, fees, time records to break and lots of money invested. For this swim, we did not even take a head count of how many swimmers – no worries.

vanuatu swimming racesI ask Noel how far he thinks the swim is. He shrugs, looking off in the distance clearly thinking of this for the first time. The swimmers are wearing the same shorts and shirts they wear every day. All the swimmers have flippers, most are wearing knitted knee socks. Some of the flippers are nice but some are old and have been wired together. Most have snorkels and masks and we have extras in the boat. Looking back, I see the other three boats stretched 200 metres behind us, 30 heads are bobbing in the water.Many of them hold onto life jackets or foam kickboards. They float on their backs giggling and chattering. At one point, the lead pack stops and huddles up, all their faces looking at something in the water down below. We zip back to them and ask if everything is ok, they respond in local language, “Yup, just saw some cool fish.”It goes on like this for hours, us darting ahead then waiting for the lead pack to catch up. As the morning wears on, they grow quiet at times, clearly tiring. They are good, strong swimmers. Most of them dive for fish regularly but this is long-distance swimming.

ngunaTwo thirds of the way along the eastern side of the island, a man points out a rain tank on the side of a steep hill. I can barely see it. He points out the cluster of coconut trees that surround it and explains that when the village on top of the hill runs out of water, they walk down to this tank where there is a spring and now a pump and a 500 litre tank. I can’t believe that people walk up and down that steep hill for water, it does not seem possible.

peleNot long after this, we are approaching the lunch spot, a beautiful sand beach on the southern tip of the island. A kilometer before the beach, I jump in and join the swim because it is roasting hot on the boat. I have to swim in my shirt and skirt because a girl swimsuit is not appropriate. I borrow a mask that doesn’t fit. Noel helps to adjust it but quickly I have gulped in salt water. I don’t have flippers and I am struggling in my cloths. Bobby is in the water nearby and quickly offers his kickboard. I sheepishly take it, feeling bad because he has been swimming for about six hours now. Once set, with about a dozen pairs of eyes tracking me, I start swimming toward the sandy beach. Noel keeps motioning for me to stay deep, explaining that the waves will smash me into the coral. Oh yeah, I forgot about that and clearly did not think this swim through. Eventually, Noel offers me a tow. Bobby and I both take the tow to shore along with some others. I didn’t swim far but it was hard going. The guys make it look easy.

nguna volcanoWe have a picnic lunch on the beach. Fish salad is passed around, we all share spoons and bowls, rinsing the dishes in the salt water. Music is playing, people are splashing and swimming; it is a simple, easy, instantanious beach party. After lunch, we are back in the boats with the swimmers along side and I estimate that we are not quite halfway around the island. I mention this to Noel, and again it seems he has not given distance or time a moments thought.We are having fun, it is that simple. It is not long before some swimmers are climbing in the boats for a lift. Within the hour, all four boats are towing swimmers or they have hopped on board a boat. We carry or drag them most of the way along the west side. At one point, three boats raft up and we swap fish, gear and swimmers; there is lots of chatter in local language. I sit quietly on the front of the boat, enjoying being part of everything but also content being a bit clueless to all the chatter. My heart fills up, I feel really lucky to be part of this first swim around the island. I genuinely like my village, the people – my friends and family. I am still an outsider, I have not grown up with and amongst them as they have with each other. My parents and grandparents are not siblings to their family. I have only been here with them for a brief moment in time really, but I do have the shared experience of the first swim around the island. When they do this every year, from now on, I will be part of their story.   It is moments like this when I feel connected and part of the fabric of the village, maybe a little frayed part on the fringe, but I am part of their story now.

vanuatu islandAs we approach the final bend rounding to Utanlang, the swimmers hop back into the water along with some women and kids that have been riding in the boats. We are the first boat around the point, just ahead of the swimmers, and what I see on the shore fills me up with joy and gratitude. The women, children and the few men that did not go on the swim line the beach. The women are a sea of pretty, bright colour in their island dresses and the children are cheering so loudly it echoes across the water. The swimmers make their way around the point and gather off shore. Noel whips his boat through the group and does a skidding fishtail kind of turn and I, on the front of the boat, grip tight so I am not flung off the boat; people laugh. As the swimmers and support team make our way ashore, we pass under a flower arch and touch a large stick staked in the sand that we touched on our way out in the morning. We pass through a receiving line, shaking hands and are showered with baby powder. Yards of cloth are draped around our necks. Speeches are made, group photos are taken and a prayer is said. We eat as a big group in the nakamal that night and share stories of the day with those that did not go.

This was a great day, maybe my best day yet in the village, with everyone committed to one goal; that is, celebrating our life together in this little village on the edge of a volcano somewhere deep in the South Pacific. We may have cheated on the swim, but we did not cheat on the fun one bit.

Nancy WillardNancy Willard is a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Vanuatu. When she found herself with the emptiest of nests, she packed up her old life into ten boxes and put them into storage, left her university career behind, and settled into a custom house on the shores of Utanlang. Learning to live without electricity, internet or mobile phone reception has been interesting; learning to see life through the eyes of the village where family, friends, and this moment in time are what matter most, has been nothing short of magical. If you would like to read more about that magic and her trials and tribulations helping this village define what development means to them, check out her blog at:

Photographs by Peter Samson, Utanlang Village

Things to see and do on Nguna:

Nguna is a short boat trip from North Efate with boats leaving Emua Warf almost on demand. Utanlang, on the north side of Nguna, is a 45 minute boat ride, contact Shirley @ 7755912 for guest house information. On the south side of Nguna, just a 20 minute boat ride, contact Emma @ 7766263 for Uduna Cove Beach Bungalow. From either side of the island, you can hike the two dormant volcanoes, Mt Taputauraand Mt Marow, and snorkel underwater coral gardens. For game fishing in some of the best waters in the Efate region, off the coast of Utanlang, contact Jenny @ 7762325 or 7762593 for Tatou’s Game Fishing & Island Express Boat Taxi.