A symphony of dark fate sent me to work in an isolated coconut oil mill in the northern isles of Vanuatu. A boat in – boat out posting of 21 day shifts, tons of copra and more ‘Heart of Darkness’ fantasy than you have ever wanted.
Weather was everything. Good weather meant wahoo steaks dusted with two minute noodle flavoring and deep-fried. Yellow fin sashimi or a freshly boiled lobster tail wedged between two slices of warm island bread. Living large while lost.
When the predominant south easterly trade winds lashed, there was nothing. The boat on the sand and the barge in Vila. Then it was the dark storeroom of tins and rice. A pile of rice with glutinous corned animal pasted over the top; a hint of entrail with every mouthful.
One afternoon after three weeks of rain, wind, copra and a Shawshank diet of tins, the weather finally cleared and the forecast told of a window before the next front rolled in. I tried to stir excitement within my crew who looked strangely to the horizon, then at their feet and said “Mi no hearem kud lo solwota.” I was desperate, alone, unhinged and undaunted.
Fuel up, gear up. I would do it alone. All I have to do was navigate the fifteen nautical miles to the Lopevi seamount, land something solid and nip back – easy. Our battered but revered sixteen foot aluminium centre console “The Bad Lieutenant II” had done it before. I would be the Wahoo Steak King over kava in three hours.
Halfway through the passage I had the feeling. The feeling that you have made a poor decision but are not yet ready to accept it. There was a black line on the horizon and when you are alone in a small open boat, a black line is a coming reckoning.
The black line was actually a cyclonic depression that was ahead of schedule and it was on me just as the bad feeling became bad reality. The wind hit so hard that it was throwing water sheets and made steerage difficult. Looking through the rain reminded me of a computer-generated scene from a Noah’s Ark religious instruction video popular in the villages. The instant violence of the sea meant that there was no way I could make it back across Drummond Bay alive and there was nothing else for it but to run behind the only shelter of the Lopevi Volcano. This was satisfactory for a while, the wind screaming but the water flat against the shore. I nervously trolled in loops, hoping in lunatic fashion that it would move through quickly. The front did move; the wind direction changed and there was no more hiding.
Lopevi Island is really the closest thing I have ever seen to the secret island of The Phantom comics and its Skull Cave. A small volcanic island mostly covered with bleak raw lava and an active mount. Entirely uninhabited due to eruption, it has an eerie beauty on a clear day and a dark feel of black magic menace on a bleak one. The land is only accessible from a small rough sand beach and the steep sides are covered in Sheoak trees from which bats quietly flit.
I landed the Lieutenant in a nasty shore break and did my best to get her up on the sand. Using the anchor rope, I lashed her to some large coconut palms and then carted everything I could up the beach to a derelict copra shack. It was nearly night and I made a fire and did a stock take of my gear. Torch, matches, cigarettes, lighter, three very strong French painkillers, knife, some water. Good. No food, no dry clothes, not so good. I found a small bag of rice hanging in the shack and an empty tin kindly left by a previous marooned guest.
By this time the wind was stronger and the ocean a confused mess. I checked the boat by torchlight and while it was half full of water, it was safe enough. Deciding it was dinner time and with nothing left to do, I had rice softened to a point it could be chewed, a slug of water and a Peter Jackson. In an attempt to sleep, I had a tablet nightcap and scraped a bed in the sand with a copra sack for a blanket. Between the fear, exertion and codeine, I managed to sleep as unknown creatures scratched around me.
The storm and tide peaked at about the same time and I was awakened by waves washing almost to the door of the hut. Deciding it unsafe to go to sea, I stoked the fire and waited the long hours until dawn staring at the thatched roof and reviewing some of my poorer life choices.
Content that I had survived the night, I checked the boat and happily she was still where I had tied her. After emptying the mountains of sand and water that had accumulated inside, I jumped in and found the main battery dead. Thankfully, I had dragged the spare engine to the hut so I was still leaving, but would have to wait for perfect conditions for the long five-knot slow journey home.
When you are hungry and thirsty at the same time, the green coconut is a simple solution. Thankfully the storm had dropped plenty and a sharpened stick was enough to dehusk one and pierce a hole to liberate the sweet water and flesh. Pleased with breakfast and falling into the castaway romance, I decided to explore. I found water running into the sea, cool and clean, paw paws and rock pools full of big shellfish.
By now it was mid afternoon and as I knew that I would not be leaving today I began getting organised for another night. While not delighted but comfortably resigned to this, I was figuring on a coconut and roast shellfish meal when, looking out across the bay, I saw the yellow longboat from a mate’s village steadily labouring a course towards me. It was David, the most loyal foreman and friend a man could hope for, with a fresh battery, tools, and a look of relief. “Olsem wanem boss, yu bin lus lo soltwota, mifela wori big wan!” he exclaimed.
After his arrival, it was all over quickly. New battery and clean fuel filter and the Bad Lieutenant was once again 40 horsepower instead of four. I checked out of my lodgings and we travelled in a convoy across the lumpy sea towards home.
While nice to be back at the mill, the reality of the worry I had created and the talk of Vila sending search planes, left me equal parts ashamed and embarrassed. It was big news on the island of 7000 souls and the ‘storian of waet man I bin lus’ was told across many a Nakamal. Interestingly, I returned some three years later to assist in the cyclone recovery and while working far from the mill in a different village, an elder approached me and through ruined teeth quizzically asked me ‘Yu waet man wea i bin lus lo soltwota lo Lopevi taem bifo?’ Not exactly what I wanted to be remember by!
I should also acknowledge that my first meal on return to the mill was rice and tinned corned meat. It was delicious.
Note from the editor: The editor had the pleasure to almost repeat this story a second time while on another ‘desperate’ fishing trip to Lopevi seamount with the writer. She has never been in seas so big and did wonder, at some point, what they would write in her obituary. The Lieutenant and master skipper Captain Jonas, did deliver however and she safely made it back to Epi and there was fish for dinner that night.
Story by Ben Brookman. Photography by Ben Brookman and Patricia Gil.
About the writer: Ben Brookman came to Vanuatu as an eel farmer in 2005 and left as a sandalwood trader and oil distiller in 2014. In between, he found time to work in a coconut oil mill, have two children, build a house, work in the beef industry, live as a fugitive, catch a lot of waves, make a lot of friends, catch a lot of fish and develop an addiction for both the Pacific and its people. He now lives in Melbourne as a regular suburban joe being father to Tom and Sasha, a gardener to the stars, and loyal servant to his wife, the lovely Merran. He will approach strangers in the street if he thinks he can speak Bislama with them.