We are one big happy family

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It started in early April, when Calvin Rhodes, Santo-based skipper of the fishing charter boat Fiesta, was speaking to Chief David from the island of Ureparapara in the Banks Islands. Calvin was the first person to have contacted them since the cyclone went through on March 13th, and learned that although Cyclone Pam had not damaged any of their houses, the island’s gardens had been badly hit. They had not seen an island trader boat for many months and were in urgent need of supplies. “I realised that if one village was in need in the Northern Islands, then there had to be more,” said Calvin.

Calvin and his wife Julie decided to sail to the Banks to help in any way they could. ProMedical in Santo had already been heavily involved in co-ordinating aid efforts around the islands and Paramedic Jerome joined in for a medical evaluation of the post-cyclone situation. Many of Santo’s residents contributed donations to provide fuel, food and other supplies and my wife Wendy and I were lucky enough to join Calvin, Julie, Jerome and crew members, Joe and Hudson, on their trip to the Northern Islands.

smBanks Island 5The team left Santo on April 23rd laden with supplies including over a tonne of rice, tinned fish, instant noodles, bags of biscuits, clothing, fishing nets, phone cards, buckets and seeds. During the ten-hour trip to Mere Lava the next day with the lines out, Jerome and I each caught a big Mahi Mahi. While fishing wasn’t the purpose of the trip, it was a great opportunity to add to the food supplies for the villages we would visit. It was Jerome’s first ever Mahi Mahi. Immediately after, we got two yellow-fin tuna and decided that if we continued fishing at this rate, we might not make it to our evening destination.

We approached Mere Lava, a perfectly conical volcanic island on the horizon, and as we tried to decide where to anchor, we saw the villagers walking towards the furthest point in the sunset. We steered the boat towards them and soon saw the two anchors painted on the rocks ashore; this was their way of telling us where we should anchor. Villagers in the out-riggers surrounded us and after some ‘tok-tok’, we offered them our four splendid fish: they were so delighted!

smBanks Island 8(1)It was an early 7.00am wake up the next day, ready to tackle the steep climb up to the first village. Through a Mere Lava local living in Santo, Calvin had organized to have representatives of all five villages to be present at the community meeting, medical evaluation and quick tour to identify their needs.

Mere Lava’s islanders had sustained damage to many of their gardens and although they had received an aid shipment two weeks before we arrived, it only left them with enough food to last until mid May when they were expecting another aid delivery. Their biggest challenges were the time needed for the gardens to be re-established and the restricted water supply; there were 49 water tanks but only four working taps on the whole island.

smBanks Island 2We were not looking forward to the trip back down the steep hill but suddenly, Wendy found herself surround by pikininis who, taking her hands to support her, helped her make her way down. Soon they were singing ‘we are one big happy family’ and as it became steeper, two older girls replaced the smaller ones to make sure Wendy never stumbled. This incredible kindness and thoughtfulness will remain with us as one of the highlights of our visit to the Banks Islands.

Back onboard, we counted the bags of rice, tinned fish, clothes, medicines, seeds and other supplies that were left. We still had four villages to visit and we had to assess the needs and do our best. This was no government run, just Julie, Calvin, ProMedical and a few Santo residents helping out!

Banks Island 19Our next stop was the island of Ureparapara at the northern end of the Banks Islands. The anchorage is at the centre of an extinct volcano, in a ‘U’ shaped lagoon, a perfect place to anchor. The beautifully kept village of Leserepla in Diver’s Bay offered us the same warm and friendly welcome. When the last boat visited to pick up the island’s copra, it had no supplies of rice, flour and sugar to sell back to them and this island had not received any new produce for six months so our aid delivery, including a Wahoo caught on the way, was much needed.

The village water supply came from a river, but like Mere Lava, most taps were not working. We were able to leave rice, tinned fish, biscuits, clothing and other goods to help them through until their gardens start to produce vegetables once again and continued on another journey to the village of Lehali, on Ureparapara west.

smBanks Island 22Our next island stop was Sasara (Twin Waterfalls), located on the west coast of the main island of Vanua Lava. The location was idyllic, with a small village on a point and the sandy beach meandering towards the headland, filled with wonderful coral to snorkel in. The main attraction here is the twin waterfall and it was a delight to lounge in the fresh water; we could have easily spent a week anchored here.

smBanks Island 13(1)Sasara village had no injuries or damage to houses but the gardens and fruit trees had taken a battering as in the other villages that we had visited. The village’s water supply had been contaminated by fallen leaves and water had to be boiled before it was safe to drink. Calvin kindly donated the boat’s water containers, so they could collect clean drinking water from the waterfalls, and we left the rice, tuna and other gear allocated for the island.

smBanks Island 20Alas, the boat was empty of supplies and it was time for us to return home. After an overnight stop on Gaua, we bade farewell to the Banks Islands as we promised ourselves that we will return. For us, this was a trip of a lifetime and one that we will always remember. If you are planning a visit to the Banks, which is highly recommended, please take some taps and pipes with you!


Stephen Turner’s account of a post-cyclone trip to the Banks Islands. Stephen and Wendy travelled to the Banks Islands on board Fiesta. For more information contact Calvin and Julie [email protected], www.santogamefishing.com.