Water Music and Falls

alex rust

08 October 2010 | Gaua

With our new crewmember aboard, Benoit from France, and tide rising it was time to get out of Oyster Bay while we had the chance. I had met Ben in Port Villa and was looking to get a ride towards Asia so he could finish his round the world trip by biking the 10,000 miles home across Eurasia to France.The previous leg of his trip took him deep into the Amazon so he was no stranger to strange things. We got out the pass in time and raised sail to find a nice breeze and we set the boat on a close reach so the boat drove herself. The next morning brought the site of the jungle covered volcanic island of Gaua. Looking over the island in the morning light we noticed a huge white streak up in the highlands. We all tried guessing what it was but it wasn’t until we pulled out the binoculars that we saw its true identity – a huge waterfall! We looked for a pass in the reef and finally found one on the northeast side of the island. Before getting our anchor set sea turtles started popping their heads up to catch a peak at the new visitor and not long after some kids paddled out in dugout canoes followed by the local village chief, chief Paul. We asked about the waterfall but he explained that much of the island was a ‘no go zone’ due to a recent volcanic eruption that relocated all villages from the west side to the east and that we would have to ask to islands government representative if we could go up. We found the representative at the local kava bar which was just a thatch hut in the middle of the bush. Apparently he had a quite a few because he was half asleep for much of our conversation. He stated that only vulcanologist were allowed in the ‘no go zone’ but after some kava diplomacy our ‘research team’ was granted permission. That night Chief Paul wanted to celebrate our arrival to the island so he set up a special water music concert for us. He lead us through his village and down to the water where a group of women from the village waited in grass skirts and banana leaves. Upon our arrival they waded into the water and formed a line. An elderly woman began smacking the water and after a few beats the others joined in and in perfect rhythm and only using their hands in the water were creating music we could dance to. They played several water songs sometimes dipping down to smack their elbows and other times turning to each other to smack hands and even performed solos all the while laughing as they splashed around in the tropical water. We would later try with their instruction to make some of these amazing sounds but to no avail, but did learn that water music originated as a way for the women to attract fish for the men to catch in their nets. The next day we began our trek across the island with chief Paul to find the waterfall. His real name wasn’t Paul but all chiefs in Vanuatu have English names to make it easier on us white folk. Paul never had any formal education yet his knowledge of the land was astounding and he spoke 5 languages. In the 87 major islands comprising the Vanuatu archipelago there were over 100 languages spoken giving it the highest language density per capita in the world with an estimated 3 languages going extinct each year. On top of the foreign introduced French and English there is the most common language of Bislama which is a form of pidgin English and then over 100 local melanesion languages (not dialects) with some languages on the same small island being as different as English is to Chinese. In Bislama, the way natives speaking different languages communicate, words like best become numbawan, the pronoun we is said yumi and thank you very much is tanku tumas. Our first leg of the journey was by dingy several miles around the island to a point where we could access the proper trail head. Along the way we saw stretches of black volcanic sand beaches studded with palms which then give way to mountainous jungle terrain climbing up a couple thousand feet. The landscape was pristine with no sign of human interference except for the random bamboo hut along the coast where the natives lived their simple lives in complete harmony with the environment. Chief Paul finally pointed out a black sand beach we could land on next to a stream that cascaded down into the ocean. Only minutes into the hike we were in thick jungle sometimes walking inside the ariel roots of massive banyon trees. Inside the foliage was nearly dark even though the sun was shining brightly and every several hundred yards we would come to an opening that showed us the green blanket we were hiking under. There were trails diverging everywhere and it was easy to see that getting lost wouldn’t take much effort. Even Chief Paul whose lands these were had to double back with us three times and once we had to blaze our own trail with machetes through a thick valley to get back on the right track. At one point we came across a wild bore to which Chief Paul was upset that he didnt have his spear. At another spot Cheif Paul pointed out what looked like massive fruits hanging from a tree high in the canopy, however as we got closer one of these ‘fruits’ took flight followed by a dozen more then 50 more and within seconds the sky was black with hundreds of huge bats. Chief Paul told us how the ‘flying squirrels’ make an excellent meal and with a wingspan of over 5 feet not a small one. After a couple hours of muddy, nearly straight up and down hiking we could hear the thundering. At first I thought it was an airplane, then maybe the volcano, but 10 more minutes of hiking to a a valley ridge revealed the source of the noise – now in visible sight to us on the opposite end of the valley, still nearly a mile away, was the thundering falls pouring 600 feet from the volcanic crater lake over a sheer cliff onto the huge boulders below. We stood in silence staring at the wonder trying to catch our breaths from the hike. Chief Paul explained that not even a native had seen these falls in over a year due to the volcano. The next hour took us climbing straight down holding onto tree roots for dear life so we could reach the base of the falls. As we wacked our way closer the roaring got so loud we couldn’t hear each other and we began to feel its mist a couple hundred yards away. Two hundred feet from the base was like a downpour and when we got within 100 feet the winds were so strong we could barely stand. We could now feel the full power of the waterfall all around us and the four of stood there taking it in for several minutes randomly yelling out at the tops of our lungs trying to make noise that could be heard in the midst of this falling river. We were all rejuvinated and laughing on the way back and even Chief Paul said he had never been that close to the massive falls. After we got back we invited Chief Paul aboard along with some of other friends from the village and for a couple hours we heard the many custom legends of the island ranging from the origin of kava to how to make the volcano spirits happy. This was followed by showing some of the children how to jump from the spreader. The next morning we went into the village to say our goodbyes and with some of the children crying we departed north.

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