Ambrym 1976

By Tim Foster

In October 1976 I made my first trip to an outer island. I was sent to Ambrym with Daniel Melen from the PWD design office, who was Acting Sub-Divisionnaire for CD No 1, to carry out a preliminary survey for an airstrip at Craig Cove.

We first flew to Lamap, Malekula, on the morning flight and were met by the headmaster of the French school there who took us to the Government rest house. The ride was interesting. His car had air conditioning -there was a hole in the floor- and the front and rear of the vehicle moved independently of each other over the bumpy track. When he dropped us off he invited us to dinner that evening.

We weren’t due to cross to Ambrym by speedboat until the next day and even then it wasn’t certain we’d go as there was some concern that one of the volcanoes on Ambrym might erupt. There had been a light ash fall for a while previously on Malekula. We kicked our heels for the day and at about 6pm we walked up for our dinner.

Early next morning our boat arrived at the beach near to the rest house and we sped off to Ambrym. The weather was clear and sunny but there was a noticeable sea swell and the ride across the 18 mile reach wasn’t comfortable. It wasn’t possible to sit down so that meant standing with flexed legs and when we landed at Craig Cove I felt as if I’d run a marathon (or what I thought it might feel like).

We were met by Pere Zerger, the Roman Catholic priest at the mission, who introduced us to a young New Hebredian man named Solomon. If I remember correctly he was the deputy chief of the local village on whose land the airstrip would be built. For the next couple of hours Solomon guided us through the bush pointing out where he thought the strip should be, walking over razor sharp dead coral in flip flops. I was glad of the heavy duty boots I was wearing but I still managed to fall over and take the skin off the inside of my left wrist. I had no idea where we were so I stuck close to Solomon. Eventually- and thankfully- we stopped at a coconut palm and a young New Hebridian boy, who had followed us, shinned up and cut down some nuts which Solomon expertly cut open with his machete and presented us with a welcome drink. I thought to myself, “Solomon doesn’t really need us, he seems to know exactly what is needed and where”.

Back at the mission, Pere Zerger had arranged some lunch for us which had been cooked by a lady in his flock. We ate it in the shade of an open sided building constructed of a rectangular coral wall about 2 feet high and painted white, a vertical pole at each corner and a pitched roof of palm leaves. Of course, being French, Pere Zerger included wine with the food.

I was intrigued by Pere Zerger’s accommodation. He had a reasonably sized bungalow but only occupied a small corner of one room and slept on a small cot bed. The other rooms were filled with, I don’t know what.

The afternoon passed with Pere Zerger and Daniel talking NH politics and me dozing in a deckchair in the sunshine until our boat returned to pick us up. Before we left, Pere Zerger presented me with a beautiful Nautilus shell. We bounced back to Lamap and into Port Sandwich where, I later found out, Captain Cook had anchored in about 6 fathoms. When we landed at high tide there was just enough draft for a small boat.

After another night in the rest house we flew back to Vila the next morning.

The airstrip was built sometime after I left Vila but I have had a look at it online recently and thought “so that’s where we were”.

Copyright Tim Foster 2018 All rights reserved.