Blog, Vanuatu

Exploring the Cannibal Island of Erromango

We were sad to leave Tanna, as well as our amazing experience with friends Mary, Jimmy and Felda, we had enjoyed meeting Andy and Gemma on yacht Paws. Enjoying sailing the machine alongside their sailing tender, and getting involved with their project of cleaning plastic from the beaches. However it was time to go, so an early start and a relatively easy downwind day sail, had us anchored in Dillon’s Bay on the island of Erromango before sunset.

Sailing in company with Andi from Yacht Paws
Beach clean up organised by Andi and Gemma as part of the ongoing fight against ocean plastics by

Although it’s one of the larger islands in Vanuatu, Erromango is sparsely populated and rarely visited. It’s dense jungle interior is impenetrable and largely unexplored.


The village of Dillion’s Bay is set on the banks of Williams River. The island has a violent history of cannibalism and tribal warring. The river itself is named after a murdered missionary who unknowingly broke a kastom taboo (traditional law) when he stepped ashore. His punishment was to be killed, traded and eaten by a neighbouring tribe. Prior to the trade, the villagers of Dillon’s Bay, measured his body by carving around it’s stout outline on a rock by the waters edge.

Luckily for us relations with visiting boats have greatly improved. Paddling up the river, past the fishing boats and dug out outrigger canoes, we hauled our kayak up the bank to a small crowd of smiles and warm greetings. We were soon introduced to Chief Jason, who welcomed us into the village with a gift of fresh papaya. Upon hearing we would like to go for a walk along the river bank, Chief Jason offered to accompany us and show us the village gardens. The village is much more modern than those we had visited in Tanna. Chief Jason explained that many of the families here aspire to live in concrete houses with flush toilets. Younger members of the family work abroad picking fruit to gain the funds to buy modern boats, engines and materials for their homes. Jason feels a road for the village’s three vehicles is the next major development needed.

The school holidays meant we saw whole families out in their canoes

We continued down the track to a river crossing where women washed their families clothes on the river banks. The fertile soil and easy access to fresh water mean that the villagers gardens thrive and there is an abundance of fresh vegetables. As well as the usual taro, kasarva and banana, Jason pointed out sandalwood and Kauri trees, both major exports from the island. Early white explorers and traders had used unethical and violent methods to fell the islands valuable sandalwood and kauri trees. Now the export is back in the hands of the locals and seems to be managed sustainably.

Chief Jason

Thanking Chief Jason for his time we set off in search of John William’s famous rock. It proved harder to find than we imagined, and we ended up enlisting the help of some local kids.

Having proudly led us to the point, Abel, Brian and Joshua asked in broken English where we would like to go next. It was decided they would show us some waterfalls up the river. With Abel leading the way, machete in hand we followed them through the village gardens and across the river. Several river crossings later, the path we had been following petered out. Our enthusiastic young guides were undeterred, taking it in turns to hack a path through the jungle or choose a route across the river. They never flinched when jumping barefoot from the slippery rocks or trudging through the harsh jungle floor as we struggled to keep up and slid around, despite our tough hiking shoes. Our attempts to hide the fact that we were struggling with the pace must not have gone unnoticed as we were instructed to sit on the river bank while the boys, disappeared into the bush for fruit and seeds before climbing a tree and hacking down a large bunch of drinking coconuts.


Refreshed, we continued up the river in search of the elusive waterfalls. After the 20th “just around the corner” it became clear that the boys were on as much of an adventure as us. They finally admitted that they hadn’t been this far up the river before but thought there should be some waterfalls. With the light fading, no torch, and no easy trail to follow, we persuaded the boys we should turn back. Their easy acceptance that the steep ravine would have been a waterfall if it had been raining a lot but it was too dry, suggested they were also more tired than they cared to admit.

Safely back at the village


The boys approaching in their dugout canoe

Safely back in the village, we invited the boys to come out and see Florence. They arrived via outrigger canoe the following morning after church. Abel, who spoke the best English, was able to translate as we showed them how we live and sail on-board Florence. By this point an uncomfortable swell had started to cause Florence to relentlessly roll from side to side. This teamed with the amount of milk and food the kids had guzzled meant we were soon conducting a major clean up operation.

Josh fascinated by the “long-see-em’s”. He spent all afternoon looking through them, both ways!

The swell continued to get worse over the next couple of days. Despite deploying our drogue as a flopper stopper, to reduce the rolling, life on-board became uncomfortable enough for us to haul the anchor and head north. We poked our nose into a small anchorage at the north of the island but the holding was poor and the swell still present. Much to the disappointment of the kids who ran out to the reef to greet us, we hauled the anchor once again and set off at dusk for the overnight sail to Port Villa, Vanuatu’s capital.

Ancient human bones in one of the islands many caves used to shelter from violence and tribal war
The bones of a Cheif and his wifes

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