Trip Start Apr 07, 2008
1Trip End Apr 21, 2008
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So it really was paradise, a place that was so beautiful that almost anything can go wrong before you actually get upset. I cant really write about places like that, I have to have things go wrong. I could put some photos on facebook to make everyone jealous, but I don't think people really want to know. They want to hear all the funny things that happened.
Hopefully I am the first person I know to visit Vanuatu, voted in 2006 as the happiest country in the world (according to a local bookshop window). Its always more fun to go somewhere nobody else has been because you know so little about it. So here are some facts and so on (which may be slightly off since its only what I have picked up from travel brochures, tourist information and Van Air's 20th anniversary in flight magazine).
The country was formally known as the New Hebrides (ah now you know where I mean) and was ruled jointly by the English and the French until about 1980. It consists of 83 islands in a sort of archipelago, mostly extinct volcanoes, but some of them have survived, as you will see in my photos. Its other interesting role in history was that it was the site of a large naval base for the Americans in WWII. There are lots of wrecks around, but also a large dump for all their unwanted machinery at the end of the war.
Because of the French influence the food is pretty good, not only is lobster cheap, but its really famous for its beef, since the cattle have such lush grass to graze. It makes ordering really difficult. And to top it all the locals do really good food themselves, using all sorts of roots and fruits in their recipes. One of the islands I was on is even famous for its coffee beans.
You can get around by passenger ferry, though its erratic and only does each route once a week. So I had to fly everywhere, though it wasn't very expensive and the locals all use them. The planes double as cargo carriers, so all the island's supplies seem to get offloaded with your luggage. On one flight they were obviously a bit tight so I got weighed along with my back pack.
The Melanesians look a lot like Africans for some reason and this got really confusing as a lot of them were walking around in springbok rugby jerseys. Slightly more wore the wallaby jumper though. To make things more difficult, Lucky Dube is one of the most popular musicians out here, and every single one of them asked me about the late reggae star when I told them where I was from.
I learnt about island economics. Everything here has a set price, not by any government, just the commercial practice. It means you can't get ripped off, can't bargain and don't even have to tip, since paying extra is insulting. But it can be funny when you accidentally have something you didn't know cost anything and it gets added to your bill. There are no complaints worth making, the local chiefs decision is law. The law is also an interesting one, since its basically down to the chief's interpretation of age old customs. Land ownership vests in the chief who looks after it on behalf of his family, and every single thing is owned, down to the reefs in the sea.
The way you become a chief is by collecting enough pig tusks. The local pigs, when looked after properly, grow tusks in a curl, it takes about seven years for a tusk to curl in a complete circle, and they need to curl twice to be really valuable. When he has his ceremony, it sounded like he would need about fifty curled tusks to wear, and then even more to slaughter for the feast that night. So everything revolves around pigs. As one taxi driver put it, "If you run over a man's wife, you will be ok, but if you kill a pig, drive away from there as fast as you can!"
Its also really odd how they don't ever try and sell you anything, and if you need somewhere to stay, they direct you to a friend or relative's house all for free, often the people get nothing out of you, they're just happy to help. The number of times I could easily have paid double just because I didn't know better, is scary. My favourite is the way that if you want to buy something, but someone else offers a better product, they will usually tell you.
Here's a more chronological account of the trip, after flying into Vila, we decided to head straight up to the biggest island, Espirito Santo. No advance bookings needed.
Beach Resort Santo
We stayed In a cute little bungalow facing the "sea" for 8,000 Vatu. We had phoned from the airport (it really isn't necessary to book ahead on the islands) and got quoted 6,000 but these were actually "garden" bungalows and not as nice. I found it quite odd though that we had a kitchen counter with all sorts of pots and pans - its really not worth doing your own catering if you can afford a decent bungalow. You could stay for about a quarter of the price somewhere else - then your meals are probably costing the same as your bed for two of you. Luganville did have a bakery making proper French loaves (good luck trying to find it though) which go for a couple hundred Vatu. There was also a nice market for all your fresh produce. What you couldn't get there you get from half a dozen Chinese trading stores, but don't hold your breath.
Although they advertise the beach here, it wasn't spectacular, so the next day we decided to try make it to Lonnoc, on the east coast. We only made the decision at around 11, luckily someone gave us a ride in the back of his ute and he knew a bus driver heading up there that day.
The Lonnoc expeience was hilarious. We asked about it at the tourist information kiosk where the man there sits in about 5 degrees without a jumper. He directed us to the chemist around the corner, who apparently owned the bungalows. We met a middle aged lady sitting at her counter who advised there would be no problem with just rocking up. So the next thing we knew we had rushed back to the bungalows, checked out (not before having the best pizza in town for lunch) and were in the back of a ute on the way to the bus stop. Buses apparently left inbetween 3 and 4.
But then the driver spotted his "brother" driving past so we quickly negotiated a ride to Lonnoc for 600 each. He reckoned his was the newest and most comfortable bus, so it was worth a premium of 100. Of course once we were in it was also another 300 for our bags, as he said other buses would charge for the number of seats your bags took up. We went along with all of this since it seemed the local way, and we were pretty happy to be going. A couple of stops at various shops to buy supplies, and one at the chemist to fetch the drivers family, and we were off.
The Lonnoc bungalows were empty, so we got a tour of every one. We were advised the first one cost 2,800 but the last one was the best. This was the "honeymoon" bungalow, as it was right on the waters edge. I apprehensively asked how much this one was, but the lady replied they were all the same price. Done deal. She was actually a volunteer management consultant and had only just recently arrived. She definitely had her work cut out turning the place around, as I have seen few places that have less commercial idea.
It wasn't as though it was this hippie place where everything was just given away. Every activity had a standard price of 500 attached to it. Snorkelling outing to feed nemo and look for turtles was 500. But it was also 500 to rent either a mask, or a snorkel, or both. Then we went to the neighbours place to see the famous champagne beach, armed with 400 each per the guide book, and guess what, it was 500 each. Unfortunately in Vanuatu they like you to be accompanied everywhere by a guide. Maybe its just for the employment. But the cost soon adds up as walking around a village now gets expensive. In many ways though we didn't mind so long as our money was reaching the locals, since they really had very little other than the land they were living off.
The main disappointment was the restaurant which only ever had one item available, and not even always something that was actually on the menu. This was a pity as they got day trippers and could really have made a name for themselves as a place to make a trip to. Sometimes the food was pretty good, but sometimes they obviously just had no ingredients and it shouldn't have been sold for its full price. The highlight was the lime juice which was sold by the jug and tasted good even with a bottle of scotch mixed in. We had one night chatting to an archaeologist couple who were extremely boring since the conversation seemed to revolve around Greek ruins. We were in Vanuatu.
Unfortunately we left in a bit of a rush, as despite the food it was a pristine beach and charming little resort. We never had time to see champagne beach or the blue holes around there. We did get up to the next village, port somewhere, where we could even have stayed a night. I asked around but the owner of the hut you could stay in was not around. And it looked like you shared ablutions with half the village. There were some limits on how rough we could go unfortunately. I would have liked to carry on around to the big bay on the north east side, and even to have done some hiking, but I do admit it would have been pretty hard going.
We were on a 4x4 tour up north when we decided to cut our losses and catch a ride back with our new driver to Luganville. He was far more reasonable than the bus driver and we were more comfortable. This time he was a chief on his way to sort out some issues on a lease of land. He was quite knowledgable and was able to give a lot of insight to things we drove past - an American investor who was building resorts; a kiwi who was growing local timber plantations.
Described in the LP as the Raffles of Santo it was too tempting to resist staying there for my birthday. Garden rooms were 7,800 which was not too bad considering. They also had a lovely pool which was probably the main selling point. No kitchenette this time, but a fridge at least. The beauty though was being next door to the ocean restaurant which did thai and sea food at really good prices. It was always full. To justify their reputation though, there was a big underwater film crew staying there. We didn't like the look of them (too much time underwater and you start looking like a fish) so kept our distance.
On our first full day back it was my birthday, and I was under pressure to enjoy it. So I arranged some dives with the shop across the road. I was their only customer that day. I had a boat and a crew of three all to myself; inbetween the dives we had our compulsory break on a sandy beach with a cold box of fruits and iced water, it was a great way to celebrate. Of course I got bitten under water for the first time, so had an unusual present from a red snapper.
I dived the world's biggest intact wreck, the USS Cooldige. Well I am only paraphrasing the dive operator's brochure. It was pretty big though, at two or three hundred metres long, and there was no way you could see the whole thing without a few weeks there. I also dived million dlooar point, which was even more interesting. At the end of the war the Americans wanted to sell all their gear to the British and French, who used to rule the place jointly. Apparently their allies could only afford a million dollars (you may have read in history somewhere they were pretty poor after the war) but the Americans wanted more. Probably only a little bit more. So they threw a "tantrum" - again not my words - and built a pier, drove everything into the sea, and for good measure blew the pier up too. This version of the story is the one the islanders tell, but it sounds typical.
The next island on our trip was a bit of a surprise since it wasn't in the budget. But we had now done everything in Santo, our own fault since we rushed it a bit, and decided to head for Tanna, which had always sounded like the best island. We got a taxi to the airport and began a line of questioning with the office that eventually got us on a plane. They were on reduced flights since it was a Sunday, and the little thing was packed. I think there were some no shows since we couldn't book seats, but only really got on by presenting ourselves at check in. They weighed not only all our luggage but ourselves too. For some reason I had lost 6 kilos in the previous month and that was the deal clincher. We only paid in port vila, since all of this was too much for the poor girl behind the sales counter.
At the airport in Vila we had about half an hour between landing and boarding the connecting flight to Tanna. But we hadn't even bought our tickets for the previous flight yet so it was a bit tight. I did manage to find someone to sell me the tickets by walking backstage through the luggage loading area and then convincing him to sell me some tickets. It took ages and I just hope the guys behind me in the queue managed to get theirs too - I didn't see them on our flight.
Flying in Vanuatu is great fun because Osamen apparently doesn't want to blow up any of their planes. You can take whatever you like onto the plane; there are no x-rays or anything silly like that. We always bought our tickets on the day by rocking up at the airport, and there is just one price, none of this online booking rubbish. You get great views and snacks included with the price, just like the old days.
Sunrise bungalows turned out to be the best deal anyway, since it's on a cliff top overlooking a bay, and Captain Cooks Hat, a sort of rocky island in the middle. The most important advantage of this though was the sea breeze which keeps it fresh. Once again we got a honeymoon deal, for just 3,000 a night. The staff were overboard friendly and they even had a litter of kittens to keep all the guests entertained. What we only found out later was that the staff were being paid really poorly, so it's a sign of their warm hospitable nature that they were still so kind to us.
We managed to eat at a different venue every day for lunch, the first one was by self guiding ourselves to port resolution, the local town (it had a telephone). We got quite lost; fortunately someone donated us a bottle of water for the heat along the way. We wandered around this ghost town (it was midday) until we bumped into the man that owned the restaurant we happened to be looking for. No problem, the wife was sent with us to show us where it was and prepare lunch.
The next day we tried the French bungalows which were in our bay and much less risky. This time the lady had no ingredients since her generator was broken. She said she would go and buy some, but when I aksed how much it would be and said that it had better be good for that price, I think she changed her mind. It turned out for the best though, we had a great salad for lunch at half the price.
The last place was at the treehouse - a local guy had built a house in a tree just like a movie he had seen. He intended to live there but tourists kept asking if they could stay so he turned it into a bungalow. We got a free tour of the famous shark bay, where they come and live whenever his dad turns a certain stone in a certain direction. We were now in the land of witchcraft. No matter how much of a rasta our host was, there is a Australian-built hotel going up on their land, lets hope they don't ruin the area. The lobster was caught during our tour, and was even better than Vila or Santo - since the best way is always just to boil it straight out of the sea.
The highlight of Tanna, and it's a tough one to pick, was the mount Yasur volcano, where you can walk up onto the crater lip and watch the lava explode into the air. I am not a good enough writer to describe it, but there would be a sound like a cannon, followed by lumps of molten lava floating upwards, as if in slow motion. They would be airborne for twenty or thirty seconds before slapping the sides of the crater. As it got dark you just sat there in wonderment at the glowing lava sprinkled over the black rock.
It came time to go home and we caught another ride across Tanna, this time I was in the back of a ute with about twelve skinny villagers. In Vila we just gorged ourselves on the cuisine, every time we walked up the road we would discover a new place to eat. They all have a French influence, but also the seafood is fresh and the beef tender (well the cows live off lush volcanic lawns). Vila seemed civilised the second time around, relative to the rest of the country I suppose it is. But it also felt a lot more civilised than a lot of western countries I have been to.
I spent the last two nights on Erakor island, just off the mainland in an estuary, where they do a lot of fishing from canoes, and also have fish traps. The one end of the island had a resort, lots of aussie holiday makers, but the other was where they had some dormitories and self catering, but it was completely empty. So I was paying about a fifth of the tourists but had a private bay and large house all to myself. It was a great way to end a holiday independent style. It just goes to show that the quality of your holiday has very little to do with how much it costs, and far more to do with your intrepid instincts to get off the beaten track.
Where I stayed
Beach Resort Santo