My first day of wandering around in Port Vila was quite nice. I wasted a fair amount of time to get a couple of things organised, but reaching people by phone is not much easier once you’re in the country than it was from NZ.
What went really well though was sending a service message via Radio Vanuatu. This was the only way to let the place on Torres Island where I wanted to stay know that I was coming, as they do not have a telephone there. At that stage it hadn’t quite sunk in that the whole country would now hear about me travelling to Torres the next day. I only realised this at the airport on the next morning when a guy was wandering around at the airport talking to the few white people there. When he came up to me he asked me whether I was going to Torres (yes!), and then he told me that he had heard about that in the radio!
He was from another island up North and knew the guy who runs the place where I was going to stay. This whole thing about small countries and everyone knowing everyone is even more true for Vanuatu than it is for NZ. It’s pretty amazing to get sucked into this even as a tourist!
But back to Vila. I spent the evening chatting with an Australian lady and a French/Canadian couple living in Switzerland. To my great horror they told me that there was a 10kg baggage limit on domestic flights. Desaster! I spent the following half an hour going through my 18kg of luggage and disposing of everything I could do without.
In the end I brought my pack down to 13kg, and luckily wasn’t charged excess weight. I had a good flight – seat number 1A with an excellent view into the cockpit. Nice!
My host was waiting for me at the airstrip in Torres. I’m saying airstrip because it’s just that, a grassy flat in the middle of the islands. I ended up going for runs there, to maintain my level of fitness (and work off some calories to enable me to eat as much as a can, heehee, but more about that later).
The Kamilisa resort where I stayed is just a ten minute walk away from the airstrip, and shortly after I had arrived, I had moved into a small grass hut that would be my home for the next 7 days. You cannot see it on the photo, but the huts look out over the lagoon and are just a couple of meters away from the water.
I was the only tourist there just as I had hoped, and my host turned out to be really interesting to talk to. Whiteley is a retired schoolteacher, he’s lived in many places across Vanuatu, and has also travelled a bit. He once also played soccer in the national team! With his wife being away visiting relatives in Vila, he had plenty of time to chat, and that’s what we ended up doing quite frequently.
On most days, he took me somewhere to show me something, for example the beaches. Here’s what a previous tourist called Honeymoon Beach, a name that has stuck:
Under the trees, there is this strange thing rusting away. Any ideas what it could be???
Here’s another beach, at the end of the runway:
One day when crossing the airstrip to go to the beach, I ran into the Flying Doctor who is looking after the whole province. Dr Mark (as people call him( is a South African who is sponsored by a US church organisation, and who was doing flight exercises on that day to learn how to land on short airstrips. Usually a flying doctor has a pilot, but in his case he does both – the doctor and the pilot job.
Mark’s plane is tiny, but he said he could fit a patient in there, and even a drip! The plane, and more airstrips, should greatly improve health services for the people on the islands up North. I thought that surely this must be quite costly for the patients, but he said that he doesn’t charge any money and just asks people for food.
Speaking of food, ahhh, I ate like a king that week. I haven’t eaten so well in years, it was absolutely delicious! And mountains of it! Breakfast, lunch and dinner! It was all local and totally authentic. Organically grown, or fresh from the sea. Margret, Whiteley’s sister-in-law, cooked for me, and a top-notch cook she is! Here’s a photo of her (to the right) and her family:
I had coconut crab, lobster, and different sorts of fish, yams and taro in an amazing range of variations, island cabbage (a green leafy vegie that I like a lot), pawpaw, pumpkin and kumara. All of it cooked with coconut one way or other.
On my last evening she didn’t have time to cook for me, but there was a feast for a christening in the village that day, so she took me there and I had the pork dish which she had contributed, again absolutely delicious. So that’s one of the reasons why I went for runs on the airstrip – to enable me to eat as much as I could.
I didn’t try them, but they are totally edible and part of the local menu – land crabs:
Crabs are everywhere on the islands. They occupy the ecological niches where you’d find insects in Europe, and small mammals. Land crabs for example live in holes in the ground which they dig. They get quite large, but coconut crabs are even bigger. One night Whiteley took me coconut crab watching. I saw plenty of small ones, and a few bigger ones. Obviously the small ones come out earlier in the night to feed (on coconut, as you may have guessed), and only later the big ones go for their dinner. They are pretty alien beasts, blueish in colour, with huge claws with two rows of teeth on them!
I did other interesting stuff up there – visited the local school and had a chat with the young head master, went to the cave where people hide from cyclones, and had a look at a coconut plantation that had sunk just a few centrimetres after an earthquake and where all the coconut trees had died due to the sea water now flowing in. I also had a look at the local villages, and met my first chief, Peter, a tiny elderly man.
Mind you, the chief is the law in rural Vanuatu, and they actually have quite a lot of power. Here’s a practical example. Coconut crabs are delicious, and pigs like them just as much as humans. But coconut crabs are endangered, and in order to protect them, the chief has put in place a law that pigs must not roam freely but be fenced. Should you not comply, the chief will fine you, usually a pig, or yams.
So the week disappeared rather quickly, and soon it was time for a final coconut.
Then off to the airport in a rush, as I was told that sometimes the plane isn’t on time – it’s early! It was early indeed by half an hour. They just leave when all the passengers and luggage are there, it’s all quite informal. There also were no boarding passes (you just hop on the plane and sit in the seat you want), and my baggage tag was hand-written. Again, I was lucky and didn’t have to pay excess luggage. They do not just weigh your luggage for those small planes, they also put YOU on the scale.
So this was Torres – a beach holiday like no other.