Espiritu Santo

Santo was all about beaches, the water, and a huge cave.

We made the bungalow accommodation close to Champagne Beach our base for three days. The bungalows are at a beach that is nice, but nothing compared to Champagne Beach itself. This is the mother of all beaches!

White sand like icing sugar, a fringe of coconut palms, and crystal clear turquois blue water. No photo can do it justice, and so I won’t even try. Instead, here’s one of me on the wharf at the beach:

096 Ich auf dem Steg (400x300)

And one of the resident turtle who comes there to feed on the grass on the bottom of the sea:

123 Schildkroete (400x300)

Further up North in the small fishing village of in Port Olry, the beach is not quite as nice, but the setting is even more picturesque:

099 Boote am Strand vom Port Olry (400x300)

The cows clearly loved it, too:

101 Kuehe am Strand vom Port Olry (400x300)

Back at our accommodation, with no little cats being around to play with, Gregor turned his attention to his new area of interest:

106 Gregor bei seiner Lieblingsbeschaeftigung (400x300)

The bungalows were set on what in fact was an operating farm, with cows, pigs, chicken, you name it, all free range and happy. At night, we fell asleep with the sound of cows munching the grass next to our bungalow.

And we learnt that piglets can run incredibly fast, and that they do a lot of running around. Whereas mother pig is focused on food will scream at you if you don’t give it to her.

But it was not just about animals, there were also some beautiful flowers. The four orchids here are all from the neighbour’s garden:

105 Orchideenblueten (400x300)

We also went on a little outing to a blue hole. These are usually fresh water holes of amazing colour set in the green bush:

118 (400x300)

It was a very nice day, and we ended up spending the entire morning there, snorkelling a bit or just admiring the water:

116 Wasser und Spiegelung (400x300)

Then even a sea snake turned up. Black and white just like in the kastom dance on Rah:

117 (400x300)

When we finally walked back, we came along lots of coconut plantations and a copra oven that was operating (I had seen many before but never one in action):

120 Copraofen (400x300)

That’s how coconut flesh is dried for export.

For our last dinner at Champagne Beach, we were invited to the neighbours’ place again. Unes, the lady of the house, cooked maniok laplap for us:

122 (400x300)

It was delicious, I’m still thinking of it.

A very nice last evening, including the sunset:

124 Abendstimmung (400x300)

We ended our holiday with a real Santo must-do: Millennium Cave. This is a huge cave that was only fully discovered in 2000 (hence the name). Before entering the cave, you get your face painted to show respect to nature:

126 Ich beim Face painting (400x300)

In the cave itself, it’s pitch black dark, and there are lots of bats.

Once you’re out, you’re in a beautiful deep and mossy gorge with a river running through it.

128 Fluss nach der Millennium Cave (400x300)

There’s a fair bit of climbing over big boulders to do. Gregor added some additional excitement by falling into a deep hole into the water and had to be pulled out again. He was very lucky and only had a few scratches and a bruise on his back.

The last leg of the tour is an amazing swim down the gorge, in very deep water between steep walls of rock. A great experience and I’d recommend it to everyone.

So this was our holiday! It was fantastic and we really enjoyed it. We’ll be back!

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Ambae

Gregor arrived on Santo the day after I had come back from Rah. On Monday, we flew to Ambae which is East of Santo. The idea was to have a bit of an active week, before a few days on the beach towards the end of our holiday.

The first adventure, as always on the outer islands, was road transport. The roads are really bad, the trucks are old, and the drivers are fantastic. All in all, it’s very safe, because speeds are so low, maybe around 15kmh.

You won’t be surprised that fuel for the truck comes in small bottles:

040 (300x400)

We took the truck up to Duviara, a very pleasant tiny settlement high up in the hills. It’s high enough to be out of reach for mosquitos, and the temperature for us people from temperate climates was just about perfect.

On the next day, we got up early and walked up to the volcanic crater lakes. There are two lakes, and as the kastom story goes, one is the gate to hell, and the other one is the gate to paradise. I won’t have to tell you which is which as it’s that obvious!

It was a good 4.5 hours along a very pleasant track through the bush up to Lake Vui. All of a sudden, you come out of the bush, there’s dead trees all around you, with their silvery trunks and branches reaching into the deep blue sky. There’s an eerie silence, and the sun is burning hot.

It’s stunning and incredibly beautiful:

043 Lake Vui Tor zur Hoelle (400x300)

Then half an hour of backtracking and another 10 minutes up a ridge gets you to a small camping site with a view of Lake Manaro Lakua:

049 Lake Manaro Lakua Tor zum Paradies (400x300)

Now guess which of the two lakes leads into paradise!

We had lunch on the ridge. Emina, our host, had made a very nice meal of river prawns, taro and aelan kabis for us:

052 Mittagessen ausgepackt (400x300)

Emina is a great cook.She was happy to let us into her kitchen and show us how to make laplap, a typical dish.

The making of Laplap:

Laplap can be made of any starchy vegetable. The laplap Emina made for us was made from taro. Raw taro is really aggressive on people’s skins. So we weren’t allowed to help Emina with grating it which was the first step.

Emina grating taro on a spiky stick:

056 Emina reibt Taro (400x300)

Once the taro was grated, the dough was spread evenly on banana leaves:

058 Auftragen des Taro auf Bananenblaetter (400x300)

The banana leaves were then folded up and tied together, forming a little parcel.

While Emina was grating the taro, her husband Wesley had made a fire and heated a pile of stones on it. The parcel of taro and banana leaves was then put between the hot stones:

061 Das Paket wird zwischen die Steine gepackt (400x300)

While the laplap was cooking, Gregor grated some coconut:

064 (300x400)

Wesley then made some coconut cream. Once the laplap was cooked, it was taken from the hot stones, the parcel was opened, and Emina put coconut cream on top of the laplap:

065 Auftragen von Kokosmilch (400x300)

That’s it! So here’s our dinner – taro laplap, with aelan kabis:

066 Laplap mit Aelan Kabis (300x400)

Yery yummy, yes we did enjoy our meal very much!

But at Duviara, it wasn’t all about food. In a small nakamal that was slowly being taken over by the jungle, three tamtams, wooden slit drums, were stored:

070 Tamtams (400x300)

I knocked on them and even when lying on the ground, they had quite a cool sound.

We really liked it at Duviara, and stayed an extra day. But then it was time to move on again, as we had a bit of walking to do, first down to the coast again. In the afternoon, we took a dip in some very cool rock pools:

076 (300x400)

On the next day, we got up early as we had a big day ahead: walking over to West Ambae. It started off innocently enough, along the truck road and then along the beach:

080 Blaetter zum Mattenweben am Strand (400x300)

The long leaves that you can see lying on the sand are being prepared for weaving mats.

But then the hard work started, over roots and rocks and up a big hill, rewarded with good views out to the sea and to West Ambae:

088 Blick nach West Ambae (400x300)

Luckily enough, the descent turned out to be much gentler than the ascent as it was getting very hot by then.

Once down again, it was a pleasant walk along the truck road, along gardens and through some pretty villages:

090 Dorf in West Ambae (400x300)

We were really tired when we arrived, but had made it much earlier than expected. There was still time for a dip in the sea before it got dark, which was good.

We spent two days just hanging out & recovering. Not that we really needed that much time, but as all our walks had gone so smoothly, we had more time in the end than needed.

While I wasn’t doing much at all, Gregor spent hours playing with the two small cats at our accommodation. Here he is with the cheekier one:

092 Gregor mit Katze in Ndui Ndui (400x300)

By the time Monday arrived and we flew back to Santo, we were well rested and felt more like doing stuff than chilling out on the beach as had been our plan.

Rah

Rah is a tiny island in the Banks group (North Vanuatu). It’s close to Motalava which is a much bigger island and which the people on Rah call the “mainland”.

The two islands used to be much further apart and the lagoon between them was deep enough for big ships to pass through. But having been drifting towards each other for a long time, they are now so close and the lagoon so shallow that you can wade between the islands at low tide.

The big island is Motalava, and the smaller one to its right is Rah:

039 Motalava & Rah (400x300)

The main way for interisland travel in Vanuatu is by plane. To go up North, it’s a matter of getting onto a Twin Otter and then hopping from island to island until you reach your destination. It’s small planes, small airstrips, and the fuel comes in big barrels. Refuelling (on Gaua Island) is a manual thing:

001 Tanken des Flugzeuges auf Gaua (400x300)

For my arrival on Rah, Mayumi, the travel agent who I had engaged to book our travel, had arranged for a little welcome by the village:

002 Begruessung auf Rah (400x300)

Of course you have to pay for this, but it’s still really nice. I was impressed with the women’s strong singing voices and their confidence.

I spent most of my week on Rah not doing much at all, reading a good book that made me think (which was exactly what I wanted), and learning a bit of Bislama, the national language (a form of Pidgin English).

Then there was the food… excellent and in huge amounts. Ruthie and Cecil my hosts catered so well for me that every meal was a little feast. The vegie and fruit mostly came out of their garden, and the fish straight from the sea, as is the norm on the outer islands.

Here’s a photo of Cecil, Ruthie and their little baby daughter Tracy:

031 Cecil Ruthie Tracy (400x300)

One of the things I did apart from lazing around was climbing the rocks of Rah, a few massive volcanic boulders. From the top, you have a nice view of Motalava:

011 Blick auf Motalava von Rocks of Rah (400x300)

Together with the handful of other tourists on the island, I watched the snake dance. This is Rah’s kastom dance about the black and white sea snake. The dancers paint themselves black and white and it’s a stunning view with the white beach and blue sea, even on an overcast day:

027 Snake dance (400x300)

It wasn’t always cloudy though during the day, with bright mornings and lots of sunshine. Here’s the the little boat that runs between Rah and Motalava, powered by Phillip the ferry man:

034 Faehrboot mit Faehrmann Phillip (400x300)

There were also some really nice evenings, with soft warm light:

032 Abendstimmung (400x300)

Just before I flew out again, Cecil took me to some mysterious remains of villages long gone. They only were discovered about 10 years ago when the villagers opened up new areas for gardens. The whole area was cleared of bush and a researcher actually came to study it.

Cecil told me that it was a very beautiful sight, where you could clearly see that this once had been a village, the function of the individual houses, e.g. the chief’s house, or the nakamal (the men’s meeting house).

The big mystery is that the foundations of the houses where made of stone, whereas nowadays, the houses are built entirely from wood. They do not know where the stones came from, and in particular how those people cut them into the neat slabs when they only had clam shell knives back then.

The area has since been reclaimed by vegetation, but you can still find something if you know where to look for. Here’s the remainder of a wall that was part of a house:

036 Steinmauer verlassener Doerfer auf Motalava (400x300)

Then it was time to say goodbye and off to Santo. On the way, in the Torres Islands, I gave my book to Whiteley, who was my host there in August 2010. He was waiting for me at the airport and it was nice to have a quick chat with him before I had to get back on the plane.

The Torres islands are a really special place and the most remote place I’ve ever been to. One of the things that make it so special is that it’s probably about the only place in the world where coconut crabs, an endangered species elsewhere and a culinary delicacy, are plentiful.

So from Torres, there was some unusual hand luggage on board:

037 Herr im Flieger mit Handgepaeck (400x300)

Torres and Rah, one day I’ll be back again!

My Vanuatu holiday

I’m back from Vanuatu.

As usual after a holiday, going back to work wasn’t much fun. I’d much rather pursue the couple of ideas for small businesses in Vanuatu that I have. I’ve had quite a few ideas for businesses in my life, but usually no one but me likes them.

This time, I’m sure to be on to something, but as I neither want to emigrate to Vanuatu, nor will these kinds of business deliver the level of income I have now, they will probably not go anywhere either.

Anyway, it was a fantastic holiday and I’m already thinking about when I can go there again. Gregor also really liked it, which was quite important considering that I want to go there again!

So over the next couple of weeks, I will post photos.

Tanna

My last holiday week was devoted to Tanna. Tanna is further South, so it gets slightly cooler in winter, and the temperature turned out to be absolutely perfect for me.

Transport is incredibly expensive on Tanna. The 25 kilometres from the airport to the other side of the island where I wanted to stay did cost me about 80 dollars. But that’s not even the full cost of the trip which is more than 100 dollars. Diesel costs about 4 dollars per litre. A Toyota Hilux pickup truck, the most common type of vehicle there, is about 140,000 dollars. And lasts for about 5 years only!!! That’s because of the ash, the sea salt and the VERY rough roads that make vehicles fall apart so quickly.

It’s a very pretty island though, with green lawns and paths cut into them, with bougainvilleas along them. The bungalows where I stayed had a great view over the Port Resolution area:

Port Resolution

I mostly went to Tanna because of Mount Yasur, the famous volcano. What makes it so interesting is that it’s constantly erupting, shooting lava high up into the air and belching thick clouds of ash and smoke:

Eruption

It was a real 3D experience. You go up there in the late afternoon while there is still full daylight. It’s nice, but once it gets dark it’s totally awesome as you can see the glowing lava a lot better.

What fascinated me most was the thunder, earth vibrating, and pressure waves just before every eruption. My first impression was that this must be Mordor! So there was all this thundering and red hot lava fireworks, and once we could even feel the heat. Then a slight change of wind and everyone started coughing because smoke had been blown towards us. Photos and words just don’t do it justice, if you want to know what it’s like, you have to go there! In no Western country would they let people so close to a volcano, that’s for sure.

This is the volcano, seen from the ash plain:

Mt Yasur

Before flying back to Vila, I spent a night on the other side of the island where I did a bit of snorkelling on the reef. The reef was ok, but not really great.

Even though the volcano, food and accommodation were really good, Tanna wasn’t quite as special to me as Torres and Santo had been. They get more tourists there than the other places I had visited. Even though tourism is still on a very small scale, it’s clear that you are not their special tourist anymore, but just one of many. It’s a good place to go to though if you just want to do your tourist thing and be left alone.

Luganville and Vila, again

I was back in Luganville around lunchtime and spent most of the afternoon scrubbing my clothes. In the evening, Mayumi invited me for a drink of kava at the kava bar that was popular with the expats. I thought that this was really nice, yet again something that would hardly happen in a Western country.

A British couple and I then went to the market for dinner together (excellent steak, yum!). Then back again to scrub my clothes a little bit more & soak them overnight. More scrubbing again in the morning…not that my pants will ever be clean again, but at least they were good enough again to be worn around town.

On the next morning, just before leaving, I then ended up selling my watch which was pretty cool since that’s exactly what I had wanted to do at the end of my holiday. I had only bought the watch for my holiday, since a colleague of mine had recommended that I take a watch AND an alarm clock with me, in case one of them broke or went flat, so that I’d still have a means to tell the time and not miss flights. So I did sell the watch to Riki who had wanted to buy it off me all the way, and we agreed that I would only send it once I was back in Vila in a week and about to go back to NZ. I found it pretty amazing that he gave me the money wile trusting me that I would actually send the watch! Quite amazing, their culture must be such that you still can do deals based on trust there.

I then flew to Vila, to catch a flight from there two days later to go to Tanna. It’s not recommendable to have connecting flights on the same day, so transferring from one island to another can quite easily take up two days. And then there are Sundays…they take them really seriously on the islands, so pretty much everything is shut which makes Sundays a bad day for travelling. So I spent the Sunday in a motel out of Vila, right at the water which was nice, if it hadn’t been for the strong breeze that was just as annoying as it is in Wellington.

Into the hills

For my second holiday week, I had booked a tramping trip to some remote kastom villages in Santo. It was such an amazing experience that I now don’t know where to start. Ok, let’s try this:

On Monday morning, Mayumi, a Japanese lady who is the tour operator I had booked the trip with, picked me up at my motel. At her office, I had to wait for the other two people who had booked the trip, an Italian couple. I had had serious concerns that they might be the young and super-fit alpinist kind of people, but they turned out to be in their fifties and utterly normal. Well, actually slightly naive in my opinion as they came straight from the airport, where they had just arrived from Italy! And the lady had never done any tramping before!!!

On the other hand there was me, reasonably acclimatised and fit thanks to my running on the Torres airstrip the week before, and pretty used to sticking my feet into the mud when tramping.

Anyway, with us came two young men from the villages to guide us out of our comfort zone and into the hills. So we all hopped into a truck that would take us to a tiny place called Sele where we would meet more guides and start our walk. At that time I hadn’t really understood yet what we needed all these guides for, but I’d find out soon.

When we had arrived in Sele and had just taken our gear off the truck, two bushmen came walking down the road, and I will never forget this moment all my life. They were among the most gorgeous looking men I had ever seen in my life, and wearing nothing but some sort of G-string with curtain. Made in heaven! Hot as hell!!! I really had to pull myself together not to stare.

So these were the other guides that would do the walk with us, and at that stage it finally dawned on me that they were there to carry our backpacks! I had expected that we could give a couple of things to our guides, but not at all that I wouldn’t have to carry anything but my camera. So this unexpected luxury was great and I could walk quite quickly, which made the guides think I’m really fit, heehee. At least bushman Riki who carried my pack thought so, which is a bit of a joke considering that he was carrying my 15kg pack and could still have walked even faster. Anyway, nice to be called fit by a bushman!

Here’s the tramping party, having a break eating bush apples:

Bush apple break

The Italians did struggle quite a bit though, not being acclimatised and not used to slippery mud. We didn’t make it to where we were supposed to go that day and had to stay in a house not quite as far. The lady was so tired that she even didn’t want to go for a dip in the creek with me, or have dinner.

I had actually quite enjoyed the walk (wet and warm is so much nicer than the usual NZ wet and cold combo!), and sat down with the guys for dinner. This was a hard one regarding food safety, as food hygiene wasn’t exactly according to the books. So it was a choice of eating and hoping for the best, or not eating which isn’t really an option if you’re on a tramp and need lots of energy. So I decided to leave all my cultural preconceptions behind and do as the locals do.

But before I could dig into the island cabbage and chunks of taro (with my fingers, as there was no cutlery), there was one more hurdle to take. I was asked to say a prayer, since it is their custom to pray before dinner. Oooh, I’m not religious at all and it’s been decades since I last prayed! But I got it done nicely, in German so that no one would understand the not quite conventional stuff I was saying. It probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway, considering that we all had different religions (me theoretically protestant, Riki a follower of a kastom religion, Rome a seven day adventist, and the Italians Roman Catholic I guess).

I didn’t get sick and also didn’t get sick from breakfast the next day either, which was dough made of some root crop with coconut cream, so it seems that the water from the creek was fine indeed.

Breakfast was followed by a long discussion about the Italians wanting to go back again. In the end it was decided that they and two of the guides would go back, and two of the guides and myself would carry on. Here’s a photo of the whole group at Rapus, just before we split:

The whole group

The walk to Fortsunel village was quick and easy. Riki had made me a walking stick, and whenever he thought that it got a bit difficult, he gave me a hand and pulled me up the hill. Not that I would have needed it that much, for me it was more a matter of not rejecting someone being nice. One of those cultural things I suppose where I was clueless and just tried to do the right thing.

In Fortsunel, I first had to wait at the edge of the village to be invited in. Rome, my English speaking guide, explained to me what would happen and what I needed to know to behave myself appropriately. I was first greeted by the chief, an elderly man with an air of dignity around him, and gave my present to him (a bag of stuff such as candles that Mayumi had prepared). Then the village accompanied me to the nakamal (the men’s club house) while singing a welcome song for me.

The people of Fortsunel (second from the left is the chief) and me:

Fortsunel

I was given a necklace made of flowers that Viaki, Riki’s sister had made for me. It was really beautiful, not the plastic crap you can buy in the shops. I was offered a welcome drink of kava, then food was prepared for me (taro leaves stuffed in bamboo and then roasted on the fire), and I was shown how to make fire with sticks. So far the tourist programme, but then things took a slightly different course when Riki asked me to have a look at a wound on his mum’s toe.

So I dug out my first aid kit, asked for Rome as a translator, and braced myself to have a look at a bad wound. It turned out to be a big cut of open flesh, which I cleaned and then bandaged. I gave the disinfecting ointment and more bandages to the old lady, and Rome translated my instructions. That’s not the sort of thing that I was really prepared for! Next time I’d carry more first aid stuff. And next time I’d NOT put my assortment of condoms in my first aid kit for the whole village to see.

Things then went back on the tourist track, and before I left I did a little kastom dance:

Kastom dance in Fortsunel

After having said goodbye, we left for Marakai, our final destination. This is a true kastom village, the real thing and totally not what I had ever seen or experienced before, so I was quite excited about it.

We arrived in the middle of their ‘siesta’, so we sat down in the nakamal (the men’s club house) and had a rest. We also were given lots of food, and even though I am a good eater, I struggled as I had just eaten plenty at Fortsunel. Food is a means to show that you are wealthy, so guests get served plenty of food. And as a guest, you can best show your appreciation by eating a lot.

After the siesta, I was greeted by the village with a welcome song. I shook hands with the whole village, and gave my present to the chief. This chief was in his thirties and had a really big smile. The assistant chief was assigned to me to look after me. I was then left to myself, to unpack (I was staying in their dedicated visitor’s house) or to wander around the village.

At that stage I started to really regret that I didn’t speak any Bislama (the national language), as I could just look but not talk to anyone. I’m sure it would have been very interesting to talk to the assistant chief, but as things were, we didn’t get any further than the number of kids he has (5), or why they sleep next to a fire (to keep warm since they do not wear clothes).

So what I did was wandering around the village. Their houses are entirely made from local materials:

Marakai

They actually make pretty much everything themselves, houses, kitchen utensils, mats to sleep on, bark men’s dress and grass skirts for the women. Speaking of clothes, they are bloody useless there and rather a pain. While the people in the village all looked nice and tidy, I was splattered with mud. It’s so much smarter not to wear clothes in a climate where you don’t have to! Just imagine never in your life having to do the laundry!

And never in your life having to clean the toilet because bush toilets are either just a whole in the ground with soil all around it, or two wooden beams with a gap between them. They can have a roof, or a screen, or nothing at all and be so overgrown that you cannot find them and have to ask your guide to show you the toilet when you are standing right in front of it…

I saw very few ‘modern’ items in Marakai. They have plastic water bottles to take water from their creek, and they have metal bowls (not sure what they use them for). Of course they have bush knifes – and mobile phones and solar panels to recharge them. The importance of communication!

Or the lack theirof…. the inability to communicate with the locals definitely made me feel uncomfortable, like being a visitor who just stares but doesn’t engage with anything, and I felt bad about my lack of Bislama. So all I could say to the lady who brought me dinner was ‘tankyu tumas’. It was really nice food, taro, island cabbage (which I really like), and river prawns. This was quite special, as I had never eaten river prawns before. I just hope that she could understand me telling her about this, in my best personal pidgin English.

In the evening I was invited to the nakamal for a drink of kava. I was then asked if I wanted to stay a bit or retreat, and decided to stay just for a couple more minutes. This turned out to be a question and answer session, with Rome asking me heaps of questions, and me answering. Rome is quite a serious character, so this was serious stuff.

I slept quite well that night, as I had gotten over worrying about catching food poisoning, or the assistant chief’s fire burning down the house.

On the following morning, we had to leave again, so there was another round of shaking hands with all 40 villagers (the man to the left of me is the chief):

Marakai people

They then sang a goodbye song for me, which I would have loved to return by signing a German goodbye song, but I couldn’t remember anything suitable and “Oh Tannenbaum” just didn’t seem right.

It was a quick walk back to Fortsunel, where Riki had a shave for going into town (they only shave occasionally to save razor) and then on to Mere Mere (where Riki fed his pig which he has for growing tuskers which are a major status symbol). Mere Mere somehow reminded me of the Bavarian alps, it’s like a tropical version of a typical Bavarian ‘Alm’:

Mere Mere

At Rapus, where we had spent the first night, we had lunch, and there’s one more thing about food that’s worth mentioning: It always gets shared. This means whenever I had a snack, I gave something to the guys, and whenever they had food, they gave some to me. That’s actually something I got into really quickly, and when I was back in NZ I initially felt bad whenever I had food and didn’t share it!

Then a couple more hours of walking. Here’s a photo of the tramping party:

Riki Rome myself

That’s Riki who carried my pack, 45, six kids, son of ‘quite a big’ chief, whatever that means; Rome who did the translating, 29, three kids, son of a chief (not sure if big or not so big); and a slightly dishevelled me, 38, no kids, daughter of a ‘Kirchenvorstand’ (sorry but that’s as best as I can do).

We spent the night in Sele where we had set off from. Viaki (Riki’s sister), her husband and two other women from the village were there as well, on their way to the market in Luganville where I would go and buy stuff off them a couple of days later. It was quite nice to just watch them and see how they are amongst themselves. One thing that stood out to me – and even more so on the next morning, when they were trying to get their truck going and push it up the hill – was that they are much more relaxed than we are. There’s a lot of laughter and smiles in situations when us Western people would long have started shouting at each other.

The three of us were picked up again to go back to Luganville in the morning, and I was a bit sad that it was all over. It was an absolutely amazing experience, quite challenging and very rewarding at the same time. Much more personal than what you could expect from a guided tour in a Western country. It was all about the people, and in the end it didn’t feel like a commercial tour anymore at all.

Bye-bye green hills of Santo, it was GREAT!!! And I hope to be back one day!

View

Luganville

The little plane took me to Luganville on Espiritu Santo, the largest of Vanuatu’s island.

Luganville is just a small town, with a couple of banks and shops. And LOTS of American relics from WW2. Many of the buildings and roads they left behind are still in use today, while others slowly rust away.

Luganville WW2 relics

This one here reminded me of Angkor in Cambodia, with the trees slowly taking over the makings of man:

Trees growing through vehicle

I didn’t do much at all on that weekend, just wandering around, getting money, doing some shopping and my laundry, and the like. I ended up spending quite a bit of time with two Italian brothers from Lake Como. Their English wasn’t great but it was enough to have a reasonable conversation. I found them a bit unusual for Italians, as they had travelled that far (you don’t see a lot of Italians travelling), and they also went on such trips quite regularly for their holidays. They had even been to such unusual places like Greenland!

We went for dinner at the market, which turned out to be really good. Cheap, and really yummy. I had steak, and it was indeed as fantastic as its reputation.

Sunday was August the 15th, and with Luganville being mostly catholic, there was a big open air service in the park just across the street from the motel where we were all staying. The whole thing started with the loudspeakers being turned on at 7am and playing godly music. I was usually awake from 6 anyway, but the whole idea of lying in bed being lazy was definitely not much advisable that day.

It was quite amazing though, lots and lots of people in the procession, everyone in their best Sunday clothes, the women in colourful island dresses. The service was held in Bislama and French, so I didn’t understand much,, but there was enough to watch anyway, with whole families having assembled in the shade under the trees, and little kids running around.

In the afternoon, we caught a taxi and went out to Million-Dollar-Point. That’s where the Americans had dumped loads of equipment into the sea after the war, because the Condominium (the joint English and French government which ruled the New Hebrides at that time) had not replied to the American offer of giving the stuff to them. So they just dumped everything, cars, trucks, cannons, whatever. I went snorkelling and you can see the remains of tanks in the water, or cannons with coral on them and colourful fish around them.

I’ve never done InterRail when I was young, but somehow the whole weekend reminded me of it. You go somewhere, meet some people and end up doing stuff with them for a couple of days, and then you’re off again to the next place. It was just like that, just being 20 years older.

Torres Islands

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.

Kamilisa Resort

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.

Whiteley my host

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:

Honeymoon Beach

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:

End-of-runway beach

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:

Margretn who cooked for me & 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:

Land crab

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.

Me having a 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.

Twin Otter

So this was Torres – a beach holiday like no other.