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Vanuatu - South Pacific Diaries 4

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Vanuatu Islands

I booked the flights to Vanuatu on a whim, back in October 2010. It is very rare that I sleep through the night, so often I am up at about 3 am. I fill the time doing things that don't take much thinking about, usually on the Internet. I read emails, answer questions and comments on the forum I moderate (www.expatforum.com), look at world news, play sudoku.

On the particular night I'm talking about, one of my emails was from Air New Zealand, with cheap flights to a number of South Pacific Islands. We'd just come back from Beijing Pacific Premium class, and were very impressed with the upgraded service & facilities. So I looked at the prices, then booked Pacific Premium to Vanuatu.

Next we needed somewhere to stay. So it was back on the web, looking at www.TripAdvisor.com, then comparing prices on www.hotels.com, www.lastminute.com and www.wotif.com. Hotels.com came up with a good price for a hotel with a good reputation in Port Vila - 'Poppys on the Lagoon'. I booked it.

Travel insurance (essential) and off-airport car parking (www.aeroparks.co.nz) were the final costs. And arranging with the next door neighbour to feed the cat (must remember to buy them something…)

Now came the hard part - the waiting…….

Day 0 - Final Peparation

Hubby has decided he wants to dive again. It's over a year since his heart attack, and 10 months since 'the op'. So the main preparation involved buying long swim shorts, and a rash vest to cove the scars (for some reason people get worried when they see them!) Then the dive gear went to No 2 Son for servicing. Fortunately Pacific Premium class gives you extra luggage allowance, so we had no trouble with the dive gear in the luggage. We did look slightly over-packed for a 7 day holiday though!

Day 1 - The Journey

Our flight was at 9:15 am, so we had an early start. The cat was put out with a big bowl of food, the extra food was left in a prominent position for the neighbour. Then everything was loaded into the car and we were off! On arrival at the airport the satnav took us to our car park. Aeroparks were great - very efficient and friendly. We were taken to the International terminal and dropped off right next to the Air New Zealand checkin desks.

Now these looked crowded. So we were very pleased that Pacific Premium had its own check-in desk. Much less hassle. We dropped everythign off and headed for security. Auckland International Airport has changed dramatically in the 10 months since we flew from there last. We were very impressed with the new facilities, and there was a mugh bigger area of shops than before. Pacific Premium allowed us entry to the Air New Zealand lounge, so we bought our duty free for the hols then headed on up.

Now there's only one trouble with an early flight - the lounge gives you all the alcoholic drinks you want - but who wants that at 7:30 in the morning?? Still, they did a good cup of coffee and there was a good breakfast spread.

Then onto the plane. Now here we found it a bit disappointing. Pacific Premium passengers on Australia & South Pacific flights are not split from the rest of the plane; you just get an extra seat between you. And you don't get different food. So we still had the manky scrambled egg and chicken sausage that everyone else had. And of course no drinks again - it was still too early! So I personally don't think the extra for Pacific Premium was worth it for these flights. Shame, but lesson learned. But it's an easy flight - 3 hours. And with the time difference, you take off at 9:30 and land at 10:30.

Vanuatu First Impressions

Port Vila Rush Hour

Vanuatu, like the other South Pacific islands we've been to, is green and lush - and very muggy. The temperature is about 30 degrees C, but because of the humidity it feels warmer. The trip from the airport was quiet - it is Sunday, and most shops are closed. But at 11:00 AM, the churches along the route were bursting at the seams. At first glance, the locals 'houses' are no different to those on other South Pacific islands - lots of wood and corrugated iron, and not much paint! In great evidence are the local buses (they have a 'B' on the number plate). Apparently you stop them, and for 150 vt they'll take you wherever you want. But have the right money - or the driver will find he hasn't any change at the end of the journey.

Poppys on the Lagoon

First impressions of Poppys on the lagoon are good. It is not a huge resort, but is positioned right on the edge of Erator Lagoon. There is a small bar that does mainly bar snack type meals, and two small swimming pools - a shallow one for children, and a deeper one for adults. There are kayaks on the beach-front, that can be used by guests at no extra charge. We were warned by a fellow guest to try and find one that has a bung in the bottom - otherwise the boat fills with water!

The view from our room at Poppys

We are in a lagoon-facing studio apartment. This is on the top floor of a two storey block, with a wondeful view from the balcony across the lagoon. The room is a good size, with two single beds zipped together to make a large double bed, and a small kitchenette with gas hob, kettle, toaster, fridge and various cooking utensils. No air conditioning, but with the doors and shutters open there's a good breeze through, and a very efficient ceiling fan that appears to have only one speed - fast. The only down side is that it is at the top of a reasonably steep flight of steps from the central guest area. But that actually may be for the best - we'll walk some of the calories off from all the beer we appear to be drinking! It also means that we're already halfway up the steep driveway that leads to the road into the centre of town. Next door to our block is the office of 'Melanesian Tours', who will arrange anything you want to do.

Food and drink from the bar are not cheap. A local beer is 440 vt (it's 220vt from the local store). Steak, chips & salad are 1900 vt, fish and chips are 1250 vt, spaghetti bolognese is 950 vt and a hamburger (no chips) is 650 vt. None are fantastically cooked - but the kitchen is limited. We've decided that we're going to hit the local supermarket and stock up with drinks, and food for at least breakfasts and a couple of evening meals.

Poppys is around a 20 minute walk to town - but with high humidity and temperatures of around 30 degrees C, you wouldn't want to do it too often.

The streets around Poppys

The lagoon side of the road is obviously the expensive side - there are a number of small resorts (like Poppys) and private 'western' style houses that run down to the lagoon side. The lagoon itself is tranquil, and about 500m wide. On the opposite side of the road, the locals live. We used our very useful Jasons map of Vanuatu to find our way to a local supermarket via one of the side roads. This was an experience, as it took us through one of the poorer areas where the local townspeople congregate. The road was mud, the houses were badly built and tatty, there were chickens running around. The people seemed very happy, and friendly. We were greeted with hello's all the way down the road, and especially from the children. And it didn't seem as if they were saying this to butter us up in the 'let's be kind to the tourists and we might get some money out of them' kind of way.

It was great seeing the various groups along the way. There was a hall that seemed to be the local church - it was Sunday, and the hall was full of people sitting reading bibles and so on. There were groups of men sitting around chatting, women having a natter while doing some kind of work (why is it that the men do nothing and the women always have some kind of task to do?) But it's the children that were the most memprable - there were so many of them! And all were playing the kinds of games I remember as a child - girls playing french skipping and Cats Cradle, boys 'play-fighting', kicking whatever they could find around, and one particular game (which took a great amount of concentration) which involved throwing plastic rings a bit like stiff rubber bands towards a smaller plastic ring to see who could get the closest. What you didn't see was any expensive toys - whatever was at hand was used.

There are a number of small stores around, where bottles, tins and jars of necessities can be bought - again, none are cheap. The nearest big supermarket is about 1.5 km away to the south. Best way of getting there is a local bus (150 vt per person to anywhere in Port VIla). Fresh meat and vegetables can be bought here; again not cheap (how do the locals afford it?) but cheaper for drinks than continuously eating & drinking from the hotel bar.

Day 2 - Tranquility Island

We've decided that we're going to work on a 'one day of tours, one day off' regime - in part because we need to relax, but mainly because days out are also expensive! (more on them

Table Coral

later…) Today is a day's scuba diving. After pricing up all the options, the cheapest we were going to get was 10,600 Vt at a resord called Tranquillity Island. This involved a 50 minute bus trip, then a boat to the island.

With the early sunrise and the difference in time between NZ and Vanuatu, we were up at 6:00 am. Following a do-it-yourself breakfast and the sorting out of all our dive gear into various bags, we were ready nice and early for out 8:15 pick-up. This was on a very crowded mini-bus. But we were the only ones diving! All the rest were off on a days sailing. So after a very hot and sticky 50 minute journey, they all got on the Coongoola, a large classic timber sailing ketch, and we got on our tatty little diving tinny. But there was plenty of room, it was an easy boat to dive from, and we had it all to ourselves!

We met our hosts, an English couple called John and ? from Bedfordshire. After checking our qualifications, we were given our choice of locations. The boat took us out to Dive 1, with ?, our skipper Jeffrey, and Thomas, another dive master. (I have to smile here as my 2 sons are called Jeffrey & Tom). The diving was superb - it reminded me of the Red Sea around Sharm as it used to be. Healthy corals, and so many fish! We didn't go deeper than 18 metres - but who needs to, with all that sea life so close to the surface? The day included a barbecue lunch - steak, salad, bread and fresh fruit (but no beer - we still had the second dive to go). ? took us to see the turtle sanctuary - they have around 10 large tanks where they place baby Hawksbill turtles rescued from a beach down the island a bit and 'grow them on' before releasing them back into the sea. Dive 2 was just as good as dive 1 - and a huge turtle to boot.

We met up with the sailing boat group at around 5, and headed back. We'd intended to get something from the supermarket for dinner, but were too late back and it was dark already. As we really didn't fancy trying our luck in the dark, we setteld for expensive beer and a meal at the resort bar again. Fish and chips - good. Spaghetti Bolognese - bad (undercooked spaghetti, and how can you make Spaghetti Bolognese without tomatoes??) We were also persuaded to book in for the resorts 'island night' the next evening - now, is this a good idea???

Trips and tours

These are all, without exception, expensive (do you get the gist of Vanuatu yet??). A mini-bus day trip of the island is 7000 Vt, a half days quad bike tour with some refreshment is about 8000 vt. Apparently trips can only be done by locals, which makes it hard luck on any Westerners who came out expecting to get involved. They can only act as agents. As mentioned before, Melanesian Tours are in the house next door to our studio apartment, so we're using them. You can also negotiate a day rate with a taxi driver - we haven't tried this yet, but are tempted.

Day 3 - At Rest

We've decided that (because of the heat and humidity) the best time to do anything is first thing in the morning. So we're leaving our watches on New Zealand time. This means early to bed, but hopefully we'll keep getting up early too. Today, with nothing suitable to have for breakfast, at 7:30 we headed for the centre of Port Vila and the 'Nambawan Cafe' (this is Pidgin for 'Number One'). Nambawan do an OK latte coffee - unfortunately with UHT milk (there's no such thing as fresh milk here). And I reckon the coffees are the best value on the menu. Fruit juices seem exorbitant, and are actually just cordials.

Port Vila centre is just a couple of rows of shops (mainly selling clothes and household goods), some cafes, and two markets. One sells clothes, bags, carvings etc, and the other much more interesting one is the fruit and vegetable market. There are lots of photographic opportunities here, but as hubby gets embarrassed taking photos in these types of situation, you won't find one here!

Veggie Market

Some cafes (including Nambawan) have free wifi internet connections - but we hadn't taken the computer in! So we found a local secretarial and internet office and looked up what was going on at home. Then it was off to the Downtown supermarket (we couldn't be bothered to go to the out of town one) for supplies. By 11:00 am (is that all it was?) we'd finished, and caught a bus back to Poppys. Unfortunately the driver caught the 'on the Lagoon' bit but not the 'Poppys' bit and took us to the wrong hotel! But we were still back by 11:30.

So the rest of the day has been spent (so far) reading, swimming in the little pool, having a siesta and writing up this diary. snd this evening is 'Island Night'. Everything here starts early - but we were surprised at a 6:00 pm start. There was a local band, complete with wooden tea chest 'big bass' & other handmade instruments, a barbecue feast of food for us to try, with salads and fresh fruit made with local produce, and a talk from one of the hotel staff on local customs. Every single person at the tables got a mention - even those without birthdays, anniversaries, or other special occasions. And the best entertainment of the evening was the table next door's toddler, who started dancing at the first beat, and didn't stop until the last note had finished. She was so tired, but there was no way she was stopping!

Day 4 - Tranquility Island (again)

If any dive operator is reading this, then please take note: if you have guests who are very experienced divers (and have proved it to you), then please do not put them in the same group as a diver who has only just completed his Open Water. Or if you have no choice, warn them, ask if they mind, and give them a discount.

Today's diving was chalk and cheese to the first day's diving. There were 12 of us on the boat. 2 were doing an Open Water course, 5 were from a dive club in Brisbane, another couple were relatively novice divers, and one guy was straight off his Open Water course. As the five dive club members obviously wanted to dive together, we were put with the three novices.

Dive 1 was OK - the coral wasn't as good, and the fish weren't as plentiful. But this could be put down to the day being cloudy, or the three novices flapping around frightening everything away! It was obvious that the guy straight out of the OW course ws overweighted, as he had to fin hard just to keep from sinking. We kept an eye on him (and let him know we were), as the dive leader was often in front and couldn't see him. As expected, the three novices used up their air way before us, but this wasn't a problem as we stayed down and used the extra time to stop and see some of the reef directly under the boat. I think we saw more fish in this time than in the whole of the rest of the dive!

Lunch was the same as day 1 - so we were more than happy. We were not so happy about the fact that the women from the Brisbane Dive Club (who were staying on the island overnight and therefore didn't have to get back to a Port Vila hotel) spent an age sorting out their accommodation (and other things - I don't know what), meaning we didn't leave the jetty for the second dive until 3 pm.

Dive 2 was boring……. (snore….) Again, we were placed with the novices. The five of us and our dive leader were dropped off the back of the boat further down the beach, to swim back to the jetty parallel to the shore. The dive was shallow (not a problem - that means more light for photos and usually more fish and corals). But the coral was very poor, and there were few fish. We'd been told to look out for turtles. Well the front two novices saw four - but all we saw were their fins as they chased after them! I tried to make the dive less boring by turning underwater somersaults, but my main memory is of seeing a mass of fins and arms flapping madly at every turn. Hubby and I finished the dive with over 100 bar left in our tanks.

Meanwhile the dive club had been taken to a reef in the opposite direction. And of course they weren't hurrying - they weren't going anywhere that evening. And all our spare clothes and our dive bags were on the boat. So of course we couldn't even get ready to go home! They eventually returned, at about 4:45 pm. I grabbed my bag and rushed off for a quick coldwater rinse and change. By the time I'd done the absolute minimum, the dive boat engines were going ready to take off immediately to go back to our minibus. We eventually arrived back at the hotel at 6:30 pm - it was just as well we didn't have the island night!

Day 5 - People Watching

Margerate from Huddersfield

We're getting up a bit later every day - it was 6:45 Vanuatu time this morning (8:45 NZ time). We'd been warned that there was a cruise ship in port today, so it would be crowded in town. But the planned pre-breakfast kayak trip had been cancelled (by us!) because it was raining, and we'd run out of beer. The day was a bit cooler than previously, so after a leisurely breakfast (which took us to 8:30) we decided to head to town. On the road at the top of the hill, Art spotted a bus - so that was the end of the walk.

We'd forgotten to take the computer in again, so the first stop was the secretarial shop for the Internet. Then off to 'Nambawan Cafe' for a latte. We could see the cruise ship moored over at the port, and passengers were beginning to drift in. The scenic helicopter rides had started - each trip was five minutes (we timed it!). We wondered what premium the cruise passengers were paying for that trip. With a bit of a breeze blowing off the sea, the temperature was OK for a stroll, so we set off along the waterfront away from town and through some very pleasant shady trees. A European swam past us doing a slow crawl - he looked like he did it every day. We stopped when the path ran out, then sat and watched the helicopter and cruise ship in the distance. The European crawled back past us.

On the way back, we passed a number of real estate agents and peeped in the windows for a nose at prices. I might add that Vanuatu is not a place we'd consider living (there are very few places in the world where we would want to live), but it's a lovely holiday destination. Prices were all in Australian dollars, and didn't look cheap.

The first water-front establishment on the journey back was the 'Anchor Bar'. 'We can't stop yet', I says, 'It's only 11:30.' 'Ah', says Art, 'But it's 1:30 in Auckland'. We stopped for a beer. This turned out to be a good move, as it appeared to be full of Aussies from the P&O cruise ship 'Pacific Jewel'. Now there's nothing more entertaining than a load of Aussies on holiday….. We were entertained for the next hour. Eventually we dragged ourselves away from the bar and headed towards the supermarket 'Bon Marche'. Beer, lemonade and bread later, we were headed back to Poppy's, and were back in our room with our lovely view by 2:00 pm.

I'd decided to cook a meal in the room tonight. The ingredients were a bit limiting, but it's amazing what you can do with a few chicken drumsticks and a can of tomatoes. I'd also bought some local sweet potatoes (Golden Kumara in NZ), a large carrot & onion. Boiled up, with a packet of Cheesy Bake Sauce on top, these were delicious!

Day 6 - If it's Friday.....

We'd been threatening to borrow one of the resorts kayaks all week - and today was going to be the last day where we had the opportunity. So after breakfast, we made our way down to the beach. We set everything up, then pushed off. The plan was to head upstream, so we could let the current take us back. It's just as well we decided on this strategy, as we managed just a couple of hundred yards before we gave up! This was a bit disheartening, as we do have a double kayak at home - and although we find it tiring after a while we certainly get further than we did in Vanuatu! Our excuse is that Poppys kayaks don't have a back rest to lean against, another is that for some reason the seat seemed lower, meaning that our feet seemed to be higher than our bottoms! This - quite frankly - was hard work on the backside and the tops of the thighs,. Add this to a couple of bad backs, a temperature of about 25 degrees C (and this at 9:00 in the morning) and humidity of 80% plus - yes, we wimped out! I'm sure it took us twice as long to go back - and that was with the current!

So - as the cleaning ladies were in the room - we hit the beach. This involves in our case sitting under a beach umbrella, hubby with the earphones on and me with an extremely naff 'bodice-ripper' romantic novel with dubious academic value (I might add that this is the only time I read such books - I don't want to give the wrong impression to my fellow comuters). This particular one taught me all about the social etiquette of the 'Ton' in the Georgian era (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ton_%28le_bon_ton%29). I must say i'm very glad I wasn't a 'young thing' then - very limiting….

After a yummy lunch of bacon and tomato sarnies we took a siesta (it's a hard life) then walked up the road to Mangos Resort. This is definitely a bit more upmarket when compared with Poppys - but is also a way away from the lagoon edge. A number of rooms appeared to have their own spa pool, looking over the lagoon - very nice. We'd gone to suss out the restaurant. The food may be good, but the view from the restaurant is not good. You can't see the lagoon - just the roofs of the rooms in front. It's not cheap, either. I think our bacon sarnies on our balcony were much better.

Expats at bar

We'd intended to wave down a bus into town - but the taxi driver in front of Mangos obviously decided that 300 vt in the hand was worth a wait at the taxi rank - so in we jumped. The intention was that we'd take a stroll in town, pick up a few more shopping bits, then have a meal before heading back. We managed the supermarket (I bought some lovely bright cotton material for quilting - that's my souvenir), then strolled through the waterfront park. this was full of locals, and a stage. It seems that everyone comes out on a Friday night. The intention was that we'd head for 'Nambawan' Cafe, which had a happy hour and a free film - but the film wan't all that enthralling so we walked on to the 'Anchor Inn'. This also had Happy Hour, and was where all the local expats meet. We sat down and ordered a glass of wine each. Then another. The place was heaving with 'ladies that do lunch', and other similar types. The locals came round with a raffle - prizes were hot chickens (to be eaten at the inn). We loved the mix of expats - at the next table, out of a table of 8, there were at least 5 different nationalities. Wine Glass 3 saw us feeling a bit dizzy, so we decided to find somewhere to eat. This did not work very well - so we took a bus home, and hit the resort bar. Big Mistake……..

Day 7 - Round the Island

For our last day we decided to 'do the cultural thing' and join a day trip. We joined a minibus with 2 other couples - a British couple living in Sydney, and an Australian Army guy with his Kiwi wife. The Australian Army guy's brash attitude started out being mildly amusing. Let's face it, a comment about 'let's not tell any sheep jokes with the kiwis around' - is he saying there are no sheep in Australia??

Our guide Joel was a local, from one of the off-shore islands. He had previously worked for a Japanese company, who paid him a pittance. But now all tours are run by locals, and although quite expensive, you do feel that the locals do now receive more of the profits.

The bus took a slow trundle round the one tarmacked road that runs round the island. It is 140 km long, and in excellent condition - probably because the NZ government had only just finished renovating it the month before.

Until independence on 30th July 1980, Vanuatu was called 'The New Hebrides'. It was run jointly by the British and French, and the island was split between the two. This means that even now, French and English are spoken, plus the widely spoken 'Pidgin' or Bislama. it also means that there are two distinct cultures on the island. There are French and British schools and prisons in particlar. (talking of prisons - we also passed the Womens prison. This appeared to be a portacabin. Apparently there are currently 2 women in Vanuatu jails. And most of the men are there for Cannabis smoking.)

From Port Vila we travelled anticlockwise. The first half of the island was in the French Quarter. I get the feeling that after independence the French got the huff. It was definitely a case of 'if we can't have it then neither can you'. There are one set of (locked) gates that lead into an old French mansion, and (apparently) a wonderful beach. But nobody's allowed down there. There's also a complete town over this side, that is now overgrown with vines. Plus a magnesium mine. There are rumours that the Chinese might be looking at opening this again, which would be a shame as the countryside in this area is wonderful.

We stopped at the Blue Lagoon for a swim. This is a wonderful shallow area, where a river meets the sea. In one place you are swimming in fresh water, then across a spit of land you are into beautiful shallow sandy-bottomed sea. It was a welcome break from the drive.

Blue Lagoon

Just over the 'British/French' border we were taken into a typical village. Most family areas contain two low huts mde and roofed with local natural material like banana leaves. One is used for living, and the other for sleeping. Everything is done 'on island time' - slowly, because of the heat. Then it was on to another village - where we were attacked by the natives! It's worth saying that until they were converted to Christianity, Ni-Vanuatu were cannibals. In fact Vanuatu's last recorded cannibal killing was as recent as 1968, on the island of Malekulu. But I felt quite safe - and the smallest warrior was actually quite cute! We also bought a wooden spear to take back as our 'large souvenir' - hopefully they'll let us through Customs with it!

Under Attack
Junior Warrior

Lunch was at the next village along (we were definitely seeing a few places along the way). This was supposedly traditional fare, but I think had been slightly touristyfied. I can't say it was cordon bleu, but it filled a good gap.

Now I haven't mentioned our Australian Army guy for a while. Probably because Art had been trying to ignore him. But around lunchtime I think it's fair to say he was getting on our nerves a while. He was using every opportunity to get a dig in at New Zealand. We had the comments about the cricket (I wish we'd known that Oz had just been kicked out of the World Cup), the weather ('Of course NZ weather is just like the UK' - well, actually, it isn't).

Pidgin

This is a kind of English spoken by the locals. If you listen carefully it almost makes sense. Courtesy of a number of French-speaking islanders too, there are a number of French words in the mix too. Here are some examples:

'Mi Wantem Tusker' - I want a beer 'Tabu Blong Fishing Long Ples Ia' - Fishing is prohibited here 'Tabu Blong Seatdown' - don't sit down here 'Slo Daon' - Slow Down

A very brief history of Vanatu

Vanuatu was first inhabited by Melanesian people. Europeans discovered the islands in 1605 with the arrival of a Spanish expedition led by Fernandes de Queirós in Espiritu Santo. In the 1880s France and the United Kingdom claimed parts of the country, and in 1906 they agreed on a framework for jointly managing the archipelago as the New Hebrides through a British-French Condominium. An independence movement arose in the 1970s, and the Republic of Vanuatu was created in 1980.

SEE: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanuatu

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