Vanuatu is a group of 83 islands, so I am a bit surprised that boat or ferry travel between the islands doesn’t seem to exist. To island hop in Vanuatu, I need to take to the sky. And the further away from Port Vila I get, the smaller the planes get, with more locals and less tourists aboard. In addition there are air taxis plying some of the main tourist spots as well, or to hire for a custom itinerary.
I am heading to Rah, in the Banks, which on paper is a flight from Port Vila (Efate) to Espiritu Santo, connecting with a second flight to Moto Lava. In reality, it is a flight to Espiritu Santo, an unscheduled stop over of two nights, a flight that touches down in Gaua (an island with an active volcano), and then on to Moto Lava, where I get to experience the one mud track in a ute, and an inter-island transfer by an outrigger canoe to Rah.
The next day I leave Rah & Moto Lava again, touch down in Sola (Vanua Lava, also with an active volcano), on to Gaua and then Espiritu Santo, where I later connect to a flight back to Port Vila. And then in case I haven’t flown enough, the next day I catch an air taxi (a six seater 1974 Cessna) to Tanna to stay overnight, as Tanna has the most active and accessible volcano of all. In total I visit 5 islands and touch down on two others. Every flight leg was less than and hour and the shortest was under 10 minutes.
I quickly learn that the stated timetables are very flexible (in one case, two days late flexible). But its also possible the flight might leave half an hour early. The ticketing clearly states that check in baggage cannot exceed 10 kilos, and hand luggage must be less than 7 kilos. Apart from the regular tourist leg of Port Vila/Espiritu Santo, I can confidently say that those limits are completely ignored.
Check-in usually occurs in an open sided concrete room next to the grass runway, cut out of the rainforest. Rather than putting your bag on the scales, you actually stand on the scales with your bag and your hand luggage , and the combined weight is written down. They take the combined weight of all passengers and bags seriously, as these are small planes and it’s a safety issue if they are overloaded, but they are very relaxed about the number of suitcases, boxes of household goods,baskets of food to take to the family on the next island, and even livestock being carried on board by each passenger.
And they recalculate the total plane weight at each “bus stop” to allow for those who got off and those who joined the flight. On one leg I heard the pilot say to his off-sider “we are overweight for this leg, I’ll drop some fuel after takeoff to get our weight down”. (I was sitting directly behind him on a 12 seater plane, so I couldn’t help but overhear, much as I would’ve preferred to remain blissfully ignorant.)
I also quickly learn that most islands only get a couple of flights a week, which means everyone on the island seems to be aware of exactly when the plane is due and whether it is late or not, and many of them go out to meet each flight. There will always be a ute meeting the flight arrival that will give you a ride to the nearest village with visitor bungalows, whether you’ve booked or not.
It also means that when I have a stopover in Espiritu Santo to catch the connecting flight back to Port Vila, I can safely leave the airport and head into Luganville to sit in a cosy little cafe until word comes through that the connecting flight has arrived ( and that word seems to go simultaneously to every taxi, motel and cafe in town) – only then do I need to head back to the airport. All in all, the” chicken flights” are a very laid back, friendly, interesting and enjoyable way to fly.
The other local transport worth knowing are the local “buses” particularly on Efate. These are shared vans rather than buses, their number plates always start with a prominent “B”, you can flag them down anywhere and they will take you anywhere around town for $1.50. There is no set route, as long as you flag one going in the right direction they will drop you where-ever you want, as they will for the other passengers you share with as well. And there really will be one along every minute. If you flag a “T” plated taxi instead, it will cost ten to twenty times as much. If you arrive at the International airport, walk 50 metres to the right, to the domestic terminal to find a bus, they only let taxis stand in front of international.