Done the chicken buses? – now try the chicken planes in Vanuatu

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.
Gaua airport Vanuatu

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.
Moto Lava Runway

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.)
Moto Lava Airport Vanuatu

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.

Running away to the island of Rah

It’s a beautiful view of turquoise sea, coral lagoons, and rich green rainforest as we come in to land on the small grass airstrip on the island of Moto Lava. I am in the far north of the group of islands that makes up Vanuatu. But this is not my final destination. Moto Lava has only one “road” and two vehicles – both 2 wheel drive utes. One is at the airstrip to meet the plane so I jump in, lucky to get a seat in the cab and not on the back tray.

the main (and only) road on Moto Lava, Vanuatu
the main (and only) road on Moto Lava, Vanuatu

The next 45 minutes we drive to the other end of the island, over a narrow mud track, often a foot deep in water and mud, rainforest brushing high up both sides of the ute, slipping and sliding, in the hands of a driver who only ever has one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding his mobile phone in case he picks up a signal. And somehow it all works perfectly.

boat only access to Rah, Vanuatu
boat only access to Rah, Vanuatu

With much fishtailing and bouncing we make it to the white sand beaches at the other end. From here I jump onto a small outrigger canoe, my suitcase balanced precariously on one of the struts, as I am transfered to Rah, a couple of hundred metres away over a shallow lagoon. I meet Rachel, the matriach of the village family who runs the handful of bungalows for visitors, and she shows me to my lovely traditional bungalow, on the edge of the beach, with this view:

view from the island of Rah, Vanuatu
view from the island of Rah, Vanuatu

 

Before I can draw breath I am devouring a beautiful lunch of coconut crab and fresh pamplemousse (the sweetest grapefruit I have ever tasted), while some of the woman of the village prepare to perform custom dancing for me. A strong tradition in Vanuatu, each island has its own custom dances and outfits, which differ between the men and the women. Today is not the best day to visit, as it is Mother’s Day on Rah (one week after the same day in Australia) and all the women have the day off to relax, while the men cook and look after the children. Luckily for me some of them were prepared to interrupt this day of laziness to perform the custom dances, which are quite hypnotic to watch, their feet create great percussion. And two of the young boys of the village create their own custom dance outfits from the local leaves, wanting to be just like Dad, until they realise that Dad isn’t dancing today.

local kids on the beach, Rah, Vanuatu
local kids on the beach, Rah, Vanuatu

And then begins a long lazy afternoon on the beach and in the blood warm lagoon, accompanied by a tribe of the local kids. Not surprisingly they can swim like fish, but I have fun teaching them how to breathe through a snorkel. Little by little I lose a mask to one, a snorkel to another, a fin to a third, the other fin to a fourth. So I finally retire to my hammock under the palms and watch. And yes, one of them does swim around and around in circles with his one fin on. As the afternoon sun starts to wan, Rachel’s ten year old son Dimitri proudly shows me the fish he has caught for my dinner, using only his hands, no nets or lines. Sure enough Rachel serves it up to me deliciously spiced and steamed in banana leaves a bit later.

I have planned to be here for 4 days/ 3 nights but the vagaries of Air Vanuatu have intervened, turning this into a short one night stay. So I don’t get the chance to go fishing with the villagers, or learn basket weaving from the woman, but it is still well worth the effort to get to Rah, the very definition of an unspoiled paradise.  I hope I get to run away to Rah for longer next time.

#fridayfaces my daughter by another mother in Magara, Tanzania

I’m not one to come over all maternal very often, but it was hard not to form an immediate bond with this shy and charming young girl in Magara, Tanzania. Fortunately she had a happy family life with a father and mother who also befriended us, so I didn’t get to come over too Angelina. As a family, they represented everything we came to love about this village while we worked on renovating the local school.

shy girl, Magara, Tanzania 2010
shy girl, Magara, Tanzania 2010

Photos of the faces of people I come across in my travels take me right back to that time and place.

 

How we found a desert oasis in Pakistan

With just minutes to spare before the border closed for the day, we drove out of Iran, through the barbed wire fence, into Pakistan. Before we reached the Pakistan border, in no-man’s-land, a Pakistani official waved us down and jumped on board. With a huge smile, he said “don’t worry, be happy, you are now free. You are in Pakistan, we don’t have all those rules they have in Iran”. Looking straight at us, he continued “you don’t need to cover up in Pakistan, we are a free country, throw off your head scarves, throw off you chador’s, welcome to Pakistan”. Everything is relative it seems.

mosque, Quetta, Pakistan, 1990
mosque, Quetta, Pakistan, 1990

After a couple of days driving through the Baluchistan desert in Iran, we continued on through the same desert in Pakistan, the mountain range to our left outlining the inhospitable border with Afghanistan. And then we arrived in Quetta, and it seemed like an oasis in the desert. Sure, it was a dry sandy desert, but it was also a very friendly, hospitable stop.

markets, Quetta, Pakistan, 1990
markets, Quetta, Pakistan, 1990

Back in 1990, Iran granted visas to very few westerners – Germans (it was a WWI/WWII thing), and Aussies and Kiwis. So in far north eastern Turkey, five of us parted ways with our other six truck-mates, and we went overland through Iran, while they had to back track to Istanbul, fly to Karachi, and then train up to Quetta to link up with us again. Which meant we had a few days to chill out in Quetta and we found it a very enjoyable stopover indeed.

making fresh naan bread, Quetta, Pakistan, 1990
making fresh naan bread, Quetta, Pakistan, 1990

If I google ‘Quetta’ now I see titles like “Taliban stronghold’. But 20 years ago it seemed a very different place (or maybe we were just naive or lucky). We wiled away the days wandering the hot, dusty streets. We got measured for our own salwar kameez, so that we might blend in a bit more (a tunic top over truly enormous gather-at-the-waist trousers). We sampled perfect, hot pita bread out of an under-floor charcoal oven. We drunk tea and conversed in pigeon english/pakistani/ sign language for hours in the local fabric shop. For a few days it felt like we become a part of the fabric of daily life in Quetta. It was an easy, smiling, welcoming town back then. Western tourists in big trucks were rare, and were warmly welcomed, however odd we may have seemed to the locals.

clothes shop, Quetta, Pakistan, 1990
clothes shop, Quetta, Pakistan, 1990

Back then we were on an overland from London to Kathmandu, during the first Gulf war. All the western countries were giving stern warnings to not travel to the Middle East, to not travel to Pakistan. As you do when you are young and have spent all year saving for this once in a lifetime trip, we ignored all the warnings, and we had a truly exceptional experience. We had an amazing, non-threatening, welcoming time everywhere we went. So I have to wonder – would it be the same now? Do I just think it is less safe now, just because I am older. Do I believe the media/government websites now more than I did then, or am I missing a great opportunity. It saddens me a bit that I even have to ask myself these questions. It does seem that Pakistan is a much riskier place to travel now than then, and I have noticed that most of the overland truck companies do not go through there anymore. Which is a shame. Because twenty years ago it was a highlight that I will never forget.