#fridayfaces – smiles in vanuatu

It seems like the whole island comes to the “airport” each time a plane lands on the outer islands of Vanuatu, for the teenagers it seems like their equivalent of hanging at the mall in my country! 

Vanuatu families wait at the airport
Vanuatu families wait at the airport

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

 

Stranded on Espiritu Santo

Fact: one broken down plane can halt the whole Air Vanuatu network. Silver lining: I get to spend a couple of unscheduled days on Santo, courtesy of Air Vanuatu. Other silver lining: the Matevulu Blue Hole, Santo.


Matevulu Blue Hole, Santo, Vanuatu

Things to do in Santo.

Santo is an amazing spot for divers – numerous wrecks and many coral dives. The coral also makes for wonderful snorkelling. The ocean water is a warm bath. However it is pouring torrential rain for almost two days solid, reducing my snorkelling visibility quite dramatically. The boat wrecks which are half submerged just off Beachfront Bungalows where I am staying are still interesting to snorkel and kayak around, but it’s all shades of grey – the sky, the sea, the horizon. I want a punch of colour, and boy, does Santo have just that.
Matevulu Blue Hole, Santo, Vanuatu

The Blue Holes of Vanuatu

Santo has a number of blue holes, as do other islands in Vanuatu, but I go to the largest (and probably most accessible) one, the Matevulu Blue Hole outside Luganville of the east coast road. It is grey and raining, and with not as much as a single beam of sunlight, the colour of this natural freshwater pool is stunning – the most vivid azure blue I have even seen in a natural environment, blending to a teal green around the corner. With of course a touch of bright red plant growth in a mass of brilliant green foliage to set it off. I feel I may be blinded if I ever see it in bright sunshine!
Matevulu Blue Hole, Santo, Vanuatu

The four of us have the whole place to ourselves, except for a couple of million ferocious mosquitos, and our taxi driver with his funny little bubble taxi of the type found everywhere on this island. The mosquitos are not a problem until we get out of the water – those couple of minutes of drying off and re-coating with mossy repellant are enough for them to have a substantial feast on me. But it doesn’t matter, because we are swimming in clear blue water, watching our bodies morph into the Na’vi of Avatar – cool! The natural pool is surrounded by the the greenest of leaves and some massive trees. The largest has a rope swing for those who are willing to climb the roots up to the branches and then swing high over the water. Snorkelling is surreal in this blue tinged world, watching schools of fish flash silver through the blue. The water is cool but not cold. We don’t want to leave.

Have you been to this blue hole in sunshine? Share your photo, I’d love to see how it looks.

How to fail to reach an active volcano and still have an adventure!

When someone says “air taxi”, I have a mental image of some kind of private jet. Think again – how about a 1974 Cessna, which just squeezes in me and my five travelling companions, and one young, very professional, Kiwi pilot. The good news is I get the co-pilot’s seat. We are doing a quick overnight hop from Port Vila to the island of Tanna in Vanuatu – the home of Mt Yasur, the world’s most accessible volcano. It is a very active volcano and can be relied upon to put on a fiery nightly show. One side of the volcanic crater has collapsed into a neighbouring hilltop, allowing drive up access to about 200m from the rim – possibly the shortest walk to the top of a volcano anywhere.

We head off about 3pm to get to the volcano by sunset – four of us plus a local driver in a good four wheel drive. I start to get a sense of what might be coming when the driver tells us it will take 2 hours to get there, 17 km’s away. That’s an awfully slow trip! The road is notorious. For most is it’s length it is a dirt track. The problem is the island soil is basically volcanic ash, which the road is also built on, so the ‘dirt’ collapses easily, leaving deep ruts and tracks,  huge potholes, and collapsed sections of road. There are a lot of tourist vehicles every day, and no money for road building. And that’s before it rains. I am here at the end of the rainy season, meaning it has been raining heavily for part of each day. And as we set off the rain starts again, a torrential downpour. So add mud, flooded roads, sliding and getting bogged down to the list.


getting very wet
The locals are certainly resourceful. They know the spots on the road where vehicles most often get either bogged or roll. So they gather there and wait, in case some tourists want to pay to get their help to get their vehicle out. Torrential rain doesn’t stop them, they just fashion umbrellas out of large tree leaves.

It’s a white knuckle ride like no other I’ve been on. The vehicle bumps, bounces, skids, stops and starts forcefully and  continually. We brace, we hang on to anything we can get a grip on, and I hit the roof and door with my head  a lot – hard. But our driver is good, we feel bruised but not unsafe. We also feel very wet – the only way we can stop the front windscreen fogging over (not something we want to add to the list of dangers) is by leaving our side windows down all the way – and the rain pours in. We get to a lookout spot where there is usually a great view of the volcano but no point in stopping, we are in the cloud, visibility is about two metres.

We finally emerge out of the hills and rainforest onto the volcanic plain around Mt Yasur, a huge smooth curve of black ash. We still can’t see the volcano for the rainclouds, but a few minutes later the clouds start to lift and we finally see Mt Yasur. We are only a kilometre or so away now, we are approaching the highest side of the volcanic wall and need to circumnavigate around the base of the volcano to get up into the collapsed lower side.


the raging torrent from nowhere
But there is a problem. The tiny creek which the vehicles normally cross as they traverse the volcanic plain, well all this torrential rain has turned it into a much larger raging river. We can’t safely cross. Indeed there are two vehicles that crossed earlier which now cannot get back out until the rain stops and the river drops again. Our driver mentions how, three weeks previously, facing a similar river, a truck driver decided he could make it through – the current caught him and rolled his truck three times over. We have no desire to try.

It’s fair to say that I hadn’t come prepared on this trip. I had come on a last minute whim, without raincoat or tripod, to try and photograph an active volcano at night in the rain. The rain hasn’t stopped at all, but we are all so wet from the drive that we don’t care anymore.


boom boom - now belching steam and smoke
I hear a loud “boom” and feel it shake through my body at the same time. Mt Yasur has woken up for the evening show. Even though we are in the lee of the highest part of the crater wall, which will block a lot of the view, we decide to stick around for a while and see what happens. In the last of the dusk, big pillows of steam and dust come billowing out from each “boom”, some whitish, some yellow, some dark grey. And as the sky turns black I start to see the first reddish glow of lava. At first its just a reflection on the underside of the steam clouds, but then we start to see showers of bright red lava  been thrown  many hundreds of metres into the air. And all the while the “booms” continued to physically pulse through my body.

It’s exciting – for a minute we talk about how amazing it would be to be on the crater rim, to be right up close with all this, how disappointed we all are that we are stuck a kilometre away. Then there is the biggest “boom” so far, like a massive thunderclap two inches from my eardrums, and lava spurts out so high that it falls over to the outside of the crater. And suddenly I am thinking that if I was on the rim, I’d be pretty scared by now.

Our driver tells us the volcano has been more active than usual for the last week, and so no-one is allowed closer than the car park at the moment (even if they can get across the river) because a week ago some lava rocks landed within two metres of some people on the rim. It’s getting more dangerous. Maybe, soaked to the skin and a kilometre away, is not so bad after all. As I have no tripod, I am hand holding my very wet camera against the top of the car door (fervently hoping the wet won’t permanently destroy it), so at best my photos are vague silhouettes with a large blur of red, no nice distinct drops of lava spray to be had. But they will always remind me of the experience!
Mt Yasur spewing steam and lava

Now it’s time to make the two hour trek back again. The conditions are worse, it’s pitch black, the rain has washed away more parts of the track and is gushing alongside much of the road, we slip and slide seemingly out of control more often. In many parts we are reduced to inching along a centre strip, both side of the road collapsed into a three or four foot drop into a raging torrent within centimetres of our tyres, or over the edge of a steep slope. I am grateful that I can’t see the worst of it through the rain. We mask the fear by telling silly stories and belly laughing all the way home to our cosy little rooms at Tanna Evergreen – our driver concludes that Aussie women are very loud and a little bit crazy – he may be right. I am lucky, my camera dries out and still works. I start thinking maybe I’ll come back another time, in the dry season, and try again (once I’ve forgotten the bruising!)

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.