Of all the countries on Earth, the Pacific Island Nation of Vanuatu is one of the best.
A tranquil country of tropical Islands with laid back friendly people.
To get there, my good mate Turk said I could help deliver Billy’s racing yacht from Noumea to Port Vila. So after flying into Noumea I found him on a Motor Cruiser in the Marina .. with three mischievous older blokes. They had the biggest shanghai you’ve ever seen set up on their aft deck, (at least 1 metre high and 1 metre wide), which needed three men to operate. With this they were now having great fun, firing plastic water bombs into the air, at random points all over the Marina .. from where could be heard a medley of screams and various profanities.
Then their roving eyes fixed on a French Destroyer, moored alongside the wharf, 150m away.
“Bombardier, load one, aim, fire.”
Whoosh away the water bomb sailed, and made contact just above the water line.
“Bombardier, load two, raise elevation 10 degrees, fire.”
Whoosh .. and very nearly nailed a Marine on guard duty. Now the big thing here was there had recently been several incidents involving locals fighting for Independence .. and the French Navy was on high alert. So have you ever kicked an ants nest .. the sentry blew his whistle in fright, and instantly armed figures in white uniforms were swarming all over the Destroyers’ decks. Their binoculars would only see three harmless gentlemen lazing on an aft deck, while Turk and I rolled out of sight in the scuppers, laughing fit to burst.
.Anyway we set sail, and had one funny experience. I was on the dog watch, peered ahead, shook my bone tired, sleepy head, and saw a clear white line along the horizon ! Struth, could this be a reef, way out here in the ocean ? I shouted down for Turk, he came up, smiled, and said “Ya numbskull, it’s nearly dawn, that’s the horizon !”
After arriving in Port Vila, we set out to explore Vanuatu. From 1906 onwards this collection of Islands was called The New Hebrides, and run by both France and Great Britain. This “Condominium” seems to have worked surprisingly well, and eventually Independence arrived without too much dispute. The local folk invited the Europeans to stay, so today everyone lives peacefully together, in a laid back atmosphere.
We wandered through open markets along the harbour front, with laughing ladies in floral dresses chatting to each other, and that fresh salty tang in the Pacific air. Then I asked if it was possible to explore the Islands, some other way than as a tourist, so Tangles found me passage on a local barge.
This barge had a crew of eight, and was purely for local use amongst remote islands. It had a lowering door up front; a cargo hold packed with everything from bags of flour and sugar to building materials; and even a live bull ! I didn’t have any idea where we were going – how long for – or even where to sleep ? This, it turned out, was women went below somewhere, while us men simply stretched out on wooden seats along the open back deck .. yet it turned out a great trip, a priceless incursion into a world far removed from any hustle and bustle.
At first I felt a bit out of place, as the only European on board .. but when a fishing line being towed behind went off .. I grabbed it, pulled in a nice Mackeral, went below to the kitchen, filleted and cooked it, then passed this around to all on board. After this the business of white and brown skins faded. Then, on also sharing some Supermarket Kava, was welcomed as one of the boys.
(Kava is a universal drink in the Pacific. It’s made from Kava roots, tastes like muddy water, and is in no way a drug. Just gives folk a very peaceful feeling.)
Day and night we wandered, steaming close ashore one island after the other, such as Epi and Ambrym, Continuously trading with small towns and villages along the way. Sometimes we’d just slow down as a dingy came alongside, other times the old girl would put her front door down on the beach ..but most times we’d just drift as passengers and their goods were loaded into an aluminium tender, then ferried to and from shore.
Even a fire on the beach at night, was a signal to pause. Occasionally here would be a canoe coming out from a solitary thatched hut, on a tiny beach backed into mist shrouded rainforest. .. and realise this old barge, our visit, was their only contact with the entire outside world.
Then our Captain decided I was his mate, so next thing here’s an Aussie sharing his bridge .. and what a mariner this man was. None of the Navigation instruments worked, and the entire trip, in and out of reefs all over the place – day, or night – was done safely by his seat of the pants navigation.
One night we were steaming along, sixty meters off a rocky shore, at night, when he suddenly put the wheel hard a starboard, ran out 100 meters, turned to Port, steamed 200 meters, then after a cursory glance at some silhouette ashore, turned back in again. He noticed my expression, grinned, and said, “there’s a rock there”
Anyway our barge wandered all through the islands such as Pentecost and Asanvan, before turning off at dusk one day, for the last leg to an island named Espiritu Santo. It was raining, with zero visibility. As I mentioned, this vessel had no such thing as a GPS, Radar etc, and even the compass didn’t work. Yet the Captain just looked at the wind and waves, turned away into a rainy black night .. and at dawn we were coming right into Luganville harbour !
Western Navigators find this very hard to believe .. but Islanders voyaged accurately all over the Pacific, using just stars and prevailing wave swells .. while I’ve personally seen this navigating from natural information, (and some sort of homing instinct), several times .. particularly in the Torres Straits.
Anyway he sure did this remarkable feat, and here we were in Espirito Santo, the end of our trading voyage, and time to bid farewell to my mate,(in the cap), and all his friendly crew
Espiritu Santo was once one of the quietest backwaters in the entire Pacific Ocean – then suddenly World War two burst this serenity asunder . with 40,000 US troops stationed here, plus ten times as many visiting for R&R..Luganville, (Kanal), is the very place were the Musical “South Pacific “was based .. while, most probably, the island of inspiration for “Bali Hai” was nearby Ambae Island. “.
Today most of this has vanished, but the paining for the famous “Dancing Bears Bar” is still there.I wandered uptown and bumped into a red headed Aussie running his own tourist Agency, Fred Kleckham, from the tiny town of Seaforth in Nth Qld. When I said I knew his uncle Bill Kleckham from there, Fred was stoked.
Anyway, this voyage through the unique islands of Vanuatu was now over .. to remain a treasured memory.