Craig Tansley finds plenty of ways to explore this tropical getaway
Images: Craig Tansley
THERE IT IS: that oh-so-familiar waft of frangipani on the breeze. It’s what the South Pacific smells like; so warm it feels like a sweater round your shoulders. But there’s something else on the wind that makes my skin heat up more: I hear waves crashing on a not too distant reef. It’s too dark to see, Flight NF33 from Melbourne had deposited us on Vanuatu’s main island of Efate after sundown. Now, we’re sitting under the stars watching the lagoon sparkle barely three hours out of Victoria as we manage a late feed of local prawns and French white wine at Breaka’s Resort.
“Is there surf on Vanuatu?” I ask the waiter. He looks at me with a lopsided grin that looks like it might just fall right off his face. “There is good surf on Vanuatu,” he says. “So where’s the best waves?” That grin again, all white, white teeth. “The best surf in Vanuatu is right there,” he extends his arm straight out, to a point somewhere just past the still water. “You wait til morning,” he says. “You‘ll see.”
Morning can’t come quickly enough. I wake at five, quietly, of course, walk to the balcony of my beachside villa and come face to face with my fantasy.
While my partner enjoys the kind of guiltless sleep- in that should come with a romantic break, I don’t have to waste a second of my morning (I’m one of those annoying hyper-active people you probably hate to see on holidays, I probably had ADD as a kid before it was diagnosed or fashionable).
So while she sleeps, I paddle across a reef teeming with fish, into an empty line-up. The sun has risen and I surf near-perfect waves for an hour and a half, hardly able to believe my good fortune and take in my exotic surroundings. Finding my partner still deep in sleep, I don a pair of running shoes and take to the streets, where scores of children wait for school buses. Vanuatuans have a reserved friendliness I find quite endearing, it’s like they want to smile, but they can’t quite crack it, but if you look at them long enough, they grin, then snigger. It becomes my challenge; to wear them down.
I feel a little out-of-place here, a skinny white man with chicken legs panting and puffing to maintain his fitness while they do everything they can to keep from sweating in the early morning humidity, men with banana knives working in the fields shake their heads. I run past villages, some rimitive, some more modern. I take a wrong turn to a jetty that looks across to an empty island, all white sand and coconut fronds, and realise getting lost here is the best way to navigate.
Then I’m back sweating like a baboon, trying to cool myself down with a swim in the peaceful waters of the lagoon. My partner finally wakes, so we meander to a breakfast of sweet paw paw, pineapple, mango and grapefruit; her feeling rested, me feeling like Grant Kenny in his heyday.
Vanuatu seems the perfect escape for a couple hell-bent on relaxing. It also seems the perfect place for a couple hell-bent on adventure. But more importantly, it seems the perfect place for one half of a couple hell-bent on relaxation and the other half hell-bent on adventure. There’s a million possibilities here, while some might like to lie on the beaches or shop in downtown Port Vila, I prefer to seek new challenges.
On Efate, we drive buggies through the streets near Port Vila and out to remote beaches where children slap our hands with stinging high fives as we pass, and pigs dart out in front of us, missing our tyres by inches. Later that day, we abseil 50 metres down a raging waterfall, heavy on flow after recent summer storms. A couple on honeymoon are our only companions, after a quick briefing we take turns to climb down sheer rock cliffs with nothing but a piece of rope to keep us from falling to the river below. We don’t finish till nearly sunset and here in the forests of Vanuatu, where fruit bats screech and holler, I feel like an early South Seas explorer.
There’s so many things to do around Port Vila – trying out ridiculously romantic restaurants like Sunsets Bungalows restaurant which sits on top of a lagoon, or the Tamanu On The Beach, surely the best place for a long, lingering Sunday lunch anywhere in the world, or the great bars along the Port Vila foreshore – but I think any visit to Vanuatu should involve a side trip to an outer island (there are 80 of them). Vanuatu is still a wild paradise, when you fly to islands like Santo you’ll share seats with live chickens, and in our case, the President himself, Kalkot Mataskelekele and his bulky bodyguard, Major James Smith.
Santo is a frontier island, a former war base for over 100 000 Allied soldiers during World War II, and it’s almost impossible to imagine this sleepy island, with its potted dirt roads and empty white beaches, was once a thriving metropolis. JFK came through these parts and writer James Michener based his book Tales Of The South Pacific (which later become the musical South Pacific) on his time here during WWII. His fantasy tropical utopia, Bali Hai, is actually the island of Ambae visible from Santo on a clear day.
The main town of Luganville is gorgeously primitive. There’s not much here but a café or two, to buy a drink you’ll have to find a western hotel, and there’s not too many. But therein lies its secret, it’s a tropical paradise minus the rip-offs, the cabana chairs, the fruity cocktails and the hordes of tourists you’ll find in most other tropical locales across the globe. Here you can find perfection in the most remarkable of places – a blue swimming hole beside a dirt road, a five-star retreat beside an ancient village and some of the most glorious off-shore islands in the entire Pacific Ocean.
Opting to shrink our world even more, we set sail for the tiny island of Bokissa. We find an azure sea, even from our arrival jetty colourful fish dart through the water and coral heads dazzle our eyes. I learn the basics of diving in a swimming pool, then take to the tropical waters for my first dive, finding more fish here than even the outer Great Barrier Reef. But when I snorkel minutes later, I find the water so clear I can still see everything I saw from on top of the sea. After kayaking around the island, we relax to an evening of locally caught lobster and sashimi from a tuna caught by a guest sitting at the next table on a fishing charter. The beach moves here as you walk, crabs, some the size of your feet and beyond, just add to the wildness of this destination.
A day trip to Malo River on nearby Malo Island gives us the best taste of tropical paradise we have on the entire trip. Following a guide on a kayak up a deserted river, where he has to hack at branches with a machete just to struggle through, we find the Blue Pool, a massive swimming hole so clear I doubt it’s ever seen a pollutant. Tiny birds dive bomb us, at first I figure they’re protective, then I realise they’re simply inquisitive, so few humans actually ever venture here. We spend the rest of the day snorkelling with turtles and eating local fish on the barbeque as we loll in the water.
The off-shore island of Aore also beckons with its fantastic diving and simple living. I kayak right on dusk past the forest that surrounds Aore Island Resort, I stop for 10 minutes and allow myself to drift out to sea and can’t get over the absolute silence of the sunset.
Vanuatu to me still feels entirely wild. While there’s sophistication in Efate’s resorts and restaurants – and Port Vila has all the modern amenities of a western city – it’s the adventure that abounds in Vanuatu’s hidden corners that lasts with me. In a week it’s possible to surf, kayak, dive, trek, snorkel, ride dune buggies and quad bikes, fish, walk through ancient villages and abseil swollen waterfalls. But as my partner will attest to, there’s also nothing but white empty beaches, warm, clear lagoons and restaurants bursting with tasty local produce. How boring.
Air Vanuatu operates regular flights to Vanuatu from Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.
Bokissa Island Resort
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