The simple happiness of Vanuatu
“I’m going to Vanuatu!”
“Where’s that?” will often be the response.
Being slightly unsure myself, I would wave my arm in a broad 180 degrees swipe in a North Easterly direction and say, “just a little down from Papua New Guinea.”
To be more precise, Vanuatu is an archipelago of 82 small islands at the base of a larger splatter of islands forming Melanesia, due east of Port Douglas. Vanuatu is surrounded by its big brothers, The Solomon Islands to the North and sandwiched between Fiji and New Caledonia to the South.
I worked out that it would take about a day to reach it by boat from Port Douglas. By plane, it involved the convoluted detour of flying from Brisbane.
Primarily, my mission was to explore underwater Vanuatu with some diving friends. However, since the island offered so much on land, it proved to be an amphibious adventure.
My party was based in a modern, beautiful appointed villa on the main island of Efate in Mele Bay with the garden dropping off to the reef. How amazing it was to snorkel with rays and play with Clown Fish before breakfast!
We explored the dive sites around Efate. The rock formations of The Cathedral, made the diving an almost religious experience, as a sandy nave opened up to an altar of penetrating light that pierced the overhanging rocks from the surface. Also two wreck dives - The Konando (an island trader boat 45m long that sank in a cyclone) and The Star of Russia, ominously built in 1875 by the Titanic shipbuilders. and sank in 1953 and rests now at 35 metres deep with a length of 83 metres. Due to its size it required a ‘’no dallying” dive plan in order to fully circumnavigate it within decompression limits.
We also dived a site enticingly called “The Coral Garden” on the neighbouring island of Moso. This was aptly named, as it was truly like experiencing an underwater garden filled with waving gorgonian fans and soft coral overhangs with swim-throughs so full of fish you couldn’t see the exit.
Above land, we explored the nearby Cascades waterfalls. Like giant watery steps, crystal clear pools staggered up the mountainside and cascaded into each other like a crystal glass champagne fountain. Certainly, there was a little staggering as we walked uphill to reach the 50m waterfall at the summit. The last 100m with the, “pull yourself up by ropes over the rocks,” bit, heightened the adventure.
A must do on our list was to tour round the island in an open topped Mini Moke. Praying for no rain and with the wind in our hair and flies in our teeth, we launched ourselves around the island a la Thelma and Louise style.
We were relieved that we decided to drive anticlockwise. The steep, almost sheer, winding road into Efate from the mountains would have certainly meant us getting out and walking if we’d attempted to scale it from a clockwise direction.
The lush verdant scenery was stunning as we drove past grazing cows and spreading banyan trees, coconut and banana palms, with the tree fern wood traditional sculptures like ancient sentinels lining our route.
Along the way we visited a ‘’museum’’ (a grass hut) of American war memorabilia from World War II. Artefacts from the time when the US Air Force had set up units across the South Pacific Region in the Solomon Islands Campaign. They used Vanuatu as a base, and subsequently a dumping ground, and judging from the 1944 Corsair wreck that we visited, an inadvertent crash site too.
The sign, ‘’Summit Distillery,’’ looked promising especially since we were looking for some refreshment. On arrival, however it turned out be a distillery for essential oils. It proved to be the largest single resource of sandalwood (used in the making of Chanel perfume) in the South Pacific, and the second largest in the world.
As interesting as The Summit was, we did find our favourite type of distillery a little later that night. The local rum called “Esprit de Rhum” was served with a large smile by Will (also our dive guide) from the local Reggae Bar, and was smoothed over with a mixer. Kava, though, is the main local drink and is even a profitable export. Whilst visiting, we heard that the Government had issued stricter directives to ensure that the quality was maintained and the reputation of Vanuatan Kava kept.
The best part of driving around was meeting the stars of the show and the highlight of Vanuatu – The people.
Every time we came near a village, children would run out and hi-five us. Driving round it was a privileged window into their daily lives. We saw children playing in the river alongside their Mothers as they did their washing, at church, sitting outside their houses and just going about their normal routine.
In 2006 The Happy Planet index named the country as the happiest place on Earth. The people are poor. Many live on the money made from selling produce at the market. Luckily, plants grow easily here in the fertile volcanic soil where it has been joked that you could drop a candy wrapper and it would grow!
Despite having nothing there is always a white toothed beaming smile (though on chatting to a local dentist he did say that soda drinks and candies were taking their toll on Efate’s teeth) and the most generous and effusive “hello’s”.
Vanuatu is overshadowed by its flashy neighbours who get the tourists by spending the dollars in the pursuit of tourism.
It has been put on the tourist map recently when they filmed the last series of “Survivor” here. When I asked Jim from Texas, who I was on the dive boat with, what made him come here, he mentioned the programme.
As is the conundrum, it is always good to visit a place before it is, ‘discovered,’ and then ruined by hordes of people trying to find that exact thing. One is made to feel so welcome and visitors are still a novelty in a country that truly does welcome you, and not just view you as a walking dollar sign.
A postcard I sent from the only underwater post office in the world didn’t only say “wish you were here”, but “wish I was here… and staying longer”.
The Vanuatu Tourist board have the slogan “Discover what matters”. After a visit to this amazing country we found it to be simple happiness.
Written by Rosie Wang, Australia.