Port Vila

Port Vila and Efate Island

Republic of Vanuatu

January 17th - 20th, 2016


Getting to Vanuatu:

Getting to Vanuatu turned out to be a bit more challenging than I had planned originally. I left Hong Kong on an overnight flight on Qantas to Brisbane, but my original plan to fly from there to Port Vila on Virgin Australia had been foiled 10 days before my departure, when all Australian and NZ airlines suspended all flights into Vanuatu over safety concerns about the state of the runway at Port Vila Bauerfield Airport. So, at that stage, I was left with two choices: Skip Vanuatu entirely and re-plan my entire trip, or: Find an airline with somewhat lower safety standards that still flies into Vanuatu. Naturally I chose the latter, and booked a flight on Solomon Air from Brisbane via Honiara to Port Vila. (Air Vanuatu and Solomon Air had put out a statement, that they considered the runway perfectly safe as long as it is swept regularly to clear off all debris. Sounded safe enough to me.)

It was about a 3 hour flight from Brisbane to Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, on an Solomon Air Airbus 320. The flight was only about a quarter full. I had little more than an hour stopover in Honiara, but I still had to go in and out of immigration, I think only for the simple reason that there is only one exit and one gate. In fact transiting at Honiara airport does not seem to be a common thing, since the immigration officer had to get her supervisor to find out what to do with me, and whether to stamp my passport. I got back on the same plane as I came in on (which was the only plane at Honiara airport today), except this time the flight was packed. In fact it seemed like there were a lot more people than seats on this plane, with about 15 people standing in the back waiting for the attendants to find them a seat. There was quite a bit of reshuffling going on, and at some stage they asked me if I would mind moving to business class, which I was happy to comply with. Most of the people on the plane seemed to be locals with only a handful of other white people.

After they managed to somehow find a seat for everyone, the flight from Honiara to Port Vila took less than 2 hours. The landing was perfectly fine, and the runway looked like a normal runway to me. I am sure these airlines are trying to be extra safety conscious, but the decision to suspend all flights obviously has a huge impact on a poor country like Vanuatu, where so many people earn their livelihood through tourism. So I was glad I decided to go the long way round and come anyway.

Immigration was a bit slow in Vanuatu, but with my unexpected business class upgrade I was first out of the plane and near the front of the immigration line. I managed to get money out of the ATM at the airport, and there was no line at the taxis at all. I stayed at the Grand Hotel and Casino in Port Vila, which is a bit faded but otherwise perfectly fine. By the time I got to the hotel it was about 5:30 pm and I was too exhausted after my 20 hour three flight trip to do anything else other than have a very nice dinner in the hotel restaurant, and an early night before my early morning flight to Tanna the next day.

About Vanuatu:

Vanuatu consists of more than 80 volcanic islands, 65 of which are populated. The archipelago was first discovered by Europeans in 1606, when a Spanish expedition visited the largest island, which they named Espirito Santo. In the 19th century both France and England laid claim to several of the islands. They came to an agreement in 1906 to jointly manage the whole archipelago, which was then known as the New Hebrides, a name given to it by Captain Cook, who arrived here in 1774. Following an independence movement in the seventies, the new Republic of Vanuatu was founded in 1980 and became a full member of the United Nations the following year.

Today, the country’s economy consists mainly of agriculture (including fishing and cattle raising), which employs the majority of the population, tourism (particularly scuba diving) and to a smaller degree offshore financial services. Vanuatu is known as a tax haven often used by international shipping management companies. Deforestation and resulting erosion and landslides as well as over-fishing are some of the environmental problems faced by this very poor country. Based on the latest IMF estimates, Vanuatu is 157th out of 187 countries in terms of GDP per capita.

Vanuatu has a small but growing population of just under 300,000. The indigenous population are Melanesians. The Melanesian people are distinct from the Polynesians. Melanesia includes all of the islands in the South-Western Pacific ranging from Papua New Guinea in the West to Fiji in the East, whereas Polynesia covers the entire Eastern part of the Pacific and includes Hawaii and New Zealand. While it is believed that the Polynesian migration across the Pacific originated from Taiwan less than 5,000 years ago, the Melanesian people originated as part of the Proto-Australoid migration, which was the first major human migration to leave Africa between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago, and which spread along the coastal areas of the Indian Ocean all the way to Australia. Genetically Melanesian people are more closely related to Australian aborigines than to Polynesians.

There is an interesting genetic quirk among the Melanesian population, which is the fact that despite being very dark skinned up to 20% of Melanesians have bright blond hair. It was long speculated that this might be a leftover from early European visitors, but more recent genetic studies have shown that the Melanesian 'blond gen' is different from the gen that creates blond hair in Europeans. It is a genetic variation that developed independently and blond Melanesian people probably have been around for millennia.

Port Vila:

Port Vila is the capital and commercial center of the country. It is a small city of less than 50,000 people, with a stunning natural harbor location on the Southern coast of Efate Island.

After having spent two incredible days on Tanna Island, I returned to Port Vila on an early morning flight, which got me to the hotel at 9:00 am. My room was not ready for check in yet, but I was able to book a Round-the-Island trip straight away. My driver Semi and his wife Esther picked me up at 10:00 am to take me on a sightseeing tour around the Island of Efate, which is the country's second largest island (after Espirito Santo). There are hardly any roads in the interior of the island, but a very good nearly 100 km long and well paved road circling the entire island. (The road was built with support from the US and New Zealand in 2009/10.)

The first part of the road took us through a lot of palm tree plantations. Palm oil is one of the main export goods from Vanuatu. Although Efate was not quite as hard hit by Cyclone Pam as Tanna, it still caused major damage particularly on the Southern Shore. We see many broken and uprooted large trees. The drive is beautiful, and we stop along the way for some great views, stunning beaches and several small coves with clear azure blue water.

We saw the leftovers of the very large military bases that both the Japanese and American armies had built here during World War II. And we had great views of the numerous smaller islands surrounding Efate.

We stopped for lunch at a really nice beach restaurant in front of Hideaway Island, which claims to be home to the world's only underwater post office.

The whole tour took about 4 hours, and we ended with a drive through Port Vila and up on the hill behind the city for the amazing view of Port Vila Bay underneath.

It was really fascinating driving with Semi and his wife, as I learned a lot about what life is like for people in Vanuatu. Near the end of the tour we also picked up their six year old daughter Patricia from school. She was incredibly sweet, and greeted me with a big hug. Children speak their local languages at home (and apparently there are a lot of different languages and dialects even within the Island of Efate), and only start to learn English at school. But even at the age of six Patricia's English was already quite good. And they even showed me their house and the village they live in. The village still has a chief, who makes all the major decision and deals with conflict resolution. The land in the village is mostly owned by the Catholic Church, who assigns pieces of land to people when they get married. Semi and his family had to move to a new house last year, after theirs was destroyed by Cyclone Pam.

After a couple of hours rest in the hotel in the afternoon, Semi picked me up again, because I had accepted his kind offer to take me to a local kava bar. We drove quite a bit outside of the city, somewhere behind the container port to Semi’s favorite kava bar. This was definitely a local bar, not the kind of place other tourists get to see. The word 'bar' really was a bit of an overstatement, it was a tiny little wood shed in a clearing in the forest, with men (and a couple of women) sitting around on tree logs looking very mellow. Kava is a mild sedative anesthetic. I had two big cups, but I didn't really feel any effect other than my tongue going completely numb. Semi thought I should have had at least three cups, but two was all I could take. A you can see from my face, it is an acquired taste. It was like drinking green grassy mud.

The kava plant is a small tree, that is grown for anywhere between 4 and 10 years (the older the tree, the stronger the effect). The drink is made of the root of the plant, which is ground up and turned into a greenish gray liquid. Kava is made fresh every day, it does not keep. That's why we had to move to a different bar for my second cup, since the first one had just run out. Growing the little tree for up to 10 years before harvesting the roots, seems like a lot of time and effort, but apparently you can get up to 100 kg of kava powder out of the roots of one tree.

Wednesday, Feb 17th

Semi picked me up from the hotel in the morning again. Today we went to see the Mele Cascades waterfalls. It is about a 15 minute walk along a beautiful small river running down a narrow gorge. At the top there is a 20 meter high waterfall followed by a series of cascades, with several beautiful bright green pools, where you can take a dip in the pleasantly cool water.

Back in Port Vila I spent my last few hours in Vanuatu going on a little walk through the city, taking pictures of the bay. I also visited the market, which was quite busy today, since a large cruise ship had just arrived in the bay this morning, so the city was swarming with mostly overweight Australians all with their P&O badges around their necks. But it was good to see that at least the cruise ships are still bringing in the paying tourists, while they have the runway problems at the airport.

I have to say that, even though I only spent four days in Vanuatu, this has quickly become one of my favorite places in the world. The people of Vanuatu are among the kindest and friendliest people I have ever encountered anywhere in the world. Combine this with stunning natural beauty, amazing rain forests, gorgeous beaches, and to top it all off, the most accessible active volcano in the world. I left Port Vila on a late afternoon flight to Fiji, for the next part of my South Pacific island hopping trip, but I am fairly certain that this was not my last trip to Vanuatu.

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