Country number: 111
Territory number: 122
When? August 2012 – coming from The Solomon Islands. Next stop Fiji.
How? Local small planes, taxis, walking
Where next? South to the capital of a nation of only 70 or so islands this time speaking English, French and Bislama (as well as 100 or so other languages). Tales of the South Pacific was based on life here during WW2. However, some serious issues to report to the trades descriptions people. My guide book says that Port Vila, in Vanuatu, is the prettiest town in the Pacific. Well it’s certainly better than Moresby and Honiara but ‘stunning views round every crooked corner’? Well no. Maybe it will look better if the sun comes out. It’s grey here and really cool after my equatorial island hopping. But it seems shabby and quiet. What on earth are all the other towns like then? My book also says that the people were voted the happiest nation on earth. They look pretty bored and sleepy to me. Nearly everything is shut and even where shops are open the assistants look far too flaked out to serve anyone. My hotel is billed as ‘sparklingly boutique’. Not bad, certainly, compared to what I’ve seen recently and quite pretty from the lagoon side, with trailing blue flowering vines on the balconies. But sparkling no and definitely not boutique. Nice view across the bay and scrummy food though. And a two page cocktail list and a massage salon, so a partial return to civilisation.
As always things look better the next day. Two lads from the hotel are taking me on a tour of Efate Island. I don’t learn do I? – Though it can’t be worse than the trip to Ouagadougou. They begin by arguing about the population of the island. It’s either 10,000 or a million. I shall have to look it up, though 10,000 seems closer. Outside The Prettiest Town in the Pacific there are only small villages. It’s still very rural with most folk making their living by market gardening – that’s how they pay the school fees. Clean and tidy, but still very basic living. Sweet potatoes, taro, coconuts. Most of the women wear very bright flowered cotton dresses, with as many gathers and flounces as they can manage. The landscape isn’t quite Caribbean. More like Queensland I think. There is a great deal of forest, but there’s also quite a lot of more open grassland scattered with coconut palms. And there are considerable numbers of cattle grazing. Also a few lovely beaches. I swim in one called Eton (pronounced et as in get) that has the mandatory white coral beaches surrounding a shallow lagoon. In the middle is a 30 foot sink hole full of fish. Good for a snorkel. Not so good for the unwary paddler!
I must be downright bonkers. I was woken up just after midnight as the whole building was shaking and moaning. I leapt out of bed – another earthquake! No – one took any notice and I tried to get back to sleep but I was sure the bed was moving so it wasn’t a very peaceful night.
Today, not only have I added two more flights to my itinerary when I was down to only three more, but the consequence of the aforementioned flights is that I am now standing right on the edge of the caldera of a volcano. It’s rumbling, growling and chucking up thousands of boulders, lumps of lava glowing red and clouds of sulphur, lightening and steam. Mount Yasur on the island of Tanna is billed as the world’s most accessible active volcano. The journey was eventful. The plane was tiny and the pilot looked about 18. He’d only just got his licence. More trades descriptions issues. The ‘scenic flight’ turned out to be mostly over the sea, though The Prettiest Town in the Pacific does look good from the air, with all its islands and lagoons. The ‘delicious lunch’ was one egg sandwich, a sour tangerine and a mug of squash. However, Tanna island is absorbing. Very wild and much more traditional. There has been a big initiation ceremony the night before and crowds of villagers are trying to make their way home. Most are still wearing their finery, feathers, grass skirts, feathers and many clearly have whacking hangovers. Some are literally crawling and others have given up and are lying face down on the grass.
We drove through pandanus groves and across vast deserts and canyons made of ash. In the distance the volcano was already rumbling and belching out smoke. The vehicle jolted up most of the mountain and we then clambered up a track to the very top. As I said – bonkers. But pretty spectacular. It really feels like the end of the world. We stay for half an hour or so watching the heaving cauldron below. Every so often more boulders come hurtling past, heralded by great rumbles – very like shouts of despair. Somehow we maintain a distance; the show is being played out on the stage in front. Our guides assure us it’s perfectly safe. This is only Level One activity. Visitors are barred if it gets to a Three. We scramble down again, to the truck, for the delicious lunch. I’m still monitoring the rim of the volcano. There’s an almighty roar and a cloud of lava and rocks shoots up hundreds of feet into the air, streaming down to land just where we have been standing.
Coolish and cloudy today, temperature only in the low twenties, so a quiet day.
Off to the airport to catch my flight to Nadi (say it Nandi) in Fiji. Only it’s raining and after circling three times it decides it can’t land and my flight is cancelled. Bloody hell it’s not raining very hard. I can see the runway. Anyway the ensuing chaos makes PNG look a piece of cake. No compensation, no accommodation and no flight till Tuesday. Though we haveto queue several times, moving at snail’s pace to discover all this. Then I find out that there is a flight to Suva up the other end of the main island on Fiji leaving tomorrow morning. Another excruciating queue. When I finally arrived at the counter the flight has gone up another £20. Back to my hotel, which fortunately has a spare room. All this takes the whole day. And I have to go through it all again tomorrow morning. As well as working out how to get across the island. I try calling Fiji to tell them I am delayed but no-one answers the phone- of course. It’s still raining in The Prettiest Town in the Pacific.
When? July 2017 – coming from Nadi. Next stop Honiara, The Solomon Islands.
How? Buses, taxis, walking
Same hotel, same town almost five years later. Port Vila looks just as ramshackle, tatty and in need of repair as when I was here before, though I think there are more restaurants and bars than they were. The menu in most of them is the same. Fish and chips or chicken and chips. The hotel looks very much the same too-lovely position at the water’s edge but frayed at the edges. I can’t decide whether it’s been preserved exactly as it was five years ago or if it was refurbished and has then deteriorated again. There’s the same beauty parlour with the same great massage underneath and the same good but expensive restaurant. The massive difference is the weather. Last time I was here it rained most of the visit. Now I can see that the lagoon is very pretty with the sun on the turquoise water and the hilly islands opposite. There are cruise ships in the bay and a giant container ship being escorted in by tugs. Everything seems more comfortable and interesting. I had to come this way, reluctantly, to get back to the Solomons. I’m glad I did as I’ve revised my opinion – not the prettiest town (whatever the guide book says) but scenic views.
Famous last words. It has rained on and off all day in defiance of the forecast and it looks just like it did on my last visit-dull. In-between showers I flag down one of the hundreds of local taxi buses plying the main road down to Hideaway Island. The driver doesn’t tell me he’s on the school run and there are three curly haired cuties in the front. There are a large number of dark skinned children with blonde hair here, all with adorable cheeky smiles. They have to be dropped home via multiple diversions. The free ferry then takes me over to the tiny island where I shelter from some more showers before taking the plunge. The water’s still not very warm, but there’s the reward of more decent snorkelling to be had: a great drop off reef and a kaleidoscope of small fish. A couple of them nip me and I squeal– they must be used to being fed here. I don’t stay on the coral beach long. It’s warmer in the sea than on the land.
The staff in the hotel are very friendly and helpful, though reception is not always attended. The room has most things I need and a great outlook. It’s just a shame the furniture is chipped and dented, there are rust and paint marks, the sheet is stained and everything looks as if it needs a makeover. Even the lamps on each side of the bed flicker constantly. They are precariously balanced on tiny peeling bedside tables. The acoustics are poor. Footsteps echo through all the bedrooms and the nights are interrupted by the sound of the neighbours packing and leaving for early flights. The free internet was good but that too goes down mid-afternoon. ‘For an hour ma’am’. No sign of a signal at bedtime.
On my way to Honiara, reversing my journey this time. It’s silly o’clock again at the airport, which is ramshackle too, but marginally less so than on my last visit, when I was marooned here for 24 hours. I still manage to get locked in the toilet and have to be rescued by tutting staff.