South Pacific Travel - Not What The Brochures Promised!

In the throes of writing Vanuatu's latest Development Plan, we set off to seek input from a remote village. Jimmy was there to provide a ni-Vanuatu focus, Irishman Garvin was along to experience some real Vanuatu, and I was the Canadian instigator. Our destination was Vetumboso on Vanua Lava Island in the north of the archipelago. Inter-island freighters rarely venture to this region; without access to the international copra market or merchandise, few benefits of "development" come here. The money economy is distant, and subsistence gardening is the major economic activity.

That afternoon, our Twin Otter overflew stretches of the Coral Sea and several islands of vertical greenery ringed with necklaces of white foam crescents on turquoise shallows. Our most spectacular view was of the crescent lake high in the ancient crater of Gaua volcano. At our destination we bumped to earth and retrieved our packs from the agent unloading the cargo bay.

I planted my foot on the rear tire of the waiting half-ton taxi truck, swung over the side, and took my place next to Jimmy. We stood hanging to the bar above the rear cab window, the better to absorb pot-holes with our knees. Giving the cab roof a slap (the national code for "we probably won't fall off if you start now" - twice means "stop here"), we bumped down the coral road, keeping an eye out for fast-approaching branches.

A short ride brought us to the Island Government resthouse, a large woven bamboo building with corrugated roof. Inside, we each claimed an iron cot, hung a mosquito net by the nails protruding from the walls and ceiling, and cooked our evening meal. Tonight's entree was made of rice and tinned meat we had brought on the expectation that local shop shelves would be bare. I read a bit by the Coleman kerosene lantern, caught the BBC World Service news on my pocket shortwave radio, and hit the hay.

The next morning was gray and windy. After a hearty breakfast of cabin crackers and peanut butter (don't leave home without it), we ambled down to the Sola wharf for our 5-metre open "speedboat" taxi. The two risk-adverse Westerners located life jackets, and I noticed with relief that the 15-HP back-up had not yet replaced the standard-issue 25-HP outboard motor on the aid-subsidized plywood ex-fishing boat.

Soon out of the bay, we wallowed through rain and 1.5-metre seas on our two-hour voyage up the coast to the point from where we would walk. In the absence of two-way communication, Plan "A" was that someone in the village would have heard our previous week's service message over Radio Vanuatu. We further hoped that the village would have seen fit to send someone to guide us through the maze of trails and, indeed, that the villagers considered it worth their time to meet with us. Meanwhile, after an hour the sea's motion overcame me and I employed my well-worn strategy of finding a spot where I would least inconvenience my fellow sailors (on a 5-metre boat?), laying my head on the gunwale, and dozing between bouts of illness.

Finally, our captain pointed out our landing, a small rocky beach at the mouth of a small river. I asked if he could drop us on the north side, where the path to the village began, but he pointed out that this beach was the only spot where waves were not pounding the sharp reef. Well, a swim across the river wouldn't dampen us much more, but I found we were in luck. Not only was a young man from Vetumboso awaiting us, an old one-man dugout canoe was on the river bank. Swallowing my misgivings about "playing Bwana", I accepted the guide's offer to push us across, and we crossed the river in turns.

Vanuatu's frequent cyclones prevent the development of tertiary rainforest and undergrowth interlaces the lower bush, but our path was well-traveled and clear. The rain made our way especially dark, and from under my poncho hood I had the sensation of traveling down a tunnel along the forest floor. Usually a morning's bush walk found my face collecting swatches of the previous night's spider webs, but this time the weather had discouraged their construction or another tall person had already swept the way clear. Rainwater funneled down the path, however; it was like wading up a small stream in a tepid shower. I was well served by my rain outfit of thongs, shorts, and poncho, which sacrificed my bare lower legs and feet to the rain while keeping my upper body reasonably dry. The running water did keep the mud from forming a greasy layer between my feet and thongs, allowing me to remain shod.

An hour and a half's walk, and the trail discharged us into the village clearing. We were ushered into the bamboo and Sago thatch Community Hall. The weather deepened the interior gloom, but I could soon make out forty or so men and women and several shy children who had come to talk with us. Dress was post-missionary Vanuatu - men in shorts and T-shirts collected by Western charities and sold to the Third World to raise funds, and women in their beautiful island dresses of hibiscus prints embellished with lace and festooned with flowing ribbons. We gently shook hands with all and were seated on wooden benches. Things got underway with a welcome from the Chief, introductions, and a prayer by the village Pastor capped by the usual round of applause.

In Bislama, Vanuatu's lingua franca, I explained why I needed to know their development priorities. I then used the example of a short journey to convey the concepts, quickly grasped, of "Objective" (Where do I want to go?) and "Strategy" (How am I going to try to get there?). There was some discussion, and we were told what I eventually heard from all regions of Vanuatu: both men and women wanted opportunities to make money, preferably by selling agricultural produce to the export market. The women also wanted better child-birthing facilities, and as their family's primary food producers, instruction on cultivating foreign vegetables.

With that the meeting concluded, and we were shown the courtesy of a mid-day meal - the villagers were well aware that Europeans eat three meals a day rather than their customary two. A special lap-lap had been prepared by grating yams, adding coconut milk and pieces of pork, wrapping the mixture in large leaves, and baking it for several hours on hot stones in a pit oven. Lap-lap is an acquired taste, but after the morning's exertions it was very good.

The rain continued, and our wade back to the river's mouth was uneventful. We shouldn't have been as surprised as we were, however, to find that after a day's rain, the river had by now risen a half-metre and doubled its width. Jimmy and Garvin had had enough of the old canoe and opted to swim across. I chose the high tech option and led the crossing by balancing myself in the tiny craft and starting the 20-metre paddle. Almost within arm's reach of the opposite shore, SNAP!, the outrigger broke, rolling me into the water. Blinded by my shifting poncho and struggling to disentangle my arms to avoid drowning, I became aware of small beasties scrambling over my shoulders, along with pinpricks of pain. Floating down the river on some bit of flotsam, a colony of biting ants had climbed on the first solid object they bumped into, attacking when they discovered it was alive. I busied myself dealing with the poncho, scrambling ashore, and scraping off the ants. Then, trying not to drown by inhaling water in their laughter, my companions swam across without incident.

Our taxi boat came in from offshore, we launched it and clambered in. The return voyage was a repeat of the morning's except I was sick the entire way. Back in Sola, I gave supper a miss and collapsed into my bed, while Garvin and Jimmy struck out for the evening, hoping to find a kava bar in which to boost the local economy.

After another night's rain, we faced one of Vanuatu's rainy-season travel uncertainties: would the grass airstrip be too soggy for our flight to land, forcing us to stay the weekend? As always, though, Vanair came through, and we were back in Port Vila that evening.

At the next National Planning Office meeting, my report drew a good laugh from all. I sobered things a bit by reminding my fellow expats of what the ni-Vanuatu planners were well aware: for most of the nation's populace, the trip's difficulties were everyday experiences.

Learn how to take a luxury South Pacific tour like this at Travel In Rural Vanuatu.

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©Stan Combs, 1996.