Hi again from Vanuatu! Or as the locals say, Halo! On the last update from the South Pacific, we explored the capital of Vanuatu, Port Vila. We then hopped into a tiny little jeep and drove around the beautiful island of Efate with my Norwegian travel mate, Jørn Bjørn. With Jørn Bjørn off to Fiji, I headed off to my second island in Vanuatu, Espiritu Santo. This is the largest island in Vanuatu and just a 45 minute flight north of Port Vila. Santo is known for its wreck diving and beautiful beaches, and that’s exactly what we’ll explore in this South Pacific update.
Heading to Vanuatu? Here’s a sample 10 day Vanuatu itinerary!
How did the Chinese end up here?
I spent the first two days in Luganville, the largest city in Santo. To call this is place a city is really unfair to other cities around the world – but Luganville does have its charm. Up on the hills overlooking the town, where I stayed, is quite rural. As always, it’s cool to see where the real locals live. And in the case of Vanuatu, those locals are always so friendly, even if their lives are so simple to Western eyes.
Other than that, Luganville is pretty much a collection of hotels, dive shops and lots of Chinese mini markets. I am not sure how the Chinese arrived in Vanuatu but they definitely own the food retailing business. Oh, and there’s a pretty cool market here as well. The weird thing that I’ve discovered in Vanuatu so far, is that you can’t buy fruits & vegetables at the mini markets – only in the food market. Not sure why that is but I didn’t make up the rules.
The market in Luganville is not as big as the market in Port Vila but it does the job. There’s even a pretty handy ‘fast food’ section somewhere on the side. I normally try and keep it safe when I’m traveling but I saw quite a few tourists eating over there so I gathered some balls and headed to try the local food. I must say that I hit the jackpot. For a fraction of what it would normally cost in town, I got a super delicious dish of local food and I didn’t even get sick!
Wreck diving in Santo
And now for the diving. This is the main reason folks travel to Santo after all. During WWII, the US had a massive army base on the island, as the war in the Pacific was in full swing. In 1942, the luxury liner turned into a troop carrier, the SS President Coolidge hit a friendly mine just as it was entering the Santo harbor. The ship’s captain beached the massive ship and over 5,000 troops disembarked. The ship quickly slid down the reef and now rests just offshore, making it one of the most accessible and popular wreck dives in the world. Divers can plunge to over 70 meters and check out the entire wreck, but 37 meters was enough for me on this day.
I’ve never been on a wreck dive before and I must say that it’s quite a surreal feeling. The first dive along the exterior was impressive but it’s only when I ventured inside on the second dive, that things really start to sink in. The SS President Coolidge was a massive ship and only when diving inside this behemoth, do you understand its true size. You have to crawl sideways to explore some of its sections and if you’re not careful enough, you’ll leave with a few souvenirs from the Coolidge like I did, in the form of sexy head bumps.
The tragic sinking of the Coolidge was probably one of the best things to happen to the people of Santo, as thousands of divers make the trip every year to one of the world’s premier wreck dive sites.
What should we do with all this equipment?
After a full day of diving followed by some Chinese food, I was ready to finally head up the coast and relax on the beach for a few days. Before that, I headed to my last WWII tourism spot for some snorkeling. As the war in the Pacific came to a draw, the US army was stuck with a surplus that was too costly to ship back home. With no potential buyers around, it simply dumped the equipment just off the shore in what is today known as Million Dollar Point. You can probably figure out why it’s named so, with dozens of jeeps, cannons, engines and even tanks – resting just a few meters off the beach. I bet that pacifists would just love for the day to come when all the world’s weapons will be dumped at sea (though environmentalists probably wouldn’t like that).
That unique ‘traveling’ experience
Totally done with Luganville, it was time for that white sand beach everyone’s been asking me about. This is the South Pacific after all! Only 45 km’s up the coast from Luganville is Lonnoc Beach. It’s only 30 minutes away but with no public transportation in Vanuatu, getting there required a bit of asking around. I was directed to the local gas station, which apparently serves as the unofficial bus station on the island. I was advised to flag a ride that takes locals back home after a week of work. With the local people of Vanuatu, the Ni Va, being so friendly – this was not a problem. I found a super nice guy with a pickup truck that was heading up north and he immediately offered me a ride.
The ride in that pickup truck was one of those special experiences that you only have when traveling. We rode past endless coconut plantations, over crystal clear rivers, beside turquoise beaches and stopped along the way to buy food. My riding mates always offered me a taste of whatever they bought. Going the local way is almost always the best way to go! I even picked up my first few words of Bislama, the official language of Vanuatu. It’s a cross between local dialects and English. For example, nambawan means the best (number one).
Being Friday, the guys needed to stock up on some Kava for the weekend, so we stopped at a Kava bar in the middle of nowhere – where they sell this stuff by the bottle. For those of you who didn’t catch up on the last post, Kava is basically the South Pacific’s version of a cross between champagne and marijuana. It’s totally legal and actually kind of a must to try. It gives off a sedative feel that locals just crave. As we continued the drive, there was lots of spitting and throat clearing sounds coming from the back of the pickup truck, as they guys were downing the Kava as if it was water. It must be the start of the weekend!
A picture postcard of a beach!
After dropping everyone off at their villages, it was time for me to get off at Lonnoc Beach Bungalows, in Lonnoc Beach – where I’m pretty much the only one staying in this postcard of a beach. There are tons of stars at night, the sand is the whitest I’ve ever seen and the water is just so blue.
I got myself a cute little bungalow that has solar-powered light, a flush toilet and mosquito net that’s full of holes. There isn’t much to do here except to relax. Sleep quality is definitely a plus. At night, it’s just the sound of the crickets, the crashing waves on the beach, the palm tree branches swinging in the wind and the occasional coconut landing on the roof of the bungalow – that make up the ingredients of your dreams (give it a listen, here)!
Not all is perfect in paradise though. Last night, I got back to my bungalow only to discover a massive spider creeping around. I am talking about a H-U-G-E one. Mind you, there’s not much light here at night so it was a very creepy encounter. After a 10 minute game of ‘hide & seek’, the spider finally lost his life but I ended up losing my sleep for the night…
And now back to business. Right beside Lonnoc Beach is the quintessential Vanuatu postcard of a photo. I am talking about Champagne Beach, a small stretch of pure white sand, crystal clear waters and a couple of palm trees. It’s just a 15-minute walk from my bungalow and if you get here in the morning hours, you have it all to yourself.
Get me to the church on time
As Sunday came up on the calendar, it could only mean one thing in Vanuatu – going to church! The Ni Va people are very religious and they love their church time. I think this is because, in some villages, this is pretty much the only organized social activity other than a game of football. There are quite a few missionaries from Australia & New Zealand in this part of the Pacific. I’ve heard from a few locals that Christianity has brought with it much civil order, and villages have gone from shooting each other just for the hell of it to forming a large community where everyone pretty much knows everyone. So love or hate religion, at least it’s done something good over here.
I was invited to attend church with the locals after breakfast and I just couldn’t refuse. Attending the service was something very special. The whole village was dressed in their finest colorful clothes and there was a whole lot of singing of beautiful hymns of happiness and hope. I even got my very own guest blessing from the preacher! After service, I went to check out the local village. People really have super basic lives here. No wifi or air conditioning, let alone running water or electricity.
The best of Espiritu Santo was waiting for my last day on the island. I woke up early with the intention to hitch a ride about 30 km’s south to Matevulu Blue Hole. With Sunday in the books and a fresh week starting, I was advised that it shouldn’t be a problem to find a ride heading south. I walked about 2 km’s to the main road and started to wait… and wait… and wait. Something must be wrong. All of the sudden, a local joined me in waiting for a ride and he advised that it shouldn’t be a problem: “we’ll be out of here in no time”.
Dude, where’s my ride?
As the minutes ticked by, I started to get to know my waiting mate – Lulu. He’s a very nice guy from the village beside me and his son a math wiz! With the minutes passing by, we were joined by Muriel who works in Luganville but comes back to her village up north for the weekends. It appears that women are sharper than men and thank God Muriel was there. She reminded us that today was Constitution Day and there would be very few cars coming up and down the road. Boy was she right. Every negative has a positive side though, and in this case, I got to get to know Muriel and Lulu quite well. After about 2 hours of sitting around, Lulu whipped out his dumbphone phone, called up his buddy Ruben and arranged for a private taxi to take me around for the day at a fraction of what it would it normally cost!
After about 10 minutes, a tiny car that has seen better days rolled up the dirt road and picked me up. I was finally on my way! The ride gave me another opportunity to see the beautiful countryside of Espiritu Santo. I just love palm trees. For some reason, they symbolize freedom to me.
Slowly but surely Ruben opened up to me. He’s got two kids and has even traveled to Samoa, my next destination, many years ago as part of his job as a commercial fisherman. He enjoys the simple life and especially kava. More on that soon.
We finally arrived at Matevulu Blue Hole. Hallelujah! What can I say about this place? Just have a look at the photos. Does it get any better than this? Crystal clear water and a giant banyan tree that’s just perfect for swinging from.
It was tough to leave the blue hole but the show must go on. With lunch way overdue, I hailed a boat to Oyster Island. All you have to do is bang on the metal drum and a boat comes to pick you up. The island resort is magical. Should have stayed here… Anyways, Oyster Island is famous for its oysters and I made my way to enjoy a slimy yet delicious lunch.
Ruben needs his Kava!
It was time to head back up north to Lonnoc, with the sunset just hours away. With Ruben craving some kava, we stopped over at a local stall on the side of the road. The woman and children were selling mainly fruits & vegetables (and the odd pig) and the men were out back making some kava. It was cool to see how this muddy gold was made: first grind it through a meat grinder, then mix it with spring water from the well, and finally strain it through a makeshift strainer made from sweatpants – and Voila! Ruben got his kava, I got to eat some fresh papaya and drink coconut juice, and we headed back to Lonnoc.
What a great way to finish off my Espiritu Santo leg! Next up is Tanna Island, the last island I’ll visit in Vanuatu. The island is known for its active volcano, Mount Yasur, which is also the world’s most accessible active volcano. Tanna has been badly hit by Cyclone Pam so I’m also keen to see how the locals are dealing with that. Stay tuned!