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Vanuatu: Pacific isles of highs and lows

By A. ODYSSEUS PATRICK | Special to The Washington Post | Published: December 31, 2014

Vanuatu is one of the South Pacific’s rawest vacation destinations.

In an age in which travelers expect modern conveniences and fast service, the archipelago is a throwback to an era before free Wi-Fi, legal liability waivers and Taylor Swift. Its islands offer unspoiled tropical landscapes, friendly locals and a heritage that draws upon ancient Melanesian culture, colonial France and famed British explorer James Cook.

A former French and British protectorate, Vanuatu (pronounced (van-oo-AH-too) won independence in 1980. Eighty percent of its 250,000 citizens, known as Nivans, inhabit jungle villages spread across 65 islands. Most families live in thatched huts; many use bows and arrows to hunt game, and small children wield sharp machetes against the thick foliage.

Our plan for a weeklong tropical break from our home in Australia went wrong before it began. It’s supposed to be a 3  ½-hour flight from Sydney to Vanuatu’s capital, Port Vila. But Vanuatu’s international airport doesn’t have an instrument-landing system, which means even some large airlines struggle to land during rainy weather, which is common. Our Virgin pilots tried three times before giving up. We then flew to Fiji, refueled and returned to Brisbane, a round trip of about eight hours.

We got to the Warwick Le Lagon Resort and Spa, one of the five big hotels on Vanuatu’s main island, Efate, the next evening, exhausted. At 7 a.m., a porter rattled our party awake with a phone call asking us to return a flashlight he had lent us the night before. The call, while polite, was most unwelcome.

After breakfast, our travel companions, Alex and Veronica Riding, checked their young boys into the resort’s child-care center. We adults convened around the main pool, palm-tree-covered island vistas positioned photogenically in the background.

After about half an hour, a 3-year-old wandered past. The unaccompanied child looked familiar. Our friends’ son had broken out of Kids Club.

We were barely a day into our vacation and already we were wondering what was going to go wrong next. The pattern for the week was set: It was gorgeous, exotic, occasionally scary and often farcical. And fun. Mostly.

Le Lagon’s general manager, Jeremy Walsh, a New Zealander who has worked in hotels for 25 years, is part of a group of industry leaders trying to improve standards and promote Vanuatu internationally. One of the biggest challenges: teaching local staff — most of whom have never been off the island — how to meet the standards of Western tourists.

“It’s a very shy culture, and it can get mistaken for rudeness,” Walsh said. “They hate conflict. They will disengage and not know what to do.”

Language is another barrier. A form of pidgin English, Bislama, is the national language, followed by Vanuatu’s second language, French, followed by English. Walsh recommends always asking for food and drink orders to be read back as an accuracy check. Pack patience, too.

“If you want lunch at 1, order it at 12,” he said. (Luckily, when our food finally did arrive, it was fresh, healthful and tasty.)

As for the escaped 3-year-old, Walsh promised to raise it with his executive team. “That’s not something that happens or should happen at all,” he said. “Nivans are very, very good with kids.” The resort turned out to be safe enough that our kids, a bit older than the Ridings’, had free rein and loved it.

Like other South Pacific island nations, Vanuatu specializes in water sports: snorkeling, scuba diving, fishing, sailing and kayaking. It also has a live volcano.

Mount Yasur is on the island of Tanna, 130 miles south of Port Vila. Four or five tour companies offer trips, and Le Lagon arranged a tour for us through Air Taxi Vanuatu. After we waited an hour in the run-down domestic departure terminal, we were shown to our aircraft. The single-engine Cessna six-seater was painted yellow in the style of a New York cab. The plane was so old it had a label on the control panel that said: “Smoking is permitted except during takeoff, landing, refueling and emergencies.”

The French pilot climbed to 7,500 feet and headed south over the Pacific through drizzling rain and clouds. Only the pilot had a headset. The rest of us had to shout above the din. It was so cramped that I, sitting beside the pilot, inadvertently unlocked the door when I bumped it turning around to say something. (Luckily, it did not unlatch.)

Tanna came into view after an hour, a thick mass of green jungle ringed by cliffs. The runway was paved but not level; we hit a large bump right at the touchdown point.

A couple of SUVs were waiting. We set off into the jungle. The potholed, single-lane dirt track would have done justice to a Guadalcanal supply route during World War II. Two French guys in their 20s sat on the floor of the cargo area of one of the vehicles, clinging to the edge. I don’t know how their spines survived.

After an hour and a half, the dense green opened up to a field of gray. We had hit the lava plain on Yasur’s western edge. Liberated from the jungle track, the vehicles accelerated around the base of the 1,000-foot-tall volcano, cutting fresh tracks into the virgin ash. A dry creek bed snaked through the terrain. Orange clumps of lava, long cooled and solidified, emerged from the ash, adding color to the landscape as we sped gleefully along.

Then, to our frustration, we returned to the jungle. The walk up the steep side of the volcano site would have taken an hour, our guides said, so they intended to take us to an easy access point on the other side.

Finally, we arrived. As we approached a short path to the rim, our guide said simply: “If you hear an explosion, don’t run. Pull your camera out and look up at the sky.”

On cue, there was an explosion. Rocks flew up into the sky and fell back into the crater. A shudder of fear raced through our group.

From the SUVs, it was a short walk to the rim. At the top, there were no restrictions on movement, no fences or even warning signs.

From the initial vantage point, it was impossible to see the bottom of the volcano’s two craters. Our “guide” sat playing with his cell phone and offered no advice. A cloud of sulphur wafted over the group, briefly choking our 9-year-old son.

Because the tour company wanted to squeeze in a scenic flight before dusk, we were told to be ready to leave in 30 minutes. It seemed a little abrupt, given that we would end up having spent more than six hours traveling to and from the place.

I set out along the rim, which was about three feet wide, with our son. At first I didn’t realize that our 7-year-old was skipping after us, terrifying my wife.

Steam poured from the craters. Every two or three seconds a low boom sounded, signifying small explosions that threw up glowing pieces of molten rock. About every 15 minutes, a larger explosion sent debris into the sky above us and raining down nearby.

The inner wall of the crater was steep and too slippery for a person to climb out. However, there wasn’t even a rope in the cars.

My wife admitted later that she was so angry that I allowed our children to explore that she briefly fantasized about the street cred of losing a husband to a volcano.

The last time Yasur killed anyone was in 1994, when a Japanese tourist was hit by a rock during an eruption. Her local guide and driver died also. But our Nivan escorts said the tourist insisted on going in when it wasn’t safe and was responsible for the death of all three.

I pondered this on the way back to Port Vila, as the Cessna’s fuel gauge showed that both its tanks were almost empty. After a thankfully uneventful landing, I mentioned the gauge to the airline’s chief pilot, who had not been flying our plane. He told me there were 80 minutes of fuel left. “You can’t rely on the fuel gauges in these aircraft,” he said. “Too much fuel is not so good if you crash.”

As I left, our pilot for the flight encouraged me to give feedback.

All in all, Vanuatu felt like a first date in high school. Both sides were eager, but the experience was challenged by awkwardness and inexperience.

That said, we had a good time. The children, oblivious to the adults’ frustrations, loved it.

The resort wasn’t expensive. And what’s not to enjoy about sitting around a tropical pool eating tasty and plentiful meals?

On our last night in Le Lagon, we got a call from the front desk at 4:30 a.m. “Your flight for Sydney leaves at 7 a.m.” the friendly voice said.

“Thanks, but we’re on the 3:20 p.m. to Brisbane,” my wife replied.

We rolled over and went back to sleep. They’ll get it right someday.

For information about Vanuatu, go to http://vanuatu.travel.

From a small Cessna used for island-hopping, a view of Vanuatu's capital, Port Vila, on the main island of Efate.
MICHAEL SPEAR HAWKINS

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