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Published: August 5th 2007
Vanuatu is a country we didn't know very much about so were itching to get there and explore. What we did know is that the third world country is melanesian, not polynesian, their official language is French though most people speak pidgin English, and that it has been voted "happiest country on earth".
We were welcomed at the airport by a local string band singing songs about Vanuatu. The songs were fantastic, although they gradually all began to sound very similar. Not to worry, this did not detract from the enthusiasm of the eight male singers and musicians who sang of their beloved homeland, keeping time with a consistent left to right stepwise dance. They wore custom dress, ususally a long colourful smock, and floral head dress. Their instruments included a bass string instrument fashioned out of what looked like a broom handle stuck inside a large wooden box, which was straddled and strummed by its player. They played to us until we left the airport and already we felt incredibly mellow.
After making a very bumpy ride across the island (called Efate), we arrived at Le Meridien resort just outside Port Vila. The oppulence of the hotel contrasted
with the very sparce third world feel of the rest of the area we passed through on our drive. Our resort was situated on the edge of Erakor Lagoon and the view was awesome. We had a lagoon view room, one step below the very luxurious over-lagoon bungalows. It definitely looked like a postcard! The resort was really well equiped with a golf course, sailboats, kayaks, windsurfing gear etc. which was free to use for the guests. There was also an award winning spa on site which I decided I simply must visit!! We spent alot of time lazing on the beach and around the pool but won't bore you with that.
Our first trip out of Port Vila was to a nearby island called Lelepa on the North West side of Efate. The roads outside of town are so full of pot holes and there are absolutely no traffic lights or any real road rules, that you really have to go on organised tours. This was a different experience for us as we had gotten so used to just piling in our Honda and doing our own thing. We chose this tour company as it is 100% locally
Rope bridge at the Hotel
This leads to the Hotel's private island, and the luxurious over water bungalows
owned by the residents of Lelepa, and we thought this was the best way to see a part of the real Vanuatu. Following another incredibly bumpy drive, we were transported across to Lelepa on a very small motor boat. We arrived on a pristine beach with no-one else in sight. Our local tour guide Matilda took us on a bush walk across the island explaining the flora and fauna along the way. Away from the larger islands, they have learned to use their trees and plants for survival. For example, she pointed out a type of tree right next to the beach that does not thrive if the nearby reef has toxic elements in it. If the reef is suspected to be toxic, the villagers know not to each the fish they catch (who will have themselves fed off the reef). If there is any doubt, they will put a piece of fish flesh on the ground near some ants. If the ants don't eat it, the villagers don't eat it. Simple! She also told us that the villagers keep a close eye on the position of hornets nests in the trees and bushes. If they are low in the
Totem like figures
Traditional Vanuatu carvings
tree, this means that a cyclone is one the way. She had lots more interesting tricks up her sleeve too.
After the bushwalk we arrived at another deserted beach. There are amazing reefs around Lelepa and we snorkelled for about an hour before guzzling a BBQ on the beach, then having a well earned siesta. After our naps the tide was low and we crossed the reef on foot around to a secluded bay. There was a cave to which American military banished lepars in during World War II. It was a pretty expansive cave, and Matilda led the way, lighting candles as she went. The cave had bats living in it (they are all over the area) and at times they flew really close to our heads in the dark. I don't think Rob's mum would like that!!
Back in the safety of the open air, our boat captain picked us all up and transported us round to Matilda's village, where she was keen to show us around. On the way we stopped at yet another reef which was ten times deeper and more impressive than the last. I wasn't sure of what all the fish were,
The harbor in Port Vila
Looking over at Iririki island
but recognised ones out of 'Finding Nemo', expecially the Angel fish(the beat up fish voiced by Willem Dafoe in the movie) and Nemo himself!!
Matilda's village has about 200 people in it, and they are all one of four main tribes - Coconut, Octopus, Stone or Yam. She showed us their houses, cooking facilities, and hospital (very basic). Some of the ladies in the village were selling artefacts for us to buy. We didn't buy anything despite a bit of a guilt trip from Matilda that they have to make and sell gifts if they are to afford to send their kids to school, as alot of the fathers spend all their money in the Cava bars. Apart from not having any change, NZ has very strict bio-immigration laws and we would have to get whatever we bought fumigated first.
Later in the week we took another tour with Vanuatu Ecotours, who are priviledged to have access for a limited amount of people to private land on the island. We decided on a waterfall tour through some local rainforest. Our very colourful and enthusiastic French guide Pascale picked us up from our hotel in a flat bed truck
Waiting to depart on our tour of Lelepa (the island in the background)
with a hand made straw roofed 'shack' on the back. We chuckled when he played a CD of the same string music we had been hearing all week. We thought that is was 'tourist' music (like bagpipes in Scotland), but the locals apparently love it too. Pretty cool that they celebrate their own country through song.
Pascale drove us through an organic beef farm (the beef here is famous and delicious) until we came to the end of the road. Here we would start our trek. In this isolated area there was a semenery where 20 boys are studying to be priests. The church chose to build it way our here so that the boys would not be tempted by the delights (female and alcoholic) of Port Vila!
There were 6 of us in our group and we treked down to a gorgeous rock pool in the rainforest. We stripped down to our bathing suits, and stepped into the river. Luckily there are no snakes or poinsonous insects here so swimming in the water is really safe. Our first stop was in a cool limestone cave with huge stalagmites and stalagtites. Oh yeah, and lots more bats! We
Relaxing on a beach on Lelepa
On the west side of the island, protected by a beautiful reef.
were getting quite used to these creatures now. Luckily these were little fruit bats and not the bigger Flying Fox that you see swooping around at night. Next we moved on to a natural whirlpool. We all hopped in and enjoyed a natural massage by the waterfalls. The fast moving water was pretty powerful and a couple of the other girls and I thought we were going to loose our bathing suits at one point! All was well though and we continued up the river, passing through lots of beautiful caves and cascades. We eventually entered a gorge which was nice and peaceful, with less waterfalls and gorgeous reflections on the water. Our treck through the gorge took us full circle back to the rock pool we had started at. There was a rope swing high above the pool and we took turns plummeting into the water. More natural massages were followed by a feast of fresh fruit and lime juice prepared by our guide. We went back feeling pretty priviledged to have experienced this. Alot of locals won't ever get to see it as you have to pay to have a private guide take you. Stunning!!
Avoiding the dangerous wildlife
About the only thing to worry about on the beach... tiny killer hermit crabs!
to take another local tour before we left but the weather report was for rain and thunder on the weekend. Luckily this never came, and we were happy to do some more lazing around and enjoying the local cuisine. In one of the restaurants we visited, Flying Fox (bat) was on the menu. Rob was considering it until the waiter informed him it was stuffed with its own guts!! I used some of my birthday money to treat myself to an hour long hot rocks massage in the resort spa......so good!!!
Happy to have got some much needed sun and discovering some cool new places, we headed back to New Zealand, singing songs of Vanuatu.
Cheerio for now,
Kirsty and Rob
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