Part I: Vanuatu Island Diving Adventure - in pursuit of happiness and deep-sea diving
My 10-day adventure to discover deep sea diving spots, friends and the islands of Vanuatu.
It started some years ago with perhaps a yahoo news story or some such thing. Like most, my eyes are easily swayed from the task at hand when a photo of some idyllic tropical beach setting pops up in my periphery. The article had rated different countries on their G.N.H. or Gross National Happiness. At the top of the list was a little island nation called Vanuatu. The article showed a few stunning photographs of the island. This combined with a nicely written description of why the island received its ranking was enough to inspire yet another bucket list addition.
I mapped it online to see exactly where this newly discovered island paradise was located. Low and behold, it was completely on the other side of the earth from me. I had no idea at the time that I’d have reason and opportunity to actually be on that side of the world a few years later.
Cut to 2010, I’m living in Australia working on a documentary film about hitchhiking and my visa’s 3 month limit is coming to a close. Unlike many other countries in Oceana, Australia’s immigration police is none too keen on having people “pop” out and pop back in again.
As it turned out Vanuatu was only a few hour flight from Brisbane, which was only 2 hours south of my home in Coolum Beach.
I determined to make my immigration jump a genuine adventure and booked a ticket for the tiny island nation for a full ten days with pretty much no plan other than where I was to stay the first few nights of my arrival and a day-long dive tour and sail the morning after I had landed.
I knew the diving was good since I had been a part of the Sunshine coast dive club and some of the crew had had their own great diving experiences there a few months prior.
I was excited. “This is going to be awesome!”, I muttered to myself.
The small island airway had me landing on the tiny island of Efate’ fairly late in the evening. Fortunately my hosts, a friendly Asian couple in their mid to late 50s, were extremely accommodating and were waiting for me once I finally got through customs at around 11:45 pm.
I loaded my pack into the back of their shiny new and abundantly sized Chevy pickup and we sped away into the dark. I looked around, trying to get my bearings but all I could see was the glow of scattered yellow hued lights like sedentary fireflies lighting up the shadows of thick foliage. After we bounced and bumped along for a good 30 minutes or so we arrived in the small capitol town of Port Vila. It was only a few minutes more before the truck pulled into the makeshift driveway of the dimly lit Emman Imalo motel that I would be calling home for the next few days.
I was given a brief tour of the area, we exchanged pleasantries and called it a night.
Beep! Beep! Beeeeeep! I was blasted out of bed by the particularly annoying horn of my guide’s van. I fumbled to get my wits about me and grab the bare necessities that would get me through the day’s dive and sail. I jumped to the door before I was to hear another blast of the infernal horn and motioned, open palmed, for the guide to give me “5″.
Down the road, I got to know a little about my dive master/sea captain for the day. Pete Whitelaw was an Aussie expat, in his early 60s, lean and weathered by the tropical sun, with long wispy graying hair flowing just to his shoulders. Captain Pete had a no bullshit quality about him, without being overly cynical, that I rather enjoyed.
It was a small crew of fellow adventurers that I would be enjoying the company of but only the Captain and I would be scuba diving. Which suited me fine.
His boat was a mid-sized, multi-hull (Catamaran) equipped with the rudimentary items required to enjoy a comfortable day on the water comfortably with a small group of pleasure seekers.
We explored 2 different dive sites. We seemed to have these stunning natural playgrounds all to ourselves. Later I was to find out that the captain had option the only tourist permit to explore the regions of the island. The second dive offered exquisite sea life that seemed virtually untouched.
We dove deep mourned an underwater pinnacle that was teeming with fish and got a wild show when the Captain brought out some fish food.
Between dives (or snorkeling for the rest of the group) we had a nice meal consisting of sandwiches and fresh fruit from the local markets. The Captain had us back to the transport van just as the sun, with its brilliant pinks and blues, was on its way out of the sky. For a full day on the water, including lunch, beautiful scenery, a 2-tank dive, I paid around $130 dollars. It was money well spent.
The following day I walked the 20 or so minutes back in to town to see exactly how “happy” the locals actually were.
Wandering along the sea wall of the port’s bay I quickly discovered the local expat and vagabond coffeehouse situated right on the waterfront and surveyed the scene to asses just where I might fit in to this mixed bag of misfits.
Cafe Numbawan would be my means of connecting both locally and with the folks back home since my room had no internet option.
Sailors, neo-hippies, over fed tourists, expats and the NGO volunteer contingent all were represented at varying times throughout the day. I was kept thoroughly entertained by the variety of conversations I’d occasionally be privy to. I found the food and drink, while priced according to “tourist” standards, to be of high quality and of course the wi-fi was fast and free so that helped!
Fortunately for me a few feet away under the same thatched roof building was another dive operation. I wandered over and inquired as to what other local dive options there were and was shown a book consisting of photos of a number ship wrecks that had gone down in the nearby bay.
I negotiated a fair price for a “package” of dives and had my plan set for the next few days. While on Todos Santos I would rack up a total of 7 dives. Many of them dives I had not experienced before. Night dives meeting sleeping sea turtles up close, wreck dives and even an extraordinary cave dive! All of this and I still had another island to go!
Port Vila is pretty small and fairly limited in terms of choices for entertainment if you’re on a budget. There was some dancing to be had at certain clubs but mostly there were expensive pubs and restaurants where money would likely leak out of your pocket like a melted popsicle if you weren’t careful. I was on a tight budget and wanted to make my coins count towards experiences that would last me more than a few bites of usually average food or drink.
Fortunately Cafe Numbawan offered free movie nights during the week. I had made friend with a beautiful French-African girl who
was doing her tourism industry internship in order to complete her studies and as the evening set in I would make my way back from a day’s wandering to the cafe and we’d enjoy the film together.
Generally speaking, I didn’t find the indigenous locals to be particularly “happy” people at all. In fact, and of course this is just my opinion, due to the influence of the missionaries they seemed a rather bored lot unlike the fiery and fiercely tribal Pau Pau New Guinean or equally “smiley” Fijian counterparts. Not that I’m surprised given the nature of colonialism. In general, most (if not all) island nations have had a rough go of it regarding the influence of the “westerner”. And the people of Vanuatu are no exception.
They were pleasant enough but aside from the ones who worked in the pubs and restaurants, I found them to be rather disinterested and not inclined to make eye contact or greet you unless obliged to do so. Fair enough, given the history of westerner and islander relations but I guess I carried the preconceptions of that initial article with me. I will say though that I was tickled to see a group of young local kids playing on the sea wall, taking turns at showing off their diving skills. All trying to entertain and impress one another. The sight reminded me of how simple childhood could still be far away from video games, computers and television.
Another wonderful caveat to the above statement was a lovely older woman named Alice, who I had befriended in the local’s eatery and open air market. The market itself consisted of a large roof covering a cement slab and was held up by large wooden beams. It offered no walls and inside a myriad of tables had been set up for the locals to sell their fruits and vegetables.
“…one could find amazing meals for 1/4 of the cost you’d be paying in the tourist haunts just down the road.”
Near the back, one could find amazing meals for 1/4 of the cost you’d be paying in the tourist haunts just down the road. This discovery was a boon for my sad wallet and Alice seemed to take me under her wing, offering stories from her life as a young girl, her love affair with a white man and her ostracization from her community because of it. She also offered clues as to how to best enjoy the local surroundings.
See part two for a historical wreck, a jungle paradise, and more diving hot spots! Click Here