Islands of Fire

As 2012 progressed, we came to learn that Sarah’s brother Simon & sister in law Sara would be away over the Xmas period (Sara is English, so they were to spend the festive season with her family).

With half of her family away (and my parents absent as they live in Tasmania) we decided it would be a good opportunity for us to take some time away ourselves.

The question was: Where to go? We’d only planned to take a few days off work. Combine this with 2 weekends and a few public holidays (for Xmas & Boxing day) and all up we had 8 days for our holiday.

Our immediate thought was New Zealand. Sarah and her mum had spent Xmas there a couple of years ago on the south island. They’d walked the Hollyford Track and taken in the Franz Josef Glacier, returning with nothing but rave reviews.

Investigating further, it quickly priced itself out of the equation, so we began to explore new options. Not wanting to lose most of our time reaching some out of the way location, we slowly settled on the South Pacific and narrowed the list to 2. Fiji or Vanuatu which could both be reached within a day. Vanuatu looked a bit less touristy, so our decision was made and we quickly booked our flights to Port Vila.

Flying over the Coral Sea

Flying over the Coral Sea

We arrived at Bauerfield Airfield (Port Vila’s International airport and a former US Army Air Force base during the second world war) after enduring the worst landing I’d ever experienced on any flight.

Conditions appeared to be fine, the aeroplane didn’t feel like it was fighting heavy crosswinds, but we landed with the most incredible bump, bouncing back into the air before eventually getting both wheels on the tarmac at the second attempt.

Fortunately we were some of the first people off the plane, and into the terminal ready to collect our bags. At first it seemed odd. There were no staff about ready to check passports and collect our declaration cards and very quickly we found ourselves waiting at the luggage belt.

How good is this we thought… Then it all went pear shaped. Before long a couple of airport staff were ushering us and about 30 others back the way we came to an area where 4 previously unmanned customs booths were now staffed. The queue was ridiculously long, it was very hot, there was no air-conditioning and many overhead fans were not working, and between us and the these customs booths, were now the entire passenger list of our flight!!

You win some, you lose some! It was slow, it was hot, but we eventually made our way through, found ourselves a taxi and began the journey towards the bungalows where we would be spending our first few days in Port Vila.

Our initial impressions of Port Vila were good. At actually looked even less developed than I’d imagined. There was lush growth everywhere, vibrant greens, colourful flowers and fruit of an incredible size!

Banana's the size of a forearm on the roadside

Banana’s the size of a forearm on the roadside

Our accommodation was in a beautiful spot. Just outside of town and nestled on Erakor Lagoon, we had water views and lovely evening breezes.

Wandering into town we were greeting with a beautiful first sunset before finding a location for dinner.

First sunset over Vila Bay & Irririki Island

First sunset over Vila Bay & Irririki Island

This was our first realisation that Vanuatu is not cheap! I’m not implying that we were met with exorbitant ‘tourist’ prices, more that we’d failed to do our research properly for some unknown reason, badly assuming we’d be met with prices akin to much of Southeast Asia.

Settling down to a delicious meal of chilli mud crab, fresh fish and a few ice cold Tusker’s (a locally brewed Vanuatu beer), we were able to take in this lovely vista that was the harbour, and even spy a huge P & O cruise liner as it slipped out of the bay.

P & O Cruising... there is almost a cruise ship docked each day!

P & O Cruising… there is almost a cruise ship docked each day!

Our bungalow provided us with reef shoes, snorkels and masks. I’d never worn reef shoes before, and hadn’t realised the necessity for them until i stuck my head beneath the very shallow water. Not only was the lagoon home to some rather jagged coral, in every direction were huge red starfish!

The odd sea slug and sea snake made for some nervy moments, but we were to later learn that despite the snakes being venomous, they’re not at all aggressive and their fangs are set very deeply in the back of their mouth.

The mouth of Erakor Lagoon

The mouth of Erakor Lagoon

The red Starfish

The red Starfish

Being so close to Xmas, and this being a predominantly Christian country, it wasn’t possible for us to fully avoid the affects of this fast approaching celebration. Not all of the local market and quite a few business weren’t open (thankfully the supermarkets were open all days).

There is actually an interesting story associated with many of the smaller supermarkets around the town. Most simply have numbers rather than names, and this is a direct reference again to the second world war, when they were actually US Marine supply depots (and numbered accordingly).

The local market in Port Vila

The local market in Port Vila

Whilst we’d found everything to be quite expensive so far, one thing that was relatively cheap was the local bus service.

Bus service may be slightly misleading (but that is what it is called), as essentially every second vehicle on the road is a mini-van and most of these also serve as local buses where you can negotiate a price, much like a taxi (of which they also have in Vanuatu as well).

To distinguish legitimate vehicles, all buses have the addition of a ‘B’ on their number plates, and taxis by the addition of a ‘T’ (no surprise there).

We took advantage of this after lunch and some beers at the Anchor, a local bar overlooking the water, and made our way out to the Mele Cascades, a series of waterfalls a short trip out of town.

The deck at The Anchor afforded us great views of the scenic helicopter flights

The deck at The Anchor afforded us great views of the scenic helicopter flights

Arriving at the cascades, we paid our 1500 vatu entrance fee (about $16AU) and with the sounds of water in our ears, began a pleasant jungle trek to the falls proper.

It was a beautiful walk, the shady canopy providing some relief from the sun, and the proximity of the water seemingly cooling the air as the oppressive humidity we’d suffered most of the day was gone.

Glimpses of the cascades from the path

Glimpses of the cascades from the path

It actually proved a longer walk than any of us had expected, but the reward at the end was very beautiful. The path began to intersect with the nearby stream with greater frequency, before emerging at a larger, more open series of cascades and pools with the waterfall proper, looming large in the background. Surely pictures will be better than any words I can come up with here…

Finally emerging at the cascades

Finally emerging at the cascades

There were also steps carved into the rock with occasional support ropes which helped provide a sure footing, despite the flowing water. We took a quick dip in what proved to be very chilly water before heading up to the falls themselves.

Despite the running water, these carved steps provided surprising grip

Despite the running water, these carved steps provided surprising grip

The central falls

The central falls

Some of the refreshing pools

Some of the refreshing pools

We were there enjoying the surrounds when I decided to investigate a smaller set of falls to the side. Much to our surprise, some heads appeared and these barefoot locals began to abseil down the face of the falls at breakneck speed (2 tourists descending the falls with them went at a far more tentative pace).

Descending the falls, barefoot

Descending the falls, barefoot

Before calling it a day, we made the journey back into town to arrange our plans for Xmas, which was already the following day.

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