Paul Theroux is a travel writer I like. Good travellers who are good writers are a rare breed. I only know of one other instance (a childhood infatuation with Gerald Durrell aside): Eric Newby, author of A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, and that precursor to so many lesser books, A Small Place in Italy. Theroux’s Happy Isles of Oceania is a good book. Largely unimpressed by the South Pacific islanders’ ultimate acquiescence to missionaries and, worse, Mormonism, by their nowadays inability to navigate beyond the inner reef, by their infatuation with enormous tins of fatty low-grade corned beef, and pissed off after the breakup of his first marriage, he told it like he saw it. Many South Pacific nations are still muttering loudly. But he was charmed by the ni-Vanuatu. And so will you be if you grab a cheap flight to Port Vila, hop on a freighter for Tanna just for the adventure (most people fly to Tanna in one of Air Vanuatu’s gleaming new jets), and stay at the Rocky Ridge Bungalows of my new friends, Tom and Margaret Naieu.
So impressed was I by Tom and Margaret and this new accommodation whose gardens are pictured that I made them a website. Their bungalows are basic but charming, within and yet separate from the picturesque village of Iwiak. At well under $100 a night, they come with the enormous advantage that you do not feel like you are paying through the nose, a problem at Tom’s tenants’ place, the adjacent award winning White Grass Resort, where I stayed. You can sit gazing over the same views White Grass boasts about from Tom’s simple but good dining room as the sun goes down over the darkening ocean, and eat a lobster one of his boys has just scooped off the bottom of the sea floor. Or you can walk along a sun-dappled path through the littoral forest and eat with Japanese opera singers and successful salesmen from Frankston at White Grass’s dining room — it’s one of the most beautiful and most beautifully situated dining rooms I have ever seen. The ‘Blue Hole 2’ snorkelling heaven White Grass Resort advertises is in fact accessed from Rocky Ridge Bungalows, and it craps on the snorkelling at the other places I stayed.
Theroux found relief in the remote villages of Tanna, where some people — the last in Vanuatu — still live, grass-skirted, missionary-free, in grass huts, and do the kinds of things travel writers feed on — worship Prince Phillip as a God, or engage in what are referred to as (but may not truly be) ‘cargo cults’ in which elaborate rituals are played out in the hope of wooing back the Americans who brought such wealth in the Second World War. (Incidentally, James A. Michener was stationed in Vanuatu — then the joint English and French colony of the New Hebrides — during the War, from which experience was born Tales of the South Pacific. That popularised Bali Ha’i as the essential tropical paradise and garnered Michener a Pulitzer Prize. Later, the book was condensed into the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical of 1949, South Pacific, and the 1958 film version, which was re-made starring Glenn Close in 2001.)
Port Vila on the main island is a bit of a dump, over-run every few days by the freshly sunburnt contents of cruise ships with their little identificatory danglies, disgorged for the day. It does have a lovely museum, but generally speaking, it’s an unhappy mix of cruise ship shops owned by white expats selling Balinese tat, European big brand consumer-porn produced in Asian sweatshops, and miserable, cramped Chinese emporia for the locals. If you wanted a pleasant urban holiday by the beach in a pleasant city, I suspect next-door New Caledonia’s Noumea, with its French colonial influence, would be a better (though pricier) option.
Which is not to say don’t go to Vanuatu. Do! Getting there’s a breeze; they have ANZ banks; the same time zone as Australia, and there are what are said to be pleasant resorts on little islands in the main harbour from which the restaurants of town are readily accessible by shuttle ferries. Stay in the emerging expensive boutique resorts if you have the cash, but even if you do so, take the time as well to stay in a ni-Vanuatu-owned bungalow and siphon a bit of your tourist buck away from the pockets of the Australian-owned and managed resorts in Port Vila’s environs. I did not much care for many of the expats I met; they are free in their criticisms of the ni-Vanuatu, criticisms I was not convinced were warranted. And it is not the ni-Vanuatu creaming the profits from the exploitation of their shoreline.
Opportunities to get to know ni-Vanuatu with good English and names dead easy to remember, like ‘Gabriella’ and ‘Trevor’, will greet you at every turn, for this is a place that had only 57,000 tourist arrivals in 2000. The 200,000 odd who visited this nation of 80 odd islands in 2008 sounds like a lot until you realise that half a million or so tourists lob into the little island of Bali alone every quarter. The entry into the aviation market of Pacific Blue and the filming of ‘Survivor’ on Vanuatu have boosted tourism in the last few years, but tourism on the second-most visited island — Tanna — is just beginning to take off. The other 81 islands provide what is probably an unparalleled opportunity for getting waaay off the beaten track in perfect safety, a four hour flight from Melbourne; see for example Eric Lafforgue’s beautiful photos on Flickr. Essentially, the South Pacific your grandparents knew or dreamed about is still there, and you can go for the weekend, like one of the partners at my old firm used to do. If, like me, you dream of going to West Papua or the backblocks of the Solomons, know that you can do it in Vanuatu, sans rascals, sans Harold Keke.
I enjoyed the island of Tanna. There are few signs, no ads, just about no shops, and just about no asphalt. There’s internet if you have a satellite receiver (which you don’t), and limited mobile phone coverage. There is an electricity line near the port; otherwise, generators are relied on by the few who do not rely on kerosene hurricane lamps. The island is covered by luxuriant tropical forest, studded with picture-perfect waterfalls. Trees hang so heavily with fruit that one of the characteristic sounds of a walk in the forest is the thud of it dropping. Great fish and lobsters are plucked from the sea, and when you slip into it, turtles are to be found, and sea-snakes and protected snorkelling to die for in ‘blue holes’ within the reef.
In the hinterland, there is an archetypical volcano — Mount Yasur — which has been exploding hundreds of times a day since at least Captain Cook recorded it doing so. I had never seen an active volcano before, but standing on its rim was just like staring down into Hell. The vent itself could not quite be seen, though in an effort to peer into it, tourists ventured farther and farther along the rim, into the increasingly dangerous realm where solidified lumps of molten lava lay scattered increasingly closely. Two Japanese girls without a word of English had astonished me by hopping into the back of the ute the Naieu family and I were travelling in. After a while they started babbling away in Bislama, the pidgin lingua franca of Vanuatu. Predictably, they had the least fear and went farthest along the rim. You could see where the vent was, though; a terrible orange glow emanated, and gave a firestorm’s colouring to clouds of hissing gas. The volcano rumbled anthropomorphically and periodically erupted explosively, throwing balls of firey magma into the sky. As it darkened, the pyrotechnics became more spectacular. But in the silence after an explosion, these molten boulders would fall onto the steep grey scree of the cone and either lodge there, glowing like radiated terracotta, or fall slowly and noisily, clinking down back into the vent.
Many people said that this was the best thing they had ever seen in all of their travels. The trip there and back is beautiful too, if bumpy. Keen to re-experience the thrill of hitch hiking across Thailand in the backs of that nation’s many utes, I insisted on joining the Naieu family in the back of the ute. My bum was sore for days, but having that dark, wet, warm, star-studded, bat-riddled, pollution-free air stream across my face and through my hair made it worth it. On the way back, when the black forest dipped low enough in the sky, the glow from the volcano illuminated the extraordinarily starry sky and made like an unimagineable comet.
Near the volcano is a cool bungalow, the Tree Top Lodge. It is where the canny Japanese, who were teachers on some kind of Japanese equivalent of Peace Corps, were staying. I wish I had known about it:
Exquisite forests which would make a location scout for Lord of the Rings pant with excitement teem with birds, and at their margins, coffee, cocoa, vanilla, and sandalwood grow. (At Au Péché Mignon, the pâtisserie in Port Vila, fagots of vanilla beans sell for a few bucks.) Inside of one forest, we visited the giant banyan tree, the world’s largest living organism, still growing. Damn was it big; big as a soccer pitch, they say, as this poor Iphone-cam fragment suggests:
I can imagine it being an anti-climax for many, but I dug this big tree. Perhaps that was because we went there with the Naieu family.