You’ve been to Fiji, holidayed in Rarotonga and went to Samoa once, so you think you know the Pacific. Well can I present to you: Vanuatu. A place that will totally reset what you know a Pacific country to be. Let’s start with the name, Vanuatu, which is really only a crude tool to describe a group of 83 islands with such a diverse collection of Melanesian peoples that they speak more than 110 distinct languages.
From one end to the other, people look different, talk different and do remarkably different things. From the land diving ni-Vanuatu of Pentecost Island; to the water slapping women of Gaua, who use their cupped hands to create music with water; to the volcanic Island of Tanna, where the strongest kava in the Pacific comes from, lovingly chewed and spat in preparation by virgin boys.
The longer you spend exploring Vanuatu the more you realise you don’t know about it.
If history gets you up early pulling on your Jandals, there are rich veins to pursue. From local cultures and customs, thousands of years in the making, to the indelible impact of World War II. I was lucky enough to travel to Espiritu Santo to wreck dive the largest accessible liner in the world, the SS President Coolidge, a 200m wreck that lies on her side not far from where she hit a mine.
And if wreck diving is your dive-ticket then you will probably already know of the famous Million-Dollar-Point. After the war a huge surplus of military equipment existed.
Disgruntled Americans couldn’t sell it to an emerging country, even for just cents in the dollar. Instead they built a temporary wharf on the edge of the coral reef and literally drove everything off it into the water below. A very American response.
The term “million-dollar” is quaint by today’s standards as untold value of trucks, trailers, jeeps, water tanks, graders and military gear plunged to a watery demise. There are even huge bulldozers lying end to end where they landed perfectly on top of each other.
Thankfully today the waste is salvaged as an incredible dive experience, alone well worth the trip to Vanuatu.
I was in this vast country to chase my nemesis, the Dog Tooth Tuna, a fish that once very nearly drowned me after gear failure while free-dive spearfishing.
Travelling aboard fishing charter Nambas from Santo back down through the islands to Port Vila was incredible. Due to the topography of reefs surrounding the islands, the fishery is still in relatively good condition as foreign trawlers and long liners are unable to fish in close.
Along the way there is evidence of remote villages, living with no power and very little contact with the outside world.
We pulled into anchor one evening off the isolated island of Malekula, arms weary from fighting fish all day. As the sun dithered on the horizon the pulsing glow of nearby Mt Ambrym’s volcanic lava lake, the size of four football fields, smeared a red fire reflection on the clouds above.
On cue, several boys from the closest village paddled out in a hand-carved canoe and bartered boatside as the light failed. “Mister, Mister, banana mister?” A bunch of fresh bananas was traded for a packet of biscuits. Off they paddled into the dark, happy with their special treat, unknowingly providing an even richer experience for those of us on board, who in that moment felt a long, long way from home.