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Diving into Vanuatu

The duty-free Rum, Vodka, Bourbon, and Baileys nestled neatly up against the flippers, snorkels and other diving equipment. With images in our minds of dark skinned natives serving paper umbrella laden drinks to us under swaying palm trees, we boarded our Air Vanuatu flight.

While it panned out that there are no palm trees on Boeing 737s and there is a chronic undersupply of paper umbrellas in Vanuatu, there is a fortunate oversupply of airline beverages and the duty-free alcohol remained stowed safely away.

Communication with the locals was to prove no problem. The airline magazine conveniently provided a translation of the most widely used Bislama phrases (a Pidgin English dialect). ‘Basket blong titi’ (bra) became the first running gag of the trip.

The airport at Vanuatu’s capital Port Vila (built by the Japanese) is surrounded by cattle properties (owned by the Japanese) and consists of one runway and two small terminals. Your welcome to Vanuatu consists of an immigration queue that moves at what can only be described as a ‘relaxed’ pace. As if to get you in the swing of things, you are forced to slow down, contemplate life and enjoy the occasional thud of stamp hitting passport. We were there merely to transfer to the domestic terminal, a ‘once was concrete’ structure that perhaps doubles as a cattle shed on weekends.

The island-hopping VanAir aeroplane was a good old noisy twin prop flown by Captain Bill. No magazine this time, just the local paper that featured an advertisement for a Pt Vila nursery proclaiming ‘Plants at Stupid Prices’ and an article on a Tribal Chief who had just died who was famous for killing 1000 pigs in one day and building his own grave 10 years earlier.

The airport at our destination, the island of Santo, was little more than a shed that no doubt gets rebuilt after each cyclone. Luke (obviously the ni-Vanuatu (people of Vanuatu) aren’t into multisyllabic names) collected us at the airport that night. Our resort (tourists stay at resorts – there is no such thing as a backpacker) was easy to find, just follow the only road through the island’s capital of Luganville. By night Luganville seemed to be a typically decrepit and ‘relaxed’ village of Chinese owned shops and petrol stations. By day it was the same only with more light.

That night we enjoyed out first local beer – Tusker Bitter, an easy drinking Australian style pilsner. The curved pig tusk is the greatest traditional symbol of wealth in Vanuatu, although it’s hard to get more than one in your wallet.

I was also to try my first Coconut Crab. More lobster than crab and eaten with more nut cracker than fingers, they get their name from the fact they are baited with coconuts and the interesting aromatic affect this diet has on their taste.

By the end of our first evening we had organised our diving programme with the omnipotently named Allan Power. Allan is a legend or a wanker around those parts depending on who you talk to. What cannot be denied however is his longevity and his diving style. Allan does not wear a wetsuit, he wears Speedos.

Allan first came to Santo as part of a crew to recover the propellers of the wrecked troop carrier the President SS Coolidge, a converted cruise ship, in the 1950s. 15,000 dives later Allan still waxes lyrical by reputation (according to his book) if not in person. Indeed on our first dive on the wreck his only words to us were, “What’s his problem?” in regard’s to my friend’s struggle with his rebellious fins.

The dive, our first in years, was to be to the Coolidge’s 5mm cannon at the cruisy depth of 35m with all the bloodied noses, nitrogen narcosis and bends risking antics that implies. Needless to say we all struggled, not with the depth but because none of us wanted to be the first in line to follow Allan’s Speedos. As we descended the ship’s bow loomed ominously out of the murk towards us. We proceeded over the bow and along the promenade deck and fooled around with coral encrusted rifles, helmets and other gear that thoughtful American soldiers had left behind for our enjoyment. Checked out what remains of the guns then ascended to our decompression stops.

At the final stop at 3m we discovered that Allan Power has a strangely disconcerting relationship with a fish. Boris is a 200kg groper that has established an intimate relationship with Allan and his crew. Boris hangs around the decompression stop at 3m knowing he is the boss and that you mess with him you mess with Allan. Boris gets fed at the deco stop every morning while you bob around in the usual uncoordinated non fish-like fashion. Boris is so big he has his own eco-system of parasite feeders and other hangers-on that use his bulk for privacy, protection and shadow. He makes Allan look good.

Our second dive was to the medicine rooms, our first ‘full penetration’. Inside the ship, amongst much fin in the face action, we played with syringes, bottles and jars of ointments and powders, crockery, cutlery and the usual detritus associated with ships that sink. On the ascent, my friend began his reputation for running out of air and could always be found ‘sucking the pony’ tank of the dive master.

The second day of diving began with a mind-numbing descent to the 20mm cannon and the crows nest at 45m. Admittedly a little absurd, 5 minutes to get there, 5 minutes to look around, 5 minutes to ascend and 30 minutes at decompression stops. The depth was frightening, but with all the nitrogen/laughing gas in our blood we were invincible. At one stage I looked up to see the whole immense ship on its side, a scene reminiscent of the opening scenes of any number of science fiction films. The more advanced dive computers beeped themselves silly during the ascent but still agreed the decompression stops were a little over cautious. Oh well, more chance to play with Boris, play fin-tennis, have torch shoot-outs and wrestle, anything to relieve the boredom.

That afternoon we got to fully penetrate ‘The Lady’. The Lady is a stylish statuette of Rubenesque proportions in period costume at 37m. Allan originally found her in the first class lounge and the debate as to whether or not you can see her nipples has been raging ever since. The Lady has since been moved for safety reasons, quite possibly the nipple gazing was weakening her knees and she toppled over. Our dive to The Lady began through the door where a Great American Hero died while rescuing his colleagues. The next few minutes were a mad air wasting adrenaline rush as depth, danger and adventure combined, that and the fact my torch was not working.

The Lady certainly is an impressive piece of work with impressive breasts to match. My suspicion is that a politically correct soldier coloured in the nipples so as not to get his naval buddies too homesick on the arduous (amorous?) tours of duty. From there, with our pulses racing, our breathing panicky (and that just from our encounter with The Lady) and with dive computers reminding us of the craziness of the dive, we picked our way through the ship. We saw more soldier debris (gas masks, helmets etc), light fittings, daily detritus, staircases, tiled fountains and so on. Finally, with my friend desperate to suck the pony, we entered the lobby where the round skylights lit the murk with a view of infinite deep sea-blue. A mind-blowing experience, the highlight of the week.

After the usual decompression stops it was left to the bunch of American schoolkids who were also diving the wreck to wreck our mood with their incessant bragging and threats to sue (really). No matter where you go in the world you can’t avoid spoilt rich American kids with too much expensive equipment and no volume control.

Most of the evenings on Santo were spent in a futile search for nightlife. Come 5:30, the sun sets with a thud, the buses and taxis vanish and the streets become eerily quiet. Even the ubiquitous missionaries are nowhere to be seen. Only the tourist resorts stay open, which is where we would inevitably end up, often in our own resort drinking duty free booze with coke or home made South American cocktails passed on to me in total secrecy (Caiparina – dissolve sugar in lots of lime, add lots of ice then add any white or sugar based spirit – stir vigorously).

One night we went to Deco Lodge, the budget resort of Santo Island. Fortunately we weren’t staying there, it was where the Americans were staying, but the Coconut Crab was superb and the nightclub (Club Narcosis) was pumping when the pool comp was on. No locals there of course except behind the bar.

If you do find the locals at night it’s inevitably only stupefied men at one of the town’s 70 kava bars. We were taken to a local bar one night by a group of hard-core Victorians that would spend each evening replaying their dives on the resort’s video before hitting the kava bars. We had two half-coconut shells of the dishwater coloured liquid each. Opinions of the taste varied from awful to disgusting, an earthy peppery watery substance that hits you in the nose before making your mouth and then your whole head go numb in a dentist’s chair way.

Our only other night was at some pre-Independence Day celebrations. Women and children sat around on the grass listening to awful string instrument renditions of the constitution from groups in faux traditional grass skirts. The men just zoned out at the 30 or so kava stalls nearby. Either that or they’d been watching the Victorians’ diving videos.

There were two other dives that week. One was into the cargo holds of the Coolidge where we explored jeeps and tanks on the bottom of the cargo holds plus the usual daily wreck stuff. At one stage we were joined by a huge school of fish in the giant cavity just as the sun broke through, an image Jacque Coustaeu would have been proud of. Our final dive was off Million Dollar Point where stupid America met greedy colonial Britain and France. It was here the yanks dumped a million dollars worth of new equipment they didn’t want into the sea at the end of the war because the colonial powers refused to pay 8c in the dollar. It’s still all in really good shape, some of the trucks look useable even at 25m. Add a couple of small wrecks and you have a nice little dive.

Captain Norm flew us back to Port Vila and from there we transferred to Hideaway Island which isn’t as hidden as the name would suggest, indeed everyone on the island and every tourist knows about it. Perhaps Overrun with Expats on Weekends Island would be a better name.

Nonetheless Hideaway is a great little island you get to by tin boat. Accommodation styles vary from romantic bungalow with private bathroom to the Lodge with shared facilities and all the romance of half a squash court. But the bar/restaurant was really cool, right on the beach, great snorkelling at its doorstep and hermit crabs to amuse you for hours.

Hideaway is renowned for its coral and diving, so we set off for a dive that afternoon to Gotham City, so named due to the batfish that hover there waiting to be fed by the dive instructor, a practice I’m a little underawed by. Alas, the dive was ordinary, some nice coral, a few fish and not much else. The equipment proved to be a little dodgy too, regulators getting stuck on purge and depth meters not working. But the worst were the dive masters whose lack of professionalism and appreciation for the reef were astounding, diving upside down and letting their tanks bash the reef, cursory checks of other divers, handling everything (a big no-no in Australia) and the feeding thing.

Didn’t have much time to see much of the main island but did check out Pt Vila a couple of times. The first time was a Sunday and we went straight to Independence Park hoping to find more pre-independence day celebrations. But being Sunday there was just a gospel singer and choir and it was more a case of playing ‘Spot the Missionary’ that any actual festivities. So instead we moved to the waterfront and watched French speaking locals playing highly animated Petanque.

The heaven’s opened when we went back to Port Vila the next morning for Independence Day, but by this stage the park was mud and the locals just congregated in the food stalls and kava bars. With little else to do, we tried some local delicacies; lap-lap (yam, taro and banana mashed to the consistency of plasticine with about the same taste), Chinese inspired yum-cha like meat-rolls, kebab-style meat sticks (which were superb and cheap) and plates of stew and curry served on Australian rice. We gambled on another dive on our final day and fortunately came up trumps. Two days of rain resulted in 35m visibility and the dive was fantastic, giant plate corals hosting dozens of fish and in one case a shark (only a white tip reef shark unfortunately), fluorescent pink anemone, and the scariest fish I’ve ever seen, a crocodile fish. Also a Waho (a smaller better tasting version of a Barracuda) swam by.

The last afternoon included a walk to a local village. It was hardly traditional, no grass skirts or cannibalism, but lots of corrugated iron sheds, drying volleyball shirts, snotty nosed laughing children giving flowers to us foreigners and pit toilets as my friend discovered much to his embarrassment (must have been the lap-lap).

You have to like these people. Christianity may have robbed them of much of their culture but there is no begging, no aggression to tourists and little hassling of women. Pigs may be worth more than women, but on the major islands they’re allowed into the kava bars now even if they’re too sensible to bother. The bars are well regulated too, only open between 5pm and 8pm. Everyone seems well fed and healthy. Despite 80% unemployment, political instability, the occasional earthquake, high prices and land mostly owned by foreigners, I suspect boredom is the greatest social ill. It would be interesting to see some of the less touristy islands though, particularly Pentecost Island in April for the DIY bungee jumping. Maybe on the next trip.

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