All work and no play…..I have never subscribed to the idea that you put your life on hold for the construction of the boat, I have never wanted to trade hours now for hours later and prefer to continue to enjoying life as well as build. And believe me, it does not get much more enjoyable than visiting a country as beautiful as Vanuatu. About the only thing that could have made that visit better would be if we were on our own boat and could stay as long as we liked. It is a fantastic place, the people are extremely friendly and I cant wait to sail there. I always thought I would enjoy such a place and am now all the more excited about sailing there.
All of that said, I am rather remiss in waiting until the 23 of the month to post my first post, but the combination of being away and a problem with my computer and of course the catch up on work that piled up in my absence. We took a laptop but decided not to live on it like we do at home and limited our access to the bare minimum. Perhaps somewhat like we might once we are cruising. And I didnt miss it anywhere near as much as I thought I would. It was refreshing to not have emails to answer (although they were there to answer upon my return!) and I did a lot less surfing. And didnt miss it much at all.
So this months blog will be in part a travel log similar to what will become of this site once the boat is launched and we set off on our travels, minus of course any sailing references for now as there aren’t any. We did go sailing while we were there, for a day sail on an old trimaran (30 year old I believe), and it got me thinking that that would be a job I could keep doing after I retire, if only I had my cat built to survey and I had my masters ticket, and on that score I intend to enrol next week for the start of that with a course to get my coxswains ticket. Not that I am seriously contemplating another career in tourism but it is an interesting idea.
So I will start with the trip report then report on the works I have completed on the boat (a few before I left and some since returning) since the last report at the end of May.
We started by leaving the day before we left. Well it felt like that anyway. Jo packed for a month as she normally does for a week away, and I packed for a couple of days. Actually that’s not quite fair, Jo lives in Brisbane at the moment and is returning to Brisbane from Vanuatu and came down from Brisbane to Melbourne where I met her the Thursday before our departure, because of the family commitments and would not be returning home until after the holiday. So in effect she did need to pack for 2 weeks! And what I meant by leaving the day before we left was in reference to the fact that our flight to Vanuatu started with a domestic flight from Sydney to Brisbane at 6am, meaning we had to be at the airport at 5am meaning we had to catch a train (we did not want to leave our car at the airport for a week) at 3am meaning we left home at 2.30am meaning we woke up from the little sleep we did manage to get at 2am. Hardly worth going to bed at all really. So it felt like we started the transport journey the day before! I also cant help imagining for a while what it might be like to embark on a long journey once we are cruising, weeks of planning and preparation culminating in perhaps a very early morning departure from the mooring or marina at 3am. To get to point B one has to leave at point A at a time that fits with the plans (and weather) that have been made.
We were able to check our bags at Sydney all the way to Vanuatu which made life somewhat easier, at least the transfer from Domestic to International terminal would be easier. It was at Brisbane international that we encountered what I am sure will be the first of many customs and immigration transactions as we travel to different countries when we start our cruising life. I travel on a British passport, I emigrated here in 1969 with my parents and am a permanent resident. I was hoping Australia would become a republic before taking out my citizenship, but I may have to defer my ideology to common sense and become naturalized in order to avoid the problems I encountered. Permanent residents are entitled to stay as long as they like and leave anytime they like whether temporarily or permanently, and I had travelled overseas many many times over the past 20 years but not for the past few years. The last time Jo and I were out of Australia was 3 years ago. In the past, every time I left I had a new re-entry visa stamped in my passport which was valid for re-entry at anytime within 3 years of my next departure. At some point in the recent past the laws changed and I was not aware that now a re-entry visa has a fixed expiry date regardless of when you last departed, and unknown to me, in my case mine had expired the year before. So at the departure gate, I was informed that I would not be able to return because of the expired re-entry visa. Of course my pulse rate soared and my heart sank. I knew exactly how people on the despicable border entry “reality” TV shows felt at that moment, faced with a crisis and suddenly facing a very real and serious decision. I immediately decided I could not go, I could not leave if I would not be able to return. Naturally Jo was also in a quandary, she was free to go and return but did not want to go without me.
I was naturally a combination of distressed and annoyed by yet another silly bureaucratic rule that makes life more difficult than it needs to be for what appears to be no real benefit other than extracting a fee for a visa from us on a semi regular basis. Anyway I was calmed by the customs official who told me this happens all the time (so obviously a lot of people have been caught out by this) and that I could still leave and return so long as I informed the carrier (Pacific Blue) prior to my return and they would make arrangements for an emergency visa. So I continued on through but I was already a bit discombobulated and it was not a great way to start my holidays, stress is not something that ought to accompany relaxation. I don’t handle such stresses well, or at least it does not appear like I do. I believe I am good at making considered decisions but I dont like being placed in positions of urgency and I tend to display my emotions rather than constrain them. I get flustered, I display anger, I lose composure. My strength is in planning ahead so that such urgencies are minimised. Having said all of that, I am going to have to learn to deal with them better, because life is going to throw more and more of these situations at me. In all situations there is something to learn.
So, with the reassurance that I could in fact re-enter Australia and that this was a common occurrence I continued on with the holiday and passed through to the other side, much to Jo’s relief. As we were walking down the gangway onto the plane, I had a bit of a wobble as my emotions, that I had to that point managed to keep a lid on, slipped out a little. After regaining my composure in our seats we enjoyed the flight to Vanuatu. The flight from Brisbane takes you over the top of New Caledonia and the fringing reef and surrounding lagoon is very visible from the air. It is beautiful and I cant wait to sail there too. Upon landing at Port Vila you are transported back 30 years as the airport is tiny and in the style of a badly designed 70’s government building. This by the way, is not a criticism simply an observation. I loved it from the moment I first saw and experienced it.
And from there the infrastructure (roads, vehicles and road rules) are similar to those through out Asia. Non existent rules, decades old fleet and very poorly maintained roads. But are good roads and new taxi’s really what you want on a holiday? We waited about 15 minutes for a “taxi”, the only people in the “queue”. As you exit the airport there is a sign that says taxi and as you approach it a man asked taxi? Yes we said, he said ok and we waited. We were not impatient though, happy to be waiting. Eventually a lady stood in line behind us. When the “taxi” finally arrived we asked the lady if she wanted to join us in ours. Most taxis in Port Vila are 20 year old hiace vans with bench seating, which seemed a waste for just the 2 of us. Just a note on Port Vila public transport, it is brilliant. There are 2 kinds of conveyance, either a van is a taxi, in which case the first letter of the number plate is T or it is a bus, and the first letter is a B. In a taxi you negotiate a fee with the driver prior to engaging him, which covers the entire vehicle regardless of number of passengers. With a bus, each person pays a set fee of 150 vatu (about $2) no matter where you are going, you just tell the driver where you want to go and he will fit you into the route, and depending on where other passengers already on board are going you may be first or last to get there. There are no routes. None. You just hail a bus from the road. If you make eye contact with a driver or look long enough at the number plate or front of the van they will stop for you and ask if you need a bus. If you dont, no problem they just smile and keep going. And there is no shortage of buses and taxis. You wont wait long in town or near town. But if you engage a bus to take you to a remote location it would be wise to negotiate for him to return for you at an agreed time. And negotiating a driver for special jobs is pretty easy. The first thing most drivers do, especially if you are the only occupants, is introduce themselves and strike up a conversation. There is no better advertisement for the beauty of a place than the friendliness of the people, and you would be hard pressed to find an unhappy Nivan. To say we loved the place from the moment we touched down to the moment we left, vowing to return is an understatement. We cant wait to sail back there.
Upon arrival at our hotel (Coconut Palms) we settled into our room and then headed out for a walk through town. For the whitebread tourist, Port Vila is a Mecca of copy DVD’s and fake (but very good fake) Billabong, Rip Curl etc shorts and shirts. Every week a cruise ship pulls in and prices may rise during its stay, but otherwise you can expect to pay 400 vatu ($5) for a season of CSI for example, all vcd files burnt onto 1 dvd replete with spelling errors on the sleeve, and about the same for a nice pair of board shorts. Somehow there is the same musty smell in every store, and some of the stuff looks like it has been there a while, but this all adds to the charm of the place. One thing that makes Vanuatu different to similar shopping experiences in Asia is that prices are fixed, they dont like to barter but the flip side is there is no hawking. You never get harassed to buy anything from street vendors or spruikers and everyone is extremely friendly. There are also traditional craft markets, but it looked to me that this traditional craft was designed for the tourist and not so much traditional as made by locals rather than imported. Having said that we were after all in the capital of the country, set up specifically for tourism. I am sure the experience of visiting the remote islands, usually only accessible by boat, would be a far more revealing experience of traditional Nevan life and culture.
On our second day we went on the Trimaran day sail and snorkel tour. What a great day. Perfect weather. A group of about 14 on the 35ft tri did not feel too crowded and definitely did not once we got in the water at the 3 different snorkelling places we went to. I have never visited the Great Barrier Reef and also cant wait to, but if it is half as good as the reefs we snorkelled at Hat Rock and Paul’s Rock which is just off Survivor beach, so named because Survivor Vanuatu was shot there, then we are going to love it. It was after going on the old tri for what was a fantastic day that I got to thinking how much better we might be able to do it with a brand new cat and a more upmarket lunch and perhaps fewer guests but charging them slightly more. I am not seriously contemplating it but it is an interesting idea. Perhaps might be a good idea to get some experience sailing first though.
By the time we got back to our room that day we were too exhausted to go out for dinner, in fact I was asleep by 7.30 after a combination of a little to much sun, general tiredness from snorkelling for over 3 hours and I also had some flu. So I went down the road for some Chinese takeaway, we ate on the balcony and I went to sleep. Next morning we went on a another tour to another great snorkelling spot called Hideaway Island. The above pics were taken at Hideaway, and if you go to Port Vila, then Hideaway is pretty much a must. We had an organised tour but you can just catch a bus there and pay for the Island entry fee (1000 vatu $11) and as I said earlier, bus fee is only 150 Vatu per person, but you are not guaranteed you will have a bus waiting when you want to leave unless you had pre-arranged it with your driver.
Our tour included a welcome drink, a glass bottom boat ride, a snorkel guide, snorkel and fin hire (we had our own snorkels but did not take fins) and lunch for 3500 Vatu each which we thought was pretty good value. The only thing I had to buy was a beer each and the local beer is Tusker, which we both liked and the going rate is about 350 vatu. I think we pretty much had one each per day with lunch. Speaking of lunch, whenever we were not on a tour, we had lunch at a cool restaurant in town called Chills, owned by an Australian, right on the waterfront overlooking the harbour and they had a lunch special of 990 Vatu ($11) of a choice of 5 meals and a beer (or wine). It was fantastic. One day over lunch we saw Giant Trevally and a massive Pike just cruising by in the water in front of the restaurant. We also had Coconut Crab one day for lunch at another restaurant, and whilst it was OK, it was a lot of work. One thing I did not know, when I heard of coconut crab my immediate impression was it would be regular crab cooked in coconut cream, but no, apparently there is a crab that breaks open coconuts and eats them and as a result is infused with coconut flavour. We couldn’t taste it because our meal was cooked in garlic. We like garlic but it killed any chance of tasting the coconut, which kind of defeats the purpose of having it.
We had a “rest” day on the Sunday and spent the day at Erakor Island resort. This time we did just catch a bus. Jo had a coconut body scrub and I had my hair braided. I had been growing my hair since we decided to go for that very reason. I have decided that once we start cruising I will have a buzz cut that we will do ourselves, so this was my last chance to have braided hair. We didnt stay for the Sunday barbeque smorgasbord lunch be we did have our medicinal Tusker each before catching the free ferry back to the mainland. There is a sign on the island with instructions to summon the ferry, it says Sipos yu wantem ferry, yu kilim gong, which does not take much interpretation. It was there when Jo was 15 and is still there today. I also took the opportunity to climb a coconut tree, I mean, when in Rome. (pssst dont tell anyone, but it was a very small coconut tree, my feet never left the ground!). As we finished our beers and headed toward the ferry, the singer “George” played a brilliant version of “No Woman No Cry” and we could just as well have been in Jamaica, a perfect end to our day.
Then on Monday we went stand up paddleboarding with a really cool guide Michael, a French surfing teacher. I had never been but Jo had done it once before in Noosa. It is actually quite easy, and most people should be able to do it without even getting wet. Of course there is always the danger you could fall in, as I did about half way, so I managed to do it for over an hour before I fell off. We paddled the entire length of the Erakor Lagoon, about 9 kilometres. It was great fun and we plan to have a paddleboard when we start cruising. We saw inflatable ones at the Sanctuary cove boat show, but they are not cheap, they are about $2000 each, but for ease of storage they are much more practical than a normal one.
Another rest day, well more a day with nothing planned, so a sleep in and a wander around town shopping after breakfast. Jo had the big fella breakfast, I tried the fruit platter, having been stung by the dugong references, figuring it might be time to trim down a bit. We got our full compliment of cheap dvd’s and boardshorts and had lunch at Chills again and more shopping in the afternoon for family gifts, always a pre-requisite of any overseas holiday.
Another highlight of the trip was pizza and beers at Numbawan waterfront bar. They offer free wifi internet for customers and have moonlight cinema 3 nights a week. If you moor in the harbour in front of Numbawan you should be able to access the wifi. We did not use it so dont know how it works but I would say they change their access code regularly and you ask for it when you purchase something from them, if not then I guess its just free, but I would suggest breakfast or dinner there if you do access it.
It was a great holiday. I had been holding off going so as to save these destinations until we cruise there, but having been there only made me want to return with our boat even more. In fact we only saw the tourist (and cruise ship tourist at that) oriented parts of the main island, there are 80 inhabited islands in the chain and many people say they are much better than Port Vila so we figure it wont be hard to stay for the full 90 days the visa offers. I believe it is quite easy to get a visa extension so perhaps we might need one.