Our driver, Marius, quickly and simply explained how to get about on Éfaté, the central and capital island of Vanuatu. Any vehicle whose number plate starts with a T is a taxi. Any vehicle, however small, whose number plate starts with a B is a bus. Buses can be flagged down anywhere and will take you wherever you want to go, subject only to the interim destinations of anybody else who gets on.
Through our hotel on Erakor Island, we had engaged Marius and his bus as part of a half-day package of tourist attractions, but he ended up driving us around all day once he discovered that we preferred slow travel to ticking tourist boxes.
One stop was the Rarru waterfall on the Rentapao River, a small and rather pretty cascade of limestone falls deep inside cool rain forest. The highlight is the deep plunge pool at the top, with a series of platforms and rope swings from which you can dive or plummet into the fresh water below.
Spotting our four-year-old, the staff watched us carefully at first, then relaxed as she hurled herself off the highest platform, plunged to the bottom of the rock pool, and surfaced laughing.
Marius knew the standard itinerary of the cruise ship operations, and since there was a ship in port, he had carefully arranged the timing so that we had the place to ourselves. We dawdled, we swam, we chatted to the staff, we leapt from platforms and plummeted from swinging ropes.
At one point, Bronwyn realised that her carved wooden wrist-band, a much-loved memento from Ngong Ping, was no longer on her wrist. Although the water was clear, we were looking for a carved dark brown wooden bracelet on a river-bed strewn with dark brown wood and leaves. Noticing our preoccupation, the staff rapidly came to our aid and had a fine time diving around and checking the numerous underwater nooks and crevices. We didn’t find it, but had a great time looking, and we were treated to a seriously expert display of underwater swimming.
Marius had recommended that we leave the turtle sanctuary til later, but we were hungry and it boasted a lunch barbecue. This site was more of a full-on tourist experience, with a bustling queue for the barbecue buffet and guests milling around feeding fruit to the hawksbill turtles in the lagoon.
It was all a bit crowded, but Marius gently suggested that we let the current gaggle of cruise ship tourists finish the rapidly depleting bucket of paw-paw, and let them disperse back to their coach, after which a new bucket of fruit would come out just for us. We amused ourselves by watching the turtles from a distance, and looking at the hatchlings in a couple of large stone tanks. Most of the turtles at the sanctuary are hatched on site from eggs dug up from the beach in order to improve their survival rate, and then released back into the wild when adult.
When it had all quieted down a little and the promised bucket of paw-paw had arrived, we had a nice quiet time feeding the hawksbills and scrubbing the algae off their backs with sand. They were very gentle and calm, not at all like the green turtle that chomped out a piece of my thumb in Samoa.
After a while, one of the guides gave Berrima a hunk of fruit, took her by the hand, and led her out into lagoon. Before long, they had located ‘Big Mama’, allegedly over 100 years old, and larger and considerably heavier than our daughter. The two oldest turtles have been with the sanctuary for some year, because however often they are released, they just keep coming back and are now a permanent feature.
After a token amount of paw-paw bribery, Big Mama consented to allow Berrima to ride around the lagoon on her shell.
After the excitement of being towed, Marius suggested that we move up to a private-looking fale at the top of the hill, which had views over the reef, a hammock for the site’s owner, and – amazingly – a child’s metal slide which had been uprooted and cemented into the sea wall.
The slide was a little sluggish at first, but then the owner of the sanctuary came down from the fale and started throwing buckets of water to speed it up. Good fun.
The Blue Lagoon is a great attraction for visitors and locals alike. It’s a sandy-bottomed gully that grades from fresh to salt water along its length, making for an interesting snorkel through many kinds of fish. Up on the surface, there are a myriad jumping platforms and swinging ropes; the locals were pulling off some amazing stunts, spinning off the ropes into perfectly executed dives, while we tourists had to make do with Tarzan yells and ungainly splashes.
I snorkelled far up the channel, floating seed-pods rattling on my mask until I reached the sea, revelling in the calm and peace as the reef fish went about their quiet business, ignoring the antics of the lumbering primates above. It was a great end to the day, and a good round-up of the main active attractions of the island of Éfaté.