Where is Marius?

We weren’t staying on Vanuatu’s central island of Efate, site of the international airport, but on the neighbouring island of Erakor. At the end of our lovely holiday there, we took our leave of the staff and boarded the little outboard tinny to take us back across the lagoon, where we had arranged for our driver Marius to pick us up. 

Oddly, he wasn’t there, and wasn’t responding to text messages. Ten, fifteen minutes passed by, and still no Marius. Our time margin to the airport, originally quite relaxed for the short journey, was now looking a bit slim.

One of the resort employees pointed out a bus driver lounging on the dock, an islander who had rather comically bleached a ring of beard- and head-hair in a complete circle around his face. He agreed to take us to the airport (a Vanuatu bus is not unlike a taxi, except that anybody can hail it in transit and the route changes to suit). Just as we were loaded on, a boatload of Japanese tourists arrived at the dock from their lunch on Erakor, eager to return to their cruise ship. Our driver wandered down to the dock to see if they needed a lift, assuring us that it would only take a minute, but immediately became involved in a long and animated discussion as the minutes ticked by and we got later and later for our check-in. It looked like the tourists were only asking for directions, but it was at least another five minutes before they set off walking in the indicated direction and our driver returned to our bus. 

He didn’t make it far before they hailed him once more and he was embroiled in another arm-waving discussion, until finally they all climbed on board and, with a screech of tyres, we set off in a now fully loaded bus. 

“We’re late for our flight!” we pointed out. “Their stop is on the way”, he soothed. 

Of course, the cruise terminal was on the other side of the bay, and the clock ticked on as he decanted the Japanese ladies onto their gangplank, then burned rubber back up the road to the airport. 

We had originally intended to stop for cash to pay him, but now we were so late that the driver agreed to wait while we used the ATM at the airport instead. 

Leaving Bronwyn and Berrima to unload the luggage, I ran inside to find the ATMs. There were two of them. I put my card into the ANZ machine and it slowly began to ask it’s innumerable questions. What language, Bislama, French or English? Will you need a receipt? And then that stupid question that makes no sense at all, Which account do you want? The one attached to the card, you stupid machine. 
Eventually it got around to asking how much money I needed, and then rejected 2500 (the taxi fare) because it didn’t have 500 notes. Good grief. 3000. Whirr whirr connecting connecting… rejected. 

The tannoy started announcing, “Will Berrima Reading please report to the check-in desk?” Pretty impressive, her first tannoy announcement and only four years old.

I moved to the second machine, a local one which ground even more slowly though the same questions, before it too smugly announced… card rejected. 
Back to the first machine, with a different card.
“Last and final call for Berrima Reading, Bronwyn  Reading…”
Whirr… connecting… connecting… please take your cash!

I sprinted back to the taxi, pushed the notes into the window, abandoned my 500 change and ran for the check-in desk. 

Thankfully there was nobody else in the queue, and after pointing frantically up at the increasingly urgent tannoy speakers, we swiftly received our boarding cards, but then there was an intricate Vanuatu exit card to fill in for each of us… then customs… and then finally into the crowded departure lounge. 

There was only room for two planes on the tarmac. A much-delayed Auckland flight was announced, many people cheered, and the hall emptied. The few remaining travellers peered uncertainly at each other and at the sweating late arrivals; the plane was clearly going to be half empty. It was going to be an easy flight home. 

Erakor Island, Vanuatu

Stepping onto the Erakor Island jetty from the little outboard-powered ferry which we’d boarded on the main administrative island of Efate, we were greeted by a smiling islander in traditional dress blowing a conch shell. A somewhat cheesy start, perhaps, but our minimal luggage was whisked away to our cabin and only minutes later our four-year-old was swept up by a group of giggling children, and without further ado, they all vanished down the beach to catch starfish.

Bronwyn looked at each other over the fruity drinks that had materialised in our hands, squinted out across the blue of the reef lagoon, and relaxed. 

Erakor Island is less than a kilometre long and shaped like a lamb cutlet. It is unpopulated apart from the managers of the perhaps 30 cabins dotted around the perimeter, one of which was to be our home for the week.

The island is surrounded by a shallow lagoon packed with living coral. There is a large rack of kayaks and paddle-boards available for use, as well as an ample supply of snorkelling gear in all sizes, and almost every day we paddled out to see what was happening on the reef. Berrima took to snorkelling right away, and spent ages just gently paddling to and fro over the coral heads, watching the fish.  

The reason that we were on Vanuatu at all is down to the 2019 Australian bush fires. We had intended to have a quiet Christmas at our apartment in Canberra, but the city was smothered in thick choking smoke, so we caught the next plane out. Most of the guests in Vanuatu seemed to be Australian, and many of those that we met were unable to get home for Christmas because their home flights to Sydney were cancelled due to the bush fires. Most of them didn’t seem too distressed by their dilemma, and in any case, Santa noticed our predicament, and came to Erakor.

Apart from the resort buildings on Erakor Island, there are a few interesting historical artefacts. In one corner is a typical Samoan family grave, with a plaque stating that the first Samoan missionaries are there interred. There is also a ruined mission building from a later, British minister, and an adjoining open-air chapel (still in use for the occasional wedding). Next to the chapel are a couple of gravestones.

Three successive children had died before their 2nd year, followed five years later by their mother, but there was no grave for the missionary himself. We asked a local, and he shook his head and said that the children all died of malaria; it was prevalent then, although it has now been eradicated from Vanuatu following an extensive vaccination program by the Aussies and the Kiwis.
“But what about the Reverend Mackenzie? Why doesn’t he have a gravestone?” I asked.
Our Melanesian interlocutor chuckled broadly, “He was eaten”.

Next to the resort’s rack of modern plastic kayaks, sat a traditional dug-out outrigger canoe. I’ve always wanted to try one, and we’d seen a number of others in daily use around the lagoon, so I asked if I could borrow it. There was a certain amount of humming and hawing, and it emerged that while it was technically possible, we had to wait for the slack of the tide in case we had trouble controlling it, and they also needed to round up at least three husky gardeners to lift it down off the beach. I tentatively hefted one end of the hull, and couldn’t even lift it, so we settled down to wait.

Realising that we weren’t about to give up, a group of strong men hefted the craft down to the water, and Bronwyn and I climbed aboard to give it a spin around the lagoon.

For something that was so unwieldy on land, it was light enough in the water, and we paddled out to where Berrima was snorkelling and then up and down the reef, until we realised that quite a lot of water was seeping in through the trunk and we headed back to the shore.

Only two large men were available to lift it out of the water, and they fumbled it and smashed the outrigger. I suspect that none of the staff were too distressed that the vessel was now out of commission.

Exploring Éfaté with Marius

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. 

Rarru Rentapao

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.

Turtle Sanctuary

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. 

Blue Lagoon

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.