Returning to an old friend

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Port Vila Harbour... The Vanuatu Open Water Swim starts and finishes in the background, left.

Adventureland

One of the glories of travel is to return to a familiar place that you remember fondly to find that it is as you remember it, only better, and that people you knew there remember you and are glad to have you back. It helps to deal with one of the vagaries of travel: constantly arriving at new places instills in you a faint emptiness, until you get to know the place, a few of its people, and you begin to settle in. Unfamiliarity is the curse of the insecure traveller.

Not that we're that insecure. But everyone has an element of wanting to belong, and it's harder to feel that you belong if you're in a place that's not your home. The welcoming greeting of locals helps you deal with that faint emptiness.

And after a break of four years. it wasn't hard to deal with it on our return to Vanuatu.

We last visited for the swims in 2007. It seems so long ago. So much has happened over the intervening years, and there was trepidation about returning to a place that we did, as we suggest, remember fondly. Ours was a relatively hastily arranged trip, too, prompted by a call from expat swimmers who told us that the swims' management was changing and they'd like oceanswims.com to work with these events once more, to let ocean swimmers far and wide know about them and encourage swimmers to visit. The call was from Greg Lee, a Bondi lad who is a member of the Port Vila Master Bathers (best pronounced with an Oirish accent if one is amongst friends).

Needn't have worried. Returning to Port Vila was like visiting favourite family on Xmas Day. There'd been a management shake-up, with the locals -- essentially, the Master Bathers and the Vanuatu Tourist Office -- transferring management to a local operator, Edge, run by a Queenslander, Troy Spann, his business partner, Zeak Smith, assisted on this occasion by Troy's accountant bride, Melanie. None of them had run a swim before. Edge runs day tours Port Vila, an abseiling trip at the Mele Cascades, a spectacular waterfall just before you head up Clem's Hill, out past the airport, and the Vanuatu Adventure Race. A video promo for the adventure race, made by Zeak, features Troy and his missus, kitted out with affletes' day packs, headbands, joggers, running through the Vanuatu jungle.They also run the 'Round Island Relay, a foot race around the main island of Efaté, also taken over from the previous organisers of the Vanuatu swims.

We'd not met Troy, Mel or Zeak before, but there were plenty of other Port Vila locals whom we had met, including Linda Kalpoi, who'd run the Tourist Office when we last visited, and who had returned to run it again just at the beginning of June. Linda is a lovely person and a very welcoming face. We'd wondered whether anyone at all would remember us, you know. But plenty did, and plenty more whom we hadn't known before still welcomed us as long-lost family. There was a wonderful feeling about these swims, a feeling of optimism that the swims were starting afresh, with new management, and that the only way is up. There were plenty of other locals we knew, too, and plenty of familiar places and sites, experiences and sensations.

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And looking from the other side of the harbour, back towards Iririki Island, around which the main swim runs.

The sensation of the Port Vila markets, for example, its flowers at the front, its babbling, congested walkways, the mamas in their Mother Hubbards hawking fruit and veggies and every conceivable kind of banana, all at a few vatu per bunch... the pungent aromas of lap lap and tuluk and fish. We recall one of our first visits to Port Vila, back in the mid-00s, when we were awoken in the early hours of the morning -- well before sun-up -- in our bed on Iririki, the island in the middle of Port Vila harbour around which the swim runs, by the haunting, mellifluous hymnal lilt of gospellers, which we discovered later were the ni-Vanuatu locals at the markets at their early morning worship.

Morning tea at Au Péché Mignon, the patisserie and cafeteria across the main street from the markets... the putt-putting ferry across to Iririki... the helter-skelter CBD, with buses and taxis zipping hither and thither, pedestrians dodging them as they dart across the road, dancing as they skip from puddle edge to pothole to the other side... the spruikers... ".. you will take a day tour... you will get to the river, and you will get into canoes... and the warriors, they will come to kill you... but don't worry: the chief, he will tell them not to..." But what if the chief is indisposed at the time? On the 'loo?? Dropping the kids at school??

The Vanuatu experience is a world of difference to the Fiji experience. In Fiji, visitors tend to stay in resorts where they are isolated from the hustle and bustle of Nadi Town or Suva. In Port Vila, you're amongst it. Both are pleasant, enriching experiences; but they are different. Fiji's cuisine, for example, is influenced heavily by its Indian population, around half the total, and it's sometimes difficult to find Fijian food. Vanuatu's food is influenced heavily by the French. There's a beef industry in Vanuatu and a coffee industry. They bake bread like they're French, an they cook steak like they're French.

Just as different are the Melanesian social structures in each place: In Fiji, there's a single, national hierarchy, a single national language, a line of social authority. But Vanuatu, like all other Melanesian states, is a wantok society, where cultural identity derives from the village or the collection of villages which speak a particular language: wantok (one talk, one language). And there are hundreds, literally hundreds, of those languages. Not hard to see why Westminster conventions take a bit of getting used to here. Try telling a villager in the centre of Santo, or on the slopes of Yasur on Tanna, that he should listen to the politician from Port Vila, who speaks an entirely different language. This is why Bislama was invented, Vanuatu's version of pigeon English: to provide a device for unifying the Melanesian peoples, through which outsiders could communicate with them all. We were surprised to learn, by courtesy of Townsvillager Peter Murphy, in town on business but only too happy to do the swim, that Bislama was invented in Queensland by the blackbirders to help them communicate with the slaves stolen from Melanesia to work on the cane fields. The cultural identity is strong. We recall Mal Meninga, with whom we once shared a chiropractor in Canberra, describing himself as "a South Sea Islander", a reference apparently to a blackbirded heritage.

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Lunch at the markets in Port Vila... Fish, laplap, and more.

Then there is Vanuatu's and Fiji's colonial backgrounds, through which they received Western influences. Fiji was an English colony. The Poms imported the Indians to work on the cane fields, which is an irony, isn't it! Coals to Newcastle, given whom the blackbirders later imported into Stra'a to work the cane fields of Queensland. So while the initial influence was Anglo-Saxon, the enduring infuence was Anglo-Saxon alongside Gujarati.

Vanuatu, however, was a joint condominium of the Poms and the French, which must have been a bizarre setup, indeed, particularly when you think back to the centuries of antagonism between the two, which continues. In the New Hebrides, as the colony was known, there were parallel education and health systems as well as the conjoint administration. Probably two religious systems, too, truth be told, between the Catholic French and Protestant Poms. The French still have New Caledonia, and the French from Noumea have a proud record at the Vanuatu ocean swims (this year, they went 1-2-3). We wonder whether Flashman ever did time in Vanuatu and/or Fiji? We've read a few of his papers, but not all. We must plough on. So much to learn...

Anyway, the bottom line is that Vanuatu is a fascinating place that's a world away from Fiji.

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A misty morn, swim morn... But the water's warm.

In Port Vila this time, we stayed at Moorings, a smaller resort hotel on the waterfront on the way into town from the airport, a 10 minute walk from town, in fact. We'd stayed in the past usually at Iririki, in the middle of the harbour and a beautiful place. Moorings was different, more towards the budget segment of the market, but very nice, relaxed, and considerably cheaper, relatively new, and styled like many of the nicest places in Vanuatu through extensive use of local timber, necessitated in part by the frequency of earthquakes up that way.

Vanuatu has more than an earthquake a day, on average. So many, indeed, that they become unremarkable after a time, although some are not quite as unremarkable as others. Such as the one that struck in 2003 whilst we were in bed on our first visit to Santo, the island to the north. It sounded like a truck rumbling along the main street of Luganville, three kilometres across the channel from our digs at Aore Island Resort. But then we thought, tucked up in bed, "Hang on, there are no big trucks rumbling through Luganville, particularly at midnight!" Then the fare shook, shaking increasingly, violently, and we lay there in bed with our Queen, watching the lashed poles above us shaking and swinging, just for a few seconds, although it seemed much longer. The pigeon expression for earthquake in the Solomon Islands, another Wantok state just up the ocean, is "shake shake". Then it shook again, then the truck rumbled along out of town across the channel in Luganville, and the fare settled down...

Up in Santo on this trip, on several occasions we heard thunder, or so we thought. We asked our driver, Aaron, our representative from Santo Heritage Tours, whether it was indeed thunder, or an earthquake. And Aaron said, "Probably both". Earthquakes are a daily part of life. Alarming, however, to hear just today (at the time of writing) an earthquake expert on the telly saying that two things alarmed him: a long faultline to the north of New Zealand, and an undersea volcano off Vanuatu that is bigger, the chappie said, than Krakatoa. However big that was.

Don't let this put you off, though. Most people, all of those we know, anyway, tend to visit Vanuatu without being swallowed up by an earthquake.

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There often are dugongs hanging about Port Vila harbour, but there are other creatures, too... This one, over the back of Iririki Island.

Back in Port Vila, we walked into town from Moorings for our morning swim with the Masterbathers, who meet near Nambawan Café. That's a Bislama name. It means it's the best. Number 1! The standard swim, which was fine by us, was their swim to "the rock", which is, indeed, a rock sticking up out of Port Vila harbour not far, as it turns out, from Moorings itself. So we'd walked into town, swam back almost to Moorings, then swam back again. All this to earn a cuppa and a "bacon and egg mcmuffin" at Le Tentation, the current incarnation of the old Rossi restaurant, which used to be race HQ in Port Vila. Nowadays, race HQ is Nambawan, which serves not only as swim entry venue in the days leading up, but also is a meeting place, perhaps Port Vila's leading meeting place for the expat and tourist community. One can live one's entire life at Nambawan, except perhaps for sleeping. It's open all day, breakfast through dinner. It has free wiffy, which brings punters in all day -- we saw one laydee who seemed to be sitting there on the free wiffy all day for two days straight: what could she be doing for that long? Nambawan also provides shelter when it rains, which is frequently in Vanuatu, often dramatically but only briefly. Nambawan also serves and breakfast on swim day. It's one of those noice, relaxed places with individual and captains' tables, and a constant flow of personalities, and right on the waterfront, so it offers uninterrupted water views.

We hadn't swum in Port Vila harbour for four years and were struck by how clear is the water for a working harbour. It's not Sydney Harbour, mind you, but it is working with a flurry of water taxis - longboats - inter-island traders, workboats, tourist boats, kids jumping into the harbour, climbing out and jumping in again, punters milling around the waterfront, in the park between the markets and Nambawan. It's a milling, madding crowd, cosmopolitan with the polyglot of Melanesians with Anglos and Gauls and Latins, and many more. For a place so busy, it's striking that you can dive into the harbour and not only find the water clear, but also find yourself swimming over coral blooms and reefs with all the tropical sea life that comes with it. There are or is said to be a dugong which lives in Port Vila harbour. The Master Bathers encounter it from time to time, which is why their "logo" is a dugong. We've swum many times around Iririki and in the southern end of the harbour, but we've always thought of the water north of Nambawan, up towards "the rock" as more estuarine, not as clear. But we were wrong. We swam from Nambawan, out to an helicopter pontoon, then up to "the rock", and the water was clear all the way. Full of fish. And Master Bathers. It's around a 1.5km swim, and you can do it every day either alone or with Masterbathers.

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Sitting at Nambawan on swim eve, however, there was a downpour, an almost violent downpour, and instantly a plume of stormwater gushed into the harbour, like an aggressive cancer, the muddy brown water spreading from the drains along the waterfront. The downpour didn't last long, but it was a reminder of conditions in developing states, where you cannot expect the same standards of storm water management and filtering that we expect in Stra'a. Lying in bed at Moorings that night, just along the waterfront on the harbour, it rained all night. We lay there dreaming up a contingency plan, in case -- as we felt was sure -- we arrived at the swim early in the morning -- start time was 0800 -- to find another stormwater plume spread across the harbour, perhaps making it unpleasant or even dangerous for swimming. Our disaster plan was this: ring the folks at Iririki, as Dubbya and Barack would say, and seek permission to run the swim from their beach, across the harbour where the water should still be ok. Move the swim over to Iririki, and have the Iririki people switch their ferry staging point from the Grand Hotel, where you must trudge through the foyer to reach the wharf, to the old Iririki wharf next door, which is accessed through a vacant lot. That would obviate the need to channel punters throughout the Grand pub. Brilliant! we thought, and rolled over, onto our right side, and went soundly back to sleep, confident that we'd solved the world's problems.

But after a night of constant, middling rain, we arrived at Nambawan to find the harbour water almost unaffected. Indeed, leaving aside the falling drops, you wouldn't even know it had been raining. 'er upstairs was smiling on the Vanuatu Open Water Swim.

Anyway, the swim started, we swam the normal 3.2km course around Iririki, and we swam back again. And we remembered that that the trap of this swim is the booee off Iririki's northern point: when you reach it, you suddenly can see the Rossi building, and you think you're home. But you're not. When you see the Rossi roof in the distance, it's tempting to pick up the pace, the thought in your mind that you're virtually there, and it's just a cuppla hundred metres across the harbour back home, and now's the time for your finishing sprint, such as it is. Wrong. From that point, it's the best part of a kilometre. And if you're a mug punter swimmer, like most of us, then you're going to die in the backside if you start your run in from there. The final reach is dead straight, and it's a long way. You need to wait to the final booee, half way across the harbour, before picking up the pace, if you wish to finish with a flourish, not a water-slapping schlepp.

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Port Vila markets.

Santo

The other striking aspect of the Vanuatu swim experience is the stark difference between the Port Vila experience and the Santo experience. The second leg of the two swims that make up the Vanuatu Ocean Swimming Fiesta is as different from Port Vila Harbour as is salt from pepper. It's a swim across Segund Channel, from Luganville, the provincial capital of Espiritu Santo, to Aore Island Resort, which is on an island called... er, Aore.

Aore is one of our favourite places in the entire world. Check out the pitchers. Say no mo'ah. What also makes it special for us -- os.c and our Queen, Mrs Sparkle -- is that on our first visit to Aore in four years, we were greeted as long lost relos, the type people are glad they have found once more. Aore is run by Anne, an expat Sydneysider (from the St George region). In all the time we've been visiting Aore, which is since 2003, the staff have remained constant, which we reckon says a lot for the staff and for the establishment, and for Anne's stewardship. One of the advantages of this is that they have been involved in running the Aore swim before -- indeed, they have been integral to that swim over the years -- so you know the support behind the swim will run well. Returning to Aore, to Anne, to George and Jonathon (the father-son combination who run the ferries for Aore across from Luganville), Michel (who runs the dining room), Ali and Manson, waiting and behind the bar, Annie, who runs the office, and Brad, who runs the grounds, is like returning to old friends. And Timmy Rovu, who runs Santo Heritage Tours, and whom we first met also in 2003 on our first visit to Santo... One of Timmy's drivers, Aaron, who took us aorund on this visit, also took us around on our first visit eight years ago. Since 2003, Timmy has expanded his tour business to five buses and utes. He is a local success story, so much so that we read about him in the Air Vanuatu magazine. The ni-Vanuatu are very good at making you feel welcome. It is a very relaxed, very homey place.

The other reason why the Santo experience is different, however, is that Santo is the capital of adventure. It is true that you have adventures around Port Vila, particularly gastronomic adventures. The French gave Vanuatu a talent with cuisine, is how we see it. The Poms couldn't feel as good about the same thing. The Poms gave Vanuatu Westminster and common law.

Adventures in Santo are much more raw. You can trek through Millennium caves, for example. You drive for an hour or so through the jungle, then walk for an hour through the jungle. Then you shimmy down the side of a ravine into the river gorge, then follow the river through its tunnel through the mountain for a kilometre or so, through the pitch dark. When you come out the other side, you float for a kilometre or two downstream, then climb up the wall of the ravine and you're back where you started from, the village of Nambel, where the village lays out a spread of papaya, melon and pamplemousse, which is our favourite fruit in the entire world: sweet, pink grapefruit. In Vanuatu, even the more conventional white grapefruit has a sweetness about it, very unlike the sour grapefruit we find in Stra'a. Millennium Caves is just an example. There's a lot more in the adventure line up there, too.

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Early morning dip at Aore Island Resort.

Not least of which is the swim across Segund Channel. It's just under three kilometres, across a channel that gets to 80 metres deep, with a brisk current flowing through, one way or the other, depending on the tide. The current gets so strong that inattentive swimmers will swim from Unity Park, Luganville, to Aore Island Resort along a J-curve. In theory, it's a straight line, a bit like the Lake Macquarie swim, which is 3.8km in a straight line. Straight line swims are head swims, particularly across wide open reaches of water which lack the markers to give you an idea of how far you've come and how far you have left to swim. They're not easy. When the wind blows down this channel, too, it's even harder. The first couple of times we did this swim -- we've done it quice now -- we swam into a brisk sou'-easter, which whipped the chop into our faces from about 10 o'clock (the direction of 10 o'clock, not the time). It's a long way to go with the chop in your face. There was a little breeze and just a little chop this time, too, but the reality is that, as you move across the channel, and you move into the lee of the island, the chop drops, the water smoothes, and it becomes a very even, flat swim. Apart from the current. We're very proud of the fact that, in the first three swims we did across Segund Channel, we swam straight lines, perhaps arriving over the island's reef a little upstream so we could just divert a little to the right to come into Aore Island Resort's sailing-boat bobbing bay. This time, however, we swam slower, escorting an American youngster, Scott, a chap in his early to mid-20s, who didn't really want to be doing this swim. Seemed to be under a bit of parental pressure. Sillily, we offered to swim with him. Indeed, Mrs Sparkle and we both offered, the idea being that, when we worked out how fast/slow Scott was, one or the other of us would drop off, leaving Scott to the more appropriate swimmer, who turned out to be us. Scott had a bit of pace, but he'd swim just 10 metres or so, then he'd start to breaststroke, which was more his stroke. It was a very stop-start swim, and as we approached the Aore shore, much like Huck Finn approached the Kansas shore, we found ourselves a little below the bay. It wasn't quite a J-curve, but it was a bit of a loop.

When you swim across an 80 metre-deep channel, it's welcoming and reassuring to arrive over the reef on the other side. You get to that point about 100 metres or a bit farther off Aore Island Resort. But from that point, you have a view of a very beautiful bottom, indeed, which gets the more beautiful as it shallows, the more lively, too, with sea life and reef.

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Champagne Beach, so named (it's said) because US servicemen would seek R&R there during the war with a bottle of champagne.

More adventure in Santo... Swimming off Million Dollar Point, where the US dumped "millions of dollars" worth of war gear when they pulled out at the end of World War 2. Luganville was one of the two biggest US bases in the South Pacific. The area is littered with old airfields, separate strips for bombers and fighters. During the war, Luganville had something like 40,000 servicemen stationed around it. It was a bouncing city. Lots of cinemas, traffic, excitement, colour and movement. US aircraft struck out from Luganville to fly missions over the Solomons. The fleet returned to Havannah Harbour, off the west coast of the main island of Efaté, after the Battle of the Coral Sea. Up in Luganville, in the jungle just off the end of one runway, there's the wreck of a P-17 bomber which was discovered only a few years back, so thick is the jungle, the remains of the crew still with the plane. So imagine how much military equipment -- trucks, cannon, half-tracks and full track vehicles, all sorts of stuff -- was dumped, and still sits, on the sea floor off Million Dollar Point. Just along the reef from the point is the wreck of the SS President Coolidge, an enormous troop carrying passenger ship which sank on entering Segund Channel after striking a friendly mine (Coolidge came in through the wrong channel). The ship lies beneath the channel still, on a steep angle, its bow about 15 metres below the surface, its stern over 70 metres down. It's a stunning wreck and a stunning dive. You can see this stuff diving, or just swimming over it on the surface, equipped only with cossies and swim goggles (Views, preferably).

Just along the coast, past the bomber wreck, is a house where, the locals claim, James A Michener was billeted during the war, and from where he either wrote or was inspired to write his Tales of the South Pacific, his window overlooking on the horizon the mountainous island of Ambae, known in the book as Bali Hi. Ambae, when the cloud clears, is a stunning view, rising starkly from the horizon over the sea. This is earthquake country. Sea.

We swim in the "blue holes", water of absolute clarity and hue, filtered through limestone on its way to the coast. We swim from Lonnoc Beach around the point to Champagne Beach, one of the world's most beautiful beaches, so named, according to Aaron, because that's where the Americans would head for R&R and to drink their champagne. It truly is a stunning beach.

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Around the point from Champagne Beach is Lonnoc Bay... We swim from one t'other.

More adventure in Santo... Swimming off Million Dollar Point, where the US dumped "millions of dollars" worth of war gear when they pulled out at the end of World War 2. Luganville was one of the two biggest US bases in the South Pacific. The area is littered with old airfields, separate strips for bombers and fighters. During the war, Luganville had something like 40,000 servicemen stationed around it. It was a bouncing city. Lots of cinemas, traffic, excitement, colour and movement. US aircraft struck out from Luganville to fly missions over the Solomons. The fleet returned to Havannah Harbour, off the west coast of the main island of Efaté, after the Battle of the Coral Sea. Up in Luganville, in the jungle just off the end of one runway, there's the wreck of a P-17 bomber which was discovered only a few years back, so thick is the jungle, the remains of the crew still with the plane. So imagine how much military equipment -- trucks, cannon, half-tracks and full track vehicles, all sorts of stuff -- was dumped, and still sits, on the sea floor off Million Dollar Point. Just along the reef from the point is the wreck of the SS President Coolidge, an enormous troop carrying passenger ship which sank on entering Segund Channel after striking a friendly mine (Coolidge came in through the wrong channel). The ship lies beneath the channel still, on a steep angle, its bow about 15 metres below the surface, its stern over 70 metres down. It's a stunning wreck and a stunning dive. You can see this stuff diving, or just swimming over it on the surface, equipped only with cossies and swim goggles (Views, preferably).

Just along the coast, past the bomber wreck, is a house where, the locals claim, James A Michener was billeted during the war, and from where he either wrote or was inspired to write his Tales of the South Pacific, his window overlooking on the horizon the mountainous island of Ambae, known in the book as Bali Hi. Ambae, when the cloud clears, is a stunning view, rising starkly from the horizon over the sea. This is earthquake country. Sea.

We swim in the "blue holes", water of absolute clarity and hue, filtered through limestone on its way to the coast. We swim from Lonnoc Beach around the point to Champagne Beach, one of the world's most beautiful beaches, so named, according to Aaron, because that's where the Americans would head for R&R and to drink their champagne. It truly is a stunning beach.

The swim from Lonnoc has another dimension, too: as you swim through the water off the beach, you're struck by the sudden and frequent changes in temperature, by the water suddenly blurring before your eyes, then clearing, then blurring. It's the artesian water running down the surrounding hills, but not across the beach into the sea; it comes up through subterranean vents into the bay, and the bay is often more freshwater than salt, alternately warm and cooler.

As we towel down after our 1.64 kilometre swim from Lonnoc to Champagne, the weather comes in. In Vanuatu, you watch it coming from kilometres away, much like you watch a southerly change moving up the NSW coast on a summer afternoon. The certainty is that it will hit you, and that it will be so heavy that it will reduce visibility to a couple of hundred metres. But also it generally won't last long. We sit on our deck in fare 5, watching the rain pelt down. We don't care that it's raining. Indeed, if it is raining, we'd rather be nowhere else. There's a poetry about the rain over the water in Vanuatu, a rhythm; the heartbeat of life. Mind you, we're grateful we're on the deck, under cover, and not running outside pulling resort equipment in out of the rain. Like all tourists, we get it better than the locals.

We're glad to be back in Vanuatu.

Come with us to Vanuatu in 2015... Click here

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