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In the wake of Cyclone Pam

In the wake of Cyclone Pam

Espiritu Santo Swim Week, June 8-12, 2015
Vanuatu Open Water Swims, June 6, 2015

In the wake of Cyclone Pam


Sitting here in our south temperate eyrie, it’s difficult to conceive of what it must be like with 360kmh winds whooshing past outside your window. People who live in Vanuatu know, though. That’s what Tropical Cyclone Pam did when it visited Vanuatu on Black Friday, March 13, and Sat’dee, March 14. Vanuatu has been identified as “the most natural-disaster-prone” place in the world, sitting as it does also on the Pacific rim of fire, which means earthquakes are a daily occurrence. There are no snakes or spiders to worry about, but.

We’ve been to Vanuatu maybe 20 times in the last 12 years, so when we saw familiar buildings being blown away, waves crashing into the normally protected Port Vila waterfront, the shelters where the mamas sell their Mother Hubbard dresses and their trinkets simply not there any more, the windows of the Vanuatu Tourist Office – premises we know well – shattered, the offices across the road of the organiser of the Vanuatu Open Water Swims likewise broken and boarded up, you take it a little personally. Not that we were ever in danger, but remote threat becomes personal when it’s to people, places and things that you know. Watching from the eyrie, you feel impotent. All you can do is hope.

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Port Vila Harbour. Much nicer here than on Black Friday, March, 2015.

In a country where most structures are little more than a few bits of tin hung around a shaky wooden frame, Besser brick at best, it’s easy to see how so many people lost their homes. Reports that came through over the ensuing weeks, as communications were re-established with outlying areas, added to the horror: leave aside the hysterical reports from mainstream meeja about the missionaries who were “lost” on Pentecost Island – anyone is “lost” if the local telecoms tower is out – but think of the fellow who’d shot a nail through his foot with a nail gun, but wasn’t attended to for days until a team from ProMedical came through and airlifted him out, his foot going septic. And more.

It wasn’t surprising, then, that one of the first things to happen to Vanuatu, after initial clean-ups and relief efforts got under way, was that punters who had holidays booked to Vanuatu cancelled. Even areas that were largely unaffected, such as Espiritu Santo, the island oop north where we run Espiritu Santo Swim Week, suffered from mass cancellations. We can understand this, from our viewpoint here in the eyrie, but we also knew that the worst thing that can happen to a place that relies so heavily on tourists visiting and spending moolah is that visitors should stop coming. Tourism brings in cash and it keeps locals in jobs.

With the Vanuatu Open Water Swims and Espiritu Santo Swim Week scheduled for less than three months after the cyclone, it is a matter of pride that not a single mug punter cancelled their booking. Indeed, we picked up a few. They included Tony Midolo, a Sydney music industry executive, who switched his holiday plans from Hawaii to Vanuatu post-cyclone because he figured that Vanuatu needed him more. “I decided to switch my cash to Vanuatu,” Tony told us in Port Vila. Good boy, yourself.

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All beached up, waiting to be hauled across Iririki Island.

We arrived in Port Vila on Monday, June 1. We were struck immediately by how well the place appeared to have “recovered”. Around the joint, you would come across evidence of what Pam had done. On the road out to Pango Point, south of Port Vila past Warwick Le Lagon Resort, there is an escarpment, at the bottom of which is a banyan tree resting upside down on its own canopy. Before the cyclone, that tree had sat, rooted, at the top of the escarpment. When Pam’s winds switched to the west, they blew the banyan tree off the escarpment onto the open land below. There were reports of trees blowing over onto herds of cattle that were sheltering beneath them. The cattle were crushed.

By the time ocean swimming punters arrived from Stra’a and New Zealand at the beginning of June, the joint was well open for business. Some pubs weren’t, including the Holiday Inn, one of our partner establishments for the Vanuatu Open Water Swims. Damaged, undergoing insurance assessment, the international group that owns the chain opted for renovation as well as repairs. One casualty was the swim organiser in Port Vila, Edge, our friend Troy Spann, who lost his business when his main business activity, an award winning experience abseiling down the Cascades near Mele village, was washed away in a landslide. Absent business and staff, Troy pulled out of the swim a month ahead. In his place, the Port Vila MasterBathers – please don’t say that quickly, or with an Irish accent – stepped in to run swim day, June 6.

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What it's like off Tutuba Island, Santo.

The swim around Iririki Island was like a scene from Fitzcarraldo. We all remember Fitzcarraldo, don’t we. Originally to star Mick Jagger, until the strutter pulled out (to be replaced by Klaus Kinski), it told the story of a visionary Irishman, Fitzgerald, who wanted to bring opera to the headwaters of the Amazon. Fitzcarraldo, as the Indians pronounced his name, dreamt up a cockamamie scheme to make the money to pay for his dream by exploiting a timber resource in an inaccessible block on a remote river. To get to it, Fitzcarraldo had to drag a paddle steamer over a mountain from one river to the other, thus to cut the timber and freight it back down to sale. Making the movie, Herzog really did drag the paddler steamer over the mountain. In Port Vila harbour, it seemed everyone who owned a boat was trying to be Fitzcarraldo, with ships and yachts driven up onto the island’s shore, piled up against each other as if about to haul them over Iririki Island or Malapoa Point. Even the access to the harbour by Nambawan Café was largely blocked by a fishing boat that had been blown away by Cyclone Pam. In a place like Vanautu, clean-ups after natural disasters follow priorities based on communal need. There was no timetable in place to move that fishing boat. But by the time we arrove, the water itself was good, giving us clear views of the colonies of sea urchins that populate Iririki’s south reef, the key reason why this swim must be run on the top of the tide.

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The mob in town for Espiritu Santo Swim Week, post-swim at Aore Island Resort.

Oop north, Ben Healy, the owner of DecoStop Lodge, a divers’ favourite high on the hill overlooking Luganville and Segond Channel, was asked how the cyclone had affected Espiritu Santo. “A few more leaves in the pool,” said Healy, a Queenslander. And he sipped his beer. Not much happened up there, but the influx of swimmers was a welcome fillip to resorts that still had suffered from cancellations post-Pam.
Looking around Santo, you wouldn’t know there’d been a cyclone. We swam Segond Channel; we swam from Lonnoc Bay around to Champagne Beach; we swam across the bay and back at Port Olry. Some punters traipsed through the mountain at Millennium Caves. Others paddled up the river to the blue hole then swam back with the current. We snorkel-mooched along the reef off Tutuba Island. We circumnavigated Oyster Island on foot. Pam’s footprints were minimal.

When you arrive at Oyster Island, they ask how many oysters you’d like, because they then have to go and chip them from the rocks. They’re fresh.

The water is around 26 Celsius. We’re planning other stuff in Santo now, and a bit more in Port Vila, too. Our trips to Vanuatu won’t be confined to Espiritu Santo Swim Week and the Vanuatu Open Water Swims in Port Vila.

Next year’s dates: the Vanuatu Open Water Swims in Port Vila on May 28, 2016, and Espiritu Santo Swim Week from May 30 through June 3.

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Circumnavigating Oyster Island.

Glistening Dave's photographic book, Vanuatu...

Our cobber, Glistening Dave, is an artist and photographer as well as a graphic designer. David came with us to Vanuatu and he's produced a stunning photographic record of his trip. You can check out this beautiful publication and order it, printed on high quality semi-gloss paper, from Click here (remember to scroll right down to the bottom of the page, past Dave's other photographic books)

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