It was a very early start this morning for our month-long overseas adventure to Vanuatu – 5:00 early! With 99% of our things packed, it was just last-minute toiletries to go, along with getting all our batteries off chargers and double-checking the van fridge was empty. For two people that always overpacked clothes in the past, we have four bags, three and a half of which contain cameras and other electricals like laptop and iPad. We’re both hoping that the small amount of clothes we have packed will be sufficient. If not, hopefully some cheap shopping will be in order!
We arrived at the airport at 7:30, where nearly all the rest of our group of 50-odd travellers were waiting, going over checklists, making sure we all had tickets and passports, and that nobody’s luggage was too seriously overweight. Some of the group are travelling with their own tools, to be used in their volunteer repair and construction work, so all in all we had a large cavalcade that finally made its way through customs to the departure lounge.
Being non-drinkers, we couldn’t get over the amount of alcohol that is offered duty-free! We stuck with simple product purchases like an extra mini-SD for our GoPro! We picked up a backup Black GoPro last night which will help ensure we can photograph and video as much as possible on land, underwater and in the air!
We loved walking onto our Air Vanuatu flight and seeing the smiling hostesses with fresh flowers behind their ears! So refreshing and welcoming. Having not flown international at all, and not much within Australia, we weren’t sure what to expect with food on the plane, whether we had to purchase or if something was included, and were pleasantly surprised at what we received – a tray full of food, with hot rissoles and veges, fresh salad, fruit salad, orange juice and a bread roll. Sounds simple, but it tasted divine and filled us up!
The flight was uneventful, except for the nudging from Susie in the window seat when we passed over New Caledonia with its gorgeous waters and reefline, and an even bigger one when our destination, Espiritu Santo (known just as Santo) came into view. Words escaped us both for a while as we turned course to the airport and the wings dipped to show us the coves of the Island. Stunning colours, straight off a postcard – we both then declared how desperately we wanted to get in the water and do some diving!
Our first good feeling of Vanuatu was when we landed at the Airport and looked out the plane windows to see the staff wearing good old pluggers aka thongs – definitely something you wouldn’t see in Australia! The humidity hit us as soon as we stepped onto the tarmac, and those few lingering questions about whether we’d packed the right clothes disappeared – boardies, bikinis and singlets it is! There was no air-conditioning as we waited to pass through customs, so thank goodness it’s their cool season, as we can imagine it might be very difficult and uncomfortable in the hot sun any other time of year.
A lovely surprise awaited us as we finally collected our bags and exited the building. The local school principal and a large contingent of students – which some of our group will help out in the coming week – along with senior military personnel from the Vanuatu Military Force (VMF) were waiting outside to welcome us. Each student carried a handmade grass lei necklace and a fresh coconut with a straw coming out, swapped in exchange for our handshake and a very grateful smile hello. It’s hard to believe you have to pay for this back in Australia! It was a very touching moment and confirmed everything we have been told about the people here being so happy and friendly. We then proceeded to shake hands with every single person that had lined up to welcome us, before boarding the bus to take us to the wharf and our accommodation for the next two weeks on Aore.
Driving here is on the right (or wrong) side of the road, and quite disconcerting as a passenger to experience for the first time! The roads are definitely not the same standard as home, and it appeared as though every single taxi we passed had significant damage. We have been told that the speed limit is 40kmh though we are yet to spot any signs confirming this…
It was 5pm by the time we made it to the wharf and we’re organised for the 10-minute boat ride over to Aore Island Resort. The channel was very smooth, and as we pulled in closer to the jetty we were delighted to see schools of fish right at the surface, and even more colours and sizes under the water as we stepped out of the boat. Forget the diving for the moment – the water around the jetty is so crystal clear and drops off a few metres out, with the colours in the water so indescribable, that we can’t wait for our first opportunity to get in the water and get some photos!
Walking up the jetty towards the open-sided lounge/dining/bar building was definitely like stepping into another world – one with sandy pathways, beaches with hammocks hung ready for us and even a swinging rope, candle-lit tables overlooking the glassy ocean, and our host and her team ready to shake our hands and offer us a beautiful fresh fruit cocktail, complete with hibiscus flower. The accommodation villas are spread a couple of hundred metres along the shore, each with postcard views and your own private steps down to the sand.
After settling into our room and recharging the batteries (literally, as we do have more photographic gear than clothing), it was time for dinner. Not a skimpy one-plate dinner with more plate than good either – a full smorgasbord of fried rice, pizza, quiche, salad, marinated veges, and the most delicious fresh fish we have eaten. Whether it was the fish or the chef’s sauce or the perfect combination together, it was divine! From tomorrow we will pre-select our meals for the following night to allow the chef to plan ahead. Fish will undoubtedly feature regularly in our dinner plans! After multiple servings of main, the chef himself brought out a specially-made cream-covered chocolate cake and personally served us as a thank you and welcome. So lovely!
Dinner was a chance for everybody in our group to introduce themselves and say a little about why they’re here or some juicier personal information. The few of us who made declarations that it was our first time out of Australia received resounding applause, but it was just as touching to hear so many of the group say they had made multiple voluntary trips of this kind to help out with various local community projects. We understand how difficult it can be to take two weeks out of only a four week annual leave period to come out here, but the local people have made it so clear already how happy they are to have groups come that it’s easy to see the emotional reward far outweighs anything else for so many in the group. It was also a chance for us both to catch up with some old friends and make new ones, and we are looking forward to what the next couple of weeks here around Santo and Aore will bring.
For more information on some of the community projects the group is helping out with, read our earlier posts on our planned travels here.