We wanted to do a Tour on Efate Island in Vanuatu but in the steamy tropical heat, and because we’re not as young as we used to be, we didn’t feel up to mountain biking, kayaking or bush walking.
So we settled on bus tour that would circle the whole of the island, show us some of its natural attractions and allow us to connect with the locals. We liked that that the tour was run by a local company who give back some of the profits to support local schools and villages.
Our bus arrived on ‘island time’. The bus driver had slept in and there had been a small mechanical problem. We piled in with a dozen Australians and one other New Zealand couple.
“You will see the real Vanuatu,” our cheery tour guide Frank kept assuring us. “Our life style is very relaxed.”
It was a comfortable ride. We felt proud to be kiwis when told that the road had been sealed with a very significant amount of help from New Zealand. The locals can now to get to the market, clinics and schools much more quickly and easily and it’s great for tourism.
We stopped off for several swims and snorkelled. One of these, the Blue Lagoon, azure blue and in a tranquil setting, must surely be one of the loveliest swimming holes in the world. You could jump in from a rope swing but we just slid gently into the crystal clear cool water and floated around.
At a river we stopped for a ride in a dugout canoe. The men took pride in telling us that they build it from materials that grow in their local environment and it takes them only a few days.
“We don’t need to go out to buy stuff and hire people to do the job.”
It was a humbling thought. There’s a lot to admire in this simple way of life which leaves a much smaller footprint on the earth than ours.
We lunched in an outdoors restaurant. The Aussies were serenaded with Waltzing Matilda, and we got Pokarekare Ana.
A village visit was the highlight of the day. Here we were made to feel genuinely and warmly welcome. The women, in their bright floral Mother Hubbard dresses (a fashion which has lingered on from missionary days) and children sang welcome songs and put woven headband on our heads. The refreshing fresh fruit platters and desserts we were served had all been home grown.
The women took us for a peek into their communal kitchen where they cook meals for their families over an open fire. It was a big open space with only a couple of communal cooking pots and an iron kettle. No electrical gadgets, cutlery or plates. No well stocked pantry. Their simple subsistence lifestyle is so very different to ours.
The school visit was an eye opener. The principal was away, and an untrained volunteer teacher was looking after two classes. Hardly any equipment or books could be seen.
The pupils had very engaging smiles and were more than happy to take a short break from their schoolwork and perform songs for us.
Once back on the bus Frank confided “Behind the smiles there is hardship in Vanuatu,”
In theory primary education is supposed to be free and compulsory but many parents cannot afford to send their children to school because of the hefty school fees, the cost of stationery and transport to and from school.
During World War Two, when USA military were stationed on Vanuatu they built roads and airstrips, a useful legacy. Many old relics remain and one of their final resting places was in a tiny seaside museum, more of a shack really, where an eccentric collector has gathered many of these and housed them where they can “rust in peace”. Here we could buy old American coca-cola bottles for $12 but none of us did!
Our final stop was at a Kava Bar. It felt strange to be served kava in plastic bowls without any accompanying ceremony or ritual.
There is a tradition of kava drinking at nights in village club houses which only men can participate in. Here kava is drunk from empty coconut shells.
But in urban parts of Vanuatu a lot of kava bars have sprung up which are just a place to have a social drink, and are open to both men and women. To find them you look out for a lantern at the entrance.
It had been a relaxing interesting and informative day, but also thought provoking.
The tour was organised by Melanesian Tours and is known as the Circle Around Efate Island – Private Day Tour.