Story published in Pacific POWERBOAT magazine.


takapu  
OUR HOME FOR THE WEEK, THE OH-SO­STABLE, COMFORTABLE AND USER-FRIENDLY FORMER NZ NAVY SURVEY VESSEL, TAKAPU 2.

PLAN A TRIP TO A REGION SUCH AS VANUATU AND THERE ARE TWO DISTINCT WAYS OF MAXIMISING THE ENJOYMENT FACTOR. ONE IS THE PERHAPS MORE CLINICAL OPTION OF STAYING AT A RESORT OR HOTEL AND TAKING ORCHESTRATED TOURS TO SELECTED EVENTS OR PLACES. THE OTHER IS TO GO BY BOAT AND ENJOY THE ABSOLUTE FLEXIBILITY OF GOING WHERE YOU WANT, WHEN YOU WANT. WE CHOSE THE LATTER!

There has been a veritable plethora of articles written about Vanuatu as a premier tourist destination, but sadly I hasten to add by a significant number of writers whose sole aim is to promote the game fishing and the associated resort or hotel they may be staying at. Granted, undeniably the region enjoys a worldwide reputation for its fantastic fishing appeal, and for the fabulous accommodation available too, but a chance conversation with a friend who had been to Vanuatu led me to conclude there was certainly one hell of a lot more to the island group than what is predominantly written. There is some wonderful snorkeling and diving to be had, and there is also a wonderful group of islands and people to see and learn from - if you just expand your horizons a little! That was our plan of attack then and following some judicious 'homework' before we left, the lovely wife and I followed up on the advice of a family friend and organised a skippered boat for the trip. A 2 ½ hr flight from Brisbane (2 hours from New Zealand) had us touching down in Port Vila and let me tell you, all the literature in the world could never really prepare anyone for Vanuatu - from the moment you land. Like most Pacific Island 'Groups' there is a certain natural charm and mystique about the people and their habitat, but right from the start Vanuatu somehow seemed delightfully different. a very genuine race of people. Local fisherman
MEN-FOLK SPEND ALL DAY IN THESE RATHER CRAMPED OUTRIGGER CANOES, GATHERING FOOD FOR THEIR FAMILY.
Shipwreck

SHIPWRECKS WERE PLENTIFUL. ONE CAN ONLY PONDER AS TO HOW HALF A BOAT ENDED UP HIGH AND DRY HERE. NO SIGN ANYWHERE, OF THE OTHER HALF!

Quaint is perhaps the best way to describe Bauerfield International Airport. a legacy from American occupation during W.W.II (World War Two) for it is nothing more than by our standards, a very small regional airport. But it was home for us for the next 10 days. Hit by a wave of humidity as we stepped from the plane, we were immediately greeted by what for the rest of our stay became the norm - genuine Vatu warmth and hospitality from the people. Yes it was still damned hot inside the terminal, but an extremely colourful group of enthusiastic locals welcoming us with local and European songs, somehow eased the burden of the somewhat laid-back customs formalities. Once through customs, our next wee indoctrination was the taxi ride into down-town Port Vila, the largest city on the island of Hate and the capital of Vanuatu. We couldn't find a 'Sydney taxi' for love nor money, but there was however a substantial fleet of old 'bangers' that gave the impression they had figuratively been around the world several times.
Our cab of choice was in fact one of those 'up-right piano' Suzuki mini vans, with air conditioning (the roof was virtually rusted off, the windows were down because the winder was broken), cloth trim (an old curtain was glued to the head-lining, to cover up the holes) and jute-box (the guy hummed a tune as we drove into town). It was certainly quite different, charming and certainly a bit of fun! We were to rendezvous with our boat at Luganville on the largest island in the group, Espiritu Santo, which is around 120 miles north of Efate. As it turned out it was probably good skills that we spent our first night in a hotel in Port Vila, for we had time to catch our breath and also to see how the system worked in Port Vila! We went for a walk through town then slipped across the bay to Iririki Resort for pre-dinner drinks, but the more adventuresome could have gone sight-seeing in one of the multitude of taxis that seemed to be driving up and down 24/7, or indeed you could have hired a 4WD and driven right around the island yourself. Either way, you felt entirely 'safe' be it day or night! All the locals were very friendly, polite and free with advice, and we soon learned where to go and what to do. We even acquired our own resident cab driver, Ronnie (ask for him if you go there, everyone seemed to know him), who was now on-call to take us wherever we wanted to go, whenever. The next morning in fact, we took the punt with him (his cab was cleaner, tidier and later model than our first version - just!) and negotiated a tiki-tour of the island, 3000 Vatu for an hour-long trip that turned into 1'12 hours! We saw some amazing sights once we left the confines of the city, some absolute contrasts of life and dwellings, but my god we very quickly learned why the shelf life of a cab was so short. She wouldn't/couldn't even bring herself to look out the window, but the trip up did give me some idea of just how spread out this archipelago was, and how many islands there were (83 in total) for there seemed to be island after island the entire trip. We were duly met at the Luganville airport this time a slightly newer and therefore significantly more up-market airport, by mine host for the next week, Bill Leckie. I am sorry to report that the local cab standard was on a par with Port Vila, but we did have a change of configuration of transport. Bill, Dave and Mo (another couple who had also booked a week on Takapu2) and ourselves, along with all our gear, were 'fed' onto the tray of a fully air conditioned Mazda utility that came complete with tailgate held on with a leather strap - real confidence-inspiring stuff. Another hideously bumpy road, but again it was fun I suppose and it certainly gave us time to appreciate the lush green countryside, the numerous coconut plantations along the way and the beautiful cattle. I never thought I would say that about a cow, but Santo beef is something very special. Local boys on beach
OUR SOCCER BALL GIFTS PROVED VERY POPULAR WITH THE LOCALS.
Galley
THE SALOON AND VERY COMPREHENSIVE CRUISING GALLEY BELIED THE FACT TAKAPU2 WAS ONCE A NAVY SURVEY SHIP IN A PREVIOUS 'LIFE'.
American Occupation. The roading system, the old buildings, virtually the whole infrastructure was a legacy of the by¬gone era of American occupation during W.W.II. History has it that in 1942 the USA poured thousands of men and machinery into the islands of Efate and Espiritu Santo. Within two short months they had built an infrastructure of roads, airports, buildings, medical facilities, and supply depots, which would defend the region against a perceived Japanese Invasion. Word has' it also that this entire war effort was all in vain for the only casualty during the whole occupation was when an enemy plane was shot at and it crash¬landed in a paddock, killing the local prize cow! Anyway, that was 65 years ago and today what is left of that infrastructure is in a lot of cases showing its age. The roads especially, outside the confines of the city proper, are so pot-holed they almost need 'No Fishing' signs up on some of the deeper ones. We defied the odds though, had an enthralling trip and returned safely, packed again and prepared ourselves for what was to be an hour-long internal flight from Port Vila to Luganville. Needless to say Ronnie picked us up again, and the fare was the consistent 'short hop' figure of 1000 Vatu! Me, I am a frequent flyer so it doesn't faze me too much, but the lovely wife (who hates flying, with a passion) had kittens when she got her first glimpse of our 20-passenger Twin Otter aircraft. Even worse when she tried to shoe-horn her and I into the seats, but again we survived and looked upon it as just another chapter in our adventure book.
Takapu2 - Our Transport for the Week. After yet another fun trip of a lifetime then, we arrived in beautiful Surundu Bay and had our first glimpse of our 'transport' for the week. Takapu2 is a 'retired' Navy survey ship, and was one of the chief reasons we opted to see Vanuatu by boat rather than stay at a resort or hotel. Built to overkill standards and with equipment specification to match, this 28.6m (94ft) beauty that has seen more than her fair share of rough seas, would be a very stable platform for my seasick-prone wifey. Size had a lot to do with it too, for we were certainly not cramped for space, anywhere on the boat. Looks could be deceiving for from a distance it looked just like any other Navy vessel. But step aboard and you stepped into another world. Bill Leckie and his partner Mandy Vernon, along with a willing and dedicated band of family and friends, spent countless thousands of hours transforming the internals of the vessel from a spartan agricultural navy boat, into a luxurious charter boat. Under the watchful eye of the Culham family from Whangarei ship-building company Culhams Engineering, the interior was gutted and replaced with a formal dining room, three ensuited staterooms, a saloon of appropriate proportions, and a galley to die for. Used for extensive cruising as well as charter work, the boat is purposefully set up for long periods at sea. The water maker, the power generation, the house-size appliances. heaps of refrigeration, ice maker and freezers, the huge pantry, the on-board computerized systems, all ensured guests could be catered for in a manner befitting paying guests. A gourmet cook, our hostess cooked up some incredible meals during that week, including several different 'flavours' of bread. We even had a fondue one of the nights; haven't done that for many many years - and it is still a lot of fun! Weather for the week traversed the spectrum from heavy rain to sublime heat and the huge aft deck, covered by the superstructure of the next level above, was a nice cool and dry place to hide out during the day. And in the evenings, for we in actual fact spent virtually all our time out there, alternating between snorkeling, exploring, swims off the magnificent swim platform, drinkies, BBQ's and utilising the huge inventory of 'toys' that included a 4.2m/SOhp Yamaha aluminium pontoon-style tender, a 2.8m RIB, water-skis, sea biscuit, fishing tackle, snorkeling equipment, 2 x kayaks and wind-surfer. If all that didn't appeal, there was also a 32" plasma N, DVD and large library of books, CD's, DVD's and games. Our trip was not all about lazing around in the sun though, for as mentioned we did do a lot of exploring also. While Takapu2 was the main reason we opted for a holiday such as this, it was as much what you could do with that boat that was the real attraction, for we could explore to our hearts content wherever and whenever the mood grabbed us. Our Taxi
WE SPENT THE MAJORITY OF OUR SHIP-BOARD TIME IN THIS COCKPIT EXTRAORDINAIRE. IT CERTAINLY WAS NICE TO BE SHELTERED FROM THE SUN.
Our Taxi
OUR TAXI - VANUATU STYLE. 1000VATU($A12/$14NZ) TOOK US ABOUT 20KILOMETERS IN AIRCONDITIONED LUXURY!
Remaining within the general parameters of Aese (pronounced Ice) Island, Oyster Island and Surundu, Petersen and Palikula Bays, all on the south eastern side of Espiritu Santo Island, there was more than enough to keep us occupied. In reality we only scratched the surface of what was on offer for the cruising sailor, within this archipelago of islands. We went ashore on numerous occasions, inter¬mingling with the locals and once we even defied the odds and caught a 'cab' and went into the markets at Luganville.Now there was an experience, especially for one who had never done anything like that before. It was right about then too that we really began to get a feel for the local culture, for the people. You can visit Vanuatu and see all the tourist sites from land-based areas, but you will never see the real country (the road only goes so far) unless you are in a boat and can reach these far-reaching and therefore more inaccessible spots. They were very unpretentious people - they had little but they had everything and they always had a happy smile on their face - they were obviously happy with their lot in life. To us, their innocence was in fact their very real attraction for us. The World's Happiest Place Unashamedly referred to by the local tourism board as the 'world's happiest place', the people from these small villages dotted all around this area were just so polite, they understood English even if the y couldn't speak it that well, and they were so appreciative of us just stopping to say hello and talk to them. Our fellow guests rather thoughtfully brought along five soccer balls to give to the locals, and you would have thought we had given them a pot of gold in each instance. Back they came with fish, fruit, gifts - it was so gratifying just to interact with these people in a genuinely friendly way. During the day you see all the men-folk out fishing in what looked like hideously cramped and uncomfortable tiny outrigger canoes, but they would just wave and keep their distance. Ever respectful, they would never impinge on your space, unless you called them over. And it was the same scenario at the markets too. Beautifully presented fresh fruit and vegetables, even live crabs, were laid out either on tables or on mats on the floor, and the stall holders would simply smile and leave you to make your own choices. There was no hassling whatsoever.
Apparently the custom is the produce is picked and processed, then whisked off to market where mum and the family spend the next 48 hours selling it. They eat sleep and whatever else there, and then after their allotted 48 hours of stall time is up, father bear swings by and picks the family up and takes them back to their village. There may be three or four children in the family, but there was no sign of kids terrorizing the show, getting into mischief or being boisterous, they just sat there and went about their business - much the same of course as children in the western world would do!!!!! The kids especially were just gorgeous, and we have one very special pic of a little two-year-old boy handling a huge machete with amazing dexterity, as he trimmed the husks from the coconuts that were about to go on sale. What did you mother say, don't play with knives - what would she ever have said about swinging a machete that was nigh on as big as him Seemingly in the middle of nowhere and at great contrast, a significant number of 'boutique' four or five chalet or fare (pronounced 'foray') resorts complete with accompanying very exclusive restaurants, co-habitated alongside the local villages in this area. More locals
OUR FAVORITE PHOTO. THE CHILDREN WERE JUST GORGEOUS - AND LOVED HAVING THEIR PHOTOS TAKEN
Local Market
THE MARKETS ARE A VERY COLOURFUL AND BRIGHT AND CHEERFUL PLACE. THERE IS NO HIGH PRESSURE SELLING, YOU CAN PICK AND CHOOSE AT WILL.
One such very exclusive restaurant we dined at was Oyster Island Resort. With a varied game and fish menu the envy of many big-city restaurants, one dish that caught the eye of one of our party, was flying fox. Or as we know them in Australia, bats, and let me tell you it took our friend a long time to take the first mouthful, as most perceive the bat to be a rodent on about the same level as a cockroach. I tried some of it, and I have to say it certainly didn't taste like a cockroach - it was yummy! Our hosts even took us out the back and showed us the bats in their pre-cooked state - that really had some stomachs churning! Wrecks, Remains and Sights Galore It goes without saying that a region such as this has some truly remarkable, awe-inspiring underwater scenery, and as such we all spent many hours investigating the different bays with their multitude of different forms of coral and fish-life. As already explained, we did go ashore a lot too, and in one instance in Palikula Bay came across the remains of a Japanese owned tuna cannery that was fully operational up until five years ago that is! But there are just so many things to see, all it takes is time.
Pentecost Island for instance has the famous land-diving ceremony to celebrate the April to June yam harvesting time, the island of Tanna is home to the Nekowair 3-day gift-exchanging ceremony, Ambrym Island's Rom Dance is another impressive grade-taking ceremony, and Epi Island has similar grade-taking through the Nimangki system. If volcanoes are your thing then there are spectacular active lava lakes on Ambryn Island, hot thermal crater lakes on Ambae Island and volcanoes on Tanna Island where Mt Yasur especially, is always active. As I say, there is just so much to see and do. Remains actually are a big part of Vanuatu, for seemingly in every bay all manner of shipwrecks lie stranded at the waters edge, legacies of the hurricane season that arrives each year between January and April. Inland slightly and dotted here there and everywhere were not-so-gentle reminders of a by-gone era of American occupation. Not that Vanuatu looks like the proverbial rubbis'h dump, far from it for it is a lush green and truly picturesque country, but everywhere you see legacies such as old trucks, boats, machinery, pumps and spare parts - remarkably well preserved for their age. Buildings are the same; some have been resurrected and transformed into living accommodation or workshops or retails businesses, while others are simply concrete shells that serve as a gentle reminder of those war years. Million Dollar Point
ALL MANNER OF MACHINERY WAS 'BURIED AT SEA' AT WHAT IS AFFECTIONATELY REFERRED TO AS 'MILLION DOLLAR POINT', WEST OF LUGANVILLE.
Starfish
THE UNDERWATER EXPERIENCE WAS UNSURPASSED - CORAL OF ALL SHAPES SIZES AND COLOUR. THE FISH LIFE WAS PROLIFIC, AND THE WATER LOVELY AND CLEAR.
For those with a penchant for old machinery it was a time-warp of immense proportions, and we certainly enjoyed fossicking around in the undergrowth. Not something I would dream of doing in Australia, but in Vanuatu you can fossick without fear of being eaten by snakes, spiders, and flies. There are in fact very few dangerous scenarios you need to look out for in Vanuatu, but one definitely to be aware of is a red-veined green leak which is poisonous. In the water, you need to be aware of stone-fish and stingrays. One other problem area at certain times of the year it appears, is the injestion-related methyl mercury exposure (mercury poisoning, mercurialism, hydrargyria, or acrodynia) phenomenon, from the flesh of fish caught within the confines of bays and harbours. The locals do eat the fish though, for they have their own 'litmus-test' - leave the fish outside and if the flies won't land on it, then it has the dreaded lurgy! Our party didn't venture past the snorkeling stage, but for the serious divers there two separate clearly visible sites just a few kilometers from downtown Luganville. Both offer up magnificent intact WWII graveyards in the form of two of the USA's top war machines of that era, the troop carrier 'President Coolidge' and the USS 'Tucker' - which incidentally both sunk after they struck US-laid mines which were strategically strewn across the mouth of the Segund channel that marks the entrance to Luganville. As well, close by there is the unbe¬lievable dumping ground of post-war American vehicles, heavy machinery and weapons, known affectionately as 'Millionaire's Point'. As with any holiday it had to come to an end, sadly, but this was one of those most emphatic experiences that will remain with us for a lifetime. Very early on we simply ran out of superlatives to describe our Vanuatu experience, and certainly doing it in style in a vessel such as Takapu2 - was surely the icing on the cake!