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Travel Guide to Vanuatu

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Travel Guide to Vanuatu

Often called the 'timeless islands', Vanuatu is a land that is never raced, never hurried - a gentle, peaceful place where the people and visitors alike can simply take the time to enjoy life.

We not only want you to enjoy Rockwater Resort and our home Tanna Island but all of Vanuatu.

This travel guide to Vanuatu provides an insight to plan your Vanuatu vacation. We hope it help you discover the history, the people, and the geography of the archipelago of Vanuatu in order for you to better plan an enjoyable, trouble free and safe holiday in the "Happy Isles of Oceanie".

Vanuatu consists of 83 tropical islands; some with active volcanoes, and all rising high out of the deep South Pacific Ocean; Vanuatu is a land of vast geographical contrast and cultural diversity.

From uncrowded surf at Pango Point in Port Vila, to trekking volcanoes on Tanna Island - Vanuatu is for young and old backpacking or soft adventure travellers; from anthropologists to film stars; Vanuatu welcomes all, with the spontaneous smile of the Pacific.

The capital Port Vila, is a small cosmopolitan town, it lays claim to one of the most beautiful harbours in the South Pacific, with its array of dining experiences, duty free shopping and local markets, however Port Vila is not representative of Vanuatu, it is in total contrast to the ancient tribal lifestyles found on all the other innumerable islands of the archipelago. Local tour operators will fill your days with interesting outings returning you to your Port Vila accommodation but if you seek the real Vanuatu then Port Vila is a necessary stopover to your discovery of the islands, here are a few:

Aneityum Island

Also called Anatom. This is the most southern island in the archipelago. It is mountainous, with beautiful beaches and a magnificent coral reef. It is mostly known by travellers for its coral atoll island named Mystery Island.  It is a 15 minute boat ride from the main village.

Aneityum was first discovered on the 16 April 1793 by French navigator D'Entrecastreaux. In 1844 James Paddon set up a trading station, selling Sandalwood and Kauri. By 1852 most of the forests were cut down. He then moved to another island called Erromango, with the Pacific's largest single sandalwood forest. Whalers would use Aneityum's sheltered harbour right up until the 1870s to melt whale blubber into oil in large metal pots (one of these pots can be found in the main street of Port Vila outside the National library) although locals prefer informing tourists the other version; "pot for cooking white people".

The Presbyterian missionary John Geddie arrived in 1848 and proceeded to convert more than three quarters of the population to follow the Christian faith. He built a large stone church capable of seating all of his flock. Wrecked by a Tsunami in 1875, the church remains, although most of today's villagers have no recollection who built it and why.

The main island is home to 84 species of orchids, the largest collection in Vanuatu. Aneityum's climate is even better than its northerly neighbour Tanna. Temperature ranges between 23°C to 30°C from January to March (wet season), and 16°C to 23°C the rest of the year with little rainfall.

The people are less traditional than other islands but are just as super friendly and are easy to communicate with.

Getting to Aneityum

Flight to Mystery Island by Air Vanuatu Domestic airline departs every Tuesday and Saturday from Port Vila via Tanna Island.

By going to Mystery Island you get to see quite a lot of the southern islands. Make sure you get a window seat on the left of the plane (facing forward) going down to Tanna Island in order to obtain the best views. After Tanna, sit on the right side for great views of Mystery Island. Aneityum and Mystery Islands are not the sort of places you plan an itinerary for. Here you wake up, have a swim, and decide your day according to the weather.

Epi Island

A haven for the traveller seeking natural beauty and simplicity. Less than a half hour from Port Vila, Epi Island is the place to escape the commercial tourism of Port Vila and reconnect with mother nature in an unspoilt tropical paradise. Flying to Epi Island, sit on the forward right side of the plane.

Apart from being one of Vanuatu's smallest inhabited islands measuring 43Km from end to end and 18Km wide (444km2) it provides a maze of coral channels, tunnels and caves; a cacophony of colourful marine life from every nook and cranny.

Towering forests of orange trunk coconut trees. Smiling villagers (population 4,800) on their way to leisurely soccer games on the grass airstrip, which also doubles as cow paddocks; or others' riding horses bareback along the pristine beaches to a game of beach volleyball.

The landscape is of rugged mountains dropping dramatically into a nature strip of lush tropical coastline, palm-fringed secluded beaches sheltering their sparkling waters and abundant marine life.

Epi has two submarine volcanoes and small neighbouring islands, Tongoa and Emae, with seven even smaller ones. Volcanic peaks rising from the ocean with dense vegetation and black sand beaches. Air flying in this area is frighteningly beautiful.

History

The volcanic explosion in Vanuatu in 1453 that split one island into the two smaller ones of Epi and Tongoa was one of the biggest eruptions in the history of mankind, equivalent to 2 million atomic bombs going off at once!

Tongoa and Epi islands once formed part of a larger island called Kuwae which was approximately 75kms long and 15kms wide. Local folklore tells of a cataclysmic eruption that destroyed this island, leaving the two smaller islands and Tongariki. The powerful eruption broke a big island in half, created a submerged crater nearly a kilometre (about half a mile) deep, and interrupted a great battle raging half a world away - the siege and fall of Constantinople. Two gigantic jets of highly pressurised magma, each perhaps two kilometres in diameter blew Kuwae island apart according to scientists.

Using clues as diverse as growth rings visible in the wood frames of British portraits and crop records from China, scientists fixed the year of 1453 as when the legendary volcanic explosion must have taken place. This colossal eruption is said to have been one of the largest in the last 10,000 years and blew about 40 cubic kilometres (10 cubic miles) of rock, earth, magma and dust which was hurled into the atmosphere and surrounding sea at a velocity of around 300 kilometres an hour. The volcanic dust circled the globe, shutting out sunlight in the Southern hemisphere and later in the Northern hemisphere. The Polar ice caps show evidence that dust continued to fall over three years after the explosion.

Such an eruption, equivalent to two million Hiroshima-type atomic bombs, would have changed the world's climate and would have been heard in Australia and other Pacific islands. Oak panels of contemporary British portraits had abnormally narrow rings in 1453-55. In Sweden, corn tithes fell to zero as the crops failed; western US bristle-cone pines show frost damage in 1453; and the growth of European and Chinese trees was stunted in 1453-57. According to the history of the Ming Dynasty in China in the spring of 1453, Non stop snow damaged wheat crops. Late that year, as the dust obscured the sunlight, several feet of snow fell in six provinces: tens of thousands of people froze to death". Early in 1454, "it snowed for 40 days south of the Yangtze River and countless died of cold and famine. Lakes and rivers were frozen, and the Yellow Sea was ice-bound out to 20 kilometres (13 miles) from shore. "The climatic change as a result of the volcanic eruption in what is now Vanuatu was probably global," said scientists in 1994.

The eruption occurred just before the siege of Constantinople in Europe, the last bastion of the once-mighty Byzantine Empire. The Ottoman Tarks, led by Sultan Muhammad II, laid siege to the city on April 5, 1453, and conquered it on May 29 of that year. Mention of the volcano's after effects are read in chronicles of the city's last days. Historians noted.

On the night of May 22, 1453, the moon, symbol of Constantinople, rose in dark eclipse, fulfiling a prophecy on the city's demise, four days later, the whole city was blotted out by a thick fog, a condition unknown in that part of the world in May. When the fog lifted that evening, "flames engulfed the dome of the Agia Sophia (Church of Santa Sophia), and lights, too, could be seen from the walls, glimmering in the distant countryside far behind the Turkish camp (to the west), "historians noted.

Residents of the city thought the strange light was due to reflection from a fire set by the Turkish attackers. Such a fire was an optical illusion due to the reflection of intensely red twilight glow by clouds of volcanic ash high in the atmosphere. The residual volcanic cloud could have made the apocalyptic June 1456 apparition of Halley's Comet look "red" with a "golden" tail, as reported by contemporary astronomers.

Archaeologists of the Vanuatu National Museum during excavations in Mangaas N. Efate in August 1996 with help from the South Pacific Cultures Fund of the Australian Government, the Australian National University in Canberra and the Sasakawa Foundation of Japan. They discovered a thick layer of volcanic ash dating from the 15th century and evidence of a large tidal wave that had occurred before the ash had fallen.

It is believed that before the massive explosion, the old island of Kuwae had a volcano caldera formation as high as 3,600 feet 1,100m). The active volcano was spewing out lava over months or years before the caldera collapsed and the ground cracked alllowing sea water into direct contact with the hot magma chamber which produced a cataclysmic reaction felt around the world. Land areas around Kuwae would have been scorched to 300 degrees. Everything would have been red volcanic earth according to Monzier in 1994.

A large area of surrounding sea would have been heavy with floating pumice and ash. The dust pall would have reddened the sky and by reflection the sea for at least three years.

Kuwae (also called Karua) nowadays is an underwater volcano with a summit caldera. Kuwae has erupted at least 12 times since 1452 with the most recent eruption in 1974.

Epi islanders numbered over 7,000 in the 1860's by the 1930's numbers plummeted to 1,000 due to black-birding; the half slavery half duping of natives to Australian Queensland sugar cane properties, and diseases brought by European settlers and missionaries. Many settlers tried their hand at cotton growing, only to end up growing coconuts. The settlers have all disappeared but the coconuts have proliferated.

The People

Epi people are extremely friendly and generous. Laughing seems to be contagious in this island! There is a strong sense of community and work ethics. Fishing, gardening, cattle grazing, poultry and pig rearing still leaves plenty of time for fooling around or simply talking to travellers.

Espiritu Santo

Santo is the common name for the island although its correct name is Espiritu Santo, Spanish for ‘Holy Spirit' named by its first discoverer, the Spanish explorer Quiros in 1606. Bougainville, the French explorer came in 1768 followed by James Cook in 1774.

Santo remained inactive until sandalwood became a trading commodity in 1853. Gold was found in 1955 further enticing foreign interest. The traders would load their ships with pigs as an exchange for sandalwood.

World War II changed Santo forever. The United States troops numbering up to 50,000 came with an enormous array of equipment. Goods the locals had never seen or imagined existed. The harbour would moor over 100 ships at any one time. Over 40 cinemas, four military hospitals, and five airfields were built. It is Vanuatu's largest island, 116 kms long, 4kms wide and the centre of beef grazing for Vanuatu.

Santo boasts the Country's northern Capital, Luganville. It is the nation's second largest city with a population of 8,000. Distinctive with WWII Quonset sheds (oval roofed corrugated metal sheds built by the US Army throughout the Pacific) scattered about in the city; some are still in use by local business.

Getting to Santo

As for all islands in Vanuatu, it is best to fly as shipping is for the most part a hit and miss exercise and if you do manage to catch a ship, you will be sitting on deck with the cargo for the long journey.

Air Vanuatu Domestic airline, fly to Santo twice a day. Departing Port Vila daily at 7am and 4:30pm. The flight takes 55 minutes except on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday where the plane stops at other islands on the way (this is a great way to see more of the country if you can manage it - don't forget to get a window seat. Sit on the forward right of the plane). The airport is 6 kms from town.

From Santo you can fly to Ambae, Ambrym, Epi, Maewo, Malekula, Paama, Pentecost and the Banks and Torres Islands or the other side of the island of Santo to Lajmoli airfield.

Getting Around

Santo roads are not bad in comparison to other islands. Taxis are numerous. A taxi from the airport to town will cost 500 vatu and a bus 200 vatu. Around town, the fare is 100 vatu. 4WD open back utility taxi trucks operate around town and can take you into the country but negotiate your fare before you leave! Before 7am and after 6pm you will find it harder to find a taxi or bus. If you're walking around Santo at night, we suggest you carry a flashlight as the sidewalks have gapping holes. Some say a giant crocodile lives in the underground drainage tunnels and people who have fallen in have never been seen again! Not sure about the croc, but we have seen large muree eels.

Highlights of Santo

There really is something for everyone in Santo. Whether you would like to visit a traditional custom village, trek through beautiful rainforests, wade through caves and admire cascading waterfalls, canoe in crystal clear waters, take a refreshing dip in one of the famous Blue holes, be enthralled by World War II history and relics, or just relax on a picturesque beach.

Luganville - Markets

Open everyday, here you will be meeting villagers from all over the island selling their produce. The markets are a little run down, but fascinating and a hive of activity.

Million Dollar Point

When WWII ended, the Americans offered to sell all their surplus war material to the locals, expatriate population and the government at 10% of the current value. The people thought that the US Army could not take back all this equipment and waited to obtain it for free. One day, the Americans, not to be out smarted took everything and bulldozed it all into the sea including the bulldozer. It now rests as a testimony to the irrationality of men. Hundreds of tonnes of coral encrusted metal are at snorkelling depth.

Champagne Beach

A Pacific paradise beach little further past Lonnoc Beach. Entry fee to the two ‘kastom' land owners is 500 vatu each - they both are claiming the beach is theirs and to this day have not resolved the issue. However, the beach is worth it, bring your own lunch!

The SS President Coolidge

Known as the "wreckie divers" mecca. This giant 1930's luxury liner was transformed into a troop carrier during WWII. Capable of carrying 5,000 men. The sinking of the Coolidge makes fascinating reading ("The Lady & the President: The life and loss of the SS President Coolidge", by Peter Stone; see introduction and overview by special permission of Mr. Stone). In short, the ship hit two ‘friendly' mines whilst entering the harbour and in less than 2 hours, sank.

The captain ran the ship into the reef, due to his quick action, managed to save all aboard except for 2 crew members trapped in the ship. To see this enormous ship one has to plan at least 4 to 5 deep dives.

  • Address:  Ipak Bay, North Tanna Island, Tanna, Vanuatu
  • Phone:  +678 565 1300
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