Andrew Gray's Diary from the South Pacific

Port Vila · Nguna · Pentecost · Ambrym · Malekula · Santo · Epi · Aneityum · Tanna · Back to Port Vila

"As soon as I'm eighteen, I'm getting as far away from Scotland as I possibly can."

This had been my reaction two years earlier, when my parents (who fancied a 'change of scene') decided to leave the familiar English village in which I'd spent my entire childhood, and start a new life in the Scottish Highlands - in a remote village seventy miles by road from the nearest major town.

At the time I don't think anyone, including me, imagined that I'd fulfil this threat quite as literally as I did. In fact, the move to the Highlands wasn't as bad as I'd expected - I settled into the new place, made new friends, and grew to like Scotland. Nevertheless, at the suggestion of an eccentric schoolteacher, I decided to apply for an overseas placement with GAP Activity Projects, who specialise in organising volunteer work overseas for 18 year-olds who wish to take a year out between school and university.

It was on my 18th birthday, appropriately, that my "Project Details" arrived in the post. I was going to spend three months teaching at Ranwadi School on Pentecost Island, in Vanuatu. I'd be accompanied in Vanuatu by twenty-one other British volunteers, five of whom would be working at the same school as me.

In early September 2001, having left school, passed all my exams, saved up some money, filled in a lot of paperwork, undergone an interview, attended a 'teaching skills' course and a briefing, had several injections, begun a course of anti-malarial pills, read the Lonely Planet guidebook, packed my rucksack, and taken some long plane flights, I reached the South Pacific.

 

4 September 2001

I arrived in Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, yesterday. My luggage didn't. Fortunately, thanks to my efforts to reduce the weight of my checked-in baggage at Heathrow Airport, most of the things I need were in my coat pockets and hand luggage.

The streets of Port Vila are lined with palms and giant overhanging flamboyant trees, with spiders the size and shape of shuttlecocks dangling from their branches. There are cool sea breezes and in the shade it is very pleasant, although the sun is intense. Indian mynah birds flit from tree to tree, and plants that grew two feet tall in my room at home tower hundreds of feet above you.

Port Vila
Port Vila, looking across the bay from Iririki Island

In almost every respect Vila is a normal, civilised town. There are shops, supermarkets, restaurants, street lights, safe drinking water, and traffic (with French-style driving). However, everybody tells us that Vila is nothing like the rest of Vanuatu.

 

11 September

The other volunteers and I spent the next week on Nguna, a small nearby island to which we were sent to learn something about the local lifestyle. Malaliu, the village in which we were staying, consisted of twenty or so crude huts made of wood, concrete and corrugated iron (several of them missing their roofs following various cyclones), set on a grassy hillside surrounded by jungle, connected to the sea by a mile-long dirt track. After arriving at the island by speedboat, we were given half an hour to swim before being taken up to the village. The water was the colour and temperature of a swimming pool, and the beach was lined with palm trees. It was only when I got out of the water that I noticed I was bleeding after cutting my leg on submerged rocks.

Boat to Nguna
Gap volunteers boarding the boat to Nguna

When we got to Malaliu, we were welcomed into the club house (a big central hut) one by one. The village children placed garlands of flowers round our necks while the older villagers sang a welcoming song. We were then introduced to our host families, and shown around. In the centre of the village was a huge grassy clearing where the kids play football. Next to that was the club house, and around it were the huts that house Malaliu's hundred or so residents, along with a small shop, church, kava bar, medical dispensary and payphone. Huge shady trees were scattered about, and friendly dogs, aggressive chickens, and cockerels with no sense of what time of day it waswandered freely around the village. The house in which I stayed was basic but quite comfortable, although the bathroom was a shack behind it with a bucket of cold water which we filled from a nearby rainwater tank, and the toilet was another shack with a stinking pit underneath.

There was no electricity in the village so everyone got up at dawn and went to bed soon after dusk. Meals were eaten communally in the club house: pastries and bread with pineapple jam on for breakfast, and rice, beans, pasta and strange vegetables for lunch and dinner - the same every day. Normally large amounts of soft fruit grow on Nguna, but a recent cyclone has destroyed many of the crops. I did, however, spend a large part of the week chewing on bits of coconut and sugar cane offered to me by the villagers.

As darkness fell, before dinner, most of the volunteers would gather in the kava bar. Kava, a traditional drink made from narcotic roots, is served in small bowls for 50 vatu (£0.25) each, which you are expected to down in one go. It is greyish-brown and the taste is indescribably foul - something like damp compost. However, if you can drink the stuff without being physically sick (several of the volunteers couldn't), the effect is not that bad. As you drink it your mouth and lips go slightly numb. You then get light-headed and have difficulty walking straight. However, you can still think perfectly clearly. I never had more than three "shells" of kava at a time - only enough to have a mild effect - but Slick (another of the volunteers) developed a real taste for the stuff and spent most of the evenings completely stoned on it. The locals loved this, especially our host "father", who kept popping out at us from corners to say, "You want'em drink kava?". The locals were making an effort to speak Bislama (the local pidgin) to us so that we learned the language. However, amongst themselves they spoke a strange Ngunese language.

On the second day we climbed the hill that overlooks Malaliu. The long-dead volcano that presumably created Nguna has partially collapsed, leaving two hills with a mile-wide, bowl-shaped, jungle-filled crater in between. We climbed the southern hill, Mount Marow, and from the top we could look down into the crater. From Malaliu the top of Mt Marow looked smooth and grassy. It was, but the grass was metre-high and slashed at my bare legs. The view from the top was worth it, though - you could see out across tens of miles of small islands, rocks, coral reefs, and the vast ocean.

On Saturday our host father took us to the "garden". I had expected to see neat rows of vegetables like in England, but the gardens on Nguna are more like patches of jungle. Tall coconut palms grow overhead, in between them are bananas, and between these are taro (an impressive root vegetable with giant leaves several feet long) and manioc (cassava). Our host father dug some kava roots up, took them home, and made us all some homebrew, which tasted better than the kava from the bar although it was definitely stronger. On the way we stopped to have a drink out of a coconut. It's amazing how much liquid they hold, and four of us couldn't finish one even though we were hot and thirsty.

With clear air, warm tropical breezes, and no artificial lighting of any kind, nights on Nguna are fantastic. There are vivid constellations that I've never been able to see from Britain, and every wisp and spiral of the Milky Way is visible. On some nights I stayed up until around midnight (which is very late by Nguna standards) with Janice, a Northern Irish volunteer, lying on the grass and looking up at the sky. We saw shooting stars, enormous flying foxes flapping overhead, and a yellow moonrise behind the palm trees.

On the final night there was a leaving ceremony, at which there was singing and dancing. The music was provided by a local string band who seemed to know only one tune but put several sets of words to it, including the catchy local hit "Island dress" and an almost unrecognisable rendition of "My bonny lies over the ocean". (This was perhaps a tactless thing to sing to a group who have just left their friends and families and gone to spend several months on the other side of the world, but nobody seemed to mind.) A pig was killed and roasted, and the club house was decorated with flowers and palm fronds. By the gloomy light of the two small gas lamps it looked like something out of a picture book. We were all given gifts by our host families - I got a sunhat with my name sewn in it and an elaborately-carved ornamental wooden club.

We returned to Vila after a lovely 7 a.m. walk through the jungle, followed by a fantastic ride perched on the front of a speedboat with the blue Pacific splashing at our feet.

 

13 September

[In Vanuatu, where the clocks are far ahead of New York time, most of the events that the world remembers as "September 11th" occurred in the early hours of September 12th.]

Yesterday morning I was told about the terrorist attacks on America by two fellow volunteers returning from a trip down town. At first I thought they were joking. I watched the horrific pictures later that morning on the widescreen TV in the air-conditioned upstairs lounge of Club Vanuatu.

In Vila Bay, about 300 metres (1000 ft) offshore, is a small island called Iririki, housing a luxurious holiday resort. Visitors can get the ferry across and use the outdoor swimming pool for free, so yesterday afternoon that's what Janice and I did. The island is absolute paradise, with a shady 20-minute walk around and stunning views back across the bay to Vila. There are palm trees and bananas and the undergrowth is full of sensitive plants whose red-tinged leaves all close up when you kick them.

"Wow, it's just like being on a tropical island," said Janice, before realising that it was a tropical island.

We met two of the other volunteers for happy hour in the cocktail bar, followed by a swim. The outdoor pool is on a terrace above the sea, overlooking Vila, with cool breezes and the chance to see the sun set across the bay.

 

20 September

After a couple more days in the relative luxury of Port Vila, five other voluntters and I set off for the island of Pentecost, our home for the next two or three months. The little 20-seater plane took about 50 minutes to reach the island, passing over Efaté and along the coasts of Epi and Ambrym islands. Sadly much of the scenery, including Ambrym's giant active volcanoes, was obscured by cloud. Soon Pentecost was looming out of the mist: a wall of jungle, with its high mountaintops concealed in clouds. The plane lined up about a mile off the coast, turned round, and seemingly nose-dived into the airfield. Lachlan, the Australian volunteer teacher who came to meet us, told us later that it was the roughest landing he'd ever seen. The plane shook up and down as it plummeted earthwards, touched down, and bounced back into the air off the rough field. Inside the cabin there was a beeping noise that sounded scarily like an alarm. Eventually the plane settled, we got out, and were handed our bags out of the tiny cargo space in the back of the plane. The plane lifted off again (bound for another airfield in the north of the island), and we scrambled into the back of a pick-up truck for the 6-mile (11 km) journey up the coast to Ranwadi.

The main road along the coast of Pentecost is little more than a pair of dirty wheel ruts, and in several places the truck had to make its way through deep, fast flowing rivers. There are no bridges. The truck bounced and swerved on the rough road, and the low branches of spectacular tropical trees swiped at our heads.

Ranwadi School
Part of Ranwadi School (our house is on the left)

Ranwadi School itself is located on a steep, grassy hillside, hemmed in on one side by the sea and on the other sides by even steeper hillsides covered in lush vegetation. Headlands to either side of the school block the view along the coast of Pentecost, but across the bay Ambrym's two massive active volcanoes can be seen, and on clear days there are the hills of Malekula Island in the far distance. On some mornings clouds of steam can be seen spewing from the volcanoes, and at night the vents glow deep red. It's a weird experience to look out of your bedroom window and seeing an erupting volcano.

The house that Slick and I share consists of a small kitchen area, a living area, a bedroom, and a filthy, dark little bathroom with a toilet and shower. "Abandon hope all ye who enter here," somebody has scribbled on the bathroom wall. The shower is reasonable (it's cold, of course, but in this climate that's no bad thing), and the toilet will at least flush (although you have to chuck in a bucket of water to make it do so). The tap water is dirty and unsafe to drink, but fortunately Noel the New Zealander has a rainwater tank that we can drink out of. On wet days it's easier simply to stick a jug of water out of the front door and collect the run-off from the roof, but this water has a nasty metallic taste.

On Saturday night Slick awoke to find a rat in his bed. The next day we sealed all the holes in the bedroom walls with parcel tape, and set a trap - an evil contraption that snapped shut on two of my fingers while we were trying to set it. Luckily the wire was blunt. Since then we've caught two rats, and heard several more scuttling about at night.

The beach below Ranwadi is beautiful - a mixture of sand and coral fringed by jungle and covered with shells that occasionally get up and walk about. (Closer inspection reveals that they have hermit crabs inside.) Sometimes there are people fishing off the coast in dugout canoes. It has rained heavily for much of the time since we arrived at Pentecost, including one thunderstorm and some spectacular tropical downpours. Most of the time it's merely light drizzle, though, which is quite refreshing in this climate. It's surprising how quickly I've got used to the heat. On one afternoon I thought it felt chilly indoors, looked at the thermometer, and saw that it was still 27°C (81°F).

I'm teaching two main subjects - Year 11 Economics and Year 7 Science. The first couple of Economics lessons were awful: the students listened attentively and copied down what I wrote on the board, but they wouldn't say a word to me, even when asked a direct question such as "Have you finished?". However, on Wednesday I got out my monopoly money and we did a little role-playing which livened things up a bit. The main problem is that, for the students, English isn't a first or even a second language (they grow up with native Melanesian languages and then learn Bislama). Under the circumstances they do well, but teaching them in what is effectively a foreign language is nonetheless difficult.

The Science class, by contrast, is extremely enthusiastic. They're doing a topic on Measurement (very basic stuff) and all of their work is set out for them in workcards. The workcards make my life easier by eliminating the need for any serious lesson planning, although I do spend a lot of time before each lesson running around the school trying to lay my hands on the equipment that the workcards require. In the lessons themselves I dash about trying to help people get to grips with balances, weights and metre sticks. It's tiring, especially in the heat, but good fun.

Generally I teach two lessons per day. Even with preparation, marking, assisting students in the evenings, helping out around the school and domestic chores I have quite a lot of free time. Fortunately the beach is only two minutes' walk away and there is a good supply of books around the school, including a Bible which I'm determined to read from cover to cover while I'm here.

On Sunday morning, Slick and I walked up the coast to the village of Melsisi, together with Lachlan and his wife Marsha and a local teacher named Jeffry, to watch a First Communion ceremony. On the way we passed through deep green jungle; in one place a recent landslide had knocked huge boulders off the hillside and into the sea. The church is massive, but several pieces of the walls are missing following a recent earthquake, and the blue concrete pillars supporting the vast roof looked as though they could collapse at any moment.

In the afternoon there was traditional dancing. The dances lasted a long time, and it was often hard to make out what was going on because several things were happening at once. In once corner of the field was a group of women dressed up in red and yellow dancing around with sticks, in another was what appeared to be a Vanuatuan drag act (men dressed as women scrubbing one another). A mud-covered man wearing nothing but underpants and an ogre mask went around terrorising everybody. The centrepiece of the dance was a real live snake tied to a branch. The snake was small, presumably harmless (Vanuatu has no venomous snakes), completely immobilised and a long way from the audience, yet it terrified most of the onlookers.

 

26 September

On Friday I had the afternoon free, so I walked down to the airfield at Lonorore. It's 6 miles (11 km) away but the walk is fantastic, with the road running along the shady, palm-covered coastal plain of the island. On the way I met quite a few local people and got to practise my Bislama. It was pretty much the same conversation in every village. "Hello." "You go where?" "Me go 'long Lonorore." "You teach 'long Ranwadi?" "Yes." I stopped for a rest at a beach on the way back and saw a big brown dolphin swimming in the shallows just beyond the reef.

On Saturday we walked up to the waterfall about a mile south of Ranwadi. It is spectacular - a jungle river cascading over a steep cliff into the bottom of a deep green valley, at the bottom of which is a perfect natural swimming pool. It has a deep end, a shallow end, a gentle current, bubbles welling up from the bottom, and rocky ledges to dive off. To get in, you simply stand on a cliff two or three metres above the water's surface and jump. No salt, no chlorine, just clear mountain water.

The waterfall on Pentecost
Swimming in the waterfall near Ranwadi School

Teaching is stressful at times, but the students do seem to be learning what I'm teaching them. The job has its perks: this afternoon Slick brought some naughty students who'd failed to do their homework to the house, and they emptied our stinking dustbin for us.

 

1 October

On Thursday Slick managed to get his hands on a huge slab of fresh beef, and we had the girls round for a bit of a dinner party. The meat was delicious but incredibly tough (I spent half an hour chewing my first mouthful!). However, it was great to have proper meat after two weeks of living off 'Santo tinned meat', which looks and tastes like pet food unless you fry it with very large amounts of curry powder. Curry powder is one of the few seasonings available from the school store cupboard, and we add it to almost everything.

On Friday I walked to the village of Hotwata, 7 miles (11 km) down the coast, to see the hot springs there. A local villager showed me the location of the springs - really just a wet patch of rock with yellow and red mineral deposits on it and a faint smell of sulphur. The southern end of Pentecost is closer to the volcanoes of neighbouring Ambrym Island, and the sand and soil there are black with ash.

In the evening I went kava drinking at a local village with Slick, Jeffry, and Michael the cook. Jeffry visited England a few years ago and it was interesting to talk to him and hear what England is like from a ni-Vanuatu perspective. The nakamal (kava hut) was the kind of building you'd see reconstructed in a heritage museum - a wooden hut with a dirt floor, a thatched roof, and a wood fire smouldering in one corner. I had five 'shells' of kava there and didn't feel that bad, although when I staggered out to use the bush toilet I nearly fell in! Kava makes your eyes sensitive to light, so when someone struck a match in the room, it was like daylight, and the flash of Slick's camera went off like an H-bomb. The moonlight outside was luridly bright. We then went to a second village. Here I only had two kava shells, but they were much stronger and made me quite ill - it took me nearly twenty-four hours to recover.

The difference in cultures here continue to amaze me. Earlier today Slick showed a Year 12 student pictures of his girlfriend back in Derbyshire.

"Does your father know about your girlfriend?" asked the surprised student.

"Yes," he replied.

"And you're not getting married to her?! Your father doesn't mind this?" The look of shock on the student's face was remarkable. Apparently in rural Vanuatu people date in secret and don't announce that they have boyfriends and girlfriends until they're ready to marry. (Having a boyfriend or girlfriend is a very serious offence at the school here.) In some areas, arranged marriages are still common.

This week, Miss Mary the Science and Maths teacher is off in Vila so I'm covering some of her classes - Year 9 Science and one lesson of Year 8 Maths. The Year 9 Science class were doing an experiment with a burning candle and were amazingly well behaved, although they only had half a lesson today due to an unscheduled staff meeting that left the school completely teacher-less during 20 minutes of lesson time. The Year 8 Maths class this morning were also well behaved - they had been left some exercises and simply got on with them - although their classroom windows are missing most of their glass panels and gusts of wind kept blowing things around the room. As I made my way out of the room at the end a particularly violent gust hit the flamboyant tree overhead, and I was caught in a rain of giant seed pods and other woody missiles.

With the Year 7 Science class, I'm starting a new topic: Reproduction, Growth and Development. The workcard that they had to complete in this afternoon's lesson includes an experiment that was banned at the school I attended in England for hygiene reasons - scraping skin cells from inside your cheek to view under a microscope. The lesson wasn't a great success - the spatulas the students had to use to scrape the cells off were covered in dirt and corrosion, the students had no idea how to use a microscope despite having assured me the previous week that they'd all used them before, and I emerged from the lesson with methylene blue dye all over my hands. Later workcards involve watching frogspawn develop, but Noel tells me there are no frogs on Pentecost so I'll have to find an alternative activity.

Animal life on Pentecost is dominated by the lizards. There are several kinds, including big black ones that scuttle away noisily as you walk along the road, and the little yellow wall geckoes that are ubiquitous throughout Vanuatu. The girls had a half-tame black lizard called Freddy living in their house, which they fed on bits of tinned tuna fish, but the other day he ran away. Flies, ants, and cockroaches are everywhere, of course. Most villages have dogs, pigs, chickens and ducks, and cows graze under the coconut palms. There are lots of crabs, many of which wander a long way inland (I woke one morning to find a large and vicious hermit crab scuttling around our house). On Friday as we were walking to the village one of our companions pointed to something in the undergrowth and started shouting "Crap! Crap!" excitedly. It took me a while to remember that in Bislama they don't distinguish between 'B' and 'P' sounds.

The plants of Pentecost are fantastic - there is a flamboyant tree overhanging our house, and all along the roadside there are sensitive plants that play dead by collapsing when poked. There are coconut palms everywhere, and in several places along the road to Lonorore there are majestic banyan trees with vines and Swiss cheese plants growing up their trunks.

I gave the Economics students a test on Friday. They seem to understand the economics itself quite well but in some cases their English lets them down. Later this term I may set aside a week or two and spend it teaching them relevant bits of English instead of economics, otherwise they'll lose marks in their final exams next year.

 

8 October

Today has been one of those days. I tried to get the truck down to Lonorore to sort out some plane tickets but because it had rained the rivers were too high for the truck to get through and the plane wasn't landing anyway. I went for a swim earlier but the waterfall was brown and muddy because the rain had washed dirt into the river. Slick borrowed the flight timetable that I got from Air Vanuatu, and lost it. No post has come since last Wednesday because of last Friday's holiday and the plane not landing today. Having been told not to talk so much, the Year 7 Science students have taken to drumming on their desks instead.

Yesterday, Michael the cook, who now refers to Slick as his "brother" turned up at the house first thing in the morning witha roasted pig's head. Later, Slick and one of the year 12s pulled apart the disgusting thing, dripping in lard, and ate bits of it. I'm sorely tempted to put what's left on a stick outside, in Lord of the Flies style.

 

12 October

Yesterday we had a staff meeting, which was a good opportunity to marvel at the differences between Ranwadi and a Western school. One of the items on the agenda was a student who had disappeared for a week and a half without trace, then returned and settled back into lessons as normal.

"Maybe I'll talk to him about it," suggested the Deputy Principal half-heartedly.

Later in the meeting I was laughed at for politely suggesting that the school should do something about the rat problem in their kitchens.

In the evening we went for a swim in the waterfall at sunset. It was cold but wonderfully refreshing, and as we made our way back around the headland to Ranwadi we saw a bright firefly hovering in front of us. Ranwadi School, with its electricity now fully working, shines out brightly from the dark jungle surrounding it.

Sunset from Ranwadi School
Sunset from Ranwadi School

On Wednesday I walked three miles (5 km) to the bank in Melsisi, to get some cash out for paying for inter-island flights, only to be told that "we've got no money today". Fortunately I'm able to reserve seats by phone and pay later.

 

14 October

Today Lachlan and I went for a bike ride down the coast. The roads on Pentecost are appalling to cycle on - it's like off-road biking except that it's on the road. I had to ride on just about every unpleasant surface you could imagine - sand, grass, gravel, rocks, mud, fallen leaves - as well as negotiating hazards such as fallen coconuts, rocks, chickens, ducks, children, streams, dilapidated cattle grids, and so on. There were also the many rivers to get through. One village, called Pangi, has a mad preacher who comes out on Sundays to scream about Jesus at the top of his voice, and one of the largest village stores I've seen in Vanuatu - it not only had a freezer with cold drinks in, it even sold ketchup. Needless to say, I stocked up.

The people in all the villages along the coast are always friendly, and wave or shout 'Hello" as you go past. In one village, a group of children came and raced alongside our bikes (which wasn't difficult for them, considering the surface we were riding on). In another, Lachlan met a guy he used to know from Ranwadi and we were brought a bucketful of cool raspberry squash to drink.

If the news stories I've heard about anthrax-filled letters are true, I'm in the safest place in the world. There has been no post here for nearly two weeks.

 

18 October

Today I was woken up at 6 a.m. by kids singing outside my window. I taught three periods of class in the morning an Economics lesson on the effects of tariffs and subsidies on supply and demand, followed by a double Science lesson on how chickens develop inside eggs. Teaching is going OK now - the Year 7s are a lot more controllable, following a recent crackdown on school discipline, and the Year 11s are actually starting to ask questions instead of staring at me dumbly when they don't understand what I'm saying.

At lunchtime Slick and I went snorkelling on the reef below the school. It's amazing what a variety of underwater landscapes there are in the mile-long bay surrounding Ranwadi. In some places the flat seabed slopes gently away, amidst occasional outcrops of coral; in others there is a sharp cliff where the reef ends abruptly, with only deep blue ocean beyond. Some parts of the reef have deep underwater canyons, and as you pass over these the water temperature (which is as warm as a heated swimming pool in the shallows) drops several degrees in the space of just a few feet, producing a weird chilling sensation. On a couple of occasions I dived down into the canyons, with the water pressure squashing the snorkel mask against my face and big brown fish scattering into the shadows. Fortunately we didn't see any really big fish (though shark stories abound on Pentecost), but the variety of smaller ones was amazing - white worm-like ones, iridescent shining blue ones, yellow and black striped ones, deep red ones. The corals, too, were beautiful - there were honeycombs, finger-like branches, and convoluted shapes like giant brains stuck to the rocks.

Later that afternoon it was off to the waterfall to wash off the salt. The day before, we had met one of the villagers who showed us that we could swim right behind the thundering waterfall itself. Today we had the pool to ourselves. On the way back we stopped off at Waterfall Village to pick up two chickens that Slick had arranged to buy for Marsha's birthday dinner tonight. We sat for a while with the villagers on the grass under the palm trees, outside the little thatched stick huts, talking in Bislama and eating laplap off green banana leaves. We walked back to the school around sunset, accompanied by one of the villagers and a large basket that clucked and squawked occasionally.

 

21 October

I've nearly finished sorting out the school's dilapidated computer room. It now has two old but fully-working computers, one half-working computer (the screen is discoloured, the mouse and the disk drive don't work and I get an electric shock whenever I touch the back), one ancient computer that only shows a blank screen, a few typewriters, and an assortment of other equipment. The two working computers are a great discovery - it means I can give the kids longer computing lessons and it also means I can type up letters and e-mails at leisure, rather than having to compete with the other teachers for precious time on the office computer.

Yesterday I took a break from tidying the computer room and went for a walk down on the beach, where I was greeted by one of the Year 11 students in an outrigger canoe made from a dugout log. Lots of ni-Vanuatu have these canoes; once upon a time they were the main means of transport between islands but nowadays they're used mainly for fishing and leisure. This one belonged to the school boarding master. I was invited aboard the canoe and given the chance to paddle. We saw another student armed with a fearsome speargun which he'd borrowed from one of the staff (the teachers here think nothing of lending weapons to their students), and he came aboard. I then got the opportunity to try some fishing, although I didn't catch much.

The road to Melsisi
The road to Melsisi

Today I went for a twenty-mile (32 km) walk up in the mountains. I went through Melsisi, Hubiku and Tansip and some way beyond, almost to the eastern side of the island. Beyond Melsisi the road goes up the longest, steepest hill I've ever seen. Taking a truck up this stretch of road "has much to recommend it if you want an adrenaline rush", says the guidebook. Yes, and if you try it on foot it has much to recommend it if you want to train to be an Olympic athlete. Getting down was nearly as bad - this is one of the few stretches of road on the whole island that actually has concrete on it and I had to take tiny steps the whole way down to avoid using my sandals as skis on the smooth surface, which is lubricated with a slimy layer of moss.

It was worth the climb, however - the view from the top was spectacular. Higher up into the mountains, I left most of the coconut palms and villages behind and got to some primeval-looking forest, with tree ferns and huge banyan trees. Unfortunately it began to rain torrentially, turning the roads into rivers, and the river at Melsisi (which had been a mere trickle that morning) into a raging brown torrent. Last month three Melsisi children drowned in a flash flood at this spot. Fortunately one of the villagers, who was playing football on the field by the river, came up to me and reminded me that there was a bridge a little way upstream.

 

23 October

This morning a ship laden with supplies arrived at Ranwadi, so it's Christmas! Eggs, cheese, biscuits, chocolate, fruit cordial, more ketchup - all the things we've been longing for over the past month are suddenly stacked high in the school store.

Yesterday my Science class brought flowers to class to study. In addition to the flowers they were supposedto be investigating, they also came adorned with flowers in their hair and their uniforms - they all looked comical. Unfortunately it was only a matter of time before the flowers started to be thrown about the room, and the class got overexcited, leading me to warn that the next person who threw anything would get a detention (a fairly big deal at Ranwadi, since detentions accumulate towards more serious punishments). Sadly the next person who did throw something was a good student and not generally a troublemaker, but in the interests of maintaining authority and discipline I had to fulfil my threat. The poor guy then got upset and left the lesson without permission, creating a further discipline problem. The situation was resolved in the end, though - I asked him to come and see me afterwards, I explained my position and he apologised for leaving my lesson.

In Monday's Economics lesson, studying countries' current accounts, I made several careless arithmetic mistakes on the board. However, the encouraging thing was that the kids corrected me, which shows not only that they understand what I'm trying to teach them but that their confidence has improved a lot since the start of the term. The Principal is very keen to encourage a more modern style of teaching at Ranwadi, in which kids interact more with their teachers rather than simply being lectured, which is one of the reasons that the school welcomes expatriate teachers.

 

26 October

The Wednesday plane managed to land in spite of the wet weather, and four volunteers from other islands - Janice, Beth, Ellie and Catherine - came to visit. Unfortunately Slick had a terrible ear infection and had to get the plane to hospital in Vila. I hear that he is recovering well, now that he's in the hands of people who can provide proper treatment instead of giving him "random drugs" in the hope that he'll get better.

Last night Beth, Janice and I went out to the nakamal at one of the nearby villages. Beth and I only had three kava shells each, but they were gigantic ones and we both felt pretty bad the next morning. (Janice sensibly refused to drink kava following a bad experience on Nguna.) Beth still looks ill. However, we had a good time socialising with the locals, who told us, amongst other things, that one of the men in the nakamal could cure AIDS using traditional medicines. [This was clearly an untested claim, since at the time there had never been a reported case of AIDS in Vanuatu. The disease officially arrived in the country in 2002, the year after my visit.]

 

29 October

Although the weather last week started off foul, the past few days have been gloriously sunny. Beth, Janice and I went snorkelling on the reef, walked up the hill behind the school, swam in the waterfall, and went on a day trip to Melsisi and climbed the hill there. It was a clear blue day and the views from the top of Melsisi Hill were even better than last time. We lay for ages on a cool palm-covered mountainside at the top, looking down. We could see all the jungles and beaches of south-western Pentecost, right down to the tip of the island, as well as the gently-steaming volcanoes of Ambrym and the more distant islands of Lopevi, Malekula and Ambae.

On Friday night the year 12s invited us to their pre-exam party. All of the teachers with year 12 classes had to give a 'motivational speech' at the start, and since Slick (who teaches Year 12 Development Studies) was away, Jeffry asked me to give a speech in his place. The event was held in the dining hall, which turns into quite a zoo in the evenings, with moths the size of starlings fluttering in and out, cockroaches everywhere, and a colossal rat that interrupted the headmaster's speech by running along the top of the wall behind him. After the speeches there was chocolate cake, and a chance for some of the teachers to talk to Beth and Janice about Rensarie, their own school. With only a few real secondary schools in the entire country the schools are generally very familiar with each other, and there turned out to be a surprising number of both teachers and students here who have spent time at Rensarie.

With its weird customs and giant bats swooping around at night, Ranwadi often reminds me of something out of Harry Potter. However, the Hogwarts atmosphere is clearly even stronger at Rensarie, where they have been known to use sorcery in order to punish the kids. Recently the pipe carrying water to Rensarie School was repeatedly vandalised, and after failing to catch the culprit by earthly methods, the school called in the local holy man to persuade the Almighty to punish the guilty party. A notice written in Bislama, which Beth showed me a copy of, warned that the matter was out of the school's hands now and whoever did it was going to be made very, very sorry for their actions.

Pentecost is enjoying a glut of mangoes at the moment. All over the island, trees are laden with them, and the school has declared a free-for-all on the mangoes growing around Ranwadi. As we were walking to Melsisi on Saturday we were twice given juicy fresh mangoes by villagers returning from fruit picking.

"Hello! Have a mango. Goodbye!"

We sat and ate them in Melsisi Gorge down by the river, underneath Pentecost's one and only bridge, so that we could wash the sticky juice from our hands and faces.

On Sunday, Beth, Janice and I tried making laplap, which proved to be quite a day's work. First of all, we bought some yams from Richard - Michael the cook's brother - at Waterfall Village, cracked open a couple of coconuts, borrowed a huge metal grater from Charles the woodwork teacher, gathered the huge green laplap leaves (actually, got two year 7s to gather them for us in exchange for some biscuits), and collected firewood. The best place to look for the firewood turned out to be under the mango trees that the kids had been pelting all week with rocks and sticks. We stripped the midribs from the giant laplap leaves and left them to dry in the sun to make the twine with which the laplap would later be bound. We peeled the yams and grated them into a mushy paste. We then grated the coconuts, using an evil-looking tool that I found in our cupboard, and squeezed them in water to make coconut milk. We lit a fire in the bush kitchen (the corrugated metal shack behind our house) and put rocks on it to heat up. The yam paste and coconut milk were mashed together and wrapped up in a bundle of laplap leaves, tied with the twine. This was then put in the embers of the fire and covered with hot rocks. There was no wind and our eyes were streaming inside the smoky bush kitchen, but fortunately we had some help from some of the year 12 girls who seemed immune to the effects of the smoke. After an hour we removed the bundle from the fire, opened it up, and ate the contents, which was now a delicious chewy slab.

This morning, when Beth, Janice and I were sitting on the beach at Lonorore waiting for the plane to take them back to Malekula, some villagers walked past with a huge hairy pig on a lead. They tied the pig to a tree nearby and left. I did my best to take a photo, but the pig turned out to be camera-shy and hid in a bush when I approached.

 

31 October

The school is currently preparing madly for its big Graduation Day ceremony on Saturday. The students have been sent out to sweep and clean the entire school - not merely the buildings, but the whole grounds. There are students wandering across the lawns sweeping them with crude brooms made from twigs bound together, clipping bushes, picking up rubbish, and filling the whole valley with smoke from their bonfires.

 

2 November

Slick told me on the phone that he would definitely be back today, and I went to meet him at the airfield. The plane turned up - two and half hours late - but Slick wasn't on it.

Lots of people and supplies were coming to Ranwadi for the graduation. I shared the back of the truck back from Lonorore with several people, heaps of vegetables, a live cockerel, some vicious-looking (and also very much alive) crabs, and piles of parcels that were thrown around as the driver sped along the awful Pentecost roads. But no mail for us, unfortunately.

 

3 November

Today was Graduation Day. It began with a speech-giving and prize-giving ceremony lasting no less than five hours (in tropical heat, sitting in a room full of sweaty bodies). About halfway through I gave up trying to listen attentively and got out a magazine; nobody seemed to notice. There were speeches (mostly in Bislama) from the headmaster, the assistant to the Minister of Education, a prominent local chief, the chairman of the school board and several others. The chapel was decorated in the way that people here usually decorate buildings on special occasions, which essentially means hacking down as much of the jungle as possible and bringing it indoors.

The huge lunch afterwards was worth waiting for. I didn't have much of the chicken or the roast pig (an entire pig, laid out on the table) - I've lost the taste for fresh meat since coming here - but I dived into the fresh pineapple slices, chocolate cake and five flavours of laplap. Before we started eating, there were further short speeches and prize-givings. All of the volunteerteachers were presented with lovely hand-woven mats dyed with red patterns - a Pentecost tradition. This evening I was also approached by a local child bearing a big slab of laplap - a gift to us from some of the parents.

After lunch, I helped Lachlan and Noel demonstrate digital cameras and computer games to some fascinated locals. In spite of all the fuss, only a handful of parents turned up to Graduation Day (many of them live on other islands and can ill-afford transport), but some of the local villagers came to make up the numbers.

 

4 November

The following e-mail, which I received earlier this evening, solved the mystery of Slick's whereabouts...

"Just been released from the hospital ward. I've had blood poisoning and have been in a hospital bed for the past few days with a drip hanging from my arm! Typical! Anyway, as long as I'm OK tomorrow I will return. Sorry, the hospital were supposed to let you know, but obviously didn't! ... I can't believe my luck."

 

6 November

Slick returned yesterday. He seems well again and he's gone straight back into his old kava-drinking routine, to the disgust of many of his colleagues, who are convinced that it was the kava that made him ill in the first place.

Slick disagrees. "I didn't pour the stuff in my ear," he points out.

The same plane that brought Slick back also brought the school some delicious, creamy chocolate ice cream - a rare treat, which was supposed to come on Friday in time for Graduation Day.

Ranwadi School
View down to Ranwadi School from a nearby ridge

Slick showed me the path leading right up to the top of the waterfall. Steep and challenging doesn't quite describe it - I felt like Jill of the Jungle, scrambling up slopes, hanging on vines, clambering across rocks, crawling across ledges, and generally climbing and jumping around a three-dimensional environment worse than any computer game. To make matters worse, I can never resist looking down. The pool at the top is fantastic, though. It is like a giant cauldron a few metres across, with overhanging cliffs around it and a 'lid' of branches and vines. At the top end, the river cascades in through a ferocious channel. We got into the pool by standing here with our legs straddling the channel and jumping the three or four metres (10 ft) down into the pool. It is like a Jacuzzi, swimming pool, bathtub and power shower combined into one. At the shallower bottom end the water spills out of the pool and into a serious of lower pools and channels that lead eventually to the top of the main waterfall. The whole network of pools, falls and channels is in a narrow, secluded gorge that the water has cut through the jungle-covered hillside. At the precipitous lower end of the gorge, where the water cascades over the main waterfall, there are spectacular views down to the sea.

 

8 November

Everybody at school is now in an end-of-term mood. The students don't want to work and don't expect to be forced to, and have mostly finished their prescribed work for the year, anyway. Even though there are supposed to be two weeks of term left, the kids (and some of the teachers) will soon start boarding ships and heading back to their home islands. Even the headmaster has admitted that there's no point in us hanging around during the final week.

Yesterday two New Zealanders came to interview Noel on behalf of VSA, the New Zealand volunteer organisation that sent Noel to Vanuatu. They wanted to try the local kava so Albion the Agriculture teacher, Michael the cook, Slick and I took them down to Vanwoki village.

The two New Zealanders talked to the locals in complicated, flowery English, the locals nodded blankly - scarcely comprehending a word - and the New Zealanders assumed that they understood perfectly.

"Isn't it amazing how the people here all speak such good English?", one of them said to me afterwards. On one occasion one of the New Zealanders managed to use the words "cerebral", "hypnotic", "mesmerising" and "marijuana" all in one sentence (describing the effect of the kava). Even I had difficulty understanding them!

"Have you ever been to New Zealand?", one of them asked Michael.

Michael nodded dumbly.

"Oh really, whereabouts?"

Blank look.

"Auckland?"

Another meaningless nod.

"That's quite remarkable, what did you think of the place?"

Michael stared at them.

"I suppose you found the hustle and bustle of urban living quite a contrast from your usual routine on Pentecost?"

"Yes," said a completely bewildered Michael.

The conversation went on like this for some time. Michael, as far as I know, has never left Vanuatu.

After a while one of the New Zealanders settled down to talk to me about British politics. He was actually an intelligent bloke and it was nice being able to have a conversation in fluent English for a change. The other one carried on drinking, became progressively more stoned, and staggered around the nakamal amidst friendly laughter from the locals. (They laughed even more when, with typical clumsiness, I stood up underneath the paraffin lantern, bashing my head and scattering wild shadows around the room.) Eventually I showed the two New Zealanders the way back to Ranwadi. They didn't have torches, and I only had my puny blue LED keyring light, but one of them had an expensive camera that he set to "strobe light" mode. The three of us must have looked ridiculous, staggering back through the jungle amidst disco-like lighting.

The other night we were kept awake by the sound of the school pastor preaching a loud sermon to himself in a pitch black, empty chapel. Nobody knows why. It was very odd. Last week, a student had an epileptic fit, and the teachers rushed to hold him down so that they could administer treatment - in the form of an exorcism. When I told one of my Year 11 Economics students that I was planning to go to Ambrym she told me (in a very serious tone) to beware of the black magic there. This place reminds me more and more of Hogwarts every day. The other day I saw a gigantic fruit bat flying across the full moon, as if on a Halloween poster. I even have my own Goblet of Fire now - a oil-filled wine glass with a floating candle burning in it, which I carry around the house after lights go out. (The school's electricity generator is switched off at 9.30 every evening.)

Last weekend we began to notice that our drinking water tasted funny. Eventually other people noticed too, and Noel's tank was inspected. Three dead rats and a crab were found rotting inside. We're now drinking water from another tank further down the hill.

 

12 November

Last Friday a traditional wedding was taking place in the village of Vanrasini in eastern Pentecost. Michael the cook was going, and he took Slick and I to spend a weekend on the far side of the island. We set off early on Friday morning, and walked at a terrific pace. By lunchtime we had covered eight miles (13 km) or so and climbed high into the mountains to the village of Tansip, in the centre of the island, where we had lunch (a slab of delicious laplap).

Beyond Tansip we climbed even higher, up into the lush, misty cloud forests that blanket the island's interior. Unfortunately the road, which up until then had been quite reasonable by Pentecost standards, began to deteriorate. By the time we had started to descend towards Vanrasini we were squelching and sliding through thick mud, grasping frantically onto trees and vines to steady ourselves as we made our way down. We had to travel two or three miles in this way, and descend several hundred metres from the mountain. Once my sandals had filled with thick mud, my feet began to slip and slide around, even on good stretches of path. By the time we finally emerged from the path I was caked in brown mud, and my feet were chafed and bleeding from a combination of sandal straps, sharp twigs and leeches (which Michael insisted on ripping off me as soon as he saw them).

It was a considerable relief when we finally arrived at Vanrasini, which is a surprisingly large and well-kept village, in spite of its terrible isolation. We had missed the wedding service, but we got to see the marriage being paid for, in a confusing ceremony in which piglets were lined up and names were called out. Eastern Pentecost is full of pigs; they wander sociably around the villages like fat, bristly dogs.

There was a celebratory atmosphere in the village, and the kava was flowing freely. The village had the most enormous nakamal I'd ever seen. Like at many places in Pentecost, young boys traditionally sleep in the nakamal, and at Vanrasini their beds were suspended from the ceiling in a way that made the place look like an adventure playground, or like something out of Peter Pan. I was given quite a lot of kava, and even when we left the nakamal and sat on the grassy slope outside, someone came out to us with a bottle of the stuff. (Kava is a repulsive colour and shouldn't be served in glass bottles.) There was a string band playing and the women were dancing.

Vanrasini is home to relatives of Silas Buli, Ranwadi's principal, so when the villagers found out where we'd come from we were made very welcome. A young woman introduced to us as Silas's sister cooked us food and provided us with a place to sleep (mattresses on the floor of an empty concrete building). Vanrasini is quite sophisticated in a primitive sort of way - the village has a proper shower (the water tank must be a long way up the mountain, as the water pressure is intense), and a bush toilet built over a flowing stream.

Vanrasini
Vanrasini, on the eastern side of Pentecost

The next day we had breakfast - cold tinned fish on a huge heap of rice - and then rested after the previous day's walk. As I sat and paddled my feet in the stream (upstream from the bush toilet) I was greeted by a man named Norbert (pronounced the French way) from a village down the coast. He had visited western Pentecost a few weeks ago and met Slick while out drinking kava, and he invited Michael, Slick and I to come and stay Saturday night at his village of Lalwok, from which a much shorter path would take us back over the mountains to Ranwadi the following morning. We gladly agreed - we'd both been dreading the return walk - and set off southwards along the coast.

At first the path to Lalwok was just as bad as the one we'd come down the previous day, although a boy who was with us cut me a long pole to use as a walking stick, which helped me to avoid sliding down the steep bits. After a while we had descended right to the east coast itself - a rugged and beautiful place. Whereas the waters to the west of Pentecost are almost completely enclosed by surrounding islands, on the eastern side of Pentecost the full force of the Pacific Ocean batters against the island. It wasn't a particularly rough day, yet colossal white waves were swelling and crashing against the rocks.

The path southwards along the coast was flat and didn't seem terribly perilous, yet Norbert and Michael found it strangely frightening. In one place Norbert picked some leaves and insisted that we carry them in our pockets. As we passed through a swampy area of land, hopping between stones and logs, we were warned not to spit in the water, and as we walked Norbert muttered something under his breath in his native language. He later explained to us that there was an invisible ghost village in the swamp, and that he was asking its residents to allow us a safe passage through.

Norbert's village is a long way off the beaten track. The people there could only remember ever having had two white visitors before, so our visit meant a lot to them. Down at the nakamal, in between shells of intensely strong kava, the chief gave a welcome speech in Bislama, thanking us for coming. He explained that the children of the village had never seen white people before, and that meeting us was therefore a valuable experience for them.

Norbert introduced us to his grandfather, who was the oldest and most frail person I've ever seen - he barely even seemed alive. We were told that he was over a hundred years old, but nobody knew his exact age because his date of birth was never recorded. Norbert asked Slick to take a photo of his grandfather, and he obliged, terrified that the flash would finish the old man off.

That night we slept in Norbert's thatched wooden hut, lying on mattresses on top of dried palm leaves that had been laid on the bare earth floor, while chickens and pigs rooted around outside. I was woken at dawn by the sounds of Norbert and his family lighting a fire and cooking another interesting breakfast - boiled yam, bananas, and bristly crabs that smelled of burning rubber. Slick and the villagers sat around nosily smashing open crab claws using rocks and coconut shells, while I nibbled quietly on a lump of yam.

Early the next morning we set off back over the mountains. As if he hadn't already been kind and generous enough to us, Norbert gave us each beautiful handmade baskets to take home. Norbert had intended to come with us, but instead he had to stay and prepare for his grandfather's funeral. (The old man wasn't dead yet, but he had foreseen his own death in a dream.) However, we were accompanied by several villagers who were carrying sacks of dried kava across the island to be sold. Ships rarely brave the awful conditions off Pentecost's east coast, so to earn money the people who live there must carry their produce on the steep, slippery paths over the mountains. It is an incredibly difficult life, and the people complain bitterly about the fact that the government has never built them a decent road. The path took us steeply up into the mountains, back into the gloomy cloud forests of Pentecost's interior, where greenery is everywhere and everything you touch drips with moisture like a sponge. We walked for several hours before we finally emerged on the mountainside above Ranwadi. I had never realised how high and steep the slopes above the school were, but as we looked down on the place I might as well have been in an aeroplane. There followed another steep descent, with the locals racing along (even those who had heavy sacks of kava on their backs) whilst I slipped and scrambled down the slopes, trying to keep up.

When we got back, we were delighted to discover that the students had saved us each a slice of cake from one of their end-of-term parties - and that the school had more chocolate ice cream. It had completely melted, so we ate it out of cups like chocolate mousse.

Slick has gone off to spend the week climbing the volcanoes on Ambrym, so I get the challenge of teaching a new subject - Year 7 Social Science. (I gladly volunteered to cover his classes while he's away, because I have very little to do at Ranwadi at the moment.) The work is straightforward just going through a textbook - but the kids are still in a Christmas holiday mood and although the Principal insists that lessons have to continue as normal for another week, it's very hard to make them work.

 

13 November

Although the school term doesn't officially finish for another two weeks, a ship came this morning and about three quarters of the students got on it and went home! Now teaching really has finished, and I'm left sitting around trying to write end-of-year reports. We have to give each student a grade, a mark for effort, a ranking in the class and a brief comment. For the Economics class this isn't too hard - there are only 23 of them and I have plenty of information (test scores and notes) to base it on. However, for the 39 science students whom I've only known for two months, I'm pretty stuck. I was hoping to collect in their books and write their reports on the basis of the work they've done this year, but since the majority of the students have now left I can't. They've done a couple of quick tests but nothing I can meaningfully use as the basis for a report. Comments aren't too much of a problem - in some cases there are things I want to say about the students, and for the others I can write that they've been making steady progress, which is presumably true if they've failed to catch my attention. However, there's no way I can fairly grade and rank them all. I refuse to simply make it up. Hopefully I can find some old marks from last term on which to base the reports.

 

16 November

Slick returned from Ambrym yesterday. He climbed the volcano, and found it spectacular, but unfortunately he hired a useless guide who took him down a forbidden path. At the end of an exhausting 13-hour walk, he found an angry chief waiting for him at the bottom, demanding a huge fine. Only after a lengthy Bislama argument did Slick manage to explain that the situation was not his fault, and get forgiven.

 

18 November

Tonight I'm going to Vanwoki to say goodbye to some of the villagers and have a final drink of Pentecost kava. Slick is already there, getting into his usual stupefied state. Now that school life has virtually stopped I've been spending every evening down at the nakamal, and really enjoyed it.

I'm sad to be leaving Ranwadi, although it'll be nice to be able to get some decent food on other islands. The supply situation here is atrocious at the moment - no bread, milk, flour, meat, noodles - in fact hardly anything at all, not even taro. Yesterday's lunch was rice and marmalade. Today we've run out of rice and run out of marmalade.

 

25 November

I left Pentecost on Monday morning aboard a cargo ship, the Tina 1. I waited for the ship on the beach, together with three of the other gap volunteers (who spent a night with me in Ambrym before flying out to Santo), Lachlan and Noel (who were going all the way down to Port Vila), some Ranwadi students who were catching the ship back to their home islands, and various villagers carrying sacks of kava roots to be taken on the ship. As the ship approached, some of the people on the beach lit a fire to attract its attention. The ship waited out at sea, and sent out a small flat-bottomed motorboat across the reef to pick us up (along with all the kava) and carry us aboard.

The Tina 1 is one of Vanuatu's better ships - it's not a complete rust bucket - and although guidebooks warn that ships are not the most comfortable way to travel the country I found the journey quite enjoyable. The lower decks of the ship were a mass of people, kava sacks, live sheep, boxes, and various other pieces of cargo, but fortunately Noel knew the ship's captain (an ageing New Zealand sailor), who let us sit on the upper balcony.

We had some wonderful views as the ship made its way southwards down the coast of Pentecost, past the waterfall, the airfield, the hot springs, 'Captain Cook's Rock' and finally the steep outcrop of cliffs that marks the southern tip of the island. As the boat sped along, it scattered flying fish in all directions, skimming across the water like mad paper planes. I had always imagined flying fish leaping out of the water and plopping straight back in, but in fact they really do fly, gliding effortlessly tens of metres across the surface of the water. We also saw two lazy turtles and a school of dolphins.

The volcanoes on Ambrym
The view of Ambrym's steaming volcanoes from Ranwadi

It took a couple of hours for the Tina 1 to cross the rough channel between Pentecost and Ambrym islands. Ambrym looked dark and foreboding, rising out of the mist. The island is dominated, geographically and culturally, by its two giant volcanoes, and the first thing that you notice about the island is that it is black. The roads, the rocks, the cliffs, the beaches, and the jungle floor are all stained and darkened with disgusting ash-laden volcanic dust. We stopped at a few villages in northern Ambrym, then headed down the long and totally uninhabited north-west coast, right underneath the two giant volcanoes. Great convoluted lava flows covered the tops of the mountains, sitting on top of the forested slopes below like icing on a cake. Above these were the two volcanoes themselves, steaming like giant puddings in the evening light. At about 8 p.m. we saw the faint electric lights of Craig Cove at the western end of the island.

Our arrival in the dark at Craig Cove on Ambrym reminded me of the scene from the end of Titanic - everybody scrambling into a smaller boat and moving away across the black ocean with the lights of the ship fading behind. (I nearly got left behind on the Tina 1, because someone had stowed my heavy rucksack on top of a high stack of dried kava sacks, from which I had to try and retrieve it.) We landed on a coal-black beach, where people were milling about in all directions and a thousand individually-numbered watermelons were lined up on the beach waiting for shipment to Vila. The three other volunteers and I staggered up the beach with our luggage, trying to avoid tripping over the watermelons, and found the owner of the local guesthouse. This was a basic hostel-style place, fairly adequate except that the only source of water was a rainwater tankfilled with green scum. (Fortunately I had my chlorinating tablets with me.)

The next day, the three girls left on a plane for Santo, and I explored Craig Cove. By daylight, it is a fairly attractive place with an almost Scottish feel to it - a little sheltered bay fringed by black volcanic rocks. Sticking out of the water was the rusting, cyclone-battered wreck of the MV Saraika - formerly one of the main trading boats that travelled around Vanuatu. Sadly I didn't have time to climb Ambrym's famous volcanoes, but I did have a good wander around Craig Cove, before leaving the next day to go and see Janice and Beth on Malekula island.

In an outrigger canoe
In the outrigger canoe with Mark on Malekula island

Rensarie School, where Janice and Beth teach, is surprisingly modern. It has smart, new-lookingbuildings, built on a flat grassy area surrounded by coconut plantations, totally unlike the jungle-covered mountainside of Pentecost. Janice and Beth's white concrete house looks more like a Spanish holiday villa than a typical Vanuatu residence. It even has a fridge. I met an Australian teacher, who took me kava-drinking down at the local village, and two American Peace Corps volunteers, who invited us to their Thanksgiving dinner. I also met a local villager who took Janice and I on his outrigger canoe. It was a rough day and when all three of us tried to get on the canoe the waves swamped and sank it. Luckily, this was only in shallow water and we managed to haul the canoe ashore and empty it out.

 

18 December

Before leaving Malekula, we spent a night on the little island of Uripiv, off Malekula's north-east coast. Uripiv, a mile-long strip of sand and greenery, is the kind of tropical island you'd see in adverts for coconut ice cream. In the afternoon Janice and I tried to swim around the island, but unfortunately it is surrounded by flat, shallow coral rocks (only about half a metre under the water) that extend hundreds of metres offshore. Where the sun had shone on these rocks, they had heated the water up to a surprising temperature. We thus had the surreal experience of sitting up in what felt like a hot bath, hundreds of metres out into the Pacific Ocean. However, trying to swim here without bashing ourselves on the sharp coral was a nightmare, and in the end we gave up swimming round Uripiv and headed back.

We returned to the mainland the next day and stayed the night with one of the American volunteers in Lakatoro (Malekula's largest settlement, located near the airfield). Two other gap volunteers are teaching at Lakatoro and took me out for yet more kava. This was a big night out and I managed seven 'shells' full of the narcotic brew without feeling too ill.

The next day, we arrived at the airfield ten minutes before our flight was due to depart, having been kept waiting an hour in Norsup post office by a woman who had to phone Vila to find out how much she should charge for posting a package. (She didn't know what the rate was because the tables were in grams and her scales were marked in kilograms, and refused to believe me when I tried to explain the conversion.) We managed to catch the plane and, after a short twenty minute hop over the ocean, we were in Luganville, Vanuatu's main northern town, on Espiritu Santo island

Luganville
Main Street, Luganville

With rusting trucks rattling up and down the wide Main Street in the baking heat, Luganville had the feel of an old American frontier town. That is pretty much what it is - most of the town's dilapidated infrastructure dates back to World War 2, when the Americans used it as a base for fighting the Japanese in the South Pacific.

The thing Luganville is famous for is its scuba diving opportunities - on the SS President Coolidge (the wreck of a vast World War 2 troop carrier that sank after accidentally hitting an American mine in Luganville harbour), at Million Dollar Point (where the Americans chose to dump their surplus wartime supplies into the sea rather than sell them to tight-fisted locals), and on various coral reefs. I enrolled in a scuba diving course, which enabled me to see all of these underwater attractions in addition to passing my test and becoming a certified open water scuba diver. Allan Power - the owner of the diving school - is a cantankerous old man (he wasn't amused when I tried to get in the wrong minibus by mistake and the door fell off) with a keen interest in gardening, not only at his lovely waterfront home in Luganville (where the local diving community meets at 11.30 every morning for coffee and buns) but also underwater, in a fabulous 'coral garden' just above the wreck of the President Coolidge.

Learning to dive in Vanuatu was a thrill: our initial training dives, supposed to be done in 'confined water', took place in the Pacific Ocean - the least confined space of water on the planet. On the first dive we took down pieces of bread and were soon surrounded by swarms of colourful reef fish of every shape and size, eating out of our hands. Swimming twenty metres under the surface of the water, breathing air at a higher pressure than in a car tyre, looking down on the rusting, coral-encrusted wreck of the Coolidge was amazing. Million Dollar Point was similarly awe-inspiring - we swam along a huge grey underwater cliff made entirely out of trucks, girders, boxes, tyres and other wartime equipment, under which lurked creatures like giant mutant goldfish with bodies that seemed nearly as big as mine.

One weekend, Janice and I took a break from scuba diving to travel up the coast of Espiritu Santo and see Champagne Beach, possibly one of the most picturesque spots in the entire world. It is the perfect paradise tropical beach, with clean white sand, palm trees, and turquoise water. (And some aggressive little white fish that go for your toes if you stand on the bottom too long. The guidebooks don't mention those.) For much of the time that we were there, we had the place all to ourselves.

Last Thursday, Janice and I left Luganville and headed for the less developed island of Epi. Our arrival there was one of the more disorganised moments of the trip. I'd tried to ring ahead and organise somewhere to stay but the phones (as usual) weren't working properly. We therefore arrived in Lamen Bay, in the north-west of the island, with no idea of what kind of place we were going to or where we were going to stay. And, for the first time in a month (not counting a few night-time thunderstorms), it was raining. Fortunately we met a friendly local woman at the airfield, who took us to the village's guest bungalows (spartan but fairly cheap, and in a lovely spot right by the water's edge). We were joined in Lamen Bay later that afternoon by Marco the Vanuatuan beer salesman, who arrived in a private plane - nearly hitting Janice and I, who'd gone for a walk along the airfield. The plane was piloted by a fascinating Austrian guy named Franz - a pilot, yachtsman, scuba diver, underwater photographer, author, and flying doctor.

We had intended to try and leave Lamen Bay on Saturday, but it turned out to be such a nice, relaxing place that we decided to stay longer. Besides, we still hadn't seen the thing that we had come to Lamen Bay for - its resident dugong. I went looking for the creature on Friday morning, but a strong onshore breeze was stirring up silt and the water was so murky that I could have been swimming next to the huge beast and not realised it.

On Saturday the water was still murky so we walked across the northern tip of Epi to Mapuna Bay on the other side. Along the way we picked up a friendly dog, which followed us all the way across the island and all the way back. Afterwards it sat down obediently outside our bungalow, where it stayed until some local boys spotted the strange dog and chased it out of the village.

On Sunday morning Janice and I spent about an hour snorkelling around Lamen Bay in search of the elusive dugong. We never found it - it found us. We were swimming about a hundred metres offshore, across sea grass beds about five metres (17 ft) deep, right outside the bungalow where we'd been staying. I glanced to my left to check that Janice was swimming alongside, and saw the great brown creature coming straight towards us out of the gloom like some grotesque submarine. I pointed and tapped Janice, who screamed through her snorkel. The dugong, oblivious to this, swam slowly past us and settled down on the sea bed in front of us. After a while, it came up to the surface, and allowed us to swim right up to it. I stroked it, and the dugong rolled over like a dog to allow me to scratch its great white belly. It was about 2.5 metres (8 ft) long, and massive, with an expression of dumb curiosity not unlike my rabbit's.

We spent about an hour with the dugong before it finally got tired of us and swam away into the depths. We watched it as it lay on the bottom feeding on the sea grass, then every few minutes it would surface and allow us to swim up to it. Janice and I took it in turns to play with the dugong while the other took photos using a disposable underwater camera we'd decided to invest in. At one point the dugong swam straight towards my legs quite forcefully; I moved slowly but surely out of the way (male dugong have tusks). The dugong and I circled each other like cat and mouse several times before the creature lost interest and I realised that it wasn't being aggressive - it was merely inquisitive towards the ridiculous yellow Duckman-style flippers that I'd borrowed from the owner of the bungalows.

Bondas the dugong
Swimming with the dugong in Lamen Bay

We left Epi this morning, so now I'm back in Port Vila, Vanuatu's diminutive capital, once again enjoying the luxuries of modern civilisation. The plane we came on was overweight and couldn't fit us on, so the Australian pilot told us he'd go and drop some passengers off, then come back for us. Sure enough, he did.

Tomorrow we fly out to Aneityum, Vanuatu's most southerly island and one of its most remote. I tried ringing up to book accommodation in the guesthouse there, but once again had no luck getting through. In the end I went into the Vanuatu tourism office in Vila for help; the woman there tracked down the guesthouse owner for me after calling half of the telephone numbers on Aneityum. I'm not exaggerating: there are six telephones on Aneityum, according to the phone book, and she rang three of them.

 

Futuna
The plane touches down on tiny Futuna island

24 December

On Tuesday we had one evening to enjoy the luxury and comfort of Port Vila - we spent it watching some traditional dancers from the island of Futuna at Iririki Island Resort. The next day we set off for Aneityum, with a morning stopover on Tanna Island. I've now got used to the little 20-seater Twin Otter planes that Air Vanuatu uses for its internal flights, even if they do feel more like flying minibuses than airliners, but the size of the little craft that took us on the last leg of our journey to Aneityum was ridiculous. Think of a car with wings slung over the top and a long tail, and you've got the picture. On the way we touched down at the tiny rocky island of Futuna (dropping off one of the traditional dancers from the previous evening) - a spectacular place with a sheer rocky plateau rising several hundred metres above the ocean. After a mere ten minutes on Futuna, and a welcome opportunity to stretch my legs, we moved on to Aneityum.

Inyeug Island
The little island of Inyeug on which Aneityum's airfield and guesthouse are located

Aneityum's airfield, and the guesthouse where we were staying, are not located on Aneityum itself but on a smaller island called Inyeug just off the coast. The island is visited periodically by cruise ships (who dub it "Mystery Island", although there's nothing particularly mysterious about it), and it is therefore kept clean and tidy with neat sandy paths, attractive wooden shelters, little toilet huts and various other facilities scattered around the island. The place itself is a typical paradise island, fringed by a turquoise lagoon that is enclosed by a roaring white wall of water where the Pacific crashes against the barrier reef surrounding the island. However, nobody actually lives on the island. So, for a cost of only 1500 vatu (£7.50) each per night Janice and I had a sizeable, attractively-landscaped tropical island with its own private airfield completely to ourselves! We watched a wonderful red sunset, then went back to the same spot a few hours later to watch the moon set. With the moon down and no light pollution anywhere, the stars and the Milky Way were unbelievable. Of course we took full advantage of the fact that we were on an uninhabited island, charging around the place madly singing tuneless Christmas songs at the tops of our voices.

On Inyeug Island
On the beach on Inyeug Island, with the larger island of Aneityum in the background

On Thursday we got a boat across to Aneityum island itself. Although it is still within the tropics, Aneityum is at a slightly cooler, more southerly latitude than the rest of Vanuatu and its landscape is strikingly different. Large areas of the island's mountainous interior are covered by pine forests, and from a distance the place almost looks like Scotland. It's easy to see now why Captain Cook, who once sighted Aneityum, gave Vanuatu its old colonial name of the New Hebrides. We spent the morning being shown around the island, and were given some pineapples by an old woman who turned out to be the grandmother of one of Janice's students.

On Friday we left Aneityum and returned to the larger island of Tanna. The plane was delayed three hours, and when we arrived at Tanna's smart new airport we waited another hour for a truck that was supposed to pick us up and take us to the other side of the island, but never did. We finally got a different truck, only to have it break down in the mountains half way across the island. Eventually we made it to the place we were staying, the Friendly Bungalows on Tanna's north-east coast. This place has taken the idea of building things with local materials to the extreme - the walls of our wooden room were made of fine sticks and the whole place looked like something that the Big Bad Wolf ought to huff and puff and blow down.

On Friday evening we got a truck to the nearby village of Sulphur Bay to watch the weekly worship of the Jon Frum movement, a local religious group that originated as a World War 2 cargo cult. Its members believe in a prophet called Jon Frum, an American serviceman who will not only deliver them great riches but (bizarrely) will free their island of Western influences. Jon Frum is considered a serious religion on Tanna, yet the event we went to was more like a party than an act of worship - singing and dancing until sunrise. Sadly we had to leave at 1.30 a.m. because our truck driver, who was drunk on kava, wanted to get home to bed.

The next day I set off to climb Mount Yasur, the island's famous active volcano. (Janice and the other guests followed later, taking a truck most of the way, but I decided to walk.) Leaving from the Friendly Bungalows, I followed the road through three or four miles of increasingly dust-laden jungle. There was an occasional smell of sulphur, and a couple of times it snowed ash. Suddenly I emerged onto the ash plain of the volcano - a vast arid expanse of nothing but grey ash and hardened pinkish lava. There was practically no vegetation anywhere. I walked a couple of miles across this ash plain, Tolkien-style, towards the foot of the mountain itself. Small whirlwinds of ash danced across the place (I deliberately walked through one of these, but it proved disappointingly feeble).

The Yasur volcano
The Yasur volcano on Tanna island "going off"

Ascending the grey, ash-covered slopes of the volcano itself was like walking up a giant sand dune. Sometimes the volcano simply steamed quietly but every so often it "went off", spewing out dense black clouds, which blew in my direction. As I climbed, I was thus alternately baked by the tropical sun and choked by clouds of ash and sulphurous gas. On one occasion there was a noise like popcorn and I could hear giant boulders being spat out of the volcano. I was still some distance away at the time, but the experience was nonetheless terrifying.

It was nearly sunset by the time I reached the crater rim. By this point my skin, hair, clothes, shoes and rucksack were filthy with grey volcanic ash. My first impression of the crater was that it is massive, like a rocky football stadium. Inside are two large vents, and numerous smaller fissures in the rock, from which white steam emerges. The crater's grey interior is streaked with yellow and white sulphur stains that look like bird droppings. When the volcano went off, I could see rocks being shot out of the main vent (fortunately all of them landed well within the confines of the crater), and amidst the acrid black smoke I could hear lava boiling and bubbling. I was joined at the top of the volcano by two other gap volunteers and we stood there chatting for ages, almost forgetting that we were standing on top of an erupting volcano. As the sun set, Janice and the others from the Friendly Bungalows arrived. In the dark we could see globules of glowing molten lava being spat out of the vent, amidst all the black smoke. On one occasion a flash like lightning boomed through the crater and was followed by several orange explosions deep within the vent.

 

26 December

From Tanna we returned to Port Vila, and tried to get into the Christmas spirit, which is not easy on a tropical island.

On Christmas Eve the streets of Vila were packed both with visitors and locals doing their last-minute Christmas shopping. For the first time, Port Vila felt like a proper capital city. The shops all have Christmas decorations and the trees on the waterfront are plastered with lights. However, it simply doesn't feel like Christmas when it's over 30°C (86°F) outside and there are blue skies with palm trees swaying in the tropical breeze.

We had a classic southern hemisphere Christmas - blue skies and unbroken sunshine. I spent the day at the beach on Erakor Island Resort with the seven other gap volunteers who are still in Vanuatu. (The rest have now moved on to Australia or New Zealand; a couple have even gone home.) Erakor is picturesque and I had a great time wandering about the island, swimming, drinking cocktails and messing about on a catamaran with two of the other volunteers. At one point I swam right across to the mainland (well, main island) and back; the others timed my crossing at 49 minutes. The turquoise, starfish-infested lagoon in which Erakor Island is situated is incredibly shallow and I crossed the kilometre or so of open water without being out of my depth anywhere. On the way back into Vila we met two Australian teenagers who - delighted to find people their own age to talk to - invited us for a swim with them in the pool at the nearby Crown Plaza resort where they were staying with their parents. In the evening the eight gap volunteers all went for a nice meal on the waterfront in Vila.

Mele-Maat Cascades
The Mele-Maat Cascades, Port Vila's natural outdoor swimming pools

Yesterday was an absolute scorcher. Janice and I escaped from the heat by going and diving in the Mele-Maat Cascades, a series of waterfalls a few miles outside Port Vila. The main waterfall wasn't as impressive as the one on Pentecost but the whole place was quite picturesque, with dozens of little blue pools and streams set in an attractive tropical landscape. The place is quite a tourist attraction (it even has toilets and changing rooms) and was full of families from Vila as well as tourists and expatriates diving into the pools and sliding down the rocks.

 

29 December

On Thursday, Janice and I went to visit the brewery in Vila where "Tusker", Vanuatu's ubiquitous local beer, is produced. Marco the chief salesmen (whom we'd met in Lamen Bay and who had invited us to come and see him) wasn't around, but we met the manager, an elderly Swede. He seemed glad to meet some fellow Europeans (especially when I told him I'd been twice to his home town of Gothenburg) and he showed us round the brewery, then spent about two hours chatting to us about politics in his air conditioned office over a couple of chilled beers fresh off the production line.

Yesterday we spent our last proper day in Vanuatu at Hideaway Island, a few miles from Port Vila. This island is a tourist trap, but it is surrounded by an amazing reef, and we spent all afternoon snorkelling on it. There were dozens of colourful fish ranging from swarms of silver fingernail-sized creatures to one toothy beast the size of a phone directory (I closed my fingers as this one approached). Janice took down some fish food and the fish were ramming the bag of food before she'd even opened it; they followed us about for a long time after the food had gone. We saw a ray, a pufferfish, a moray eel and one multicoloured fish that looked like an advertisement for highlighter pens. The coral was impressive too.

Although I'm sad to be leaving Vanuatu, it's probably good to be leaving now. I've seen almost everything I wanted to (both geographically and culturally), and as yet nothing terrible has happened to me. Besides, this isn't the cheapest country in the world to explore, even when you're getting local discounts and student discounts and off-season discounts all over the place. We've also been incredibly lucky with the weather. This is officially the wet season, yet apart from a few showers we've had no rain at all for the past six weeks.

 

After leaving Vanuatu, I spent a couple of months backpacking around Australia. Having come half way around the world, it would have been a shame not to go the whole way round, so I returned home via New Zealand, Fiji and America.

Diary of my journey home from Vanuatu

I promised myself that I would return within the next five years, and I did. In the summer of 2005, I found myself back in Vanuatu, teaching at Ranwadi School once again.

Diary of my second visit to Vanuatu

 

This account of my trip is adapted from the various e-mails that I sent home.

 

Introduction to my travels in the South Pacific

 

See also...

Frequently asked questions about travelling in Vanuatu

The Cow Fish

The root of happiness?

 

© Andrew Gray, 2001