Just a few hours from Australia’s east coast, an unspoilt paradise awaits, with endless locations to dive, easy smiles and cheap beer.
As the plane descends over the airstrip, I get the first view of this sleepy pacific paradise. The roar of jet engines seems almost incongruous with the well-mown paddock.
The airport itself does little to change this opinion, as we’re greeted by smiling, skirted locals. There’s a hint of music on the breeze, and I can feel the weight of city life lifting.
For here, in Vanuatu, I may be only 4 hours from Sydney, but I’m on the metaphorical other side of the world. Time moves languidly here, as if conserving energy from the tropical heat. I hail a taxi and ask to be delivered into the city. The roads are good, if narrow, and my driver apologises for the traffic. What he is upset about is unclear: if only the roads at home were this free. There’s only a few sleepy pedestrians, a bicycle or two, and contented chickens.
I’m here for the diving, of course. Vanuatu is famous for its dive sites, and rightly so: this small nation is comprised of over 80 small islands. Its most famous dive location is off the island of Espiritu Santo, to the north, where divers can view the wreck of the SS President Coolidge, a luxury ocean liner turned troopship, sunk by mines in October 1942. The bow sits at 21 metres depth, and the stern at 60 metres, and several dive companies will take you down for a closer look.
Also on Santo, you can dive at Million Dollar Point, where, at the end of WWII, the Americans scuttled a load of vehicles, machines and boats, after failing to sell them at a 6% of their value to the English, the French, or indeed anyone at all. Divers can get great views of this expensive dummy-spit in about 20m.
I’m not heading to Santo this time, though. I’ll be diving off Efate, the third largest island, where the capital, Port Vila, is located. Not that there are any lack of wrecks here – war and weather have provided ample locations for the adventurous diver, and there are plenty of dive centres in the capital to take advantage of them.
However, today I’m going further afield. For $20 a local drives me out of the city to Port Havannah on the north-west coast. Here I take time to relax briefly at Havannah Resort, who kindly ferry me in a tinnie to Moso Island, where I will be diving.
I’m delivered to Tranquillity Island Resort Eco-tourism, Suba Diving & Turtle Sanctuary, on Moso Island. While the Havannah Resort on the South side is upmarket, this place is the opposite, and all the better for it. The resort has rustic, traditionally built cabins, with limited access to electricity, but complete access to the private beach. It’s a quintessential island getaway, with palms bending over the beach, shading guests in hammocks. It feels as if the 21st century is unknown here: the sound of vehicles is absent, and phone signal is patchy. A scattering of thatch-roofed houses are barely visible. If I strain my ears, I could possibly hear the spluttering of a low-power outboard or the giggle of playing children. Otherwise the only sounds are lapping waves, birds, and the breeze though leaves.
The resort is a five-star PADI dive centre, and has a full range of quality equipment for hire, and they kit me out. The cost for a 2-dive day, including gear and transfers, is 13,900 Vatu (about $170 AUD).
There are more than 20 dive sites off the Island, including shore dives. There are bommies, thermal vents, swim-throughs, caves and two wrecks. For the adventurous, night or early morning dives can be organised.
I’m with a group of 4 other divers, and today my guides have selected Coral Garden. It’s a short trip in the boat to our destination.
Visibility is crystal clear, at least 30m (I’m reliably told that it rarely gets below 20m), and the water delightfully warm. In winter, it gets down to a chilly 24 degrees, but today it’s a balmy 30. This is not a particularly deep dive, with maximum depth about 18m, though there is plenty to see.
The area is well known for soft and hard corals, reef fish, and rays, with the occasional dolphin, dugong or turtle. Regrettably, these larger attractions didn’t materialise for me today, but I was far from disappointed.
Back on land, my guides were pleased to provide me with a can of free and almost cold beer, while we talked about the resort’s other function: a turtle sanctuary. The Hawksbill turtle is the fourth most endangered species on the planet, behind the Amur leopard, the black rhino and the Cross-River gorilla. Here on the island, they have over 200 juvenile turtles, which they raise from hatchlings until they reach 1 year of age, and then release them. For $60, guests can sponsor a turtle and participate in the preservation of this species. To date, the resort estimates that they have released more than 1200 turtles into the wild.
With some difficulty, I eventually contact the Havannah resort, who send the tinnie back to collect me, and I organise a taxi back into the capital. Port Vila cannot reasonably be described as fast paced, but as I had time to kill due to flying restrictions, I took the opportunity to ease out a little more city stress. I recommend a casual saunter around the local markets, where the freshest of ingredients can be obtained at rock bottom prices. The beer is cold, even if the air seems to sizzle, and the locals smile a lot.
Next day, back at the airport, I’m again reminded how far I am from Sydney, at least in a spiritual sense. I catch the sound of song on the breeze once again, and I wonder whether it wouldn’t be better to stay here longer.
This article first appeared in the December 2017 issue of DiveLog Magazine.
Check it out here: http://www.divelog.net.au
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