01-Nov-2007 -- The three week honeymoon wasn’t enough. We had to go as far away as possible, and make an adventure out of it: Shooting for a degree confluence in Vanuatu sounded perfect. When we learned that not one of the 17 confluences in Vanuatu’s 83 islands had been visited – and that only one was on land – we had found our goal.
We checked the satellite image of the area on Google Earth, but the image was not very clear. In the north of Espiritu Santo, the largest island in Vanuatu, we could only see what looked to be pure jungle. To the west lay cliffs with a considerable drop to the edge of a big bay (named Big Bay, the southern end of the Coral Sea); to the east was a lot more jungle. There were no roads, but there appeared to be some small villages along the eastern coast only a few kilometers from the confluence. It was decided: the tiny cluster of brown dots on the edge of this lush green landmass surrounded by endless blue water was to be our home base. We were off to Port Olry, Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu.
We arrived in the capital of Vanuatu on the island of Efate and stepped into the warm, sweet Port Vila air with shells around our necks and the rhythm of local string music in our ears. We had a couple of days to get acquainted with this new land before flying north.
It didn’t take long to see why Vanuatu is officially known as the happiest country in the world. In a word, it is paradise. The white sand beaches feel like cotton beneath your feet, and the pristine waters are second to none. And the Ni-Vanuatu are absolutely the friendliest people we have ever met.
We took a short domestic flight up to Espiritu Santo, landing in Luganville. The road to Port Olry was another 60 kilometers north – two hours of gravel. Arriving there, we found one thatched bungalow typical of the village that was available to visitors right on the edge of the most beautiful tropical beach you could imagine; our home for the next four days. Before long we were greeted by Jean Vianney Tiome who became our guide, friend, and all around Guy Friday. There was a lot he needed to do: arrange for a vehicle, speak with someone who knew the terrain, get approval from the landowner, and make sure we weren’t crazy. But first, kava and a good meal.
At sundown Jean came by the bungalow and led us to the closest of five nakamals in the village for our first kava experience. A few men were sitting on wooden benches in near silence. Mellowing out after a day of fishing and collecting coconuts, they basked in moonlight and the green glow of the candle under an overturned plastic bucket – the telltale sign of a kava bar. For fifty cents we were given a shell of murky water – the product of mashing, squeezing and pounding kava root through water. Other than the immediate numbing of our mouths and tongues, we didn’t quite get the fascination with this highly revered social beverage. We enjoyed unwinding under the stars with our new friends as we mused the secrets of satellites and flying foxes.
About five months earlier, Leonel Jimenez the peace corps worker in Port Olry, had gotten a fantastic restaurant off the ground. Over the next four days we would eat most of our meals there: Vanuatu beef – for which they are rightfully proud – pigeon, local potatoes, and always a cornucopia of bananas, pineapples and whatever else was fresh that day. We feasted with Jean and talked of Port Olry, our love of food, and the mysterious attraction of confluences. With full bellies we left the restaurant in hopes of heading for the confluence in the morning.
Not until the following afternoon did Jean arrive requesting “The Map” so he could show it to the landowner. (This map was a prized possession to us. We had made one key stop at the land office in Luganville before starting the two hour drive along the dirt road for Port Olry. After some explanation and digging around in the flat files, we found a superb topo map of the confluence at an impressive scale of 1:100,000. It was made by the National Geographic Institute for the New Hebrides government in 1955. It was more than what we could have hoped for – and for only $6.95) Cautiously, Bill handed over the map and yelled after Jean as he raced off “C’est tres precieux!” The concept of island time was beginning to sink in so we decided to go for a swim.
The snorkeling was fantastic. Right off our pristine and deserted beach was our own undersea world of coral reefs, tropical fish, sea turtles, and dugongs who hung out with us in this warmest and clearest of salt baths. A nap; a couple of shells at the nakamal; and another great meal was the best answer for biding our island time. Tomorrow was another day, and we’d wake up prepared to go at the drop of a hat…just in case. We patted each other on the back for reserving four days for this project and enjoyed our little piece of paradise.
The next day we were visited by the landowner who came to check us out and see what we were up to. (The Ni-Vanuatu are wary of the very real possibility of foreigners ripping them off on deals involving their land. Skepticism is necessary for survival here.) He was a humble man, and was surprised and thrilled that we could tell him something special about his land. He said he’d been out there to see how passable the bush was – it was thick. But that was our concern now as he had given us approval for our trek. News travels fast in Port Olry, and this exciting event drew half the kids in town. (Since it was Halloween, we found this gathering appropriate and gave out candy to all the kids.)
The next day Jean and the man with the truck picked us up and we were on our way. Before leaving the village we were joined by five bushmen with big knives and the other half of the kids in town. The overcrowded pick-up followed two dirt tracks out of town as they dwindled to nothing before stopping at the edge of the bush. We got out and told the driver we hoped to be back in three hours. The GPS read 2.25 km from the confluence.
Ruben led the way. He is the biggest man in the village, and, since he hunts wild pigs in these parts, knows the land better than anyone. The trail at first was pretty clear and our machete-wielding band of eight made good time. But then we entered a thicket of kudzu which blanketed everything. It was introduced by the U.S. during WWII to camouflage the more than 100,000 troops and equipment stationed here but has now taking over. Sometimes it took 20 minutes or more for a few of the men to hack a path through the bush, and only to move a mere few feet. But these were opportunities for Jean to teach us something about the land – in the old days we used to bang on these tree roots for communication …these slimy red protrusions from the ground are delicious fruit we eat when ripe … you know there are no predators here, no large cats, coyotes, bears, or poisonous snakes. We navigated jungle vines, pig wallows and poisonous plants – at times the bush got so dense we had to search out a clearing for the GPS to receive a signal.
Eventually we arrived at a hilltop overlooking a narrow valley. To the left in the distance were the black beaches of big bay; and to the right was an endless sea of kudzu with a few scraggly trees struggling for sunlight. Bill remembered the satellite image showed a small descent before the spot where the integer degrees crossed. He charged down the hill with the GPS in front like some magnet pulling him along. Our direction became clear and Bill pointed to two immense trees with white bark. It was slow going, but the excitement of getting there and how well it was coming together was overpowering. Arriving at the confluence, we snapped our photos and refueled with gargantuan bananas as we tried to ignore the collective feeling of, Huh, there’s really nothing here…that was it. Eventually Jean reminded us we had a lot of ground to cover before meeting the truck, so we got up and started back.
On the return the group inadvertently split into two. Amanda, wearing the only watch, spurred on the front with a countdown to meeting time. She impressed them when she suggested they start running, and they sped through the bush to meet the truck on time. Bill – no longer required to focus on the GPS – concentrated on learning from Ruben and his skills in the bush. Like the other men he was barefoot, but he moved seamlessly as the rest of us tripped and struggled with vines that were constantly grabbing our ankles. With every step, Ruben lifted his foot with the toes hanging straight down, allowing the snarl of vines to drop effortlessly off the end of his foot. (When Bill was in front, Ruben kept him upright by hacking the vines off his ankles immediately, with each of his steps.) The group emerged from the bush only a little bloody, and with a new-found respect for each other. We listened to music on the ride back and basked in the satisfaction of having arrived at this special locale buried deep in so remote and isolated a place.
That night we drank kava with our crew. We shared stories of the day, but it wasn’t long before we found ourselves in the now-familiar quietude of the nakamal. Surrounded by our new friends, we sat in the darkness and listened to the comforting sounds of our village: bare feet shuffling along the dirt paths, a dog in the distance, the faint sound of the pounding of more kava. “You wannem one more shell?” Perhaps we were beginning to understand the allure after all.