Vanuatu: South Pacific Island
There are tropical islands off the coast of Queensland. More than half the state is technically tropical; north of Rockhampton, which sits bang on the Tropic of Capricorn. An island on which I spent an idyllic few days way back was perfectly tropically lush: you could walk round it in an hour; turquoise limpid water lapped shallow pale beaches; there were noisy birds, tiny turtles, leaping rays and silver fish shoals that moved as one. After dark we lay on our backs and studied a pure dark sky dripping a million diamond points.
Vanuatu is about as far from Brisbane as New Zealand. It's east of the top half of the Pointy Bit of Queensland, and consists of a string of 80 islands, 15 of them sizeable. We visited a very small one, Ratua, a private island sandwiched between Aore and Malo, south of Espiritu Santo. We flew into Luganville 'International Airport' and were picked up and taken to a small boat for a half-hour journey past verdant Aore.
A typical Ratuan welcome accompanied our boat's approach – a beating drum, smiles as wide as miles and refreshing fruit cocktails. It had been cloudy since our plane touched down, but as we were shown to our villa, Monkey, there was already the promise of a spectacular sunset.
Ratua is sheltered by its immediate neighbours: the sea was never anything but calm and soothing while we were there. There's an all-pervading air of peace and tranquility, helped in February by high temperatures and humidity that reduced all activity to dead slow, or stop. There was hardly ever even a breath of wind. But a week after our return home tropical cyclone Lusi brought havoc to this island nation, which lies on the Pacific Rim. We asked when there had last been an earthquake, and the reply was 'last month'.
By day three we were overtaken by what we called 'la léthargie énorme' (the international language of Vanuatu being French, not English). We could hardly move: I couldn't be bothered to read at times, and just stared out over the water, stirring only to monitor the passage of beautifully coloured fish.
We had been recommended a tour to Millenium Cave on Santo. We knew it was fairly challenging physically, but when told there'd be 4-5 hours hiking, rope climbing, mud scrambling and canyoning, we crawled back to our day beds and put off a decision until we ran out of days. I know we missed a memorable experience, but one for the dry season I believe.
We did manage to walk the island tour. This revealed Strangler Figs, rocky shorelines, mangroves, serried coconut palms, domestic animals and a landing strip. Dear gods, it was hot: how we dripped. Both a falling branch and a plummeting coconut narrowly missed me. The nuts land with an enormous thud.
One afternoon it downpoured hard vertical tropical rain. It was beautiful.
Kayaking was a joy in the clear waters. (Did I mention that we had our own beach?) Exquisite corals were easy to see, and turtle heads popped up occasionally, especially in early morning or late afternoon.
The resort was founded by a wealthy Frenchman who came across the island while cruising these parts with his family. All profits go to a foundation that supports the education of Vanuatu's schoolchildren. Bizarrely, the houses were brought from Indonesia, and there are similar influences (and French wines) in the restaurant. Every dinner began with soup and salad, which at first I thought a little odd but came to look forward to each evening. The houses are of heavy wooden construction, with no glass, only shutters between you and the critters. Mozzie nets are essential over beds; coils are necessary on the deck; and you'll need strong Deet-based repellent on your skin if you're a mozzie magnet. We had learned that Dengue fever had broken out on Santo, so even greater care than usual was needed.
We did do one excursion, to Blue Hole on a neighbouring island. We were ferried across with our kayak and dropped off at the entrance to a river. (Our guide paddled behind us to make sure we didn't come a cropper.) The Hole was the most extraordinary colour. It is fed by underground springs and wasn't at all salty even though connected to a tidal river.
Our last night was a Saturday. We were invited to drink kava with our hosts. Kava is a milky-looking drink served in half-coconut cups and downed in one; it's made from a herbal root and didn't taste that great. But when in Ratua... I'm not entirely sure what the benefits of drinking kava are, but I think you indulge at the end of a hard day's work – or a long hot day staggering from one sun lounger to another.
The Ratua String Band played a mean riff and sang in splendid South Pacific harmonies I'd heard so much about but never experienced before. Then we sat down to a meal of local dishes. The Band had followed us to the dining room for a last couple of numbers. All the staff were dressed in their most beautiful best and had danced enthusiastically. After dinner we put the world to rights with fellow guests.
The following day, we sailed away reluctantly as some of the locals sang from the jetty in hope of our return to Ratua. We may not have actively engaged much with this corner of Vanuatu, but, removed from harsh Australia, a wonderfully benign way of life had washed over us in a truly beautiful place.