Easter on Espiritu Santo Island

26 Apr

21-26 April 2011

You’d think that mosquitoes on an island named Espiritu Santo in a country often compared to paradise would be nice… but they are horrible! And their bites itch for days and days. All the bugs are mean: I was barely out of the airport when a cockroach landed on my arm and stung me (family member of the ones I have been exterminating at home?). Welcome to Luganville! I had bites I couldn’t even identify… and yes, I forgot to bring my insect repellent. Argh! I was applying anti-itch cream the same way as sunscreen!

I was on Santo for five nights, but thankfully spent a lot of hours with my underwater friends. I visited the SS President Coolidge and its amazing collection of items, most of them intact. The Coolidge used to be a cruise ship that was called to duty during World War II, and after becoming a proper war ship… it hit a friendly mine and sunk on its side in the bay. A great opportunity for tourists! There are about 20 possible dives, some scarier than others. I did three during the day and one at night.

On the first dive, they take it easy and you mostly stay outside the ship or in the big cargo holds. I was on my own with dive master David and he got adventurous so we went off the plan and snuck into some cool corners to look at artifacts. I also visited the medical room (with yellow and white powder still in the bottles and medical vials), the barber shop, the workshop with a clamp in good condition. There are plenty of things still recognizable: cannons and rifles with ammunitions for both, tanks, helmet, even a shoe, fuel tanks (a room full of them!), a tea set, rows of toilets and sinks + mirrors, etc. The Tusker apparently wasn’t historic and David let the bottle of beer sunk to the bottom. Tourists!

As you can imagine there were plenty of narrow corners, sharp edges and rust all over. Miss Clumsy came back with more scratches, cuts and bruises that one can count. Still, I met friendly clown fish and their neighbors at the decompression stop. One of the nicest stops for decomp. Usually you are hanging halfway between the surface and interesting stuff, but because of the slope of the bottom (some dive shops leave from the beach) you can sit on white sand and look at the reef teeming with life. One Nemo likes to bite fingers – including mine – very funny. It was the only times when I wished we would decomp for longer.

During another dive, I visited the reef and David caught a puff fish… so amazing to see it all puffed up and angry! Or offended? We could touch it and it felt rubbery – I love touching things and a few times David had to step in because it wasn’t safe – spikes! I rubbed a toothy eel who lives in a pipe on the Coolidge and a big square-ish fish in its hole-in-the-rock house; it actually seemed to enjoy having its back scratched. Those fins can’t be good for a satisfying scratch.

There are a few plants that retract when you clap near them or touch them. It’s so funny because one second they have flowy ends, colors, etc. and the next the plant looks like a rock!

I was in awe of what I call the rainbow fish. I have seen a few in Port Vila, but in Luganville there are dozens and dozens. They are so beautiful. The most fascinating specimens are probably the flashlight fish. The first time I encountered them was during a day dive. We were in the belly of the Coolidge and David told me to switch off my torch. I thought we were alone, well, there were dozens of them in that little space! During the night dive, we stayed in one of the cargo holds for a few minutes, just mesmerized by the hundreds of flashlight fish. They look like stars in the sky. When we came back to the surface, we were welcome by the real stars in the dark sky. What a night!

We approached the ship without lights and it seemed like it suddenly appeared out of nowhere. The visibility is already pretty bad during the day. At night, the dark giant was lurking in murky waters, and I was wondering what I was getting myself into, once again! Where was that toothy eel hiding again? At one point I thought there was a baby shark waiting for us outside the ship; a tuna fish apparently, from the side they look like the sharks I saw on TV. This adventurous side of me got enough excitement during those dives!

You are probably wondering how come I haven’t yet mentioned food, since most of my travel stories usually focus on what goes into my mouth. Well, the food in Luganville was … less than average – not a surprise since Vanuatu is not known for its cuisine. I was unlucky because several places that were recommended to me were closed (Easter weekend). Still, the “good” French restaurant had a disappointing pizza; the brownie at Café Victoria was like a brick; and the burger at the hole in the wall had a great bun but the meat was hard (strange in a country exporting beef, where the meat is usually well cooked). My hotel had an appetizing menu but so expensive that I went with sandwiches and chocolate milkshakes when I was too lazy to go in town (diving is exhausting!).

The dive shop provided sandwiches during the break while we were resting on the Million Dollar Point beach between dives, as well as fruits. One thing that is well-know and I couldn’t agree more with is that Santo has much better fruits than Efate: oranges, grapefruits, coconuts, papayas, bananas – oh so sweet and juicy!

One Million Dollar Point is so named because the Americans dumped one-million-dollar worth of equipment off the beach, and then blew up the pier. They were in a foul mood after trying to negotiate a price with the Brits and the French (who stayed in Vanuatu until it gained independence in 1980) at the end of the Second World War. Now you can dive from the beach and see the tanks, trucks, pipes and even a forklift. I have to say that what impressed me most was the size of that pile – it’s a mountain. One million dollar in the 40s could get you much more than nowadays.

My hotel – Deco Stop Lodge (deco as in decompression, it took a few days to figure that out) – was very nice. It was on the hill (thankfully taxi rides cost one dollar so I never bothered climbing it!) with a beautiful view of the bay and the smaller islands in the background. One night we had fireworks: lightning show provided by Mother Nature. No rain, just lights on the horizon, on and off. I never used the pool – not really inviting – but the eating area facing the pool and the terrace, both overlooking the bay, were a great place to hang out and read. Four books in five days. In between pages, I would chat with the nice people around.

Three military guys from New Zealand stayed there; and they were working on the logistics to lodge and feed about 200 Kiwi soldiers for three weeks. Troops from France, the US, Australia, and other Pacific islands were gathering there for some coordination exercises, and to help improve the local infrastructure. The three Kiwis were on the same plane as me in Vila – I noticed them, not just because of the uniforms (aah men in uniforms) but because one of them was carrying a beautiful flower reef. Easter Monday was also ANZAC Day, when Australians and New Zealanders honor their fallen soldiers. They had a ceremony at the crack of dawn with the other military forces in town. No, my attraction to the uniform is not strong enough to get me out of bed that early.

Monday was my day off diving (one should wait about 18 hours between multiple dives and flying). The town is so small that I often ran into people I saw on the plane. I also saw twice the man who manages the power utility in Luganville, and visits us regularly in Vila. He ate at my lodge one night, with a woman from the Asian Development Bank, whom I met at a workshop a few months ago. Small world.

It wasn’t easy to leave: the computers at the check in counters crashed just before it was my turn. I basically had a hand-written boarding pass. I am not complaining because I wouldn’t have minded another day there. Much better than on 13 April when six of us from the URA had checked in in Vila but the landing navigation system in Luganville was broken and Air Vanuatu couldn’t land in the dark. They couldn’t guarantee seats on the morning flight on the 14th and we had to be there by 10am to organize our own forum to explain to the people of Luganville how the new electricity tariff structure worked. Nima found three seats on a small plane from a private company. All six of us couldn’t pile in together, so three of us were grounded. I had planned to stay for the weekend and enjoy some diving but had to cancel all that the next day. In the end, I made it on my own and have finally visited the big island and the SS President Coolidge. Check check. What is next on my to-do list?

Stay tuned.

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