My Year 2011

1 Jan

After a Christmas lounging on Kalkula’s white sandy beach with toes breaking the turquoise horizon, far away from the hustle and bustle in Port Vila (…) Island, it was time for action.

In JANUARY Sydney was my first port of call. I enjoyed roaming the streets and eating yogurts twice a day. Yes, the dairy industry in Vanuatu is non existent and yogurts in the grocery stores are beyond my means! I took long walks from village to village and dipped my toes in the ocean on Bondi and Manly beaches — cold! I like my water warmer now. Aside from the Lindt Café, my favourite spot was probably the botanical gardens… or Paddington market where I could get Delicasey’s chocolate, or Chinatown where you can eat dim sum on benches, or The Rocks Market with its decadent nuts. Mmm maybe my favourite spot was the cinema — another thing that does not exist in Port Vila, but thankfully the local TV blong Vanuatu station likes to show pirated American movies that are not yet out in Australia!

FEBRUARY was all about work, including a visit of the Finance Minister in our office, but there was time for pleasure, as always. My visit to Sydney’s Aquarium gave me the necessary push to overcome my fear and explore the underwater world. I took a week off and obtained my PADI Open Water license. Clown fish here I come! It was a fantastic experience, once the panic attacks and anxieties had subsided.

Trusted Truck

In MARCH, I decided to finally go through the gruelling process of getting a driving license. I had not touched a wheel since 1998 — when I had a Learner’s Permit and was quite confident on the Swiss roads. Driving in the US was too scary and I never got a proper license. Vila’s main streets are often congested with minibuses but the open roads are ideal for a girl who likes speed: no speed limit, no lights and few traffic signs. Unpredictable drivers and choking black fumes, yes; one cannot have it all! After four lessons with a teacher in the bush outside the town, I passed the exam with a scared officer; it lasted about 10 minutes at 20km/h. There was a theory exam, without any book, class or preparation, but I passed it thanks to what I could remember from the hours of studying back in 1998. The gruelling part was actually going from office to office to office to office with the right documents and a thinning wallet.

Port Vila Underwater

I kept diving and decided to go for the advance license so I could do deeper in the reef and explore shipwrecks. A busy month that ended in Australian’s chocolate capital: delicious Melbourne! In APRIL I was met there by friends from England and we had a fantastic time visiting the cafes I had found on Google! We also went to the Flower Show and spent Sunday hopping from tram to tram to visit the suburbs and get to the ocean in St Kilda. For Easter, I treated myself to a trip to Espiritu Santo, an island in the north of the Vanuatu Archipelago and I explore the SS Coolidge, sunk in the Second World War through “friendly” mines: oops, wrong end of the harbour! I also dived at the Million Dollar Point where Americans sunk all their equipment (cars, trucks, cranes, tanks) at the end of the war — after being unable to reach a deal with the French and British troops that stayed in Vanuatu until its independence in 1980.

Port Vila Market

My diving adventures ended in MAY after two bad experiences. I did not actually mean to stop, I just decided to take it easy to let my shredded hands recover (gripping rocks when the oxygen hose is severed from the tank may be natural but not recommended!). I also wanted to be a tourist and enjoy other fun activities before leaving the country. I went kayaking on the ocean. I took a dip in Cascades waterfall after a lovely hike with a nature guide showing us (I was mingling with tourists) how locals used plants for building or clothing material as well as for medicinal purposes. I even climbed on an unwilling horse for a ride on the beach and in the water! Before I knew it, JUNE was coming to an end. My efforts to find a new job had been unsuccessful, my visa was expiring: bye bye Vanuatu. Plan B wasn’t bad: more travelling in the Pacific!

I pretended I was a Sydneysider for the whole of JULY and had a great time discovering new corners with the promise of treats. More yoghurts, more movies. It was nice to be in a big city again. My studio was in the building with a small indoor pool (it was winter!) and hot tub – mmm. I had two visits from Vanuatu friends for company, and plenty of time to do nothing! Well, I had to plan my trip to New Zealand!

I arrived in Auckland in AUGUST and spent too much time there! I was waiting for another Vanuatu friend to come through town as he was leaving New Zealand. Auckland is a nice enough city with an interesting waterfront and lively suburbs but it is best to spend time elsewhere! There is so much to do and discover in the North Island: Rotorua has a constant sulphur smell… but there was a nice French creperie with a Francophone Swiss at the stove. Of course, you have to stop for a dip in the hot pools. The Taupo Lake (sleep volcano sleep!) and its surroundings are quite beautiful… it reminded me of Switzerland! Go to Napier if you like art deco — not really my taste but I went on a wine tour (always trying new things!) where the best treat was the food. They have started making olive oil and dips. Yummy. The capital Wellington was interesting and I learned a lot in the Te Papa Museum. I also took a guided tour of the town and was fascinated by the way they recycle building — moving them around sometimes! They do have a fascination for earthquakes though… not very healthy and it is quite likely that the town will eventually be swallowed in one… Time to move on to the South Island!

After spending two days here three days there, sleeping in hostels, I booked two weeks in a B&B (Annick House) in Nelson. It was nice to rest and relax! I explored the Abel Tasman National Park; got an education on Wearable Art at its “famous” museum; walked along the river, up the hill, down the gelato café. In mid-SEPTEMBER I was rubbing shoulders with seals in Kaikoura but the weather was too rough for whale watching. At least Ireland won its match against Australia! The lesson in earthquake science in Christchurch was quite depressing. I am only glad that there were rugby matches to watch: Ireland beat Australia – yeah! Hagley Park was a real oasis of calm and beauty, in particular the daffodil field, in the middle of the destruction. My toes froze in Oamaru waiting for shy penguins. I was a refugee in Dunedin’s Chinese garden, reading in its coffee shop (next to the radiator) while the storm passed. I spent a week there to take a breather and enjoy a taste of Scotland. There were also plenty of rugby matches to watch and the town was full of English supporters.

From Invercargill I took the worst ferry ride ever to Stewart Island and arrived there with a bad bad cold but I managed to keep my breakfast. I spent much of the time indoors to rest and keep warm. I did enjoy a guided tour with the Ruggedy Range Wilderness Experience and short walks on the outside of Oban. I stayed in Te Anau for a long week to give myself time to recover from the cold. I met great people in the pub watching Ireland beat Italy and lose to Wales. Sigh. The small and quiet town is on LakeTe Anau, with amazing mountains on the other side, great for short and long walks. Once I was better, I took a cruise on Milford Sound and hiked up Key Summit. On the way down I filled my bottle with water from the waterfall. Delicious! It was a beautiful day to be outside.

I left nature for Queenstown. Unless you are into extreme sports and like towns spoiled by tourism I wouldn’t recommend it. I returned to raw nature and stayed a night in the shadow of Mount Cook. I spent quality time in the Hermitage where the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Center is located. I love mountains but I do not really understand people who risk their lives to climb up a snowy and treacherous peak. In Tekapo, I was hypnotized by the colour of the lake, which comes mostly from the dust glaciers drag as they move. They also have a statue of a dog to celebrate the contribution of sheep dogs. New Zealand…

It was already OCTOBER and time to think of heading back. Thankfully, a new contract in Vanuatu came through much earlier than expected and I did not have to worry about money. My next adventure was to relax on the Transalpine train from Christchurch on the east coast to Greymouth on the west coast. From there I went to Franz Josef and, as people do, climbed the glacier. I was lucky that it was one of the rare days when it did not rain! Before going back to Annick House in Nelson for another rest period, I spent two nights in a bush retreat in Punakaiki, famous for its pancake rocks. Not edible, I’m afraid, but very intriguing and scientists are still not 100% sure about how they are formed. After watching New Zealand beat France in the final of the Rugby World Cup it was time to fly back to Auckland and then Melbourne.

Port Vila Gym

In NOVEMBER I was back in Port Vila. Heat, humidity, back to skirts and t-shirts, bye bye fleece and woollen tights! Bye bye vacation and hello 7:30-4:30 work! No more cold… but I did get dehydrated. You can’t have it all! I started yoga and fitness classes to remedy the four months of food delights!

DECEMBER arrived very fast and it was time to pack my bag with fleece and woollen tights for my trip to winterland: Irish Christmas and New Year surrounded by family and friends. This year has been fantastic but a bit lonely and I missed my old friends. It is not easy to make friends in a small town, especially when you do not know how long you will stay. Or maybe it is because I still do not like to spend time in bars!

I will be back in Vanuatu at the end of JANUARY and looking forward to new adventures and hopefully more diving!

Port Vila - Road from the Office

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