On fertile ground

Vanuatu is teeming with a richness of life that Richard Waters finds almost overpowering.

From 2000 metres above, the only way to tell the coconut plantations from the bright green of the raw jungle is by the more olive tinge of their foliage. The tiny plane dips and lurches, the starboard engine throbbing deafeningly a metre from my ear. The pilot is nonchalant and baby-faced. I'm clutching the cracked, sweat-stained leather of the seat in front, my leg jammed against the door where icy air whistles in around the frame.

We are flying the 250 kilometres from Vanuatu's capital, Port Vila, on the island of Efate, to Espiritu Santo, the archipelago's largest island and known locally as just Santo. Outside is a veiled blue haze of ocean and sky, with the bumpy outlines of islands ahead and, to the right, the twin cones of the volcanoes on Epi Island. They emit a long drift of grey-brown smoke that stains the horizon.

As the flight becomes smoother, the man in the seat in front of me turns to chat. Richard, from Brisbane, is about 60 and has been a regular visitor to Vanuatu for 20 years. In Santo he is catching up with a Kiwi friend who is coming with his new Ni-Vanuatu (citizen of Vanuatu) wife to pay "bride price" to her father. It's about $1000, he says. "Not just cash, though. A combination of Vatu [the local currency], pigs and mats." Woven mats and pigs are used as currency, apparently.

He points at an elongated green hump on the horizon ahead. "That's Malekula. It's one of the wilder islands. The locals were still eating people only 20 years ago." He turns away and I can't see his face. He's joking. Surely? But I know that Vanuatu does have a cannibal past. It's the birthplace of all the old jokes involving missionaries and cooking pots.

Malekula Island looks wild from the air - just a few small cleared oblongs in the jungle, the roofs of huts and some wisps of smoke. I wonder what's cooking. Mostly, though, it's sharp ridges of deep-green hills and wide, brown floodplains along the river valleys. The colours merge from land to water - green to brown to beige to yellow to turquoise as the rivers bleed into the sea. It's as if the island has just surfaced, wet and dripping, from beneath the ocean.

Vanuatu was discovered by Europeans 400 years ago when three Spanish galleons led by Pedro Fernandez de Quiroz sailed into Big Bay, on Santo's north coast, on May 3, 1606. He thought he'd found the elusive great southern continent and excitedly named it Australia del Espiritu Santo. In 1774, the more prosaic Captain James Cook named the islands the New Hebrides, though what similarity he saw between these lush volcanic islands and the barren Scottish isles is a mystery.

Britain and France squabbled over the islands until in 1906 they grudgingly formed a coalition. The grandly named Anglo-French Condominium was characterised by mutual suspicion and pig-headed national rivalry and lasted until independence in 1980 and the birth of modern Vanuatu.

Two days after our arrival, I'm sitting on the bottom of the sea. It's night and utterly black. I'm one of six divers on the sandy floor of the cargo hold of the sunken freighter MV Henry Bonneaud, 44 metres below the surface. Before we turned off our torches we arranged ourselves in a rough circle. My breathing fills my head and chest. Already I'm fretting about using too much air. I reach out and find someone's shoulder. It's my wife. We grab hands. Everyone waits, eyes straining.

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Then they appear. Tiny white luminous streaks, first one or two, then dozens, then hundreds. Flashlight fish. Circling us in the endless blackness, they are a dizzying vortex of diamond lights. It's like spinning round while looking up at the night sky. Soon the lights also flash between and above us as the fish dart closer. It's mesmerising. I'm spinning and lost in time and space, just the swirling stars and the bubbling of my own breath.

After five minutes we click our torches back on, startling the sleeping fish around the wreck, and begin to ascend. My head is still reeling. I can only tell which way is up from following the bubbles of my exhaled breath. In my torch beam, the water is teeming with tiny creatures just a couple of millimetres long. The inky night-time water is alive with primordial life - the absolute bottom of the food chain, normally invisible in the daytime.

We push our way through it towards the surface. When we emerge no one speaks. It's just bobbing heads and shiny, wet hair. I shiver and look beyond to the string of faint yellow lights back on the island.

The long wide main street is lined with Chinese-owned shops, crumbling concrete blockhouses and slumbering dogs. Luganville, Santo's main town, has the dilapidated, sleepy air of somewhere built for a one-off purpose long ago - much like an Olympic venue after the Games.

It was a major American military base during World War II, when its population blew out suddenly with 50,000 soldiers, who left just as abruptly when the war ended. One of them, Lieutenant James Michener, went home and wrote Tales of the South Pacific, inspiring the Hollywood musical South Pacific, which was filmed on Santo's east coast.

Submerged just offshore are tonnes of discarded military equipment and the world's largest accessible shipwreck, the liner turned troopship US President Coolidge, which sank in 1942 after hitting an American mine.

As we drive out of Luganville, glum-looking crowds are spilling out of the soccer stadium. A jeep roars past, horn blaring, youths hanging off the sides, waving flags and brandishing a huge, dented silver cup. Levi, our driver, tells us it's the team from Port Vila, which has just beaten Santo in a cup final. I wonder about soccer violence in Vanuatu.

But I don't think anyone is looking for a fight. It's Saturday and, like us, people are heading into the countryside. Unlike us, many of them are going pig hunting or birding. They sit in utes with rifles propped between their legs and toot their horns as they overtake. Children smile and wave and twirl their slingshots. Even the fiercest-looking men can't hold back a sly grin and a half-wave.

Outside town the road becomes crumbly and potholed, passing Japanese-owned cattle stations and neat coconut plantations. We turn onto a side road that is just a track overhung with lush greenery. Rats scurry in front of us. We bump past taro plants with huge leaves that locals use as makeshift umbrellas, trees of cocoa and breadfruit and fields of manioc and sweet potato. Outcrops of grey rock protrude like jagged teeth through the grass of the paddocks full of skinny cattle.

Most trees are festooned with a lantana-like weed. Levi tells us it is called morning glory, introduced by the Americans during the war as a living camouflage. It covers the ground, hangs from the trees, wraps itself around fences and houses and hides the crumbling runways and studded lumps of wartime bunkers.

We picnic and swim at the Matevulu Blue Hole, one of Santo's several volcanic springs, where the deep mineral water is cool and startlingly blue. Teetering painfully on the sharp rocks above the pool, I can see the bottom, 20 metres down. Teenagers from the nearby college crowd the place. Girls preen themselves on the rocks while the boys risk showy dives from high branches.

Levi takes us to a kastom (traditional) village, a group of long wooden huts around a clearing of red dirt. We stand, squinting in the sun, to be introduced to the chief. He is friendly, rounded and muscular, aged about 40. Girls giggle and scowl while toddlers peek from behind fingers. Piglets forage in the nearby shrubbery. The chief speaks in Bislama, the official local language, and Levi translates as he welcomes us to his village. In the midday heat, the richness of the earth and the surrounding vegetation is almost overpowering - the smell of fertility and growth and life.

But, then, all of Vanuatu is like that. The chain of 83 islands sits on the business end of the Pacific Ring of Fire, where tectonic plates collide and islands are born from volcano and earthquake. Some of Vanuatu's islands are rising at the rate of two centimetres a year. Lightning fast in geological terms. The whole place - animal, vegetable and mineral - is growing and multiplying, as if all the forces of nature are on fast-forward.

Returning to Port Vila, we avoid the tiny plane and catch a regular airliner. Before we take off, there is a breathless announcement: "We are honoured to welcome His Excellency, the President of Vanuatu, and the First Lady, who are joining us on this flight." There are excited murmurs, then the presidential entourage takes its seats in front of us: the Big Man, his big wife, a personal assistant and a bodyguard. President Kalkot Mataskelekele - tall, grey-haired and grey-suited - strolls down the aisle and settles in his seat. I could reach forward and tap him on the shoulder.

The flight attendant stands next to her nation's most powerful man while she gives the safety briefing. Her hands tremble violently on the safety demonstration. He just yawns and reads a document from his briefcase and I reflect that only a president with total confidence in the contentment of his subjects would choose to sit among them, in economy class - Air Force One for the people.

Destination Vanuatu

GETTING THERE
Air Vanuatu flies the 3 1/2 hours to Port Vila, Vanuatu's capital, from Brisbane and Sydney. Santo is an hour's flight north of Port Vila on Vanair, the domestic carrier. Pacific Blue has weekly flights to Santo from Brisbane.

STAYING THERE
Accommodation ranges from very basic bungalows on outer islands to a handful of hotels and eco-resorts on Santo and Efate. Camping is discouraged.

WHAT TO DO THERE
Santo's diving is among the world's best, both for its marine life and wartime relics, including the US President Coolidge and Million Dollar Point, where the US military bulldozed surplus equipment into the sea. The MV Henry Bonneaud is considered one of the world's best night dives. It can be dived only via Bokissa Island Eco Resort (www.bokissa.vu). Diving information is at http://www.aquamarine-santo.com.

For non-divers, attractions include sailing, snorkelling, game fishing and jungle and mountain trekking.

FURTHER INFORMATION
www.vanuatu.net.vu.

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