Toto had encountered a business crisis, a major one it seemed and we couldn’t, he insisted, leave Luganville until he could find another driver for his only tour bus.
Luganville is small but, perched at the south-eastern end of Espiritu Santo Island, it’s still the second largest town in Australia’s friendly neighbourhood tax haven known as the Republic of Vanuatu.
From the capital, Port Vila, the country’s largest town of some 40,000 on Efate Island, it’s an hour’s flight northwest to Luganville, also known as Santo Town, Espiritu Santo’s administrative headquarters and the gateway to some of the most beautiful and primitive parts of the country.
There are coral reefs, blue holes and white sand beaches in the east, misty mountains, ravines and rainforests stretching the length of the west coast and clothing-optional villages everywhere where subsistence farmers still live a traditional life little different from that of their ancestors.
Amiable, laid-back Roel Toto (call me Toto), who ran a local tour business with one minibus and knew every place and face between Luganville and Port Olry 68km away, had agreed to show me around for a couple of days exploring the east coast but only after he could find a way to settle his corporate conflict.
While Toto scoured for an understudy I took a look around Luganville, a town born of conflict. Seventy years ago the good news was that Luganville was just a bunch of peaceful waterfront coconut plantations that happened to front a very useful anchorage. The bad news was America’s war machine was looking for a very useful anchorage.
At the height of World War II, Santo became the largest staging and supply base in the Pacific after Pearl Harbour, feeding the vicious campaign on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands to the north. With 100,000 US military personnel to house, Luganville officially achieved the status of a town.
Everywhere I poked around were reminders of the earlier American presence, a generous ration of corrugated iron Quonset huts fenced with vine-covered Marsden matting, chunks of concrete that once formed the PT boat nest where John F. Kennedy and his PT 109 prepared for combat and other bits of rusting implements of war.
There was the massive hulk of the converted troopship, President Coolidge, tragically and farcically sunk by friendly mines in Luganville Harbour in 1942, downed B17 bombers and Dakotas that dotted the flat eastern part of the island to Million Dollar Point where thousands of tonnes of materiel worth millions of dollars was dumped into the sea at the close of hostilities.
Everything from cranes to jeeps and old Coca-Cola bottles now provide Scuba divers with a treasure trove of artefacts while the President Coolidge alone, one of the largest and most accessible shipwrecks in the world, could keep divers busy for the rest of their lives.
But beyond the military surplus, Luganville also had a surplus of dark cavernous Chinese general stores, some 30 kava bars, a nine-hole golf course and a sprinkling of tourists who turned out to have been the root of Toto’s problem which evaporated when his brother finally caved in and agreed to take charge of the minibus.
I picked him up in my small, boneshaker rental car and there was hardly any traffic when we drove out of town and up the east coast road but it was a rugged ride that would have tested a rally driver and the potholes had been untended for so long, grass and wildflowers were flourishing in them.
Huge breadfruit trees drooped over the road under the weight of the big knobbly fruit and on either side were neatly kept copra plantations. In the shade of the coconut trees, healthy looking cattle grazed on the lush grass.
Nearing Shark Bay, we passed a bunch of villagers sauntering along the road to tend a garden of taro, manioc and cabbages when Toto became excited and pointed at a half-concealed entrance. I turned into a property owned by Saki Wells and discovered one of the island’s most astonishing features.
Underneath Santo is a massive cave and river system with pure, crystal clear water that wells up out of the ground at several points across the island forming magnificent “blue holes” and Saki’s, at a depth of more than 14 metres, was one of the bluest and most beautiful.
The impossibly blue water lay in a spectacular emerald green jungle setting where, after paying Saki the customary 500 vatu landowners’ fee, we could swim in the cool pool that had a lime-green, moss-covered ledge and pure white bottom and feed bread to the teeming freshwater fish.
Hog Harbour is the second largest village on Santo, which isn’t saying much. There was a general store and a terrific nakamal, a quiet, clubby little place where it was possible to meet the villagers over a drop of kava. This was a clean, beachfront village of palm frond huts and a port for the copra boats where friendly people spoke Bislama (pidgin) and English and were mostly Presbyterian.
This too was an American wartime base and scene of bitter fighting during the Coconut War in 1980 when local island hero, Jimmy Stevens, led a rebellion over land ownership that culminated in the country’s independence.
Just 15km north, the scenery and the language changed as the road wound into the grounds of the very French Roman Catholic mission built in 1887, the whole area intimidated by a huge white cross sticking out of the lawns.
This was the heart of tiny Port Olry, a French-speaking village surrounded by cattle and fringed with magnificent white beaches. In the village, where the coral sand streets were carefully raked and the houses built of coral plaster and palm fronds, piccaninnies played in the streets with runny noses and ear-to-ear smiles and villagers tended vegetable gardens at a pace most of us could only envy.
Toto was anxious to call into his traditional home at Champagne Beach. It was about a half-hour drive away, backtracking down through Hog Harbour. He told me his father, Opet, was the traditional owner and as heir apparent to the loveliest beach in Vanuatu, his eyes grew misty as he showed off his heritage.
This was where US servicemen are said to have guzzled champagne to celebrate the end of the Pacific War and it was as beautiful as the brochures promised. Curving around a blue lagoon and bordered with shady coconut palms and wild almond trees with their broad leaves spilling onto the pristine sand, this was the essence of the South Pacific and the inspiration for young Lieutenant James A. Michener to write “Tales of the South Pacific” and “Return to Paradise”.
Toto couldn’t drag himself away so I drove to another palm-fringed beach where Lonnoc Beach Bungalows stirred memories of Robinson Crusoe. Run by the ni-Vanuatu Vocor family, there were nine bungalows made from local materials with kerosene lamps and candles, some with ensuite, some with shared bathrooms, crushed coral floors and bunks that were adequate and surprisingly comfortable.
There was a basic dive shop, a restaurant where fantastic Santo organic steak was a specialty and a little bar serving locally brewed Tusker beer that more than made up for any lack of luxury in the rooms.
I could have spent several days chilling out there without seeing another guest, diving, fishing, swimming and just lying in a hammock by the fine sand beach while Wendy Vocor delivered my breakfast – English style of course.
Toto’s Champagne Beach was a 10-minute walk away. At both beaches the water deepened gently and at Lonnoc there were patches of live coral patrolled by gorgeously coloured tropical fish.
Back in Luganville my surprise at discovering the comparative luxury of the Coral Quays Resort was matched only by my unseemly haste at settling in at the Farr Canal Bar sipping pastis as the French colonialists did before they were booted out.
This seemed to be the most upscale place in town with vistas of Segond Channel that once teemed with 100 warships and now carried fishing boats, freighters and occasional ferries to the resort on Aore Island opposite.
A lanky French/Tahitian called Yannick, who seemed to have lived there forever and had established a rapport with the local people, offered to take me to Fanafo village, home of Jimmy Stevens, where his family still tended the independence hero’s shrine, where young women wore grass skirts, where men wore little more than a loincloth and where pig tusks, not money, were the barometers of wealth.
Despite our unannounced arrival, we were welcomed by Chief Tavulrucha, a cheerful, sinewy old man wearing a feather crown, a pink floral loincloth (mal mal), a pig’s tusk necklace and a treasured dog tag with “New York – New York” written on it, a recent gift from an American tourist.
I saw children playing football and watched families in open-sided houses preparing their evening meals and, just before we left, Jimmy Stevens’ widow, Jenny, offered to show me inside her late husband’s shrine.
Inside the circular palm frond hut was a table covered with mementos and photographs and behind it, an empty coffin on a bench above a flower-strewn pit where rested the body of Jimmy Stevens. It was a poignant moment and a rare honour for an outsider.
Back in the Coral Quays’ Raintree Restaurant I demolished a couple of Tusker beers, a bunch of local freshwater prawns in a Provencal garlic sauce, an organic Santo beefsteak and a bottle of Chateau Laroque 1996 St Emilion Grand Cru, an unexpected and refreshing injection of epicurean delight.
Say what you will about the French and the suggestion that they were crap colonialists, they always managed to leave behind a quite delicious legacy.
Story and Images ©Copyright David May 2012 (Copyright Agency Limited)