Cruising solo (pt5)…Espiritu Santo and Farewell.

by Anna Buckley

IMG_6075[1]Yesterday really had been one of far too much food. Why I was bothering to go to breakfast was beyond me, but I was awake and it was something to occupy my morning. I sat drinking coffee and looked out towards the land. Overnight we had sailed to the Island of Espiritu Santo and into Champagne Bay where the tenders would be taking us to Champagne Beach…I’m sure the Islanders had a much more exotic name. I look outside, another beach, the sky still an early morning grey. Perhaps it was the second bottle of wine last night that resulted in my lackluster spirit this morning.

IMG_6012[1]I grabbed a plate and circled the buffet, nothing screamed ‘come and eat me’ except for some diced fresh pineapple and a couple of pieces of watermelon.

By the time I’d finished the sun was out and when I looked again I was stunned by what I saw. I remembered now, the teller at the currency exchange had told me Champagne Beach was THE most beautiful beach in the world. I jumped up, grabbed my gear and headed straight for shore.

IMG_6027[1]The bluest sea, the whitest sand and the clearest warm tropical water I had yet experienced. This was an Island paradise…the teller was right, it really was one of the most beautiful beaches I had ever seen.

IMG_6013[1]A huge wide bay, brooding shade trees where the jungle tumbled to the sea. No feeling of crowds, plenty of room for all.

IMG_6023[1] A village market, set back from the beach, sat under lush trees. A row of thatched huts saw stallholders selling coconuts, island food and locally made clothing and craft.  No garish tents, no Marley T-shirts or fake Frangipani. Smoke from cooking fires added a layer of deliciousness.  This place had a sense of authenticity, gentleness and calm.

IMG_6050[1]For the first time on my trip I really wanted to buy something. I noticed a woman sewing sun dresses on an old treadle machine, no electricity. She had two gorgeous kids who placidly sat as their mum worked away. I bought 2 of the white muslin dresses, something to throw over a swimsuit, one for Dorothy and one for me.

IMG_6067[1]When I got to the end of the market I was gently being persuaded to take a taxi to the ‘Blue Hole’. Nixon’s smile won me over and after agreeing on a $10 fare I jumped in his car. He handed me a bunch of peanuts, like the ones I saw at the markets in Vila, and we set off.

IMG_6033[1] We drove past cattle grazing, free-range. Nixon told me that when he wasn’t driving a taxi he had a small herd of cattle, about 10. I asked how long he kept them before they were sold and he said 2 years. He received $50 a head, barely enough to earn a living and I was glad I’d chosen him today and more than happy to pay.

IMG_6034[1]We drove past small thatch villages up into the hills until we reached a hut on the side of the road. In the hut sat the landowner and his wife, the sign said it would cost $7 to see the ‘Blue Hole’. I walked down a steep path, past women selling pineapple juice and flower garlands. I liked this form of local entrepreneurialism.

IMG_6038[1]At the bottom of the steps I saw the water hole and some familiar faces from the ship.

IMG_6039[1]The water was the brightest blue I’d ever seen, reflecting the colour of the sky. Carefully I made my way onto the slippery rocks, put on my fins and goggles and dived in. The water was breathtakingly cold and very refreshing after the hot sweaty drive. I paddled slowly to the middle of the pool, took a big lungful of air and dived deep. And at the bottom of the limestone pool the water was surprisingly hot. I learnt that the pool was heated by volcanic activity just below the surface and hoped the next eruption might wait till I was back on the boat!

IMG_6040[1]I swam for about an hour and returned to the hut to find Nixon waiting. On our way back he pulled over to show me the ship I hadn’t been aware we were up so high until I saw how small the boat looked.

By the time we got back to the beach I was starving. I asked Nixon where the best lobsters were and he said “Follow me”.

IMG_6018[1]First I selected my lobster.

IMG_6021[1]Then taken into the jungle where pots of water boiled over open fires and the unsuspecting creature was dispatched.

IMG_6044[1]While I waited pigs wandered through the undergrowth just a few metres away.

IMG_6043[1]A disposable plate was made from banana leaves.

IMG_6041[1]My lobster done.

IMG_6046[1]Cracked open, reassembled and ready for me to eat…a $15 bargain!

IMG_6028[1]I grabbed a cold beer from the outdoor bar,

IMG_6058[1]And found a shady spot on the beach. It was he best and freshest lobster I’d ever eaten…yum!

IMG_6052[1]As much as an outrigger ride would have been fun, the reef was calling.

I walked to the end of the bay to a less busy place.

IMG_6061[1]And found, just around the corner, a completely secluded stretch of water where I spent the next two hours exploring the reef and brilliant marine life…more snakes, less scared, lots of fun.

IMG_6073[1]By 4pm it was time to leave. On the way out I gave these guys the last of my coins.

IMG_6074[1]Reluctantly I took one last look before being ferried to the ship and wondered if I’d ever be back here again?

I started to think about how brilliant being marooned on Champagne Beach would be. What a magical place after the crowds had left. Scenarios for the new trilogy entered my head and that I night dreamed of super-yachts, pirates and deserted islands!

IMG_6102[1]During the night we’d sailed around to the other side of Espiritu Santo, into Luganville. I’d overheard conversations suggesting it wasn’t much of a place. Some passengers weren’t bothering to get off. But I’d liked my little adventure yesterday and was keen to find another driver like Nixon who could perhaps show me around, unlock its secrets.

We had docked at the main harbour and just as I was about to walk off was completely stopped in my tracks. It was Simon, my friend from Fitzroy. After a big hug and looks of utter surprise he said he was coming on board to perform his comedy show. He asked me to wait while he checked in.

Simon Palomares is a very dear friend. He lives only a few streets away. Our kids grew up together. My husband and Simon often drank at the local pub together. We’d shared many a meal and now I had a friend to share this trip with. It seemed my solo adventure was over!

IMG_6093[1]We found a driver, negotiated a price and headed for the main street. The town was the biggest on the Island. It didn’t have the duty-free shops or flash restaurants of Port Vila. In fact it didn’t look like a tourist town at all. It had rather a ramshackle appeal.

Luganville had been nothing more than a small tribal village before the Americans set up a military base here during the Second World War. From 1942 approximately 40,000 service men and women were stationed there.

Apparently Luganville was the setting for the Hollywood musical South Pacific. My parents had this album and I can remember playing songs like ‘Happy Talk’ and now I can’t get that tune out of my head!

IMG_6094[1]We stop for petrol and Simon says I  should take a look.

IMG_6095[1]Inside was a store that looked like it had been decorated in the fifties.

IMG_6096[1]Women’s underwear, food, plastic flowers, fishing gear, mechanical equipment, everything an Islander might possibly need. Against the far wall I spotted this rather creepy looking shop dummy who looked like he’d been doing a perfectly good job displaying kids clothes since at least 1942.

IMG_6091[1]Petrol tank full we’re ready to go. Our driver stops to chat with a friend, to find out which water hole is open today. While we wait Simon tells me that last time he was here the roads were a pot holed mess, with no work being done since the Americans left in the 40s. The driver said the New Zealand government had funded the upgrade…work for the locals and better, safer access for tourists.

IMG_6080[1]After a 20 minute drive we arrived at Riri Blue Hole, paid $10 at the gate and got glimpses of a much bigger and bluer lagoon than the one I’d been to yesterday.

IMG_6079[1]A thatched pergola and wooden deck sat at the water’s edge. We dumped our bags. I grabbed my fins and made my way into the water. It was spectacularly beautiful. Much wider, deeper than yesterdays Blue Hole and, at the bottom, lots of fish. I swam for ages, felt like a sea creature, loved being in the water.

IMG_6078[1]There was a diving platform with a long rope swing, lots of people climbing to the highest perch to jump off. Simon went first and made a respectable entry into the water. I swam back to praise him for his effort and stupidly accepted his dare to make the jump myself. I climbed to the tallest rung, a little nervous at how high it actually was, reached for the knotted rope and…slipped, dragging myself ingloriously, like a whale caught on a fishing line, through the water. No Esther Williams water ballet just the laughter of the crowd cacking themselves at my slapstick hilarity! Simon was the stand-up comedian but at that humiliating moment I’d pulled focus and had centre stage! He couldn’t stop laughing and threatened to put my performance on YouTube. I threatened to kill him…not sure how, but I would find a way if that terrible performance ever made it to air. I was saved when he went for one last go and almost completely mimicked my swinging prowess. Both of us agreed it was time to go.

IMG_6089[1]Our next stop was Million Dollar Point. At the end of the war the American government decided it was too costly to ship  all their equipment back to the States. Rather than just leave it, worried it could fall into the wrong hands, everything was dumped into the sea. Millions of dollars worth of hardware rendered useless by the salt water and pounding surf. It was high tide and not much stuff was exposed, just some rusted pieces of machinery.

IMG_6088[1]I fossicked around finding bits of crockery and lots of coke bottle glass. Fairly unimpressive.

It had become windy, the sea was very choppy, the water  murky and a fairly average beach hardly beckoned me to enter. But it was my last chance to go diving and I took the plunge…

imgres And found THE most extraordinary sight. Jeeps, tanks, boats, an equipment graveyard just below the surface. It was like some brilliant underwater military museum and probably one of the most spectacular sights I’ve ever seen. No hefty scuba gear required, easily accessible with just a pair of goggles and a set of fins. Fish everywhere, coral clinging to the wreckage, a new reef forming. I felt like Mrs. Jacques  Cousteau and swam for hours, exploring sunken hulks, swimming through the skeletal frames of  ships, something new to discover every few metres.

Eventually we both surfaced, sat on the beach and raved about what we’d just experienced. We imagined how much our kids would love to go diving here and wondered if we’d ever get the chance to bring them to this magical place.

Again the time had raced, it was late and we needed to get back to the boat.

IMG_6101[1]I went to deck four where a number of passengers had gathered to watch our departure from Luganville,

IMG_6107[1]And caught a glimpse of Million Dollar Point and thought what a fitting and spectacular end to the brilliant time I’d spent in the South Pacific.

IMG_6105[1]The last of the tenders were hauled up and secured for our journey of four nights and three days back at sea. We were heading home.

IMG_6121[1]Back to ship life again and after dinner that night Simon and his friend and fellow entertainer, Chris Powley, sang with Jake in the piano bar.

IMG_6115[1]Chris performed his show, wore blue suede shoes and sang like and angel. I’m sure some of the women in the audience really hoped it was them he was singing ‘Love Me Tender’ to.

IMG_6116[1]And when I brought the boys to table 170 to meet the gang I’m sure they wondered what the hell was going on… I had been the lone female diner to their 4 couples for the entire trip!

IMG_6151[1]On January the 26th the ship was decorated to celebrate Australia Day.

IMG_6153[1]The three of us, a New Zealander (Chris), a Spaniard (Simon) and an Australian (me) went to Chops Grill to pay homage to Australia’s national dish…the lamb chop. As usual we ate far too much and really shouldn’t have ordered that extra bottle of wine!

IMG_6168[1]It was our last, and disappointingly grey, day. I desperately needed a toasted cheese sandwich to mop up the alcohol of last nights overindulgence. Simon obviously didn’t have a hangover and opted for the much healthier salad instead. Or perhaps he just didn’t perform well on a full stomach…his show was tonight.

IMG_6145[1]By late afternoon the weather got much worse and the 3 metre swell had turned the normally serene waters of the Solarium into a wave pool! It would eventually become too dangerous to swim and by 4pm both pools were shut down.

IMG_6140[1]I walked past rows of empty sun lounges. Hardly anybody was on deck 9. It was beginning to rain, the temperature had dropped. There was a general feeling of melancholy all over the ship.

I went back to my cabin, packed my bag and dressed for our final dinner.

IMG_6176[1]We had our last meal together on table 170, swapped addresses and vowed to keep in touch.

IMG_6171[1]Finally it was time for Simon to do the farewell show. His comedy was edgy and reminded me of the things we do in Fitzroy. A place worlds away from the life I’d just experienced. Perhaps gently easing me back home.

After the applause ended the performers, some crew and lastly the Captain got on stage and we all cheered and waved  goodbye. I was sad to be leaving, I’d grown very fond of this ship and its people, but I knew I had to get back to reality and head home.

Thanks so much to everybody on the Rhapsody of the Seas, the crew who worked tirelessly, the friendly people who made me feel welcome, and to my dear friends Dorothy and Wayne who showed me how it was done… it really was an  unexpectedly fabulous time and one brilliant bloody adventure!

And thanks to you too for coming along for the ride…now I really have to get back to real world and get some work done.

Cheers and much love Anna x

Anna Buckley Books

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