Nadi, in the west, is the tourist hub of Fiji, so it has the main airport. But Suva, on the other side of the island, is the largest city and the capital. and this is where the twice weekly flights to Tuvalu leave. Fiji feels wonderful after Nauru and Tuvalu's Moonlight Lodge rat. And I’m at the Grand Pacific in Suva, which has been totally refurbished and reopened – one of these great white colonnaded colonial hotels in the mould of Raffles. It’s incredibly comfortable, if still somewhat soulless. They don’t seem to manage to capture atmosphere in Fiji unless it’s proper traditional with bures. Minimalist design doesn’t quite come off in the humidity.
Suva has been the capital of Fiji since 1877. Before then the British colony was being administered from what had been the main European settlement, on another Fijian island, Ovalau, One third of the population of Fiji lives in Suva, or the area around this coastal city.
As well as being the political, economic, and cultural centre of Fiji. Suva also takes on this role for the South Pacific region. I've read it is home to the majority of the regional headquarters of major international corporations, international agencies, and diplomatic missions.
There’s a great view of Suva Harbour, cargo ships dotted in front of mountains, from my balcony, but it’s a grey one. It’s raining. Well, it's the dry season.
It’s too cool (and wet) to sit round the very lovely pool, so I wait for a break in the weather and set off for town. Taking my cagoule more or less guarantees the sun will appear, though it’s still gusty. The capital of Fiji is pleasant, but it doesn’t set the pulse racing. Most of the Fijians say they prefer Nadi. Lonely Planet has contrived to turn a tour of Suva into a two - four hour walk, but that’s really pushing it, unless a great deal of shopping and drinking coffee is involved.
Suva is vaguely colonial. There’s an imposing grey government building with a bit of art deco and a clock tower, a city library, some more modern administrative structures and a brown stone cathedral. There's a small colourful Municipal Market with a range of local fruit and vegetables. and a row of souvenir stalls along the quay. This is the most interesting part of town, conversing with the fishermen and watching the few ships at anchor out in the bay.
The shops are an up market India - higgledy piggledy but not chaotic - displaying saris and Indian food. In fact there is a tiny ‘Little India’ at one end of the main street. These collide with a medley of duty free stores.
Opposite the hotel, there’s a large sports ground and the Thurston Gardens. In the grounds, the Fiji Museum, with examples of traditional canoes, war clubs and tattooing tools. You have to pay to go in, but you can see most of the collection by peeping round the door. There are no other visitors and the attendants are friendly, but lethargic. There's very little else of note between the ubiquitous palms, except for another clock tower and some bedraggled crotons. Perhaps it’s the wrong time of year.
I’m back in under two hours. I might have been quicker, but I am greeted at every step by a good half of the Fijian males out walking and I have to smile and ‘Bula’ back.
Next stop American Samoa.
This time I’m visiting two resorts in the Solomon Islands. The first, Tavanipupu Island, is where Wills and Kate stayed, on one of their Royal Tours. Last time I was here everyone was preparing for this, with varying degrees of enthusiasm.. But before I get there, having flown in from Noumea, I have a seven hour layover at Honiara Airport to endure. It is tiny and ramshackle is too kind a description. There’s one small café, in the international building and the domestic terminal is up the shingle road, in a sort of wooden hut. It’s all coming back to me now.
No Wi-Fi, but at least I’ve managed to bag the only sofa. I drift off to sleep in an empty lounge and wake up to find I’m surrounded by a melee of passengers. My total consumption is one coconut, one Magnum and a plate of chips and I’ve also become firm friends with the café manager, Francina, before I judge it expedient to return to the domestic ‘terminal’. The tourist posters say: 'Hapi Ples, Hapi Iles, Hapi Pipl'.
I had forgotten how terrifying these local flights are. In total contrasts to my flight here, it’s an ancient creaky prop plane with metal bench seats. Fellow passengers Sanjay, Shelley and Lou tell me that they are often crawling with cockroaches. I shall watch out for those. Though, frankly I don’t care, as long as I survive the journey.
Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands is on Guadalcanal Island. It's famous for a huge battle between the UK, the USA and Japan, during World War II. Flying over Guadalcanal is reminiscent of PNG, with peaks clothed in frilly forest and several impressively large meandering rivers. However, there are dirt roads, where PNG has none and the hills are smaller.
Tavanipupu is at the eastern end of Guadalcanal, one of a smattering of coral islands, with impossibly gorgeous views onto blue seas and little white beaches, with bent palm trees draped artfully across them. It’s one version of paradise.
I’ve been given the accolade of the Royal Bungalow, which is naturally very swish, with an indoor and outdoor shower. The bed is reputed to be the one in which George was made and the toilet has a plaque over it announcing it's The Royal Throne. I don’t know which idea makes me more uncomfortable, when I’m using them.
I’ve snorkelled between two jetties round a quarter of Tavanipupu, through shoals of tiny gleaming fish. I’ve walked round the island (twenty minutes through clouds of mosquitoes, huge ficus roots, mangroves and pandanus) and I’ve had a massage. The locals all come to work in wooden canoes, which glide onto the little beach, below my bungalow and are lined up below the palm trees. It’s not a bad version of heaven.
It was fairly breezy yesterday, but the gusts turned into a full scale gale last night. The Royal Bungalow is more isolated than the others and fully exposed to the wind. It’s not easy to sleep, when your mosquito net is billowing into the rafters and there is a shower of dried palm descending from the roof.
To my surprise, the planned boat trip to Picnic Island goes ahead. It’s choppy, if not absolutely petrifying and I am drenched when we arrive. The island is worth the discomfort. It’s another one of those little tropical pieces of paradise, where I run out of superlatives. Every shade of blue is visible, the whitest of white sand is incredibly soft and littered with bleached pieces of wood displayed like artist’s installations.
In the afternoon, a performance by the choir, from the village on one of the nearby islands. It’s very Born Agai,n but the children are cute and compete for attention by going totally overboard with their actions to the music. One little moppet hasn’t a clue what is happening and stands in the front throughout sucking her thumb.
The two back up generators have given up backing up, so all the bungalows are pitch black. It’s not easy trying to find all my gear to pack by the light of my iPhone. I wonder if Wills and Kate had to put up with this?
There’s a thirty minute plane ride back to Honiara to survive next, though first we have to get to the airfield on the motorboat. Some of the other guests come out to wave us off. That’s nice I think, waving back. Then I see that we are being pursued by another resort boat. The guests were gesticulating because they’d been left behind. We stop to take them on board, but our own engines are shuddering and keep shutting down altogether. The plane is waiting on the little grass runway, the pilot looking impatient when we finally arrive, flapping our tickets and decanting straight off the boat onto the rickety seats.
Things improve. Sanjay turns out to be the general manager of the Heritage Park Hotel in Honiara, where I’m booked in for half a night on Thursday. Lou is a director. They offer to rescue me from the airport tedium of a prospective seven hours on the sofa and transport me to the hotel, until it’s time to check in. Excellent, though Francina is going to be disappointed. I don’t feel guilty whilst I’m chomping my free scrambled egg and bacon, or dozing in my complimentary hotel room, with sea view.
Back to the airport, for the trip to Seghe, to discover that it’s the same Twin Otter plane, but the trip is almost two hours this time. The Rescue Remedy spray is going to feature heavily.
Whatever the contenders for top five countries in the world to visit the Solomon Islands must win hands down for views from the air, when you’ve got over the terror of flying in their planes. The islands in Western Province are green Jackson Pollock splodges on a blue background.
Marovo Lagoon is also billed as the world’s largest saltwater lagoon. I’ve looked up the definitions and I’m still none the wiser as to which one is actually the winner. (It's between the Solomon Islands and New Caledonia). Anyway, Uepi Island is at one end of this lagoon and now I really have run out of superlatives. My bungalow is on a beach facing the lagoon. A turtle, a kingfisher, a mudskipper and the local monitor lizard come to visit. The path is lined with towering trees and coconut husk edged hibiscus and orchid borders. And dinner is divine: crab, fish, chicken, oysters and ginger margaritas. Wow!
This is my second attempt to visit Uepi, during a Solomon Islands trip, as it has been completely booked, when I have tried before. But I had heard the reef life was amazing and persisted. As a result, today is filled with snorkelling expeditions, together with Janine and Gary from Adelaide.
At 7.15, I’m eyeballing a manta who is calling by for his regular cleaning station session, as the small fish hoover him. Naturally, I’ve forgotten to put the battery in my camera. At 9.00, I’m outside the lagoon battling the current on an immensely long reef, which drops off to 200 metres at its deepest, and admiring the coral gardens. At 14.00, I’m taken, by boat. to Uepi Point, where the lagoon meets the sea and I drift with the current along the reef lining the inside passage, then swimming along the side of the island and right back to my beach, to commune with the clown fish and paddle with the turtle.
Along the way we’ve got blasé about sharks – O no not another one (white tipped and black tipped reef sharks) - and swum through numerous thick gleaming shoals of fish. I think I’ve earned my margarita tonight.
Today is a repeat of yesterday, but I remember my battery and the manta is good enough to visit again. There are seven of us snorkelling today, with Aussie Neil acting as snorkel master. Yet another amazing long reef swim in the morning and back from The Point in the afternoon. By the end of the day we reckon we have seen nearly every fish in the guide book. The variety of vibrant colours and shapes is astonishing. Life on the coral is utterly fascinating, with everything from minor spats to full-scale shimmering pageants constantly enacted. Moray eels peep out to watch us float past, an eagle ray sails by and the little reef sharks keep coming. I’m alternating humming Wonderful World and Jaws in my head.
The hammocks on my decking are very welcome at the end of the day. I’ve had to pack everything into my two full days. Everyone else seems to be exhausted too. The bar is deserted by nine and I wander back to my room on my own, watching out dusky for land crabs scuttling back to their burrows, after trying to rearrange my transfers for tomorrow. The flight has already been shifted forward again. I’m really sad that plane flight schedules didn’t allow for any more time here. The staff have been excellent, the food wonderful and the other guests delightful. I have a handful of invites to stay. Uepi is magic. Moving on is going to be very difficult.
I’ve bought mother of pearl jewellery from a mournful looking guy, called Abraham Lincoln, at the little dive jetty market, before leaving on the banana boat. This time I’m in plenty of time for my plane, but today I’m not even on the manifest and the plane is overloaded. There’s a lot of cargo. After a stressful half hour and a lot of ticket waving I’m allowed on, because of my onward connection out of the Solomon Islands tonight. Phew…
Back in Honiara, Sanjay has been good enough to reserve me another nice room and I hole up in preparation for the nastiest flight time of the trip. I’m reunited with The Gang of Three from Wallis Island at dinner. Roy and Mike are still bickering away. ‘The man’s a moron’, Roy explains loudly. The plane for Nauru leaves at 1.15 a.m. We line up in immigration at 11.45. The little man with the ink pad dithers and then advances the date on his stamp.
Flying in from Tonga. I had forgotten how friendly the Fijians are, and how wearing it is playing games of guess which country I'm from, in reply to the inevitable question. They never seem to think of England as a possibility. On the South Sea cruises catamaran - The Yasawa Flyer, from Port Denaru, partly retracing last year's steps (or wake?) past the Mamanuca Islands and on through the volcanic Yasawa Islands. There are about 20 of them, six main islands and numerous smaller islets. The volcanoes have kept their shape, The peaks range from 250 to 600 metres.
Navigation here is tricky - there's not much depth between the islets so they remained undisturbed until 'discovered' by Captain Bligh in 1789, after his crew had mutinied on The Bounty. They were largely ignored by the wider world until World War II, when the United States military used them as communications outposts.
Whilst we try to avoid running aground, I chat to an American guy who runs the/a university in Tonga. He offers me a job teaching psychology there. I'll think about it.
At Octopus Resort, half way into the Yasawa Islands, the whole staff come out to greet the landing of the dinghy that ferries us into shore. One of the reasons I returned to Fiji was because the snorkelling was so good last year, on the inner islands. This is the Soft Coral Capital of the World after all. As anticipated, the coral is far superior to anywhere else on this trip. The off beach snorkelling is amazing. Shame it rains. Yes the blinking rain seems to have followed me - again. And yes, it's the dry season - the guide books say so.
Nanuya Lailai Island, in the Yasawas, actual setting for The Blue Lagoon film. Movie people aren't stupid, making so many films out here. The water is indeed blue, more ultramarine than azure, with swirls of jade. It's stunning and I'm not complaining. I have a typical lofty roofed wooden Fijian house, a bure; it has great views across the lagoon and I indulge in my last South Pacific sunsets.
More snorkelling. I go out in a boat and then zoom up and down the reef off the beach at low tide and then high tide, till I go all wrinkly. I've been trying out my new Olympus Tough underwater camera, with some success. The visibility is good, but attempting to capture images of fish is a little trying. They zip about far too quickly and if I do catch one off guard then you can guarantee that the current will waft me away.
Nevertheless, there is one patch with several shoals of them all intermingling. Great photos, though the fish clearly expect to get fed at this spot and in their disappointment several decide to nip me instead. As someone then shouts out ' sea snake behind you' retreat seems expedient. It's a krait - highly poisonous, though they are considered very docile and have tiny fangs. Even a small venomous bite doesn't sound that appealing. To prove it, it's even in the corner of my picture (top left).
A farewell snorkel, trying not to think about snakes, and then a challenge, while I wait for the boat back to the mainland. A round the island walk billed at an hour and a half sounds just the ticket. It's low tide, so the staff say it will all be passable. They don't tell me about all the lava I have to scramble over, or the yapping dogs that will accompany me or the swampy mangroves I have to wade through with ominous squidging beneath. They would have told me if there was sinking sand. Wouldn't they? And all the time hoping I'm not going to get lost. I don't want to miss the boat. I keep telling myself that you can't get lost going anti clockwise round an island. I hope. In the event, I make it in record time, scurrying along like the crabs.
Next stop Vancouver.
I'm on my way home from Vanuatu, but I've fitted in a day trip on the hovercraft from Hong Kong to Macau. By the skin of my teeth, as the tour company I booked with have forgotten to come and pick me up. I’ve had varying reports on Macau. It’s reported as nothing but casinos, tawdry. But I’ve always wanted to go and never quite managed to fit it in before.
Macau is a former Portuguese colony, occupying a small peninsula and two islands off China's southern coast, in the western Pearl River Delta. Portugal started renting the territory from Ming China as a trading post in 1557; it was transferred back to China in 1999. Macau is designated a special administrative region of China, like Hong Kong, maintaining separate governing and economic systems from those of mainland China, under the principle of "one country, two systems". Its population of about 680,000 (according to Wikipedia) and area of 12.7 square miles (8 square miles of this is reclaimed land) makes it the most densely populated region in the world.
Macau is fascinating and well worth the trip. Colonial and ultra modern combined. Firstly, it's an Asian Las Vegas, with 35 themed 'mega' casinos: volcanoes, glittering balls, tower with bungee jump; the lot. And more under construction. This is where China makes its money - the Chinese love to gamble and Macau has capitalised on this. Foreign casino companies have invested heavily since 2002. when Hong Kong tycoon Stanley Ho's decades-long monopoly ended. Macau then was more about traditional gambling dens. Today, Macau is the largest casino gambling jurisdiction in the world. It has annual gambling revenues of more than $13 billion.
In addition to the burgeoning Las Vegas style casino hotels, like the Venetian, there are some giant shopping malls.
The cobbled World Heritage old town is a unique blend of Portuguese and Chinese architecture. Possibly the most rewarding sights are here. The colonial areas, churches (and facades of churches), pink and white mansions, squares and city walls are spread in little clumps. There are even azulejos (Portuguese tiles). Scarlet and gold ancient Tao temples add authentic colour to the shopping streets.
Perhaps the best part of seeing Hong Kong again is the bus journey back to the airport with marvellous views of the city and skyscrapers lit up against the whole of the bay and across the new suspension bridge onto Lantau Island. The Cultural Centre has a nightly ‘Symphony of Light Show’. The illuminations on the island scrapers dazzle to the sound of martial music and a cacophony of lasers keep time. Mmmm….
(And read more about China here.)
Finally arrive in Fiji from Vanuatu but in unscheduled Suva (the capital). Only an hour late. Then a taxi ride across the island of Viti Levu, back to Nadi (say it Nandi) with two other stranded passengers. It's really very pleasant, the sun is shining and there are great views of coral beaches and the reefs and islands all along the coast road. And plantations. There's a little sugar train that runs along the side of the road.
It all looks very urbanised, after my previous sojourns. People mainly live in houses, rather than huts, and there's quite a lot of manufacturing industry. And malls. And McDonalds. Though it's still relatively poor.
One of the passengers is a bit of an odd ball. An Anglo-Indian who lives in the U.S. We talk about travel a lot, but every time we mention a country he starts to talk in the associated accent. Quite unconsciously I think. His English accent is terrible.
Nadi is only the third-largest city//town in Fiji, but the largest airport in Fiji is close by and it's the tourist hub. The Nadi region has a higher concentration of hotels and motels than any other part of Fiji. It has a large Indo-Fijian population, (many Indians came to work on the sugar plantations) and it has the largest Hindu temple in the Southern Hemisphere.
There's an islet of hotels at Port Denaru, handily placed for boats to the islands. They're mostly chain establishments, with clipped lawns and a golf course. It's just like Florida.
My hotel is on the outskirts of Nadi, near an oil refinery. Fortunately, you can't see the cylindrical towers from the grounds. The hotel is quaint and traditional, with thatched bungalows called bures. The odd mongoose skittering about. Pathways littered with cane toads and lizards, who hop out of your way as you wander along. The staff shake hands and bellow 'Bula' (welcome) at me every time I meet them. Most of the men wear loud tropical shirts and sarongs called sulus and both men and women decorate their hair with hibiscus flowers.
Boat trip out to the Mamanuca Islands. There are about 20 islands in the archipelago, but about seven of these are covered by the Pacific Ocean at high tide. Not a great place to live then.
All idyllic little volcanic islands with improbable names like Treasure Island, Beachcomber, Bounty and South Sea. Bounty is where they filmed Celebrity Love Island. We sail on to Monuriki for swimming and snorkelling. This one is more commonly known as Tom Hanks Island, as it's where they filmed Castaway. It's all impossibly perfect. The water is cobalt, the reef is gaudy and the fish are psychedelic. Since 2016, the islands have been the filming location of the television series Survivor.
An island village in the afternoon, where the chief welcomes us with the local drink - kava. It's what set the locals crawling home on Tanna in Vanuatu. Though we're told they have marketed it as an antidepressant in Europe. In Fijian villages, only the chief can wear hats and sunglasses. The top of the head is sacred, and is not meant to be touched. Once we've participated in the kava ceremony - tasting optional, we explore the village. The main attraction is the smiling, playfully shy children.
It's raining, bucketing down. And it's dry season. The toads are enjoying it. Not much to do except read, watch the palm fronds blowing around, have a massage and a leisurely lunch. This is enforced by the speed of the service. The Fijians are lovely, but initiative is a foreign concept and they take everything you say absolutely literally. So if you ask for a bottle of water with your meal that's what you get, no glass, unless you specifically request one.
The evening is definitely not quiet, however. As I have wiled away the day with a huge (and leisurely) lunch I decide that I will just have a couple of cocktails for supper. Enter two Aussie guys in their mid thirties on their way to a wedding on Treasure Island, but marooned on the mainland by the weather. Not only can those guys drink, but boy do they have the gift of the gab. Before very long I am married (they have the requisite shell necklace) and have been invited to go to the wedding with him. He is even choosing the outfit I am going to wear and planning the house he is going to build for me.
All absolutely hysterical and keeps the whole bar entertained. There is a bit of a tussle when he decides he wants to claim his conjugal rights. Can't pretend I'm not tempted. He is six foot three, fit and plays rugby league. But I manage to get into my bungalow and lock the door. He sits on the step for a while calling out, 'Wifey, wifey' in a plaintive voice before he gives up. Nice to know I'm not yet too old.
Hong Kong for Macau next.
I must be downright bonkers. Just after midnight the whole hotel building building started, shaking and moaning. I leapt out of bed - another earthquake! No - one else in took any notice and I tried to get back to sleep but I was sure the bed was moving so it wasn’t a very peaceful Vanuatu night. And now I'm on the way to The Gates of Hell on Tanna. Today, not only have I added two more flights to my itinerary when I was down to only three more, but the consequence of the aforementioned flights is that I am now standing right on the edge of the caldera of a volcano. The journey from Port Vila on Efate is eventful. The plane is tiny and the pilot looks about 18. He's only just got his licence.
More trades descriptions issues. The 'scenic flight' a turns out to be mostly over the sea, though Port Vila, The Prettiest Town in the Pacific does look good from the air, with all its islands and lagoons. The 'delicious lunch' is one egg sandwich, a sour tangerine and a mug of squash.
However, Tanna Island is absorbing. Very wild and much more traditional. There has been a big initiation ceremony on Tanna the night before and crowds of villagers are staggering home. Most are still wearing their finery, feathers and grass skirts and many clearly have whacking hangovers. Some are literally crawling and others have given up and are lying face down on the grass.
We drive through pandanus groves and across vast deserts and canyons made of ash. There are great views across rianfoesrt and fern trees. In the distance the volcano is already rumbling and belching out smoke. The vehicle jolts up most of the mountain and we then clamber up a track to the very top. As I said - bonkers. But hugely spectacular. It really feels like the end of the world.
When we arrive at the top, the volcano is rumbling, growling and chucking up thousands of boulders, lumps of lava glowing red and clouds of sulphur, lightening and steam. Mount Yasur on the island of Tanna is billed as the world's most accessible active volcano.
We stay for an hour or so watching the heaving cauldron below. Every so often more boulders come hurtling past, heralded by great rumbles - very like shouts of despair. Somehow we maintain a distance; the show is being played out on the stage in front. Our guides assure us it’s perfectly safe. This is only Level One activity. Visitors are barred if it gets to a Three. We scramble down again, to the truck, for the' delicious lunch'. I'm still monitoring the rim of the volcano. There's an almighty roar and a cloud of lava and rocks shoots up hundreds of feet into the air, streaming down to land just where we have been standing.
Coming from the Solomon Islands. Where next? South to the capital of a nation of only 70 or so islands this time speaking English, French and Bislama (as well as 100 or so other languages). Tales of the South Pacific was based on life here during World War II. However, some serious issues to report to the trades descriptions people. My guide book says that Port Vila, on Efate Island, the capital of Vanuatu, is the prettiest town in the Pacific. Well it's certainly better than Moresby and Honiara, but 'stunning views round every crooked corner'? Well, no. Maybe it will look prettier if the sun comes out.
My Hitchhikers' Guide (Wikipedia) tells me that Port Vila (or just Vila, like the football team- almost) is the commercial centre and a tax haven. As to sights? It offers: several memorials, ( two traditional totem poles and a monument representing a pig's tusk amongst others), a church, the City Hall and two wall paintings. I'm dutifully trotting round, but there is little in town to excite my camera. It's grey here and really cool after my equatorial island hopping. And apart from the market which also got a mention) it seems shabby and quiet. What on earth are all the other towns in the Pacific like then?
The Vanuatu national anthem is “Yumi, yumi, yumi,” (We, we, we). It also says that the people of Vanuatu were voted the happiest nation on earth. They look pretty bored and sleepy to me. Nearly everything is shut and even where shops are open, the assistants look far too flaked out to serve anyone. But the market is an interesting wander. and I manage to cajole a smile out of two ladies in their traditional floral dresses. These are on sale in the market, alongside all the fruit and vegetables and fish.
My hotel is billed as 'sparklingly boutique'. Not bad, certainly, compared to what I've seen recently and quite pretty from the lagoon side, with trailing blue flowering vines on the balconies. But sparkling no and definitely not boutique. Nice view across the bay and scrummy food though. And a two page cocktail list and a massage salon, so a partial return to civilisation.
When the sun peeps out the lagoon that Vila sits on is very pretty, with the light on the turquoise water and the hilly islands opposite. There are cruise ships in the bay and a giant container ship being escorted in by tugs.
The staff in the hotel are very friendly and helpful, though reception is not always attended. The room has most things I need and a great outlook. It’s just a shame the furniture is chipped and dented, there are rust and paint marks, the sheet is stained and everything looks as if it needs a makeover. Even the lamps on each side of the bed flicker constantly. They are precariously balanced on tiny peeling bedside tables. The acoustics are poor. Footsteps echo through all the bedrooms and the nights are interrupted by the sound of the neighbours packing and leaving for early flights. The free internet was good but that too goes down mid-afternoon. ‘For an hour ma’am’. No sign of a signal at bedtime.
As always things look better the next day. Two lads from the hotel are taking me on a tour of Efate Island. I don't learn do I? - Though it can't be worse than the trip to Ouagadougou. They begin by arguing about the population of the island. It's either 10,000 or a million. So, I defer to my Hitchhikers guide and discover the following:
Outside The Prettiest Town in the Pacific there are only small villages. Most inhabitants of Efate live in Port Vila, The island is very rural, with most folk making their living by market gardening - that's how they pay the school fees. Clean and tidy, but still very basic living. Sweet potatoes, taro, coconuts. Most of the women wear the bright flowered cotton dresses, with as many gathers and flounces as they can manage.
We stop to visit a traditional village with palm thatched houses, and there is a short 'cultural show'. Dress consists mainly of grasses, flowers and face paint - this is still worn by some of the locals, especially at festivals and celebrations.
The landscape isn't quite Caribbean. More like Queensland I think. There is a great deal of forest, but there's also plenty of more open grassland scattered with coconut palms. And there are considerable numbers of cattle grazing. Also, a gorgeous clear jade pool and a few lovely beaches surrounded by mangroves. I swim in one called Eton (pronounced et as in get). It has the mandatory white coral sand surrounding a shallow lagoon. In the middle is a 30 foot sink hole full of fish. Good for a snorkel. Not so good for the unwary paddler!
In-between showers I flag down one of the hundreds of local taxi buses plying the main road down to Hideaway Island. The driver doesn’t tell me he’s on the school run and there are three curly haired cuties in the front. There are a large number of dark skinned children with blonde hair here, all with adorable cheeky smiles. They have to be dropped home via multiple diversions.
The free ferry then takes me over to the tiny island where I shelter from some more showers before taking the plunge. The water’s not very warm, but there’s the reward of some decent snorkelling to be had: a great drop off reef and a kaleidoscope of small fish. A couple of them nip me and I squeal – they must be used to being fed here. I don’t stay on the coral beach long. It’s warmer in the sea than on the land.
Then, off to the airport to catch my flight to Nadi in Fiji. Only it's raining and after circling three times, the captain of the plane decides it can't land and my flight is cancelled. Bloody hell, it's not raining very hard. I can see the runway. Anyway, the ensuing chaos makes PNG look a piece of cake. No compensation, no accommodation and no flight till Tuesday. Though we have to queue several times, moving at snail's pace, to discover all this. Then, I find out that there is a flight to Suva, up the other end of the main island on Fiji, leaving tomorrow morning.
Another excruciating queue. When I finally arrived at the counter, the flight has gone up another £20. Back to my hotel, which fortunately has a spare room. All this takes the whole day. And I have to go through it all again tomorrow morning. As well as working out how to get across Fiji. I try calling my next hotel to tell them I am delayed but no-one answers the phone - of course. It's still raining in The Prettiest Town in the Pacific.
Great views of the Barrier Reef from the plane, on my way north. from Brisbane to Papua New Guinea. Splatters of ochre and emerald, on a turquoise palette. I'm in the capital city of a tropical country, which consists of the eastern half of the second biggest island in the world (Indonesian Irian Jaya occupies the other section) and a large number of smaller islands. There is a central chain of high mountains in Papua New Guinea, so it’s not always warm.
This is a polyglot people, to say the least. The population, of six million, is of Melanesian origin, in the main, but there are over 1000 different cultures, speaking over 800 local languages. In order to communicate most people speak pijin. So 'tok isi plis' (talk slowly please). Much of the land is very remote. It is thought there are still tribes who have never seen a white person. According to the local newspapers, some of them still practise cannibalism and many folk still dabble in black magic. Spirits sometimes have to be appeased by the eating of parts of dead bodies, often the intestines.
Port Moresby, is classified as high risk, with serious crime and I have been told not to go outside the (very grubby, but this is as good as they get) hotel on my own, as it's just too dangerous. Especially at night. So I'm watching the Olympics. The Aussie commentators are a trifle annoying. They keep calling us GBR and pronouncing the sailing races 'regartas'.
A plane up to Mount Hagen in the highlands of Papua New Guinea,where the people of the inland tribes had never seen a white face until Aussie gold prospectors arrived in the 1930s. The city is named after the old eroded volcano Mount Hagen, located about 15 miles to the north-west. The volcano itself was named after a German colonial officer, Kurt von Hagen.
I'm here for the big show of the year. Tribes from all over the country meet for their annual 'Sing Sing' festival. The idea is to promote unity amongst all the different peoples. They spend the whole morning painting their faces in intricate primary colour patterns and fastening long spiky bird of paradise feathers into magnificent headdresses.
Each tribe is differently attired, but most wear very little, except for grass or leaf skirts and sea shell necklaces. The shells are very precious. Historically, they were used as money and still often are. They were paid as a bride price when men got married. (The paper currency is called the kina which means shell.) Nowadays the men still pay for their wives in pigs and shells. They are allowed more than one wife if they can afford it, so they have to save up first.
The strangest people preparing for the SingSing are the Asaro Mud Men, who are smeared in white clay and wear nothing but loin cloths. They cover their whole heads in weighty clay masks and creep around with spears or bows and arrows.
When they are ready everyone parades into the show ground to incessant drumming and whistle blowing. The yellow faced Tari clan has won for 5 years running, but the other tribes aren't happy about this. There have been threats to burn the judges' houses down. It is thought that someone else will win this year.
Fortunately, most of the tribal warfare in Papua New Guinea, which we're told is the hobby of choice, is reserved for the clanspeople. Fights are common, usually over land, women or pigs. Laws of possession are very complex, as being part of the family can mean that you have rights to everyone else's possessions. Tourists are usually safe in these fights, unless there's a stray bullet. Fortunately, ammunition is hard to come by and bows and arrows, knives and fire are more likely to be the order if the day. However, we have been told to watch out for the raskols (bandits) who maraud around.
The show goes on for two days. My group is as polyglot as the indigenous population. I'm the only one that speaks English. Apart from our Aussie guide who is frankly a little embarrassing. She calls the locals natives to (their faces) and confided that she doesn't like Papua New Guinea much, as she's a city girl. In addition she's as deaf as a post, gets all her facts wrong and keeps telling us the same thing twice.
We've been visiting the highland villages and markets of Papua New Guinea. The people are really friendly. They all come out to greet us, shaking hands. They love to have their photos taken. The big man- the village headman -gives a speech of welcome.
Most of the homes are very poor and the people wear western style sekonhan klos (second hand clothes). Some of the children wear very little at all, or adult sweaters that threaten to trip them up. Everyone has pigs and gardens. The pigs are prized possessions. The women train them to dig in the fields with them (the men are generally too busy drinking or talking to work). Sometimes they take one for a walk on a lead. By gardens they mean fields.' How big is your garden?' someone asks me. ‘Mine is 60 hectares'.
School is not compulsory in Papua New Guinea and families have to pay, so the children only go if they can afford it. There are some catholic schools that are fairly cheap - about £40 a year. That will amount to half a pig.
We have flown further into the highlands of Papua New Guinea, a tiny charter plane, dipping over mountain tips, to Ambua Lodge in Tari, the land of the yellow faces. There are no roads here. The only people who needed to travel historically, were the Australian administrators and plane was always more convenient, especially taking into account the terrain. Way up in the clouds, the misty rainforests are full of lianas and curling ferns with tendrils that reach out to grab your legs. Very Jurassic Park.
And the birds are amazing. Birds of paradise with iridescent feathers, which contort into incredible shapes for their courtship dances. We are really lucky to see a male superb bird of paradise with a dazzling blue boomerang of feathers on his breast. We have to hide behind a tree for 20 minutes before he ventures out to feast on the V shaped fruit of the umbrella trees.
And, the next day, a King of Saxony with extraordinary sawtooth plumes streaming from behind his head, a Stephanie of Astraphia with a long purplish twirling tail and a ribbontail. The name of the last speaks for itself, but its tail is the longest in the wild in proportion to its body and it looks like a kite flying. As if that isn't enough, it's got a huge emerald green cravat too. Also, amongst others, a really pretty bright yellow and black specimen called a tit berrypecker. It is all so fabulous I feel as if I am filming with David Attenborough.
Now, I'm desperate to see the equally gorgeous bird of paradise cousins, the bower birds. They build intricate towering houses to attract their mates and fill them with 'jewels' - berries, flowers and caterpillar droppings.
The group dynamics are developing. In fact it's so dynamic that it's threatening to explode. Maybe it’s because it’s cold and rainy. The Israelis are rude to everyone, eat their own food on their own and throw a tantrum if they don’t get the best rooms. The French know it all and speak French all the time and the Portuguese poke their cameras in front of everyone else. No-one is speaking to anyone else and there have been some spectacular shouting matches. The only point upon which the whole group agrees is that the guide is poor. I'm keeping quiet and have formed an alliance with the Germans, who complain about everything.
Today, it's anthropology instead ornithology, so I'm channelling Michael Palin. The people from Tari are known as the Huli tribe. They show us round their wooden stilt houses, where the men live separately from the women. A witch doctor tellls us how she casts spells to help the women to get chosen by the husbands that they want. There don't seem to be any charms on sale so I can try it out.
Then they perform a repeat of their award winning 'Sing Sing' for us and show us their costumes. They use mud to paint themselves-or powder paint. The bodies are red and their faces mainly yellow with some white. Their dance is based on the bird of paradise mating rituals, so they tuck large plant sprays into the back of their skirts which lift up, like the birds breasts when they display, as they all jump in unison. They thread feather quills through the septum of their noses, hang boar's tusks round their necks and they keep their money in sliced-in-half-bones inserted at their waists.
Their hats, though, are the most fascinating piece of apparel. They are woven from living hair. Boys go to wig school (honestly-I saw this) where they grow their hair for 18 months over a frame. They have to sleep with their heads on branches to keep it off the ground. The hair is watered with moss sponges and fed regularly, as well as being bleached by the sun. They told us that the wig master creates strong magic to help the hair grow. They gargle with some of his medicine to demonstrate and spit it out in fountains through bamboo pipes.
When the hair is ready it is cut off, rather like skinning an orange, and the wig is lifted off and sewn into shape. This is an ordinary every day wig. Wigs for shows or 'best' are contrived from two or more plain wigs and are fantastic. Most have scarlet and yellow parrots' feathers, American Indian style, down each side, with a turquoise superb bird of paradise breast stuck proudly on the front. They are crowned with cassowary feathers and further ornamented by assortments of other colourful feathers and bird of paradise or pheasant plumes. I'm surprised there are any birds left alive. The boys sell the wigs to get back their school fees and help them save up for a wife. One of them was on his seventh wig. He said he came from a poor family!
I'm waiting to fly to one of the great river basins of the world - the Sepik. But the cloud is still low over the forest and our teeny plane can't take off from the airstrip.
Eventually, we land on a clearing in the jungle after dipping over the many tributaries of the river as it wanders down the mountains. In the Sepik, the sun shines, the sky is blue, it's hot and steamy and an entente cordiale has been established. We are now The United Nations. The Israelis have even introduced themselves.
Our rustic lodge is on a ridge above an east Sepik tributary, the Karawari, I have secured a bungalow, with a really good view across the water, and the vast rainforest plain, by throwing a copy cat tantrum.
We venture across the river to visit another village, and see sago being extracted from huge palm trunks and turned into pancakes, or a thick pink gloop, over the open fires. It's the staple diet round here, along with river fish.
I should have saved my tantrum. There was no water in my room and it was full of every sort of insect you could imagine. I felt as if I was trying to sleep in a Damien Hirst installation and had to keep my head under the sheet all night.
Down the river all day, in a boat. Lots of women out fishing in dugout canoes. They use a line or a basket, woven from sago leaves, to catch the fish. There are little fires burning on the backs of their canoes. These keep mosquitoes away and act as portable ovens, to cook or smoke the fish. The flames also come in handy for lighting cigarettes rolled from their own tobacco.
One village puts on a head-hunter demonstration for us. The warriors swoop up, paddling furiously and brandishing bows and arrows. Then the villagers dance to show us how they used to behead and eat those whom they had vanquished. They say that cannibalism here was eradicated in the 1960s. Many of the villagers are garbed in traditional costume, though some of the semi naked women don't seem to enjoy the experience. I worry that they are being overly coerced. I don't feel I need to see their breasts to get the idea.
On the other hand, all the little boys run around totally naked all the time and seem very comfortable. They only get upset when they are asked to dress up. One little tot removes his grass leaves, screaming, as fast as his mother can push them into his waistband. Though he does calm down when she picks him up by his feet and tucks him into her bilum. These are stretchy bags that the women wear on their backs; the handles go around their heads.
Finally a visit to the tambaran (spirit house), where they hold the initiation ceremonies as boys become men. The ceremonies still take place in many villages of Papua New Guinea. During the process of acquiring knowledge, such as how to look after their future family or hunt they undergo an excruciatingly painful scarification. The cuts are made with sharpened bamboo, until the skin resembles the hide of a crocodile. This is the land of the Cult of the Crocodile.
The raised welts on the boys' skin cover their backs, shoulders and run down their chest – often incorporating the nipples as eyes. In this village, they are slightly more merciful and only use serrated leaves on their backs. We're told there are some crocodiles around, but (un)fortunately, we haven't seen any.
More bird hunting. Fish eagles, egrets, cormorants and the odd darting kingfisher are common on the river, but I am after some more exotic stuff. A 5.30 start, to see the courtship dance of the twelve wired bird of paradise. He uses the same perch every day, which would be excellent for us twitchers, if it wasn't forty foot up above the forest canopy. For some reason, known only to himself, he also performs this ritual before the sun comes up every morning. I wonder if the female would be more appreciative if she could see it better.
Needless to say, the photos aren't great, but he does the whole works, dancing up and down his branch, puffing out his feathers, collecting a willing female and mating. The coupling takes all of a second and then he begins the whole thing again with another female. They seemed to be queuing up. It's a really bizarre and exotic looking bird. Bright yellow rolled back wing feathers with, six long wires attached on each side.
Then, more river-cruising, along great meanders and past small ox-bow lakes, into larger lakes teeming with fish. More villages, with more traditions on offer. As well as fish, mussel shells are being smoked, to extract the calcium. The locals chew this, with the betel nuts, they all love. The ground is covered in rust gashes, where they spit it out and their teeth are stained red. We are all villaged out now. Which is just as well, as the last village has a row of human skulls, in its spirit house.
Not a great day. There was a rat in my room last night, chomping on my rice crackers. Then I lost a contact lens and found half of it on the floor. I didn’t bother looking for the other half. A final small plane flight back to Port Moresby, via Mount Hagen. The plane is late and we sit around waiting. When we finally land at Hagen, we are barred from the street, as there is a tribal fight going on. Chunks of rock are flying through the air and a van is on fire. It explodes, as we drive quickly away. We are hanging around again all afternoon, before returning to the war zone for the final leg of our journey. Or maybe not.
When we get to the airport, they announce that they are cancelling our flight. Uproar, as we all have onward connections tomorrow morning. Air Nuigini say it doesn't happen very often - just once a week. Then we have to find somewhere to stay. We end up back in our original hotel, but they won't let us in until we hand over the airline vouchers and the airline hasn't sent any. It's Sunday. Eventually we are allowed in and given some dinner. The Israelis are more irate than ever by then. They are pretty strict, won't travel on Saturdays and have to have all their own food cooked in the pans they brought with them. So they aren't best pleased when they find bacon in the bottom of their dish of couscous.
Waiting in the hotel foyer for yet another trip to the airport. There are the usual signs forbidding betel nut chewing and spitting. I'm busy trying to decant all my belongings onto a table, but they all start jumping about and toppling onto the floor. Then, I notice that the floor itself is moving. An earthquake. At least it doesn't last very long.
This flight is only 40 minutes late, but there is total chaos when we finally arrive as everyone is trying to find out which planes they can catch and rushing about from one office shack to another depending on what misinformation has been given. We all end up with an onward connection, after a great deal of aggravation, and get checked in. I'm on a 3 o' clock flight. The Portuguese think that they are too, but when we get to the departure lounge their flight number is flashing 'cancelled'. They disappear quickly, disgruntled to say the least. In the melee I've not managed to say good bye to anyone. I've got nine more flights to make before I get home. This is going to be an interesting trip.
Eventually an arrival, 12 hours late, in the Bismarck Archipelago of Papua New Guinea - New Britain, via New Ireland. I'm too tired to eat, which is just as well, as the food (and everything else) in this country is so expensive, that travelling on my own is going to bankrupt me. And it's really steamy here. I've got the air conditioning and the fan on together. I'm going to bed and I've hung out my sign - Yu No Ken Kam Insait (Do Not Disturb).
A visit to Rabaul, which is on the edge of a submerged caldera and so has a very significant harbour. It was the provincial capital until it was totally flattened by a volcano erupting in 1994. (It was the capital of the territory of New Guinea until it was demolished by an eruption in 1937). We drive over the town and up the airport runway - all just flat brown ash. There are hot springs too, flowing like a giant boiling jacuzzi over orange sulphur daubed rocks and hissing into the sea. Not a good place to go swimming. The two cones that did the recent damage are lined up opposite us, one steaming ominously.
Some history too. Papua New Guinea's name originates from its historical dual colonial administration. Germany ruled the northern half of the country for some decades, beginning in 1884, as German New Guinea. In 1914, after the outbreak of World War I, Australian forces captured German New Guinea and occupied it. After the war, the League of Nations authorised Australia to administer this area as a League of Nations mandate territory which became the Territory of New Guinea. The southern part of the country was a British protectorate, known as as British New Guinea, or Papua. This territory was transferred to Australia in 1906, though still a British possession. So, until 1949, Papua and New Guinea had entirely separate administrations, both controlled by Australia. ( Papua New Guinea became an independent Commonwealth realm in 1975 with the English monarch as head of state.
This is the part of Papua New Guinea that was once a German colony. Several German signs remain and more than one place called Bismarck. Rabaul was planned and built around the harbour area known as Simpsonhafen (Simpson Harbour), during the German New Guinea administration,
Then we jump to World War II, with excursions to Japanese tunnels. Japanese forces overtook the town of Rabaul in 1942, as WWII was in its final years, and quickly established a massive military complex serving their navy, air force, and, infantry. At its height, the Rabaul base and its surrounding encampment, served over 97,000 soldiers, plus all the accompanying personnel. Once routed, the Japanese left behind over 500 miles of tunnels, snaking beneath the island. These were dug to shelter soldiers from bombardment and hide barges and cargo. Today, enterprising locals are charging five kina to see parts of Japanese warships and fighter planes rusting quietly in pits and on jetties .
A boat trip round the bay, past more rusting Japanese boats and machine guns and back alongside the volcanoes. Now I can see that there are at least five cones around the old caldera. The devastation from the last eruption is also more evident. Miles of coconut plantations all buried in hardened ash. The mountains look so beautiful and peaceful swathed in velvet folds of greenery. Though the smallest one is still smoking.
Megapode birds are chicken like birds, which lay their eggs in holes they dig in the ash. The volcanic heat incubates the eggs. It's a race against the local boys, who are mining them with their bare hands. They are caked head to toe in black, modern chimney sweeps, as they squeeze their head right into the burrows. The birds flap about in consternation.
Then off to the most idyllic little coral island. It's surrounded by an atoll and the lagoon is patterned in every possible shade of blue. I thought the Papua New Guinea claim that they had the best diving in the world was possibly an exaggeration, but the reef is excellent. Multi coloured coral cushions and teeming with shoals and shoals of sparkling fish. I think I might swim all the way round it, but I am on my own. The sight of a small, harmless reef shark down in the depths sets the Jaws theme running in my head and it won't go away. So I strike back to the safety of the shore.
More interactions with wild things. I do my good deed for the day and fish a struggling toad out of the swimming pool. And a dozen small white geckos are running races up and down the corrugations on the eaves of my bungalow.
The queue to check in for the flight back to Moresby moves excruciatingly slowly. Partly due to the fact that the computer is working at snail's pace. The flight is due to take off at 7 a.m. and by 6.30 only one passenger had been checked in. Then there is a power cut. Amazingly I am not bumped and the plane takes off only an hour late. Only 7 flights to go. If I don't get the one tomorrow I'm really in bother, as there isn't another one for about 5 days.
When I get to Port Moresby I am to be met by a rep from an island resort in nearby Bootless Bay. Except there isn't anyone there. Abandoned, I stand outside the airport all forlorn, remembering all my instructions not to go into town, as this is such a dangerous place. Eventually some local guides help me phone the resort and the errant driver is tracked down.
The words commonly used to describe Moresby are 'it's a dump'. I don't see anything to make me disagree, as we drive along. It's just a sprawl of buildings with tin roofs, lots of squatters' shacks and a dirty market.
More coral islands dotting the bay and my residence is on one. I'm offered a free trip to the snorkelling wonderland of nearby Lion Island. What they don't tell me is that the skipper of the little speed boat is afraid he will miss his lunch, so he deposits me on the beach and disappears. Abandoned again. Jaws is resonating even more strongly in my head. However it's not too long before a family appear from between the palm trees. Not Swiss Family Robinson with breadfruit, but Australians with potato chips. So I have company for my last swim in Papua New Guinea.
The Solomon Islands next.
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