by Danielle Diehm
I think it must have been fate that pushed myself & my young family to the gorgeous paradise that is Vanuatu back in April of 2012.
We had made the decision that the kids were finally old enough for an overseas adventure & had booked a trip to Fiji for the April school holidays, it wasn’t to be. A tropical cyclone hit just 5 days before we were due to fly out from Brisbane. After a whole year of planning & practicing “Bula” to each other every morning, the trip was off.
With only 5 days notice we decided to look at other options & our travel agent recommended tropical Vanuatu! We knew very little about the place & had pictured it as more of a honeymoon destination with not much to do other then lie on the beach, but with time running out to come up with an alternative we took the leap, how glad we are that we did, as Vanuatu & it’s amazing people have changed our world.
We have now visited 3 times & of the 83 islands we have explored 6, all unique & amazing, it’s hard to pick a favourite! In fact I feel confident to say that Vanuatu really does have something for everyone & once we got the ‘Vanuatu bug’, it has been hard to look anywhere else for a family experience.
Whether you are into relaxing, eating & drinking, snorkelling & diving, trekking, culture & history or adventure, you will find that this stunning archipelago ticks all the boxes.
The biggest draw card for us is the Ni-Van people, we have met some fantastic characters & have learnt so much about living life from these friendly & resilient people. They are hard working, modest, kind & super family oriented. Their positive outlook on life is something we have taken into our own day-to-day existence & we learn more & more from each person we meet.
When we first started ‘speed researching’ Vanuatu over that 5 days in 2012, we were amazed at it’s close proximity to Australia (only just over 2 hours from Brisbane) & shocked that being such close neighbours we didn’t know more about this haven.
Now, hubby & I both run our own businesses & find it very hard to wind down & relax while on a break, in fact, you would probably call us slightly hyperactive! We are not the sort of family that go on a holiday to laze by the pool, even though I am very partial to a Pina colada or 5!
Since our first trip to Vanuatu we, as a family, have experienced so much & the impact this place has had on us (particularly the kids) will never be forgotten.
We have trekked a volcano, paddled an outrigger into the jungle in search of a crystal blue lagoon, witnessed the ancient land diving rituals at Pentecost, swam with dugongs, turtles & sharks, and caught some of the most impressive reef fish you can imagine. We stumbled across WWII relics & been told many tales, our kids have attended school here, and we have enjoyed/suffered through kava in the villages with the locals; we have slept on a volcanic beach in a little grass hut, we have mixed with the community & attended fundraising nights at a village church.
We have driven buggies through the jungle, Zip-lined over a canyon, swung off rope swings, clambered under waterfalls & found ourselves adopted into one of the world’s most ancient tribes, we have also stayed in some of the most decadent retreats, homes & resorts, because who doesn’t deserve a bit of luxury after all that adventure.
Truthfully our latest trip back, Post Cyclone Pam, has been the thing that has impacted us the most. We were already booked & had been planning our trip for a year when mother nature unleashed on the Pacific again.
Our first concern was for all the wonderful people we know in Vanuatu & the impact Pam would have on them. After staying glued to the Aussie media coverage we were unsure of wether it was wise to continue with our planned trip. Dramatic statements were being thrown around like “90% of Vanuatu has been wiped out”, “no food, clean water or medical supplies” & “disease spreading”, we were understandably worried.
We were not sure if it was the right thing to be holidaying while the people were going through so much & whether we would be more of a burden, we also obviously didn’t want to put our children at risk. Initially people in our home town said we were mad, but after some reassurance from our connections in Port Vila, we decided that we just couldn’t turn away from this nation in need. So we set about collecting donations of food, medical supplies, water & clothing to send via container. It seems everyone in our area had a soft spot for Vanuatu & we were inundated with kindness.
Once the container was on its way, we packed what we could to take with us. We touched down at Bauerfield airport, Port Vila about 3 weeks after Cyclone Pam & were really not sure what to expect. Coming in over the villages & tree canopy, we could see it was a hive of activity & we were taken back by how much things had started to green up already, it was not the disaster zone we had envisaged. Sure, you could see that Pam had been here but it was still paradise.
Our plane only had 20 people on it sadly, as many had cancelled their planned holiday. We were greeted with big smiles from the locals who were hanging from the airport fence holding up ‘Thank you & welcome’ signs, some even started clapping the passengers disembarking. In that moment we all knew we had made the right decision to come.
It’s true that a lot of villages throughout Vanuatu were damaged terribly, many people were left with no home, shelter or food. The crops they live off were wiped out & the island style construction of the village huts means that if the wind is strong enough, your home will blow away! We could instantly see how hard this nation had worked in the previous weeks to try & get things back on track, tourism is so important to these people & their survival.
As we headed towards town from the airport we could see the impact on the landscape, huge old trees were now missing limbs & there were piles of branches everywhere, waiting to be burnt.
Coming into the main CBD we were pleasantly surprised that life was still buzzing along nicely. All the shops were open & there was plenty of activity, it seemed the locals were getting on with things as best they could. The bars, cafes & restaurants were pumping, school kids strolled by, taxi’s & buses were honking & waving as usual.
Sadly the biggest differences we noticed were that the Mama’s harbour-side craft market had been completely wiped out & that the colourful fresh produce market was eerily deserted.
We found that we had nothing to worry about with the supply of food & water available from the big ‘Au Bon Marche’ supermarket at the top of the hill & there was a range of imported fresh fruit & veg available at slightly inflated prices.
Each time we have visited Efate we have stayed at a gorgeous holiday home situated right on the beach at Tamanu, about 25 minutes from down town. We know that the houses & resorts on this side of the island are very exposed & that many of them had the sea come inside & were significantly damaged. The owner & staff had worked very hard to get everything looking amazing for when we arrived & although there were a few less trees & no pool fence anymore, it was still pristine. For the first few days we had no power but were lucky enough to have access to a generator, candles & a brand new BBQ to cook our delicious Vanuatu beef on.
Waking up on that first morning, we were all so glad to be back, but after chatting to the lovely staff about their lives after the cyclone, we quickly began to feel overwhelmed, sad & guilty. These people, who already had so little to loose, had lost everything. They were sick from the water, had no produce to feed their families & were living off rice. They went to bed each night under leaky roofs, with no light & all crammed together in whichever huts managed to survive the onslaught.
My first thought was to run away, I felt guilty to even have luggage to bring with me & guilty that I had a dry bed & meal to eat & that my biggest worry was if the Chardonnay would be cold enough to have at dinner time! That night we sat down as a group & devised a plan to do what we could to help. We made a list of supplies that we would need & gathered up anything that we had bought with us that would be of use. The next morning we headed to the local village that we knew people in & assessed the damage. Some had lost homes, many had lost roofs. The children all come out to see us & were appreciative of the hundreds of school packs, treats & clothing we had put together to hand out.
We spent an entire day standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a packed office at the local roofing supply place trying to order roof sheets, nails & silicon to repair leaks. Our kids were AMAZING & never complained once. In the time we were there we repaired leaks, stabilised structures & re-roofed homes, we also made a communal kitchen area, 2 members of our little crew are builders so these skills came in very handy indeed. My 15 year old son was on structures that were blowing in the breeze (something I would never dream of letting him do back home) but never once did he question it, we all worked hard & were often wide-eyed listening to the local’s stories of when the cyclone hit.
My 11 year old daughter rounded up people with cuts, infections & injuries of any sort, telling them “My mum can help you”. Now I am not a nurse or doctor but I am a qualified Mum & the sweet little pikininis were coming from all over just to get some antiseptic & a bandaid. It was nice to know that these families had somewhere dry to sleep & cook & the smiles on the faces are etched in my mind forever.
Towards the end of our trip we loaded up on supplies & drove right around the island. We discovered that the people on the East Coast (from crystal blue/turtle bay around to Havannah Harbour) had been very badly hit.
Chatting to the locals we found out that people had come to take their names for some type of aid supplies but they had never returned & the government was still ‘planning’ what to do with the foreign aid funds.The damage around this side of Efate was a lot worse than we had seen previously & these people had no way of getting in to town to get much needed supplies. It was heart breaking to drive past villages & see signs saying “Please help us”. It seems that a lot of the foreign aid supplies have been sent to Tanna, rightly so as they were hit very badly. But the people in this part of Vanuatu need help also. They are a couple of hours out of town & usually live off their land, but all the crops have been wiped out. With no transport or money it was hard to hear their stories without being profoundly affected.
The one thing throughout our 2 weeks in Vanuatu that stood out with everyone we came across was their amazing positive attitude. Hard to imagine that they can still be smiling & appreciative after having their whole world turned upside down, but they are! We loved hearing their stories & marvelled at the life lessons they taught us, truly amazing people.
We still found a balance & enjoyed plenty of down time & exploring during our break. Once again we swam in the crystal clear lagoons, dined on Santo beef & lobster in the restaurants, we kayaked, shopped, snorkelled, trekked & enjoyed many tropical cocktails & icy cold Tuskers.
Don’t cancel your trip please! The best thing you can do to help this gorgeous nation & it’s beautiful people get back on their feet is to come & visit. Book a holiday & spend some tourism $$$, maybe even lend a hand or bring some supplies. It is still paradise & you will not regret it!!!
Hope you enjoyed reading about my family & our latest experience in Vanuatu as much as I enjoyed telling my tale of the South Pacific.