Thursday, May 15, 2008

Lost in Lugainville


From the island of Espe, Vanuatu (capital: Port Vila) to the island of Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu (capital?: Luganville), is little more than a night-time wriggle northwards through the chicane of islets that make up this beautiful but battered country. Battered? Oh, dear, yes. Battered by a massive American presence and the action that it attracted during the 1940s war, and battered all over again by power-drugged local men who would be king, thirty years later. Santo, the biggest island of the group, was the centre for both tragedies.

We sailed in, through the gauntlet of islands, mid-morning under – what else? -- erratic rain. We are going to be here for two days (maybe more, depending on the weather: copra, our main cargo, cannot, it seems, be loaded in the rain) and I decided that, even if the novelty of rainy walking may have worn off a tad after yesterday, I’d power ashore, ‘do’ the town, the beach, the markets and the river, and pop up that inviting green hill behind them.

Well, I’ve been and I’ve done it. I took all sorts of extra turnings and byways, climbed right over the hill … and I was still back at the gangplank in just an hour and a very small bit. The town of Luganville is only just worthy of that description. ‘Village’ would be kinder and, even then … settlement, maybe?

The traces of the war can still be seen, even though (thanks to local 1946 politicians’ inefficiencies) the Americans dumped most of what they couldn’t take home into the sea off what is now known as Million Dollar Point. You can’t miss the semicircular army huts, now converted to other uses, and I also spotted the carcase of an elderly ship, and the chassis of a troop carrier (I think) both, I am sure, artistically placed for the modern tourist, for believe it or not Santo is becoming a tourist destination. Apparently, largely for war groupies and thanks to the opportunities for snorkel-divers to explore its wrecks.

I saw nothing else of all that on my walk. On the front, set back from the untidy green-lined coral beach with its soggy park and modern foodstalls, just flat-roofed concrete buildings and variegated shanties (how does a roof of plastic bags, straw and newspaper keep out the sort of rain they have here?), two ANZ ATMs, a prominent First National land agent, some tatty-shuttered shops with a higher degree of Chinese owners than in Vila, several invitingly atmospheric-looking places for sleeping, eating and rinking which would give Conrad Hilton and building inspectors nightmares, as well as lashings of delightful greenery and tropical flora. Someone had added to the rickety town hall (currently scaffolded with something you wouldn’t get me up onto!) a vast and vaguely modernist courtyard roof, already getting tatty from the weather. Less comical was the neat, new food market, with its long benches but very few occupants. Maybe because it was Sunday. Apart from the ATMs and First National, and in spite of the predilection for concrete, the whole place had a distinct feeling of Somerset Maugham to it. Wonderful!

Before I knew it, I’d reached the Sarakata River: lushly green, lushly indigo, and with little fishing and pleasure boats buzzing here and there.

I photographed a smiling, waving man in a smashing outrigger (alas, it came out as a photo of my thumb). I photographed three little giggling girls outside a shanty with a vast washing line full of multicoloured knickers (maybe mother is a washerwoman?) and a surprisingly nearly-new red pickup truck out the back. And then I struck out up the hill.

As in Vila, away from the front, amongst the greenery and gardens, shanties give way to ageing bungalows with reasonably sound roofs and even the occasional ‘villa’. Not to mention public buildings. One of the first substantial peeling mid-C20th buildings I came upon was the local Law Courts. The already-peeled Rotary Club buildings even had a broken-down swimming pool. More modern, and decked out with beautiful gardens, was the local branch of the University of the South Pacific. But Luganville is not Vila. It’s much, much smaller, much, much less consequent. There is no Vanair catering mansion here. No high-class cricket ground.

But Espiritu Santo is, it seems, ‘developing’.

Barely across the water one can see the island of Aore. Aore is, it seems, a ‘resort’. So I won’t be going there. Give me shoreside Santo any day. It has a real charm.

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