Thursday, May 15, 2008

More Espiritu Santo


Day two of Espiritu Santo dawned, of course, rainy. Gently rainy. But rain is not a deterrent here.

At 9am driver-guide Kenneth and his Tour minibus presented itself at the foot of the gangplank and we all climbed aboard for what was to turn out to be a truly enjoyable day.

We started off with a quick whirl up and down the main street of the town. What a difference a day makes! With the shabby shop-shutters down, the market tables overflowing, and the whole place alive and colourfully buzzing, Luganville took on a wonderfully vivacious air that even the peeling concrete and puddles couldn’t dim.

Then we set off towards the north of the island. The town ended quickly and splendidly with a large, new Agricultural College, and at the same time the tarmac ended too. From here on, it was dirt roads of decreasing proportions and increasing age all the way. Given the way the rains come down here, and given that seemingly the Santo Ministry of Works consists of one elderly, large, yellow grader, we would, over the next couple of hours, find ourselves tackling some hair-raisingly rain-rutted routes.

Our first event was a visit to a ‘typical’ country village. And I reckon this typical country village really was exactly that. I don’t think Santo has got round to special country villages for the tourists yet. Plaited walls and palm-leaf roofs, huge and lovely trees, typical tropical flowers, typical tropical dogs and, of course, the people. A deep-hued man dragging a cow on a rope (it promptly sat down), a little caramel boy with wide eyes, and everywhere those grand, infectious grins…

On we drove, past our first copra smoker. I didn’t actually know, before, what copra really was. Just that it was a coconut product. Well, I do know now, and I have had a detailed education on the drying and separating of the inside of the fruit that is the raw material of this place’s main industry. I also realise why it can’t be loaded in the rain. The finished article is bundled into loosely woven sacking, barely closed with wide, gaping stitching at each end. As packaging goes it’s airy, but at best approximate. But who wants a hold full of mouldering coconut?

The other obvious agricultural activity is cattle. Well, the climate and the lush greenery clearly agree with cows: the fields were full of fine, beefy animals. So, often, were the roads. Fencing is an idiosyncratic art here. Many fences are ‘live’, not with electricity but with green growth. The fence-posts have rooted and they supply not only an enclosure but also cattle feed! (Maybe I should try that one on my fence-devouring horses). But more paddocks have no fencing than do, and the cattle are free to wander. I guess, given the lushness of the pasturage, they have little need to stray far.

Our destination was Champagne Beach. I was a little worried about this, as the name had a resort-y ring to it. But who, I thought would rattle over an hour and more of excruciating roads to get to a resort? Well, Champagne Beach turned out to be a gem. Your genuine coral sand beach, with a line of local-style chalets set in green lawns and lashings of lavish flora and .. best of all … we were the only people there! So we lunched on good stout sandwiches and papaya and grapefruit and bottled water from Kenneth’s esky, some of us took a dip in the warm sea or a stroll along the strand (me), and it was like having one’s own private little piece of storybook Pacific paradise for an hour and a bit.
Oh, and the champagne bit? It’s the colour of the sand.

Not far from Champagne Beach, Kenneth took us to visit the village and the house where he had grown up. The minibus wove in and out of the non-existent streets, between the houses, past a ‘church’ and a sizeable football field, and I was staggered when he told us that this not overlarge group of houses was home to over a thousand people! People living largely in the traditional fashion, as folk do in the northern parts of Santo. Give or take a minibus in the family.

And then we set off to brave, upwards, the most terrifying of the runnelled roads that we’d earlier negotiated downwards. There were a couple of occasions when I thought e wouldn’t make it, but we did. A fear seriously for the suspension of Kenneth’s proud new bus.

Our last stop for the day was to be the Blue Hole. Well, the Blue Hole seems to figure in most descriptions of the beauties of Santo, but there is no sign to it, and it is approached by a muddy track at the end of which we had to abandon the bus and climb aboard the tray of our accompanying pick-up for a particularly vertiginous last few hundred metres. Not the easiest of ‘tourist attractions’ to approach!
Well, it is a hole, and the water is indeed the bluest of deep blue set in foliage of the most dazzling green and gold. And it is also, theoretically, swimmable. If you can scramble successfully down the slippery stones to its edge. The three most adventurous of our party (average age: seventy-something) took up the challenge. I hastily appointed myself chief photographer to the occasion, before deciding I’d rather climb the vertiginous bit back up on my own two feet than on the slipping-and-sliding tray of the truck. And that was when God decided that there was one kind of rain we hadn’t had today, and pulled out the plug. Drenched again, like some circus clown. Transparent again. What joy I’d had the foresight to pop a couple of bottles of beer in my little red cabin-bag.

By three o’clock we were all safely if wetly back on ship, queuing for the laundry dryer, after a grand day’s outing.
I do like Santo.
And it looks as if I shall be able to go on liking it. The wharf is empty. Seems copra-loading has been called off.

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