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Vanuatu: The Happiest Place on Earth
Words and Photos by Paul Lang
Vanuatu has been called the happiest place in the world, and once you are here, it feels that way. When I was first presented with the opportunity to join the Genetrix crew for this trip, I immediately agreed to come without even knowing where on the globe Vanuatu was located. A quick look online confirmed my vague suspicion that Vanuatu is located in the Southern Pacific Ocean, about 1,000 miles northeast of Australia.
Of the 82 islands that make up Vanuatu, 65 of them are inhabited. This means that it would take you more than two months to visit every inhabited island for a day. Other than in the capitol of Port Vila on Efate and the town of Luganville on the largest island of Santo, the people of Vanuatu, who refer to themselves as Ni-Vanuatu, live in small villages and get the food they need from the fish and pigs they catch and the fruits and vegetables they grow. The Ni-Vanuatu are very happy people who are quick to smile, laugh, and cheer.
Most who live outside of town don’t need to have regular jobs in the sense that we think of them in the western world. A few hours a day have to be spent getting food and taking care of other things in the villages, but as one local put it, “I’m the boss of time. Time not the boss of me.” On this trip we would be visiting just two islands, Efate and the nearby small private island of Kakula, and so would only be taking a small peek at the potential this country has to offer.
As I waited for the red-eye flight to Fiji to leave Los Angeles, Genetrix’s US distributor Gerard Bourgeois joined me in the terminal. Gerard was born in Vanuatu and lived there until he was 18. The plan was for us to meet up with his brother Thierry, who currently lives in Vanuatu, and another local kiter Victor Korikalo for a few days of kiteboarding before Julien Sudrat and Marco Martin joined us for more exploring and riding. After a long flight that left me confused for days about what day it was (we took off on a Sunday and landed on a Tuesday), I discovered that my luggage had been lost somewhere along the way.
After being greeted to the island by Thierry and Victor, I filled out the missing luggage form and we dropped off our gear at Thierry’s house before going out to explore Port Vila. I was immediately surprised at just how small the town is. Even though Port Vila is the capitol of Vanuatu, its population is only about 40,000 people. There is one main shopping street along the water, and you can easily walk the entire length of downtown in about 15 minutes. The streets are full of small vans of varying shape and color, which are private taxis. Wave one down and they’ll take you anywhere in town you would like to go for 150 Vatu, about $1.50 USD.
The official language in Vanuatu is Bislama, a Pidgin English language, but English and French are also widely spoken. Actually, there are more than 110 different languages spoken in Vanuatu, as many villages have developed their own independent languages over the centuries. At first glance, a sign written in Bislama doesn’t make any sense to an English speaker, but if you phonetically say the words out loud it starts to come together. “Tabu blong fishing long ples ia” means Fishing is taboo here, it is forbidden. Because so many different languages are spoken in Vanuatu, Bislama is a second language for most and is how people from different islands and villages communicate with each other.
After a relaxing afternoon and evening, Gerard and I went to bed early to try to get adjusted to the time zone change (six hours behind, but a day ahead of California) so we would be ready to head out to Kakula the next morning. After loading up the trucks and hooking up the Sea Doos, we were on the road north out of town. Once you leave town, it’s like you just stepped back in time to 10, 20, or even 30 years ago. Other than the few cars on the road and the random Digicel sign advertising cell phones, there is very little that can be found to clue you in to what year it is.
The ring road around the island was only recently paved, and actually isn’t completely finished yet. Forty five minutes after leaving Port Vila, we were at a wharf where small outboard boats wait to transport people to the different nearby islands. We loaded up two small boats with SUP boards, kiteboarding gear, photo equipment, and fuel, launched the two Sea Doos, and headed across the small channel to Kakula. Five minutes later we were standing on a pristine white sand beach looking out at 15-20 knots of wind blowing across the crystal clear electric blue water.
Kakula is a 90-acre private island located just a five minute boat ride from the north side of Efate. In fact, you can even walk all the way to Kakula at low tide on what the locals refer to as a Kakula Road, a wandering white path across the reef that is no more than thigh deep at low tide. Kakula was once owned by an American who convinced people to invest to create an extremely exclusive high-end resort. Construction was started on a huge and elaborate tree house and a large beach bungalow, which was to be the first of five. The tree house and the bungalow stand today unfinished, the American developer is in jail for embezzling his investors’ money, and Kakula is currently for sale to help those investors recoup at least some of their lost money. There is also a small five-room resort on the island with power supplied by a generator, great food, and even an internet connection. We might have been staying on a small island, but by no means would we be roughing it.
As soon as the boats were unloaded, we pumped up a few kites and hit the water. The water surrounding Kakula is the clearest water that I’ve ever ridden on– it was incredible to watch the reef fly by underneath my board and watch the fish dart away as my shadow passed over the bottom of the ocean. After playing around the sandbar at the end of Kakula, we rode upwind to the next island, Pele, just to explore the area. Along the way, we passed two fishermen in dugout outrigger canoes that yelled and threw their arms up in the air every time one of us jumped or even just rode by.
At Pele, there was a group of kids gathered at the edge of the shore watching us and cheering us on as we rode in and out of the messy surf along the upwind side of the island. After leaving Pele, while riding back to Kakula, Victor and I stopped for a minute to talk. Not paying enough attention to our kites, my kite flew through his lines and our kites crashed. Here we were, the only two kites anywhere near each other, and we were tangled. After a few scratches from the coral, which was only covered by knee-deep water at that particular spot, we sorted ourselves out and headed back to the beach for lunch.
After landing our kites, Fabiana, Kakula’s Italian cook, called us over to a beachside table for lunch. We sat down for a great meal of fresh fish and salad, finished with a huge piece of chocolate cake, and then we got up, walked 100 feet down the beach, and were back on the water. At the end of the second session of the day, we deflated our kites and left our gear right there on the grass next to the beach. There’s no need to put your stuff away when you know every single person on the island with you.
Back at the resort we had a fantastic dinner and then made plans to ride before breakfast the next day, as the wind is usually best first thing in the morning. The next day proved to be clear and windy as soon as the sun was up, so we were on the beach shortly after 7:00 a.m. for our first session. After a quick one-hour session we were back at the resort for breakfast, and then back on the water for another session. We stayed on the water until lunchtime, when the tide got too low for us to ride anymore.
Around Kakula, the water is shallow, and you have to pay attention to the tide when you ride. At low tide, parts of the reef are exposed and the rest of it is under two feet or less of water. The clear water makes it difficult to judge its depth, but if you want to avoid small cuts and scratches, you have to stop riding before you find yourself bouncing along the bottom after you blow a landing. We left our gear on the island and headed back to Port Vila for a day so we could pick up Marco and Julien when they arrived at the airport. Before returning to Kakula, we spent a day in downtown Port Vila wandering around the shops and exploring the town. We also visited a Nakimal, a type of bar that serves Kava.
Kava is the typical after work drink in Vanuatu. Nakamals are dark quiet places where you buy your bowl of Kava and a few small snacks and then sit quietly to “listen to your kava” as the locals say, as sitting quietly is supposed to produce the strongest effect from the drink. Kava looks like watered down mud, and it doesn’t taste much better. You drink the whole bowl at once, rinse your mouth out with water, and then find a place to sit and eat your sweet potato and banana pieces. After a few bowls, I began to feel the mellowing effects of the Kava, which are very similar to being slightly stoned. We left the Nakamal to join the rest of our group for dinner thinking that the effects had worn off. The next morning, we found out that we thought we were talking normally, but apparently the Kava was still affecting us, as we were told we were talking very slowly at dinner.
The next day, we picked up Marco and Julien at the airport and also found that my missing bag, which contained my camera water housing, had been located. We headed back to Kakula for another two nights but unfortunately clouds, low tides, and intermittent rain would make getting photos more difficult than usual. Marco, who had spent more than 40 hours traveling to Vanuatu from France, couldn’t wait to get in the water despite the low tide, but he quickly returned to the beach after his board bounced off the reef a few times. We spent the next few days riding and shooting photos when there was enough water to ride and wandered around the island and reef when there wasn’t. Even without ideal conditions, everyone was still able to get more than enough time in the water between Fabiana’s excellent meals and desserts. After an incredible three days of riding, lounging, and eating, it was time to head back to Port Vila so I could catch my plane home the next day.
My flight didn’t leave until the afternoon, so we visited a traditional village outside of Port Vila that invites visitors in to learn how most of the people on the outer islands still live. We were welcomed into the village by the chief and then learned about how villagers catch and prepare food, weave baskets, spend their free time, and the cannibalism that used to be practiced in the islands. We had seen huge spiders in the trees during our time on Efate and Kakula, but here we were able to play with one. Because the spiders are non-poisonous, the children use them as toys. “We don’t have plastic toys here, only the real things,” said our guide.
At the airport, I said my goodbyes to everyone and then got on a plane for the trip home. Because of the International Date Line, it took me two days to get to Vanuatu, but I would be arriving home at roughly the same time that my plane took off from Port Vila. While reviewing the photos on my laptop during the flight, I had to remind myself that I had only seen two out of 84 different islands. The potential for both incredible kiteboarding and cultural experiences in Vanuatu is amazing. On Tanna Island, you can drive almost to the top of an erupting volcano and peer right down into the crater. On Pentecost Island you can watch the villagers jump off a rickety platform with nothing but vines tied to their ankles while they try to get close enough to the ground to grab a handful of dirt. The opportunities are endless and the week that I had there was not nearly enough time. While I was there, it felt like time slowed down, which made returning to Southern California feel a little overwhelming. Now back in my usually busy routine, I am already looking forward to the time I can get back to Vanuatu, the happiest place on earth, where I can be the boss of time and time is not the boss of me.
Traveling to Vanuatu
Vanuatu is an easy place to travel to, but the lack of infrastructure makes exploring on your own without local knowledge fairly difficult. If you would more information about staying on Kakula, check out http://www.kakula-resort.com/