Travelling like a local

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“We had a fantastic time…a great experience, especially using public transport and sharing with the locals”.

This is feedback given to us by Karen Valentinotti from Byron Bay, Australia. She recently stayed at a bungalow on Pele Island, liaising with Kathy from the Shefa Tourism Office on where to go and how to get there.

Travelling to North Efate under your own steam is an adventure in itself. Every journey will be different. It won’t cost much but you will need time, a little local knowledge and most likely, some patience.

If you charter a bus and a boat the journey to Nguna or Pele will take less than an hour and a half and you’ll pay up to 12,000 Vatu. If you travel like a local it can take half a day or more but will set you back a mere 1,000 Vatu. And the experience, as they say in the ads, is priceless.

4141553 origWe start our trip to Nguna Island at Au Bon Marche in Manples around 10.30am on a Wednesday morning. Any earlier and we’re assured we’ll have a long wait. To get there we flag a bus in downtown Port Vila (150 Vatu each) and tell the driver where we want to go.

There’s no need for us to actually know where Au Bon Manples is – bus drivers already do – and with our backpacks it’s clear that we’re travellers looking for public transport to take us north. But for those who like more detail it’s on the Lini Highway, the main road between Port Vila and the airport, on the right hand side if you’re driving out of town.

8152563 origAu Bon Marche supermarket and a service station make Manples a busy hub. At the far end of the forecourt next to the fence near the air pump there’s a single tree and we make a beeline for it, settling down to wait in the shade. I strike up a conversation with a young Ni-Vanuatu woman who also appears to be waiting, and confirm that this is where we’ll find a bus going to Emua Wharf. When the driver is satisfied that he has enough passengers to make the trip worth his while, she tells me, we’ll go. Soon.

A word at this point about “island time”, what locals often laughingly refer to as “black man’s time”, which bears little resemblance to time as we know it. Fifteen minutes is just as likely to be an hour by our reckoning, and it’s no use getting upset about it. Best to leave your watch behind at home and go with the flow.

In the meantime we take the opportunity to stock up on a few provisions at the supermarket. Bottled water, because we know the drinking water on the Nguna will come from rain water tanks and we choose to be cautious. Some snacks, just in case.

Sooner than we expect we’re clambering into the bus along with half a dozen other passengers. We could as easily be riding on the back of a PT (Public Transport) which is a small truck, usually with some sort of a tarpaulin awning stretched across the top to provide shelter from the sun and rain. Seating can be anything from a wooden plank to a bag of rice.

4858996 origWe travel in relative comfort, our bus making easy work of the steep climb up Clem’s Hill. One last, spectacular vista of Mele Bay and we’re plunged into rural Efate. The smooth tar-sealed ring road is a dream after the bumpy potholes of Port Vila. It’s an easy forty minute drive to Emua Wharf with occasional stops to pick up and drop off passengers. Even for us who know the route well, the scenery is a delight; the first glimpse of the distinctively-shaped Hat Island marking Roi Mata’s Domain, the sparkling turquoises and deep blues of the beautiful Havannah Harbour, iconic Earnest and his World War 2 Coke Bottle Museum at Tanoliu… All the while, enticing views of Nguna appear and disappear around corners and on the crests and in the dips of hills, the green volcanic cones drawing ever nearer.

3824200 origEmua Village and roadside market alert us that we’re nearly at the end of this leg of our journey. The bus slows and turns into the parking area at Emua Wharf, depositing us and our luggage in the shade of a tree. The cost of the ride from Manples to here is 500 Vatu per person.

Now the waiting begins in earnest. We’re early, apparently. We can charter a boat to Nguna for 3,000 Vatu and leave right away, or we can wait for more passengers and do the trip for 500 Vatu each. How long before other passengers come? A shrug. Maybe half past two. It’s just after midday now. We elect to wait. There’s not a huge saving to be made and the price is not unreasonable given the cost of fuel, but we’re committed to travelling like the locals.

9997176_origNi-Vanuatu are supposedly the happiest people in the world, certainly they’re among the most patient, and they know how to manage the heat of the day. The boat drivers flop in the back of a truck parked under a tree, legs draped over the sides with hats pulled down over their eyes, while we wait in a more upright position, shelling peanuts and snacking on fruit. For the longest time, nothing happens.

When it does, it’s in slow motion. A PT pulls in, backs up and reverses down the wharf. Passengers climb out dragging their bags behind them. They’re headed for Pele and a man disentangles himself from the pile of legs and arms in the back of the truck, makes his way leisurely to his boat. Another man wanders in our direction, holding his cell phone. Emma from Uduna Cove Bungalows is on her way with a some other tourists bound for Nguna, he tells us. We can travel with them. They’ll be here in fifteen minutes.

4039844 origAn hour later they arrive in a bus. Now it’s all go on the wharf. A flurry of unloading ensues while two boats are readied, boxes and bags shared between them. Emma and a couple of jaded-looking tourists are ushered into one (they’ve spent the morning driving around picking up supplies from various places in Port Vila, we find out later) and we follow them, while a group of locals climb into the other. There’s a spluttering of engines, some maneuvering, a lot of yelling and waving, and we’re off.

3049830 origSteady Trades are blowing but the chop on the water is enough just to cool us with spray, not frighten us or make us seasick. Kenneth (we’re now on first name terms with our boat driver) throws out a fishing line, and before long he cuts the engine and reels in a protesting fish, flipping and glistening into the bottom of the boat. Supper, he grins. The trip from the wharf to Nguna takes about half an hour. We drop off Emma and the tourists, whose spirits have revived considerably, on an idyllic white sand beach. Uduna Cove Bungalows where they’ll be staying are hidden inside the fringing bush.

9161994_origFrom there it’s just a short run along the coastline to Taloa Village. We’re helped out of the boat into ankle deep water and splash up onto the shore to be met by Leiwa of Nakie Women’s Guesthouse. We’ve arrived.

Transport prices

  • Bus from Manples to Emua
    Chartered: 7,000 – 10,000 Vatu
    Local: 500 Vatu
  • Boat to Nguna
    Chartered: 3,000 Vatu
    Local: 500 Vatu
  • Boat to Pele
    Chartered: 2,000 Vatu
    Local: 500 Vatu

Post and photos courtesy of Dianne Hambrook; Business Development Advisor with Shefa Tourism.