Tales of the South Pacific
 
 

 

Attending the Extraordinary Travel Festival in Armenia and then the Most Travel People Summit in Equatorial Guinea motivated me to earn a “193” T-shirt by visiting every UN member state.  With my country count at 162, what I have left are s***hole countries in Africa and flyspeck countries in the Pacific. This trip will be Fiji and some of its surrounds.

The long-haul flight from Los Angeles arrives at Nadi early in the morning, leaving me a full but low-energy day for touring.  After picking up a rental car and reacquainting myself with wrong-side-of-the-road driving, I head for a botique hotel that was the tropical retreat of Perry Mason and Ironside (a/k/a Raymond Burr).   Surrounding the former homestead are well-appointed cabins amid lush landscaping.

 

Boasting natural beauty and an exotic reputation for its headhunter past, Fiji is a popular tourist destination.  It has about 300 islands, but I am only visiting Viti Levu, the largest and most developed.

 

We stop by a “cultural village,” so designated because it consists of an hereditary chief, his and several other extended families.  At its center is a monument to the first missionaries, surrounded by a church, a community center, and modern housing, all of which is communally owned. But sadly, not even a nod to cannibalism.

 

Off the tourist trail, Lautoka is the second largest city in Fiji.  It is a commercial city with a large sugar processing facility, the Fiji Water bottling plant, and not much of interest.  I acquire my first “Bula” shirt -- the local equivalent of the Aloha shirt -- Bula being the all-purpose Fijian greeting and exhortation.

 

My Fiji interlude is short.  Between check out time the next day and our evening flight there is more touring. The Garden of the Sleeping Giant is a botanical garden that began as Raymond Burr’s orchid collection.

 

 

In the town of Nadi is a large Hindu temple.  During the hundred years of British rule large numbers of Indians were imported to work the sugar plantations; their descendants now comprise about 40% of Fiji’s population and dominate commerce and the professions.  The fifty years since independence have been marked by continued tensions with the indigenous Melanesians.

                 

 

Adjacent to Nadi is an artificial island that that, with its houses, lawns, golf courses, and yachts, could be Newport Beach.  After dinner in an upscale shopping center we head to the airport. Destination: Samoa.

 

In the late 19th century both Germany and the United States eyed the Samoa as a coaling station for their naval fleets.  The rivals drew a dividing line between the islands of Upolu and Tutuila, each of which an excellent natural harbor, with the larger, western portion under German (after WWI, British) sway.  That became Western Samoa, which dropped the geographical designator in 1997.

The international airport for Samoa is on the main island of Upolu and inconveniently located near nothing.  We arrive late and stay at the closest – meaning not close at all – guesthouse.  In the morning we drive back past the airport to the ferry for Savai’i, the second largest island.

Savai’i is considerably less developed than Upolu.  It is mostly steep volcanic slopes with a paved road around most if its perimeter.  The road does not go all the way around, so in one day it is possible to visit either the north or south portions.   We hire an average-sized Samoan (they are HUGE) to drive us around the southern portion.

 

What one sees are churches, large but simple houses and covered pavilions for family gatherings facing the sea.  All are neat, tidy, and well-kept.

 

 

A waterfall,

 

and blowholes, created by the water of incoming waves being forced through a natural funnel and directed upwards.

 

 

We backtrack along the single road, reaching the dock just as the last ferry of the day is leaving, ahead of schedule.  It's Friday, and I guess the crew wants to get home early.  We have to leap on to the already moving vessel.

 

The next day it’s back to the airport for the 15 minute flight to American Samoa.  The boarding pass is hand-written (here, you are on a first-name basis). The plane seats eight but we have it all to ourselves (plus, of course, the pilot).

 

Sunday is taken seriously in the South Seas – everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, is closed.  Luckily we will be avoiding the Sunday shutdown through the magic of the International Date line: we take off on Saturday and land on Friday.  They are also behind the times in another respect: the arrival card limits one's gender choice to either Male or Female.  How antediluvian!

American Samoa is a tiny slice of the USA in the South Pacific.  Rental cars are giant Ford and Chevy SUVs, and the roads are excellent.  Just outside the airport are the familiar fast food outlets.  A dearth of tourist traffic (the only flights are from Samoa plus a weekly flight from Honolulu) means limited lodging options – basically a couple of overpriced motels catering to US Navy port calls and visiting families.

 

Squeezed between the harbor and the steep volcanic slope is the lyrically named diminutive capital, Pago Pago.  Its scant attractions – museum, marine exhibit, visitors bureau – are closed for a long Columbus Day weekend. 

Overlooking the harbor is the Governor's Mansion.

                 

 

This is home to the southernmost National Park.

                 

 

There is little to do other than drive around and enjoy the views.  Once again, the route is pretty much out and back on the road that hugs the narrow seafront. 

 

 

We leave American Samoa on Sunday and arrive back in Samoa on Monday, making for the longest 15 minute flight in the world.  This time we stay in Apia, the capital.  An unattractive city, the only building of note being the 19th century cathedral.  Just out of town is the manse of Robert Louis Stevenson, who spent his final years here, but, unforunately, we don’t make it there before closing time.

 

By far the best buildings are the churches.  Besides the Catholics, Mormons and various Protestant denominations are big here and all seem to compete on who has the biggest and best-looking edifice. 

                 

 

The next day we hire a driver for a full day tour of the island.  A waterfall, a swim in a blue grotto,

                 

another swim in a sinkhole,

                 

and island views.

 

 

Next stop: the Solomon Islands.  There are six major islands and over 900 smaller ones.  We land on Guadalcanal, the largest of them.  This was the site of the first and longest battle of the Pacific campaign of WWII as the US spent six months dislodging the Japanese occupiers.  Henderson Field, the initial objective, is now the international airport.  The headquarters of the landing force is now Honiara, the capital.

In one respect, the occupation continues: the display monitor in our rental vehicle is in Japanese and no one can figure out how to change it.

                 

 

There are more than a few war memorials.  The main US one is on the hilltop that was the first one taken by US forces; the principal Japanese memorial is atop their last redoubt.

 

 

A few miles and an hour or so (on a TERRIBLE road) out of town is the Vilu War Museum, a private collection of war detritus collected by an enterprising local.  Engine blocks, artillery pieces, and crashed planes are scattered about.  Luckily for him (and us), aluminum doesn’t rust.

                 

                 

 

On the way back, we stop to snorkel the wreck of a Japanese transport just a few yards offshore.  The channel served as the Japanese naval supply route, dubbed "The Tokyo Express". Due to the number of sunken ships, it is now known as Iron Bottom Sound. Despite the gray weather, there is plentiful sea life on and around the hulk.

 

And just inland is the wreck of a Sherman tank.

                 

 

On the way back to Honiara, a roadside grill provides a cheap, fresh, and tasty dinner.

 

 

A college behind Henderson Field has its own small collection of war remnants.

                 

Local artisans produce wooden effigies, at least one of which has features similar to mine.

                 

 

On to Vanuatu! Prior to 1980 it was known as the New Hebrides and administered jointly by France and Britain.  We land at the capital, Port Vila, on the principal island of Efate, arriving as the sun sets over the harbor.

 

 

We hire a driver for a circle around the island.  First stop is a turtle sanctuary.

                 

Its primary focus is on Hawksbill turtles,

 

but a few other species are on display.

                 

Also, there are thriving tidal pools.

 

 

Then, swimming in a blue lagoon.

 

Outside of the environs of Port Vila, the island seems sparsely inhabited.

 

 

They speak English and French here, but also Bislama, a local pidjin based on English.  Sounding out the phonetic spelling makes the meaning often obvious and sometimes amusing.  A hygiene poster: Wasem Gud Han; wetem sop oltaem blong blokem sik.  A request to close the car door gently: Plis Sarem Doa Slo.  “Us” is Yumi and “Ours” is Blong Yumi. And the name tag of a Mormon missionary: Jisas Kraes Blong Ol Lata-Dei Sent

 

 

Next we fly to Tanna Island, where the Rockaway Resort is carved from the living rock – it’s The Flintstones meets The Ritz.

                 

 

The appeal of Tanna is twofold: raw nature and men in the raw.  Compare this famous painting from 1890, "Cannibal Feast on the Island of Tanna"

 

with this photograph taken by me in 2023

 

 

They don’t put on costumes to amuse tourists; they dress this way every day because they like it.  (The missionaries have shamed them into putting on clothes when they go into town.)

                 

What really bizarre is that they revere as a deity the late Prince Philip, and now King Charles.  (The explanation for this belief sort of makes sense.)

                 

                 

 

The island was also home to cargo cults, which have evolved into the John Frum faith.  (A belief that “John from America/England/fill-in-the-blank” will bring goods (“cargo”) to the faithful).  Their worship schedule does not particulary cater to tourists, and our brief stay on the island does not permit a visit.

 

Also on the program is the world largest banyan tree.  Acres in expanse, its dense configuration of aerial roots and multiple trunks defy photography.

                 

 

Mount Yasur is a volcano that has been in continuous eruption for at least 250 years.  It is deemed the most accessible active volcano, but that might be only in terms of distance it takes hours to get there on a horrible road. Finally, after a long drive through the jungle, we reach a wasteland of hardened lava.

                 

 

After a few more miles we reach the visitors center where we receive a safety briefing ("watch out for lava bombs!") before proceeding to the crater rim.  You can hear and feel the rumbling, but can’t see much because of the clouds and belching smoke.

                 

 

When the wind kicks up, the ultra-fine volcano ash sandblasts you and gets in every fold, crack, crevice and orifice in clothing, body, and hair. 

 

 

The visit is timed for dusk, because that is when the show really starts.  Everything prior has just been a pale prelude.

                 

 

Time to move on.  The airport procedure is somewhat relaxed.  Both the check-in area and the passenger lounge are al fresco.

                 

According to the original plan, Tonga and New Caledonia were to be next, but an airline schedule change put the kibosh on that.  The published timetables are both aspirational and somewhat capricious: on the one hand you need to book in advance to secure space on sold-out flights; on the other, flights are changed or cancelled with little or no notice.  And it’s not like there are any alternatives.

 

Anyway, the penultimate stop is now Espritu Santo, the largest island of Vanuatu.  During the War, it was the largest US base in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor. Although yhere is little trace now, under much of the jungle growth is a layer of concrete. Some 500,000 servicemen were stationed on or passed through the New Hebrides from 1942-1945.  James Michener penned Tales of the South Pacific based on his time here.

 

Divers come here to explore the wreck of the U.S.S. President Coolidge, a luxury liner converted to troopship that sank in the harbor after hitting a (U.S. laid) mine.  They also dive and snorkel at Million Dollar Point, where millions of dollars of tanks, jeeps, guns, bulldozers, and other war materiel were pushed off the wharf to spite the British and French who expected to inherit it all for free when the US decamped.

 

I rent a car to explore the island, but a combination of horrendous Africa-quality roads, gray skies, choppy waters, and foreboding weather aborts the road trip. Although cyclone (hurricane) season is not due to start for a week or so, a large storm is barreling towards Santo.  We decide to skedaddle.

 

I can’t get through to Air Vanuatu (the only carrier) on the phone.  The website provides little information.  I show up at the ticket office (right next to the hotel) at opening time, but it looks like everyone else has the same idea.  When my turn finally comes I learn that all flights are sold out.  I leave my name in case something turns up.  To my surprise and delight, a few hours later I get a call saying we have a flight out and to go to the airport.

 

When we arrive there are two long lines: one to check in and an even longer one of people hoping for a standby seat.  We board what proves to be the last flight out.  All other flights to, from, or within Vanuatu are cancelled.  Indefinitely.  The storm, now named Cyclone Lola, has strengthened to a Category 5, the top of the severity scale.

 

 

Things are still calm in Port Vila, so that evening we dine at a renowned French restaurant. Hankering for some fruit bat, I order their signature dish: Flying Fox Bourguignon.

 

 

On the cyclone timeline Efate is at least a day away from Santo, so we visit Port Vila.  There is not much to see or do as everything is closing early as people prepare for the storm.

We’ve changed our reservation to a sturdy, modern, hilltop resort.  Purpose-built for this situation, heavy steel shutters transform the place from open and airy to a storm redoubt with generators at the ready.  The restaurant has printed a special “Lola” menu with limited selections.  Guests are requested to stay in their rooms the next day and advised that there will be no breakfast served; instead fruit, pastries, cereal, milk, are delivered to the rooms. 

 

 

As it turns out, the storm strikes Port Vila only a glancing blow.  (Other islands are not so lucky).  Driving rain and howling wind, but no apparent damage.  After the storm passes, a fiery sunset.

 

 

Except our return flight to Fiji has been canceled, meaning an extra day in Port Vila. After rebooking my flights to LA and on to Jacksonville, I visit the National Museum.

 

 

And, at the airport, pick up a final souvenir.

 

 

Back on Fiji and between flights we have a shopping day in Nadi.  More Fiji souvenirs and more Bula shirts.

                 

 

South Pacific trip #1 done. That’s four more countries I can scratch off the list.

 

Trip date: September, October 2023

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