After a truck ride to the Tanna airport, where a pilot was casually waiting for us, our transit to the Maskelynes started. We were weighed and then walked to the tarmac and were positioned in the aircraft, the smallest aircraft I have ever flown in. I was designated the copilot and told not to touch anything, with a special emphasis on the yoke and lever that controlled the fuel flow to the engines. Katy was not a happy camper at this point, which is understandable given her well-verbalized distaste of flying in commercial jets, let alone planes that they allow me to be the co-pilot of.
This is how our travel day started in Vanuatu. Our goal was to get to a small group of islands off of Malekula, another of the larger outer islands, where commercial flights only touch down on the grass airstrip twice a week. Our plan was to take an Air Taxi and then a boat ride to get there.
The first flight lasted about an hour. We flew at about 120 mph, at 2,000 feet (under the clouds where it was smooth), and used 16 gallons of fuel per hour of flight. We stopped at the main airport in Port Vila to refill fuel. Katy and Libby used that opportunity to run to the international terminal and grab a cappuccino. Katy also used the opportunity to get a coffee-flavored liqueur cordial, since flying on small planes is not something she enjoys. She had her choice of several varieties and went with the chocolate-coffee flavored one, not only because of the flavor, but because it had the highest ABV of all her choices.
We then had another 40-minute uneventful flight to Malekula. The landing was not a typical landing. Mainly due to the fact that the airport consisted of a freshly mowed grass field and a small gazebo-like building. Landing on the grass field was a little bumpy, but less rough than I anticipated. Amazingly at the small pavilion, a pickup truck was waiting, and it was our transfer. Booking travel outside of the main tourist areas in Vanuatu is a little challenging. I tried using google voice a couple of times to call ($0.78/minute) and was never able to get through to anyone. My mom was able to get one message on Facebook in May, but no follow-through. The main travel agency Malampa Travel, which didn’t have great reviews, was not answering their emails. Luckily about a week before we were due to travel, I noticed that another website, Vanuatu Island Adventures, which had most of the same information as Malampa Travel appeared. I think it is the same people, and they chose to change the business name. They said that they could arrange transport from the south of the island to the north, and that they could also arrange for someone to meet us at the airport, and for lodging. My confidence in everything working out was about 60%, which is one reason I paid the 5.3% service fee to pay with a credit card. I figured that if things went wrong, at least I could get back some of the $400 for lodging (3 nights in 2 bungalows) and $250 for transport (4-hour truck ride, truck will have to make a roundtrip).
We hopped in the back of the truck at the airport and drove through a coconut plantation to a bay where a boat was parked. We then waded through shallows to the ship and took a 30-minute boat ride to where we were staying at the Batisse Bungalows in Pellonk Village in the Maskelyne Islands off of Malekula Island in Malampa Province, Vanuatu; they don’t have a webpage.
We arrived at our $45 half over-land, half over-water (at high tide) bungalows, and they were great. Katy and I got two trash cans and a toilet that flushed without issues. My parents’ room lacked a trashcan and had a toilet that you needed to turn the water on to use, but their shower had a showerhead where ours was just a tube. There were even solar-powered lights.
We settled in and then had some lunch which consisted of a fish with unique anatomy, giving it three backbones, with rice and a curried cabbage. The food was very well cooked and better than anything that we had on Tanna.
We then spent the afternoon attempting to walk around the island. The island has two main villages and a large school that has a boarding area. We encountered several (Katy: hundred) mosquitoes on the walk and needed a bug spray reapply a little of the way in. We made it to the second village, and the path petered out, so we turned around and headed back. By the time we got back, the tide was coming in, so we read our books on our high tide overwater patio (over mud flats at low tide). We were given the choice of lobster, fish, or octopus for dinner. Without knowing the price we picked lobster and asked for some beers. We were amazed when the beers arrived cold. It turns out that Sethric, the owner of Batise Bungalows, is one of six people in the village with a refrigerator. He uses it to store lobster, fish, and other items for guests and to sell. The lobster was previously caught large lobster tails with the meat taken out of the tails. It turned out to be the priciest meal we had at Batisse with each lobster costing $13, compared to other meals costing $5.50. We turned in early, which is easy to do when electricity is limited.
The following morning we had our standard wake up, with my dad waking up first, and breakfast around seven. A sunny day greeted us, and we were planning on going snorkeling at 930 am, but left earlier since we were ready. One slight negative about the bungalows is that they open into a very shallow bay, and so you cannot snorkel directly from them. You have to take a boat out to the reef to get your snorkel fix.
We hopped over the side of the boat, and within two minutes, a couple of kal fis swam by. If you say kal fis out loud, it sounds like cow fish and is the Bislama name for a dugong (which is very much like the other, better known sea cow, the manatee). We had a great snorkel in two spots, taking a break when we got cold. Katy and my mom had wetsuits on, and I had on my wetsuit shirt. The coral was medium quality, but the fish was really good. We did see the dugongs one other time and saw a turtle on the second part of the snorkel.
We headed back and had octopus along with kumala (sweet potato) for lunch. In the afternoon, we napped, read our books, and my mom and I walked around the island again. We started the walk in the opposite direction and got to the village which flummoxed us last time and missed our turn. We walked by a group of women who were making mats out of leaves and a group of men that helped us find the right path to continue our loop. Most people in the Maskelynes are primarily subsistence-based farmers. They can make cash by selling copra, the dried white inside of a mature coconut ($250 per ton), selling cocoa ($50 per bag), making mats and bringing them to market, and selling produce to the local boarding school.
After our walk we played a game of settlers and went to the kava bar next door. Kava is a plant; the roots are dried and then made into a tea. The tea is strained and has a very muddy appearance and a distinctly unpleasant taste. The first thing you do at the kava bar is purchase a ticket for your desired amount of kava. We chose to purchase $1 tickets ($0.50-$2). You then go over to the man with the biscuit bucket of kava and exchange your ticket for your bowl of kava. You then chug your bowl of kava in one go and go sit and wait for it to take effect.
After we did our kava bowl my mouth felt numb, but I did not really feel a whole lot of effects from the kava. We waited about 30 minutes and then got another bowl. This time along with the mouth numbing, I think that I felt a little more relaxed. Not a huge difference. We then headed back for some fish for dinner.
Our second morning in Pellonk we went to the giant clam reserve. The gentleman who owned the reserve was the principle of the local school and was selected years ago to do a tour of the world learning about sustainability, conservation, and recycling. One take away was creating the giant clam reserve. We went snorkeling, and there were a bunch of different colored clams. The water was pretty shallow so it was a maze between the coral.
After lunch we took two of the traditional outrigger canoes and tried to paddle them around. I have to admit that an outrigger canoe is not like a normal canoe, and the tendency of my canoe was just to go in a circle no matter how I paddled it. We gave it a go for awhile and came back in and played a few more games of settlers. When the kava bar opened again we went back and this time went for the $2 bowl. This time I felt the “high” associated with kava. It definitely reduced some inhibitions and made me more talkative. We had lobster dinner again for the last night. This time the lobster was cooked with ginger and a cooking green.
We had a good stay, for the right amount of time, in the Maskelynes. You can read about the first part of our Vanuatu adventure here.