DAY 1: Fly from Auckland to Sydney, then Sydney to Cairns. Boy is it hot. Meet Ransom, who's picked up the car, drop our bags off, change into shorts, go to the coast, naively thinking we'll go swimming. It's stinger season, though, the water's full of jellyfish and other unpleasantries. Instead we find a random bar by the shore, have a beer, and enjoy being away from home. The bartender gives us directions to a random swimming hole; it's not very big, but it's secluded, near a little waterfall, and the cold fresh water is luxurious. Dinner in Cairns, at an Asian place. What did I have? No recollection, but it was good.
DAY 2: Spend a gratuitous amount of time in Cairns. I get a haircut. We go to a wildlife zoo atop a casino, where we see alligators, birds, snakes, and the requisite koala, who's sleeping. We can pay $15 to get our pictures taken holding it. We don't. We say goodbye to the giant statue of James Cook and head north to the Barron Falls, which apparently are quite seasonal. We've arrived in the rainy season, at the tail end of a cyclone, and they're overflowing, phenomenal. Head up to Port Douglas, with the occasional stop to admire the beach. Book our dive for the next day, walk around a bit, have some dinner. I have kangaroo. It's pretty gamy.
DAY 3: Our first dive on the Great Barrier Reef. We're on the Calypso. It's my first time here, so of course it's amazing - abundant coral and fish life, along with Christmas Tree worms, nudibranchs, all the great little life forms I love to look at. It's not perfect - a recent cyclone has reduced visibility a bit, and I'm having some mask issues and generally feeling a bit awkward - but a bad day diving is still better then most good days doing anything else. Unless it's a really bad day, then you die. But that didn't happen! Also, strangely: the producer of Castaway, which I worked on in 2007, is on the boat. We have a good catch-up. A quiet night in Port Douglas - dives are exhausting things.
DAY 4: Our second dive on the Great Barrier Reef. We're on the Poseidon this time. Of the two boats, I'd recommend the latter for dedicated divers - it's much more focused, and the entire boat ride back we were bombarded with interesting information from our dive guides, as well as crazy stories, like the guy who spent fifteen minutes with his friends taking pictures underwater next to a sleeping crocodile. (That's not to knock the Calypso folk, who were very friendly, and possibly a better boat for all-around groups that have snorkellers as well.) Also, we see lots of amazing things - a huge Maori wrasse, sea turtle, and reef sharks, along with the usual array of trumpet fish, lizard fish, anemones, and what have you. Also: my first drift dive!
DAY 5: A meandering drive north to Cape Tribulation. As this is a tourist circuit, we try to get the jump on things, and cross the ferry relatively early. The Cape Tribulation area is all lush rainforest. There is a nature area that you can spend a silly amount of money when you get in to explore with audio guides and such. I don't recommend it; there's plenty of other free places to go for a walk, which we discover. We manage to have fortunate timing evading rain squalls in our walks through the rainforest, get some exotic tropical fruit ice cream (served in four small scoops, and only whatever flavors are on offer that day; I got black sapote, wattle seed, sour sop, and apricot), and then continued on to a river cruise in search of a crocodile. We eventually did see one, very far away; my only picture is so distant as to make Bigfoot shots look convincing, but we did see it. Even if we hadn't, though, a cruise down a mangrove-banked river is never not nice, in my limited experience. Then to our hosts, the Cape Tribulation Farmstay, a highly recommended accommodation set on an actual tropical fruit farm, complete with breakfasts of said fruits. Gorgeous. Capped the day with a trek to a creek that we'd heard about, just south of where the north-south road on the Queensland coast becomes impassable to anyone not driving a 4x4. A fifteen-minute hike in, and we're at a picturesque bend in the river, Emmagen Creek, a cool freshwater swimming hole with a steep face on one side and crazy people jumping off it. Myself included.
DAY 6: Went for a walk to one of the nearby beaches. I found a $50 note. It pays to look down. We loved our neighborhood swimming hole so much, we returned, and this time had it to ourselves. Idyllic, absurdly nice. Then decided to roll the dice on a "tropical fruit tasting", which turned out to pay off in spades. We got to taste ten different fruits, none of which I'd tried before. The most unique, quite possibly, was the breadfruit, which was baked with a bit of salt and really does have a breadlike texture; my favorite was the yellow sapote, which has a texture like a slightly chalkier avocado, the color of American mustard, and the taste of Awesome. A bit of time drinking beers and Internetting at a resort in the rainforest, plotting our next travels.
DAY 7: And those next travels: to Chillagoe. If you're saying "where?", so too did most Australians we met. Chillagoe is basically the inner outback, as far as you can go west without a 4x4, extra tanks of gas, and a year's supply of water in your car. It seemed like the best way to get a taste of what it might be like out there, and was well worth the journey. We visited a limestone cave, an abandoned smelter, a kangaroo-infested graveyard. We saw the sunset from Balancing Rock, then made our way into town to one of the few
DAY 8: However, there's not a lot to do there, so we left early to see the Tablelands. Very quickly, we discovered that there's not a lot to do in the Tablelands, either. There are a lot of waterfalls, and we saw several of them; stopped at a local distillery and talked politics while we sampled their liqueurs; and ... um ... made our way back to Cairns.
DAY 9: Had a little time to kill in Cairns; watched DUPLICITY, which was really good. Had a flight to Brisbane so that we'd have no problem catching the once weekly Brisbane to Santo flight; wound up booking a horrendous accommodation there by selecting something off the airplane kiosk wall, that seemed like some place old men go to die.
DAY 10: Got up very very very early to fly to Santo. Our accomodations for the first few days were in Louganville, the main town on Santo, population 10,000 or so, and conveniently located to the main dive operations. We found a recommended local dive shop (Allan Power), set up our dives, and, with some time to kill, got a tour guide to take us to the Matevulu blue hole. (Does it seem like we're always swimming in freshwater bodies? That's because it's always hot. And now we've left airconditioning land.) The blue hole is astonishing; clear, gorgeous. On the way, we pass countless people with machetes, stern faced. I am nervous. Over time, I will learn that no matter how stern somebody looks in Vanuatu, if you wave and/or smile and/or say hi, they will almost always wave and smile back. The machetes are useful tools; clearing brush, opening coconuts, that sort of thing. We top off the night with our first kava drinking experience. Kava is a root that's ground up and mixed with water (often by chewing in villages; in the big city they use blenders), and drank. It has an earthy taste and roughly the effect of Novocaine.
DAY 11: Day 1 of diving the USS Coolidge, a WWII ship sunk by a friendly mine. It's so close to shore that you walk most of the way there through shallows, swim a little bit to a buoy, then descend to 18 meters (where the tip of the ship is). The stern of the ship sits at 70 meters; this is much, much more insanely deep than I intend to go anytime soon. Ransom's never gone beyond 18 meters, but our lovely dive guide Yvonne is very supportive and we do well, although my air consumption is out of control and I buddy breathe off her all the way to the decompression stop, where I breathe off a waiting tank until ascending. A morning dive, an afternoon dive, and then an evening dinner, where Ransom decides to order the "flying fox", aka fruit bat. He gets two, complete with heads. I forget my pocket-size camera, which we subsequently refer to as the BatCam for capturing moments such as this.
DAY 12: Day 2 of diving, and a very very special day. We do a morning dive on the Coolidge, going the deepest I've ever been - 40 meters - to visit a landmark called "The Lady". It's a great dive for lots of reasons - I'm improving my air consumption and generally getting a lot more comfortable, it's a grand adventure through the innards of the ships, and our guide Alfred Nambawon ("the best dive guide in Vanuatu") is both a great guide and a fun clown:
In the afternoon, we dive Million Dollar Point, one of the most unique dive sites ever. (Follow the link for a description; I won't spoil the surprise.)
In the evening, we do a night dive on the Coolidge, and this is, quite frankly, possibly the most awesome thing ever, and a completely unphotographable experience. We swim out to the Coolidge, wait for sunset, descend, and with our remaining light, swim without flashlights to a side cargo hold. In this cargo hold, thousands of flashlight fish live. We each grab on to a coral-encrusted pillar for support, and sit, watching the thousands of underwater points of light dot back and forth, barely illuminating the wreckage that surrounds them. I asked one of the dive instructors what it was like beforehand, and he said, with a big smile and faraway look in his eyes, "Like stepping into the Milky Way". That's about right.
DAY 13: Not our best day; both of us spend the evening sick. Our first hypothesis is the fish (we had the same for dinner, and had quickly determined that, being low season, food supplies don't turn over quickly at restaurants), but it just keeps on, and eventually we suspect it's the water. We survive the long, bumpy drive to our new residence: Oyster Island Resort. It's a gorgeous place, in the process of being renovated, and we're the only people here. We wander around a bit, exploring obscure beaches and abandoned kava bars, between spots of feeling sick. Mostly it's a lovely place to lay in a hammock and relax, while at high tide the water laps at the base of your bungalow.
DAY 14: Still sick. Ransom's started taking antibiotics (which I avoid, on the folk-wisdom principle that they "wipe out the good stuff") and is feeling good enough to go kayaking. In the afternoon, he convinces me to take a kayak out with him to return to the blue hole. It's a good trip, but I'm completely wiped, and wind up not leaving the bungalow til the middle of the next day.
DAY 15: Meanwhile, Ransom's gone off on an adventure to Millennium Cave. Something I really wanted to do, but am in no state to do. After hours of lying there, reading, watching the waves, eventually I make my way down for some lunch, talk with a local waiter for a while about many interesting things, which I'll post separately about. Ransom comes home with antibiotics for me, but I hold off; I've obtained some antidiarrheals earlier in the day, which seem to help, and I cling to my belief that they'll just kill the good stuff as well and then I'll get really sick, or something. Manage to go for a bit of a swim later, and have solid food for dinner. Getting better?
DAY 16: We leave bright and early - we have a flight to Tanna. Our driver is late and we have a nervewracking, impossibly slow drive to the airport, but it's all fine. After our time in Santo, which had a few restaurants and stores, Tanna is a further step away from Western civilization. We stay at the second nicest resort on the island; it has electricity (via generator) 8 hours of the day. There are basically no paved roads. (This will become important later.) There are no restaurants, near as we can tell, except those connected to resorts, and forget markets, unless you consider a piece of wood on the side of the road with coconuts and the like on it. (Which I don't mean to knock; getting a fresh coconut for 20 Vatu (US 20 cents) full of coconut milk, complete with having it chopped open with a machete when you're done with the milk to eat the meat, is a great deal.)There is, however, an active volcano. A very active volcano that spits lava regularly. So where do we go?
DAY 17: The morning deserves a blog post all its own; it's like a crazy adventure dreamed up by an 8 year old, culminating in that banyan tree shot posted below. The rest of the day is nowhere near so action packed; I'm feeling still pretty sick, and we relax too much and miss lunch, and have to head to the nice resort, where we spend too much on a sandwich, and our evening tour to a Jon Frum village is cancelled because of the rain rendering the roads impassable. Tanna is lovely, but we've spent the right amount of time here, at least in the wet season.
DAY 18: Still raining. We want to go see the Blue Cave (a blue hole inside a cave), but we can't because it's too dim. I don't exactly mind; I'm still pretty sick, trying to pretend I'm not, failing. There is nothing else to do except read, work on screenplay, amuse ourselves. That's okay; we fly to Vila today.
Except we don't. The rain is so bad that the plane from Vila to Tanna can't land, and after circling Tanna returns to Vila. We're told the flight leaves at 6 AM the next morning. We go to our resort for another night, meeting some new folks who had stayed at other resorts closer to the volcano and completely lacking in amenities like electricity, and have some drinks.
DAY 19: Our resort staff are asleep when we try to leave, and then everybody has to check out, with the numerous drinks from last night being slowly itemized. We get to the airport at 5:50 in a blind panic ... and we're the only ones there. Just six of us, and some mewling kittens. Eventually, two of our compatriots find the guy who runs the airport (and lives there), and he determines that the control tower in Vila doesn't even open until 6:30 AM. (The nice resort checked this out before dragging everyone to the airport.) It's kind of interesting, in a deserted Stephen King prologue kind of way, and I shoot lots of pictures.
Eventually, the plane arrives, and we arrive in Port Vila, the largest city in Vanuatu, located on the island of Efate. After the sheer remoteness of Tanna, it's a bit of a culture shock to be on paved roads, passing twenty-story hotels, checking into a lodge where we have a TV, DVD player, refrigerator, and microwave in our room. But here we are. And I'm still sick. Ransom drags me out to a walk into town to set up our dives, which I remember likening to the Bataan Death March, stumbling through the heat in sheer confusion. We set up our dives, eat lunch, go to the duty free, get some groceries, somehow get home, and I finally pull the antibiotic pin.
Shortly thereafter, we head off with another traveller we met on Tanna to a local kava bar. We dramatically up our kava intake, and everyone except me dramatically pays for it. By the end of the night, I'm the least sick one; I cook bolognese, which Ransom listlessly eats before passing out.
DAY 20: First of three days of diving. Ransom is working on his advanced certification, so I spend the first day diving with Jim ("The number one dive guide in Vanuatu" - apparently there's not a unifying body that judges such things). He's great to dive with, attentive to all sorts of small forms of life, including some crazy small swimming flatworms, and I'm finally getting my head around what I'm doing in scuba to the point that I really, really feel under control. One wreck dive (the Semle, a gorgeous ship which is easy to penetrate and home to lots of sea life) and one reef dive.
And oh, yeah, the antibiotics work instantly.
We also do our second night dive, on an unfamiliar ship: The Konanda. I've been reading SHADOW DIVERS, and the sense of using our flashlights to explore an unfamiliar ship is exciting, albeit the kid's play equivalent of what happens in that book.
DAY 21: Second of three days of diving, with two wreck dives: the Star of Russia and a return to the Konanda. The Star of Russia in particular is one of my favorite dives ever; the feeling of swimming between layers of a ship, now just horizontal girders, while pools of fish circle above you, is calming, glorious, a perfect synthesis of the natural and the manmade and utterly beautiful.
By this time, I think we're pretty laid back and not feeling like getting up to much; we spend the afternoon watching GUERILLA, the Patty Hearst/Symbionese Liberation Army documentary, and have dinner at a French restaurant, where I decide to try pigeon:
I guess it's good, for pigeon.
DAY 22: Third and final day of diving, and we head to the Cathedral, not quite a sea cave but steep walls on either side. It's one of the hardest dives I've done because of the current, but it's beautiful. Our final dive is at Twin Bommies, a coral reef, and a good relaxing dive after fighting the current on the earlier dive.
A relaxing afternoon, and we explore Port Vila a bit - there's a "nice resort" across the lagoon which we head to, and barely survive 20 minutes at, terrible drinks and "authentic" costumes unlike anything we've seen. But a nice reflecting pool! We go back, get some pizza, chill out and watch MAD DOG AND GLORY on DVD. Are we done? Kind of.
DAY 23: Part of our dampened enthusiasm is that we knew today was when the cruise ship descended on Vila, disgorging hundreds if not thousands of tourists, raising prices, basically taking a quiet pleasant place and making it horribly annoying. So we weren't planning on doing much. But we got up at 6, as we've been doing, and I suggested to Ransom that we try to make it to the Cascades before the cruise ship passengers do.
So we hop a bus to the Mele-Maat Cascades, we're the first one there, and spend a glorious hour and a half clambering about, swimming, bathing in waterfalls, taking pictures, luxuriating.
As we leave, we pass lines and lines of pasty confused cruise boat passengers. We hunker down at our resort for the balance of the day, finishing our groceries and books and rum, then fly to Brisbane, which is so dull that it's a pleasant return to civilization but hardly worth writing about, so let's just call this done.