If I was a geologist, this post would start 85 million years ago. I would describe, in all it’s scientific glory and details, how a large landmass, now Australia, split off Antarctica and drifted north, into the Pacific Ocean. Over the next 20 million years there were smaller splits which created New Zealand and Tasmania. New Caledonia, the Vanuatu Archipelago, and the Solomon Islands were also created by these seismic events. But I am not a geologist, so you won’t be bored with what happened between then and 4,000 years ago.
I am also not an Anthropologist. If I were, I would be able to tell a tale of the first inhabitants of these untouched and dormant tropical islands. Four thousand years ago a small group of Melanesian fishermen set off in their outrigger canoes in search of God-knows-what. We can safely assume they got lost in a storm, or stuck to a whale they were chasing. Whatever the cause, 1,000 miles west of Australia, they came across these volcanic islands and made them home. But I am not an anthropologist, so I won’t bore you with what happened for the next 4,000 years.
If I was a Historian, I would tell the story of Frank McLoughlin, a young man from Hell’s Kitchen who joined the Army Air Corps in 1941. Taken from a life on the tough streets of New York he was trained to be a turret gunner on the B-24 bomber, also known as a flying coffin. He flew 50 missions, fighting Japanese Imperialism, during World War II in the South Pacific campaign. On one particular mission, while being swarmed by enemy firepower like a nasty hive of bees, he shot down 2 Japanese Zeroes and returned safely to the Solomon Islands from the Philippines. Seventy years later he was recognized for his acts of bravery and heroism, and received the Distinguished Flying Cross Medal. But I am not a historian, and will save that story for the future.
If I was a Sociologist, I would tell the story of Staff Sergeant McLoughlin’s Grandson. Fifty years after Frank’s heroics, a young man was taken off the streets and found himself in a cold and dimly lit prison cell in Elmira, New York. The first 2 books he read since childhood were by James Michener: Hawaii and Tales From The South Pacific. Each book he read 3 or 4 or 5 times, not because he loved them so much, but because that’s all he had. Reading was his only chance of escape and there was no better place than The Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, and The Vanuatu Archipelago. Deep in his soul, he knew he would never get to those places. But I’m not a Sociologist, and won’t bore you with what happened to him for the next 25 years.
What I have become, however, is a traveler. So, in February, 2014, just a few weeks after the wedding of the century, my new wife and I set off on a dream cruise. The itinerary would have us depart from Sydney, Australia and take us to various islands in the South Pacific, belonging to both New Caledonia and the Vanuatu Archipelago.
Our exploration was on Royal Caribbean’s Rhapsody of the Seas. Staying in an Owner’s Suite entitled us to the best amenities and services offered, and man, did we take advantage of that. As a suite guest, there are no lines anywhere and our personal concierge is at our beck and call. We spent most evenings on this 12 night cruise in the Concierge lounge, with a top-shelf open bar from 4 to 9 every night, complete with private bartender.
Although we had spent the last 2 weeks exploring Sydney and the Great Barrier Reef, it wasn’t until we were on the ship with 2,500 people that we really learned what the Aussies are like. Generally speaking, they weren’t the most inviting, at first. It seemed like most needed to say hello (G’day) and see us a few times before opening up. But once they warmed up to us, they became friends for life.
And then there was John and Rose, from Tasmania. We met this interesting couple at dinner on our first night. John was a character, zingy one-liners flew faster than nautical miles. He quickly let us know he was from Tasmania, not New Zealand. He didn’t like Kiwis, his sheep were much healthier and handsome than any from that untamed nation below his. Not to mention the horrid things those New Zealand Neanderthals do to their sheep. Yes, the men are men, but the sheep are afraid.
He was fascinated when he discovered we were from the States. “I once went to Los Angeles. Is it very far from New York?” Not particularly, John. ” Well, I tell ya, I was there. Couldn’t believe how many coloreds there was. Bunch a big niggers everywhere. Got on an elevator with one. Bigger than a milk cow. So I says to this colored man, you just the biggest nigger I ever seen. Didn’t mean nothing by it, we don’t see too many coloreds down under, but damn he had a temper, thought he was gonna kill me, don’t know why. But the funny part, he was a queer to boot!” John let out a boisterous roar, and Rose, nodding and parroting, laughed too.
The next 11 nights we spent avoiding Tasmanian John and Rose, not always with great success.
By the second day sailing most men, and quite a few women, were thoroughly wrecked and that’s when the chants started. Aussie!, Aussie!, Aussie!, Oi!, Oi!, Oi!!!! “What the hell is that?” Gail says to me. I explained, that’s their national chant. We heard it often, typically at the conclusion of an AC/DC song played poolside, or Olivia Newton-John in the Karaoke Bar. “That’s stupid,” says Gail. And off we sailed to New Caledonia.
Noumea is the capitol and largest city of New Caledonia. A welcome sight after days at sea, it rose in the morning thru an eerie fog. I thought of Skull Island, that dark and foreboding home to King Kong. I expected to see natives shaking torches at me and banging drums. But it wasn’t like that at all, mostly.
As is typical with Gail and I, we didn’t follow the cruise crowd after tendering to the mainland. Instead, we ventured off to the tiny island of Amadee. By my estimation, this remote little island in the middle of the South Pacific couldn’t have been more than 8 acres in total. The only semi-permanent construction on the island is a decades old lighthouse, which was offered up for climbing and viewing. The inhabitants of Amadee consists of the lighthouse keeper and his seemingly understandable and equally anti-social wife.
The greatest feature of the island, though, was the beach. While larger than most Caribbean beaches, it was just as magnificent. Within minutes I was snorkeling with giant sea turtles and the infamous, and highly venomous, striped sea snakes. Though their poison apparently packs quite a wallop, I understand these snakes are virtually harmless. Their fangs are set deep in the back of their narrow mouths. In order to be struck by one, you would have to literally stick your finger down it’s throat. But I wasn’t going to take that chance and opted for a BBQ luau lunch with the local grass skirt girls.
Dinner that night introduced us to the only other Americans on the ship. With this retired Los Angeles detective and his Cuban born wife, we laughed thru several nights and plenty of wine. They were a pleasant respite from the locals, especially Tasmanian John.
After a day in Lifou, of the Loyalty Islands, we discovered Vila, Vanuatu. We hired a local taxi driver, Alberic, to be our personal tour guide for the day. A native to this region, Alberic happily obliged us for the day. After seeing our general disinterest at the tourist friendly Turtle Sanctuary, Alberic realized we wanted something a little more off the beaten path.
Off the ocean, past the farms and small villages, we entered a jungle. Through the dark woods we drove to where, Alberic told us, only the locals go. Alongside a stream we began to see an occasional wooden kayak and locals milling around. The stream was so clear, at first I thought it was empty. Before we knew it, we were in a dirt parking lot with the smells of BBQ and locals running around. “We’re here,” said Alberic.
By “here”, he meant the most amazing blue water hole I could have ever imagined. The water was so clear and clean it was like swimming in cool air. I spent hours swimming. This was the South Pacific of my dreams.
We finished our day drinking cocktails at The Warwick Hotel at La Lagon, a beautiful resort just down the road from the cruise port in Vila. While there were no passengers from the ship, it seemed like half the crew was playing in the pool. We laughed at our fortune and thanked Alberic for a wonderful day.
The next day brought us to Champagne Bay, on the largest of the Vanuatu islands, Espiritu Santo. Following that we arrived at Luganville, located on the backside of Espiritu Santo. Here we met Linesse, another local taxi driver willing to be our tour guide for the day.
As friendly as Alberic was, Linesse knew her history. We spent hours at another local water hole, known locally as “blu ho”. Linesse was a walking encyclopedia of World War II knowledge. When I mentioned my Grandfather was a veteran she really opened up. She showed us the roads that the Americans built 70 years earlier. To this day, not a pothole anywhere. She pointed out an area where American troops hid tanks and other heavy artillery. It was a heap of thick brush. “We call that American Vine.” In addition to weapons, apparently we brought over the vine to hide them.
Something that did not come as a surprise was that every island had absolutely amazing beaches. Mystery Island, on day number 9 was no exception. A completely uninhabited island in the Archipelago, we had another day of snorkeling with sea turtles and reef sharks. Our tans were perfected. But truth be told, at this point in the trip, we were ready for some city life.
Evenings on the ship continued to consist of drinks at the concierge lounge and your traditional corny cruise entertainment. We walked out on a number of comedians, as they were recycling old Henny Youngman style slapstick comedy. We could hear Tasmanian John and Rose cackling from across the theatre. But we also met some great people along the way. Michael and Vicky were one such couple. Michael is an executive chef at a 4 star retaurant and restored our faith in Tasmanians.
We met these two in the lounge and shared plenty of drinks together. Back at Champagne Bay we sat beachside and smoked cigars. I could talk to a chef about his craft for days.
Twenty five hundred passengers on a ship sure seems like a lot, but somehow, we manage to continually bump into the same people over and over. So it was disconcerting when we hadn’t seen Michael and Vicky in a number of days. And there we were, on the Isle of Pines, appropriately named by Captain Cook, when we saw Vicky. Practically crawling behind her came Michael, with his face bandaged from side to side. “What in the name of New Caledonia happened to you?” As it turned out, after we shared a few drinks and a smoke at Champagne Bay he decided it would be good idea to go for a swim. Diving headfirst into the water he face-planted smack into an old coral bed, breaking his nose and ripping off half the skin on his face. He vouched for the Medical Staff on Royal Caribbean, and we had another drink and laughed our asses off.
We spent the next two days sailing back to Sydney. We laughed as we heard the old Men At Work tune, I come from a land down under. When that song played poolside, it was as if the ship stopped, everybody, and I mean everybody, sang along. And then the chants of Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!
James Michener, my favorite author, once said about the people of Vanuatu, “…the friendliness of the peoples, their infectious smiles and their open heartedness will remain forever one of life’s treasures.”
We spent nearly a month traveling various parts of the South Pacific, but to say we even saw any of it, is like asking if you know the big guy in an elevator in Los Angeles.