The adage ‘to paddle your own canoe’ evokes images of self-reliance and an independent spirit.
Paddling your own dugout canoe in the remote islands of the Maskelynes in Vanuatu, requires a certain amount of independence and brings with it small challenges and many delights.
Our catch phrase for our camping and dugout canoe adventure to these islands was simple: Take it as it comes. We really had little idea what to expect and that was part of the fun. We had however, recreationally paddled leaky outrigger canoes that stubbornly wanted to travel in relentless circles before, so there was an element of nervous anticipation wondering how we would go.
Flying into Lamap airport on the island of Malekula revealed our first stunning landscape. A beautiful array of blue waters over coral reefs, a carpet of coconut palms and the landing on the grass airstrip set the scene for our four-day adventure. We collected our bags and clambered into the back of the waiting ute for the short drive to the waters’ edge and our waiting canoes.
The tour was well organized and there was a back up powerboat to carry our gear and the tents that were supplied. It also carried fresh water to our campsites daily. The comfort and convenience of having this back up vessel meant that the four of us were assured of dry clothes and bedding for the night, while we carried our daypacks and snorkeling gear with us in the two canoes.
These traditional dugout outrigger canoes are made from local soft woods. They are the customary form of canoe used by the islands’ inhabitants for fishing and basic transportation. Ours had a pandanus leaf sail as well as four hewn wooden paddles.
We got to paddle our own canoes and to our tacit relief, we were aided by the experienced hand of a guide and boat handler. After offloading our gear into the motorboat, we put paddles to water and set forth in anticipation of sighting dugongs.
A pleasant, tranquil paddle brought us to the slightly murky waters of the mangroves in Gaspard Bay, the preferred environment for these timid ‘sea cows’, who feed on sea grasses in the shallow waters. Drifting quietly in the canoes we were rewarded by many sightings of bobbing dugong heads and after waiting patiently, the guides signaled to us to slide quietly from the canoes with snorkels and fins for a closer encounter. Unfortunately, we could not get any closer to the timid creatures. “Hemi fright tumas”, our local guides told us. “They are too scared.”
So far the delights were obvious, but my first challenge of the trip was at hand – getting back into the dugout without the luxury of a ladder! Thankfully, clambering back in got easier with practice, as the crystal-clear waters on our way to lunch provided several more snorkeling opportunities, including my first ever sighting of black-tipped reef sharks lazily swimming below.
It was time for a lunch break and after we landed on the shady beach, our guides expertly harvested and opened green coconuts for us to drink, and lunch was set out on woven mats on the sand. Straight from the oven pit, our tasty ‘lap lap’ dish had chicken and island vegetables coated with fresh coconut cream wrapped and cooked in pandanus leaf. It was hot and delicious and we were hungry after an early flight and an energetic start to our adventure.
After a short rest and wallow in the shallows, we set off to our first night’s campsite on Sakao Island. By choice, we pitched our own tents as John, Ishmail, and the other guides organised the camp, set the fire, and then prepared a variety of garden fresh vegetables that had been transported with our gear and water. The highlight of our first dinner was delivered alive and snapping – a big, fat mud crab! A ‘bird bath’ to wash off the salt, beautiful sunset and an island feast, left us ready for an early night.
Day two adventure started with fresh bread and fruit for breakfast and a lazy morning stroll along the beach. The water was calm and aqua-blue by the time we cast off to paddle the two and half kilometers across the bay to the island of Avok. On arrival, another beautifully prepared island meal of local vegetables and skewers of freshly harvested mollusk awaited us. The island children were at first shy and scared to have their photos taken. Finally, curiosity got the better of them and they crowded around to see the photos of each other.
After lunch we got into the dugouts again and headed across the reef for ‘a spot’ of snorkeling while our guide John set out to catch us a lobster for dinner. Our campsite on that second night was straight out of a picture book. White sandy beach, blue waters and sky for as far as you could see. A magical island all to ourselves and another amazing sunset and dinner. John voiced his disappointed that he wasn’t able to catch us a lobster, but we thoroughly enjoyed the fresh fish cooked on the open fire accompanied by vegetables lightly curried in coconut milk, followed by fresh fruit. The evening was complete as we stargazed, lying on woven mats around the crackling campfire.
The next morning it was back to all things nice. We lay in the sun, snorkeled and swam, and took a short hike to the top of a rocky headland. As the morning progressed, the weather became a little overcast and windy. However on a clear day we were told you could see Nguna Island, 120km away, not far from where our trip originated on Vanuatu’s main island of Efate.
Our wonderful local guides didn’t give up so we enjoyed fresh lobster for lunch before heading off to Ulleveo. A small chop and head winds meant that we could not continue by canoe, hence this last leg of the trip was done by motorboat. Ulleveo, where we were to spend our last night in a local bungalow, is the most populated of the Maskelynes islands.
Our tour operator, Maltery, escorted us to a very pleasant, partly overwater bungalow and the luxury of bed, mattress, shower and a flushing loo – not to mention a cold beer! There are a few local accommodation choices on the island and Mal likes to share the tour bookings between them. Our very affable host was Sethric and our home away from home was the Bastis Seaside Guesthouse.
After a very welcome shower, the cold Tusker on the overwater deck could not have tasted better.
On our last and fourth morning, it was too windy for a decent snorkel, so we opted for a lazy hours walk. The island has a wide dirt road, with no vehicles apart from the occasional bicycle. The road makes for a shady, enchanting walk, that took us through the three small villages and abundant vegetable gardens. The local people were curious and chatty and we exchanged stories and reciprocated their numerous greetings with ‘Evoy’ – good day.
To book the trip you can go to the very efficient Malampa Travel website. http://www.malampa.travel. The office responded promptly to all our questions about what to bring with us, and other booking enquiries.
If you don’t fancy the adventure of camping and canoeing, but still want an authentic, outer island experience, you can contact Sethric directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sethric charges 4,500 vatu (about $50 AUD) a night for 2 people in the overwater bungalow, including a light breakfast. Plus 1,500 vatu a plate for a seafood meal. He can organize all transport to and from the airport and anything in between too. The flight from Vanuatu’s main airport, Bauerfield, to Lamap, takes about 50 minutes with Air Vanuatu.
Story by Anne Smith. Photography courtesy of Charmaine Starling and Anne and Bryan Smith.