Feasting on an early morning breakfast of pamplemousse, pineapple and freshly squeezed lemon juice the conversation turned towards the dinner menu. Would I like lobster, yet again, or would I perhaps celebrate the end of my stay in Gaua with the more expensive option of a fresh local chicken?
This was not a hard decision to make, thinking back to my last meal of a huge lobster freshly caught off the beach behind the bungalows, served with local vegetables and a tasty sauce, and accompanied by a few glasses of Bordeaux, which I had remembered to bring with me from Port Vila. I had come to Gaua to climb the volcano, but the trip was fast turning into a culinary holiday.
Gaua, situated in the Banks Islands in Vanuatu, is rarely visited. Only 67 visitors made it to the northerly island in 2014. I was visitor number two this year and I really did not think I was going to make it. There are not many flights a week and they are often fully booked, so you need to book well in advance. I had done this, yet I was stuck at Santo’s airport. The engineer had been working on the small Twin Otter plane for a couple of hours before there was an announcement. “The plane is out of service. We are going to put you up in hotels in Santo and maybe fly you out later in the week.” I like Santo, but the Banks and Torres was where I wanted to be. There was a general disapointed shuffling to the outside of the terminal before the engineer walked out amongst us and told us that we should board the plane. He had fixed the problem and we were off!
Forty minutes later we were flying low over coral reefs into the grass strip airport at Gaua. I was met by Amelia, from Tammes Guesthouse, who walked me the 100 metres to my hut, basic but comfortable, with a view overlooking the runway. Perfect for plane spotters, but with only a few flights a week they might get a bit bored. Which would not be the case for everyone else, for although rarely visited, there is a huge amount to see and do on the island.
Walking is the best way to see everything and during my visit the ‘smol trak’, a ute, for transport was not running as there had not been a shipment of fuel for a while. It was easy walking and I slowly meandered down the rutted pathway, looking through the tall grass to scenes of village life, towards the Kamsy Kamsy Kamsa kava bar.
I like the occasional shell of kava, but this was one of the best bars I had visited in Vanuatu. Less than a year old, the bar had comfortable seats backing onto the bush, and the kava was as relaxing and throat numbing as ever, but with no after effects. What made the place even more special was that they served a local form of Tapas with the kava shells. Tiny dishes of tasty small fried fish and vegetables kept appearing from the kitchen, and complimented, or rather overcame, the pungent taste of the kava. It set me up for a much-needed good night’s sleep, because the next day I was trekking to Mount Garet Volcano.
Early in the morning John Atkins, my guide, knocked on my bungalow door. He was strong and wiry, carrying a huge backpack, tent and a long bush knife, and accompanied by Fudi, my porter. Normally I would carry my own tent and gear but the trekking price actually included a porter and it really made the journey faster and more enjoyable.
We walked past markets full of root vegetables and trees bursting with pamplemousse, pausing to collect some for later meals. The going was fairly easy, the biggest problem being the long grass that often reached above our heads and required liberal hacking with bush knives. As we got close to the crater, the path wound upwards and the rain, so often associated with volcanoes which have their own weather systems, started to pour.
Five hours later we stopped as John pointed out a small path to the left, which we followed, bringing us to a clearing where spring water was spurting out from the rocks. We filled our bottles with the slightly effervescent water that tasted so much better than any of the mineral water I had brought with me. If this could be commercially bottled it would be a big seller, then again maybe it is best to leave it as a reward for the few who make it to the volcano.
Reaching the top of the caldera we gazed down at Lake Letas and the smoking cone of Mt Garet in the distance. This was the difficult part of the trek and clambering down a steep path as we held onto poles that had been helpfully placed a few metres apart, we descended to lake. We pitched our tents inside a thatched hut on the shore and I thought that this might have been slightly excessive, as my tent was more than able to withstand rain. But during the night, as the torrential downpours hit, I was glad of the extra protection it gave me. Perhaps the best feature of the lakeside camp is the toilet. A basic coconut palm construction but with one of the best throne views in the world; looking through the rainforest and out to the lake and volcano beyond.
After setting the camp, John and Fudi picked up snorkel, face mask and spear and within twenty minutes had returned with a huge bowl of Lake Letas freshwater prawns. With no predators these grow to enormous sizes and cooked quickly over a wood fire they tasted as good as any I have ever eaten. More like lobster crossed with banana prawn, absolutely delicious, and a perfect way to end the day as we sat and talked beneath the stars and the ever smoking Mt Garet.
What you can see or achieve at the lake is in the hands of the weather gods. Sometimes the volcano is obscured by mist and cloud, and you do not even get to see it. The lake itself can misbehave, with the water becoming so rough that is not possible to cross. Not all tourists listen to their guide as John recounted the fate of two Germans who ignored his advice and set out to cross the water in rough conditions to be promptly swamped, sinking the canoe and losing their cameras but luckily not their lives.
The gods were with us that day and fortunately the volcano was visible and the lake calm. Once on the other side, the walk up Mt Garet is relatively easy and takes about an hour. Although the smoke plume and gases obscure any lava visibility from the top of the cone, it is still an imposing site with the overwhelming smell of sulphur and the ghostly trunks of dead trees permeating the landscape.
Mt Garet erupts fairly often, with the last major eruption in 2013. The reality of an active volcano with lava lakes sitting next to and under the largest lake in Vanuatu, has resulted in extensive evacuation plans being drawn up for the entire island should the alert level reach dangerous status. Not surprisingly, the volcano also plays a significant role in the islanders’ kastom, particularly in relation to birth and death. John was at the volcano when his uncle recently died and at the exact moment of death, the volcano let out a huge bang as his spirit returned there.
Back from the trek it was time to relax, swim at the beach and enjoy the fresh fish and lobster at Tammes Bungalows before visiting one of Gaua’s best known attractions; the women’s water music at Lambot village.
Walking down a muddy path, past pig pens and small orchards, I reached a few huts on the sea shore. I was greeted by the ladies, already looking slightly damp in their pandanus and coconut leaf matted costumes from an earlier morning practice. I learnt later that they had actually been practicing for three days once they knew they had a visitor to perform for. Their last performance had been six months ago and they wanted to ensure they put on a good show. And they did.
Water flew in the air as the women hit the surface of the sea with their bare hands, creating a hypnotic beat. The songs are passed down from generation to generation, custom stories about life by the sea and the creatures that live in it. The women and young girls stood waist deep, drumming the water and creating amazing percussion accompanied by their singing. They may not have a big audience in Gaua but that does not stop the world from experiencing their unique music. In the last few years the ladies had travelled to Mozambique, Spain and Thailand, and they were preparing for another European tour later this year.
Walking back to my bungalow under the serene twilight, with the fruit bats flying low overhead, I reflected on my time on the island. There was still more to see, the Siri Waterfall, a 120 metre drop from Lake Letas that I had only viewed from the air but wanted to trek to, and the Qwat Dance, with its elaborate costumes and headdresses, the men’s answer to the women’s water music, performed in a secret place in the forest. That could only mean one thing, I have to return to Gaua. How can you not fall in love with an island where lobster is cheaper than chicken!
Story and Photography by Simon Proudman
Accomodation on Gaua:
Tammes Bungalow, Amelia. Ph: 54139535.
Chez Maureen. Ph: 5956780 / 77896202.
Lagoon View Bungalows, Adeline. Ph: 53709393.
Wongrass Bungalow, Charles. Ph: 5391774 / 77128794.
Peba Memorial Bungalow, Haward. Ph: 5397690 / 5908971.
Trekking on Gaua:
Lake Letas and Mt Garet. Trekking price is 11,500vt, inclusive of porter. Two days.
John Atkins 5378802. Paul 5367392. Ricky 5977429. Larry 5397803.
Lembot village: Selina: 5491392, Catherine 5395315, Georgina 53 94 031. Price 2000vt per person.
Namasari Beach: Merilys 5367392, Paul 5367392, Margaret 5367392. Price: 2000vt per person.
For more information on Gaua and the Banks and Torres Islands contact Olivet at the Department of Tourism on Sola. Ph: 5977429.
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