Romeo Victor 15 – Surf and sandalwood in the Deep South


    We are wedged in a heavily loaded Cessna, taxiing out to the main runway at Bauerfield airport. Three passengers, plus a pilot equals four friends. The pilot is talking to the control tower and you can hear it all over the headphones. In that wonderfully serious voice she says, “This is Romeo Victor 15 requesting permission for takeoff.” A charge of excitement zips up my back as the control tower replies over a light static “Romeo Victor 15 you are cleared for take off.” Suddenly the plane is full of noise; we are airborne; we are going south to Anietyum.

This trip had come together like a lot do, in a Port Vila bar. Simon, Nathan and I were talking over the music and each other, saying that we wanted a trip: how about Mystery Island? How about that wave down there? How about we go? Standing patiently listening to all this was the delightful, diminutive Devina. Looking up at us she said “I want a holiday. I can get a plane. I will take you.” We all looked down, stopped talking and then started talking a lot.

Aneityum is the last major island to the south in the archipelago of Vanuatu, and known to cruise shippers as Mystery Island and to the locals as Inyeug. It has a lot of history. Missionaries, whalers and sandalwood traders were the first contact for the local community. The second was the disease that they carried with devastating consequences. The airstrip on Mystery Island was built there during WWII to refuel American warplanes on their way north to the Pacific theatres. The main island has the ruins of a large stone mission church and the big brass bell still hangs forlornly in a local church. We spent sometime exploring these and I tried to imagine the isolation of those early visitors.

Light planes are cool and even cooler when you have a friend who can get one and then fly it.Things also get better when you can get your employer to fund half the cost of this aviation indulgence. I was then working in the sandalwood trade, distilling oil and exporting raw wood from Port Vila. The company would purchase wood in cash, using agents on the remote outer islands. The deal was that we drop a briefcase with 3 million Vatu (abouUS$35,000) to a man called Naoni on a small island called Futuna on our way to Aneityum. This seemed like a good deal.

I like flying and I like small planes. Both facts that were tested as we approached the Futuna landing strip. Now Devina is a very good pilot. She is also a very short one and has to sit on two pillows to see over the controls. I was taking this all in as she appeared to be flying directly and determinedly into a cliff. Over the intercom I must had made an involuntary, anxious noise and I received a professional curt reply “I use the updraft.” Just when you start to loose a little faith, the plane pops up to the top of the cliff, which turned out to be the start of the runway, and we came down smoothly. The airstrip is so short and surrounded by sea, it felt like landing on an aircraft carrier. It was all over quickly and Naoni, a man whom I had never met,came to the plane and I handed over the case. I felt it was all very informal considering the sum.

As we approached the island, any doubt regarding where the wave would be ended as a big horseshoe reef showed perfect surfable whitewash lines wrapping into the bay. The main island was steep and covered in many shades of green with a light mist at the peak. I clearly remember verging on euphoria at this moment.

Landing on the grass strip, we were met by some very friendly locals who immediately put us up in very clean and comfortable bungalows. They arranged a boat driver to meet us at dawn and we were then alone on the island as the locals returned to their homes on the mainland. The island inhabitants choose not to sleep on the island as they believe it to be the home of some restless spirits. Our only company was a lot of big healthy cats who live on the island’s crab population and I imagine were descended from the ship’s cats of the original trading ships.

The island was white sand, and covered in Pandanus and Coconut palms. It is truly the tropical ideal. The surrounding reef is a turtle sanctuary and I have never seen so many turtles in one place. After a few trips in the boat, we stopped even pointing them out as they zoomed underneath us. Settling in, we ate the little food we had and talked over wine into the evening. Waves rumbled on the outer reef as I fell asleep, dreaming of next day’s surf adventure.

The next morning James, the jolly boat driver, was on time and we had our boards and gear loaded at a pace that can only be set by anticipation and excitement. We motored out to the reef and there it was. Finding a wave that has been surfed very rarely, and is only known of from the whispers of some yachtsman, is a particularly unique and good feeling. As we anchored, some big sets lurched through, forming perfect A frame shaped peaks, that threw and then peeled left and hollow along the reef’s edge.

We surfed all morning. Perfect, tubing, challenging waves. Taking turns and calling each other into them, laughing and shouting, it was as good as surfing gets. The reef was vibrant and soft and hard corals were the home to many coloured fish. Surfed out and hungry, James took us back in for food and rest.

Food. We had not put a lot of thought into this. I made a concoction from some tins I had bought on the main island. Devina stared into the pot, looked at me directly and politely declared “I am not eating that.” I had some fishing gear and my three fellow-travellers, all non-fishermen, became suddenly very interested in it. The next day after surfing, we trolled by a little reef nearby. It was not long before lines went taught and a small tuna and a mackerel were thumping on the bottom of the boat. That night it was sashimi, merlot and some local fruit gifted to us by our hosts. Perfect.

For two days we just surfed and fished in a joyous routine. For me, it could have gone on forever. The third morning, with the arrival of a cruise ship, was a little different; it felt like an invasion of brash interlopers. Regular cruise ship visits are a big part of the island’s economy, and little boats bring hundreds of guests from the mothership to land. The input of the visitors is such that the local people use Australian dollars as regular currency and the exchange rate is known by all. The island transforms overnight into some sort of instant Gilligan’s Island fantasy. At little stalls you can get lobsters, coconut bras and grass skirts. For $2 you can have your photo taken in a cannibal pot (a blubber pot left over from the whaling days), a real cannibal posing with you. Chatting later to the cannibal, he told me it was a very cash positive business with really low overheads. They took photos of everything – a long lens zoomed through the window at me while I was making coffee in the kitchen. Click, click and I am some random, sunburned guy on a memory stick somewhere. They video interviewed Simon and Nathan and gently inquired if we were fugitives on the run.It was wild.

The next day the swell had dropped and we surfed a final session and decided to leave. The great thing when you have your own plane is you can do just that. No waiting. No booking in. You say thank you very much to your kind hosts, load up and fly away. Crisp and clean.

Flying back, Devina let Simon, who had never flown a plane before (ever), take the controls all the way home. Surprisingly, he did a very good, steady job. Once again, I thought informal considering the consequences as we approached Bauerfield airport.

If you are reading this in Port Vila or on your way to Vanuatu and are looking for a true remote tropical island adventure, call Air Van, book a ticket to Aneityum and set aside a week. Get really lost .You will never regret time here. Never.

Story and photography by Ben Brookman.