Espiritu Santo is known as home to natural and historical wonders such as Champagne Beach, The President Coolidge, Million Dollar Point and the blue holes. But Santo (and Vanuatu!) are packed with spectacular natural and cultural locations and there is yet so much to explore. Chantal Dunbar, on her last visit to Santo, got off the beaten track to discover some of Santo’s lovely secrets shared by the locals.
Jaramaja may be Santo’s most accessible traditional village but it still requires perseverance, patience and the cooperation of the Weather Gods to reach.
The trip through Middle Bush involves a 90 minute pot-holed ride on the back of a truck, followed by two hours of hiking through dense rainforest. Only the most adventurous and determined of travellers should apply, but the rewards for success are many.
Set amidst the cloud forests on the slopes of an ancient volcano, a cluster of thatched huts can be seen. The village is almost untouched by the trappings of Western civilisation and as such, it offers a rare glimpse of Indigenous culture that has remained unchanged for as long as oral histories have been passed from father to son.
‘Necessities’ such as electricity, schools and clothing have been shunned by the villagers, who prefer instead to follow kastom ways.
Lean, muscular men hunt for boar, freshwater prawns and snakes in the dense jungle. They’re naked except for a small square of cloth that covers the front and rear of their privates. Bare-breasted women wearing skirts made from leaves tend jungle gardens so tall that their daughters can’t be seen. Young boys skewer lizards to roast over the fire and proudly show off fat grubs they’ve collected, which will supplement their daily meal.
It is only in recent years that Jaramaja’s Chiefs have allowed outsiders to visit; nothing can be left behind in the village and visitors must be accompanied by a local guide. They help bridge the cultural divide into a world that is rapidly disappearing elsewhere and for those who have the privilege of momentarily straddling the two worlds, Jaramaja offers an unforgettable experience.
It is essential to book well in advance as permission must first be sought from the Chief and all provisions must be packed in and waste packed out. Contact Wrecks to Rainforest to organise.
Too few people ever experience the joy of standing beneath a waterfall as it massages the aches and pains from bare shoulders. Tuffuntari is arguably Santo’s most pretty cascade and should be considered a ‘must’ for those visiting the island.
Located along the dirt road that leads from Luganville to South Santo, Tuffuntari is not particularly well signposted. It is possible to rent a quad bike in Luganville and get directions, or hire a guide to help you find the rough track that leads off through the bush to the falls.
The kastom owner has been taming the jungle with wild ginger, fruit trees and flowering tropical plants. A gently sloping track has been carved into the hillside and it leads to a clearing from where your first glimpse of the falls will be gained.
Prepare to have your breath taken away and to retrieve your jaw from the ground as Tuffuntari is a beautiful sight! Water cascades down the rock face into a sparkling fresh water pool. A swift flowing river emerges from the forest off to one side and adds to the swimming hole, in which dozens of fish swim in the shallows.
Tuffuntari rivals Efate’s Mele Cascades. For such an exquisite site, it is remarkable that it is not more visited; especially given it is just 45 minutes from Luganville.
There is a changing room and bush toilet on site. The owner provides slices of fresh fruit, but other than that, there are no facilities close by. Kastom owner entry fee is VT1,000/ adult.
When prevailing winds chop up the surface of beaches such as Champagne and Port Olry, there is a hidden gem located nearby, which boasts no less than four bays and seven white sand beaches.
Hide Away Resort is a new-comer to the treehouse-bungalow market, which was once exclusively cornered by Port Olry. The property is free from pollution, serene and stunning, but most impressive yet is its natural aquarium.
Craggy rocks have all-but encircled the entrance to a lagoon, providing protection from the onslaught of crashing waves. Beautiful coral formations and an abundance of tropical fish can be seen beneath the shimmering surface and two white sandy beaches make this a perfect all-weather/ all-tide swimming pool for play!
Next to the lagoon is the second bay with a thatched bar serving up cold Tusker and fresh lobster. It too has a white sand beach and, when the tide is out, giant clams can be seen in the rock pools.
Walking distance offshore is a small, uninhabited island. There are two more small beaches to be found, as well as dozens of wild chickens and coconut crabs. The island has been declared a coconut crab sanctuary in a bid to help boost wild stocks. On calm days, it is well worth hiring an outrigger canoe and exploring the fringing coral reefs and the channel that separates it from the rest of the property.
Sunshine Beach can be seen just beyond a cluster of single and double storey tree house bungalows. A coconut grove lines the full extent of the beach, which overlooks Hog Harbour and Champagne beach in the distance.
Beyond a rocky outcrop and heavily forested coastline, it is possible to just make out one final beach, part of the kastom owner’s land. Deserted, it beckons from afar, calling to the Robinson Crusoes among us.
Turn off the East Coast Road towards the Santo Golf Club and after a bumpy 10 minute drive along a dirt road, you will start to notice rough tracks leading off into the bush. Such tracks end at a vast lagoon that is protected from the sea by Palikulo Point. It is not an area many people go to, despite the white sand beaches and historic ruins that can be seen tumbling into the sea.
Once upon a time, a sizeable fish factory operated here, harvesting the wealth from Vanuatu’s seas and processing it for the Japanese market. After owners closed the factory, land disputes resulted in the main building being razed to the ground. Today, the workers’ quarters have been consumed by vines, creating a scene reminiscent of Angkor Wat.
Above the waterline, Palikulo is an interesting maze of jetties, wharfs, buildings, slips and ships wrecks. Below, coral has steadily encrusted the metal structures and coral bommies extended their reach towards the rusting hulk of an immense ship that was run aground in the shallows. It all makes for a fascinating snorkelling site.
Although rumour has it that sharks continue to frequent the bay 30 years after the factory’s closure, Luganville’s Ni-Vanuatu families see no reason to stay out of the water and can often be seen casting nets, swimming and snorkelling.
As yet, there is no kastom owner entrance fee. No local amenities exist either.
HOG HARBOUR BLUE LAGOON
Sadly, some of Santo’s better-known blue holes underwent changes in 2016. Trees were cleared to make way for concrete paths, walls and toilet blocks in a bid to ‘upgrade’ the attractions for cruise ship tourists.
All is not lost however as Hog Harbour Blue Lagoon remains almost in its natural, pristine state. Located near the turn off to Champagne Beach, it is clear and bluer-than-blue. Accessed via a dirt path and a handful of steps, the blue hole is surrounded by forest that shields it on the hottest mid-summer’s day.
Huge petrified logs can be seen poking up from its considerable depths. All around, plants lean towards the water, their leaves providing green nurseries for freshwater fish.
The far side of the blue hole adjoins a second blue hole where brightly coloured blue and yellow tropical fish swim in small schools. They are flushed in from the sea during high tide and seem to have adapted well to their occasional environment.
There are no facilities at Hog Harbour Blue Lagoon, so BYO mask, fins and snorkel. Kastom owner entrance fee is VT500 on Cruise ship days
Freshwater Plantation is a relatively new attraction for Santo located on neighbouring Aore Island.
The property features a superb restaurant, where organic local produce is fashioned into mouth-watering delicacies and it is a popular place on the weekend for the expat community.
Visitors are shown around the grounds, the staff pointing out various crops such as coffee and cacao; explaining how each is processed for market.
It is possible to climb the hill directly behind the plantation, where superb views can be gained back across the Segond Channel to Luganville. The track passes through a large cave that has been off-limits for decades, but which now has a swing bridge and lighting so that it can be safely accessed without the need for any special equipment.
To reach Fresh Water Plantation, call ahead to book a speedboat pick-up from the jetty in Luganville. The cost is VT4,000, which includes the boat transfer, plantation tour, cave entry, hike to the lookout and swimming from their jetty.
TANGOA ISLAND/ SOUTH SANTO BEACH
Driving past coconut plantations and cattle properties, the road to South Santo eventually ends at the black sand beach. Numerous gaily coloured outrigger canoes line the beach; providing children from neighbouring isles with a means to travel between school and home.
Tangoa is one such island, although it is uninhabited save for a few pigs, chickens and dogs. It is surrounded by an extremely healthy coral reef that has largely escaped the devastating coral bleaching events thanks to cooling currents and nutrient-rich waters.
Accessing Tangoa Island requires pre-booking to arrange a banana boat to collect you from the beach and take you on a 10-minutes ride to Tangoa. Once there, locals will direct you to the best snorkelling sites.
The Tangoa experience costs 8,500vt pp, for four people, for a full day tour, which includes Tufantari Falls and lunch and can be organise through Wrecks to Rainforest
WWII PLANE WRECKS
Two of Santo’s most accessible WWII plane wrecks are located just five minutes drive from town. The track into the bush is not sign posted, so it is best to hire a local driver or guide to arrange access with the kastom owner of the land and show you the way.
The two bombers crash-landed within metres of each other during the years when Santo served as an important logistics base that supported the Allied Forces fighting the Japanese in the Solomon Islands. Today, the twisted wreckage serves as a stark reminder of the ultimate sacrifices made by so many families who lost loved ones on distant shores.
Kastom owner fee: VT250/ person.
Champagne Beach is famed for fresh water springs that bubble up through the sand. This gives the beach the name sake illusion and makes it one of the most famous cruise ship destinations in the South Pacific.
However, just around the corner sits pretty Lonnoc Beach, which also features a long white sand beach, a spring-fed bay and palm-fringed perfection.
It is possible to hire kayaks, stand up paddleboards and traditional outrigger canoes at Lonnoc and a beachfront restaurant offers generous meals and cold bottles of tusker.
For WWII history enthusiasts, the wreckage of a landing craft can be seen on the beach, although the roots of a cyclone tree are steadily devouring all trace of the past.
Offshore and to the left near the rocks, some good coral bommies make for interesting snorkelling. Be sure to bring mask, fins and snorkel though as there aren’t any available for hire.
The village of Matantas sits in the north of Santo, in an area appropriately called Big Bay. It is home to the Vathe Conservation Area.
A UNESCO-listed heritage site and Twitchers delight, Vathe is a vast expanse of virgin rainforest that has never been logged. It is home to every endemic bird species in Vanuatu and as such, is of significant ecological importance.
Immense trees with impressive buttress roots soar skywards from the undergrowth. Vathe follows the Jordan River inland from the black sand beach at Matantas, past a lily-encrusted marshland (where a fighter plane reportedly crashed and has yet to be recovered), then onwards, towards the inland village of Sara.
It is possible to arrange for a local guide from Matantas to take you into Vathe. They will explain the traditional uses of various plants, help identify the many birds, and explain the fascinating history of the area.
Story and photography by Chantal Dunbar.