MELANESIA (Part 2) – April 2009

The Taxi Scam (The Old “Exchange Rate” Sidestep)

Arising from bed early, we disembarked as soon as Rhapsody of the Seas docked at Luganville. Huckleberry B’s research indicated that it was a long drive from the port to our preferred destination of Champagne Bay. Our experience in Noumea taught us that the limited number of taxis on the island were likely to be rapidly snapped up as passengers were disgorged en masse from the ship.

Upon leaving the boat, B scurried across to where some likely looking characters were sauntering around with intent. She correctly identified them as taxi drivers… and the negotiations began. Initially the bidding started at AU$300 for the day and agreement was finally “reached” at AU$200.

Introducing himself as Steven, our taxi driver ushered us to his mini-bus. However, several minutes into the journey, Steven suddenly slowed down and – holding up an oversized calculator – announced that he had made a mistake with the conversion rate and decreed that AU$200 was an insufficient fee for his services. He asked again whether we would pay him AU$300.

After heated discussion, the negotiations recommenced…

We eventually agreed on a fee of AU$250. If not the oldest trick in the book, we knew we had fallen for a scam which was in the top ten of antiquity. It was right up there with the Egyptian thieves who offer to accept one dollar to allow you to climb onto their camels before disclosing that it would cost you a further $10 to be allowed back down again!

That said, the day ended up being an outstanding success. So, with joy in our hearts, our happy band of pilgrims decided to tip Steven AU$50, so he ultimately pocketed the sum he originally demanded.

Champagne Bay (Virgin Footprints in the Sand)

Have you ever seen a beach with no footprints upon it but your own?

Well, that was the breathtaking experience our group enjoyed on morning of the 8th of April, 2009.

The journey from Luganville to Champagne Bay proved to a tortuous one. When told that it was an hour journey, we envisaged a long drive on a sealed road. Reality, however, trumped imagination. The distance was, in fact, a moderately long one. However, the reason it took so long was because we only enjoyed 10 minutes of bitumen. The remainder of the journey involved a slow drive along a goat track, whilst dodging potholes and undulations. Steven very rarely got out of second gear.

The stunning destination, however, was worthy the treacherous journey.

Champagne Bay is simply gorgeous. Protected by both an island and a reef, the beach of white sand and palm trees forms a gentle arc measuring almost a kilometer. And we had it all to ourselves!

We wasted no time donning our swimwear, flippers and snorkels before plunging into the warm water. Looking back, all we could see on the pristine beach were our own footprints. It would be over half-an-hour before another small group of travelers consisting of four adults and a baby arrived. As far as we know, nobody else ventured from Rhapsody of the Seas.

One of the true highlights of Champagne Bay was that there were some low rocks – featuring both coral and an abundance of marine life – in the shallow waters to the left of the beach. This allowed those among us who were not strong swimmers to snorkel (whilst being held by their partners) safe in the knowledge that they were able to stand in the waist deep water if the necessity arose.

We frolicked in the beautiful waters of Champagne Bay for over an hour before reluctantly emerging from the sea and returning to the mini-van.

There was no doubt in our minds that we had made the right decision to travel to this remote pocket of paradise rather than follow the crowd to tourist spots which were closer to hand.

For me, it also allowed an opportunity to find a quiet corner – just for a moment – to whisper `happy birthday’ to my deceased mother. It is hard to imagine a more perfect location.

The Blue Hole (What Makes the Water Blue?)

On the way back to Rhapsody of the Seas, we made a short detour to “the Blue Hole”, a small lagoon of natural water of – as the name suggests – a startling bluish hue.

Whilst we enjoyed another swim, our experience was not as memorable as Champagne Bay given that we shared the water with hordes of other swimmers.

The hole itself is remarkably deep, with very few areas where a swimmer could rest by standing on an outcrop of rock. D asked a couple of locals why the water was blue. However, both gentleman shrugged and said that they had no earthly idea. It was as though nobody had ever considered the question before.

The Cascades of Port Vila (The Best Massage on Earth)

Another night’s sailing saw us in Port Vila, the Capital of Vanuatu.

Once again, the highlight of the morning involved yet another opportunity to swim in an unusual location.

Getting to the cascades was half the fun. Huck B had been warning us for days that we would have to trek for 20 minutes or so, walk up some steep inclines and, most importantly, wade through the shallow river itself.

And so it transpired…

After successfully negotiating some ankle-deep water at several locations, we came to some more serious crossings which required greater exploits. Whilst the water never rose above our knees, it was travelling at a tremendous pace on a steep descent. We were required to place our feet very carefully for fear of being pushed over by the torrent. Whilst some ropes had been strategically placed to assist our progress, it was not any easy journey. At one point we had to walk up a narrow cascade with the water splashing onto our knees and thighs.

If getting there was half the fun, the destination was twice as good as the journey…

Sitting below a waterfall measured at over 20 metres in height were a couple of shallow rock pools, overflowing with crystal clear, mountain water. We quickly changed into our swimwear and waded into the slightly cold pool and immersed ourselves in the delicious water. Before long we were swimming about and laughing with the joy of it all.

Unlike Champagne Bay, one couple had beaten us to nirvana. However, they soon departed and our gang had the run of the place. D and I posed for photos – beating our chests and displaying our inverse-Tarzan like physiques – whilst B waded over to the sit directly under the cascades.

I decided to join Huckleberry B  and soon found the torrent of water beating on my shoulders, neck and arms, giving me a wonderful massage. At times, the force of the water was so strong that it pushed me forward and to lose my balance. It was a wonderful sensation.

Later, we simply reclined in the water and gazed across stream and the surrounding jungle, each of us enjoying our own quiet thoughts.

Unfortunately, our period of serene contemplation was disturbed by the arrival of the next group of tourists who had successfully braved the surging stream below. Their raucous cheers and shrill banter served as a signal that it was time of us to be on our way.

Hiding Out on Hideaway Island (Neither Rain Nor Sleet Nor Deep Waters Shall Stop the Mail)

Our second attraction at Port Vila was Hideaway Island which provided yet another chance to don our snorkels for a swim. You’d think – perhaps correctly – that there is little else to do in these tropical paradises in the Melanesia.

Hideaway Island lies just a short distance from the shore, requiring a ferry-ride of only three or four minutes.

Whilst not as spectacularly beautiful as Champagne Bay, Hideaway Island did provide some good snorkeling in shallow waters. So B and M were, again, able to enter the waters in confidence and observe the coral and the marine life through their goggles.

However, what distinguishes Hideaway Island from other swimming venues is a rather amusing post box which lies beneath the waves, about 15 or 20 metres out to sea. We were able to purchase a waterproof post-card from a kiosk on the beach and literally swim out into the bay, dunk ourselves under the water and pop the postcard into the post box.

We stayed on Hideaway Island for a couple of hours, culminating in Y and C taking a tour on a glass-bottomed boat across the rocks and the coral to enjoy the abundant fish life below the surface.

Pining for the Isle of Pines (We Woz Robbed!)

 We awoke on day nine of our cruise with a sense of keen expectation.

From the outset, everybody we met – from crew member to passenger to cruise director – told us that the Isle of Pines would be the highlight of our trip. Reported to be a beautiful tropical island, well named for its population of Araucaria Pine Trees, the Isle of Pines promised sun drenched white beaches, gentle waves and an opportunity for once-in-a-lifetime snorkeling.

As we headed down to the Edelweiss dining room for breakfast, we saw other passengers dressed in board shorts and swimwear, with towels over their shoulders and flippers in their hands. Little did they know that within minutes they would be heading back to their staterooms, shoulders slumped and hands clenched in an angry fist.

We had just ordered our meals when the Captain’s voice began to echo around the ship…

Apparently, the strong winds which we could hear outside were measured at 30 knots. Evidently, it was only safe to moor a vessel at sea and put tender boats into service in winds below 20 knots. Extraordinarily, a decision had been made that it was unsafe to proceed to shore and a decree had been pronounced that the day’s adventures had been callously cancelled.

After a moment of pregnant silence, all those on board Rhapsody expelled a collective groan. How could this be true? Hadn’t the Captain stated, just yesterday, that Isle of Pines was his second favourite place on earth? Was this some kind of sick joke?

As the truth became embedded in our brains, clear signs of discontent became apparent around us. A fellow on our table announced sadly that this was the second time he had journeyed to the Isle of Pines and the second time the Captain had refused him entry. His daughters turned to their mother and asked sorrowfully whether this meant that they would no longer be able to have their hair braided by an Islander woman. A waiter – who had been dreaming of his day on the glistening sands of the Island of Pines during a two week stretch of 14 hour work days – unceremoniously kicked the leg of an empty chair and stormed off to the kitchen.

It was not immediately clear what `Plan B’ might be. There was speculation on our table that we may sail to another port for the day. Reality, however, soon trumped hope. Visits to port must be planned well in advance. There was paperwork to be completed and fees to be paid. Before long, our suspicion that we would be spending the day on board Rhapsody was confirmed.

We felt sorry for the crew. They work hard and do not have much free time to enjoy the wonderful ports their place of employment visits. Now, rather than enjoying a beautiful day (literally) in paradise, they were facing another busy day of servicing a ship crammed with over two thousand passengers. Their most hectic days are always spent at sea.

And so, Rhapsody’s anchor was drawn and the Isle of Pines soon became a spec on the horizon behind us. With nothing else to offer, we were heading for home over three days rather than two.

In the meantime, well over one thousand unused towels were returned to the pool deck and snorkeling gear was packed away…

Moonriver

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