Vanuatu, October 2002

Oceania Map
The normal reaction I encountered when I told people I was going to Vanuatu was to ask “where?”. This included the travel agent who tried to send me to the Cook Islands on the first quote. They're in the same ocean but a few thousand miles away. Vanuatu is part of Melanesia, not Polynesia. Formerly called the New Hebrides, the islands gained their independence in 1980. Prior to that date, they had been jointly administered by France and the UK. As you can probably imagine, this was a bit of a disaster. Amongst other things, civil servants used to gainfully spend their time ensuring that both the Union Jack and the Tricolour were flying at exactly the same height, and they had separate French and English speaking schools, two police forces and two currencies.

Getting there proved quite easy. Air Vanuatu have a code-sharing agreement with Qantas, so I was allowed to book flights from Brisbane to Port Vila and then back from Port Vila to Sydney as part of my Qantas RTW ticket. The next bit was a bit harder. Port Vila, the capital, is on the island of Efate. I wanted to go to Luganville on the island of Espiritu Santo. This meant booking an internal flight with Vanair. I went onto several internet sites and they all listed the Vanair flights. The systems allowed me to book it, but then I'd get an email about 24 hours later saying that the booking couldn't go ahead because they had no ticketing arrangements with Vanair. Eventually, tried a little bit harder and were able to get Qantas to book the tickets because I was on an inbound Qantas ticket.

There was one main reason I wanted to go to Vanuatu and Santo in particular. In World War II, Luganville had been a big American naval base. On the morning of 26th October 1942, the luxury liner SS President Coolidge which had been converted to a troop carrier, was approaching Santo by the eastern side of the Segond Channel. The captain was worried about Japanese submarine activity in the area and decided to enter the channel himself without a pilot. When they realised what was happening on the shore, a message was sent at 9.30am saying “STOP, you are entering a ...” The next word was “minefield”, but at that point a mine hit the ship around the aft fire room. A second hit around the engine room crippling the ship.

The captain ran the ship aground and everyone got off safely apart from two casualties. One was killed in the original blast and another went back to save his men. The other 5000 men got off safely and were told to leave everything behind for retrieval later. However, the beach drops away very steeply in the area and at 10.55am, the ship sank back below the waves where it lies today.

This was the second disaster to occur in the area. Earlier the USS Tucker had also struck a mine and sank. It can be dived today but it's well broken up after the wreck was bombed later in the war. I've heard two explanations for this. The first is that the Americans were doing practice bombing runs. The second is that they thought the dark shadow was a submarine and bombed it. I know which one I'm inclined to believe.

It's English Jim, but not as we know it
After checkin at Brisbane airport, I was waiting in the departure lounge when my name came over the tannoy. I went to see customer services and was told I'd been upgraded to business class. Quite why they chose a scruffy backpacker who needed a shave to upgrade, I don't know, but it was great. The food was great, as was the service. All the announcements on the plane were done in three languages: English, French and Bislama. Bislama is the official language of Vanuatu. It's a form of pidgin English. Within the islands of Vanuatu, there are more than 100 languages in use. One village may use a different language to its neighbour, so Bislama is used as the common tongue. Some of it isn't too difficult to make out, but you really have to read it out loud to understand it.

As we got off the plane, there was a band playing to greet us. I was through immigration first because I was in business, but of course I still had to wait ages for my luggage as it hadn't been checked in as business. The first thing I did was to go over to the domestic terminal to reconfirm my flight the next day. It was probably just as well that I did because I later learnt that all the flights had changed because the plane they originally used was being fixed and had been replaced with a couple of smaller planes. There were more flights, but they held less. I changed some Australian dollars into vatu, the local currency. There was also an ATM machine there, but there was only one, so I wouldn't rely on it.

I had booked some accommodation for the night via phone, so caught a taxi into town. There is a big sign at the airport telling you what the fare should be and to report any attempted over-charging. The taxi driver was very helpful and pointed out various things to me along the way. When I arrived at the motel, there were no signs of life. A small boy in the house next door showed me where the manager lived, but there was no-one around. After about an hour, I decided I'd had enough of standing around in the heat, so set off to find somewhere else. So I was walking along, muttering to myself, whilst every single person who walked past me said, "Good afternoon".

I found a place called the Hibiscus, but they only had a 2 bedroom unit available, so it was quite expensive. I took it anyway as it was only for one night. The insect screens seemed good, which is important because Vanuatu is malarial. I had bought Malarone tablets with me. The advantage with this drug is that you only need to take it 2 days before and a week afterwards. Some of the others need to be taken for about 6 weeks afterwards. The disadvantage is the price. I'd paid over £2.50 a tablet. Of course the best way to prevent malaria is not to get bitten and there are other mosquito borne diseases anyway. So I also had some repellant which contained DEET and my Boots liquid mosquito killer plugin.

Then I walked into the town centre to check things out. It wasn't the busiest place, but there were a couple of small supermarkets, which were still open, even though it was Sunday evening. There were also some fast food places and a few bars. There were also several banks, a number of which had ATM machines. I ended up getting a takeaway and then watched the Australian rugby league Grand Final in a bar with a load of yachties.

Luganville shoreline, littered with remains of WWII jetties
The next morning, I was up bright and early for my flight at 7am. It took about an hour and a half to get to Santo, with some good views on the way. Luganville International airport was a small shack. I'm not entirely sure what international flights they have, if any. I caught a cab into town. Again the driver pointed out the different shops and places on the way. I was booked in the New Look Motel. It is above the New Look store and like all the shops in town, it's Chinese owned. At the back of the shop was a Chinese guy who said: "you must be Jason". It made a pleasant change from the previous day. The room was about 2800 vatu a night and had a double bed, ensuite bathroom, a fan and good insect screens on the windows.

There is one main road through Luganville with all the shops along it. It's so wide that there's room for cars to park on both side and for about 4 lanes of traffic. It was probably built by the Americans. There's no real beach, though there is a park that goes down to the shore. There are also the remnants of various jetties that date from the war but have since been destroyed by cyclones. During the war, it was common for up to 100 ships to be anchored out in the channel. These days, things are a lot quieter. There were two cafes in town which served food during the day, but not the evening. There was also a Chinese restaurant, another restaurant and the Hotel Santo. The hotel served good food and I ate there several evenings. It also had a bar, which was quiet and attracted a few ex-pats. For residents, it also had a swimming pool, so would be a good option if you're looking to spend a bit more money. The only other place in town to get a drink was the social club which didn't seem to have much in it apart from wall to wall poker machines. There was also a Westpac bank and an ANZ. The ANZ had an ATM.

Getting information about the diving had been difficult. There are two operators on the main island, Allan Power and Aquamarine. Aquamarine never replied to any of my emails and I didn't get that much help from Allan Power. Based on some comments on the newsgroups, I decided to give Aquamarine a try. Finding the shop was the first problem. They'd moved and the map of the town hadn't been updated and they weren't on the main street. Three days later, they put up big signs, so finding it now is easy.

I had heard the steel twinning bands were in short supply. The Coolidge is 60+m in places. Though I had no intention of going that deep on air, I wanted a twinset. So I also had three sets of regulators, two for the backgas and one for the nitrox deco gas. I knew that nitrox was available. I had my Dive Rite Transpac, with a Trek Wing and the stabilising plates. It's a system that I find reasonable for both twins and for single tanks, when you use the cambands. Taking all this stuff with me meant that I had 28kgs of luggage. Fortunately no-one said anything on any of the flights and I wasn't charged for the extra 8kgs.

I needed to hire a wetsuit and fins. The fins were full foot and they did have a wetsuit that just about fitted. Later that week, they took delivery of some newer suits as well, but I stuck to the old one as I'd got my buoyancy right by then. There was a set of manifolded twins, so I asked if. I could have them and was told it shouldn't be a problem. They arranged to pick me up at 2.15pm.

So later that afternoon, the minibus came and picked me up and took me about 5 miles out of town. Both Aquamarine and Allan Power have the same setup. They have an area on shore where you can kit up. There were benches to make getting into the kit easy. Then you walk in off the shore, descend down a line and the wreck is there.

Apparently the manifold on the twins had leaked, so I had a set of independents. The trouble was that I only had one pressure gauge, because I thought I was getting a manifolded set. I decided to just breath one tank for 15 minutes and then switch to the other. The afternoon's dive wasn't going to be particularly deep as it was my first dive with them. The other bad news was that the walk out to the buoy through the water was along sand with lots of coral rubble. So it was not good on the feet, especially with the weight of twins on my back.

SS President Coolidge
Anyway, we descended down the line and the beach dropped away very sharply. Then at around 20m, after a couple of minutes, the wreck came into view. It was huge and was lying on its port side. We swam down to the bow, then went alongside the decking. There was a 3 inch gun on the deck. We then entered the promenade deck via a hole. Inside were helmets, gas masks and an old fashioned telephone. These artefacts had been collected into places so that they could be shown to divers and it made a nice change from the UK wrecks where everything is stripped even if it's of no value. Leaving the promenade deck, we came out past a row of toilets and then along the decking again. Then it was along to the anchor winch before starting our ascent.

They used a set of tables to work out the decompression, though all the staff also carried computers. The shallowest dive they did called for 11 minutes at 3m and 9 minutes at 6m, so this was what we did. Our bottom time had been 30 minutes and we had been as deep as 39m, but my computer hadn't gone into deco. So the 20 minutes were really an extended safety stop. I was quite glad I hadn't bothered with the hassle and expense of using an extra nitrox for deco. There were some reasonable coral reefs at around the 3-8m mark, so the extended stops weren't boring by any means.

The next morning, I was picked up at 8:15am. The weather was a bit windier, but entry wasn't that difficult. The only problem was negotiating the coral rubble when the water next to shore was very cloudy. I managed to cut my toe quite deeply and then knocked my knee into what must have been coral because I ended up with a mass of cuts all over my knee cap. Apart from the pain, the dive was a good one. We went to the first two cargo holds. There was a truck and a jeep inside as well as a large howitzer. Our maximum depth was 32.2m, bottom time 30 minutes and our dive time was 50 minutes. Again, my computer didn't go into deco.

They were then coming to pick me up for the afternoon dive at 2.15pm. The only problem was what to do in the meantime. It would have been nice to sit around a pool or on the beach, but I didn't really have that option. I did buy some flipflops, planning to wear them as I walked out to the buoy line. It turned out that this was slightly better than bare feet, but still fairly uncomfortable with bits on coral getting between the soles of my feet and the shoes. The afternoon was to the medical supplies. We went along the port side of the ship, which has been encrusted with some coral including some large staghorn formations. Then we dropped through a hole and saw the aircraft drop tanks in a compartment. They were egg-shaped and I thought it looked like something out of Alien. Then we went into another compartment that used to hold the medical supplies. There were jars still containing powders and pills. We went along a corridor and exited the ship via cargo hold no.1. Our maximum depth was 32.5m and we actually went into decompression. I had a minute at 3m to do. Of course we actually did 20 minutes of stops again.

Matevulu Blue Hole
The following morning we were going to see The Lady. This is a carving that used to be above the fireplace in the smoking room. When the room collapsed, it was recovered and remounted in another part of the ship. It shows a lady and what looks like a horse, but it actually a unicorn whose horn has fallen off. We entered the ship via a cut in the side just after the shark cage. Apparently there used to lots of sharks in the area. I didn't see a single one on the wreck. After seeing the Lady and kissing her for good luck, we went into the ballroom. The ceiling had lots of glass skylights in it and these had been cleaned up so that the light still floods in through them. It looked quite spectacular. We exited the wreck via the bridge and went up to do all those stops. This time we had been to 39.4m and I had 3 minutes to do at 3m. It had been a good dive, but the best thing was that they had found me a pair of neoprene booties and some open foot fins. They weren't exactly the right size, but I found them ten times better than trying to cope with the flipflops.

That afternoon we visited the captain's bathroom which is located by the bridge. You could still see all the fittings in there. We then went further inside and saw one of the water fountains. This dive was to 36.5m and I had a couple of minutes at 3m on my computer. As it was an afternoon dive, we did an extra 5 minutes of stops at 9m, so total dive time was 54 minutes.

The next morning we went to the engine room. You enter via a cut in the side of the ship and descend down inside. The steam turbine has been removed, so the first thing you see is the electric motor that it would have powered. Made by Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company, it is a huge, impressive sight and was capable of propelling the ship at up to 20 knots. Then we went into the control room. The gauges are still on the walls and there were no less than four telegraphs with the writing on them still intact. Next we went into the dining room and could see the strings on light bulbs still hanging from what was the ceiling. We left the ship via the cargo hold and then started our stops. We had been to 46m and were supposed to have only done 20 minutes bottom time, but we'd ended up doing at least a couple of minutes extra. For the first time, I actually had some serious decompression on my computer. I had 2 minutes @ 9m, 6 minutes at 6m and 11 minutes @ 3m. I was glad that I had twin tanks because I got down to 100 bar in both of them. Had I been on a single, like most of the others, I would have run out. The guides did have twin tanks, but it's still not a position I would want to put myself in.

That afternoon, I decided that I wanted to go to Million Dollar Point for a change. At the end of the war, the Americans drove a load of trucks, bulldozers and jeeps off the jetty and into the sea. It's a bit further up the coast than the Coolidge and there are no benches to kit up on. As I got into the water, my fin strap snapped. As we started to descend, I noticed that my BCD inflator seemed to be stuck on. I disconnected it and decided to use oral inflation. At this point, I really short have realised that somebody was trying to tell me something and given up. Apart from the wreckage of vehicles, which give an impression of loads and loads of tyres, there are also a couple of wrecks. They sank whilst trying to salvage the wreckage. Swimming along, we saw a white-tipped reef shark. I didn't really think anything of it, but it took a great interest in me and started stalking my fins. At one point it was only about 2 feet away. It was only about a metre long, but it was still a little close for comfort, so we swam off quickly to try and shake it off. Eventually we managed and decided to cut the dive a little short. As we came up the sandy bank to the beach, I was quite close to bottom when a small stingray shot out from hiding under the sand right in front of me. As you can imagine this made me jump quite a bit. In the end we did a 35 minute dive to 29m, but it was multi-level and we didn't spend that much time at depth.

The following morning and it was back to the Coolidge. They asked if I wanted to do the swimming pool, which is at 55m. I'd given myself a limit of 50m, but said I go down there and just hover above it if necessary. The wind had dropped off, so we did a bit of a surface swim out to another buoy. We descended down to near the cut by the engine room and entered the Promenade deck. The next room was the barber's, with the chair still intact and attached to the floor. Then it was the beauty room. The sign was still on the wall. We came out of the wreck by the swimming pool. As the ship is on its side, I was able to go down to the bottom of the pool near the shallowest side and stay above 50m. It's still the deepest pool bottom I've ever touched. On the way back, we swam past the funnels and got to see the skylights from the outside. Our maximum depth was 49.4m and total dive time was 54 minutes. I had 4 minutes @ 6m and 6 minutes @ 3m to do on my computer.

The afternoon dive was to the A, B and C decks which was where some of the accommodation used to be. It was quite dark as we swam along the corridors. I really enjoyed the experience of going through some reasonably small holes. We saw some bunk beds and showers, but it was just going down the longish corridors that I enjoyed the most. Our depth was 38.4m and our dive time was 43 minutes. I had 1 minute @ 3m on my computer.

That night was the pool competition up at the Deco Stop Lodge. This is a weekly event in town and quite a few people go. I went for the barbecue before. The place is popular with divers, though I think it was more expensive than where I was staying. They did have a pool, which would have been nice between dives, but it was also about 20 minutes walk from the main street in town. Drinks were a little more expensive than the Hotel Santo. A bottle of Tusker beer was 350 vatu, rather than 275. I entered the competition fully expecting to be knocked out in the first round, but I won. At midnight, they still hadn't finished the first round, let alone started the second, so I went home early and forfeited the game.

Saturday morning's dive was to the area around the front of the bow. We entered via the cargo hold, where there's another barber's chair as well as some assorted plates and bottles to look at. Then we went towards the bow, saw the paint store and swam along a corridor with portholes above us. On the floor in a corner were spare porthole glass fittings. We then exited via the chain locker at the front of the boat. This was a shallow dive at 30.6m and with a dive time of 50 minutes, I was nowhere near my no deco limit.

The second dive was back to the aircraft drop tanks and the medical supplies. By this stage, I'd done most of the shallower dives that they do on the wreck. Our maximum depth for this was 32.7m, a dive time of 56 minutes and I had no mandatory decompression on the computer.

Champagne Beach, Santo
Sunday was my last diving day, so I decided that I'd like to revisit the engine room and the control panels. This time we took a slightly different route and came out past The Lady again. We exited the wreck via the sea door hole. Dive time was 53 minutes, maximum depth was 46.2m and I had 2 mins @ 6m and 4 mins @ 3m on the computer.

On my last dive Barry, one of the co-owners took me on a magical mystery tour. We entered through a hole below the captain's bathroom, went past some sinks and then down onto B-deck. We eventually emerged out of the cargo hold having gone through some tight restrictions and more silt than I'd seen on any of the previous dives. Maximum depth was 37.4m, dive time 53 minutes and it was a no deco dive for me.

For all my afternoon dives, I had used the same tanks as the morning's dive without getting them refilled to save money. This kept the price of each dive to 3000 vatu, plus a small amount for the hire of the wetsuit and fins. I made sure that they both had about the same in them by the end of the first dive. My air consumption is reasonable, so I had enough to bale out even if I did lose the contents of one of my tanks. I might not have had enough to do the full 20 minutes of stops, but I certainly wouldn't have had a problem clearing my computer, so I was happy with that. I was the only customer using twin tanks. There was always at least one guide with twins, but everyone was on singles. I certainly wouldn't be happy inside a wreck, where it's dark, at 47m on a single. I'm surprised they haven't had that many problems there. They have had people getting the bends, but no-one's died on the Coolidge.

In decompression terms, I found the dives to be quite conservative. As I've shown, I rarely had that much deco on the computer, but we always did at least 20 minutes and often 25. The surface interval between dives was normally about 5 hours. The only problem was finding something to do during that time. I'd recommend Aquamarine though I'd take as much of your gear as possible, including twinning bands if you've got them. I didn't use mine in the end, but I think it's better to be safe than sorry. I'd also say that you definitely want booties and open foot fins. I also met some of the guys who work for Allan Power in the bar, and they seemed nice enough, so I wouldn't have any problem diving with them either.

Having seen nothing of the island, I decided I really out to go on a tour for the last day. The only problem was finding one. I had heard that a guy often called in at the hotel around 8.30am, so I made sure I was about then. Sure enough, I saw his minibus with “Champagne Beach Tours” on the side and flagged him down. He didn't have any other customers for the day, so it was going to cost me 8000 vatu. This did seem a bit expensive until I remembered what I'd being paying for a day's tour in Australia, so I decided to do it on my own.

On the way out of town, he pointed out where the old military gaol used to be. It's now just a ruin completely overrun by trees. Then we went up to the Matevulu Blue Hole. It looked really inviting and it was a shame that I didn't have my diving gear with me. Access to the Blue Hole was along an almost completely overgrown airstrip which used to be called Fighter One. Then we went over the Blue Hole River and popped into his market garden to sample some of the local fruit. After that I saw the copra driers by the roadside, some rural villages, coconut plantations and farming areas. Our eventual destination was Champagne Beach, which is a very scenic place. The cruise ships are scheduled to call in there about one a week in future, but when we were there it was empty. I would have gone for a swim, but I thought keeping my knee dry was a good idea because it was still covered in coral cuts that 6 days of diving had done nothing to improve. Still it was nice to see something more of the countryside. I'd really only seen Luganville itself.

Champage Beach, Santo
The next day I flew back to Port Vila and over-nighted there. I didn't manage to find any cheap accommodation, so ended up paying more than I had been, though it was of a higher quality. There are a few more bars in Port Vila, but things were pretty quiet and generally more expensive than on Santo. The next day, I had a bit of a walk around before flying out in the afternoon to Sydney. I didn't get upgraded this time, but Economy class was still acceptable.

The President Coolidge is definitely the best wreck I've ever dived and there have been more than a few. It is deep and should really only be attempted by more experienced divers who can look after themselves to a degree. There are people doing stupid things out there regularly. I heard one guy bragging about going to 65m on air and probably with a single cylinder too. Most of the people there have no technical diving experience. I decided what I was prepared to do before I went and then stuck to it.

With hindsight, I would have organised my trip a bit differently. I think 5 days diving on the Coolidge would have been enough, then I could have done a few days in Port Vila, where there's also some nice diving to be done including wrecks and reefs. I deliberately left a day between international flights and the internal ones partly because of what I read in guide books. I wouldn't do that again, as there is a risk of missing connections, but I don't think it's too high. Vanair apparently do give priority to people on international flights. I would have also liked to get down to the island of Tanna in the south. There's (very) active volcano there which apparently is an impressive sight at night.

And finally, the people of Vanuatu are some of the friendliest in the world. Everyone says “good morning” or “good evening” to you as you walk past. No-one would think of hassling you. Bargaining is regarded as rude. Tipping is not encouraged, and may even cause offence, because in Melanesian society it is regarded as a gift that must be reciprocated. If you want somewhere quiet, safe and stress free, Vanuatu is a good choice. They've even stopped eating missionaries, though it's still quite recent history.