Having dreamt about Vanuatu most of my waking life as a place of absolute beauty and paradise defining beaches, I was rather taken a back by how I was eventually treated by their incompetent immigration system.
After having joined up with a local politician following my crossing into the Solomon Islands, I was able to make it all the way to the Capital, Honiara, via Gizo. I was making great progress here, and even though the distances were great, I was lucky to find just two boats, that took me all the way. Honiara was nothing special though, but the guesthouse I stayed at offered great views over the harbour, so that I could keep tabs on any ships coming in.
I spent about 8 days there, going from ship to ship, shipping office to shipping office, with no luck, and I started to fear that the project would end on this island of Guadalcanal. The plan was to somehow find my way to the outer Islands of Solomon Islands and to the remote Temotu Province. From where, with some luck, I should be able to find locals who could help me do the crossing over to Vanuatu.
Eventually I found a ship!; MV Onogou that was in the process of loading goods for the Temotu Province. This would be no short trip though, but the great thing about taking ships like these, is that you get the chance to see some of the more unlikely and remote islands. Thus it was that we made landfall on the strange Reef Islands, where the water in between is so low, that you have to walk to get from one island to the next. It made for some great vistas, that most off all reminded me of walking around on one of the huge salt flats in Bolivia.
These villages have little contact to the outside world, and only by MV Onogou are they able to get goods from the capital. Everything here is as traditional as you could dream up, with natural wells built right into the coral ground, huts built entirely from local materials, and streets lined by coral. It felt like walking around in an open air museum, only, this was very much alive indeed.
From here we continued to the Santa Cruz Islands where we stayed a few days, and in the end finally made it to Vanikoro, where I jumped off at the small and rather remote village of Murivai.
The guys I met here were not Melanesian like the rest of the people I have encountered up until now, but Polynesian, or rather Tikopian, from the tiny island of Tikopia, some 100km to the east. The huts were different from the rest of Melanesia, in the way that they only had one big room, whereas in other parts I’ve seen, you would have more rooms in the huts. Still built on stilts though to get away from the ground, snakes, insects and what not.
After having discussed my wild plans with the locals, It was soon clear, that the crossing into Vanuatu, would be difficult. Nobody had done it before, and none had any passport, so that they could make the crossing legally. The challenge seemed cut out for me; First I needed someone with a boat and an engine that wouldn’t break down in the middle of the ocean (which happened several times in Papua New Guinea). I would also need someone who was a good navigator, and finally one who would be willing to actually do it.
After just a few days though, the news of a white man trying to make a crossing into Vanuatu in a small boat, had spread like wildfire. And one night I was awakened by a local policeman who asked me for my papers. I thought, sure, why not, I had done nothing illegal. He looked through my passport, and quickly told me that he had heard about my attempt to cross into Vanuatu, and that it was considered illegal, because nobody in the village would be having the necessary legal documents, to make such a crossing. As he said; it was probably best if I went back to Honiara, and flew out instead.
So what was I to do? I had no boat, no one to take me, and now the police was onto me. Should I end the trip after having travelled some 3000km in tiny boats, risking my life going through Papua new Guinea and the Solomon Islands? Hell no! But we now, more than ever, we had to secretly plan my escape, and quick!
After about 10 days, discussing the crossing with the elders of the village, it was finally decided that they would attempt to do the crossing with me! And on the 15 of December 2014, we had a small crew of 4 and were ready for the adventure! I said my goodbyes to the little family who had now become my friends. These guys gave me food and shelter for almost two weeks, without asking anything in return. It is ironic, that it is among the poorest people on the planet, that you will find the most genuine support and friendship. I gave them some of my gear, and in return they gave me a big piece of traditional Tapa; tree bark, used as Polynesian clothing. This I would now have to use as my sleeping mat, since the one I had, I gave to one of the guys on the boat as a gift.
I had feared the crossing ever since I saw the distance on the map for the first time. Not only was I in a grey zone regarding what was legal, but we also had to cross 160km into the treacherous waters of the Temotu Province, and out there, somehow find an Island that was only a few kilometers across. Luckily, though, we had a GPS with us, and would thus be able to make it in a direct line. This wouldn’t be much help however, if we ended up capsizing on our way there.
When we finally took off and made it through the waves, crashing into the outer reefs, the sea was flat as a mirror, and as fine as I have ever seen it in these parts. The feared crossing eventually only took us about 4 hours to make, before we reached Hiu, the northern most island in Vanuatu. Here the plan was to find a village so that they could drop me off and return home, but we could find no such thing. So we had to continue and it was not before we came close to another tiny Island; Metoma, that we would see any sign of life. There was no village, but a settlement, yet good enough for me! Three half-naked young men soon came out to greet us somewhat reluctantly.
We sat there in our boat for a few moments, not knowing what to say or do, until one of the elders on our boat cried out; ”We are travellers from the Solomon Islands!” and so opened up a line of communication. That made the guys on shore smile, and soon their wifes and kids came out from under the coconut palms and greeted us in what ended as a merry exchange of handshakes and giveaway of gifts. It is customary in Melanesian culture to help travellers going through their territory or village. This I have experienced throughout my journey, but is more outspoken the further you get away from the big cities. I only had a bag of rice to give. But the guys in the boat received coconuts, papaya and watermelon for their return journey.
I was left here with the big family, and they let me stay for as long as I wanted, until I could find my bearings and a way to get to an immigration office. Out here there are no offices of any kind though, and, I soon learned, no boats to take me anywhere of distance. Feasting on the most delicious coconut crap however, I stayed here for 2 nights, when on the 3rd day I was approached by the local police. Again, somehow the news of a white man coming ashore, had spread all over the archipelago. This was bad news for me, and not at all part of my plan! My line of thinking had up until now been, that if I could just make it to the immigration office before running into the police, I should be able to explain myself and get out of it without too much trouble.
As it was, I had written the customs office in Vanuatu, before my arrival, as their rules have it. But since I had no internet or communication of any kind, I had no way of confirming if they had replied. Perhaps this was an error by me, and I could have waited for a reply. Later, though, I learned that a reply never came. Still this email would end up and become instrumental in my efforts to prove that I was not an illegal immigrant, trying to avoid detection. Had I not sent this email, I would probably still be in Vanuatu!
The police took me to the small Island of Loh, about 30 mins south, to the little village of Lungharigi, and of cause they charged me an insane 10.000 Vatu, 100usd. During the following 16 days, the policeman (the only one around), who had no way of communicating with anyone outside of the island, let alone the immigration office, would start to feed me with whatever absurd ideas he could come up with. One day he wanted me to fly right away, then I was told I could’nt leave anyway, but had to wait for a reply from the head office. Another day he came up with the idea of having me pay for his and my own flight, and then go all the way to the capital with him. Some days he would say that I had to go to Sola, others to Santo and then Port Villa. This could change depending on how the wind blew and how his mood was on the day.
Incredibly, during the entire 16 days, he was incapable of making any decision at all, as to what to do with me, while it was extremely obvious to anyone, with any measure of reason, that I should present myself to the nearest immigration office. I stopped caring, and ignored him. Meanwhile the sentiment among the locals came to the point of mutiny. They were all on my side, and one day they would approach me to say that, if he didn’t give me my passport the following morning, they would storm the police station and take it from him. Maybe this did it, I dunno, but the very next day I was finally allowed to fly to Santo.
Even though the policeman here was more incompetent than any I have ever met, it did still give me a unique chance to stay and live with a local Vanuatu family. And so I spent my days diving, swimming, canoeing and just hanging out in a hammock by the sea. We had huge feasts of coconut crabs for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and I can’t say that I suffered from my ”confinement”.
The thought came to me at the time, that while Europe was going through the dark ages, fighting the plague and living in squalor, these guys were feasting on coconut craps and spending their days on beaches, the Europeans had no way of knowing about. No wonder it was that the tales of paradise, coming home with the first explores to have seen these islands, so readily became the paramount european idea of paradise on earth.
In the end I had to take the first flight of my adventure, against my will! And meet up with the immigration office in Santo. Incredibly though, they were just as clueless as the police in Loh, and told me to get to Port Villa as soon as I could. True to my project, I got on the ship MV Big Sista, and after an arduous 36 hour journey, made it to the capital, where, an immigration officer was waiting for me. He instantly took my passport from me, and told me to come by the office the next morning.
Stories of a white man swimming a shore on the Torres Islands had now reached me, and I could read in the newspapers, that I was now being used as a political instrument, to get more money to protect the borders of Vanuatu. My case had become a big issue for the Vanuatu Government I was told, and as such, there would be no easy way for me to get my visa. On one friday though I was suddenly told that I was free to leave, if I could just show them an onward ticket, this I did not have, as I was planning to continue by boat. They agreed to give me till the following Monday. So I spent the weekend talking to all the Shipping companies in town, but in the end, to no avail. When I came back to the immigration office on the following Monday with no onward proof, everything had, of cause, changed again. I was now told that my case had moved up to the highest level of office, and that I to pay a fine of 250.000 Vatu, about 2.500 USD.
Now, I don’t mind paying dues for any wrong doings that I might have done. But being played like this, and kept in the dark for a whooping 30 days, is unacceptable.
Did I do wrong? Sure. I could have waited for the reply from Customs, before entering into the country. But it can hardly justify keeping me in the dark this long, and bombard me with idiot ideas day in and day out. Now the rules are; if you come to Vanuatu by boat and do not clear immigration before you make landfall on any island, you will be fined. I was ok with this. This is not what happened though. Nobody seemed to know the rules, and I was being held against my will for a month, constantly having to contemplate conflicting and absurd claims.
I finally took charge and contacted the Danish embassy in Canberra, Australia, and had them produce a document, stating they were aware of my project, and that they hoped that the Vanuatu government would see to it that I could continue on my trip.
In this part of the world strange things happen when you flash official stamps. Its like seeing 8-year-old kids tripping around as if they have just opened up a package of their first Marklin model train. I dunno, but they sure like stamps, and with this paper in hand, I was able to get the fine down to 20.000 Vatu, about 200USD. I paid it and got my visa. But when I looked at my passport, they had only given me 1 day of Visa! One day!!! I had already been in the country for one month, and Visa’s are given from the day you enter the country, so, absurdly, I had only 1 day left of the Visa I had just received! The fact that it had been completely out of my hands, didn’t seem to matter.
I must say that the Vanuatu Immigration consist of people so incompetent, it felt like being sucked into a black hole, where any amount of common sense or reason has been magically sucked out.
Yesterday I finally escaped the visa madness of Vanuatu, and made it to New Caledonia, a part of France, who let me in hardly looking at my passport at all. Coming to New Caledonia was a blessing, and It feels like I have been teleported to Sourthen France.
I would recommend to the Vanuatu Government to clear up the clutter in their immigration system, and make it easier for people to travel through their otherwise beautiful country. Not having an immigration office in the Torres Islands, is absurd, since it’s the obvious first point of entrance from the north. Everybody comes through here. Nobody will go to Sola or Santo to clear immigration, and then go back to the Torres Islands. Vanuatu Customs and Immigration, need to rationalize their operations, get their act together and join the rest of us in the 21st century.
In the end I was not able to find any boat to New Caledonia. I did do massive amount of detective work before I came to this conclusion though, and the only two cargo boats that go (Vanuatu Ferries and MV Renaissance), who take on passengers, do not have their licenses yet, and will not start operation before march 2015, too long for me to wait. MV Havannah that used to make the trip between Port Villa in Vanuatu to Noumea in New Caledonia, no longer runs. So the only two other options I had were either a container ship or a private Yacht.
I spent days talking to managers from all the Shipping companies in town; Carpenters Shipping, South Sea Shipping, Trans Am Vanuatu etc. and sadly it is no longer possible to go with these big ships. 10 years ago perhaps, but today and after the September 11 attacks, security has been tightened a great deal, and the configuration of ships has also changed, as to no longer accommodate extra passengers. The last guys who did this from Port Villa, was a film crew doing a documentary on modern shipping, about 8 years back. I did try to find a Yacht, but we are just entering the cyclone season here, and when I went to the Yacht club there was a big sign saying that no Yachts were allowed between January and March. Still, there are yachts here, and I might have been able to go with one. My project however is about using local boats. Thousands do these crossings on yachts every year, and it is not what I am trying to do. So I finally and reluctantly got on an airplane, happy though to get away from Vanuatu.
My trip will continue unhindered though! The goal has always been to make it to Easter Island from Papua New Guinea by local transport, while trying to avoid flights and yachts as much as possible. Having to take a flight or two is one of premises (I guess) I will have to accept, to be able to complete the trip.
Next up is New Caledonia and from there finding a way to French Polynesia in the east!