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David Whitley heads to Vanuatu and discovers that a unique twist is put on just about everything...

 

Vanuatu is a tremendously odd place. It’s a country where land-divers throw themselves to the floor from platforms, with only vines tied to their legs. It’s a nation where some villages worship Prince Philip as a god. It’s a land in which the only World Heritage site is a mass grave of villagers who sacrificed themselves so that they could be buried with their chief. It’s no surprise, therefore, that this quirkiness extends itself to the range of activities on offer. Even the most ordinary excursion or action sport seems to have a novel twist to it. If you want to do things differently, there’s no better place to come. Boat trips... but with you behind the wheel

 

A classic example of this is the Zego boating safari (Zegovanuatu.com). Forget ordinary cruises; this trip goes out in a convoy of tiny sportscraft to see the highlights of Vila Bay. It’s two to a boat, and after brief instruction on how to use the things, you’re the driver. The Zegos are colourful double-hulled hunks of plastic with a 30hp motor attached. Imagine a newborn baby catamaran with the sail removed and you’re getting close. They’ll hardly beat any water speed records, but they’re tremendously good fun. This is especially the case when the water gets choppy or you cross another boat’s wake. It’s an opportunity to almost take off, and hear the scared woman in the boat behind you yelp in terror. The real joy of the trip, apart from doing the odd hoon-ish figure of eight as you pass around various islands, is getting a proper view of Vila Bay.

 

From Port Vila itself, the bay seems relatively pretty. From out on the water, looking the other way, it’s staggering. The plush resorts, the islets, the vine-covered trees and the hilly interior of Efate island become clear. 

 

Kayaking... but with a glass bottom

 

Another way of getting out on the water for control freaks who like being in charge is, of course, kayaking. There are a few kayaking tours that operate around Efate, but Kayaking Vanuatu (+678 77 54954) has the added gimmick of being able to see through the bottom of the kayaks. A circular glass viewing hole has been cut in between where your legs go. Theoretically, this allows the kayaker to see the aquatic action beneath them in the scenic surrounds of Mele Bay. In practice, it doesn’t work all that well – once some water slops over the side, the view is pretty much the same as you get from looking out of the kayak. Perhaps with this in mind, there is a stop at a sand island just before where the waves break at the edge of the lagoon. From there, the snorkel gear goes on, and it’s time to go hunting turtles, clown fish and other brightly-coloured denizens of the deep amongst the coral.

 

Abseiling... but down a waterfall

 

Just in case you’ve not had your fill of getting wet, there is superb diving on offer around Efate, but a more unconventional water activity is Edge Adventure’s (Edgevanuatu.com) abseiling tour. It takes place at one of Efate’s most popular tourist spots – the Mele-Maat Cascades. However, instead of standing at the bottom cooing at the beautiful pools and falls, you’re shimmying down them. The adventure begins with a hike up a muddy hill, and then the abseiling lesson begins. There’s a ‘training wall’ above one of the higher pools where beginners are taught the basics. It soon becomes immediately apparent that they aren’t lying when they say you’ll get wet: at the bottom of the baby abseil, the only way out is wading through waist high water and clambering up some steps in the middle of the waterfall.

 

Once the boys are thoroughly satisfied that you know what you’re doing, it’s time for the big one. The 50m drop is vaguely tackled in stages, with guides positioned at intervals to check your ropes. They also have a sadistic habit of making you pose for photos at precisely the point where the gushing torrents are piling into your face at their heaviest. Bouncing off the rocks and bounding down the cascades is an awesome experience, and it’s almost better at the bottom, watching the rest of the group come down. It gives a sense of scale to the whole epic mission. Coming down, you’re too busy concentrating on what’s in front of you. Watching others, it’s possible to scope the distance, height and water flow.

 

Eating out

 

After taking on a series of strange adventures, it’d only be fitting to have a bizarre dinner. L’Houstalet is something of a Port Vila institution. It’s been there since 1972, and comes across as very French indeed. That is until you see a true blue Vanuatu dish on the menu – flying fox. It’s served up in a red wine sauce, tastes gamey-but-good and although the head and wings have been removed, there’s no disguising what it is...