South Pacific

How I Caught the Travel Bug

Noumea, New Caledonia, in 1982 was exotic and probably as close as a 13-year-old schoolgirl from Steel City (Newcastle) was going to get to the real thing – France. Only having done some road trips to Queensland and visits to family in Canberra, going overseas was a BIG THING and I didn’t belong on this trip!

For one, I wasn’t studying French like the smart and sophisticated Hermoine Conner, and I didn’t have Bohemian parents like the quirky and highly strung Una Jordan. My mother, on a widow’s pension could barely afford it. It was my eldest sister that insisted I take the opportunity and offered me the money if my mother wouldn’t.

So there I was, the first time on a plane surrounded by Year 10s that seemed so adult, and a group of students from St Clemente Highschool that joined our group to make up the numbers. I was terrified!

I recall feeling a little grown up with a suitcase full of especially homemade garments for my overseas trip. What I didn’t count on was getting my period for the second time in my life on the plane trip and not being prepared. I spent the next few stressful days trying to wash my clothes without gaining attention, and stuffing toilet paper in to my knickers because I was too embarrassed and unknowledgeable to buy anything.

Breakfast was served at a long refectory table at a basic cafe on Anse Vata Beach. Most of us teenagers were in lust with the two handsome French waiters, Jean-Claude and Jean-Pierre. They seemed so old, but so exotic! They weren’t particularly handsome, simply – French. Everything about them was sexy and sensual, we were mesmerised by their accents. Every morning we anticipated our breakfast meeting, each of us trying to vie for their attention: suffering the crusty French bread and jam that seemed so stale, and even worse the flaky croissants.

We toured around the island in a tour bus, experienced a hangi, and even went to the Aquarius nite club a couple of times. I am sure it was early in the evening, because their never seemed to be anyone there but us schoolgirls and the barman who had strict instructions to serve us soft drinks only.

We caught a boat to Amadee Island and the beautiful hostess on the rickety tourist boat intrigued me. She had caramel coloured skin and that beautiful French trait – sensuality. I was in awe of her confidence as she struttered along the jetty in nothing more than her bikini bottoms chatting easily with the crew.

I do remember crystal clear waters and white sand on the island, as it was far superior to Anse Vata Beach. There was nothing more than a lighthouse, but I didn’t want to leave, it was paradise!

The town centre of Noumea was a dusty and nondescript tourist strip selling souvenir t-shirts, which painfully closed for a few hours during the afternoon for, lunch. The most fun had for a 13 year old, was hanging around the hotel pool, especially when our favourite waiters came by for a visit.

I left New Caledonia unscathed, although half our group got to stay another night as the plane was overbooked. I was a child, so no mischief from me, but the Year 10s sure had a good go at it. We spent hours spying on and giggling from hotel balconies, watched a heated discussion between a voluptuous Year 10 student and our gorgeous Jean-Claude. When did all that happen? Why choose the chubby schoolgirl over all the beautiful sophisticated French girls? Why not me?

My trip to Noumea may have inspired me to taste my own French men several years later but I don’t think it inspired my gypsy nature. It was probably Mike and Mal Leyland from the Leyland Brother’s Show in the ’70s and my sister’s jaunts abroad that whet my appetite and aroused my lust for adventure and discovery. Whomever or whatever it was, the hunger for travel never dies it just transforms over time.

Noumea, New Caledonia: September, 1982


The President of the Sea

It’s dark and eerie as I inspect the exterior of the SS President Coolidge. The ‘narked’ feeling you are supposed to get at fifty metres below sea level eludes me, I think, and instead I just feel a calm sense of wellbeing. 

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The SS President Coolidge lies on her port side in a channel off the island of Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu. Built in 1931 as a luxury liner, she was seconded by the US Army in 1941 and used to evacuate Americans from Asia just as the Japanese aggression increased. Soon after, she was stripped of all her finery and transformed into a troop carrier, plying the Pacific Ocean.

Her new life was short-lived, and in October 1942 whilst sailing into the safe harbour of Espiritu Santo the Coolidge struck friendly mines. She was run aground with all 5,340 troops getting to safety, but due to the coral reef she slid down into the channel where she happily rests to this day.

For those curious enough for a face-to-face visit, you’ll find her shallowest end, the bow in 20m of water, and her stern edging down to 70m. There’s an easy access beach and a pretty coral garden with lots of sea anemones, colourful fish and corals to keep you occupied during those long deco stops.

The Coolidge is an amazing dive as she is an intact luxury cruise liner and a military ship in one. Dive bottom times are brief and the deco stop long due to the depth of the dives. I did several dives on the mammoth wreck, and with every dive experiencing something new.

Diving at Santos Island-Vanuatu #2

The wreck is so well intact you can see ‘The Lady’ which is a porcelain relief of a lady riding a unicorn, chandeliers, a mosaic tile fountain, not forgetting helmets, jeeps, guns and other military supplies. There is never a dull moment and just not enough time!

Coral covers every surface, and many fish and sea creatures have made their homes in some of the nooks and crannies. Moray eels poke their heads out warily as I pass. Swimming through the hold amongst discarded military mementos is surreal, and the interior feels quite spacious as we float from deck to deck.

Its dusk and our group of eight divers shuffle down the beach into the warm South Pacific waters. One by one we disappear into the inky depths to see the Coolidge at night. With nothing but our torches to lead the way we weave up and down through her corridors until we are back to the central area by the tile fountain. The Divemaster has us wait, but for what I am not sure.

Without any warning we witness a show of lights! Thousands of flashlight fish pour down what was the central staircase; it’s like a waterfall of fairy lights. The jaw-dropping spectacle almost costs me a mouthful of water and a lost regulator, but geez it was worth it!

Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu: Easter, 2001


Deliberating on a Bow and Arrow Set

Extraordinarily I am not nervous about holidaying in Papua New Guinea (PNG) alone. Having booked a 7-day dive package with Dive Adventures to Madang on the north coast of the main island I am confident that I’ll be joining other divers. Who would have thought that the only other divers I encounter are expats that are working in the area, and a few drop ins? I try to loosen up.

On the plane I am the only white girl amongst indigenous PNG locals and several older white men. I chat to an engineer seated beside me on his way back to his job on a road-building project. He says that it is tough being out there away from civilisation but the money and the experience is good.

I am still the only ‘white girl’ in view when I arrive in Port Moresby and make my way to the domestic terminal for my internal flight over the Highlands. Bright white eyes follow me through the terminal; they shine intriguingly from pitch-black faces. I know I’ll feel more comfortable when I get to Jais Aben Resort.

It’s now dark as I arrive at Madang’s tiny airport, which is nothing more than a huge tin shed. All passengers clear out quickly and before I know it the guard dogs are out and the massive gates to the property are being locked for the night. Fear grips me as I realise that the resort has forgotten me.

A local on holidays from his flight attendant position with Singapore Airlines comes to my aid and alerts the unconcerned staff. A call to the resort clarifies my pick-ups absence as they think I am arriving tomorrow.

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Two mute men collect me forty-five minutes later in a battered people mover. I am scared stiff being with two locals on a dark bumpy road in PNG. What was I thinking? This is the land of instability, curfews and stories of cannibalism, where the old saying ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ is taken literally.

Thankfully I reach the resort intact and am met by the half Australian/half Papua New Guinean manager who is very apologetic and gives me an upgrade for three nights. The upgraded accommodation is okay, what must my booked accommodation be like? I dread to think. It ends up being grungy and I dread going to bed at night.

My meeting with the resident dive instructor the following morning doesn’t go down too well. He isn’t impressed that he has another diver and seems irritated by my appearance a day earlier. He adds nonchalantly that there is a requested special dive trip today further afield. I almost clap with glee thinking it’s my lucky day and things can only get better.

We cruise about ninety minutes north of Madang to dive a wreck. It’s windy and choppy, not the best conditions for diving. What unnerves me are the instructions, “as soon as you roll back into the water descend straight away as there is a very strong current”.

Saying that there is a strong current is an understatement! It’s like being one of the characters in ‘Finding Nemo’ cruising in the jet stream. I terrifyingly chew into the rubber of my regulator, frightened of being swept away by the current and washed up on a beach in Indonesia.

My air is sucked up in ten minutes and I feel like a flag on a windy day, my fingers digging into the rusted wreck. Glancing at the other divers, I wonder whether they too are soiling their wetsuits. It doesn’t help that I am breaking in brand new dive equipment, and I blame it on my pathetic performance.

Back onboard to safety the atmosphere is subdued, like we survived a near death experience. Maybe we had? No one is keen to do the second dive, so we are taken to a protected bay to dive amongst sea grass. Still too freaked out to complain about the less than acceptable dive site, we shove our regulators into our mouths and get back on the horse.

One night as I leave reception I bump in to the resort’s security. I try not to laugh at the motley crew of three before me. At four foot tall, dressed in tatty clothing. They look cute rather than imposing (like the penguins in the movie ‘Madagascar’), carrying sawn off golf clubs and bows and arrows for weapons.

It doesn’t make me feel safe but I gather they are meaner then they look. The manager who is partly related to them tells me they are pygmies from the Highlands and their reputation precedes them. I mention to the manager that I am fond of the handmade bow and arrows that security is sporting. At hearing this I was advised that the pygmies were keen to sell, but somehow I don’t think it would help my popularity with Australian Customs!

Madang, Papua New Guinea: August, 2001


Embracing Group Travel

Tonga and Russia have one thing in common. They are the first countries in the world to welcome the New Year and see the start of a new day. Tonga’s ‘large’ people are big on smiles and are a friendly bunch of God fearing folk that inhabit a series of islands that have more churches then people to fill them. Life is simple and the cuisine bland. But I didn’t come to Tonga for gastronomic reasons, but to see its underwater delights. After a week of touring around the main island of Tongatapu and the little island gem, Eua, I head north to the warmer waters and weather in Vava’u.

Our Perfect Beach

Vava’u can be likened to The Whitsunday Islands in Australia: a multitude of inhabited and uninhabited islands of varying sizes, surrounded by turquoise lagoons. The diving is ordinary, too much coral bleaching, and the humpback whales sparse. The locals had warned me not to expect to see too many. ‘They’ve already headed south, in September’ one man told me as I watch a whale breach not far from the beach.

Camp#2

This is not good. It’s early October and according to Ron Hunter from Dive Forster in Australia, there are supposed to be masses of mothers and calves getting ready for their southerly migration. I find this out a few days before I join the other thirteen that forms the group. So it is with this unsavoury knowledge that I relinquish my free spirit for the safety of mindless group travel.

I am not a ‘tour package’ kind of gal. Actually I like to be in charge of my own destiny, and to have some input in what I do and when I do it. So why am I putting myself in this situation? Let’s be honest, fear made me do it! My stomach somersaults as I research my trip in the comfort and safety of my own environment. This is when ‘fear of the unknown’ kicks in and I make dumb decisions. The island camping, endless snorkeling with whales and diving, diving, diving sounded like a fabulous prospect, even though it asked for a sacrifice of freedom and a substantial amount of cash.

Divers Line Up #2

Dive Forster has been doing whale-watching trips to Tonga for several years, however this is the first year that they have offered the ‘adventure package’. I should be dubious and from all the travel experience I have, I should know that you most often do not get what you pay for or what they promise.

We are five days on the island. When I booked the trip I was told the island was two hours by boat from anywhere. In reality we are thirty minutes from home base in Vava’u and settlements on surrounding islands are clearly visible. I was told that the dive boat would be available all day for us to chase whales and dive at whim. Truth is the staff spends most of the day in Vava’u filling tanks and getting fresh water. Who knows whether logistics are even considered when compiling an itinerary? Perhaps too many beers had been drunk at the time.

After our initial disappointment we are taken to our island home. It’s a lie – our island isn’t really uninhabited. We share it with some kayakers for a few nights and a feral cat. The waters are crystal clear in the typical Pacific Island fashion and the camp civilized with solar showers and even a proper bush loo! Powdery white sand fringes most of the island’s shores. It is what I hoped: picture postcard perfection.

Moa & Her Fish

The day starts at sunrise when we pile into the dive boat and head out in search of whales and/or go for a dive, whatever happens first. Our day finishes with spectacular pink sunsets. It is simple, rustic, and relaxing. Our Belgium host, Hub, who runs the local dive shop, Beluga Dive, cooks a mean banana pancake for breakfast and Moa, a local Tongan knows how to cook her fish. His local staff is brilliant in looking after our bellies and comfort, both at camp and on the dive boat.

We are lucky to locate a calm whale with her playful calf hanging about the waters for several days. Five snorkelers are allowed in the water at a time. We enter quietly and swim quickly to get birds-eye view just mere metres away from the hovering beasts. They are so close I can almost touch them. The mother remains still as the calf weaves back and forth underneath her, coming closer to us every time. The mother keeps a close eye on her offspring but an even closer eye on the humans.e, whatever happens first. Our day finishes with spectacular pink sunsets. It is simple, rustic, and relaxing. Our Belgium host, Hub, who runs the local dive shop, Beluga Dive, cooks a mean banana pancake for breakfast and Moa, a local Tongan knows how to cook her fish. His local staff is brilliant in looking after our bellies and comfort, both at camp and on the dive boat.

There’s plenty of time to inspect every barnacle encrusted groove on the whales tail, to watch the remora fish attach themselves and clean the whales endless girth and to look straight into the eyes of these huge placid creatures that allow us the privilege to share their waters. We are often the only boat around and we greedily devour the whale’s presence -staring, fascinated.

Calf#8

Our island idleness has come to an end. Although I am still annoyed and disappointed by the lack of honesty (or ignorance) of the tour organiser, I feel melancholy to leave this simplicity and head back to town.

Kingdom of Tonga – Whale Watching Adventure: October, 2007


Twenty-eight Kilos of Toxins

“Fifteen dollars a day for ten days plus port charges is all it will cost you,” I plead to my friend. She is not convinced and to tell you the truth, neither am I. Working as a cruise consultant (a polite name for a call centre worker) is neither the most appealing nor rewarding of jobs. It’s also not my idea of a good time and that extends to cruising as well. But I am determined not to let the perils of customer abuse and cubicle discontent goes without well-deserved compensation.

And compensation is sweet. Carnival Australia’s employment package entitles employees to a yearly cruise at staff rates. How can you not take advantage of this perk? Fifteen dollars a day each for two passengers, fifty percent discount in the bar and thirty percent discount in the gift shop. Hardly a deal a seasoned traveller can let pass by.

Unfortunately my choices are limited as my post covers only P&O and Princess Australia, hardly exotic and prestigious. I choose ten nights aboard Pacific Dawn, who is recently refurbished and rebranded from Regal Princess. Up until recently, to me P&0 had a reputation of drinking and debauchery, and by the calls I receive, by quite a few of the public too.

Well times have changed and I am not quite sure if it is for the better. I feel like I am in an RSL club, retirement village and nursery/schoolyard combined! And the worst is that I am stuck here for ten long days. 

In some ways I can understand how cruising can be addictive. Having a cabin steward who knows how to get a couple of girls howling with laughter by leaving towels twisted into animal shapes. I haven’t laughed so much in ages. No hunting and gathering for the next meal, just follow the board shorts and thongs to the buffet or the trousers and shirts to the fine dining. The problem is the next meal comes around far too quickly. Actually, the distinction between meals is impossible. Meals merge and the cruise feels like one meal extending the entire ten days.

The break from the routine of ordinary life is heaven, but by day five I have had enough! Enough bland and bountiful food! Enough B grade entertainment! Although I must admit, the dancers were great. Enough of people! Enough of dinner small talk!

Having to make small talk with a new group of strangers every time you want to dine is distressing, but it’s not an adequate excuse for going without. We try booking a table for two. Along with unusual looks from staff and passengers and sitting an inch away from another table of two, it is hardly worth it. So we succumb to the board short and screaming children brigade, overdressed and a little stressed. 

I have become an addict. I have a late breakfast but want to have lunch. I can’t possibly miss the afternoon tea of scones, jam and cream. I’ll even endure the mundane conversation, as we aren’t allowed a table for two. Then there’s dinner. It’s crazy. Passengers queue, and pile high their plate as though they haven’t eaten for days or are about to be dropped off on a deserted island.

We are treated to four ports of call. The first, Divine Island in New Caledonia, is anything but divine, especially with two thousand people trudging about braving a swim in the choppy emerald waters. The highlight no doubt is the pungent smell of the exposed coral at low tide. Bon Appétit!

Perhaps Wala looks pretty in the sunshine? I feel I am invading someone’s home. The village band, a motley crew with a cardboard box at their feet, striking up a chord only when the next boat transfer from Pacific Dawn arrives in hope of a tip, welcomes us.

If you are after tacky souvenirs, then this is a great place to shop. There’s are turtles trapped in containers not much bigger than themselves, miserable looking children decorated and perched on rocks ready for a photo opportunity with a cardboard box at their feet, five dollar massages, and hair braiding. It’s amazing what people do on holidays. Grandparents join children in line for a fashionable braid, so maybe there should be an African Dance party on board tonight?

Mystery Island in southern Vanuatu is what you expect a South Pacific cruise destination to look like. Turquoise lagoons teeming with tiny fish and coral, white powdery sand and space for you. The locals are happy leading tours, singing and dancing for the masses. I almost want to stay and not return to the ship. I could ta

ke one of the basic huts and have the whole place to myself when the island caretakers go back to the main island and perhaps with everyone gone I could discover why it’s so mysterious?

Noumea, for some reason, is not often a favourite port of call. Why not? Tasty ham and cheese baguettes, creamy mille feuilles, delicate brulees; my taste buds are alive after days of mediocrity. I retrace the steps of a fourteen year old that once stayed at Anse Vata Beach on a school trip that thought she was very mature. Now, 26 years later things look tired and the beach ordinary.

We traipse the island by public transport and mingle with the friendly locals. We also manage a free entrance to the conspicuous Cultural Centre with an exterior so architecturally inspiring is far more intriguing than its interior contents.

Departing Noumea we follow the harbour pilot’s boat closely, wondering how the exchange will take place. The boat weaves from starboard to port and back again. It’s exhilarating, the eye-watering winds and slight swell make the pilot transfer a little perilous, the highlight of the cruise. New Caledonia, Bon Voyage and Viva La France!

Whilst in the bowels of the ship one day tackling the gym, I overhear the fitness instructor’s lecture. “Do you know that when John Wayne died of colon cancer they found twenty-eight kilos of toxins in his colon?” he challenges the audience. I chuckle and silently ponder whether John Wayne had just come off a 10-night cruise!

P&O Cruise, Pacific Dawn – New Caledonia/Vanuatu: May, 2008


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