In Vanuatu’s Havannah Harbour, the beaches aren’t the regular mish mash of sand and shells. Scattered between the roots of the crooked palm trees are tiny fragments of glass, smoothed of any jagged edges by the passing of time. Look closely, and you’ll spot the curve of a letter C and the familiar swoop of the letters that follow. Coca-Cola.
It’s not that this beach is littered. These glistening shards are the relics of the island’s military past, left behind by sweet-toothed American troops that were posted in this part of the Efate, a 40 minute drive north of Port Vila, during World War II. The broken pieces have been ground down to become an unusual part of the landscape.
Local enthusiast Ernest Kalakoa has gathered as much of the wartime memorabilia as possible over a number of decades – from dinner plates to gas masks to aircraft parts – and has set up his own roadside World War II Museum in a corrugated tin shed where he talks visitors through the history of each individual item, giving them a chance to purchase a souvenir.
History lesson taken care of, we glance across the water to neighbouring Lelepa Island where we’ll be spending the afternoon snorkelling.
Flip flops in hand, we squish our toes through the clear, cool shallows and climb into the small boat that will take us across the harbour.
“The sun always shines on this side of the island,” our guide, Albert, tells us as he expertly manoeuvres the boat across the waves. He seems to be telling the truth. We’ve left the rain behind in Port Vila and are soon reminded of the heat of the sun as it blazes through lashings of salt spray.
Lelepa Island is Albert’s home, and although it is just a 10 minute hop from Efate, across a thin swathe of water, he explains that its residents speak an entirely different language.
We head around the island to a small patch of eerily blue water where we hop into the water, tumbling into a world of brightly coloured fluttering fish and unspoilt coral. There are no other snorkellers in sight.
We lollop in sun loungers on a perfect patch of deserted sand to dry off, shaded by palm trees. There’s a small building here with kitchen and bathroom facilities so you can camp here, and Albert has plans to build some beachfront shacks here for visitors to stay more comfortably on the island. It’s definitely a spot I’d return to, I think – a far cry from the tourist resorts of the main island.
I settle back in a hammock in the shade of a palm tree, nibbling on freshly cut fruit. But we’re not allowed to be too lazy.
Albert leads us away from the beach along a rough track to a cave with special significance for the local community. It’s where the sick were once tended and now spirits are said to dwell here. We enter the damp darkness a little nervously. A tiny witch doll is hanging at the entrance. It’s lit only with tiny candles forming a trail on the smooth rock floor. Up above, the high pitched natter of bats hangs like nervous energy.
We press our hands against the cool limestone wall in the darkness, and then when we pull our hands away Albert takes a photo. He shows us the image – a hand print clearly identifiable against the rusty brown stone. Although we know it’s something to do with the minerals in the stone, it’s still enough to send us in search of sun and sand once again.
I visited Lelepa Island with Lelepa Island Day Tours.