Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu

Espiritu Santo is the largest island in the nation of Vanuatu, with a population of around 40,000 according to the 2009 census. It belongs to the archipelago of the New Hebrides in the Pacific region of Melanesia. The town of Luganville, on Espiritu Santo's southeast coast, is Vanuatu's second-largest settlement and the provincial capital. Roads run north and west from Luganville but most of the island is far from the limited road network. Vanuatu's highest peak is the 1879 metre (6165 foot) Mount Tabwemasana in west-central Espiritu Santo.

The Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandes de Queirós, working for Spain, established a settlement in 1606 at Big Bay on the north side of the island. Espiritu Santo takes its name from Queirós, who named the entire island group La Austrialia del Espíritu Santo in acknowledgment of the Spanish king's descent from the royal House of Austria, and believing he had arrived in the Great Southern Continent, Terra Australis.

During the time of the British–French Condominium, Hog Harbour, on the northeast coast, was the site of the British district administration, while Segond, near Luganville was the French district administration.

During World War II, particularly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, the island was used by Allied forces as a military supply and support base, naval harbour, and airfield. In highly fictionalised form, it is the locale of James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific and the subsequent Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, South Pacific.

The presence of the Allies later contributed to the island's diving tourism, as the United States dumped most of their equipment and refuse at what is now known as 'Million Dollar Point'. Another wreck off Espiritu Santo, the SS President Coolidge, is also a popular diving spot. The SS President Coolidge was a converted luxury liner that hit a mine during the war.

Between May and August 1980 the island was the site of a rebellion during the transfer of power from the colonial New Hebrides to independent Vanuatu. Jimmy Stevens' Nagriamel movement, in alliance with private French interests and backed by the Phoenix Foundation and American libertarians hoping to establish a tax-free haven, declared the island of Espiritu Santo independent of the new government. A Republic of Vemerana was proclaimed on May 28. France recognized the independence on June 3. On June 5 the tribal chiefs of Santo named the French Ambassador Philippe Allonneau "King of Vemerana", Jimmy Stevens became Prime Minister. Luganville is renamed Allonneaupolis. But negotiations with Port-Vila failed

On 8 June, 1980, the New Hebrides government asked Britain and France to send troops to put down a rebellion on the island of Espiritu Santo. France refused to allow the United Kingdom to deploy troops to defuse the crisis, and French soldiers stationed on Espiritu Santo took no action. As independence day neared, the Prime Minister-elect, Walter Lini, asked Papua New Guinea if it would send troops to intervene. As Papua New Guinean soldiers began arriving in Espiritu Santo,the foreign press began referring to the ongoing events as the "Coconut War". However, the "war" was brief and unconventional. The residents of Espiritu Santo generally welcomed the Papua New Guineans as fellow Melanesians. Stevens' followers were armed with only bows and arrows, rocks, and slings. There were few casualties, and the war came to a sudden end: when a vehicle carrying Stevens' son burst through a Papua New Guinean roadblock in late August 1980, the soldiers opened fire on the vehicle, killing Stevens' son. Shortly thereafter, Jimmy Stevens surrendered, stating that he had never intended that anyone be harmed. At Stevens' trial, it was revealed that Stevens and Nagriamel received US$250,000 from the American-based Phoenix Foundation, a libertarian group that previously attempted to establish an independent tax-haven state in Abaco Island, the Bahamas in 1973. Stevens was convicted and sentenced to 14 years' imprisonment. In September 1982, Stevens escaped from prison but was recaptured just two days after his escape. Stevens was released from prison on 14 August 1991 and later died of cancer.

First up for us was a drive to the US WW2 Hospital site and some local displays of crafts, followed by a chance to see where Uncle Sam had dispatched his million dollars worth of vehicles and equipment, to stop the British or the French getting their hands on it. There is a well researched article in a magazine called Cabinet. The travel writer Thurston Clarke describes the scene:

The Seabees built a ramp running into the sea and every day Americans drove trucks, jeeps, ambulances, bulldozers, and tractors into the channel, locking the wheels and jumping free at the last second. Engine blocks cracked and hissed. Some Seabees wept. Ni-Vanuatu witnessing the destruction of wealth their island would never see again, at least in their lifetimes, thought the Americans had gone mad.

We then had a stop at the Mavutor River, a clean and crystal blue river where a number of canoes in different sizes were waiting for us. Local men paddled us upstream. After about 20 minutes we came to the Riri Blue Holes, where the river is fed by water from the underground at a 10 m deep iridescent blue freshwater pool. Chris enjoyed a swim, the braver, or the more foolish, jumped into the water swinging on a rope hanging from a tall tree.

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Champagne Beach and the Water Women was our afternoon venue. Champagne Beach, so-named for the freshwater springs that bubble up through the white sand to create a variety of dancing, coloured lights (an all-natural consequence of the varying densities of salt- and fresh-water).

The water women of Vanuatu drum on water, while singing and dancing. An ancient women's tradition that mimics the sounds and daily practices of their island home, with songs titles such as "Waves Crashing on the Beach" and "Big Whale". Dressed in exotic jungle leaves the women enter the water singing and then start to drum hypnotically upon the water, creating a sound unheard in any other music. In many of the songs the men of the village stand on the shore and answer with other songs accompanied by log drums, shakers, and stamping sticks.

The ladies come from the remote, northern islands of Vanuatu, wade into the sea up to their waist. Dressed in the traditional costumes of Gaua, made from flowers and leaves, these women are about to perform the mystical Water Music. The women form into a half moon formation. Their bodies lean forward over the water waiting for the signal. The leader’s head dips in a nod. Hands are united in action. The water is beaten into a rhythmic swirl. The palm of their hands slaps each passing wave. Their hands move closer to their bodies and then away again. I honestly don't know how "traditional" this is, and how much has been made up for tourism. The ladies have a DVD on sale widely on the web (we saw it and were not impressed, as it lasted around an hour and was repetitive, with little in the way of commentary), and do "tours" to Australia and further afield. I did try to research the tradition and could not find anything. However it was very good entertainment and the proceeds appear to be in a good cause.

A PR Handout by Ethos Global Foundation says "Currently the group is self-managed and they do not have the capacity to represent themselves in the international music industry. This project will create opportunities for the group to meet with potential agents, bookers, and managers. It will also be an opportunity for them to promote their unique cultural heritage to a much broader audience. There are major financial benefits to the Leweton community in expanding their capacity for international performance. The income they can generate from the sale of the DVD and from performances fees at festivals, is exponentially greater than the opportunities for generating revenue in their islands. The revenue generated will be directed to the remote communities of Gaua and Merelava and will fund the maintenance of basic infrastructure such as water supply, health clinic and school buildings."

Chris took part in the yoga session on the beach, and for any thirsty passengers, the ship put up a full bar on the beach.

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On to Ambrym

South Seas Holiday