PORT VILA

(Efate Island, Vanuatu)

June 2023

After an eventful trip from Australia, we had finally arrived in Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu. We arrived on a Saturday, so we had a quiet couple of days before tackling the formalities of Immigration, Customs and Biosecurity.  It was very relaxing just sitting out in the Harbour, not having to do anything other than rest.

Although you can’t keep a Captain from his maintenance for long.

Peter took the time to replace the chain splitter again –  we’d bent another one in the Chesterfields (that has been put onto the ‘WTF’ List to be sorted out, as it is now an ongoing problem).

Taz supervised.  He is all thumbs when it comes to maintenance, but he likes to be supportive.

View of Quarantine anchorage looking West out of the Bay

Saturday afternoon we had a very keen chappy swim out to the boat to offer his services as a polisher and on Sunday we were serenaded by a delightful choir with a very enthusiastic pastor conducting a service in the park on the foreshore (lovely singing and lots of alleluias).

Monday eventually rolled around and we girded our loins, ready for a new experience – checking into a new country with the boat.  This was our first entry via sea, into a foreign country and we were quite curious about how hard it would be especially with the complication of a boat cat.  I radioed at 8am on the dot, to get in early as I’d read that they take their lunch breaks very seriously here and afternoons may not happen.  There were also a number of other boats that had pulled in to the Quarantine area over the weekend, so we wanted to be at the front of the line.  Customs came back that they couldn’t come out to us as their boat was broken, so we would have to go to them.  Phooey, we’d have to drop the tender (during which we discovered a missing holding-clip on the boom line, another item to add to the damages list). 

Waterfront Restaurant and Marina car park

We called in to see Roslyn, the calm voice at Yachting World Marina, who kindly showed us where the Customs offices were.  It was a big building with a bright blue roof at the other end of the harbour; we had been heading into the town office, so were very glad we checked first.

Accessing the Immigration and Customs offices by tender proved awkward, as the Customs boats were parked in front of the only steps up the concrete wall. We tied off to the wall, but pulled ourselves over to the parked Customs boat and walked across that to get to the steps.

As it turned out, the process was fairly simple, although it took a while as we had to wait for some of the officials to come back from processing a plane of tourists at the airport.  While we waited for the officials to return, the office filled up with other boaters wanting to check in.  I had completed all the documentation previously (everything I could find online that might be wanted) and had emailed all our supporting documentation ahead.  So, it was a simple matter of handing over the hard copies to Customs (much of which they didn’t want, but I felt happy that I had it ready just in case).  The incredibly softly spoken lassie at the counter then sent us around to Immigration, which was literally around the corner of the same building (although there was NO signage to help you find it).  We paid the fee of V4800 ($50 AU) in local currency which made things easy (I had converted cash in Cairns so we had a supply of Vatu, which really makes the whole process a lot smoother). Once the fee was paid our passports were stamped and the easy part of the entry was complete.   Overall, the process was quite simple. The staff all spoke English (but you need to get your ear in for the accent) and French fluently (no help to us as at best our French is effluent not fluent).

Now for the cat. Back at the boat we contacted Simon from Bio-Security (who turned out to be located in an adjoining building near Customs, so we could have just walked over to him! (again NO signage).  He said we could bring ‘Opal Lady’ into our berth at Yachting World Marina and they would come to the boat to inspect Taz (convenient), but could we pick them up please? 

Well, one problem at a time, let’s get the boat sorted first.  This berthing would also be a first for us as well (so many firsts in one day!)  We would have to Med-moor against the sea wall. This means you have to back the boat towards the wall, past mooring balls which need to be picked up on the way and attached to the bow (front) and then the stern (back) is tied up to the sea-wall (so the boat ends up secured between lines to the balls at the front and lines to the wall at the back).  Peter was a bit apprehensive about this manoeuvre as we reverse about as elegantly as a Booby Bird taking flight, and there were balls with lines to ‘not run over’ and other, very shiny, boats to definitely not hit.   

The marina is located behind a protective island (Iririki Island) at the south end of the Bay.  The marina wall is on the east side of the channel and they also have moorings on the west side of the channel.  Taller boats have to go all the way around the island, else they will (and do regularly) take out the power line that is strung across to the island. We can just head into the channel between, as we are low enough to go under the power line.  Rosslyn, sent Willie and his crew from the Marina out in the marina tender, to meet us as we came into the channel.  With one dude on board at the bow sorting the mooring lines and the other guy in the tender, I could stay at the back guiding Peter over the headsets and be ready to throw lines to more of the crew on shore.  We didn’t even look like needing the ball fenders that I’d put out the back, ‘just in case’.

Who needs a fancy passerelle when you can use a plank of wood to get home.  Peter didn’t fall in, but he did walk straight into the rear canopy edging (which is just at forehead height – we didn’t think about this style of access when we installed the canopy!)  You should see how steep it gets at low tide – OMG.  Our custom plank is 10 inches wide with a slight twist.  The fancy boats here have their own staircase that slides out of the back of the boat, and there are two berths here that have something akin to a metal drawbridge, but they were taken.  So, it is the plank for us.  It just means Peter has to take extra care coming on board if we have had a good night out.

We realised getting the tender off again, to collect the Biosecurity people, would be problematic now we were berthed, and we were also now into lunch time, so no-one was working until after 1pm.  So, in the afternoon Peter headed off to find a taxi. He came back with Tom from Biosecurity and raving about the convenience of the mini buses.  Tom took photos of Taz, checked him for fleas, commented that we seemed to have a lot of Veterinary signatures in his paperwork and, again because we had already emailed everything ahead of us, cleared the moggy in. Tom asked about the meat in our freezer, nuts in the fridge and open packets of flour in the pantry (all ok as it was from Australia).  Peter went back with Tom to the office to pay the V6000 inspection fee (normally the Biosecurity fee is V3,000 for boats without pets) and that was us checked into Vanuatu.  The only outstanding piece of paperwork was the Cruising Permit, which is essentially a list of the islands we wanted to visit (there is no ALL box, so you really do have to list every one).  We thought we could leave that until next week. [There was an American couple who seemed to be having trouble getting their cruising permit that day, but it turned out that she had become a bit frustrated about the process/speed of process and had just been told that the staff wouldn’t do it until the next day.  The paperwork was processed straight away the following day – Keep calm and polite and smile].

We celebrated with a meal at the restaurant in front of the marina.  The live singer that evening was very good, singing laid back wine bar numbers, and the food was great (although in all honesty, anything that wasn’t defrosted from the freezer was going to be good).

Essentially our immediate plan was to spend 2 weeks in Port Vila.  The first week we intended doing very little except explore Port Vila and catch up on some essential boat maintenance. The second week would be getting out and about on the island of Efate and also looking at going down to the island of Tanna (by plane) to visit the volcano there.

Buses are cheaper than taxis; even the taxi drivers will tell you to take a bus.  And as long as you are not actually in a hurry, it’s quite an efficient system.  If you look like you might be even vaguely contemplating wanting a ride, a mini bus will beep you.  Just give the thumbs up and you are good to board.  The mini buses range markedly in their degrees of tidiness, but all will get you to your destination safely and some drivers will insist on giving a running commentary of the places they pass [One driver who was very much into architecture, identified the country of origin of each big building we passed.  According to him, if it was an ugly building then it was built by the Chinese!].  The route is determined largely by a first-on first-off basis.  The fee is 150Vatu within the metro area (3 of the frilly gold coins for two people), paid as you leave the bus (another good reason to stock up on small local currency).

Traffic tooting seems less aggressive than in South East Asia.  It may mean; do you want a ride, I would like to move into this lane or catch you at the nakamal this evening (a Namakal is the kava drinking establishment).  Rarely does tooting mean ‘you are a moron’, as it means pretty much exclusively in Australia.  The traffic will also toot to let pedestrians know that the car is waiting for them to cross!  Cars will stop mid traffic to let you cross – OMG (just keep remembering to look LEFT first).

Our first full day in the paradise of Vanuatu started early with Taz flicking my glasses off my head and over the side of the boat.  Such fun.  An early morning swim, but I emerged from under the boat victorious.  I am not talking to that cat for the whole day or my husband who thought the whole thing hilarious.

The total population of Vanuatu is 250,000, spread across 83 islands.  The islands are geologically new, of volcanic origin (exciting) and called New Hebrides in old atlas’. Port Vila is the capital with a population of 50,000. The first thing we noticed when we went for a walk into town was that compared to many places in Asia and Africa we have been to, the town was clean and tidy with no plastic bags. We found out later that Vanuatu had banned them a couple of years ago. Each shop keeps its front area swept and clean.  The people on the streets will wish you a good day as you walk by and flash enormous smiles, if you smile first.  People seem genuinely happy that we are in their country.  Smiling is not my natural resting face, but I am practising.

Apparently, the only treatment for landsickness is walking, so we did a lot of walking in Port Vila.  About 10 minutes walking brought us to the Fresh Produce Market which is a large, well built building, funded by Australia after a cyclone destroyed the old one. We visited the market every day except Sunday’s (not open).  Peter had to buy a pineapple every day; they are small and delicious and I can eat these without getting mouth ulcers (they range in price from 200-500V according to size).  But there were no bananas due to the recent cyclones.    The markets are very neat and clean.  Everything is clearly labelled (no bartering, which I like) and no one is jostling you.  If you want something you buy it, if you don’t, no-one will get their knickers in a twist.

A trip to the markets is followed by the “What’s living in the groceries?” investigation.  A 15 minute soak in bleachy water usually produced a cockroach or two, a heap of grit and grassy stuff and a half dozen tiny yellow ants – none of which shall pass onto our boat.

Opposite the market square was a small supermarket where we could get things like fresh bread, eggs, potatoes and milk. Along the seafront of the city centre there is a large boardwalk with lawns and gardens behind it, which is quite pleasant to walk along. Most days we would walk to the ‘Nambawan’ café (Love Bislama, very phonetic) for good coffee.

The view to Downtown Port Vila from the Nambawan Café.  We are parked under the arrow.

Our Mothers were complaining about the cold snap back in Australia.  I replied that it was quite cool here too, we actually needed a sheet or a cat to keep the breeze off at night – hehehe.

Main road Port Vila.

During one of our walks we were passed by a DHL delivery truck making what was obviously a delivery to a primary school.  The back was full of school kiddies in the standard blue and white uniform looking very happy with themselves – I don’t know if this is normal, but it did look very funny.  The streets of Port Vila, like it’s buildings, are of bitumen and concrete of varying ages and usefulness; wear solid sandals and watch your step (but there are no bad smells or needles on the street, so kudos). Peter also noted that when he goes out walking early in the morning before 6am there are people out running by themselves, including women, so clearly they felt quite safe to do so which reflected our impression of Port Vila.

Peter also took the opportunity in our first week to catch up on maintenance (because it was supposed to be a week of relaxing??).  First up was an oil change for our trusty Lugger main engine (straight forward and the drum of old oil and old filters went up to the rubbish collection area at the marina). The next task was to attempt to repair the port stabiliser. This repair and calibration of the stabiliser is something you would normally have a specialist come in and do, but that was not an option for us. Stored away up at the back of the engine room we had an original, still working, ram from the 2019 replacement.  But before we could fit it, Peter insisted that he needed to visit the local tool store (really??).  Another walk, but there was a lovely French bakery along the way, that I had to call into – so all was not just beastly exercise.  Peter was very happy with the tool stores and we took the chance to buy some boxes of nails while we were there (we had been told that villages were in need of nails for making repairs after the cyclones). 

That particular part of the stabiliser is the rather heavy top plate which proved to be incredibly pesky to get back into place correctly.

I am happy to say that after a few hours of careful dismantling, installation of the spare ram, reassembling everything, and calibrating the stabiliser, we were successful and now have 2 working stabilisers. Yay!  Now to fix down the box of lead in the lazarette that came free during our trip over and cleaning, cleaning and more cleaning of salt out of everywhere.

It doesn’t matter were in the world you take The Beilby.  He will find his natural happy place, the Bunnings (or Wilco, the Vanuatu equivalent). 

We have just heard from our friends, the Macs; they also hit the bad weather, had an incident and have decided to turn left to head to Indonesia instead of coming to Vanuatu! So, we will be cruising on our own this season.

Comments for Cruisers:

Water connections at the marina are Australian standard (and the local hardware shop has plenty for sale).  Power connections are Australian standard (and the local hardware shop has plenty for sale).  There is no three-phase power.

Vanuatu has an interesting combination of French and English systems, with an obvious Australian and New Zealand influence.  English and French language was equally useful in the city.  The locals will speak Bislama, which you can kind of follow until you can’t.

The bread is very French (yay) with a baguette costing AU80c.  The beer (local brand is Tusker) is very Australian and $10 a large bottle.

Fruit and Vegetables in the supermarkets (Au Bon Marche) are from Bundaberg, Australia.  But check before you buy, as some of it hasn’t travelled well.  Fresh eggs are not always available, so buy when you see them.  There is no fresh milk. Supermarkets stock a full range of products, but limited brands; toiletries, cleaning supplies, tinned foods, UHT milk, NZ butter and cream, Whiskas cat food (only one flavour, but it was Taz’ favourite, so bonus), a couple of types of dog food, chocolate, biscuits. The easiest supermarket to get to is the Au Bon Marche opposite the Open Air Market (it’s not the best one though – we found that later up the hill).  Prices in the supermarkets are akin to those in Australia although some items are noticeably more expensive (it depends on where it was imported from – everything in the supermarkets is imported).  There are no plastic shopping bags, so bring your own reusables or buy some local woven bags.  Unless the fresh produce is wrapped in plastic and labelled, you have to get it weighed and labelled before taking it to the checkout.

Each denomination of Vatu (the currency) has a different sized note and colour.  The coins I used most were the V100, which are gold with a lovely wavy edge.  The exchange rate was 0.84 while we were there, but we just took to moving the decimal place left by two ie. 200VUV = 2$, as a rough equivalent.

The Open Air Markets are clean and well organised.  All the produce has the price clearly labelled and it is very cheap.  There is a lot of local market produce, but not a great variety.  Produce included; Pineapples in various sizes (incredibly yummy), Asian greens, many types of starchy root vegetables (literally dirt covered roots, but none looking like potatoes), medium cherry type Tomatoes (measured into plastic tubs, but don’t keep the tub), Cucumber, Beans, Ginger, Lettuce, Grapefruit (pink and yellow called Pamplemousse) some Watermelons and Coconuts.  There are usually Bananas, but none while we there because the recent cyclone had blown them off the trees (Pineapples grow near the ground, so they didn’t suffer so badly). [We later found out that the root vegetables are manioc or cassava]

Aelan dress is the national costume for Vanuatu women, with puffed short sleeves and side flaps instead of pockets.  They are easy to make in the bright local fabrics and often the seams for the bodice and skirt (both simply knife pleated for fullness) are on the outside.  Lace on the hem and sleeve edges is often used as an infill on the bodice panel.  And thongs (footwear – flip flops for our American readers) are ubiquitous. One lady I asked about the dress said she liked it because it didn’t show body bits and was well ventilated in the nether regions.

Taz Talks:

Finally, a chance to relax and do some long overdue maintenance of my own.  This whole open ocean venturing is very hard on personal grooming, and you can’t be elegance personified all the time – I’m only feline.

Navigation Notes:

Navigation into Mele Bay, Port Vila; there was no navigation light on the SE point of Mele Bay entrance, follow a 78o approach into the harbour. 

Quarantine Area, Mele Bay, Port Vila, Vanuatu.  Anchored at 17 44.271S, 168 18.581E, in 12.9m water (tide 0.5m). Holding ok, but winds very light.  Have been told that holding is not good in higher winds, but there were a number of boats that stayed anchored in this area even after clearance.

Clearance: Notify customs of when and where you will be arriving, at least 24 hours prior to arrival, by email to CustomsBorder@vanuatu.gov.vu. Port Vila is the only approved port of arrival for boats with a pet on board.

Fly the yellow Q flag from 200nm out until final clearance, when the national flag of Vanuatu is flown instead (on the starboard side of the boat higher than the Australian flag).  We noticed that some boats come in with both the national and Q flag and then remove the Q flag – this is a more recent practice and equally respectful and accepted (although I read that during the pandemic, this signal was used for boats that were legally cleared into a foreign country but had COVID on board; a bit confusing, so we’ll just stick with the older conventions).  

Advice for entering Vanuatu is available online at https://customsinlandrevenue.gov.vu/index.php/travellers/yacht-clearance.

The Passenger Arrival cards and Vessel Arrival Declaration forms are available at https://customsinlandrevenue.gov.vu/index.php/customs/forms-2.  These forms are interactive and can be emailed ahead once completed.  The Inter-Island Cruising form is also here, but we had to fill it out manually as there wasn’t enough space to list all the islands we intended to visit.

Once anchored at the Q area, radio Customs on CH16.

Yacht World Marina; access from Q area for vessels with a mast less than 19m and draft less than 2.4m, is directly between red and black markers to the south.  Taller boats must go around the Iririki Island, through the commercial harbour and approach from the south.  Yacht World contact on CH16.

Banner Photo: Sunset in Port Vila Harbour

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. There needs to be a clothing label that includes “well ventilated in the nether regions” as a selling point. Genius.

    What an amazing mix of culture, french baguettes, Aussie Fruit & veg and local pineapples!

    1. Greetings Alana, what a funny label that would be. I am doing alot of quality control testing of the baguettes – they are all good so far. Suz

  2. I am enjoying seeing through your eyes places I will never visit…and good fun not feeling seasick.

    1. We are really happy you are enjoying our adventures and we also like calm seas. Peter

  3. Good reading, most enlightening. Sounds like lots of fun tempered with a few repair jobs

    1. Thanks for reading the blog Jill. Boats do seem to keep you busy with maintenance or repairs.

  4. Although I don’t imagine I’ll ever find myself cruising into Vanuatu I still read the cruising comments?! 🤷🏼‍♀️
    Will you be whipping up your own ventilated dress while you’re there?

    1. Greetings Bec, your subconscious is just telling that with rising sea levels you never know when some cruising knowledge will come in handy. I do make a version of the well-ventilated dress (see the ‘grooming the cat’ pic in “Vanuatu Here We Come”), but it is very much just for wearing around the boat on those nasty hot days. Suz

  5. Taz is all ‘class’ love it.

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