Unfortunately, flights are not cheap, especially when you are five in number, so we decided that rather than flying from Napier/Hastings to Auckland, we would drive, thereby saving five return fares to Auckland.
This didn't work out quite as we had planned. As July is the middle of the southern hemisphere winter, things can get quite cold in New Zealand, and the road from Napier north to Taupo goes over some fairly high terrain, meaning that it often closes. When this happens, there is no feasible route to Auckland. In the weeks just before our journey, the road had been closed on and off several times, and we decided that as getting to Vanuatu was our main aim, we would hang the extra expense and fly up anyway. It takes worse weather to close the airport than it does to close the road.
The travel agents at American Express were extremely helpful in this regard, finding us the last five seats to Auckland on the date we required. There were three flights to Auckland which connected with our flight, but the only one with seats was the small aeroplane which leaves very early indeed. Our flight to Port Vila was scheduled to leave at noon.
One of our friends called for us just after six o'clock and took us on the half hour journey from home to Hawkes Bay airport, where he left us to check in for the flight. We did so, with a warning given to us that the flight was subject to delay as a result of a minor technical problem. I asked the staff whether they thought this would be a problem, as we had an international connection to catch. We were assured that it would not be a problem.
Before much more time had passed, the next flight to Auckland left, full, but without us. I wondered about that.
Not so long after that, I saw on the television screen in the terminal building that our flight had changed from 'delayed' to 'cancelled' so I weandered over to the desk to ask about this. It's not cancelled, they said. I indicated the board, they checked on their computer and admitted that, yes, sorry, it was cancelled after all.
This meant that they had to find something to do with the passengers who were keen to get to Auckland. This wasn't the whole load, because some intending passengers said that it was now so late that there was no point in them travelling. We were not in that category. A choice was offered to us: to go in a mini-bus to Taupo (just under two hours north over the road I referrred to earlier) and pick up a flight from there or a mini-bus to Palmerston North (just over two hours south over a flatter road which includes a river gorge not guaranteed in inclement weather) and a flight to Auckland from there. We chose the latter, but one bus took each route.
Having passed the end of our road at six o'clock goinf north, we passed it again at nine o'clock going south. It was a cold morning, and we were all quite tired, but there was no stopping for a snack or a drink on the way. It must have been about eleven o'clock when we passed Dannevirke, this showing us quite clearly that we would not be in Auckland for noon.
On arrival at Palmerston North airport, there was a Saab 340 waiting for us, which had been held. I explained to somebody there our position, and was assured that everything had been taken care of and that we would be met at Auckland Airport by an agent of Air Vanuatu who would make the necessary arrangements for us.
The early morning flight, or rather, mid-morning flight, from Palmerston North to Auckland was a spectacular one. Mount Ruapehu, an active volcano in the centre of the North Island of New Zealand, had started erupting again overnight, and we saw spectacular views of the ash cloud belching out of the crater. Later in the day, this was to close most of the airports in northern New Zealand. It was a splendid sight, one that I am glad to have seen.
I would also have been glad to see somebody from Air Vanuatu when we got to Auckland, but that, alas, did not happen. We stood around for a few minutes and came to the conclusion that nobody was going to meet us. We went over to the Air New Zealand link desk, where one of their check-in staff confirmed that the Port Vila flight had left on time at noon. What did she suggest that we should do? Her suggestion was that we go over to Air New Zealand International's desk in the International terminal, and gave us the name of somebody who would be able to help us. In the meantime, she provisionally book accommodation for us at the Airport Travelodge for that night at their expense. This was not an offer of which we particularly wished to take advantage.
At the International terminal, the staff with whom we dealt were exceptionally helpful. Once they realised that we were not simply tourists who wanted to spend a week in the sun, they considered numerous possibilities to get us to Port Vila. The next direct flight was on Tuesday, this being Saturday. They considered next-day flights through Noumea and another routing with an overnight stop in Nadi. They then considered the possibility of using the Air New Zealand flight to Melnbourne to connect with the Air Vanuatu flight. Air Vanuatu's 737 leaves Port Vila on Saturday morning for Auckland, flies back to Port Vila and then makes a round-trip to Melbourne and it was the return leg of this flight we would pick up. This would mean arriving in the small hours of Sunday morning, but so be it. This was much better, because it meant that we would still be able to go to the service at our old church on the Sunday morning. So we made arrangements for these flights. It is not very usual for people to fly from Auckland to Port Vila via Melbourne, as a casual glance at the atlas will show you. We did it, however, flying unexpectedly on a 767 for nearly four hours before flying another four and a half hours on Air Vanuatu's 737. Flying time from Auckalnd to Port Vila, for comparison, is just on three hours.
The flights were fine. I have nothing at all to say against the service offered by either Air New Zealand or Air Vanuatu, two of my favourite airlines. When we arrived at Melbourne, we were better placed than we had been on the previous occasion something like this had happened to us: we did at least have valid Australian visas this time. As it was, once again we did not clear Australian customs and immigration. I casually remarked to one of the secrity officers that we seemed to be making a habit of this sort of thing: perhaps we would come to Melbourne by design some time soon.
A few hours in transit results in a fair amount of purchases being made, especially when travelling with children. We came away with a few Australian flags and cuddly replicas of indigenous Australian animals. Not long and we were on our way to Port Vila.
We arrived there some time after midnight. It was baking hot, as we remembered, and very humid. We were very tired. The immigration hall was alive with Australians looking forward to their holiday, rather rowdier than I would have hoped at that hour. But it was great to be back! We were on our way to Kaiviti Apartments in a few minutes, preparing for a short night before we got up to our first morning back in paradise.
Back to our old church in time for the 10 o'clock service. We were welcomed as if we had never been away. Nevertheless, it was obvious that we had been away! Many had left, some new faces had arrived. It was a great joy to see so many old faces, though we knew that most of them would surely have disappeared if we had left our visit another year. Our minds were still spinning later that day, as we walked round Port Vila. It hadn't changed very much in the three years since we had left.
Monday saw me running with the Hash House Harriers, my 156th such run after having not missed even one run while resident in Port Vila and present in the country. Even the onset or aftermath of such diverse calamities as tropical cyclones, Christmas, road accidents or broken sandals had not kept me away from the Hash House Harriers, a diverse group of joggers and drinkers, who also made me a welcome guest on my return.
But we were overjoyed as we walked down Kumul Highway, the main street. Out of one of the stores, rushing across the road, came our old gardener, husband of our housegirl, who had noticed us earlier as we went by. His wife had retired and now lived in the house at the top of hill at Manples where they had been when we lived in Port Vila. We went there to see her the next day.
Manples is not an area you will visit if you are a tourist in Vanuatu. In fact, it is perhaps what will in time, I fear, become a no-go area, if it has not already. We were challenged many times as we made our way up there: they told us that there was nothing up there, which is true, but because we were fluent in Bislama and knew the name of somebody we wanted to see, we were let pass. Eventually, after a couple of wrong turns, we found our way near to near the top of the hill, where our housegirl lived.
Our boys remembered very little of their life in Vanuatu, but they had many questions to ask. Why was the house so dark? Why were there so few things in it? Why did their dog have only one eye? These are easy questions to answer on one level, but on another level they are very hard questions, the questions that children ask but adults shy away from. To be sure, it is unlikely that anybody from the community at Manples will ever have the opportunity to read these words, yet I continue to stress that the ni-Vanuatu, poor or destitute by our standards are the happiest people I have ever met.
Perhaps it was a cheeky thing to do, but I asked if she would be able to come and baby-sit for us on the Thursday night, like she had done in the old days. She agreed readily. On the night in question, both of them came and we went out for a meal at Iririki Island Resort, just like we had done in the old days. The view over the harbour is still just as wondrous as ever it was. On our return, we sat and talked to them for a long time, and was honoured with the gift of a pandanus mat, the same one that was being woven when we had visited them at Manples earlier in the week. The gift of a mat is a very special one, one not often bestowed on Westerners.
On Friday, we did what we had done many times before: we drove round the island of Efate. This is always an exciting time, because you can never be sure whether or not you will make it. (In fact, when we lived in Port Vila, I was only ever obliged to turn back once.)
We were obliged to get up very early on Saturday morning for our trip back to Auckland. My wife remarked how much quieter a terminal full of New Zealanders was, compared with what we had encountered a week earlier. We arrived back before noon and found that, as had been suspected, there was no seat for all of us on a flight to Hawkes Bay, so we hired a car and drove back. One of the good things about hiring a car is that is generally newer and better than one's own car.
Suddenly we were back home, having met many of our friends in Vanuatu for, almost certainly. the last time.