With breathtaking scenery and fascinating culture, the wonders of Melanesia are revealing themselves to yacht owners, says Tristan Rutherford
Four Melanesian nations occupy the prime position between South East Asia, Australia and Polynesia. Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands were once considered off the radar. Today, owners and guests can take advantage of improved logistics and new marinas to cruise sandy specks, Second World War wrecks and bubbling volcanoes, garlanded across 3,000 nautical miles of sea. For far-out cultures, including Asaro mudmen and Fijian fire walkers, it’s time to reset the GPS.
Melanesia was once seen simply as a destination to pass en route to Sydney from Singapore or Samoa. Not anymore. “More yachts have started to visit the area,” says Rob McCallum, co-founder of EYOS Expeditions, the market leader for yachting adventures in Melanesia. “The numbers are still small. We’re talking about going from single digits to double digits per year.”
Why now? “It’s twofold,” claims McCallum. “Firstly, most visiting vessels are classic cruising yachts that rely heavily on shoreside infrastructure.” EYOS have solved that issue by managing “a logistical system for getting provisions from Australia or New Zealand” to virtually any location where there’s a runway. “Secondly, owners have realised that if you’re transitioning a yacht to Australasia, you should explore Melanesia as it’s really, really cool.” Half of McCallum’s clients in Melanesia are owners seeking once-in-a-lifetime adventures. The other half are guests aboard a yacht that EYOS has chartered on their behalf.
There’s a lot to see. The biggest Melanesian nation, Papua New Guinea, “feels like stepping back into the Stone Age”, says McCallum. “It’s an anthropological nexus.” Add another 600 islands (many unnamed and uninhabited) and there’s a singular experience every day.
The Solomon Islands are within swimming distance from Papua New Guinea. “They’re like a string of emeralds cast in a turquoise sea,” continues McCallum. “They are deeply forested, surrounded by beautiful white sand and ringed by a platform reef.” Imagine French Polynesia, in the 1950s, with dugongs, dolphins and shipwrecks galore. “If you’re a diver this is your happy hunting ground.”
To the south east is Vanuatu. “Few people have heard of it,” laughs McCallum. “But once you explain that it’s where you can find the world’s biggest accessible scuba wreck (the 199-metre SS President Coolidge, which hit a mine in 1942) and where you can gaze down into an erupting volcano (Mt Yasur on Tanna Island), they say, ‘How come I haven’t heard of this place before?’”
“There has been an increase in yachts visiting Fiji,” the most easterly and most visited Melanesian nation, says Chantae Reden, a Fiji-based journalist for Lonely Planet and AFAR. “It was one of the few countries open to yachts during the pandemic with their Blue Lane system,” which allowed owners to quarantine aboard their yacht. “Once Fiji opened its borders to air travellers, an influx of even more yachts arrived,” she explains.
“Each of Fiji’s 300 islands has its own personality and appeal,” continues Reden, who founded The Salt Sirens, a female community dedicated to ocean exploration. “You can’t go wrong with the Yasawas”, an island chain that boasts “white sand beaches, palm trees and gin-clear waters”.
At present, the only ports of entry into Fiji are on its two main islands: Savusavu Bay in Vanua Levu and Port Denarau Marina in Viti Levu. “Last week we had six superyachts in the marina and expect a full season,” says Cynthia Rasch, CEO of Port Denarau Marina. These included expedition yacht SuRi, explorer yacht Triton and sailing yacht Encore. Each sailor was given a quick antigen test before being issued with a cruising permit. “Fiji’s active season is from May to October,” says Rasch, making it a calm and sunny season for whale watching or snorkelling the limestone caves of Sawa-i-Lau, which featured in the movie The Blue Lagoon.
Vanuatu, a two-day sail west of Fiji, operates on a similar schedule. November to April can be hot and humid, with downpours from January to March. The unique practice of land diving takes place in spring on Pentecost Island, where men leap off 30-metre towers with vines wrapped around their feet. “Timing is very specific,” says Rob McCallum from EYOS, “because the ritual relies on the suppleness of the vines that act like bungee cords around their ankles.”
Departing Vanuatu, yachts can island-hop all the way through the Solomon Islands to the north west. Like Kolombangara Island, where cruisers can make a two-day hike across raging rivers to a panoramic volcanic peak. The most northerly Solomons escape the fiercest weather, although McCallum claims that “timing doesn’t matter nearly as much” as other destinations. “I grew up in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands (where he learnt the local Tok Pisin tongue as well as the Melanesian languages of Pijin and Bislama). The reality is there are very few cyclones and they can be tracked a long way in advance.” Depending on what activity a client wants – photography, ethnobotany [the study of how people of a particular culture uses indigenous plants], deep-sea diving – “with a bit of planning, Melanesia can be a year-round destination”.
Any time is fine to visit Papua New Guinea, a gigantic equatorial nation that sits at the final frontier of yachting. The country’s seldom-visited interior contains 4,000-metre peaks, some unscaled, which receive dustings of snow. Around 850 languages (around 25 per cent of the world’s total) are spoken across the barely penetrable archipelago. Papua New Guinea is the most rural nation on earth, where approximately nine million people are scattered across a land mass the size of Spain. According to the World Bank, 40 per cent of Papuans live a self-sustaining lifestyle isolated from global capital. Just as they have done for 50,000 years.
“Even before Covid-19 we never had a huge number of visiting yachts,” concedes Rizwan Khan of the Royal Papua Yacht Club, which offers refuelling and ship chandlery. In the first six months of 2022 the marina, sited in the Papuan capital of Port Moresby, welcomed seven foreign-flagged yachts – a big number in these parts. “The big pull is yachts stopping over,” says Khan.
Royal Papua Yacht Club committee member Patrick Molloy recommends yachts stay and visit the Louisiade Archipelago. It’s a quicksilver necklace of volcanic islands, topped by rainforest peaks and fringed by coral reefs. Some islands have a few thousand inhabitants; some register a population of just one.
The yachts that do come “normally sail from the Solomon Islands or Vanuatu,” says Molloy, the latter a two- or three-day crossing over the sealife-rich Solomon Sea. Visitors are consistently amazed. “Rabaul has a huge Second World War history,” he continues. Rabaul Port sits on Simpson Harbour, a monumental flooded caldera littered with volcanoes. On the seabed, some 60 Japanese ships and war planes have become playgrounds for seahorses and mantis shrimp.
Inland Papua New Guinea gets wild fast. It is home to tree-climbing kangaroos and 6,000 species of butterfly. Historically as the nation had a limited central government, only a few thousand kilometres of asphalt roads exist. It is still physically impossible to drive between the two principal cities, Port Moresby and the container port of Lae, where the Lae Yacht Club can offer advice on cruising Papua New Guinea’s northern coast.
“The Sepik River is still one of those timeless places where you can almost visualise a land that hasn’t changed in centuries,” says Alan Manning, co-founder of South Sea Horizons, which operates low-impact tours across Papua New Guinea. The river snakes for over 1,000 kilometres from crocodile-infested mangrove lowlands into an interior hidden by 60-metre-high araucaria trees. Papua is the most floristically diverse island in the world, a mini-Amazon where nearly 70 per cent of species are found nowhere else on earth.
“When you’re travelling upriver, you cross cultural boundaries into a separate cultural group, each with their own artefacts,” explains Manning. This is best seen in the Sepik Crocodile Festival in early August, where skin-cutting initiations mirror the appearance and strength of the prehistoric animal the festival venerates.
Conversely the country’s highlands “are all about birds, flora and fauna”, continues Manning. His small group tours visit the Huli wigmen, a semi-bachelor society with fabulous headgear. The wigmen pass oral history down through sing-sings, an awe-inspiring community dance. “Where I’m from in East New Britain [in the Bismarck Archipelago] we have conical masks,” says Manning. “One of the biggest attractions is that our culture has remained untouched and unchanged.”
Most cultural events in Papua New Guinea’s interior are village happenings. Like the death of an important person or the end of an inter-community war. “We have the intelligence gathering and knowledge of people who live in the country to access these events,” promises McCallum. “If a guest follows some very simple cultural protocols they could not be in a safer place.” EYOS also works with local residents to construct the timing of cultural events for specific clients. “Authenticity is paramount. This is not Disneyland or something you see at a poolside luau in a Hawaii resort.”
“As other Pacific Islands have become more developed for tourism, intrepid travellers naturally start looking for the next place to uncover,” says Josh Shepard, who runs award-winning blog thelostpassport.com. He suggests starting in Vanuatu, which only reopened to travellers in July this year.
The country’s 80-plus islands feature jungle tracks to remote villages (on Malekula) and rope swings over blue holes (on Espiritu Santo). The latter island, Vanuatu’s largest, also hosts Millennium Cave in Vanuatu, which requires a climb, bamboo bridge crossing and swim through a tropical river. Diving is best on the capital island of Espiritu Santo. Try Million Dollar Point, where the US Army ditched a fortune of surplus to requirements tanks, heavy weaponry and bottles of Coca-Cola into the crystalline ocean following the Second World War. The far northern Torres Islands near the Solomons are a Caribbean fantasy of nodding coconut palms. Here the 1,000 islanders have no bank, no police and seemingly no worries.
Isolated is the word. Air Vanuatu operates the odd flight from Brisbane and the Solomon Islands. But even pre-Covid-19, a mere 250,000 travellers drifted in each year. The nation, strung across 700 nautical miles of Pacific Ocean, has obvious geographical distinctions, “which has led to the islands having separate cultures and even different languages”, says Shepard. The archipelago also guards its pre-Christian kastom or cultural traditions, which include a masked fire dance in dense rainforest on the volcanic island of Ambrym.
Vanuatu’s USP is active volcanoes – it has nine of them. Lava fireworks from Mount Yasur, “which threw up vast quantities of fire and smoke”, lured Captain Cook to Tanna Island in 1774. Guests may climb to the top of Mount Yasur (there are no safety rails) then ash board down on a snowboard. It makes for great memories. Volcanoes ripped the Blue Cave into Tanna’s cliffs. Here, brave swimmers can freedive into an illuminated rock cathedral via a hidden sea passage. On the black-sand island of Ambrym, guests can clamber inside a volcano to see a bubbling lava lake. Yet, like so many Melanesian islands, there are zero hotels. It’s yacht or bust.
Melanesia also has waves in abundance, says Hannah Bennett, president of the Fiji Surfing Association. “Swells travel hundreds of miles across the great ocean gathering energy only to unload on a small patch of reef offshore,” she says. Fiji in particular “has some of the best surf”, while Vanuatu has “access to a variety of breaks close to the beach which don’t require a boat”. In Papua New Guinea’s New Ireland Province, winter swells form fast, barrelling breaks and tubes. But you’re advised to bring your own boards, shorts – in fact, absolutely anything you’re likely to need.
Cynthia Rasch from Port Denarau Marina warns that “provisioning in some remote regions can be limited or non-existent for imported items”. She adds: “Fiji has lots of options and sells in bulk, has fuel on dock and fresh produce readily available, but sailors must consider what is allowable in your next port of entry.” In Vanuatu, Yachting World Marina is the principal refuelling and cruising hub. Port Vila Boatyard can haul out a yacht for anti-fouling and engine repair.
Rob McCallum from EYOS warns that “once you’re out of the main centres, there’s virtually no support at all”. Melanesia, which welcomes just 30,000 tourists per year, “is tough to explore in any real way without a skilled guide”. Although Tradco Shipping in Honiara can assist with superyacht bunkering and provisioning. In remote regions it’s advisable to bring a spare of every sub-$100 valve, screw, fixture and fitting.
McCallum, who has assisted the smallest superyachts to the very biggest, says: “If a yacht only has snorkels, paddleboards and two weeks of autonomy, they can still make it work.” That said, every accoutrement a yacht can transport is a bonus. “Having your own dive system is terrific because you don’t need any infrastructure. Once you have a helicopter, or use a trusted local helicopter company, you can springboard into another dimension. And if you have a submersible, you can descend to 500 metres or more to see things that no-one has ever seen before.”
Executive chef Troy Davidson packed school books, pencils, rubbers and sports balls during his tour of Papua New Guinea and the Solomons. These gifts were “to say thank you for local tips on anchoring, shore visits and diving knowledge”. The yacht that Davidson worked on cleared Papuan customs in Alotau, not far from the Louisiade Archipelago. “The fishing and sea life were just outstanding,” he explains. “Milne Bay is famous for its biodiversity. We were tender fishing and a whale shark swam directly under us and gently scratched her huge back on the bottom of the Boston Whaler.”
“The owner’s father and guest on board were stationed in different locations during the Second World War,” Davidson continues. “We retraced his different lodging locations [across Papua New Guinea]… and after a month we headed for Honiara on Guadalcanal Island” in the Solomons to clear customs and provision, as his galley “could only hold enough food for 10 to 12 days”.
First published in the September 2022 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.shop now