The drone of small outboard motors, and crash of a thick Pacific swell are the only sounds as our boats creep up the west coast of Santo. Not that we are travelling in stealth, but the quiet beauty of jungle-clad mountains toppling into the 'big blue', simply demands we sit and stare.
A lone goat on an impossible ledge sparks sudden interest and conversation, and an untidy squadron of flying fox escort the mountain skyline into the distance.
Our boat edges in close to the staring rockface, a tiny cave entrance suggestive of a much larger subterranean link to the limestone interior of Vanuatu's big island. We laugh at the idea of paddling through Santo west to east, rather than trekking up and over the Cumberland Range as is our plan for the next eight days.
Finally, our skippers' nose both craft into a rough beach, and with a neat sense of timing get our crew, guides, trekking team, and gear onto dry land with little more than wet feet. Thirty horsepower engines suck both boats back out past the small but dangerous beach break, and we bid our marine transport farewell. Well, not quite.
Thongs and an umbrella have accidentally found their way ashore, and the rippling swell is more threat than its size would suggest. A mistimed landing could easily result in broken bones and a busted boat, both a long way from repair.
The captains hold back their craft as the thongs are spun with disappointing accuracy into the waves. The umbrella remains stranded with our slightly amused team. Logically, we could swim the gear out through the surf but our guides are much more adept at terrestrial challenges, and our trekking team is kitted for dry land. However, I strip down to underwear, and with small effort get the umbrella and shoes back to their rightful owner.
This minor moment in the context of an arduous expedition, is dripping with insignificance and humour, notable only for the fact that in the next eight days of rugged and dangerous interior travel, it is perhaps the one time we do something with more skill, competence, or dexterity than our guides.
As we move off the coast and into the high mountains, our brilliant team of guides, being Alexie, Thomas, Franko, Satine, Nanu, Paulie, and Tabue, reveal themselves, as they have in all our mountain adventures, to be masters of their universe.
We push hard and high through dense tropical rainforest and into remote mountain villages. Muddy tracks, fatigue, and wet weather, stall our progress. With good gear and solid fitness we try and assert ourselves over the jungle, but it is a loosing battle for some. Heavy packs are discarded, and the task of getting tents and food through our trek is distributed amongst the guides.
Three days in and we are very wet and a little cold at times. Cloud sweeps up and over the range, completely obscuring our much heralded views to everywhere from the summit of Santo Peak.
Every long day fills us with more respect and admiration for the hard-working young men that ease us over slippery rocks, navigate our way through a sea of green, and find improbable passage across racing rivers. One of our team opts for a shoulder ride through fast flowing water, drawing laughter and applause from the team.
We arrive at Pil Pil, a little disappointed to see this pretty village a bit overgrown, but old friends greet us, and we set up tents inside the village hut to avoid camping in a mountain bog.
As we press deeper into the interior, we realise our direct west-east travels are not possible, so we trek hard north then south before reconnecting with our planned route. This creates a worrying day of fatigue and depletion that sees us walk dangerously into the night.
Every step brings a new hazard. Stones are slipperier than ever after the rain, and an entire flank of mountainside has been pulled away in a landslide, leaving us dangerously exposed. A narrow gorge has become a catchment for recent rain, and we are now knee deep in water. Our guides find obscure tracks to manoeuvre us around cascading falls, but we are horrified to see Josie loose her footing and slide three metres down a rock-face into the ravine. Flashing headlamps find Josie in one piece, our hearts racing in the darkness.
It is with great relief we make our way into Nakinakinai, all but exhausted.
Our guides too, are tired and hungry in the long days of walking. As we settle into camp comfort, the offer of a massage is gladly accepted, and ignites laughter in the village nakamal. Tough guys, gone soft, we reckon. Shared meals and sweet coffee are gladly accepted, although western and local tastes collide awkwardly at times.
Our enthusiasm for kava in every village wanes as the trip unfolds, but the boys respectfully party on every night, rising early with a heavy heads, and doing what is necessary to make us comfortable for the next big day out.
The village of Vunpaty is warm and welcoming, after a big muddy day, home to family of our guide Paulie. We sense the great mountains are behind us, despite the continued hard walking. Spirits are high and we have enjoyed big laughs at the expense of our head guide, Alexie, who is very disturbed by a large snake we have captured on the trail. In camp we play with bows & arrows. Cards and kava round out a wonderful day.
Although the coast is many miles to our east, every passing hour brings a sense of near conclusion to our traverse. Little food fantasies creep into conversation, talk of clean clothes grows, and touching base with family is foremost in our thoughts. However, these distractions are cast aside as we drop into the beautifully maintained custom village of Marakai. Welcoming fruit and song, comfortable village beds, and a baking tropical sun, turn this into our mountain resort. We restore, bathe, and play soccer surrounded by inquisitive locals in an amphitheatre of smaller mountains.
Our departure is again marked by song and ceremony, before marching off through fields of grass and mud. Brightly capped birds flit about in the forest canopy, cheering our efforts.
On the trail we negotiate a frightening moment walking across the top of a waterfall. Paulie reminds us, "be careful... boom!", leaving little to the imagination. Significantly, he also points out his fathers gravesite in the disused village of Tabubuton, a ramshackle hut and small mound of earth, humble reminder of a past life. He seems a little sad but asks for a photo on the unmarked grave.
Vaturo under a full moon makes for a wonderful camp before a final day of walking to Sele village and vehicle transport to the coast and comfort.
As we walk down into the relative flatlands of east Santo, two young children carrying machetes, baskets of food, and twelve foot of polypipe, glide past us effortlessly, uphill. We wonder about the strength, work ethic, courage, and dexterity of our guides, and suggest the answer might have just walked past us!
And as always, there is a twist in our Vanuatu tale. Having emerged into city life, our head guide Alexie, was badly injured in a car accident, spending the rest of our stay in hospital. This journey now pays tribute to the men we respectfully call our guides, playfully call G-Force, and most importantly call our friends. Every step we take in the wild corners of Santo is in their hands.
Alexie is recovering well.