Foxtel’s Rosie Jacobs, expat enthusiast for all things Vanuatu, finds that driving can often be a mysterious combination of slow progress and chaos.
Like many things here in paradise, the road rules of Vanuatu are possibly the best example of how we operate differently to the rest of the world.
Whether you’re here on holidays, here for a new life or you’ve already been here for a long period of time, not a single day will pass you by without experience the baffling, frustrating, nonsensical and often humorous system with which we get from A to B… which usually involves an unexpected trip to C, D, E and F along the way! Allow me to explain.
Left or right?
Being a former French and British colony, Vanuatu remains in something of a state of confusion in general. To this day, locals and visitors alike can often be seen driving on the wrong side of the road. Especially for those who have come from Australia or New Zealand, the switch in the brain takes a while to happen where we instinctively pull out of the driveway and on to the left hand side of the road (it’s the right side that’s the correct side in case you were still wondering).
In some ways it’s lovely, and symbolises life on the islands perfectly, but there is no denying the average speed at which a car travels here in Vanuatu is somewhere between 13kmh and 23kmh. Maximum! As I said, if you’re in the right mind frame for this then it can be quite pleasant, never a rush, what will be will be, soak in the view, smell the roses.
BUT, when you’re sitting behind a bus (which is actually a minivan) that is averaging 13kmh for 20 minutes, for NO explicable reason, and you’ve got a car full of kids that have to be at school in the next three minutes, then it ain’t quite so pleasant!
Stop the bus
Speaking of buses, (recognisable by the speed they travel at and the large letter B on the number plate) there’s a unique system as to bus stops in Vanuatu. While recent upgrades to the roads have been well under way here since before the South Pacific Mini Games in 2017, including designated bus bays for drivers to pull into, therefore not disrupting traffic flow, it appears that none of the bus drivers has been informed of this fact. So when you see a bus stop, it is quite literally that. The bus simply ‘stops’, out of nowhere. It may be to drop off, or pick up passengers, but more often than not it’s because the driver has recognised a mate and wants to stop for a chat. My best advice – always be prepared to slam on the brakes if you’re behind one!
If you’re keen to wing it on your stay in Vanuatu then you may be keen to try out the public transport system. Be warned, I use that phrase ‘public transport’ very loosely. There are no trains, no uber, in fact very few actual taxis -– until it’s cruise ship day and then by some miracle there are more taxis on the island than tourists (where do they hide these cars on all other days???). The only form of transport is the bus system. As I explained earlier, the bus is in fact a mini-van and has a large B on the number plate. They drive around the island aimlessly all day and night without any set sense of direction or schedule or route. If you see one, you hail it (preferably in a designated bus bay!) and tell the driver where you want to go. It’ll cost you less than $2 for a ride pretty much anywhere but here’s the catch … it may take hours for you to arrive! Especially if it’s a full bus, with ten other people who have simply clambered aboard and said where they hope to eventually end up and the driver will (slowly) drop them all off one at a time, in often remote, back street, distant locations. On the upside, it can be a wonderful way to see the entire island, one back street at a time, as long as you don’t have anywhere important to actually be!
Just as the buses have a large B on their number plates, other forms of transport have their respective letter displayed. I do feel sad for anyone driving around in a car with an H as this identifies you as a ‘hire car’ and as such you’re treated like a third rate citizen on the roads – in a developing country. Locals will ignore road signs and cut you off, beep at you for no reason and drive you into the puddles, since you so clearly have no idea how to drive, being a foreigner in a foreign car.
Then there’s the letter G which stands for Government vehicle. These are the ones that have actually had a car wash in the past month, do in fact have third party insurance and like to travel from A to B with a police escort (with sirens) of some sort, usually because they are running late for dinner or a flight or a niece’s brother’s third cousin’s wife’s nephew’s 6th birthday party. Just smile and let them through. At least they drive at the correct speed limit!
This is my favourite!!! If you’re in Australia or NZ, and you see a dude on the side of the road who raises his hand as you approach and catches your eye – you assume they’re trying to hitch a ride right? Wrong. Well, sometimes wrong. Here in Vanuatu there is an extremely fine line between someone raising their hand for a ride, and someone simply raising their hand to wave and smile. I’m yet to perfect the art of telling the difference between the hand gesture (as sophisticated and subtle as a royal wave). Basically as far as I can ascertain, if the fingers stay up, it’s a wave. If the hand lowers at any point before you’ve physically passed, then it’s a ride. Don’t go off facial expressions, as I learned the hard way. On one particular afternoon I swear the hand lowered before I passed. I pulled the car over to offer a ride, only to be greeted with a lovely “hello!” and a broad smile. “You want a lift?” I said. “no, me gud nomo, tank you tumas! Nice day blo yu!” (Nope, I’m all good, thanks heaps, have a great day!).
So off I sped into the distance, smiling and shaking my head… averaging 13kmh.