A Kiss for the Lady

Thursday 24 April 2014
CATEGORY: Adventure | Travel

On 26 October 1942 the steamship SS Coolidge– the largest merchant ship ever built in the US up to that date – fully loaded with troops and supplies, was taking course on the island of Espiritu Santu in the South Pacific, where a large supply base for the American campaign against the Japanese in the Solomon Islands had been established. Afraid of submarines, the ships captain took the most direct approach to the harbour of Luganville, unaware that it had been heavily mined by the US Navy – a mine struck the ship in the engine room, and moments later a second mine hit her near her stern.Aware that he would loose the ship the captain steered the ship towards the shore, settling it on a sandbank. Over the next 90 minutes, 5,340 men from the ship got safely ashore. There was no panic as they disembarked; many even walked ashore. However, the captain’s attempts to beach the ship were thwarted by a coral reef. The Coolidge listed heavily on her side, sank, and slid down the slope into the channel coming to rest on her port side. There she lies – a ship almost the size of the Titanic, in a depth of 30 to 60 metres. It is the largest recreationally diveable shipwreck in the world – and it was my prime reason to come to Vanuatu. Over the course of several days I explored the underwater world – diving into the cargo hold, playing with the gun turrets (one of the shells almost sunk me), even managing a look into the engine room requiring a difficult entry into the wreck itself (several divers had got entangled there in the past and never returned) – even the captain’s last order to the engine room was visible on one of the big dials (although hard to read taking into account depth narcosis at 50m below the surface) – “Finished with engine”). There is a real magic to gliding through the various decks – all in darkness, lightened up just by my flashlight – the busy hallways all covered in corals and now purely inhabited by fish. At the end of the dining hall hangs “The Lady” – a porcelain relief of a lady riding – Local dive custom has it to give her a kiss on the mouth. With pleasure! Its a weird feeling to dive through a large dining area which is tilted by 90 degrees. Portholes are on the top, columns going from left to right. Passing through the large hall we even passed toilets , a barber chair and several chandeliers (all obviously in a wrong angle). There might as well have Leo di Caprio floated around the corner… But it wasnt just this massive wreck Espirito Santu had to offer – despite the setback of missing culinary highlights (there was only one restaurant open in the whole town over the 4 easter holidays – and it was Chinese!!!!!), I managed to spend the off- diving time exploring some amazing spots. Several blue holes (massive freshwater ponds that have a surreal blue’ish colour) and apparently the nicest beach of the pacific – champagne beach, with super fine “champage” sand (well, it was nice, but the nicest???). Even the drone got some action – it truly become a kid magnet! So it was almost perfect…. until the “Carnival Fantasy” crossed my way. A gigantic cruise ship, this time not on the ocean floor but very much afloat (or better anchored) – armed with thousands of Australian holidaymakers…I was just about to explore the Cascade waterfalls near the capital Port Vila, when an armada of tourists stormed the landscape. The turks on Gallipoli must have similar, as I felt very much under siege by ANZAC troops…. having had the experience of a cruise myself last fall (thanks to my friend Julia!), I knew that only urgent action would rescue me. With the help of Peter – the only owner of a stretch limo in Vanuatu (?! he couldn’t really explain who was using it) I managed to take a shortcut out of the trouble… and within minutes found myself in a total rural country village. All in all an amazing experience (as long as you can steer clear of the cruise ships) – where else can you explore a luxury liner under water in the morning, climb a water fall or canyon in the afternoon and watch sunset from picture perfect remote beach? Just don’t expect any proper working internet 🙂

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