Maria de Jong saddles up with with Wayne and trepidation for a plantation trek.
Tom Nangam has a rare talent for horses.
Although I'm nervous of horses, one long look into Tom's dark, calm face and steady brown eyes reassure me that this man's horses will be impeccably behaved. It's not for nothing that he's known as the Horse Whisperer of Vanuatu.
His Bellevue Ranch is in green hills on the outskirts of Port Vila. The ranch has about 50 fine-looking, chestnut, piebald, and black horses. Tom helped our group of two teenagers and me to mount for a trek to a waterfall on land owned by the Catholic Church.
"Just trust your guide, my son Wayne. He will look after you," said Tom. There had been a lot of rain and when I asked if the tracks would be slippery, Tom assured me that "horses don't slip over". I wasn't so sure.
Our trek took us over hills populated by skinny, long-horned cattle. My horse, Boy, tackled steep, rutted tracks, planting his hooves steadily in the sticky reddish mud. Wayne told me to "lean back" as Boy pitched forward down the slope. "Lean back more," he urged, until I felt as if I was doing the limbo on horseback. Boy kept plodding purposefully down steep tracks, never faltering.
We rode through a coconut plantation with many of the older coconut palms prostrated " laid low by a cyclone.
On a high ridge, we stopped to view Port Vila's watery lagoons; a white cruise ship dominated the town from its berth in the harbour. Nearby stood the concrete remains of a United States military hospital from World War II. Through the palm trees, we glimpsed a stately plantation house with elegant covered verandas. Intrigued, I asked Wayne to tell us about the house. He said it was where novelist James A. Michener once stayed. Michener's war experiences in the Pacific inspired him to write his Pulitzer prize winning novel Tales of the South Pacific. One could imagine the writer seated in a colonial rocking chair on the veranda, sipping a beer, watching palms sway in the breeze. His novel later became a Broadway musical, South Pacific, and a classic movie.
Michener, a veteran traveller, once famously said, "If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion, and avoid the people, you might better stay home."
As we trotted along dirt roads, leaving the plantation house behind us, my teenagers looked back, grinning at the sight of their mother trying to rise valiantly to the trot, and bumping along like a sack of yams.
Lololima Falls are breathtakingly beautiful with frothy white water cascading down limestone rock into a deep pool of blue-green water. We were all keen for a swim and Wayne stripped off his shirt and joined us.
On the ride back, Wayne's brother, Kiwi, galloped up with his cousin Jack. Wayne told us that he and Kiwi were in training to race horses in the Kiwanis Race Day.
"In Vanuatu, it's just like the Melbourne Cup. My dad has won the Kiwanis Race many times but he's stopped racing now."
Back at the ranch, I eyed the large stack of trophies behind the counter and asked Tom to tell me about his journey to become a champion jockey and owner of Bellevue. He said he grew up in Lenakel Village on remote
, the eldest of seven children whose parents lived off the land.
"It was a hard life and I didn't go to any school. I never learned to read or write."
Tom came to Vanuatu's most populated island, Efate, at 13 and speaking only the Tanna language. The youngster found work on a farm labouring for an Australian, Bill Hol, whom he described as "tough but fair". He had to work with horses and it soon became apparent to all that Tom had a natural talent.
"Mr Bill taught me a lot about horses and he let me ride in a few agricultural shows. I just loved it and started winning."
Tom learned how to break in the wild horses of Efate and started work at a riding school. His equestrian skills eventually took him to Sydney, Melbourne and as far afield as Belgium.
In Vanuatu, he worked for 10 years for an Australian farmer, who had no children. When the farmer died he left his property, Bellevue, to Tom.
In 2012, with the help of sponsors, Tom established Bellevue Ranch Equestrian Club. Tom has also returned to Tanna, to help his family build tourist bungalows and set up an equestrian centre, run by his brother.
Although he has stopped competing as a jockey, his sons are now winning races.
At the end of the ride, we all agreed that our trek had been made all the more memorable by our Ni-Vanuatu guides. Novice riders can trust their perfectly trained steeds not to put a hoof wrong, while experienced riders can gallop at through the coconut plantation, racing their guides to the waterfall.
Want to do more than just lie by the pool or snorkel in Vanuatu's beautiful waters? Here are some activities to get you off your beach towel.
• Hike to Millennium Cave
A trip to this South Central Santo natural attraction, a 45-minute drive from Luganville town, involves trekking through tropical forest, making your way through a dark bat-filled cave, canyoning over boulders and river swimming. "Not for the faint-hearted", warns Millennium Cave Tours' website, billing it as a physically demanding adventurous activity involving some risk. Rated on Trip Advisor as the No.1 thing to do in Vanuatu, it's a challenge, but a worthwhile one by all accounts. millenniumcavetour.weebly.com
• Climb an active volcano . . .
Standing around the crater rim of Tanna Island's Mt Yasur, 361 metres above sea level, is about as close to an active volcano as you can get. Walking to the summit takes about 45 minutes, which you can do with or without a guide, or you can join a 4WD tour. Once at the top you can look down into the crater and its bubbling, fiery lava. There are no safety rails, so take care. Check geohazards.gov.vu before you visit to monitor the latest level of activity - entry is not permitted on days when it's at level three or four.
• Then slide down it
Like sliding down 90 Mile Beach's sand dunes, or tobogganing down a snowy mountain, you can ashboard down Yasur's western side, from crater rim to ash plain. An organised tour to the mountain may include ashboarding in your ticket price, or some accommodation providers have boards for rent.
Getting there: Air Vanuatu flies from Auckland to Port Vila on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. It's also running a Tuesday service until October 5.
Further information: See Bellevue Ranch.