You will no doubt be familiar with the term “Excess Baggage”.  Well, this was our first hurdle (at Tullamarine Airport) in making our way back across here as change-over crew in Luganville, on the island of Espiritu Santo – affectionately known as “Santo”.

An “extra” allowance, as part of a volunteer group, enabled us to each have 30kg of luggage, but it’s funny how this is easily used up when you pack stuff like powdered milk, instant coffee, donated clothes and fishing gear.

At one attempt at lifting my bag, it was said, “that weighs like lead!!”; an insightful  coincidence because the fishing gear did indeed contain a supply of (eco-friendly) lead sinkers.

So there was Mike Clarke and I, puppy-eyed at the check-in counter, with combined bag weights touching 80kg, (not counting the hand luggage which we were attempting to keep out of sight) doing our best to negotiate around a hefty “Excess Baggage Fee”.

“The best I can do is half-rate on the excess”, said the nice man in charge.  “How much is that?”, I said.   “$5 per kilogram” came the response.  “So that’s $100”, said Mike.
The thought came into my head … “your cheap powdered milk and instant coffee just got very expensive Robert.”

My discussion with the man continued as I said “… it’d be a shame to have to leave all these donated clothes behind.  And the fishing gear is to give away to people in the remote villages.  They don’t have very much.  And the fish hooks help them catch their own food.  It’s very remote.  Very isolated.  And we are transporting medical volunteers who etc etc etc …”  (puppy-eyes .. blink, blink)

“I tell you what”,  said the nice man, probably sensing I wasn’t going away anytime soon, “I’ll let it through this time.  But you understand we get quite a few groups coming through…”

Then followed profuse thanks on our part and a quick exit in case there was a change of mind.

Our flight then took in a quick stop-over in Sydney and it was here that we caught up with three more of the crew, Johanna (Jo), Christopher (Chris) and Terrance (father of Will from the first tour – refer crew photos) all excited and ready to get going after many months of anticipation.

It was around 12 midnight by the time the plane landed in Pt Vila, and there was Richard to meet us and take charge of the transfer details – as he has done with pretty much every group so far.

On my Vanuatu Customs and Quarantine form I declared the coffee and milk powder but it was the two boxes of medical supplies, containing bandages, dressings and the like,  that attracted most attention.  I showed the Letter of Exemption in connection with the Eyecare Project and all medical goods being carried, but it didn’t seem good enough.

I explained that the items were to assist the doctors in the treatment of medical conditions in the remote Banks and Torres Groups up north, but still they persisted …”this Exemption Letter is not for these goods, it’s for other goods”.

“But it’s all part of the one medical program, and this letter describes the 4 medical tours, all the medical staff and the dates from April to August.  And it’s got  Customs stamp on it”  I explained in my calm “excess-baggage style” honed a few hours earlier at Tullamarine.

“There needs to be a new Exemption Letter issued”, the young man in the uniform explained.

After 30 minutes of good-natured, (but very frustrating) discussion and as things began to take on the feel of an episode of  “Yes Minister”, Richard entered our restricted airport passenger arrival area through a side door and said in his happy style… “Hello Robert!”, then turning to the customs man he asked in Bislama, “What seems to be the problem?”.

Then followed another 30 minutes of explaining, negotiating, nodding of heads, second opinions etc etc, before it was agreed that a new letter would be prepared, covering all the medical gear to be brought in over the next 14 days which Richard would collect the next day.  In the meantime, the two offending boxes would remain at the airport, to be brought up to Santo later in the week by Richard.

By about 1:30am we were all asleep in Sutherland House (a short term accommodation house owned by the Presbyterian Church) with alarms set for 4:45am in order to get back to the airport (again, with the assistance of Richard Tatwin) for the 7:00am flight north to Luganville.  (Sailing aside, that would be one of my shortest sleeps on record)

The flight north aboard the smaller plane (a 75 seater) was thankfully uneventful and there was Ann smiling broadly, kisses all-round, with taxi driver Antonio hovering in the background.

It was a two-taxi-trip from the airport to where the boat was anchored, in a sheltered bay 20 minutes from town.  It was sunny, the wind and sea were calm and the anchorage Bob had selected was truly a wonderful spot. And there was Jim, ready to pick us up in the trusty dinghy, which he did in one load – all 7 of us with our many bags and extras piled high.  It was a great sight.

Once aboard again, after my month away in Melbourne, it was a great sensation.

There was Bob, fully tanned and relaxed as a python on a rock, with a big smile and a wonderful greeting.  Alongside him were Jim, Tony, Jenny and Ann, each fully engaged with their onboard domain and totally comfortable in their surroundings and their assigned and assumed tasks.  Martin, who’d been aboard for the second medical tour, was not around on account of heading out with the medical team a couple of days earlier; his wife Isabelle being one of the medical volunteers.

It was now a case of accommodating 10 people aboard for 2 nights, while transferring as much of the knowledge, headaches and successes, in connection with all the systems on board, to the new crew.

Stay tuned to ACT 2 – All Together.

Smooth seas, fair breeze and back in the chair.

Rob