The Vanuatu coconut wireless: boats, heroin, cocaine

She referred to gypsies of the sea, people like her who have spent years or decades or a lifetime living on boats. And if one were to seek rumours that come through this port, she would hold them.

I was not disappointed.

The world of an archipelago revolves around the ports: the ports are the link out, and also the link in. Where we are located, these ports are a critical link through – from one horizon to another.

Yes, well there was that time kilograms of heroin just washed up on the beach over there. Piles of the stuff. And of course quite a bit of it disappeared.

As the story goes – 120 kilograms of heroin washed ashore. A casual US$22 million worth of heroin. As you do.   I can’t quite visualise 120 kilos of heroin, but I’m assuming it’s more than would fit in an average boogie-board bag.

So naturally, the chap who found the heroin moved it. Eventually (like WEEKS later) he calls the local paper.  Local paper suggests he contact, oh, I don’t know, maybe the police.

Aaaand, about 10 kilos went missing. Just like that.  Who knows how the other 110 kilos were disposed of.  That’s an awful lot of H to flush down the toilet.

Rumours seem more alive in places where half the population doesn’t have access to internet – stories are less sanitised and can be gently coaxed out of all manner of people. The coconut wireless has whispers of opium plants growing in the jungle, flowering twice a year and thriving in the tropical climate and volcanic soil.


Boats can be exceptionally private creatures. I suppose that is particularly true of the ones filled with cocaine.  Hundreds of kilograms of cocaine.

And so the story goes –

A boat was abandoned in a boat yard, the boat yard changed hands and the abandoned boat just sat. The original owners were unidentifiable, so the boat could be legitimately sold.  But no one wanted it, so it continued to sit for a couple of years.  Eventually a young European man (was he German?) wanted to purchase the lonely boat, and popped a money transfer through Western Union.

The Australian Federal Police appeared, asked to look at the lonely boat, and then they left. Perhaps they wanted to take up diving, or fishing or something. Who knows.

The sale of the boat stalls.

The Australian police reappear, just as the buyer disappears.

With heavy equipment the inside of the hull is cut, the coppers chisel through rocks and concrete (or was it lead?), and inside is 750 kilograms of cocaine. Neat bricks wrapped in black plastic.

Hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth.

One theory is that a Columbian cartel was trying to buy the boat back, but the lonely little boat was on an international watch list.


Then there is the curious case of the invisible Polish boat trade operating out of Vanuatu that no one seems to know anything about. Well, the World Bank seems to think that importing and exporting all manner of craft to and from Poland is one of Vanuatu’s largest markets, but no one I’ve spoken to has ever seen a Polish ship here… Maybe I’m just not talking to the right people.  Someone would have to know something.


It turns out you don’t need to venture far into the coconuts and banana trees to hear whispers of expats stuck here permanently due to looming extradition orders, money laundering, drug trafficking – it is a strange thought that this is happening through the harbour I watch every morning. I have my morning coffee and cigarette and quietly contemplate the view

–  these boats, these secretive, secretive boats!


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