Travel Log | Vanuatu (25 May -2 Jun 2012)
We visited Vanuatu as part of a tour organised by the Australian based travel agent Sure Thing Travel
The Republic of Vanuatu is an archipelago of volcanic islands in the South Pacific. Situated 1,725km east of Northern Australia and 500km northeast of New Caledonia the islands form part of the larger Melanasian group of islands. The capital city of Vanuatu is Port Vila located on the central, and 3rd biggest, Island of Efate. The largest island is Espiritu Santo in the North. The native people are known as the Ni-Vanuatans (or 'Nivans' for short) and the population is about 225k.
The islands were first inhabited by the Melanasians as far back as 1300-1100 BCE. The first Europeans to arrive were part of a Spanish led expedition in 1605. In the late 19th century France and Britain laid claim to the islands, then known as the New Hebrides, and in 1906 agreed upon a framework for governing the islands under a joint British-French Condominium. During the 1970s an independence movement gathered pace and the independent Rupublic of Vanuatu was declared in 1980.
The national language of Vanuatu is Bislama which is a pidgin form of English. English and French are also official languages which are widely spoken. There are still 113 completely distinct native languages actively spoken in Vanuatu giving it the highest number of languages per capita of anywhere on earth.
In 2006 The Happy Planet Index (HPI), an index of human well-being and environmental impact introduced by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), found Vanuatu to be the happiest country in the world. Vanuatu also has to rate as one of the friendliest countries in the world too where visitors are routinely greeted with a smile and wave from locals in both urban and rural areas.
Kava is a drink produced from the ground root of the kava plant. It acts as a sedative and muscle-relaxant and is widely drunk throughout the islands of Vanuatu. Commonly referred to as the 'peace drug', Kava induces a chilled out effect and often numbs the mouth. Traditionally Kava is only consumed by men and most villages centre around a 'Nakamal' (drinking hut) where men convene early each evening to drink Kava before dinner. In urban areas Kava bars are commonly found where women are allowed. Kava should be drank from the hollowed out half-shell of a coconut and etiquette demands that the whole amount is downed in one. Kava looks like dirty pond water and has an aquired taste. Due to the popularity of Kava, alcohol is less commonly drunk in Vanuatu. As a result Kava is at times credited with reducing the social issues that can sometimes accompany excessive alcohol consumption.
Pentecost Island is a 50 mins flight from the capital Port Vila by light airplane. The island is fairly underdeveloped with no hotels and limited access to electricity or running water. A handful of guest houses offer basic accommodation and the island has some beautifully scenic beaches, waterfalls and traditional villages. Pentecost is best known for the Naghol (Land-Diving) ceremony which takes place every Saturday between April-June. The ceremony is used to celebrate the yearly yam harvest and is a fertility rite for men. The story of the ceremony tells of a wife who climbed a tall tree to escape her husband. After rejecting his pleas for her to come down the husband climbed the tree after her. Upon reaching the top his wife threw herself from the top of the tree. In desperation the husband dived after her only to realise that his wife had tied vines around her legs to break her fall. She survived whilst he perished and nowadays men perform the land diving ceremony to show that they won't fall for the same trick again. On reaching the ground divers brush their heads on the earth to fertilise it for the following year's yam harvest.
Tanna Island in the south of the archipelagois a 35 mins flight from the capital Port Vila. Tanna is best known for the Yasur volcano and a number of cults followed by its resident tribes.
Yasur volcano is said to be the most assessable active volcano in the world. The mid-levels of the volcano can be reached by 4x4 and a short walk will then get you within 100 metres of the crator. Every few minutes the volcano explodes with molten lava being spewed high into the sky.
Tanna Island is home to a number of 'Cargo Cults' which developed during, and in the aftermath of, World War II. Local tribes with limited knowledge of the outside world found themselves exposed to the large numbers of Allied and Japanese troops who used the islands as a staging post during the war. The advanced goods and technologies (or 'cargo') they brought with them were alien to the local people who, with no knowledge of modern manufactoring techniques, assumed the cargo must have been made by their ancestral gods and were ultimately intended for them. However, after the war finished the troops left taking their cargo with them. The local people came to believe that if they were to impersonate the actions of the troops the cargo and associated wealth would be returned to them. They set about producing military looking outfits from jungle materials and perfoming daily marching ceremonies. Trees were cleared to make room for a grass airstrip and a control tower was even constructed using felled trees. One of the main cults was called the 'John Frum' movement. It's not known for sure who John Frum was but it's thought the name could have been inspired by a US serviceman called John and 'Frum' refered to him being John 'from (frum)' America. Cargo Cults are still in existence today and the John Frum movement has spawned a political party which has one representative in the Vanuatuan parliament.
The Prince Philip movement is a cargo cult offshoot followed by the Yaohnanen tribe of Tanna Island. They believe that the fair skinned son of their mountain spirit (and brother of John Frum) went overseas and married a powerful woman. He will one day return bringing great wealth with him. In 1974 The Queen and Prince Philip visited Vanuatu and on observing the reverance shown to the Queen the tribe concluded that Prince Philip must be the son of their God. Prince Philip is aware of the movement set-up in his honour and has shared sporadic correspondance with the tribe over the years. The tribe still treasure a signed photo of Philip sent to them in return for the gift of a ceremonial pig killing club sent to Buckingham Palace. Chief Jack Naiva was the former custodian of the photo until his death in 2009. That honour has now passed to his grandson.
Vanuatu is a great place to visit. The people are unbelievable friendly and there is a range of things to do and see including active volcanos, prestine beaches, remote tribes and their unique cermonies and some of the best scuba diving sites in the world. Vanuatu can be reached via Australia (Sydney / Brisbane), New Caledonia and Fiji.