Vanuatu – Happiness in the Pacific
Arriving into Vanuatu in the evening is an interesting experience. Specks of light greet the unsuspecting passenger as an otherwise empty abyss greets you. This isn’t your typical tropical island. It’s not a 5-star resort with hula dancers or a languishing moonlit romantic getaway, there is something otherworldly apart Vanuatu and over my short week visit to the island I was getting to get a taste of what made idyllic paradise so enticing.
Day one on Vanuatu’s main island – Efate included a tour with a local guide, James. He had grown up on the island and had very little experience of the outside world. Often I wondered what that would feel like having spent your whole entire life surrounded by sand and surf and having never known anything else but this tiny patch of dirt near the bottom of the world. But over the coming days I was going to learn how there was an abundance of opportunities lying in front of you and that the outside world really didn’t necessarily improve these people’s lives but gave them incentive to remain within the boundaries of tradition.
James took me first outside of town to the Blue Lagoon. A secluded lagoon with the clearest turquoise water I had ever seen. The most immediate thing that struck me was the density of fish. How could such shallow water be home to such a wide range of marine life? So open to attack yet so blissfully unaware of my presence.
Navigating Vanuatu’s main island, we took in some of the many sites that were scattered memories of an island once under attack during a vicious world war. An abandoned air strip now covered in flora, jungle-infused structures that once housed American war camps for soldiers on location. Snippets of memories that lay bare the realities of a time long gone. On our return leg of our day trip we stopped by a local waterfall.
Perhaps one of the only reminders of commercial tourism in Vanuatu, this once grand waterfall has since dribbled away into a small stream of water. The journey through to the waterfall was bustling with activity from snap happy tourists as well as those individuals who had come to admire what this island had to offer. Tufts of tall grass lay submerged in a forest of bountiful tropical trees.
A fenced off waterfall was teeming with people who had come to admire a jungle vibe and perhaps sample some of the treats of the island.
After visiting Vanuatu’s main tourist attraction it was time for one more exploration into the urban jungle of Port Vila. A chance to explore the touristy side of Vanuatu at a beachfront restaurant overlooking a resort island and a beach smothered in litter. A cautious reminder that I was not in a developed nation but one finding its feet.
Upon returning, knowing that I would be heading off the next day I decided to explore what would become the first of many explorations of farmers markets around the world. Port Vila’s main farmers market is a mecca of produce and crafts. From fresh sweet island fruits to the pungent aroma of freshly caught fish, this market had everything you could ever wish for.
Flies swarmed in mass while energetic purveyors encircled the aisles of fresh produce with an abundance of enthusiasm. Weathered old ladies smiled. Passages into an expanded version of the market took me into uncharted territories with more fresh produce as locals went about their day with an early dinner or a late day snack.
Mystical Tanna Island
Day two was off to Tanna. My local guide from the previous day was again at my predisposal after we crossed the urban jungle (and I do mean jungle) of Port Vila up hills and down gravelly roads through shanty towns, past bare-footed men walking to work we managed to find our way to the local airport.
The airport is small by international standards and old as well. It was more like a rural bus station then an international gateway to the outside world but the excitement of visiting Tanna was really engaging my attention.
The flight to Tanna was short – one hour, and cramped like a shoebox carrying cattle to a local sale. It really lived up to the reputation of a flying bus. But as we passed by tropical bush-laden islands below us, none of the discomfort mattered.
Coming towards Tanna was like something out of a movie. The closer to the landing strip we got, the more engaging the mystery of the island became. And then we were here, and I was about to begin my journey to explore the island’s infamous active volcano – Mt Yasur.
Upon arrival I was due to be met by my accommodation and guide for the journey, but no sooner had I arrived and popped through the gates was I met by another local who claimed that the guy I was staying with was old and usually forgot to pick people up. My new friend offered to take me to his sister’s accommodation nearer to the volcano.
I waited an hour and still nothing by which time a decision was made – I would try the alternative option. What the glossy guidebooks neglect to mention is that most of the time us travelers spend more time sitting around bus stations and airports than actually exploring the places we visit, such was the case on this day.
When we did finally get moving, it was across to the otherside of the island down a road that was not crossable on rainy days or during the wet season. The path was sometimes hypnotic as we rose above the plateau. Sometimes gestures of steep descent greeted us and within the area of the volcano a plume of thick murky grey ash greeted us. The view over the eastern part of Tanna and the glorious site of Mt Yasur made it all worth it though.
A Treehouse, A Volcano, Ashboarding and Conversations with a Cult Leader
Over the following three days I would be staying at a Treehouse set-up by the local tribe (the brother-in-law of my friend from the airport), which was run by Thomas, a local guide and chief who had set-up a tourism business on the side with his family. Along with his brother-in-law, they’d built two treehouses which each took 3-months to build.
The treehouse concept was a popular accommodation model for the locals as all along the road surrounding the volcano were scattered with treehouse accommodation. This micro-entrepreneurial industry ensures that local tribes can sustain a small supplementary income to go alongside their pastoral lifestyles.
The beautiful thing about Vanuatu and its people is that they see money as a non-binding life force in their everyday lives. Being one of the world’s happiest nations, they’ve learned that money truly is not an object to happiness. As long as they have each other and can plant and maintain their crops then it is sufficient enough for them.
My three days on Tanna were incredible. Going to sleep with the rumbling belly of an active volcano in close proximity to your sleeping quarters was something otherworldly. On my second day, the volcano was not clear so we were unfortunate not to climb up however as the cloud dissipated, a local guide took me around the volcano to try out “Ash-boarding”.
Climbing through the layers of thick sooty-ash as my feet were swallowed under a thick coating of ash as we climbed up the volcano with a snowboard. Strapped the cuffs to my ankles and then proceeded to ash-board down the side of the volcano before becoming engulfed in the soot and wedged between the air and soot central.
I found myself addicted to ash-boarding, the downside having to climb through a mountain of ash that anchored your feet into the sand, but the upside was like any adrenaline junkie sport – the speed, the thrill of flying down an active volcano as it rumbled in the foreground, and the challenge of making it to the bottom without being flipped in the ash.
After our soot-soaking adrenaline experience we wandered down a soot-soaked road through a canvas of tropical jungle to a private beach with a unique selling point at the precipice of a stream carved out by a previous larva excavation into the nearby Pacific Ocean. A series of hot springs had sprung up over time and developed a micro-industry all of its own.
The pools came in super-hot, quite-hot, or comfortably-hot on a beach overlooking the ocean. The latter I took at a temperature of 40 degrees. It was by-far the largest and most accessible.
On the doorstep of the beach lived a small village with a quirky history. If the Solomon Islands have Prince Charles as a celestial icon, then Vanuatu has a US entrepreneur as there’s. The John Fromm Tribe, as they are affectionately known, are a local tribe who were spared the encroaching influence of Roman Catholicism on the islands by rejecting their neighbours advances. Instead they grew an attachment to a certain US entrepreneur and from there the John Fromm Tribe was born.
The use of faith to protect their identity seemed to work and ensured that they kept outside influences at bay. The modern world however still carried with it troubles that affected island life. As I spoke to the leader of the tribe, we talked about the troubling arrival of the island’s only Muslim. Although to most people this would be met with not so much as a battering of an eyelid, to the islanders it was met with fear and concern. Could this man instigate a terror attack on the islanders? I assured him not.
After a fascinating discussion on world religion – it was off back to the camp where I was staying and to meet with some more locals who were going to take me to an idyllic local beach.
Vanuatu is one of the world’s happiest nations. Riding along on the back of a truck as we covered the ash-soaked dirt road of the island’s volcanic base reminded me of how little money, possessions, and instruments of western happiness really matter when you’re surrounded by happy children, tongue-wagging dogs, and a dense foliage of jungle greens. This was life – this was the essence of magic to me.
Upon arrival at the beach, we exited the trucks to wander through a centuries old village of handmade bamboo housing. Tufts of banana and coconut leaves acted as roofs as the beach came into view.
Millions of grains of luminescent white sand scattered the turquoise coastline. Fresh coconut littered the beaches from which we drank thirst-quenching, fresh coconut water from. This image conjured up a sublime interpretation of what an isolated Pacific Island appeared to be in my eyes. And here my postcard was in front of me, a real life version.
On this particular beach a strange phenomenon occurs, trees with roots grow above ground. This odd ‘Lord-of-the-Rings’ style of jungle lingered hauntingly across the beach to give this majestic beauty some eeriness about it.
The next day, I said goodbye to the amazing island of Tanna and jetted off back to a brief one-night layover in Port Vila.
Espirtu Santo and the First Foreigner in Two and a Half Years
Espirito Santo is the largest island in the chain and if Tanna gave me a mystical air then Espirtu Santo gave me a sense of old-world adventure. The kind of sensation that explorers of 19th century explorers must have felt as they traipsed through the dense jungles of Africa.
Luganville, the capital and the only functional town on the island, served as a limited function for island supplies. A dusty, iron-boarded town with a few crumbling brick homes thrown in for good measure. Here on the island I was in the good hands of the incredible team at Wrecks to Rainforest (www.wreckstorainforest.com), run by the wonderful Mayumi Green, a resident of the island for 30 years, who I had arranged to spend the weekend with a native tribe whom had not seen a white man or foreigner in two-and-a-half years.
A 90-minute drive along the southern coastline of Espirito Santo reveals some intriguing facts. A lot of the island is cultivated as farmland with cattle studs that produce beef for the local market. In fact the majority of Vanuatu’s beef supply comes from the area, creating a high degree of sustainable agricultural practices. One of the benefits to Vanuatu is that it takes environmental practices seriously in this regard by employing a locally-sourced supply and demand mentality, which ensures that Vanuatuans are eating from a more healthier supply chain and adding less of a footprint on the environment by not importing their food supply.
The island infrastructure like most of the country was poor. It was not long before our sealed roads were being replaced by dry dirt tracks and a bridge that dissolved after a flood passed through a couple of years prior. During this period the river was low enough that driving across in a 4WD was sufficient enough.
Arriving at the village, I met with my local guide Thomas. Originally from our destination but now living in a larger village closer to the road, Thomas was fluent in English and had a sizable knowledge of the area which really made the journey up the valley, that much more intriguing as we crisscrossed the valley saddled in-between a lush tropical rainforest of native foliage with sparse huts spread across the landscape.
Churches were a common sight that brought the communities together every Sunday. The sight of a white man bought interest from the locals as we walked up the valley.
We began our ascent into the crest of the chain around an hour-and-a-half after beginning our journey. At the top we passed through the first of three local villages we would pass through to get to our destination.
Timber structures with banana-leaf thatches covered the landscape. Simple yet well-organised with a central meeting spot and with each home representing the hierarchy of society.
My arrival was greeted by intrigue by the locals. Some of the younger members of the tribe clung to their mothers. Their eyes revealing their shock at this pale-skinned foreigner who had come to their village for the weekend.
The chief of the tribe was a gentle, aged man possibly in his 70’s and who’s father before him had apparently lived to be over 100 before passing, although I was a little skeptical of believing such a claim. He lived in a large palace of timber and banana leaves with a dirt floor. Although only the wives and children of the chief were allowed into the palace, I was given privileges to see it for myself and I have to say it was quite impressive.
The village was large by local standards. It had a population of 40 or so. In recent years a Canadian traveller had passed through and created a water supply for the villagers so that they no longer had to travel down the hill to gather water from the local creek or waterfall. This constant supply of water was perfect for drinking out of as well as taking showers, etc.
Over the next two days and two nights of my stay I was treated to the hospitality of a king by the locals. A steady flow of food came to my hut which consisted of leafy greens and coconut milk or pieces of taro root or fresh bananas picked from the tree.
I was invited to see the local food supply chain which ensured an abundant supply of food for the locals that would ensure sustainability and reflected the needs of the tribe. One side of the valley was cleared every year and the tribe would join in the ritual of planting bananas, taro and the leafy greens to ensure enough food for each year and at the end of the annum the other side of the valley would be cleared and a new supply created.
Tools were simply implements of the forest – sticks, stones instruments and anything else they could obtain. Meat, of course was only for special occasions. Food was not about enjoyment, but a source of energy and sustenance.
A typical day was spent with preparing meals for the chief and members of the tribe while the children played with a soccer ball (handmade of course), tending to the garden, and expanding the village’s infrastructure.
The village also shared a two-sided classroom – one side for primary school, and the other for high school. It was basic with a blackboard and homemade furniture. The lessons were conducted in English, the official language of the nation.
There was a small church near the village which conducted services and combined with local traditions was really one of the only outside influences bought into the tribe.
My hut was a simple circular structure made out of banana palm leaves and bamboo from the forest. It had a dirt floor and as a guest of the chief I was gifted a special bed made out of ferns and bamboo.
On Saturday, the village became a hive of activity as the villagers prepared to welcome me with a special ceremony to offer me a little taste of their culture and centuries-old traditions.
Firstly, one of the beloved chickens was sacrificed, where it was cooked on a fire. Next the village mothers (as I would like to call them), along with some of the older children began to prepare the feast by making laplap, a typically Pacific dish made by mushing up taro root with coconut milk and water, which is then pounded into a flat cylindrical doughy bread.
The kids all pitch in by pounding up the kava roots into a dry cake-like powder which is then assimilated with water and turned into a milky liquid. The process takes a good hour or two, and requires a lot of perseverance.
The ceremony is a pretty heart-warming event consisting of a feast, kava ceremony and of course lots of dancing like there’s no tomorrow.
The drums that are central to the dancing ceremony consist of large bamboo sticks and the actual ceremony is synonymous throughout the western edge of the Pacific with other tribal ceremony dances.
Whole families join in the festivities with women and children dancing continuously around the drummers as they create harmonious rhythmic beats with the bamboo sticks. The dancing is more like a running race, but with the freedom to move as fast or as slow as you want. The timing of the drum beat doesn’t matter because it’s all about the freedom of movement and taking in the magic of the forest around you.
At the conclusion of the drum dance ceremony, the sun begins to set and it’s around 4pm in the afternoon. I am introduced to the hunting tools that are used by the senior representatives of the tribe. Centuries of tradition carved out of materials sourced in the forest – a bow and arrow, with such precision is shot into the sky. Young men with washboard abdominals, showcase their awe-inspiring talents and you realize that this is
real living, survival yet done gracefully.
Finally, the feast comes. Laplap, chicken, and kava. This is a special occasion met with eagerness and bountiful food to share with the new arrival. If anything life in the village is simple, there are no expectations to live a grandiose life and it is here that you realize how important that is. The creature comforts come from family, they come from the simplistic approach to living off the land. And even though I was here for just a short couple of days, I was one of them and it felt as though I was among life long friends. They truly were welcoming.
The laplap was nothing special, no fresh garnishings, but the love that went into it sure made up for it. The Kava was something else, a small amount is enough to give you an impression of what this liquid compound could do. And just that the afternoon of festivities were over and the locals returned to their huts as I prepared for tomorrow’s trek back to Luganville.
Farewell to the Beating Heart of the Pacific
The final day in Vanuatu was rainy, yet it was not something I will ever forget as we criss-crossed the landscape of the island, returned to the village to farewell my wonderful guide Thomas and to take my journey back to Luganville to catch my flight before departing my next destination – Brisbane.
Vanuatu is a nation of simplicity, it’s people have no desire for money because they have not been corrupted by it. The government works hard to ensure that the village and sustainable agricultural practices remain intact and a part of the traditions of the island.
Vanuatu taught me more than I could ever teach it. Would I return to this peaceful and happy nation? I still have a natural curiosity to go beyond the main islands so the answer is of course, “yes”. I have yet to see the traditional rope jump that inspired adventurer AJ Hackett to invent bungee jumping, I have still to see how deeply rooted in tradition the smaller islands are.
Vanuatu will remain one of those places that you hope is never spoiled by tourism, but secretly you want everyone to know about it.