Cultural Trails of Vanuatu - A Guest Photo Story Photo Credit: Brian Alston & Betty Weiler

Cultural Trails of Vanuatu - A Guest Photo Story

This Photo Story was kindly supplied by Brian Alston and Betty Weiler - guests on our inaugural 2016 Vanuatu - South Pacific Paradise Journey.

The earth below us rumbled, there was a huge billowing of grey/brown smoke, followed by a short fireworks display as molten rocks shot into the air and then fell, still glowing red, with a clunk to the ground. Such is the might and awe of Yasur, the most accessible active volcano in the world, on the Island of Tanna, Vanuatu.

Here we were on the rim of an active volcano, standing in the darkness, waiting expectantly for the next explosion and light show. Hardly what you might expect from an Island paradise, surrounded by coral reefs, exotic fish, palm fringed beaches and crystal clear blue waters. Vanuatu has lots more to offer the intrepid traveller. Beyond the well-trodden tourist trails and cruise ship bedraggled Port Villa there is a myriad of authentic cultural experiences and adventures to be had.

We had only been on Tanna for 2 days; but we were already captivated by the greenery of the forests, the warm hearted friendliness of the Ni-Vanuatu people, the biggest smiles you could imagine, and the simplicity of life. They were indeed, still on “Island time”, in more ways than one. As the Ni Vanuatu say, “whitefella has the watch, but we have the time”. Visits to 3 “Kastom” villages had lulled us into an acute appreciation of Island life. The simple facts that each village still has a chief, Ni Vanuatu still own all the land, and the men still meet every afternoon to drink Kava under a giant Banyon tree reaffirms a culture that still stands strong. The intrusion of mobile phones, solar panels, electricity and a few tourists, (especially on the outer Islands) are the only signs there is another world next door.

On the previous day on Tanna,  as we approached Yakel village at the end of the road, the children gathered behind us on their way home from school, shyly trying their English skills in conversations with us. We felt much like the “Pied Piper” with our accompanying entourage.

In the village, the men still wear the traditional “penis sheath” and the women grass skirts.

Impatient that we had been late and had delayed their evening Kava session, the men were still interested to dance and sing for us; share their traditions and extract a few tourist dollars in exchange for handicrafts and jewellery.  We also snapped up a copy of the movie DVD which had been filmed on location, the villagers in the leading roles, speaking their traditional Bislamic  language with English subtitles. A showing at the Venice film festival in late 2015 had put “Tanna” on the world stage for all to view. The recently released movie based on a love story between two people in the village may have taken their culture to the world, but the world is yet to change their traditional ways beyond a few simple essentials. We were shown around the village and introduced to the proud man who had been to England to visit Prince Philip (and had the photo to prove it).

In this part of Vanuatu the children all learn to use the machete before the pen. It is the most useful tool they have for collecting food and fruits from the forest.

The following day Yasur was the headline act. We headed across the Island and had a short stop at a French Catholic Primary school enroute. The children filed out of the two UNICEF tents that served as temporary classrooms to greet us. It was some 18 months since Cyclone Pam had devastated the Island, blowing the tin off modern structures, yet ironically leaving the traditional thatched houses largely intact. We were disappointed at the slow pace of the rebuilding process and the release of foreign aid money to the regional areas. Pascal, our French guide who has lived in Vanuatu for the past 24 years has forged many associations with the villagers, and he made some donations of sporting equipment for the school. The soccer and volleyballs, nets and sports goods were appreciated by the kids more so than the few exercise books and pencils we had taken along to give to the school. This was our small contribution to the rebuilding process, and the teachers at least were appreciative of our gift.

As we travelled further across the island, Yasur came into full view, belching smoke into the air menacingly; its dark brown ash plain dominating the foreground. With the prevailing winds from the SE we realised why nearly everything on the island was covered in a thin grey film of dust and the floor of our resort felt gritty. Yasur imposes itself over all Tanna, from the cultural myths of its creation, to a source of renewable fertiliser for the rich volcanic soils supporting the vegetable gardens scattered throughout the forests. 

Pascal however, had other things in mind before we reached the main event. We took a short walk to the Imaio village where they performed some traditional dances for us. It wasn’t the dancing that was so surreal, as the backdrop. We sat on a bench under a thatched roof looking across the flattened dance pad in the middle of the forest, palm tree swaying in the breeze and with Yasur in the background blowing his top. The set itself could not have been better designed and distracted us from an appreciation of the skill of the dancers.

Following a lunch of traditional foods served in a banana leaf bowl, we walked through the village, absorbing the local culture. This village was lucky enough to have such luxuries as fresh water with a tap in every small enclave fed from a tank high up in the mountains. Solar panels for recharging mobile phones may seem out of place but helps to build tourism and bring outside income to the community. After some more walking we reached the volcano entrance gate. We opted for the 45 minute walk up the slopes rather than the jeep ride and then joined the other tourists on the stepped path to the viewing area. Never did I imagine I would actually ever be on the rim of an active volcano peering in.

Pascal insisted we go off to the right for a better vantage point, although the local guides were hesitant to agree. We reached a point where we could smell the sulphurous fumes, catching on our throat. Then Yasur gave yet another rumble. We watched as molten rocks were flung into the air and then landed not more than 50 metres from where we stood. It was time to high tail it out of here and join the rest of the crowd on the safer slope. Despite this being a relatively safe volcano, it was still an active volcano and more than one person has been hit and killed by a piece of molten lava over the years.

The setting sun lit up the smoke cloud from the volcano as successive plumes rose above the crater rim where the watchers were silhouetted. 

Each explosion was different, of varying intensity, and when all three vents exploded in succession the colours engulfed the sky in grey and brown and charcoal. 

Darkness finally engulfed us, to reveal the distant slither of a moon and the fireworks display from Yasur. Today’s show was rated a Level Two on the activity scale. We were impressed by the red glow of the molten rocks as they were flung skywards from the depths of the planet, before plummeting earthwards once more. We lingered for one last grand finale before descending by the light of our head torch, exhilarated by the combination of a great day of cultural interaction and the phenomenon of nature.

Before leaving Tanna we had another cultural experience in the Middlebush area in the village of Lamlu. Oliver was our host as we strolled through his garden of island cabbage, sweet potato, tabiac, manyoc, sweet corn, and taro. The forest also provided fruits of paw paw, banana, coconut and more. His garden was a prime example of mixed cropping with complementary plants existing side by side for sustainable food production. Indeed 70% of the Ni Vanuatu population live in this way, largely subsistence. 

During our stroll with Oliver we happened upon a unique cultural tradition that has endured the ages. In this society where the women seem to do all the work, while the men fish a little, tend a garden and drink Kava every evening the payment of a dowry is still mandatory. This ritual includes offerings of food, textiles and live pigs by the groom to the bride’s family. Following acceptance of the offer the pig is slaughtered for the celebratory feast. 

The morning activities concluded with another “Kastom” dance, performed in the Nakomal under a Banyon tree. All three of the village visits on Tanna were different, and the dances unique to the culture of each village. It was heartening to see the very young get involved in these dances in maintaining tradition alongside the older statesmen. The tourist dollar may also help sustain the “Kastom Village” with cash flow as the next generation more readily accepts modernisation driven by education.

Our next adventure was on the island of Espiritu Santo, more affectionately known as Santo. The Millennium cave trek was rated very highly amongst the ubiquitous references to “Trip Advisor” that adorned the precincts of many tour operators. The briefing by Sam started modestly enough with the day broken up into sections outlined on a mud map, involving a drive to the village, followed by a forest walk, caving, canyoning, and a swim. 

On the drive out, Sam talked about the proceeds from the tour being channelled back into the local community. The villagers had voted to have a Church built first of all (97% of Ni Vanuatu people are of various Christian faiths). The current project involved running a pipeline from the mountains to provide fresh, clean water to storage tanks in each of the villages and to the school to improve hygiene. We grabbed our life jackets, put our cameras in dry bags and set off into the forest. To ensure safe passage through the cave we had our faces painted with red ochre, representing the winding path, the rocks, the cave swallows, the waterfall and the river. 

The trek was challenging and involved negotiating several ladders in the steep terrain, before arriving at the Bamboo river gorge and the entrance to the Millennium cave (so named after the tour began operation in the year 2000).

Once in the cave we clambered slowly in the darkness over rocks and in and out of knee deep water using only torchlight to find our way. The swallows near the entrance flitted in and out, eventually giving way to miniature bats nestled 50metres above, disturbed by our torchlight as we neared the depths of the cave. After 30 minutes we emerged from the cave where the Bamboo River joined the larger Sarakata River.

We lunched before continuing downstream in waist deep water before we came to some enormous boulders wedged in the gorge and so began our canyoning experience. Guide ropes, footholds carved into the rock, and hand holds helped us negotiate this section. The final leg of our adventure had us swimming and floating through calm and refreshing pools of water. The gorge cliffs rose up 100 metres on either side, sculpted in places by the swirl of the rushing flood waters. A small waterfall cascaded into the gorge from above as we took a much needed break to admire the beauty of it all.

We climbed out of the gorge up ladders and a rock strewn path, before ending our action-packed day back in the village.

Santo also offered good snorkelling on reefs of coral and at Million Dollar Point; a man-made reef of machinery dumped by the US at the end of WWII. However, we did not take up the option of diving on the sunken US Coolidge, a troop ship that hit friendly mines in 1941.

Santo is also dotted with “Blue Holes”, these being spring fed waterholes of crystal clear, deep blue water. We paddled our outrigger canoe up the Riri River from the main road before the stream opened out into a large pool surrounded by forest and coral rock escarpments. Yet another swim and a swing from the rope beckoned.

Santo, the largest of the 83 islands in the archipelago, is also the largest beef producer. Here coconut palms and cattle are happy to co-exist in the same habitat.

Small scale cash enterprises comprising many small producers exist all over the islands. These include coconut crabs from the northern most Torres island, a chocolate factory and coconut oil production near Villa on Efate, sandalwood production, and 700 individual coffee producers on Tanna alone. The coffee industry was in the process of “organic” certification of the growers, which by default should be a given. All these types of “cottage” industries provide a cash income crop for the individual villager and represent a small opportunity for employment. A dairy farmer I spoke with at the Agritourism Fair milked 20 litres a day from two cows and had the milk processed at the Ice-cream factory on Efate. Big initiatives, sometimes have small beginnings.

 We spent an afternoon visiting another “Kastom village” where Kava making was demonstrated, and Betty had a swill from the coconut cup.

We were given a traditional welcome to the village and watched more ceremonial dancing.

I was unceremoniously attacked as a part of this ritual and grabbed a club off the closest child to protect myself. They were pleased we were keen to join in and be a part of the show.

A highlight of the afternoon was the display of water music by the women. One lady informed me she had been playing the water music for 64 years. They had been sponsored to play their unique sounds at various cultural festivals and locations including at South Bank in Brisbane. The pool served as their stage on this occasion.

The women also had handicrafts on display and Betty purchased a turtle necklace sculptured from coral.

We headed back to Efate and the trip wound down in the last few days, but not before one last cultural immersion. This occurred on the black sand beach near Eratap village. The lunch served up to us was the traditional Vanuatu delicacy called Lap Lap. The ingredients consisted of the plantain green banana with spinach and chicken pieces wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in the ground with hot stones. Upon serving, the leaves were folded back and a dam constructed in the middle for coconut milk. We broke pieces off with our fingers and dipped them in the coconut milk sauce before eating. It was superb.

The Port Villa produce markets were another special event with 24/7 shopping except for Sunday and a great display of fruit, vegetables, flowers and textiles.

The Bislamic , “Pidgeon English” drew our attention on many occasions. With over 130 dialects across the 83 islands of the archipelago, the Bislamic language provides unification across cultural differences. The children then learn either English or French or both at school. We attempted some primitive translations and Betty felt at home with interpretative signs like these.

Our French guide, Pascal and his assistant Bosco, treated us to a range of activities and village wanders on Efate, both before and after our time on Tanna and Santo.

We walked through picturesque canyons near Lolimu Falls.

Sampled the fruits of the forest on our walks;

We snorkelled the coral reefs around Hat Island, and on Santo; and lazed and snorkelled the coral cay beach and reef that is Hideaway Island Resort;

We paddled our kayaks and swam in the crystal clear waters of a coastal estuary;

Walked on a black sand beach past outrigger fishing boats and nets hung out to dry;

We had many wonderful lunches and dinners ranging from Chinese to Thai to seafood, burgers and French cuisine as well as traditional Island delicacies.

And simply rode in the back of Pascal’s Eco Tour bus, complete with thatched roof;

What were the highlights? 

For us it was the immersion in the culture together with the genuinely friendly disposition of the Ni Vanuatu people that stands out the most. The warmth of the smiles and their cultural pride, and enthusiasm for sharing it with us captured our hearts. 

The simple lifestyle of the village people away from the cruise ship bustle of Port Villa is where the true heart and soul of the country lies.

A country where you live for today and enjoy the moment. A country where you can drink the water, eat the fresh food straight from the forest. A country where the garden exists in a sustainable symbiosis with the earth, the sun and the rain. A country where the produce is free of added sugar, chemicals and artificial fertilisers. 

I say, why not drink Kava every evening in the cool shade of the Banyon tree?

We leave Vanuatu with a vow to return. Maybe our return can be in the form of some volunteer work, for the schools, the dispensary, or a small community project, but we are determined to return one day; such was our impression of this South Pacific gem and her people, to whom we say a warm “Tanku tomas”.

This Photo Story was kindly supplied by Brian Alston and Betty Weiler - guests on our inaugural 2016 Vanuatu - South Pacific Paradise Journey.