I’ve never been one for public displays of nudity, but the ancient customs of Vanuatu have me entranced and I’m fighting a compulsion to tear my clothes off, surrender my inhibitions to the island breeze and dance like it’s raining yams.
All around me, villagers stomp, sway and chant to the beat of the tam-tam (slit drum) in a hypnotising riot of colour, movement and sound. Palm leaves secured into penis sheaths jiggle up and down in tempo with bouncing bare breasts, naked toddlers clutch at pandanus ribbons fraying from their mothers’ skirts, and ghoulish clay faces leer out underneath plumes of rooster feathers.
It’s a dizzying swirl of human flesh and foliage, steeped in centuries of tradition. These are the Small Nambas, a people unique to the remote island of Malekula, who are keeping alive the custom dances and ceremonies passed down by their ancestors.
I have come to Malekula searching for the real Vanuatu. I’ve seen countless brochures of airbrushed newlyweds on golden beaches, and luxurious hotels transplanted onto lagoon fringes, like barnacles on steroids, but I’m yearning for a more authentic experience.
Malekula is a 50-minute flight from Port Vila, but light-years away from the commercialism of Vanuatu’s bustling capital. I touch down at the Norsup airstrip and alight on the tarmac next to the burnt out shell of the airport. It looks like I have arrived in a war zone. A local tells me the airport was destroyed by feuding families embroiled in a land dispute. Ten years on, two dilapidated sheds suffice, with hopes the airport may eventually be rebuilt next year.
My backpack is bundled into the back of a ute as menacing clouds swell overhead like a deep-tissue bruise. Malekula is the second largest of the 83 islands that make up the independent republic of Vanuatu. The island is shaped like a sitting dog and I have arrived on the scruff of the beast’s neck, on the north-east coast.
Some 32 kilometres north is the village of Vao. It’s a bumpy 1.5-hour journey that cocktail-shakes my intestines as the gravel road carves a gulf through palm tree plantations and jungle, like the exposed flesh under a pair of unbuttoned army fatigues.
When I arrive it’s nightfall and my host, Anemone, takes me on a tour of the local kava bars. Electricity is a rarity here and the kava shacks materialise out of the darkness as I stumble across the dirt paths connecting the bamboo and palm frond huts that make up the village.
Our kava madam, Yacintha, pours two coconut shells of her murky potion, a drink traditionally imbibed only by men. It’s probably best that I can’t see what I’m drinking because it tastes like dirt and coats my mouth with viscous tannin.
After a few more kava shells and a dinner of freshly prepared octopus, I hit my bungalow. My tongue is thick and numb, like I have been sucking on an industrial-strength lozenge, and sleep comes swiftly in the embrace of a mosquito net, as the lapping water whispers a gentle lullaby.
Shortly before 6am a rooster shrieks and I’m awake. And cold. In Vanuatu? It’s unseasonably overcast and gloomy. In the past 20 days there have only been three days of sunshine, I’m told, and the tourist operators are ready to throw spears at the weather gods.
In the dawn light, silhouettes of outrigger canoes float across the water from Vao Island, threads of smoke unravel in the distance and crabs skitter across the rocky shoreline. A canoe pulls up and a man and women disembark. They greet me with broad, toothy smiles that almost glow and tell me they’re off to work – planting taro and other root vegetables. Time has stood still for centuries here.
There’s a French couple staying at the bungalows, but when I meet the Small Nambas I’m the only foreigner. “Do you see many tourists here?” I ask local guide, Pierrick. “Yes, we have many tourists, last week we have two,” he responds enthusiastically. I note in the accommodation guest book that I am only the 27th visitor this year. The book dates back 12 years and only six pages are filled.
In the afternoon I travel 20 minutes south to the village of Wala, where my host Etienne operates a basic guesthouse under a traditional palm-thatched roof, replete with a cold shower and a generator that roars to life at dusk for a few short hours. The bungalow is high on a rocky outcrop overlooking the sea, with superb views of Wala Island.
Within walking distance is another Small Nambas troupe, who entrance me with dances that hark back to cannibalistic rituals and tribal battles. The women demonstrate how they weave various palm leaves into mats, roofs and food baskets, before preparing laplap – a staple food made from yam mush and coconut milk. The gooey concoction is rolled in a natangora (palm) leaf, threaded through bamboo and cooked over hot coals. Fifteen minutes later it slithers out like an anaemic, gelatinous snake. It tastes a bit like porridge, with the texture of gluggy gnocchi.
It must be good sustenance because the male Nambas sport a fine, muscular physique, and I need to remind myself it is culturally improper to perve. But surely there’s invitation when the ethnic group is named after the bits between their legs and, well, their size. Their penis sheaths are called Nambas. The unfortunately titled Small Nambas wear just a flap of leaf, while the Big Nambas, populating Malekula’s north-west, pad their man-tools with a generous pouch of intricately braided threads of pandanus.
When I visit the Big Nambas I am again the sole spectator and am in no doubt that this Pacific island backwater is off the tourist track.
Etienne opened for business in 2005, relocating his parents to make way for tourists, but it was two years before the first guests came. “In 2005 nobody is arriving, and in 2006 nobody, and he (my father) is asking me ‘What are you doing, what is this plan?’” he says.
The trickle of foreigners who come to Malekula seem to be largely European, and mostly French, which is not surprising given Vanuatu’s history.
Mapped by Captain Cook in 1774 and named the New Hebrides, Vanuatu came under French and British rule until gaining independence in 1980. Missionaries are credited with ending cannibalism and tribal fighting and today much of the population is devout Christian. It’s a cultural evolution that rests uncomfortably with Etienne, who mourns the loss of his people’s customs and traditions.
On a guided tour of Wala Island, Etienne shows me the sacred Naserah – or centre of the tribe – a clearing in the forest under a giant banyan tree, where his people traditionally gathered for ceremonies, including for yam harvest, circumcision and marriage celebrations.
The most sacred ceremony is that of the Namagi – when powers are bestowed on the tribal chief. The ritual often involves years of preparation and is marked by the killing of pigs – sometimes hundreds – which are given to the chief to slay in order to bolster his authority.
The centerpiece of the Naserah is two hollow wooden tam-tams with painted carved faces. Beside them are rows of stone slabs representing every generation of each family.
Etienne points out his family’s stone. It’s been 200 years since his people held a Namagi and he laments the substitution of traditional practices for those of the church. Historically, the chief was the birthright ruler of the tribe, and the breakdown of authority has bred disputes among some tribes, Etienne says.
“We’re lost because every time we had a dispute we referred to the Namagi,” he says. “In the custom you’re not the chief because you didn’t pay the way (by killing pigs).”
We emerge from the forest, the clouds part and the sun’s fingers paint the water an iridescent turquoise. I have the entire beach to myself, and I snorkel in delightful solitude.
Leaving Malekula, I contemplate the impact of the white man on Vanuatu. Not only did white settlers impose their beliefs and values on the people, but also their wars. During WWII the neighbouring island of Espiritu Santo housed the second-largest American military base outside the US, and the island still bears the battle scars. Santo is peppered with the wrecks of fighter jets and bombers, but the most remarkable legacy of its wartime effort is under water.
After the war, US forces – put out by the condominium government’s refusal to buy its abundance of surplus equipment – unceremoniously dumped the lot in the sea. Cranes, trucks, tanks, forklifts, bulldozers and other military hardware were condemned to a watery grave in the Segond Channel in an area since dubbed Million Dollar Point. In today’s currency, billion dollar point would be a more accurate moniker.
The area has become a scuba diving mecca, but when I don fins and tank there is only a small handful of other divers. Below the surface it’s like an extraterrestrial behemoth has regurgitated Guantanamo Bay. It’s a mass of hulking, rusted machinery, tyres and tangled military entrails – indistinguishable behind a green veneer. I’m like a kid at a carnival. I sit in the driver’s seat of a bulldozer and shift gears, push brake pedals and turn steering wheels, as schools of silver baitfish dart past like shards of glass.
Nearby, the luxury liner-turned US troop carrier, the SS President Coolidge, lies on her side after being scuttled by a ‘friendly’ mine in 1942. Considered the largest and most accessible dive wreck in the world, the 20,000-tonne vessel lies 50 metres offshore in just 20 metres of water at her bow. She is an eerie sight. We descend at the anchor chain by the three-inch guns, hovering to pick up an ammunition cartridge the length of my arm. I peer into the inky belly of the cargo hold and then explore the starboard side, finding a drum containing a size 31 shoe, a comb and a sight from a sniper rifle. There’s a medical supply room, swimming pool and engine room to explore and all their watery treasures. So much to see, so little air.
Later I travel to Champagne Beach, where the Americans celebrated the end of the war, and squelch through powder-white sand. I’m all alone. The next day I paddle with a guide in an outrigger canoe to one of the freshwater blue holes. That behemoth has been here, too, upending a giant bottle of blue curacao – or so it would seem. The water is a luminous blue, hemmed by jungle, tree roots and vines. It’s a tropical Eden, and again, I’m the only visitor.
If Malekula is the cultural heart of Vanuatu, then Santo is the adventure capital, packed with its own compelling history. What unites the two is a distinct lack of tourist hordes and the warmth of the people, their generosity of spirit and welcoming embrace of strangers.
I leave Vanuatu with coconut leeching from my pores, salt on my lips and the rhythm of the tam-tam beating in my chest. I have found the true spirit of Vanuatu. And there wasn’t a honeymooner in sight.
Air Vanuatu has daily direct flights from Sydney to Port Vila, with connections to Malekula and Espiritu Santo.
Tam-Tam Bungalows, Vao US$28 per person
Nawori Sea View Bungalows, Wala US$158 for seven nights
Amel Toro Bungalows, Norsup, US$55 a double
Village de Santo, Luganville, from US$130 for an apartment
Beachfront Resort, Luganville, US$157 a double
Moorings Hotel, Port Vila, US$95 a double