Lines in the sand

By Mark Fryer

Travel thousands of kilometres, step back a few hundred years and the big issues are still the same.

Like the meaning of life? The eternal quest for survival? No - what on earth to do with teenage boys.

Daniel, deputy chief of a village in the jungle of Vanuatu, is explaining how they handle this vexed problem.

In an approximate interpretation, this appears to involve waiting until, as he says, they're "old enough to know something", then taking them from their families, putting them in a communal house where they sleep on a dirt floor around a smoky fire, cook for themselves, have the older men drop in to impart some wisdom, then wait for them to emerge as useful citizens.

Sounds an excellent scheme. I wonder if CYFS would approve.

Learning a little about the local culture is one of the attractions of Vanuatu, where several villages which live in more or less traditional fashion - "kastom" villages as they say - are open to visitors.

This one is Vil Vil, on Espiritu Santo, one of Vanuatu's 83 islands.

It is home to about 50 people, and if you visit, and pay, they'll show you some of their dances and songs, demonstrate basket weaving, explain kava growing, let you look around the nakamal - the communal house, sort of a cross between a men's club and a meeting house, pungent with the smells of smoke and tobacco drying from the rafters - share a shell of kava and try to sell you a souvenir woven basket.

I am particularly taken with their sand drawings, a traditional art form on some islands, scratched into the sand or the ashes of the fire with a finger-tip or a stick. Some of the drawings represent local flora or fauna, others record historic events, legends, farming techniques, or fables that provide lessons in how to behave.

They're elegant and utterly transient; a quick drawing, an explanation, the ground is swept clean and we're on to the next pattern.

Daniel is keen to learn more drawings; he believes his people have 500 or more recognised patterns.

While traditional life is one of the drawcards for visitors to Espiritu Santo - just plain Santo to anyone more than two minutes off the plane - the island's number one attraction is under the sea.

Diving is the big thing here, thanks to water the colour of Bombay Sapphire, plentiful fish life, and several sunken World War II shipwrecks, left from the days when Santo was a major staging post for the US military.

But, like the rest of Vanuatu, Santo is trying to widen its appeal by offering what the tourism trade describes as "soft adventure".

This appears to include anything more arduous than lying around the hotel pool. It's the sort of adventure you have safe in the knowledge that it will all end with a cool drink and clean sheets.

On Santo, instead of, or as well as, donning scuba gear, adventurous options include various canoe trips and hikes, from gentle to serious - the island's mountains reach over 1800m.

Another not-so-soft adventure is a trek through the Millennium Cave, which involves clambering down bamboo ladders, walking and wading through a cave system, then floating down a river through the jungle.

You can also check out the reminders that 60 years ago this place was anything but peaceful: the scattered remains of a B-17 bomber that didn't make it back to base, rusting corrugated iron Quonset huts, many of them taken over by local businesses, and long-abandoned airstrips.

More decaying military hardware is on show at Million Dollar Point, where the Americans, tired of trying to negotiate a price for selling their war surplus to Vanuatu's colonial administrators, gave up and dumped the lot in the sea. It's still there, on the beach and under the water.

You can immerse yourself in fresh water for a change in one of the island's blue holes. The biggest is 50m across and 18m deep, full of clear, warm, deep blue - what else - water, and comes complete with a dangling jungle vine for aspiring Tarzan imitators.

Or you could just go for a drive. The state of Santo's roads means this adventure hardly qualifies as soft, but it's a good way to get a taste of the island - coconut plantations, smoky copra dryers, wandering cattle, giant banyan trees, vine-draped jungle thick enough to satisfy any Skull Island fantasy and the occasional perfect beach.

Santo has a little of the wild west, last frontier feel. If you like your holiday destinations not overly polished, this fits the bill. It starts at the airport, where the imposing new terminal - Pekoa International Airport, says the sign, despite the lack of any international flights thus far - remains resolutely closed and passengers cram into a hot tin shed, where a pair of trussed chickens cluck mournfully from behind the baggage counter.

The feeling continues in Luganville, Santo's only town of any size, a scattering of one and two-storey buildings spread out for a few kilometres along the highway, where the traffic consists mostly of pick-up trucks and nothing moves too fast; you'll hear plenty of jokes about "Vanuatu time".

Things are changing. Outsiders, mostly Australian, are buying land to build holiday homes and the talk is of waterfront sections that went for A$40,000 ($47,000) last year fetching A$100,000 ($117,000) now. But for the moment it's still a sleepy backwater.

As for the soft bit that comes after the adventure, you can find that on Santo, too. Aore Island Resort is three islands from home - first Efate, Vanuatu's capital island, then a flight to Santo, then a 10-minute boat ride to Aore - which must qualify it as being away from it all.

The style is laidback Kiwi bach meets tropical resort. No in-room TV, no air conditioning, no fluffy white bathrobe, no fully stocked minibar, just a handful of thatch-roofed bungalows a few steps from the beach, an open-air restaurant and snorkelling off your front doorstep.

If you define luxury not just by what is provided but what is absent - noise, speed, pressure - this definitely qualifies.

If it's speed and excitement you want - well, relative to Santo - Vanuatu's capital, Port Vila, is the place.

It has the country's biggest concentration of restaurants, hotels and shops, though it would be a stretch to describe this straggling city of 30,000-something as a hub of urban sophistication.

Check out the downtown market, where you can pick up anything from local produce to a souvenir tropical shirt, a trussed-up coconut crab, to a pig in a bamboo cage. It is open 24 hours a day, except Saturday afternoon and Sunday.

Vila is home to big resort hotels such as Le Meridien, complete with golf course, water sports, tropical gardens, terrace restaurant overlooking the lagoon, neatly raked private beach and casino.

If you're looking for luxury and privacy, the hotel's over-water bungalows offer both, plus a great place to sit and look at the view, and the fish under your front verandah, while contemplating profound thoughts over a cold drink.

Vila is also the base for numerous tours and other activities. For a thorough de-stressing, the day trip on the veteran ketch Coongoola heads out to Lelepa Island for a few hours' snorkelling and lounging on the beach, a barbecue and the chance to watch dolphins ride the bow wave - definitely on the softer side of adventure.

Joys of a simple life

Two of Vanuatu's pleasures come free of charge: the people and their languages.

Officially, the people are the Ni-Vanuatu - Ni-Vans for short - many of whom appear to be in serious training for the world gossiping and joke-telling championships. Stand still for even a short time and there's a good chance someone will stop to chat, ask where you're from, and tell you about their home island.

As for languages, there's no shortage. More than 100 indigenous languages, plus English, French and the widely-spoken local pidgin, Bislama.

It's mostly English-based, so many words and phrases are easy to pick up. "Tank yu" or "skiusmi" come naturally and it's easy enough to figure out the meaning of the newspaper advert offering a "bigfala reward" for a lost item, or the shop sign promising "gudfala sevis, gudfala praes".

A little phonetic thinking reveals that "bang" means bank, a "sanbij" is a (sand) beach, "waet smol" means hang on a bit and that anything "bagarap" is not working awfully well.

Kiwis will have plenty of flashes of recognition. Those sweet potatoes in the market? They're "kumala". The canoe on the beach is a "wakha" and "kakae" means food.

Even the country's name is familiar. The "Vanua" part is the same as the Maori "whenua", land (the "tu" means eternal - land eternal).

Checklist

Getting there
Air Vanuatu flies from Auckland to Port Vila Wednesdays and Saturdays with return flights on the same days. Flight time is around three hours. The airline has a special offer at the moment of round trip tickets from Auckland to Vanuatu for from $308.31 (plus taxes etc). See link below for further details.

Accommodation
Le Meridien Port Vila resort and Casino provides luxury accommodation in the capital. Contact them on 00 678 22040 or see link below. For information about the more laidback Aore Island Resort contact 00 678 36705 or see link below.

Getting around
Vanair Flights serves many of the islands. See link below. If you have are prepared to rough it, boat services also link some islands.

Money
The local currency is the vatu. $1 = 70vt, or 100vt = NZ$1.40. Visitors can change money at banks in Port Vila, and at Luganville on Espiritu Santo. There are ATM machines in Vila and Luganville.

What's on offer
Sea, sand and scenery, spectacular snorkelling and diving, especially on the World War II wrecks around Santo; active volcanoes you can get close to (Tanna and Ambryn Island); a chance to see the original bungy jumpers in action (Pentecost Island); local culture at traditional villages; fishing; hiking.

What it costs
This isn't a bargain destination, although there is backpacker and mid-range accommodation as well as luxury resorts. A main course in a Vila restaurant can top $30, continental breakfast in a good hotel $20, a local beer in the supermarket is around $3 a bottle. For eating bargains, check out the markets or roadside stalls; $1.20 for a hefty bunch of bananas and a perfectly ripened pineapple is a bargain in anyone's language.

If you go
First, choose your islands. With 83 of them spread over 1200km north to south, and each offering different attractions, it pays to plan your inter-island travel before you set out.

Worth remembering
This is one destination where guided tours make a lot of sense. Signposting isn't a strong point so, if nothing else, a guide will help you find your way. Visitors to many attractions such as beaches and traditional villages are expected to pay the customary land-owners.

Further information
See Vanuatu tourism links below.

* Mark Fryer travelled to Vanuatu courtesy of Le Meridien Port Vila Resort and Casino, Air Vanuatu, and Talpacific holidays.

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