Vanuatu: Taking only memories of Mystery

By Isobel Marriner

Vanuatuans in kastom dress. Photo / Supplied
Vanuatuans in kastom dress. Photo / Supplied

After three days at sea out of sight of land, it was like a scene from Treasure Island to awake and find the Pacific Sun manoeuvering into remote Anelghowat Bay, the mountainous island of Anatom (or Aneityum), at the southernmost tip of the Vanuatu archipelago looming in the water.

As we entered the bay, islanders in small boats carrying goods for the market began to make their way from Anatom over to the tiny islet guarding the lagoon entrance and the ship began readying its tenders to take passengers to Mystery Island.

This little jewel supposedly got its name because it was the location of an Allied airstrip during World War II, but Japanese pilots flying above were unable to find it. Its traditional name is Inyeug.

We were piped, or strummed, ashore by the Mystery Island String band, men with leafy garlands in their hair providing a funky accompaniment on guitar, ukulele and bamboo drums for the rows of women waiting to braid visitors' hair, and market stallholders selling coconuts and sarongs.

Inyeug is a pocket-sized island - you can circumnavigate it on foot in 30 to 45 minutes, though it is advisable to wear sandals or beach shoes if you do: some of the rocks are treacherously sharp. The beaches are gold and blue, populated by teeny scuttling crabs and fringed with pandanus trees.

At night the fruit bats from Anatom fly over to feast on their ugly-beautiful fruit; the islanders in their turn feast on the bats, though the people we spoke to were divided in their opinion on how good the "delicacy" tasted.

Bat or not, there was certainly something cooking in big earth ovens underneath sheets of corrugated iron we noticed as we strolled through the forest.

We were told (at least I think we were) that the Prime Minister of Vanuatu was coming to visit and had sent his own food ahead to be cooked.

We waited by the airstrip, and every now and then there seemed a rustle of excitement, the local security detail moving about officiously around the flagpole, but after half an hour of watching the village youngsters amuse themselves playing soccer with a tennis ball and no sign of a ministerial arrival, we thought something might have got lost in translation.

But there was no disappointment. The island is a gorgeous wee place. I was sorely tempted to take a memento with me, a single, perfect, purple shell lying beguilingly in the glistening sand.

However I had taken notice of a sign by the jetty warning visitors it was taboo to remove anything from the island.

I wanted the local gods to bless the remainder of our journey, so reverently put it back where I had found it.

- NZ Herald

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