Vanuatu: Stepping back to a land where time stands still

By Catherine Masters

Espiritu Santo's Champagne Beach.
Espiritu Santo's Champagne Beach.

I'm told an intriguing story about Vanuatu by an expat Australian woman.

She knows of a Kiwi couple who were living in the bush of Espiritu Santo, the largest of the 83 islands, which has pockets of civilisation but is mostly jungle.

The men of the village liked the Kiwi man so much they decided to make him a chief but when he turned up for the initiation ceremony he had his wife with him.

The men's jaws hit the ground. They told him this ceremony was not for the eyes of a woman but the Kiwi stood firm.

The men went off into a little huddle and threw their arms about. When they came back they told the Kiwi everything was okay, that they had figured out a solution.

They would initiate the woman to the level of a pig and then she would be able to watch.

This, apparently, is the hierarchy in the further reaches of Vanuatu: Man, pig, woman.

In my short luxury cruise around some of the lush jungle islands of Vanuatu I didn't see actual evidence of this in action.

The men would speak to visiting females and the pigs we saw fossicking in the coconut groves were destined for far stickier ends than the local women.

But the story does represent an unchanging Vanuatu where people in tiny villages on remote volcanic islands still go about their business as if time has never really caught up with them.

Though cannibalism has officially ended, rumours persist the practice still goes on in some of the remoter islands.

Captain Paul Mabee, of our beautifully equipped catamaran the Island Passage, knows a lot of these stories, having dropped in on all manner of remote villages to set up the Island Escape Cruises in Vanuatu.

Mabee tells how in some of the far-off islands there still exist separate paths for men and women and I read in the guide book how in some places a woman must not stand higher than a man.

Chief Opet Tutu on Champagne Beach on Espiritu Santo appears to have no problem speaking to me though.

He gives me a grin and I sit next to him on a bench as he watches our small group of tourists revel in the soft white sand of crushed coral on what is one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

At this beach, like all beaches in Vanuatu, you walk only a few steps into the water and you see coral and beautifully coloured tropical fish.

The village here is pretty tourist-savvy and the chief has earlier driven a hard bargain to let us look around.

You can't just rock up to the beaches in Vanuatu. Both the beaches and the sea are kastom-owned so you haggle and pay a small amount for their use.

At Champagne Beach the women have set up clothes lines from which they have hung colourful sarongs and baskets for the tourists to buy.

The chief explains that he lives with maybe 30 of his family and thinks he's maybe 70 years old.

He tells how some people from overseas came and asked him to sell this beach and he said no. They were an American hotel chain, and they wanted to put a five-star hotel here.

You would have got rich, I say, and he replies he doesn't want the money, he wants the land.

It doesn't take much to be happy here.

"The American man wanted to make this place like Honolulu," the chief says as he laughs.

Actually, he doesn't know much about Honolulu.

He confesses he's not even been across the way to the neighbouring island of Pentecost.

Island sanctuary

If you are staying on the island of Espiritu Santo there's a variety of budget and mid-range accommodation, but if you want to treat yourself go and stay a few luxurious days at Moyyan, House by the Sea, just 10 minutes from Luganville.

This stunning and exclusive little hotel of only four fares is adorable. It's right on a pristine white sand beach with jungle all around and a traditional village only a few minutes' walk away.

Wake up in the morning in your immaculate fare with its wooden louvre windows all around giving fantastic views, step on to the sand and see the locals fish in knee-depth water catching nets of sardines.

The swimming is safe, the snorkelling is great and the hospitality of Australian manager Sally Tighe is stupendous.

Sally is a real dag, and if you're lucky you'll get her talking about life on Santo, because she has the most amazing stories.

The hotel's built around ancient nabangora trees which grow right over the beach and which from time to time will drop nuts on to your fare roof, so don't be startled when you hear a thump.

Perfect for honeymooners and couples, it's pricey but the tag includes breakfast, transfers to and from the airport, kayaks and snorkelling equipment, free internet and more. Often in Vanuatu you pay quite a bit extra for these things which can quickly add up.

* See moyyan.com for more information.

- NZ Herald

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