Vanuatu: Dancing to the beat of an island haven

By Catherine Masters

Maewo Island's Chief Nelson. Photo / Catherine Masters
Maewo Island's Chief Nelson. Photo / Catherine Masters

Chief Nelson is waiting on the beach. You can't really tell from this distance that the diminutive figure in a blue Hawaiian-style shirt with missing front teeth is the big kahuna at this village on the waterfront of a sandy bay so beautiful that in my eyes it blitzes the competition.

As our small cruise ship, the Island Passage, had motored closer to Asanvari Bay on the island of Maewo in the remote Vanuatu chain of volcanic islands, we had seen a glimpse of an idyllic golden sand beach flanked by steep banks of jungle tumbling down to the water's edge.

Then we had caught movement to the left of the sandy beach and realised this was Asanvari Bay's own spectacular waterfall, also right on the water's edge and, we found out later, a waterfall which is apparently inhabited by small, hairy, evil spirits.

Although no one admits to having seen one of the spirits, the word is everyone knows someone who has seen one.

Chief Nelson is not the only one keen to welcome us. It seems the whole village has turned out.

A string band is in full force to welcome us. There are a couple of guitars and a harp-type instrument of a single string and a bendy piece of wood.

Every now and then the band stops, then starts up again with the same thumping, twanging beat and young men singing in harmony "we welcome you, we welcome you, we welcome you, to Asanvari", then they start over.

This is the Island Passage's first tourist visit to Asanvari Bay and we are honoured to be receiving the full welcome.

After a while Chief Nelson gestures us to the yacht club. Did I say yacht club?

Turns out Chief Nelson is a bit of an entrepreneur and has built an open-sided yacht club, complete with flags from around the world, for yachties sheltering in the bay to come ashore for a cold beer.

The band starts up again and leads first Chief Nelson then the honoured guests (us) to the yacht club.

We sit in green plastic chairs arranged around the edge of the building with a bit of a tattered map of the world on the wall and the flags which on closer inspection look a little worse for wear but of which the chief is very proud.

The band strikes up another round of "we welcome you" and Chief Nelson keeps a keen eye on the singers for no missed beats.

After a few more rounds he breaks into a speech, thanking the captain for bringing us here and telling us "We will remember you forever".

Now it is time for the Kastom dancers to welcome us.

In come a group of men, buff as and naked but for the woven mats they wear front and back - and the woven undies they're wearing under the mats, surely a post-missionary addition to the traditional attire.

They also wear elaborate headdresses decorated with ferns and plants; one has freshly picked bright orange flowers in his, and around their feet they wear seed pod anklets which rattle and shake when they dance.

Suddenly there's a great crashing of shells and a rhythmic stomping of feet on the concrete floor of the yacht club as the men begin their dance.

They finish one dance, then do another, then a third, and then another.

Just one more dance, says Chief Nelson, and the men perform the bamboo dance, then just one more, a war dance.

We are sitting captivated, swept up in the rhythm. As the men do yet another "just one more dance" they smile in rhythm, leap from side to side in rhythm, exude fitness and sheer joy in rhythm.

They run at us, fake charging with rough hewn spears, and we get a fair old whiff of body odour mingled with wafting dust from the mats around their waists.

Then it's our turn. A warrior comes up and grabs my hand and leads me round in a circle, around and around on the concrete floor.

He suddenly drops my hand, says "you carry on" and goes off to grab another passenger and I'm careering round on my own.

Outside, the whole village has sat patiently and watched these curious white folk.

Then it's time for a tour of this village and another one a few minutes' walk away. It seems like half the village and a painfully skinny dog have come along too.

As we wind our way past the traditional thatched houses with walls made of palm leaves along the tidy sandy paths we hear the history of the village.

They used to eat people here, but they don't any more, we are told.

Women wearing traditional woven mats are preparing lap lap for us, a traditional food made out of manioc, yam or taro.

In a hut we see yam being grated into a liquid and turned into a porridgey paste.

In another hut, the paste is folded into banana leaves and then put into a hot stone fire.

In a third hut, a taro lap lap they have prepared earlier is ready to come out of the oven and we are offered some of the pinky gelatinous looking substance over which they have poured coconut milk.

It's quite pleasant, more like a pudding really, though some custard and cream would be good.

We trail back along the way we came to the sounds of the waves crashing and see the men of the village are making their way to another big open-sided building.

"Yeah, it's kava time," our guide smiles.

We stay for the night anchored just off Asanvari village and in the morning a dugout canoe with a solitary figure on board can be seen approaching.

It's Chief Nelson, still in his Hawaiian-style shirt, skilfully paddling the waves. He just wants a closer look at the large steel catamaran sitting in his harbour.

The chief grabs hold of a rail where one of the ship's small motor boats is tethered and waits hopefully until one of the crew hops down and helps him aboard.

They chat for a while about the mechanics then, inspection over, Chief Nelson climbs back into his dugout where he uses his shoe to empty out the water and paddles away to watch the Island Passage depart for another day in paradise.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air Vanuatu flies to Port Vila three times a week, on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. The Sunday flight is operated by Air New Zealand.

From Port Vila to the other islands you take a small domestic plane. Watch your luggage if you take these flights. Big hard suitcases are not allowed so take soft surface luggage which can be squashed into sometimes tiny planes.

Getting around: Island Escape Cruises offer three and five-night luxury cruises on the Island Passage around Vanuatu from May to October.

Catherine Masters travelled to Vanuatu on the Island Passage's inaugural trip there, courtesy of Island Escape Cruises.

- NZ Herald

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