Vanuatu: Island of happy magic

By Tessa Chrisp

On a remote island in Vanuatu, Tessa Chrisp is won over by the locals' modest way of life and extraordinary warmth and humour.

A Peskarus villager. Photo / Tessa Chrisp
A Peskarus villager. Photo / Tessa Chrisp

This leg of my journey involves a turbulent ride over rugged roads, if you can call them roads, sitting on a wood plank wedged between passenger bags and a spare tyre that keeps subtly sliding my way. It's 4.30am and so dark that I can't quite see the faces of the eight or so other passengers also riding on the back of the Toyota ute.

The mystique is heightened before dawn when glimpses of colossal cycad palm trunks creep into view as we weave our way through dense jungle, and ford rivers. Flying foxes the size of hawks swoop in the pale light above.

About four hours into our drive there is uproar from everyone onboard. Another truck is tailing us. The three men sitting on our roof, because there is no more room left in the back, are knocking on the cab and everyone is barking at the driver. Then it strikes me: if the truck behind passes us we will be left perpetually in its dust. The commotion forces our driver to floor it on any stretch of straight road possible and the race is on to keep his passengers in the dust-free air.

We're travelling down the coast of Malekula Island - second-largest of the 83 islands that make up the nation of Vanuatu - and an anthropologist's dream with much of its culture relatively intact.

Malekula is inhabited by two tribes, the Big Nambas in the north and the Small Nambas in the south, the name stemming from the size of the penis sheaths made from pandanus or banana leaves they wear.

It's a fascinating place where black magic still exists - though not as strongly as on neighbouring Ambrym Island - and tradition still rules. The missionaries put clothes on the people but the chiefs will tell you custom is as important as church.

This isn't, however, my destination. I'm heading for the even more remote Maskelyne Islands, a remote cluster of low lying tiny islands off the southern tip of Malekula.

After my truck ride the final leg is a 55-minute voyage in an aluminium boat with a 30hp Mercury engine, a great luxury in an area where most people get around in wooden dugout outrigger canoes, many of which we pass along the way.

Finally we arrive at Peskarus Village where Nina and her family are our hosts. She's crouching on the dirt floor, stoking her tiny fire, cooking coconut milk mud crab in pots sitting on two iron rods supported by stones.

We are welcomed by the brightest, shyest smiles but it doesn't take long before we are laughing and playing with her children Masel, Anna, Solomon and Cristova.

Soon we are helping prepare food, fetching water from the well and absorbing ourselves in village life.

Four-year-old Solomon is delighted to share his joke with us in English: "Knock Knock." "Who's there?" "Amos." "Amos who?" "A mosquito!" He squeals with laughter and we hear the joke another 10 times each day.

Nina's kitchen has split bamboo walls, charred black in parts, with a mangrove branch framework and a thatched roof, and it is the family hub.

The Ni-Vanuatu have twice been voted the World's Happiest Nation by the United Nations and it's easy to see why as we share laughter over the smallest things.

A particular source of amusement is our effort to learn a little of the endearing Bislama language (pidgin English). But I do succeed in saying "Me fulap tumas, Nina" as she tries to offer more food. It basically translates as "I am full thank you".

The village is timeless and pretty, houses linked by smoothed pathways lined with colourful foliage, and full of happy people only too willing to talk with strangers. We find ourselves chatting with women sitting under shady trees to weave their mats. We become accustomed to the chatter of voices, the thunder of the sea on the distant reef, the eruptions of laughter and the daily chorus of roosters.

The interior of the island is jungle scattered with pig pens and a few gardens. The main gardening area is another island, Sakao, which has no inhabitants and especially no pigs or chooks. Every afternoon families arrive at Peskarus in canoes laden with produce from Sakao.

Imported supplies are not cheap nor are they easily accessible. Once a month a cargo ship anchors outside the reef and if the sea conditions allow, the villagers canoe out to bring in supplies.

There are a few shops in each village though they're hard to spot. We meet Karlo Phillip who owns one, he's standing under a tree with a cellphone in his hand and his family are laughing at his wife May who is terrified at the snake video he shows her on his new phone. It's obvious technology is very recent.

Conditions are tough, there is no electricity and global warming is threatening the island. Nina tells us last year's spring tides came dangerously close to her bungalows.

But Nina's family, like the others on the island, functions pretty much like any other family around the world - except they do without the luxuries and technology we take for granted and they have more smiles and sparkling eyes than I've seen in any family from the developed world.

We shed tears when we leave because the people are a delight ... and because Nina and her family have become our friends.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air Vanuatu flies from Auckland to Port Vila on Efate island. Air Vanuatu has domestic flights to Lamap Airport on Malekula Island. Tourists holding a return Air Vanuatu international ticket are entitled to a 20 per cent discount on domestic fares.

The truck ride from Lamap Airport to the landing costs 300 vatu and the boat to Maskelyne Island costs 2000 vatu.

Where to stay: In Port Vila, Mangoes Resort is set high atop a cliff overlooking Erakor Lagoon.

On Maskelyne Island, Karlo and Nina Nathaniel operate Malog Bungalows, Peskarus Village. Call +67 8710 7905. These are basic bungalows with double and single beds, a shared bathhouse and a lovely outdoor restaurant pagoda. Ask for their menu and try the lobster or crab.

What to do: By sure to book any activities through the Maskelyne Island Tourism Association so you know you are paying the right price. See maskelynetourism.blogspot.com or email maskelyne.tourism@gmail.com. Or when you're there contact head guide Malterie Yonah at +67 8773 5732 or tourism association president Cedric Phillip at +67 8775 1463.

Further information: If you would like to help the Maskelyne Islands visit butterflytrust.org which is run by a New Zealand couple.

To find out more about visiting Vanuatu see vanuatu.travel.

Tessa Chrisp flew courtesy of Air Vanuatu.

- NZ Herald

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