Faint strains of music drift through the trees as I cautiously follow a winding jungle trail. I come across a small, dark-skinned elderly man, standing under a high canopy that shuts out the harsh midday sun, who is the source of the melodious notes.
The high-pitched sound leaves his body through clenched teeth, and has a surreal funereal quality that speaks of solemn rituals and tribal histories passed down over countless generations. His accompaniment is the haunting sound of hollow sticks being pounded together in a rhythmic tattoo.
I'm impressed by the firmness of the old man's black, weathered skin and the compactness and litheness of his body, which is smeared with paint. All that he is wearing is a woven red headdress, a small namba (a dried leaf sheath and belt) made from purple pandanus fibres and an anklet of jingling cockle shells.
This exotic musical performance is a remnant of the ancient cannibal culture of the Small Nambas of Wala Island in Vanuatu, a fascinating destination on a Melanesian voyage aboard the P&O Cruises liner Pacific Jewel.
About 300 people live on the island without the benefit of electricity, telephones or roads.
Guide Covis has come over by boat from Malekula, the second-largest island in Vanuatu, to lead our group of visitors through the jungle.
He greets us in pidgin English: "Nem blong me Covis." A member of the group asks if he speaks English by saying, "Yu save tok tok long Inglis?" This bright young man uses his facility in three languages - French, English and his local dialect - to talk to us and the villagers.
I'm invited to demonstrate my prowess in archery but wrongly deduce that the end of the arrow bound with twine is the butt end. The blunt tip is weighted to ensure true flight, so my arrow strikes the target sideways. I claim to have stunned the prey, but the locals think my clumsiness merits an outburst of unrestrained laughter.
Quite suddenly, the jungle opens up into a large clearing of infinite beauty, enclosed by lush vegetation and lined on one side by stone monoliths. Each stone represents an island family, and they are placed in strict accordance with the family's relative influence and seniority.
This open-air communal area is where the five island tribes gather for important ceremonies, such as the swearing in of a new chief. Great feasts are held here using the island's rich bounty of pig, beef, dog, snake, fish, lobster, crab and tropical fruit.
While we are in the clearing, a fierce-looking group of warriors suddenly leap out of the undergrowth and surround us, brandishing wooden clubs and spears and making war-whoops. We stand stock-still, frozen in surprise while a Big Namba advances towards us, chanting a malevolent dirge, his head held high under a tall, pointed headdress which gives him the appearance of a giant. His manhood is sheathed in a very large namba.
A 6-year-old boy is stomping the ground with a vengeance and seems determined to frighten the pale-face tourists out of their wits. As I crouch down for a close photo angle, he charges without warning and I topple over into the dust - another victory for the Small Nambas.
By all accounts, it is a good life in the islands of Vanuatu. About 80 per cent of the population of 190,000 are solely employed in the ancient practice of fishing, hunting and subsistence farming. A survey of 180 nations a few years ago ranked Vanuatu as the happiest place on Earth. For a brief time I'm able to share this happiness, sipping cool Tusker beer under thatched shelters on the soft coral white-sand beach.
GETTING THERE: Wala Island lies adjacent to Vanuatu's second largest island, Malekula, referred to by the 300 Wala residents as the "Mainland".
Paul Rush travelled on Pacific Jewel courtesy of Qantas and P&O Cruises.