The grandson of the last cannibal in Vanuatu shares his family's extraordinary story with an astonished Diana Balham.

Justin is a gorgeous chap. He's from Malekula, one of Vanuatu's less-visited islands, famed for its two main tribes, the Big Nambas and the Smol Nambas. The difference is -and there's no polite way to say this - Big Nambas men wear large leaves wrapped around their penises and Smol Nambas men wear more modest ones.

Justin is a member of Big Nambas but, today, he's wearing capacious board shorts and a T-shirt. We meet him on the comparatively hectic island of Efate (Vanuatu's most populous and home to its capital, Port Vila) where he is a tour guide. He takes us to Lololima Cascades on a large tract of land the Catholic Church owns, where we will be able to frolic in the river and jump into its deep, natural pools.

Sure enough, the cascades look pretty inviting and soon we're edging across sandstone terraces and leaping like happy lemmings into the water. The air temperature is in the mid-20s but Justin says the water's too cold for him and watches us with wry amusement. Suddenly he whips off his T-shirt and comes pounding through the water, whooping and waving his arms. He performs a spectacular somersault into the pool, comes up grinning and climbs out.

This is surprise number one. In the middle of a cheery conversation about island life, he informs me that his grandfather was the last cannibal in Vanuatu. That was in 1969. As my holiday brain computes this shockingly recent date, he tells me the story of Maqaaly, who was from a Big Nambas village on Malekula.

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"He ate a Seventh Day Adventist on a Sunday," says Justin casually.

"He went to the north-east and killed a Smol Nambas man on a plantation."

Why?

"Because he liked the taste of human flesh. He cooked him up and put his head in the laplap [cooked root vegetable dish]. The other men from the village came from church and saw smoke, so they went to drink kava. When they opened up the laplap they saw this head staring back at them."

This gruesome quirk in Ni-Vanuatu nature is kind of a tourist attraction. You can read all about their headhunting exploits at the Secret Garden in Port Vila (before or after cuddling a snake or an iguana) and experience the real thing on Malekula. Well, not quite.

They don't stage cannibal feasts to amuse tourists but, after a couple of hours at Nemi Gortien Ser (Spirit of Unity) Smol Nambas village, where tribespeople dance, demonstrate weaving, sand drawing, fire-starting and making laplap (minus the human garnish), I still can't get my head around the violence of the act practised by the ancestors of these gentle, friendly people.

Perhaps the Smol Nambas didn't eat their enemies, they just got eaten. Perhaps the size of the namba was in direct proportion to the amount of people-eating they indulged in.

Wrong. After meeting the smiling locals, I am whizzed off to the Amelbati cannibal site nearby where the stones representing families of the community, still stand on the ancient Nasara (ceremonial ground). And there's the kitchen site where victims were prepared and cooked and over there are some of their leg bones and bits of skull. Around the corner are graves of chiefs; their skulls lie beside their conch shell trumpets and other personal treasures.

So, eaten and discarded victims here, revered ancestors here.

There's not much physical space between them but their last moments must have been quite different.

What became of Maqaaly after he wrote himself into Vanuatu's history?

"He went to jail for the rest of his life and his wife married someone else," says Justin, who didn't visit his grandfather after he revealed his preference for the dead over the living.

Justin picks up a coconut, cleaves it in half with a big knife and hands it to me.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Air Vanuatu has regular services from Auckland. Domestic airline Vanair flies to major islands.

Attractions:
Atmosphere Tours (Lololima Cascades)

Secret Garden
Smol Nambas tours can be booked through the Malampa Call Centre or through local hostelries.

Further information: See vanuatu.travel.

The writer was assisted by Vanuatu Tourism.