The people who live on the 83 islands of Vanuatu, 1,750km to the east of northern Australia in the Pacific Ocean, are said to be the happiest in the world. You really feel it everywhere you go: laughter, big smiles, help and invitations to dinner or to stay in villages are constantly forthcoming. While the capital, Port Vila, receives quite a lot of tourists from Australia, the outer islands are far more laid-back and isolated. On some islands, on a multi-day trek through the jungley interior, you will encounter friendly tribal people dressed only in tree-bark loincloths or grass skirts. If you spend several weeks in Vanuatu independently exploring its jungles and villages you may be lucky enough to witness traditional dances, festivals or ceremonies.
Vanuatu has been inhabited for 4000 years but was not discovered by Europeans until 1606. It was then left to its own devices until Louis Antoine de Bougainville visited in 1768 and Captain Cook in 1774, naming the islands the New Hebrides. Gradually settlers from both their respective countries, France and Britain, began to arrive in search of sandalwood and land to set up plantations.
The rise of sugar plantations in the Pacific, particularly in Queensland, Australia, and Fiji, had very bleak consequences for the people of Vanuatu (ni-Vanuatu). The need for labour for these plantations sparked off a 50-year wave of Blackbirding, kidnapping or tricking islanders into coming to work on plantations almost as slaves, often never to be returned home again. At many points more than half the adult male population of some islands was away on foreign plantations and the population of Vanuatu today is still much lower than before contact with Europeans.
In 1906 the two colonial powers in the New Hebrides annexed them and formed a joint government, the British-French Condiminium, which remained in power until the independence that was achieved following the brief “Coconut War” in Espiritu Santo in 1980.
Vanuatu is one of the most linguistically diverse places on Earth – 113 languages spoken by a population of 220,000 people. Often one village will speak a different language from the next, and the word “family” is used to mean everyone who speaks the same language as you. As a result, ni-Vanuatu from different islands who found themselves working on plantations needed a lingua franca to communicate with each other, as well as with other Pacific islanders and their British masters. Thus Bislama was born, a pidgin English of whose words 95% are of English origin but the grammar of which is twisted into a Melanesian style. It remains the official language of Vanuatu to this day. People from Vanuatu’s only towns – Luganville on Espiritu Santo (population 13,000) and Port Vila on Efate (population 36,000) – often speak Bislama as their mother tongue. For most of the rest of the population it is a second language, after their local one. Only very remote tribal communities in the centres of the larger islands such as Espiritu Santo have people who do not know any Bislama.
As a result, for anyone willing to spend a bit of preparation time learning to pronounce English words in the Bislama way and getting to grips with some simple grammatical structures, immense rewards can be reaped. Travel and converse with locals will be much simpler, people will be delighted at the opportunity to chat with a foreigner and invitations will be even more forthcoming. Examples of just how similar Bislama is to English are: “yumi” = “we” and “haus blong mi” = “my house”. There are several English – Bislama dictionaries online and a Peace Corps training manual that can be downloaded for free with vocab and grammar instruction and exercises.
Alongside the stunning white sand, palm-lined beaches lapped by clear turquoise waters, surely some of the world’s most spectacularly postcard-perfect, Vanuatu’s amazingly well-preserved traditional culture is its main drawcard.
“Kastom” is a Bislama word encompassing traditional culture, land rights, religion, law, economics and way of life. One language group’s “kastom” may be different from it’s neighbours, so that each group considers that the other does not live in true Kastom. In remote, unchristianized villages such as those in central Espiritu Santo they consider that anyone who goes to school or church does not live according to Kastom.
In general, the lifes of most ni-Vanuatu, even those living in Luganville or Port Vila, are affected by Kastom to some extent. Even powerful politicians have to answer to their birth village’s chief and young men go through several coming-of-age ceremonies such as their first haircut, and later circumcision, where the whole village may gather for a dance and a feast.
Dances and feasts will also involve the drinking of kava, a non-alcoholic but mildly relaxing drink made by pounding plant roots for an hour or so in water. It tastes like mud and roots but locals will be delighted to see you drinking it!
Kava is also often drunk after a usual working day in the nakamal, or men’s meeting house. There is one of these in every village and even several in Port Vila. They can take up to a year to build and the opening of a new one is an absolutely spectacular occasion when people from villages all around will trek through the jungle or hills to dance for hours outside it.
Probably the most immediately obvious aspects of the ni-Vanuatu culture are the constant smiles, friendliness and willingness to help.
There are five countries you can fly to Vanuatu from: Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, New Caledonia and the Solomon Islands. Airlines that fly here include Air Vanuatu, Qantas, Pacific Blue, Aircalin, Air Pacific and Flysolomons. Flights arrive at Port Vila (the capital) or Luganville on Espiritu Santo. There is also a monthly passenger ferry between New Caledonia and Vanuatu (stopping at Espiritu Santo, Malekula and Port Vila). Ports of entry for yachts are at Port Vila, Luganville on Espiritu Santo, Lenakel on Tanna and Sola on Vanua Lava.
If you arrive in Port Vila you will most likely want to move on to other islands as soon as possible. All of those mentioned on this site – Malekula, Espiritu Santo, Pentecost and Ambrym – can be reached by boat or Air Vanuatu flight from the capital. Boat journeys are about half the price of flights and take about 24 hours to any of the above-mentioned destinations, a little less to Malekula and a little more to Pentecost. They are massively overcrowded, have no beds and are full of cargo, filth, animals and cockroaches. Getting forty winks is a matter of finding a slightly cleaner corner to lie down in or climbing up on top of a pile of cargo. They are also often delayed, sometimes by a matter of days, so when deciding whether to fly or take a boat the most economical option is to just take whichever goes first. The massive advantage of taking the boat, however is that Vanuatu being Vanuatu you will make dozens of new friends during the journey who may well invite you back to their villages when you arrive on their island.
To find boats going to the island you need, ask around at Port Vila’s docks. If there are no passenger boats ask small cargo boats too. These are particularly usful for smaller, more far-flung islands. They are, however, less safe, more cramped and you will feel the roughness of the sea more in them.
If you flew to Vanuatu with Air Vanuatu then keep your international ticket as it gets you a discount on inter-island flights.
Accommodation can be found in Port Vila ranging from cheap hostels that are even cheaper if you just pitch your tent in their garden to very expensive luxury resorts. Luganville also has a few hotels ranging from cheap to fairly expensive but everywhere else in the country has only cheap wooden huts or bungalows. Remoter places don’t even have these but ask around for a place to stay at if somehow you haven’t already been offered one as soon as they see your face! Of course, if someone accommodates you and feeds you you should recompense them. Despite their extraordinary generosity these people are far from rich. Likewise if someone offers to guide you or carry your bag on a trek you should also recompense them for their time.
Traveling around independently with no tours, staying in the cheapest accommodation and eaing island food, taking a mixture of boats and flights, you should reckon on US$40 – US$50 a day. It’s not as cheap as South East Asia but not as expensive as many other places in the Pacific.
Click here for my 1318-word blog from Port Vila, Vanuatu. See this website’s pages for individual islands in Vanuatu for links to my blogs about them.
Unlike this website’s other pages where I’ve used my own photos, I’m afraid I’ve had to use other people’s from Vanuatu as I lost my camera just after 6 weeks of island hopping in this beautiful country The photo on this page is by Elyse Patten.Tweet