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The Spirit of Vanuatu

April 18, 2014

The romance of Vanuatu isn't found merely in its upscale resorts and deep-blue seas, but also its dark and abiding Melanesian history. Island-hop the happy-go-lucky archipelago of coconut crabs, klevers and the cult of Prince Philip. Story and photos by Ian Lloyd Neubauer

Published on Apr 9, 2014

With its candy-colored buildings, bustling farmers' market and sultry seaside location, Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, has the look and feel of a reggae video. The city, if one can call it that, was established in the late 19th century as the administrative center of an Anglo-French venture known as the New Hebrides. At first a bastion of law and order, Port Vila descended into a veritable pirate's den during World War I, when the then-superpowers turned their attention to the Western Front. Impromptu horse races tore down the main drag and drunks fired pistols at random targets and into the sky, while slaves were traded with the throw of a hand of cards at the notorious Bloodhouse Bar. Yet even these antics were eclipsed by the depravities of the outer islands, where human sacrifice and cannibalism were rife. A number of high-profile Europeans, particularly missionaries, were roasted on the spit—even though they weren't especially savored by the connoisseurs of human flesh. "The natives allege that this is because the whites taste bad," wrote Swiss anthropologist Felix Speiser in 1923. "He stinks of gin. He eats too much salt."


Who would've guessed that such a debauched nearcaricature of old Oceania would, 80-odd years later, be the paradisiacal, warm and inviting society topping the 178 contenders in 2006's inaugural Happy Planet Index? (The study assesses a country's environmental footprint, and its residents' life expectancy and wellbeing.) "People are happy here because they are very satisfied with very little," Mark Lowen, an Australian journalist based in Vanuatu said. "This is not consumer-driven society. Life here is about community and family and goodwill to other people."

The gross domestic happiness of its people—and, as I experienced, their genuine embrace of foreigners—remains unchanged. "Our salaries are very low," says bus driver David Carcasses, "but we have everything we need." Despite the fact that they pay no income taxes—something surely high on many people's happiness meters—"you will never see a person go hungry or begging in Vanautu." Adds yam farmer Heston Bebe: "Life here is timeless."

Vanuatu island

That means subsistence agriculture and fisheries for the vast majority of its 250,000 people, who are scattered about 83 velvet-green islands ringed in coral reefs. A patchwork of tropical forests edged by beaches and translucent seas home to more than 4,000 species of marine mollusks, 450 kinds of reef fish and 300 species of coral, this South Seas archipelago is a virtual Garden of Eden. It's an opinion shared by the few thousand cruise passengers and honeymooners who visit Vanuatu every week to shop in Port Vila and to ensconce themselves in full-service resorts elsewhere on the main island of Efate. "Vanuatu used to sell itself exclusively as a honeymoon destination," says Troy Spain, a retired postal officer from Sydney whooperates an abseiling business at Mele Waterfall. "But they were selling the country short of everything else it has to offer." Indeed, beyond this tiny Pacific nation's welltraveled confines lies a rich Melanesian culture steeped both in religion and magic with a dark but fascinating colonial history.

Cannibalism in the New Hebrides was stamped
out by missionaries in the 1920's, but sorcery remains ingrained in the national psyche. Witchdoctors, known as klevers, are often contracted by Vanuatuans to protect them against the spirits of the recently deceased, to deliver bumper crops and to concoct love spells. Malicious klevers can also be called upon to rain misfortune or bad health upon one's foes using small stones baring the likeness of human faces called nakaemas.

"At first I didn't believe, but there have been many cases with people killed by witchcraft in Vanuatu," says Benna Vores, a law student I meet in Port Vila. "When the doctors performed the autopsies, they saw that internal organs had been replaced by leaves."

Vores helped me set up a meeting with a klever but when we rendezvous, he informs me without irony that the klever can't see me because he's sick with a cold. This being a Sunday, Vores offers to take me instead to a mass held by a chapter of The Revival Fellowship on the outskirts of town.

The service is held in Bislama—a comical creole of English, French and Spanish (the term for brasserie is basket blong titi; french fries are chipypotato)—but sees churchgoers enter a kind of spasm and spew prayers in an unintelligible gobbledegook: "The Bible says he who speaks in an unknown tongue speaks not to man but to God," says Jimmy Langa, a parishioner I meet. "When I speak in tongues, my mind is not there. I cannot understand but the Devil can't understand it either. It's the language of the Holy Spirit. It comes from the heart."

Coconut crab

My soul now nourished, I return to the waterfront to do the same for my body at one of Port Vila's 50-some restaurants, cafés and bars. Grass-fed antibiotic-free beef from the island of Espiritu Santo is a favorite among tourists, though the locals prefer wild pigeon or flying fox. These gamey dishes are marinated in red wine at L'Houstalet, Port Vila's most talked-about French-Melanesian restaurant. When I go there I opt instead for the deliciously sweet meat of coconut crab. With fist-size pincers used to crack open, as you might have guessed, coconuts, these shellfish are hazardous to hunt. THESE CRABS CAN BE DANGEROUS AND CAN EASILY CUT OFF YOUR FINGER IF PROVOKED, warns a sign posted on a cage housing a coconut crab at the Secret Garden, a family friendly cultural attraction on Efate's south coast.

After a few days in Port Vila, I head to Havannah Bay, a sheltered strait encircled by islets on Efate's north coast. There, I check-in to The Havannah, a chic boutique resort that would look right at home in Seminyak. It features 16 luxuriously appointed bungalows, a two-tiered infinity pool and open-air restaurant with oversize red sofas. Hardwood table settings freckle the garden and private beach, though the best spot in the house is on a glassbottom pavilion set into the jetty. The Havannah's contingent of complimentary activities boggles the mind: sunset catamaran cruises in waters bubbling with bottlenose dolphins; guided treks through coast-hugging jungle; and transfers to secluded beaches on Tranquillity Island on the other side of the bay.

Tranquillity has a small bungalow complex, a dive center, and the longest-running Hawksbill turtle-breeding program in the South Pacific. Devoid of development, roads and electricity, the island a great place to disconnect.

"If you think Tranquillity is laid-back, then you've got to get yourself the outer islands," says Victoria Maclean, The Havannah's assistant manager. "There are villages there that have laws against modern inventions and people who live 100 percent traditional lives. The men still wear penis sheaths and women wear grass skirts. I can't imagine there are many places outside Papua New Guinea or the depths of the Amazon Jungle like that."

I take Maclean's advice and book an overnight
trip to Tanna Island in Vanuatu's south where I walk around the crater of Mount Yasur, one of the world's most accessible active stratovolcanoes. Tanna is also home to the Prince Philip cult that recognizes the husband of Queen Elizabeth II as the living incarnation of the son of a mountain-dwelling spirit and worships him as a god.

I also visit Pentecost Island, an hour's flight to the north, where I see men throw themselves off a 30-meterhigh bamboo tower with vines tied to their feet in a centuries-old coming-of-age ceremony. The land divers of Pentecost inspired the modern-day extreme sportsmen who invented bungee jumping but, done Vanuatu-style, the stakes are markedly higher. Fatalities may be rare (the last was reported in 2006), but ruptured spleens, concussions and dislocated bones are par for the course. In my heart of hearts, I know I would never have the balls to do this, let alone walk around all day in a penis sheath.

A centuries-old coming-of-age ceremony

On my last day, I take a speedboat to Lelepa Island where I spend the day snorkeling over Technicolor reefs, stuffing myself on barbecued fish and sunbaking on secluded, sunkissed, sugar-white beaches. As I lie there, palm trees behind me, warm water rushing between my toes, a cloudless blue sky reflected on the swell, I think there is nowhere left to travel after this, nothing to say, nothing to do but sit back and soak it in, one soft, glassy wave at a time.

Like so many of Vanuatu's islands, Lelepa is more than just pretty face. My guide Albert Solomon shows me a plant with anesthetic properties used to soothe toothaches and a tree used to make outrigger canoes. He takes me deep into the jungle to see the twisted remains of a Scout Bomber Douglas—one of 300 U.S. Air Force planes that crashlanded in the New Hebrides during World War II. He leads me into a 100-meter-deep cave used as a leper colony in the early 20th century following an outbreak attributed to European missionaries. And he tells me how Lelepa's 500 residents bathed in the international spotlight when the American and Australian versions of the TV series Survivor were filmed here in 2004 and 2006 respectively. "When we saw them trying to open a coconut, some people laughed so hard they could not breathe," Solomon says. "They still make jokes and laugh about it today."

Most Vanuatuans are softly spoken and reserved, though there is a small, highly vocal minority that takes pleasure in rocking the boat. Solomon fits into the latter archetype and is non-stop with the jokes, especially when the subject of cannibalism is broached. "You're a journalist?" he enthuses. "Fantastic! Please send more tourists to come and visit Lelepa Island. The last group that came here was delicious."

Outrigger kayaking on Lelepa
Outrigger kayaking on Lelepa


T+L Guide

Getting There

Vanuatu Air ( flies from Sydney to Port Vila, Efate Island, daily. Melanesian Tours ( offer airport transfers and ground transport elsewhere on Efate.

The Havannah; A boutique resort on Efate's northwest coast; +678 551 8060;; villas from A$420; dinner for two from A$24. Iririki Island Resort; On a private island on Port Vila Harbour; +613  9326 6579;; waterfront bungalows from A$318; candlelit balcony three-course dinners for two A$100. Tranquillity Dive Resort; Ecoproperty on Tranquillity Island; +678 25 020;; palm-thatch bungalows with meals A$120 per person; introductory dive A$60.

Élan Stylish; waterfront eatery in Port Vila; try the Vanuatuan aged organic eye fillet, lobster stack or clam chowder; Wharf Rd.; +678 25 526; dinner for two from A$60.  L'Houstalet Restaurant; iconic 40-year old French restaurant on Route de Lagon, Port Vila; +678 22 303; house specialties: flying fox in red wine A$25, coconut crab in garlic sauce A$35.

Coongoola Day Cruise; +678 25 020;; day trips to secluded coves on Tranquillity Island aboard a 23-meter sailing ketch with barbecue lunch and snorkeling gear A$120. Mele Cascades; thirty-meter waterfall with bright-blue natural swimming pools set in tropical gardens a 15-minute drive north of Port Vila; entry A$25. Evergreen Tours; +678 23 050;; half-day tours around Efate with pick-up from Port Vila A$40.


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