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Vanuatu travel with author David Stanley
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Vanuatu tree fern carvings In 1980, this string of lush green islands was transformed from the ponderous Anglo-French New Hebrides Condominium into the Ripablik Blong Vanuatu. Since then, the country has expressed its independence by developing a national identity based on Melanesian kastom. It's a colorful land of many cultures, full of fascinating surprises. Make discoveries for yourself by asking any ni-Vanuatu (indigenous inhabitant) for the nearest cave, waterfall, swimming hole, hot spring, blowhole, or cliff. The general beauty and relaxed way of life are Vanuatu's biggest attractions.

No other South Pacific country harbors as many local variations. The glamorous duty-free shops, casinos, hotels, resorts, and gourmet restaurants of the cosmopolitan capital, Port Vila on Efate Island, contrast sharply with unchanging, traditional villages just over the horizon. You'll be moved and touched by the friendliness, warmth, and sincerity of the ni-Vanuatu. Away from the packaged day tours and commercial resorts, this unpolished jewel of the South Pacific islands is an ideal adventure travel destination.


The Land

Fast Facts

Vanuatu is at the east end of the Melanesian chain, 2,445 km northeast of Sydney, Australia, and 800 km west of Fiji.

Vanuatu 11 hours ahead of GMT, an hour behind New Zealand and an hour ahead of eastern Australia.

Aside from the cosmopolitan capital, Port Vila, the country's biggest attractions are the island of Tanna in the south, with its intact tribal culture and active volcano, and Santo in the north, a mecca for scuba divers.

Air Vanuatu flights from Australia arrive daily but the shortest route for North Americans is via Fiji.

Ninety-eight percent of Vanuatu's 180,000 people are Melanesians and 68 of the country's 83 islands are inhabited.

The 83 islands of Vanuatu (the name means "Land Eternal") stretch north-south 1,300 km, from the Torres Islands near Santa Cruz in the Solomons to minuscule Matthew and Hunter Islands (also claimed by France) east of New Caledonia. This neat geographical unit is divided into three groups: the Torres and Banks Islands in the north, the Y-shaped central group from Espiritu Santo and Maewo to Efate, and the Tafea islands (Tanna, Aniwa, Futuna, Erromango, and Aneityum) in the south. Together they total 12,189 square km, of which the 12 largest islands account for 93%. Espiritu Santo and Malekula alone comprise nearly half of Vanuatu's land area.

Vanuatu sits on the west edge of the Pacific Plate next to the 8,000-meter-deep New Hebrides Trench. This marks the point where the Indo-Australian Plate slips under the Pacific Plate in a classic demonstration of plate tectonics. Its islands are pushed laterally 10 centimeters a year in a northwest direction, accompanied by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. In the past three million years Vanuatu has also been uplifted 700 meters, or approximately two millimeters a year. (View a map of Vanuatu.)



Vanuatu has a hot, rainy climate - tropical in the north and subtropical in the south. The rainy season is November to April, but sudden tropical showers can occur anytime. May to July are the optimum months for hiking - cooler and drier, and June to September, evenings on the southern islands can even be brisk. The southeast trade winds blow steadily year-round, though they're stronger and more reliable April to October. During the wet season, winds from the north or west occur under the influence of hurricanes and tropical lows.

Vanuatu is the most hurricane-prone country in the South Pacific. Between 1970 and 1985 no fewer than 29 hurricanes struck Vanuatu; on average, any given locality can expect to be hit by a hurricane every other year (usually between January and April). As in other parts of the South Pacific, hurricanes have become more frequent and stronger in recent years (this may be related to climate change). The southernmost islands are less vulnerable to hurricanes, and get less rain than the hotter islands north of Efate. (Check the weather today on Efate.)


Flora & Fauna

A principal botanical curiosity of Vanuatu is giant banyan trees (nabangas), which often dominate village meeting or dancing places (nasaras), especially on Tanna. The multirooted banyan begins by growing around another tree, which it eventually strangles out of existence. pigs, Vanuatu These massive twisting mazes of trunks and vines are among the earth's largest living organisms. Also unique is a prehistoric giant tree fern called namwele, which has great cultural significance and is used in many of the large carvings sold in Port Vila.

Vanuatu's colorful reefs hold its greatest store of life, including potentially dangerous tiger sharks in some areas (especially the corridor between Ambrym and eastern Malekula). In Vanuatu sharks are associated with a particular type of magic that involves certain individuals who can either become sharks or control sharks.

Though introduced by man, the pig is now considered indigenous. Ni-Vanuatu in the central and northern islands knock out the male animal's upper canine teeth so its lower tusks have nothing to grind against, and in six or seven years the tusks grow into a full circle. The pigs are highly valued by their owners, and the meat and tusks are prized at initiation rites and feasts.


  Dateline: Vanuatu

    B.C.3000—first humans reach Vanuatu
    B.C.0700—second wave of migration from the Solomons
    1606—Spanish explorer Quirós visits Espiritu Santo
    1774—Captain Cook charts the New Hebrides group
    1825—sandalwood traders arrive in the islands
    1839—English Protestant missionaries murdered on Erromango
    1863—first ni-Vanuatu laborers taken to Australia
    1882—French companies begin acquiring native land
    1895—Australian-based trading companies arrive
    1902—British and French appoint resident commissioners
    1904—importation of Melanesian laborers to Queensland stopped
    1906—most ni-Vanuatu laborers deported from Australia
    1906—Anglo-French New Hebrides Condominium established
    1942—Americans build huge military bases against Japan
    1971—New Hebrides tax haven created
    1980—Vanuatu granted independence by Britain and France
    1982—Vanuatu closes its ports to American warships
    1983—Vanuatu declares itself totally nuclear-free
    1986—U.S. halts frozen fish imports from Vanuatu
    1987—Hilda Lini first woman elected to parliament
    1988—rioting in Port Vila as politicians vie for power
    1996—Minister of Finance fired for corruption
    1998—rioting in Port Vila over pension fund misuse
    1998—Leadership Code enacted to limit abuses of power
    2002—ex-prime minister Barak Sope convicted of forgery


The Cargo Cults of Tanna Island

The Tannese were declared converted to Presbyterianism in the early years of this century, yet just prior to WW II a movement to reestablish traditional values emerged in southern Tanna when a spirit began appearing at Green Point around sunset. Sulphur Bay, Tanna, Vanuatu In 1942, 1,000 men from Tanna were recruited by the Americans to work at military bases on Efate, and the sight of huge quantities of war materiel and black soldiers gave this movement a new meaning.

A sort of cultural hero emerged who would come from across the sea bringing wealth in abundance: Jon "from" America. As the symbol of their newfound religion, the Tannese took the red cross seen on wartime ambulances on Efate, and today the villages north of Yasur Volcano and elsewhere are dotted with little red crosses neatly surrounded by picket fences, bearing witness to this extraordinary chain of events.

The priests and prophets of these cargo cults are called "messengers," and they foretell the return of the ships laden with cargo for Man Tanna, escorted by Jon Frum, the reincarnation of an ancient deity. Towers with tin cans strung from wires, imitating radio stations, were erected so Jon Frum could speak to his people. The movement declares that money must be thrown away, pigs killed, and gardens left uncared for, since all material wealth will be provided in the end by Jon Frum.

Formerly it was felt that missionaries and government administrators had interfered with this Second Coming; thus the movement sometimes manifested itself in noncooperation with them. Beginning in 1940 the British authorities arrested cult leaders and held them without trial in Port Vila, but new devotees sprang up to take their places. There's also a Prince Philip cult among the custom people at Yaohnanen dating back to the prince's visit to what was then New Hebrides in 1974. Followers believe the prince originally came from Tanna in another form and will eventually return to rule over them.

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The overwhelming majority of tourists visit only Efate, Espiritu Santo, and Tanna, and indeed these three islands contain Vanuatu's best-known sights, including the country's only towns, Port Vila and Luganville. Tanna is acclaimed for Yasur Volcano and the Jon Frum Cargo Cult, Efate has an interesting road around its coast, and Espiritu Santo boasts one of the South Pacific's finest beaches. Ambrym is less known but outstanding for its active volcanoes. Virtually all of the islands are worth visiting by those willing to slow down and enjoy the unspoiled local environment and friendly people. It's easy to get lost and found in Vanuatu.



Scuba diving is well developed with several active dive shops in Port Vila and a couple more at Santo. Game fishing is available at Port Vila. Other active sports to pursue are windsurfing in Vila's Erakor Lagoon, horseback riding at one of the two ranches on opposite sides of Port Vila, and yachting on a charter vessel based at Port Vila. petanque, Port Villa, Vanuatu Golf is big here, with two major 18-hole golf courses on Efate and smaller resort courses at two Port Vila hotels. There's also a golf course at Santo.

All of the above is the domain of tourists, expatriates, and affluent locals; hiking is the sport most commonly practiced by the vast majority of the population, although they'd hardly think of it as such. Well-used trails exist on all the outer islands, with Tanna especially accessible in this regard. It's quite possible to hike right across islands like Tanna, Malekula, and Erromango. Hiking around Espiritu Santo is a much bigger undertaking with local guides required.

Mountain climbers should consider the active volcanoes of Ambrym: Benbow and Marum in the south and Vetlam in the north. All are quite accessible to those willing to hire local guides and pay custom fees to the local chiefs. Ambae also has a central peak worth a climb. There are many other possibilities.



Public holidays

January 1
New Year's Day
February 21
Father Walter Lini Day
March 5
Custom Chiefs Day
Good Friday & Easter Monday
Ascension Day
May 1
Labor Day
late July
Childrens Day
July 30
Independence Day
August 15
Assumption Day
October 5
Constitution Day
November 29
National Unity Day
December 25 & 26
Christmas Days

Important annual events include the Jon Frum Festival at Sulphur Bay, Tanna, on 15 February, and the Pentecost Land Dive weekly in April and May. Independence Day sees a parade, food and kava stalls, sporting events, and custom dancing in Port Vila. In addition to what follows, the Monday or Friday before Independence Day is Children's Day, also a public holiday.



Most nationalities don't require a visa for a stay of one month or less, although onward tickets are required. Both Port Vila and Luganville are ports of entry for cruising yachts.

The vatu is the unit of currency in Vanuatu; US$1 = Vt.120 approximately (the word vatu means "stone"). Inflation is low, but remember the 12.5% value-added tax, which is often added at the cash register or checkout counter.


Getting There

The country's flag carrier, Air Vanuatu, flies to Port Vila from Sydney, Nouméa, Brisbane, Honiara, Melbourne, Nadi, and Auckland.

Other airlines arriving here include Aircalin from Nouméa, Solomon Airlines from Honiara, and Air Pacific from Nadi. The most direct route from North America is on Air Pacific's nonstop Los Angeles-Nadi service, connecting in Fiji for Vanuatu. Air Pacific also offers connections to/from Tokyo. A departure tax of Vt.2,500 in local currency is payable on international flights (often included in the ticket price).


Getting Around

Vanair flight, Tanna, Vanuatu Government-owned Vanair offers more than 150 weekly services to 29 airstrips on 18 islands, with four 20-passenger Twin Otters based at Port Vila and Espiritu Santo. You can fly from Port Vila to Espiritu Santo four times a day, once or twice daily via Norsup. Flights from Port Vila to Tanna run three times a day, via Ipota or Dillon's Bay once or twice weekly.

Interisland boat travel is far less common and more difficult in Vanuatu than it is in Fiji or Solomon Islands. Taking a boat from Port Vila to Luganville isn't really for the transportation, as it's not that much cheaper than the plane and the journey takes three or four days on deck (no cabins available). It's only worth considering for the experience of the voyage itself, and you do get to see the coastlines of many remote islands at stops along the way.

abridged from the 8th edition of Moon Handbooks South Pacific
Copyright © 1999, 2004 David Stanley, reproduction prohibited

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