On island time

The Age, Australia/October 1, 2008

It's not often a tourist is welcomed as an offering of the gods. But in parts of Vanuatu you may enjoy the protection of a minor, local deity.

The spirit of Jon Frum and the cargo cult is alive and well, but looks a little different these days in Republik blong Vanuatu (the Republic of Vanuatu).

Frum was once symbolised by the US marines delivering essential supplies to the starving, wartorn islands; dropping treasures from the sky. These days he takes on the shape of international tourists, bringing business and dollars to some of the loveliest places on Earth. It's a far cry from the days - some oldies still remember it - when islanders were more interested in headhunting (see section below - The Headman).

Now, Vanuatu is hot - and that's not just the climate.

Vastly improved air services (thank you, Sir Richard) have brought the capital Port Vila within five hours of Melbourne.

Gourmet restaurants, well-stocked boutiques and luxurious resorts are ready to meet the new Jon Frums.

So, Jon who? Frum achieved the status of a deity in WWII when US transport planes delivered food and other essentials to troops and islanders fighting the Japanese. Islanders would look up to the sky to greet the mysterious food parcels and reason that the gods were smiling at them. They made Frum the chief god of the cargo cult - Jon Frum Amerika.

The cult survives on smaller islands such as Tanna, and the notion that everything will turn out all right drives the whole island chain.

With a climate that's never too hot, never too cold, a sea that is almost too blue and palm trees that sway just like they should, it's easy to slip into local ways. This was made clear to me the first time I met Avok Hungai.

Avok is the distinguished, elderly gentleman who drives the little open-top ferry across Port Vila harbour to the island resort of Iririki. It's just a five minute cruise - enthusiastic young visitors sometimes swim across - and Avok has been making the trip day and night for 17 years."I have been told I have the best job in the world," he says. "But sometimes I think maybe it could be just a little better. If I could sleep while I was driving - now that would be tres bon."

Like many other Ni-Vanuatu (the people of our land), Avok slips comfortably between English, French and Bislama, the local pidgin. He remembers the time when his country was ruled in lunatic comic-opera style as a British- French condominium, when the "big house" on Iririki was the home of the British administrator; his French counterpart lived in a mansion on the mainland. Peace-craving surveyors ensured the two buildings were exactly the same height above sea level, but relations became strained when the Brits increased the height of their flagpole. Sacre bleu! In 1980 Vanuatu won its independence and now happily mixes its traditional, easygoing charm with a British fondness for rules and regulations and the French love of food, wine and the good life.

Vanuatu is a necklace of 87 sleepy islands stretching and yawning in the South Pacific. From sub-tropical to definitely tropical, the chain runs for almost 1000 kilometres between New Caledonia and Fiji.

For decades it missed out on the jetset's Bali-Fiji-Tahiti itineraries but it has arrived in the 21st century in time to snare visitors who want something different from wet T-shirt contests and bars that could be in St Kilda.

New Zealanders will feel at home on Pentecost Island - this is where they pinched the idea of bungee jumping from locals who have been proving their manhood with the rite for centuries. Thrill-seekers will relish the opportunity to scramble up the sides of the world's most accessible active volcano on Tanna, and scuba divers will love Espiritu Santo for the chance to explore sunken warships.

But while the local administrators have been gearing up for this tourist-led invasion, in the villages and tribal settlements the people still cling to the old ways. There is an affinity with the land and the ocean to confront the influx of mobile phones and hamburgers, and the locals have evolved a combination of Christianity and animism that - they say - works well for them.

You can pick and choose holidays in this sprawling archipelago. For large doses of local culture and to embrace the environment, pick the smaller islands - perhaps Pentecost or Malekula. For the best beaches, lobster and crab, go way up north to Torres Island. To dive among sunken ships, your base should be Espiritu Santo, which has the nation's second city - Luganville.

But for a fascinating blend of French culture and cuisine with a laid-back South Pacific lifestyle, your best bet is the most obvious place - the capital and airport destination of Port Vila on Efate. While you're there, say bonjour to Avok Hungai - unless he's asleep. FAST FACTS

When to go: If you like it hot - November to March. If you like it to stay between 18-26 degrees - April to October.

Entry: Australians don't need a visa, but do need a return or ongoing ticket and at least four months left on their passport.

Money: Australian dollars are accepted in Vila and Luganville. Westpac and ANZ banks have branches in Vila. Visa and Mastercard are accepted by most traders.

Banks and moneychangers will exchange for the Vatu.

Electricity: 240V.

Getting around: Mini buses and taxis. Inter-island schedules operated by Vanair. Boats link all islands at about half the price of flying.

Health: Malaria is endemic - consult your GP before leaving Australia. Take plenty of heavy duty sunscreen.

Hospitals in Vila and Luganville are under-resourced.

Buy quality travel insurance.

Language: More than 120 languages and dialects. Official languages are Bislama (pidgin), English and French.

Tipping, haggling: Neither is considered good form.

Opening hours: Most shops open from 7.30am to 5pm; larger supermarkets to 7pm. There's often a midday siesta. Everything works on island time, so relax.

Restaurants, bars: Port Vila has the widest range of excellent waterfront establishments. Vanuatuan beef and seafood are highly regarded. French-style cafes are everywhere. In Port Vila - Tilly's, Vila Chaumiere, Port Vila Pub, Michener's, L'Houstalet (if you can stomach flying fox). In Luganville on Espiritu Santo - the food stalls at the market, Bougainville Restaurant, Natangora Bakery. Local beers are called Tusker and Vanuatu - each is excellent.

Bringing back: Some items such as turtle products and shells are not allowed into Australia. Some artifacts may require a quarantine certificate. Such items may be sprayed on re-entry to Australia.

Duty free: Liquor is cheap at several stores in Vila. It will be sealed and delivered to your plane on departure.

Locally made garments are good buys - lightweight, vividly coloured.

Dream resort: Iririki (www.iririki.com) has a three-night special for $390 a couple, including twin-share bungalow accommodation with free upgrades where possible, full buffet breakfasts daily and a two-course dinner for two.

Cannibalism: You should be pretty safe.

Bali Ha'i: No matter what they say in Tahiti or Bali, this is where James Michener set his Tales of the South Pacific, with Ambae as his Bali Ha'i.

Get there: With Pacific Blue. Leaves Melbourne Mondays, returns eight days later. Or Air Vanuatu from Sydney each day except Tuesday and Thursday.


I felt sorry for him. He had flown from Melbourne to Port Vila, hired by the airline to provide an insight into his nation's culture. But he looked uncomfortable.

As you would, if you were wearing a grass skirt, war paint and very little else.

On the Pacific Blue Boeing 737, among the holidaymakers and business travellers, Johnson Kawa Sausiara was obviously from another world. Soon I would be there too.

A fe hours later a little bus rattled along a dusty road, through plantations that merged with trees that suddenly became jungle at the end of the road. We disembarked, five tourists, treading cautiously, peering into the darkness of the rainforest.

Then came a scream and a warrior dropped from a tree just two metres away. He was brandishing a spear and summoning backup from other warriors. We knew - we hoped - it was all a show for tourists, but it was still a chilling moment.

Within seconds Johnson materialised from the tangle of a vast banyan tree and the bellowing warriors fell silent. He greeted us with a half-smile.

"Now you are in my world," he said. "This is the village of our spirits. You are walking where cannibals walked."

Iarofa village is on Efate, in the centre of the string of islands that form the republic of Vanuatu, formerly the New Hebrides. Just dots in the Pacific, due east of Cairns, the islands have been in the world's gaze as the setting for a series of Survivor.

Johnson knows about the program, and a great deal more about surviving. His role as director of the Iarofa village is to make sure that the islanders' ancient culture survives the onslaught of tourism - more than 60 per cent of visitors are from Australia.

"We are just a small race of people, but we have a long history," he says.

"Much of it has involved tribal war and cannibalism. All that is gone now."

Gone, but not forgotten. He reaches to a rock shelf and picks up a human skull. Other heads share the ledge; sacred objects in a sacred place that would normally be taboo to westerners or even other local tribes.

"This man was killed in a tribal war," Johnson says, indicating a crack where the skull has been pounded by a war stick. "It is not very long since the last acts of cannibalism were carried out in Vanuatu. Some older people still remember it."

Life in Vanuatu's larger towns has changed in recent years, but most people still live traditional lives in small villages; typically with less than 50 inhabitants. The clan system dictates lifestyle, and lands are owned by extended families and governed by chieftains.

From 1906 to 1980 Vanuatu was the Condominium of the New Hebrides, jointly administered by British and French colonial governments. In WWII more than 100,000 troops were positioned around the island chain - the largest US base in the Pacific outside Hawaii.

International tourism has made its mark throughout the archipelago, where, despite the best endeavours of Christian missionaries, the old ways survive in many places.

Johnson and his clan look to the earth and the sea for sustenance. Villagers in Iarofa, just five kilometres from hectic Port Vila, Vanuatu's capital, can pass on many things: the right time to give coconut milk to an ailing child; how to catch enough fish for a tribal feast; the best trap for a wild boar; the antidote to the venom of a stone fish. Johnson can show you how to make a fish net from spider webs and how to make a razorsharp axe from a piece of rock. If you're interested, he'll also tell you the best way to bring up teenagers and teach them to look after you when you're old.

"There is a reason and a balance to everything in our culture," says Johnson. "It teaches respect for the land and the rivers and the sea. Without them there can be no people.

"Strangers might not last very long here. They are surrounded by food, but some of that food might kill them. We know how to take the poison out so we can eat it.

"We have many healing things that your doctors might be interested in. We know we are all going to die, but we want to live as long as possible."

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