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The Republic of Vanuatu1 is a Y-shaped archipelago of 83 volcanic islands and submarine volcanoes in the area of the South Pacific Ocean called Melanesia. 2,172km (1,303 miles) northeast of Sydney, Australia and 5,750km (3,450 miles) southwest of Honolulu, Fiji lies to the east of the island group, New Caledonia to the south and the Solomon Islands to the northwest.
The major islands in the archipelago are Efate, Epi, Espiritu Santo, Pentecost, Maewo, Futuna, Malo, Ambrym, Malekula, Aniwa, Erromango, Tanna, Aneityum and the Banks & Torres Islands, all within an area of 14,700km2 and 'island-hopping'2 is undertaken by both visitors and locals due to the close proximity of all the islands. Over 75% of the population are Melanesian (ni-Vanuatu), living with British, French, Chinese, Vietnamese and other South Pacific island people. The presence of over 115 different languages and cultures make Vanuatu one of the most multicultural and linguistically diverse countries in the world. Official languages are English, French and Bislama (the local pidgin English3).
Melanesian people migrated to the islands of Vanuatu from Asia via Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, sailing in outrigger canoes and bringing with them pigs, dogs, yams and a unique culture. Evidence of human habitation on the islands can be found dating back to around 2000 BC. In 1605, the Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernández de Quirós became the first non-Melanesian to the islands. Europeans began settling the islands in the late 18th Century, after British explorer James Cook visited the islands on his second voyage in 1774. In 1906, the French and British agreed to an Anglo-French Condominium on the New Hebrides, as the islands were known.
During the Second World War, Vanuatu was the rear base of the Allied forces against the Japanese, causing an enormous influx of foreigners. American soldiers and equipment poured into Efate and Espiritu Santo, where over 100,000 servicemen were garrisoned. The influx of western visitors to the island group also contributed to the formation of Cargo Cults and development of the local pidgin English, Bislama. In the 1960s, the indigenous people started to press for self-governance and later independence; full sovereignty was granted by both European nations on 30 July, 1980.
The capital, Port Vila, is on the island of Efate and is the hub of the island chain, boasting the main international airport and a large harbour4. Other towns within the island group are Luganville on the island of Espiritu Santo, used as the main base for the Australian and American military during the Second World War and Port Olry, also on Espiritu Santo, which offers beautiful white-sand beaches.
What's great about Vanuatu?
Vanuatu is a country offering an incredible variety of adventures to the visitor: hiking through rain forests, swimming with dugongs, scuba-diving - many Second World War wrecks scatter the ocean bed, such as fighter planes, the destroyer USS Tucker and troop ship SS President Coolidge - kayaking, bungee-jumping (which originated on the islands) and discovering centuries-old culture and customs. The main attractions, however, are Vanuatu's active volcanoes, considered the most accessible in the world. Guau and Vanua Lava in the north are active almost constantly, while Aoba spurts hot lava 1,400 metres (4,500 feet) into the sky. The Ambrym and Lopevi volcanoes are permanently active but also highly dangerous. And on the island of Tanna, Yasur is magnificent to watch at night.
Much of the archipelago is mountainous, covered for the most part with tropical rainforests5. There are coral reefs and lagoons to be found, not to mention friendly locals. The native flora and fauna, both on land and in the sea around the islands, is magnificent and you can forget the rest of the world by either snorkelling around the reefs or trekking through the tropical rain forests. The marine life is beautiful, and with so many people snorkelling or diving, Vanuatu opened the world's first Underwater Post Office. Located in a marine sanctuary off Hideaway Island near Port Vila, the Post Office can receive mail delivered in person. The locals still dive for clams and pearls for market business (and the possibility of gaining a pearl or two). If you bump into a clam-diver while you're snorkelling, ask to join in, it's great fun and the meal afterwards is fantastic.
If you happen to find yourself in the middle of nowhere, on any of the islands, try walking back to the nearest town. Feel free to stop at a village and ask if a town is nearby. The locals will invariably invite you to dinner and to drink kava - more on this later. Questions about you, your country and your life will be never-ending, much like the friendly company. The exchange of gifts is not necessary, but neither is it frowned upon. The people of Vanuatu are very accepting and, as is the case in most countries - if you try to do as the locals do, you'll be met with warm hugs and smiles. Have a go at climbing trees for coconuts, or wrestling coconut crabs! Pretty much everyone wears sarongs too. So, if you don't mind wearing a skirt, go for it. Very cooling...
Food and Drink
Markets are the best way to eat in Vanuatu. Cheap and inexpensive fresh foods (often a lot better than the Western-style food sold at the restaurants and hotels), are readily available. The food may appear to be tasteless to Western palates, consisting of a lot of root crops unaffected by sophisticated gastronomy, but it is worth trying. Fish cooked in any number of ways is common fare and do be prepared if you live with locals to be presented with a fish gutted, but with the head and tail still present. You can eat fish eyeballs and live. You really can. Octopus also looks horrible but is sweet and good.
A traditional food of Vanuatu is lap-lap, a pudding made from grated manioc, yam, taro or cooking banana topped with fresh coconut milk and island cabbage, chicken, fish or pork. It is then wrapped in banana leaves and baked in an uma (underground oven). Bunya is a popular native recipe also - a mix of meat and vegetables wrapped in a coconut palm leaf and cooked in the uma. Tuluk is another delicacy of grated manioc stuffed with meat, wrapped in a leaf and also cooked in the uma. Fresh fruit and local nuts are available year round, including bananas, papaya, limes and coconuts. Mangoes, grapefruit, mandarins, pineapples, guava and others unique to the islands are available seasonally.
The markets are also the best place for good keepsakes, and the stallholders don't mind a little bartering either with vatu, the local currency, or other goods you may be willing to part with. Most market holders do like to haggle, especially if you give Bislama a go.
The traditional drink of Vanuatu is kava, made from the root of a pepper shrub (piper methysticum) and is quite probably the most potent drink the world will ever see. The root of the kava plant is crushed and mixed with water to make a bitter herbal drink that is ostensibly used to relieve mild headaches and stressful conditions. However, depending on the strength of the brew, it may have similar effects to marijuana or even LSD when drunk, and has addictive properties much like nicotine. The kava in Vanuatu is possibly the strongest in the world - it tastes so bad that it is standard practice to spit after drinking and eat a banana or a chicken foot just to clean your mouth.
Throughout Vanuatu kava bars, or nakamal, are used by the locals as places of peace and tranquility. Kava is the common beverage during social gatherings and it has long been used as a drink for welcoming guests and in celebration of any festival, significant community or family event. Almost any excuse to drink kava can be made...
Kava bars are places to be treated with the utmost respect, so do not bring a camera or arrive in an all-terrain vehicle, headlights blazing. Nor should you bring your radio to blast music or shout about how you saw some excellent shells and got messed up on tequila. If you are such a person, the local people are very polite and a little shy, so will not say a word but will try and ignore you. Although you may think your behaviour might be welcome because no one is telling you otherwise - it is not.
Different islands have different kavas and customs. Tanna kava is strong. Malekula kava is sweeter. On Espiritu Santo it is not good to step outside of the kava bar when you drink. On Efate, it's common practice to step outside and just not spit on the floor in front of everybody. Do what everyone else does and you can't go wrong. Usually.
Mi no savee
The language of Vanuatu is Bislama - a pidgin English. If you are an English speaker, it is great fun to learn. Both written and spoken Bislama has roots from the French, English and native languages. The locals will speak to you in French, as all are taught it at school - although begrudgingly. Most of the larger shop signs are written in French and Bislama, with packaged goods French language based, so a smattering of basic French is helpful when shopping.
Common Bislama Phrases
- Hello - Alo
- What is your name? - Wanem nem blong yu? (Want name belong you?)
- I want to eat - Mi wanem kakae (Me want kay-kay)
- I don't know - Mi no savee (Me no savvy)
- Where are you from? - Yu blong wea? (You belong where?)
- How's the lap-lap taste? - lap-lap i gud, o wanem? (lap-lap is good, you want?)
- It's delicious! - O i naes! Mi likum tumas! (Oh is nice! Me like too much!)
- I want a beer - Mi wanem bia (Me want beer)
- Thank you very much - Tankyu tumas (Thank you too much)
Of course there are some interesting translations too -
- bra - basket blong titi (basket belong titty)
- helicopter - mixmaster blong Jesus Christ (mixmaster belong Jesus Christ)6
And in the supermarket be sure to ask for a can of Pschitt - it's all in the pronunciation.
To get to Vanuatu, most people fly to the capital - Port Vila. Once there, a variety of modes of transport await you. Travelling around the islands is usually best by bike, scooter or taxi - all of which are notoriously clapped out and rusted from salt damage. The taxi drivers are a wealth of local knowledge and a great laugh however, so jump in a taxi just for the experience! If wanting to travel between the islands, Vanair is the main domestic airline of Vanuatu and maintains regular flights from 29 separate airports7 throughout the archipelago, with flight times ranging from twenty minutes to an hour dependent on destinations. There are also many boats for charter, anything from large speedboats through to catamarans and even the odd tin dinghy.
On any visit to Vanuatu try to avoid the following:
- Drunken tourists - self explanatory really.
- Wild pigs - they have the nasty habit of bowling you over while you trek through the rain forests.
- Cyclones, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions - hazardous to health in a way that passive smoking and poor diet aren't.
- Paying high prices - be wary of markets run by people other than locals.
For more, look in on Vanuatu Tourism.