Vanuatu weaves its old black magic
A nine-year-old boy sprawls on an oversized leaf in a jungle clearing shaded by an enormous banyan tree.
Two muscular men slowly lift the leaf waist-high.
The mischievous child, supported only by the leaf, smiles and winks at 20 spellbound tourists who are visiting the "black magic village" of Latun on Vanuatu's Tanna island.
A stern glare from one of the leaf-clutching tribesmen is enough to make the kid adopt a more appropriately sombre expression.
Another tribesman effortlessly rips up similar-looking leaves to demonstrate their flimsiness.
"Black magic gives these leaves incredible strength," he insists. "We've used leaves to carry heavy items in this way for thousands of years."
A few sceptics among the tourists aren't so sure, suggesting there are two types of similar-looking leaves - one weak and one strong. We're being conned.
But the majority of holidaymakers disagree, maintaining that they're witnessing tribal black magic.
Other examples of black magic precede a song-and-dance performance and a kava-drinking opportunity.
A mud-coloured liquid, it's made from pounded roots of Piper methysticum (a plant related to pepper) mixed with water.
Soporific non-alcoholic kava numbs the lips and tongue. It's drunk socially, in age-old ceremonies and as traditional medicine.
Vanuatu's kava is commonly believed to be stronger than that from Fiji or elsewhere in the Pacific.
And, say locals, the most potent kava in all of Vanuatu is grown on Tanna - where belief in black magic, sorcery, spells and cargo cults is also strongest.
Cargo cults? Anthropologists explain that these small localised religions evolve when stone-age lifestyles collide with modernity.
Several other South Pacific nations, including Papua New Guinea, have cargo cults. But Vanuatu has even more - mostly on Tanna.
Followers believe that the entity they worship will one day bring great riches - money, aircraft, electrical appliances and shiploads of sugary drinks.
Tanna's cargo cults incorporate black magic into their rituals.
Islanders are proud of their beliefs and readily explain them to growing numbers of tourists.
Vanuatu, by the way, bills itself as the "happiest place on earth". Poor in monetary terms, it has topped the New Economic Foundation's Happy Planet Index, which evaluates nations according to environmental, cultural and nutritional factors.
On a previous visit, I sit under a tree in a village called Yaohnanen and listen to chief Jack Naiva explain why his 300-plus followers worship Britain's Prince Philip as God. They pray to him and sing hymns about the Duke of Edinburgh.
According to chief Jack, Prince Philip is the reincarnation of a man who lived on Tanna many centuries ago.
"He's very powerful in black magic and sorcery," confides chief Jack about the 92-year-old Buckingham Palace resident.
But, on a recent visit to Yaohnanen, I learn that chief Jack has died and his son, Nathuan now leads the cult.
Then there's chief Aisak Wan, elderly leader of the 500-strong John Frum cult in the village of Namakara.
When American troops left Tanna at World War II's end, a friendly departing soldier shouted that he was "John from America" and would be back.
"John from" was misheard as "John Frum". A cult sprang up, unperturbed by the soldier's failure to return.
Some followers say John Frum lives in the United States. Others believe his spirit resides in Tanna's active Yasur volcano.
The cult worships not just John Frum - but everything American.
Tourists take tours to watch bizarre parade ground drills with cultists pretending to be American troops and raising the US flag.
Beliefs in ancient spirits are strong throughout this 83-isle archipelago, particularly on Tanna, Ambrym and Malekula.
However, even on Efate - where Port Vila, the capital, and many resorts are located - belief in spirits and black magic endures.
At the Secret Garden, on Port Vila's outskirts, I see holidaying families strolling past enclosures displaying live coconut crabs (a Vanuatu delicacy) and other local wildlife, including parrots, flying foxes (fruit bats, also a delicacy) and non-venomous pythons.
Paths through tropical gardens feature boards explaining elements of history and culture - and the continuing role of black magic.
The biggest lure at the Secret Garden, however, is a black magic demonstration. One example: a jungle shrub is carried to a clearing and planted in a shallow hole.
Tourists volunteer to pull the shrub from the ground but none succeed in doing so. Their failure is attributed to black magic.
At a coffee shop in downtown Port Vila I chat to a local resident who assures me that people who die are sometimes reincarnated as flying foxes with the ability to cast spells on humans.
It's a claim I've heard many times before in a country where belief in black magic remains strong.
IF YOU GO
STAYING THERE: A big choice of hotels and resorts is available in and near Port Vila. Several hotels and resorts operate on Tanna and Espiritu Santo, with B&Bs on some other islands.
Tanna's top resort is the Australian-managed White Grass Ocean Resort, a garden-setting, mid-market property.
PLAYING THERE: On Tanna visit traditional-style "custom villages" and still-spewing Yasur volcano - as well as herds of wild horses. The island of Espiritu Santo is famed for shipwreck diving and military memorabilia.
Pentecost Island inspired bungy-jumping and April-June initiation ceremonies attract many tourists to eyeball young men leaping from tall towers with vines fastened around their ankles.
Adventurous diners should visit L'Houstalet, one of Port Vila's top restaurants, a provincial-style French eatery where the menu includes flying fox in red wine sauce. A useful website is vanuatu.travel.
The writer travelled as a guest of the Vanuatu Tourism Office.