A tourism time warp

17:00, May 22 2011
vanuatu
TIME WARP: Most of Vanuatu is untouched by tourism.

Daniel Scott talks to Ni-Vanuatu on Tanna Island, among the happiest people on Earth.

Beyond the capital, Port Vila, travelling among Vanuatu's collection of 83 Pacific islands is like being in a charming tourism time warp. Infrastructure is limited, roads are rough, luxury hotels a rarity and the people seemingly astonished and delighted that tourists should believe their home worthy of a visit.

On the southern island of Tanna, many Ni-Vanuatu (meaning "of Vanuatu") still follow traditional ways of life and some communities continue to worship unlikely deities, such as His Royal Highness Prince Philip.

I know I am going to have a good time on Tanna from the moment our short Air Vanuatu flight from Port Vila is delayed by the discovery of three additional passengers on board. Even the cabin attendants can see the funny side of this and when the culprits, young Japanese girls with tickets for the following day, are found, they are gently escorted from the plane, giggling furiously.

Arriving at Tanna Airport, we are met by a colourful circus of locals driving four-wheel-drive trucks, one of which I am bundled into along with my newly acquired Ni-Vanuatu guide, Nancy Kalorib, and a Queensland woman whose family comes from Tanna.

Our first island stop is at the village of Yakel Kastom, where people continue to live in the traditional way. We are met by Tomas Cia, one of the community leaders, wearing only a namba, a grass sheath covering his manhood. A confident, well-spoken ambassador for his people, he explains village life while leading us around its rudimentary grass huts, past scurrying pigs, chuckling chickens and smiling children.

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"I want to keep the traditional ways and we want to continue wearing the traditional clothes," he tells me, "but we are happy to have tourists visit."

The money generated by tourist visits buys highly prized pigs and those are then in turn used to buy wives from other traditional villages.

The longer I linger at Yakel the more I fall under its spell, although that could be partly due to the exceptionally strong, peppery bowl of root-extracted kava that I share with Cia in his lofty tree house.

Inducing a numbness of mouth and a lightness of head, the kava makes sitting in this eerie, high-above-the-jungle canopy quite dreamlike.

The peace is interrupted by Cia's mobile phone ringing. "We have mobile phones," he admits, "and a vehicle in case somebody needs to be taken to hospital urgently. But we are resisting all other parts of Western life."

Judging by the fact that Cia's grandfather lived to 115, it seems that village life is pretty healthy, too. People eat their own vegetables and fruit and on special occasions might roast a pig and indulge in the occasional kava.

People from Vanuatu are not just healthy, they're also remarkably content. According to a 2006 survey by the New Economics Foundation and Friends of the Earth, the Ni-Vanuatu are the happiest people on Earth, though the nation is close to the bottom of the table when it comes to gross domestic product. Topping the world's "happiness index" is no mean feat for a poor Pacific island nation.

Even the country's national anthem seems infectiously fun, beginning with these words:

"Yumi, Yumi, Yumi I glat blong talem se

Yumi, Yumi, Yumi I man blong Vanuatu!"

It's now more than 30 years since Vanuatu declared independence from joint British-French rule. That rule began in 1906 when the country was known as the New Hebrides. Vanuatu is the only country in the world where such an Anglo-French power-sharing agreement has existed.

After visiting Yakel I make my first acquaintance with Tanna's tricky cross-island tracks, which should not be tackled without a degree in four-wheel-driving. Thankfully, we have Jessel Niavia at the wheel, a local driver who negotiates every rut, crevice and bog with a high-pitched cackle. After a long, bone-jarring 30 kilometres, we arrive at the euphoniously named Friendly Bungalows, on the island's eastern coast. Run by Niavia's wife, Mary, who has the largest and least tooth-filled smile of any Tannese I meet, this collection of wooden bungalows set behind a beach of black volcanic sand is my home for the next two nights.

Later that afternoon, Niavia takes us to nearby Mount Yasur, described as the world's most accessible volcano because you can drive to within 100 metres of its rim. Our journey to the caldera from Friendly Bungalows involves us slithering up a treacherous muddy track, before turning left at a huge banyan tree.

These magnificent multiple-rooted and extravagantly limbed trees, sometimes centuries old, are important island landmarks across Tanna. Many villages are sited beside them and impromptu vegetable markets often spring up in the shade of their gnarly branches. Next we mount the vast volcanic plain in the shadow of the smoking giant: a grey-black wind-whipped desert that summons up the surface of Mars. Niavia speeds and zigzags across it with the aplomb and childish joy of an ageing Lewis Hamilton and it's hard not to share his exhilaration.

We arrive at the volcano as dusk is fading to inky night. After a 10-minute walk we reach the rim and look down into its fiery heart. Unfortunately for me, as the wearer of contact lenses, it immediately becomes literally "a sight for sore eyes" as ash rains down upon me and grit insinuates its way between my corneas and lenses. I stand there crying for 20 minutes watching the dim outlines of volcanic explosions from behind half-closed lids.

The following morning, the tireless Niavia takes us on a mini-tour of eastern island highlights. This includes visiting Port Resolution, an expansive turquoise-hued harbour christened by Captain Cook in 1774, and taking in some hot springs, where locals are broiling vegetables.

Ever since I decided to visit Tanna I've been intrigued by the island's cults. One community worships a fictional American named John Frum, a belief stemming from World War II, when the US had bases on Tanna.

Another group, the Yaohnanen people, have an even more peculiar totem. They believe that Prince Philip is the pale-faced incarnation of one of their ancestral spirits who left Tanna long ago to look for a bride and married a powerful woman. His Royal Highness is aware of the cult and has had limited contact with the Yaohnanen over the years, including sending them signed photographs.

They've given their deity two names, "Kapman blong ol bigfala man'o'war", in the Bislama language, and "War cowboy", the latter of which refers to his polo playing.

On my final morning on Tanna I visit Yaohnanen with Niavia. At first we find the village eerily deserted, its inhabitants attending celebrations elsewhere on Tanna. Wandering around the village, we stop at the grave of former chief Jack Naiva, who once went to Buckingham Palace to meet his idol and who died in 2008.

A little while later, a young man named Nathuan, who is Jack's grandson, arrives. Siko Nathuan, to give him his full name, has taken on Naiva's representational duties and had woken that morning intuitively knowing he must return home to meet an overseas visitor. "What we started with my grandfather," Nathuan assures me, "the relationship with Prince Philip, it is still going strong."

Nathuan now leads a community of 1769 people (it was only 500 under Naiva) and any revenues received from visits such as mine are shared among several villages and used to help disabled pikininis (Bislama for "children").

The Yaohnanen's devotion to Prince Philip is utterly sincere. Nathuan proudly shows me their collection of signed royal photographs, a British flag and other documentation pertaining to the Queen's husband.

It is this community's belief that Prince Philip will one day rule the world and that true "independence of spirit" will come to them only when he returns to Tanna. At that time, mature kava plants will sprout all over the island, there will be no sickness or death, old men will shed their skin and become young again and women will be free.

Before I leave, Nathuan asks me to convey this message to Prince Philip: "In 2011, on your 90th birthday, we would love for you to be here in person. I have been preparing a hut for your return. I know that in England you have a palace and servants. But here you will live simply like us."

I might just be a humble messenger but having spent time among these islands of smiles, I can see how His Royal Highness might be tempted by the offer.

Daniel Scott travelled courtesy of Air Vanuatu and the Vanuatu Tourism Office.

FAST FACTS

Staying there

Tanna Lodge has rooms from $168 a night and White Grass Ocean Resort from $140 a person a night. Both are relatively luxurious. See tannalodge.com and whitegrassvanuatu.com.vu.

The Friendly Bungalows on Tanna's east coast offers no-frills accommodation and has an on-site restaurant from $140 a night. See friendlybungalows.com.vu

In Port Vila, the Iririki Island Resort & Spa has bungalows over the water, modern spa suites, pools and restaurants. From $935 a person for seven nights, including breakfast.

Sydney Morning Herald