Vanuatu is an elongated chain of 83 Pacific islands, scattered between the equator and the Tropic of Capricorn. Most of these islands are the summits of submerged mountain ranges rising up from the mountain floor and are covered in lush forest and often impenetrable jungle, while their narrow coastal plains are dominated by coconut plantations and other agriculture.
Vanuatu's total land area is around 12,200 sq km, with the largest islands being Espiritu Santo (4000 sq km), Malekula (2040 sq km) and the most populous island of Efate (900 sq km). Mt Tabwemasana (1879m) on Santo is the country’s highest peak, and many other peaks are higher than 1000m.
Volcanoes & Earthquakes
Vanuatu lies squarely on top of the Pacific Ring of Fire, at its westernmost edge. In fact, it is at the edge of the Pacific tectonic plate, which is being forced up and over the Indo-Australian plate. This action causes frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
Some areas of Vanuatu are being uplifted at a rate of 2cm a year, while others are subsiding. Earthquakes in 1994, 2002, 2010 and 2015 rated more than seven on the Richter scale and caused extensive damage. Others, in 1875, 1948 and 1999, created tsunamis that destroyed villages. Vanuatu has nine active volcanoes – seven on land and two under sea. The most famous is the easily accessible Mt Yasur on Tanna. Mt Garet on Gaua is potentially the most dangerous because of the thin layer of rock that separates its crater lake from magma. Both Mt Marum on Ambrym and Mt Lombenben on Ambae are monitored for activity and occasionally have locals ready to evacuate.
Apart from disease-carrying mosquitoes, Vanuatu is free of dangerous land creatures (no matter what they said on Survivor: Vanuatu). Due to the relative youth and isolation of the islands, the only native land mammals are 12 species of bat (including four species of flying fox). Only one of these – the white flying fox – is endemic.
Cats, dogs, cattle, horses, pigs and goats were all introduced to Vanuatu. Rats are the bane of village life; they cause much damage to the copra (coconut fibre) industry as well as to nesting birds.
The country’s largest resident mammal is the dugong. It's a relatively frequent visitor to Epi and Santo, though cyclones sometimes wipe out its food source, causing it to move elsewhere.
Several species of sea turtle (particularly hawksbill and green turtles) live and breed around the islands, but their meat and eggs are considered delicacies by the ni-Vans and turtle populations are dwindling. In most areas it’s now taboo to eat turtle. Many chiefs have created sanctuaries, and there’s an official breed-and-release program at Tranquillity Island, off Efate.
Brilliantly colourful schools of small species are a feature of the country’s many coral gardens and reefs. Large fish include bonito, yellowfin tuna, sailfish, barracuda and swordfish.
Vanuatu’s 121 bird species include 32 seabirds. Santo is the richest bird habitat, home to 55 species, including all seven of those endemic to Vanuatu. The Santo mountain starling is found only in Santo’s higher mountains. In contrast, the native white-eye is widespread and common throughout Vanuatu.
The most interesting of the country’s birds is the megapode, which lives close to active volcanic areas, and lays its eggs in the hot soil. Its young, which emerge fully feathered, can run immediately after hatching and can fly within 24 hours. The swamp hen, or purple gallinule, is the most common ground-dwelling bird. You may glimpse the bright-red beak, purplish-blue feathers and yellow feet as it scuttles off into the bush.
Vanuatu has 19 lizard species including Efate’s banded iguana. It grows to 1m long and has an emerald-green body with black bands.
The two types of land snake are perfectly harmless: the burrowing snake and the Pacific boa, known as the ‘sleeping snake’ because of its habit of lying absolutely still when threatened. The boa grows to about 2.5m and is coloured from silver to orange-brown. It’s fond of rats, mice and chickens, so it lives close to villages.
The only venomous snakes are the yellow-bellied and banded sea snakes. These graceful creatures are often curious but rarely aggressive. They have small mouths and teeth that aren’t at all suitable for savaging humans. Over the years saltwater (or estuarine) crocodiles have appeared around Vanuatu’s northern islands. The small ‘salty’ population is all on Vanua Lava.
Much of the country is a botanical wonderland, with 1500 species of flowers, ferns, shrubs, vines and trees. Lord of the forest is the banyan. The largest banyans are on Tanna. There are forests of mighty kauri trees up to 4m in diameter on Erromango.
Vanuatu palms include the decorative snakeskin palm and the very beautiful carpoxylon palm; both are rare and confined to southern Vanuatu. Another is the lovely natangura palm.
Orchids festoon the trees in many areas, such as along the beaches in northeastern Santo. Vanuatu has 158 species of orchid, of which about 40 are native. The best place to see them is in Aneityum in October and November. Also of interest are the ferns – all 250 species of them.
Less enchanting are the introduced weeds. Lantana and the widespread American ‘mile-a-minute’ vine are the worst. The latter was brought from the US as a camouflage plant during WWII; it’s been left to overrun everything.
Vanuatu is facing many environmental challenges, including invasive introduced species (such as the Indian myna bird), degradation of freshwater habitats, and the exploitation of many plant, animal and marine resources. The greatest problem, however, is the scarcity of fresh water on some islands, a problem exacerbated following Cyclone Pam (which destroyed rainwater tanks) and a prolonged drought.
Japanese longline nets are strung in Vanuatu’s waters and Korean fishing boats help themselves. Owners of the waters and reefs stand helpless on the rocks, waving bush knives – there’s no coastguard to call on.
Global warming is raising sea levels, which threatens arable coastal land, and climate change is throwing the seasons out of whack, resulting in reduced agricultural harvests and smaller-sized root crops.
The Vanuatu government has also allowed the multinational aquarium trade to collect tropical fish from Devil’s Point on Efate. The area has been quickly ravaged. Disney’s Finding Nemo added to the problem, with children everywhere desperate to own a clownfish. Shefa’s council of chiefs stepped in to try and stop the trade but sadly it has continued. Grazing fish such as angelfish and sea stars keep the balance of algae correct, so the problem is far more than one of stock numbers.
Steps to help the environment include dedicating resources to the marine environment, fisheries and reforestation. A code of logging practice has been established and the country has joined the International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO; www.itto.int), a group that fosters sustainable forest management.
Organisations such as OceansWatch International encourage visiting yachties to monitor the waters and educate villagers about indicators for reef health. They keep an eye out for seagrass fields, crown-of-thorns starfish (a fast-spreading pest) and the monitor the diversity of reefs. Yachties have the unique position of being able to check out the country’s less-visited villages. See www.oceanswatch.org for updates on the state of Vanuatu’s coastal areas.
Feature: Protecting the Sea
You may find yourself being taken on a very indirect route around an island. Why? It’s possible you’re passing a marine conservation area. These are well looked after by local communities and the results (more fish and turtles, mostly) speak for themselves. Protected areas include Ringhi te Suh (Maskelynes), Hideaway Island (Efate), Narong Marine Reserve (Uri Island), Mystery Island Reef (Aneityum), Nguna-Pele Marine Protected Area, Epi, Lelepa Marine Protected Area, Mangaliliu Marine Protected Area, Spuaki Conservation Area (Nguna) and Nabi Protected Area (Malekula).
Feature: Coconut Crab
The krab kokonas (coconut crab) has always been a part of local cuisine. It climbs palms and breaks off the coconuts, which split when they hit the ground. The crab scuttles down and feasts on the flesh. It’s the world’s largest land crab and matures very slowly, taking 15 years to reach harvesting size. Sadly, there’s been a serious decline in crab numbers and strict conservation measures are in force.
Coconut crabs start life in the ocean, then move into shells on the shore. As hermit crabs they move into bigger shells until they are large enough to move inland. Adult crabs generally live in forested areas near the sea. Villagers catch them by fixing split coconuts to the ground, then going back with a torch at night. While locals can pick up the crabs without losing a finger, don’t try it yourself.
Feature: Power Supply
Mains electricity in Vanuatu is limited to Efate, Luganville (Santo), Lenakel (Tanna) and Lakatoro (Malekula). The vast majority of this power is generated by imported diesel fuel, though alternatives are being developed. A US$7 million wind farm was built at Devil’s Point in 2008 and now supplies up to 15% of Port Vila’s power needs. On Santo, the hydro power project on the Sarakata River supplies up to 80% of the grid electricity for Luganville. Coconut oil is also used as an alternative to diesel on Malekula and Tanna.
On the remote outer islands and villages, power is either by diesel generator (sparingly used), solar panels (enough for basic lighting and mobile phone charging) or nonexistent.
Traditional Village Culture
If you spend all of your time in Vanuatu around Port Vila or on a resort on Santo you'll see relatively little of Vanuatu's traditional village life. But you don't have to go far into the outer islands to experience kastom (traditional) village culture. Here, pigs are a valuable commodity and magic spirits inhabit everything from volcanoes to banyan trees.
Land ownership is a big deal in Vanuatu, and it’s even more life changing with the development of the tourism industry. If you own something as frequently visited as Santo’s Champagne Beach, you'll reap the financial rewards when tourists pay to see it. In many ways, land ownership has allowed forests and natural areas to survive, as Melanesians believe the people are nurtured by their land in the same way plants and trees are. Families have the right in customary law only to occupy specific sections of land, not to sell them. These rights go back to the first ancestors who settled each district. The only way to acquire territorial rights outside one's own clan is to marry into another group. Although most kastom land is registered to males, there's no law forbidding women from owning land, and some do.
Rights to reefs and boat-landing places are similarly inherited. Fishing rights extend out from the beach or rocks as far and as deep as shoreside angling and free diving for seashells are possible. It’s all kastom – the traditional ownership of a piece of land, object or stretch of reef and the associated cultural legacies, laws and ancient ancestral religions and customs.
Since independence, only kastom owners and the government are permitted to own land, although identifying the true kastom owner can be difficult. Other islanders and all foreigners may lease land for a maximum of 75 years, which is the productive life of a coconut tree.
Subsistence farming, with hunting and fishing, has traditionally kept villagers happy and healthy. The forests are a major resource, providing medicine, food, building materials, and timber for boats and artefacts. Water is often fresh, crystal-clear, bubbling from a deep spring and gravity-fed into the village through a plastic pipe. However, some areas rely on rainwater, which is almost always in short supply.
Each village is a group of extended family members, their small houses set around a nakamal (meeting house and kava bar). Before the sun rises, the wives light the family’s fire, food is prepared, and then family members go to the gardens and the young children to school. Teenagers leave the village to attend boarding school, or to live with maternal uncles perhaps. Many young people head for Port Vila, but just as many move back to their traditional homes where they can grow food, hunt pigs and care for families.
School fees for secondary education are expensive. Private cargo boats time their trips around the islands to collect copra (coconut fibre) for just before the school fees are due every three months, because they know the islanders will have been working hard and crops will be plentiful. Coffee beans are also harvested from the bush just before the school fees are due, as are the cocoa and vanilla beans. School fees may be exempted in times of hardship, as they were following Cyclone Pam in 2015.
The other driving force for tending to cash crops is the need to provide a huge feast for boys’ circumcision rites.
Who Does What?
In Vanuatu men acquire pigs so they can throw feasts in order to keep the people who eat at their feast beholden to them. Once, the ultimate challenge was to provide a human for the feast, creating a much greater debt for those who partook. Men, therefore, had to be powerful warriors to acquire the sacrificial feast components (and to avoid ending up as the main course themselves).
Women work hard, traditionally tending to the men, the children and the pigs. Most of the islands don’t have electricity, so they struggle to prepare food and to keep their families clothed, fed and clean. They work as a group, outside the male bastion.
The children are responsible for the younger ones. They are safe in the villages, and their endless play trains them for later life. Watch a toddler with a bush knife, a young child leaping from a boulder into a pool, a preschooler with a baby on the hip.
Families share their children, raising a relative's child, sending their own to live on a different island, adopting a teenager. This creates a wide family network throughout the islands.
This is where the English word ‘taboo’ comes from, and it means ‘sacred’ as well as ‘forbidden’. In its simplest form, tabu can mean ‘no entry’ when written across a doorway. Failure to observe tabu could require the payment of pigs, or even the death of the transgressor.
Many tabu relate to traditional ceremonies and the particular parts that women and uninitiated men are barred from seeing. In some areas a woman may not stand higher than a male; nor may she step over a fire because its smoke – while she’s standing in it – may rise higher than a man. Men may not deliberately place themselves below a woman.
Menstruation and birth are surrounded by tabu. Most traditional villages have an area set aside for both childbirth and menstruating women. For a woman in a kastom village to go fishing while pregnant is a serious breach of tabu. The penalty could be a hefty fine (paid in pigs to the chief) or expulsion from the village. In the past the transgressor would have been killed. It’s forbidden for men to visit the women’s tabu part of the village.
Magic & Spirits
Many ni-Vans believe their world to be populated by ancestral spirits and demons. The ghosts of the recently dead are considered especially potent as well as being potentially malicious, even towards their own family.
The practice of magic is generally tabu for women, but most adult men in the traditional parts of Vanuatu know a few useful spells. These may be used to further love affairs or to produce good crops. A practising magician is employed for more specialised tasks such as raising or calming storms, healing the sick, banishing spirits or controlling volcanoes.
Dances & Ceremonies
Watch the village dances; feel the earth vibrating under feet stamping to the beat. There are two types of dances. In the first, each dancer becomes an ancestor or legendary figure, not human, so the dance and dress are similarly nonhuman and involve elaborate masks or headdresses, such as in the Rom dances of Ambrym.
The second type of dance has themes such as gathering food, hunting, and war or death, as in the extraordinary Toka celebrations of Tanna.
All dances require constant rehearsals. The timing is exquisite, the movements regimented – everyone turning, leaping, stomping together – so harmony and cooperation develop between people and villages.
Male dancers perform wearing nambas (penis wrappers) or mal mal (T-pieces); women dancers wear grass skirts.
Initiation takes a child straight into adulthood. Boys, usually aged from 10 to 12, are secluded in a special hut for several weeks, during which time circumcision takes place. When their wounds have healed, they return to their families amid much feasting.
Grade-taking is a system of ceremonies and pig-kills where a tribal man rises in the village hierarchy – ultimately, perhaps, becoming chief. The higher a man rises in his grades, the greater must be the number and value of the pigs he kills. To become valuable, a boar is first castrated and its upper teeth removed. Then it is hand-fed – and kept tied up to prevent it foraging or fighting – for seven years, until its tusks complete a circle and penetrate the jaw (very painful).
A ni-Vanuatu chief acts as a justice of the peace and as a delegate for the people of the village. His word is law. Even politicians must do what the chief says when they go back home.
The Malvatumauri (National Council of Chiefs) is an elected group of chiefs from Vanuatu’s regions. Their role is to discuss matters relating to custom and tradition. However, their power in government is limited, as legislation doesn’t have to be approved by them.
These days many of the village chiefs are elected, though in northern areas chiefs achieve this status through the nimangki system, which allows men who can afford to hold pig-killing ceremonies to gain authority in the village.
About eight months to a year after a chief’s death, the Small Nambas in south-central Malekula would give him a new body, or rambaramp. This was built by overmodelling – covering a frame with vegetable fibre and clay. To ensure the rambaramp’s face looked like the dead man, the skull was removed from his decomposing body and overlaid with clay.
The rambaramp was painted all over in red, white and black, and fitted with armbands, feathers, armlets, a namba (penis wrapper) and a bark belt.
Finally it was displayed for one day only. The men danced before the rambaramp, dressed as spirits, covered with strands of smoked ferns, their heads shrouded in spider webs or green moss. Then the rambaramp was returned to the nakamal (meeting house and kava bar), where it remained until it fell apart.
The ritual of rambaramp died out with conversion to Christianity, although you’ll find good examples on display in Port Vila’s cultural centre.
The village nakamal is a men’s clubhouse or meeting house with two rooms: one room where men meet at the end of the day, and the other room that often contains ancestral skulls and other sacred objects. In most areas, the nakamal is where men meet at sunset to talk and drink kava. It may be an open-ended hut or as simple as a space beneath a banyan.
Art & Music
With 83 isolated islands, it’s hardly surprising that Vanuatu’s art and traditions vary from island to island, and this diversity contributes to the country’s unique cultural identity. Ni-Vanuatu art focuses on the human form and traditional interpretations of what ancestral figures looked like. The most important ni-Vanuatu artefacts are made in preparation for nimangki grade-taking ceremonies.
While wood is the main material used for carving, objects are also formed from tree fern, stone and coral. Serious carving is almost entirely undertaken for ceremonies, while items for sale are usually small copies of the real thing. The best carvings come from north Ambrym.
Clubs & Weapons
War clubs are made to designs attributed to an ancestral cultural hero. To alter a basic shape is considered a breach of kastom (tradition). Pig-killing clubs are shaped like mattocks, with two stylised faces carved on either side. Carved bows and arrows, and traditional ceremonial spears can be found in the village of Mele and on the island of Ifira, both near Port Vila.
Bowls, Poles & Walking Sticks
Large platters and bowls are used to pound yams and kava in, or to serve laplap (a staple dish). Some, such as those from the Shepherd Islands, are carved like birds or fish.
Some chiefs use carved wooden staffs as badges of office and walking sticks are made with figurines in place of handles.
Exquisite model canoes with sails fashioned from dried pandanus leaves come from Makura in the Shepherds. Atchin islanders (off Malekula) carve their miniature canoes complete with figureheads.
Tall statues made from tree ferns, or black palms, are made on Ambrym, Malekula and Gaua. They represent both male and female ancestral figures and are carved for nimangki ceremonies. They’re often painted in different colours, using tints extracted from vegetable dyes and crushed shells; the choice of colours depends on the grade being taken.
The island of Malekula produces some of the most colourful and dynamic ceremonial masks. Dancing masks worn by men of high rank are carved from tree ferns, as are masks for funerals, nimangki ceremonies or boys’ initiations. Other ceremonial headdresses are built using a human skull for the base and surmounted by tall feathers. In the past, many headdresses were burnt after use.
String bands developed during WWII, when ni-Vans were exposed to US soldiers playing bluegrass. Local lads added the bush bass, made from a converted tea chest; the bongo; the tambourine; and a ratchet made from bamboo. Some bands use a xylophone of water-filled bottles. The singing is done with a pinched throat, forming a high-pitched lyrical note. Songs are improvised about life. For example, when Nguna’s local band sings, ‘Poor Saykem, caught in a current, canoe is filling, sharks are swimming, Poor Saykem, Poor Saykem,’ it captures a dramatic moment when an old fisherman had to be rescued. Book in for a Melanesian feast in Port Vila to guarantee a listen; these also usually feature kastom dancing.
Musicians have contributed to the country’s economy and are getting recognition, with sound studios and training rooms being established on many islands, notably the charitable Canal Studio on Santo.
Contemporary music to listen out for includes Nauten Boys of Tanna (‘Jewel in a Crown’); Vanessa Quai, an international award winner (see The Best of Vanessa Quai); Natano Pasifika, featuring Mars Melto; and Chocolate Strings featuring singer-guitarist Ofa Fanaika.
Young ni-Van men make their own instruments, and join together to form local string bands. If you are fortunate enough to buy, say, a homemade guitar, you will be surrounded by interested strangers asking if they may play it for you at mostly every cafe, bus stop or airport. The downside is when your waiter tells you there’s no fish on today’s menu as the fishers have all left to play in a string band.
Ni-Van women have not, to date, been encouraged to play musical instruments, but the women of Gaua use the ocean to play water music. You can watch them play at Aver Bay, near Gaua airport. The Leweton Cultural Group have been travelling around the world, performing their amazing water dance; you can also see them on Santo at Leweton Cultural Village in Luganville.
Vanuatu’s unique musical device is the huge tamtam, or slit-gong, from Malekula and Ambrym. It is a carved log with a hollowed-out slit that enables it to be used as a drum. Originally used to send coded messages as well as forming drum orchestras for festivities and celebrations, it is traditionally made from the breadfruit tree, which gives the best sound.
The typical tamtam has a representation of a human face carved above the drum part; some in north Ambrym have rooster faces. Faces on Malekulan drums are generally very simple, but those from Ambrym can be ornate and elaborately carved, and often valued by collectors worldwide. It takes about 160 hours to produce a 2.5m tamtam with a single face.
On Ambrym designs belong to particular families and can only be used if a fee is paid. Some carvers have produced copies in Vila. Ambrym chiefs look out for such transgressors – they are no longer executed, but they are fined.
Flutes & Conch Shells
Panpipes, usually with seven small bamboo flutes, are found all over Vanuatu. Ambrym people play a long, geometrically patterned musical pipe, while in Santo a simple three-holed flute is used.
On many islands, large triton shells (a type of conch) are blown as a means of communication.
Styles of painting practised in Vanuatu include bark art in the Banks Islands. Body painting is popular throughout the country as part of various traditional ceremonies.
Petroglyphs and rock paintings are the country’s most ancient forms of pictorial art, though the meanings and traditions of the carvings have been lost. Apart from drawings depicting European ships from the 18th century, it is difficult to establish their age. Several islands have caves whose walls are decorated with hand stencils and paintings of animals.
Mostly undertaken by women, weaving is always done by hand. Pandanus leaves and burao (wild hibiscus) stalks are the most favoured materials. Wicker, coconut leaves and rattan are used for more robust items.
Pandanus shopping baskets are made on a number of islands: the artisans of Mataso (in the Shepherds) and Futuna are noted for their intricate wares.
Locally made red pandanus mats are traditionally used as currency in Ambae, Maewo and northern Pentecost. These mats are presented at weddings, grade-taking ceremonies, births, funerals and for the payment of customary debts. They were used as everyday clothing, but nowadays are only worn during ceremonies.
Fish, bird and shellfish traps are also manufactured, as are furniture and Panama-style hats.
Feature: Sand Art
Many works of art are relegated to history, something seen only in museums and cultural centres, but the beautiful art of sand drawing endures in Vanuatu. Ni-Vans create intricate, temporary sand drawings that leave messages or illustrate local legends, songs or ceremonies. The most elaborate and picturesque versions are made on Ambrym.
The artist first draws the foundation design, usually a sequence of squares or rectangles, in the sand. Then he or she begins to circle with a finger, making many delicate loops and circles without raising the finger until the design is finished. Many are linked to games, songs, and dance or mask patterns; others depict objects.
At sand-drawing festivals and competitions, the artists tell the story as they complete the drawing, then repeat the pattern by using string twirled between the fingers.
Feature: Ancient Art
Stumbling onto a scene of petroglyphs in Vanuatu is extraordinary. They’re usually in an unlikely spot off the beaten track, such as on Maewo, near the Hole of the Moon cave. Your boatman stops the tiny boat, and the local chief, who you picked up at the previous village, encourages you to hop out. He leads you through prickly, stinging plants to a muddy spot beside a mossy, dripping cliff face. You squint and there they are: depictions of European ships in full sail, carved in the 18th century, alongside traditional patterns carved out of the overhanging rock wall. Pentecost, Aneityum and Malekula also have interesting petroglyphs accessible only with a local guide.