Sunset at Pango, a suburb of Port Vila in Vanuatu.
Sunset at Pango, a suburb of Port Vila in Vanuatu. Letea Cavander

Vanuatu sure to cast spell over visitors

OUR driver had pulled to the side of the road and rushed off into the bush. Charlie returned with a stringy vine and wild kava leaves. He pulled the leaves from the vine and started to rub them together between his palms.

"Look,” Charlie said. "You mush them together, and the liquid forms.” He turned his clenched fist to the side and a green liquid, like wheatgrass, fell from it on to his other hand. This, Charlie said, was how Ni-Van, the indigenous people of Vanuatu, had been treating cuts since the United States occupation of the island nation in the Second World War. The mile-a-minute vine was introduced by US troops as cover from the Japanese, and now it covers much of Efate, Vanuatu's main island.

We were on a one-day bus tour with two other Australian couples around the island.

Charlie said pouring liquid on a bloody wound and placing the emulsified leaves on the cut for a few minutes would make the blood coagulate and clean it as well. The wild kava leaves, meanwhile, were to keep bad spirits at bay, "and not for drinking”, Charlie insisted.

Tourists get a taste of village life during a one-day tour around Efate, Vanuatu's main island.
Tourists get a taste of village life during a one-day tour around Efate, Vanuatu's main island. Letea Cavander

Spirits, magic and Christianity share a comfortable co-existence in Vanuatu. The nation, made up of more than 80 islands north-east of New Caledonia in the Pacific Ocean, was inhabited first by Lapita people about 1400BC before Polynesians arrived in the 11th century. Christian missionaries showed up from 1839 and, despite a few being eaten (Ni-Van were cannibals up to the last recorded killing in 1969) the locals got on board the Christian god train while keeping many of their magical beliefs.

Sticking stems of wild kava leaf behind your ears, Charlie said matter of factly, kept the bad spirits of the forest at bay. If a bad spirit entered someone, he said, a slap with the wild kava leaves meant the ghost would leave the host.

During our tour around the main island, where the capital Port Vila lies, we caught sight of Hat Island too. The Ni-Vans will not sleep there, as they believe ghosts inhabit the island following the demise and burial of Chief Roi Mata. This occurred, according to Lonely Plant, about 1600AD. Charlie just said "a long time ago”.

A statue at Pango, near Port Vila, Vanuatu.
A statue at Pango, near Port Vila, Vanuatu. Letea Cavander

Chief Roi Mata calmed the warring tribes of Efate and managed to put a stop to cannibalism for some time. But the chief was shot in the neck with an arrow by his brother and buried on Hat Island, named because it does look from certain angles like a cowboy's hat. Charlie said 20 of his wives were buried with him. Alive. Lonely Planet put the total number of those buried alive at 47. Evidence was unearthed in a 1967 archaeological dig that they were alive when they were interred.

We also had a 30-minute stop at a village to the south-east of Port Vila. "Warriors” leapt from behind head-high grass, yelling and thrusting spears and bows and arrows at us as we approached the village. The busload of visitors had been warned it would happen, but the stealth of the locals caught most of us by surprise.

A tall but portly man appeared behind his warriors. Chief "Roy” raised two long fern-like leaves, the same that appear on Vanuatu's flag, and crossed them above his head. The leaves, a Vanuatu symbol of peace, forced the warriors to stop in their tracks and they fell behind their chief.

Chief Roy then welcomed our small group of three Aussie couples to his village with "kustom”, or traditional dances. He explained the differences in the dances, from portraying daily village life (watching a chicken run) to warrior dances.

Tourists get a taste of village life during a one-day tour around Efate, Vanuatu's main island.
Tourists get a taste of village life during a one-day tour around Efate, Vanuatu's main island. Letea Cavander

Finally, before the tour moved on, we were allowed a peek inside the village's banyan tree. A hulking beauty at least 500 years old, Chief Roy said, the tree of strangler figs with many separate roots branching out provided the villagers with protection during Cyclone Pam in March last year.

We stopped once more so Charlie could show us how to make a cup, Ni-Van style. He plucked a leaf from the side of the road before forming it into a cup shape and filling it with water from the nearby stream.

An
An "umbrella'' leaf also comes in handy as a cup. Letea Cavander


Bid to reopen Kimberley Kampers hits big snag

premium_icon Bid to reopen Kimberley Kampers hits big snag

Is this the end for this Ballina business?

Desperate mission to catch turkey shot with an arrow

premium_icon Desperate mission to catch turkey shot with an arrow

The brush turkey has been seen with an arrow through its body

Sister says relationship 'broken' after Universal Medicine

premium_icon Sister says relationship 'broken' after Universal Medicine

Witness 'horrified' over 'chakra-puncture' therapy  

Local Partners