A Brief History of Vanuatu

  • Vanuatu was first inhabited by Melanesian settlers ( the Lapita peoples). It's thought maybe 3,000 years ago, but there are no written sources and there has been little investigation. In any case, the area is so volcanic that any archaeological evidence has been destroyed.
  • The first Europeans to visit the islands were a Spanish expedition led by Portuguese navigator Fernandes de Queirós. He arrived on the largest island, Espíritu Santo, in 1606. Queirós claimed the archipelago for Spain, as part of the colonial Spanish East Indies, naming it La Austrialia del Espíritu Santo.
  • The islanders were fearsome cannibals. the first two British missionaries to arrive, in 1839, were promptly eaten.
  • In the 1880s, both France and the United Kingdom claimed parts of the archipelago, and in 1906, they agreed on a framework for jointly managing the archipelago, now known as the New Hebrides. (The name was coined by Captain Cook, when he explored there in 1774.)
  • An independence movement arose in the 1970s, with some violent incursions and the Republic of Vanuatu was founded in 1980.

Facts and Factoids

  • Vanuatu is an archipelago of roughly 80, mainly volcanic, islands which stretch for 1,300 kilometres. Two of these islands (Matthew and Hunter) are also claimed and controlled by France, as part of the French collectivity of New Caledonia
  • This was assessed to be the riskiest country in the world, when it comes to natural disasters: earthquakes, storms, volcanic eruptions, flooding, etc.
  • More than 100 languages are found in Vanuatu, making it per capita the world's most linguistically diverse country. A form of pidgin English called Bislama is widely spoken
  • Cargo cults thrive in the islands. Believers maintain that the manufactured goods utilised by non-native culture have been created by spiritual means, such as deities and ancestors and were actually intended for the local indigenous people. The foreigners have appropriated them instead, but the spirits wild make things right eventually. One such cult, on the island of Tanna, fastened on Prince Phillip, who they decided was the descendant of a Tanna spiritual ancestor (he was wearing his white uniform when he visited). So, The Prince Philip Movement, grew up.
  • Vanuatu often features high on the list of world's happiest countries.

What to See in Vanuatu

  • This is one of the world's least visited countries, (it's not very easy to get to) but the islands offer plenty of scuba diving and snorkelling at coral reefs, underwater caverns and wrecks, such as the WWII-era troopship SS President Coolidge. And beautiful beaches, especially on Espiritu Santo
  • And there's even more excitement - with the most accessible volcano in the world, Mount Yasur at Tanna
  • Head for the totally exotic. The ritual of land diving (known in Bislama as Nanggol), now a tourist attraction is performed by the men in the southern part of Pentecost Island. They jump off wooden towers around 20 to 30 metres high, with two tree vines wrapped around the ankles. It's done at the time of yam harvest. It was just performed annually but demand has increased the length of the season (April-June). A good dive equates with a good harvest. Legend has it that the first divers were actually women. The practice was initiated by a woman who was trying to escape from her husband, jumping from a tree. According to the Guinness World Records, the g-force experienced by those at the lowest point in their dive is the greatest experienced in the non-industrialized world by humans. And this is also said to be the precursor to bungee jumping. I've even read that the locals tried to sue, for stealing the idea.
  • Or just relax in Port Vila, the nation’s capital and economic centre, on a large lagoon on the island of Efate.

The Earth Moves Twice in One Day in Vanuatu

I must be downright bonkers. Just after midnight the whole hotel building building started, shaking and moaning. I leapt out of bed - another earthquake! No - one else in took any notice and I tried to get back to sleep but I was sure the bed was moving so it wasn’t a very peaceful Vanuatu night. And now I'm on the way to The Gates of Hell on Tanna. Today, not only have I added two more flights to my itinerary when I was down to only three more, but the consequence of the aforementioned flights is that I am now standing right on the edge of the caldera of a volcano. The journey from Port Vila on Efate is eventful. The plane is tiny and the pilot looks about 18. He's only just got his licence.

The Scenic Flight to Tanna

More trades descriptions issues. The 'scenic flight' a turns out to be mostly over the sea, though Port Vila, The Prettiest Town in the Pacific does look good from the air, with all its islands and lagoons. The 'delicious lunch' is one egg sandwich, a sour tangerine and a mug of squash.

Revelling on Tanna

However, Tanna Island is absorbing. Very wild and much more traditional. There has been a big initiation ceremony on Tanna the night before and crowds of villagers are staggering home. Most are still wearing their finery, feathers and grass skirts and many clearly have whacking hangovers. Some are literally crawling and others have given up and are lying face down on the grass.

The End of the World

We drive through pandanus groves and across vast deserts and canyons made of ash. There are great views across rianfoesrt and fern trees. In the distance the volcano is already rumbling and belching out smoke. The vehicle jolts up most of the mountain and we then clamber up a track to the very top. As I said - bonkers. But hugely spectacular. It really feels like the end of the world.

Mount Yasur, Tanna

When we arrive at the top, the volcano is rumbling, growling and chucking up thousands of boulders, lumps of lava glowing red and clouds of sulphur, lightening and steam. Mount Yasur on the island of Tanna is billed as the world's most accessible active volcano.

We stay for an hour or so watching the heaving cauldron below. Every so often more boulders come hurtling past, heralded by great rumbles - very like shouts of despair. Somehow we maintain a distance; the show is being played out on the stage in front. Our guides assure us it’s perfectly safe. This is only Level One activity. Visitors are barred if it gets to a Three. We scramble down again, to the truck, for the' delicious lunch'. I'm still monitoring the rim of the volcano. There's an almighty roar and a cloud of lava and rocks shoots up hundreds of feet into the air, streaming down to land just where we have been standing.

Vanuatu, Efate Island and the Prettiest Town in the Pacific

Coming from the Solomon Islands. Where next? South to the capital of a nation of only 70 or so islands this time speaking English, French and Bislama (as well as 100 or so other languages). Tales of the South Pacific was based on life here during World War II.  However, some serious issues to report to the trades descriptions people. My guide book says that Port Vila, on Efate Island, the capital of Vanuatu, is the prettiest town in the Pacific. Well it's certainly better than Moresby and Honiara, but 'stunning views round every crooked corner'? Well, no. Maybe it will look prettier if the sun comes out.

My Hitchhikers' Guide (Wikipedia) tells me that Port Vila (or just Vila, like the football team- almost) is the commercial centre and a tax haven. As to sights? It offers: several memorials, ( two traditional totem poles and a monument representing a pig's tusk amongst others), a church, the City Hall and two wall paintings. I'm dutifully trotting round, but there is little in town to excite my camera. It's grey here and really cool after my equatorial island hopping. And apart from the market which also got a mention) it seems shabby and quiet. What on earth are all the other towns in the Pacific like then?

The Happiest People on Earth

The Vanuatu national anthem is “Yumi, yumi, yumi,” (We, we, we). My guide also says that the people of Vanuatu were voted the happiest nation on earth. They look pretty bored and sleepy to me. Nearly everything is shut and even where shops are open, the assistants look far too flaked out to serve anyone. But the market is an interesting wander. and I manage to cajole a smile out of two ladies in their traditional floral dresses. These are on sale in the market, alongside all the fruit and vegetables and fish.

My Hotel

My hotel is billed as 'sparklingly boutique'. Not bad, certainly, compared to what I've seen recently and quite pretty from the lagoon side, with trailing blue flowering vines on the balconies. But sparkling no and definitely not boutique. Nice view across the bay and scrummy food though. And a two page cocktail list and a massage salon, so a partial return to civilisation.

When the sun peeps out the lagoon that Vila sits on is very pretty, with the light on the turquoise water and the hilly islands opposite. There are cruise ships in the bay and a giant container ship being escorted in by tugs.

The staff in the hotel are very friendly and helpful, though reception is not always attended. The room has most things I need and a great outlook. It’s just a shame the furniture is chipped and dented, there are rust and paint marks, the sheet is stained and everything looks as if it needs a makeover. Even the lamps on each side of the bed flicker constantly. They are precariously balanced on tiny peeling bedside tables. The acoustics are poor. Footsteps echo through all the bedrooms and the nights are interrupted by the sound of the neighbours packing and leaving for early flights. The free internet was good but that too goes down mid-afternoon. ‘For an hour ma’am’. No sign of a signal at bedtime.

Efate Island

As always things look better the next day. Two lads from the hotel are taking me on a tour of Efate Island. I don't learn do I?  - Though it can't be worse than the trip to Ouagadougou. They begin by arguing about the population of the island. It's either 10,000 or a million. So, I defer to my Hitchhikers' Guide and discover the following:

  • Efate is the most populous (approx. 66,000) island in Vanuatu, but it's only the third largest.
  • Captain Cook named it 'Sandwich Island, in honour of my noble patron, the Earl of Sandwich', when he 'discovered' it on his 1774 voyage on HMS Resolution.
  • During World War II, Efate served an important role as a United States military base.
  • Efate briefly became an independent commune in 1889, when residents declared the region as Franceville.

Round Efate Island, Vanuatu

Outside The Prettiest Town in the Pacific there are only small villages. Most inhabitants of Efate live in Port Vila, The island is very rural, with most folk making their living by market gardening - that's how they pay the school fees. Clean and tidy, but still very basic living.  Sweet potatoes, taro, coconuts. Most of the women wear the bright flowered cotton dresses, with as many gathers and flounces as they can manage.

We stop to visit a traditional village with palm thatched houses, and there is a short 'cultural show'. Dress consists mainly of grasses, flowers and face paint - this is still worn by some of the locals, especially at festivals and celebrations.

The landscape isn't quite Caribbean. More like Queensland I think. There is a great deal of forest, but there's also plenty of more open grassland scattered with coconut palms. And there are considerable numbers of cattle grazing. Also, a gorgeous clear jade pool and a few lovely beaches surrounded by mangroves. I swim in one called Eton (pronounced et as in get). It has the mandatory white coral sand surrounding a shallow lagoon. In the middle is a 30 foot sink hole full of fish. Good for a snorkel. Not so good for the unwary paddler!

Hideaway Island, Efate, Vanuatu

In-between showers I flag down one of the hundreds of local taxi buses plying the main road down to Hideaway Island. The driver doesn’t tell me he’s on the school run and there are three curly haired cuties in the front. There are a large number of dark skinned children with blonde hair here, all with adorable cheeky smiles. They have to be dropped home, via multiple diversions.

The free ferry then takes me over to the tiny island where I shelter from some more showers before taking the plunge. The water’s not very warm, but there’s the reward of some decent snorkelling to be had: a great drop off reef and a kaleidoscope of small fish. A couple of them nip me and I squeal – they must be used to being fed here. I don’t stay on the coral beach long. It’s warmer in the sea than on the land.

To Travel Hopefully is a Better Thing Than to Arrive

A trip to Tanna Island to see Mount Yasur and the Gates of Hell.

Then, off to the airport to catch my flight to Nadi in Fiji. Only it's raining and after circling three times, the captain of the plane decides it can't land and my flight is cancelled. Bloody hell, it's not raining very hard. I can see the runway. Anyway, the ensuing chaos makes PNG look a piece of cake. No compensation, no accommodation and no flight till Tuesday. Though we have to queue several times, moving at snail's pace, to discover all this. Then, I find out that there is a flight to Suva, up the other end of the main island on Fiji, leaving tomorrow morning.

Another excruciating queue. When I finally arrive at the counter, the flight has gone up another £20. Back to my hotel, which fortunately has a spare room. All this takes the whole day. And I have to go through it all again tomorrow morning. As well as working out how to get across Fiji. I try calling my next hotel to tell them I am delayed but no-one answers the phone - of course. It's still raining in The Prettiest Town in the Pacific.

Read more about Vanuatu here.

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