John & Susan Simpson
Fri 22 Sep 2023 22:48
Like Fiji and Tonga, Vanuatu is a collection of islands making up a single South Pacific nation and our voyage took us through the group to the islands of Tanna, Erromango and Efate. The 450 mile voyage from Fiji to Tanna took us 3 days and we arrived to check into Vanuatu in Port Resolution on Tanna. As we’ve come to expect in the Pacific islands, Captain Cook had been here before us and he named this bay after HMS Resolution, the ship on which he made his second and third voyages in the Pacific. We were interested to discover that HMS Resolution was exactly twice the size of Casamara (110 ft long as opposed to Casamara’s 55 ft) yet she carried 112 people. Can you imagine the squashed tangle of humanity within the confines of that ship? And that’s without taking into account the provisions and equipment they must also have carried. We feel privileged to have the comfort of Casamara’s 55 feet to ourselves!
When Captain Cook first arrived on these islands in 1774 he was struck by their resemblance to the Hebridean islands off the coast of Scotland and named the archipelago the New Hebrides. The islands were colonised by both the British and the French and eventually the two countries agreed to share them, dividing the communities so that some favoured the British way of life and some the French. The people speak both English and French and to this day the children attend either a French school or an English school where only the specified language is used. Vanuatu gained its independence in 1980 and the name means ‘our land forever’.
Soon after our early morning arrival in Port Resolution we were greeted by a procession of local men who came out to meet us in their dugout canoes, dressed in traditional costume, blowing conch shells and shouting a welcome.
Local welcome in Port Resolution, Tanna, Vanuatu
You may remember a BBC News story after the death of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh that there was a community on a Pacific island which had for decades worshipped Prince Philip as a god-like spiritual figure. That island was Tanna. According to local legend, Prince Philip was the fulfilment of a prophecy that a Tanna tribesman would leave the island, in his original spiritual form, to find a powerful wife overseas and spread the Tanna message of peace to the world. Quite how this came to be Prince Philip no one is quite sure, but the tribespeople believed it and Prince Philip seems to have accepted his role in their culture. He visited the island in 1974 and exchanged letters and gifts with the tribesmen over the years.
The exchanging of gifts is an important social practice in this part of the world. Indigenous societies have been based around a ‘big man’ system where individuals gain prestige through the exchanging of gifts. The more a man can give, the greater his renown and the more the recipients are indebted to him. Those unable to reciprocate are known as ‘rubbish men’. There are also so called ‘cargo cults’ where the indigenous people believe that tribal gods, hero figures or ancestors may be encouraged to bring in a new age in which the islanders will have access to goods (cargo) from supernatural sources. It is thought that these belief systems may have emerged from islanders observing that colonialists and missionaries seemed to be able to conjure up from overseas an endless supply of material goods and trying to interpret this phenomenon in the context of their gift exchange mentality. There remains on Tanna a movement dedicated to following a man called John Frum who will bring wealth and prosperity to the people if they follow him. It’s not clear who exactly John Frum was or is. The movement was in place by the 1930’s but gained popularity in the 1940’s after American troops were stationed in Tanna during World War II, bringing an enormous amount of supplies with them. After the war had ended and the Americans had left, John Frum supporters would build symbolic landing strips in the hope of encouraging John Frum to return in an aeroplane with more supplies. John Frum Day is still celebrated every year on 15th February.
It was only after we’d left Vanuatu that I connected Tanna to the Prince Philip story and read more about the spiritual beliefs of the local tribes. I then realised the significance of the welcome we’d received there, which was quite unlike anything we’d experienced anywhere else across the whole of the South Pacific. A welcome ceremony was organised, to which the whole fleet and all of the local villagers were invited. A few weeks before our arrival we had been provided with a list of gifts that the islanders would appreciate, just like a wedding gift list. We were asked to bring a wide variety of items, such as towels, cutlery, cooking utensils, solar lights, hammers, saws, rope or even a mattress. Each boat committed to bringing one or more of the items and we shopped in Fiji before we set off for Tanna. As we arrived for the ceremony we were each presented with a handwoven palm leaf hat and treated to music and singing by the local band. The World ARC Pacific Rally fleet responded with a few songs accompanied by the ‘Kallimara’ band - Jim from Kalli and John and me from Casamara.
John and Jim sporting their natty hats!
The villagers and the sailors all gathered around a large grassy area on the hill top above the bay and the gifts from all the boats were brought together into a pile in the middle. It made quite an impressive sight! The villagers brought their gifts for us, an equally impressive pile containing a selection of fresh homegrown fruit and vegetables together with some beautiful handwoven bags and ornamental goods. We were then invited to choose a gift to take away with us whilst the villagers divided our gifts into equal piles, one for each family. It was quite an operation, led by the local ladies who consulted a checklist to ensure that the families with a specific request got what they needed. The final stage in the process was to eat the feast the local ladies had prepared for us. We piled our leaf ‘plates’ with chicken, pork and fish dishes accompanied by rice and vegetables. The local band continued to play for us and we enjoyed some ball games with the children, of which there were many! We returned to our boats as darkness fell having had a wonderful experience amongst the villagers. They certainly gave us plentiful gifts of all sorts and I hope they didn’t feel like ‘rubbish men’ as they took their gifts from us home with them in the evening.
Gifts from the World ARC Pacific Rally boats
Dividing the gifts, a pile for each village
Our gift from the villagers was a palm leaf package filled with local fruit and vegetables
Even the plates were made from leaves
When Captain Cook first spotted Tanna it was because Mount Yasur, an active volcano, was casting pink light over the clouds and he was drawn to discover where the light was coming from. The volcano has been active ever since Captain Cook was here and we were lucky to catch it in a phase 2 state. In phases 1 and 2 people are allowed to visit. Phase 3 means it’s out of bounds and for phases 4 and 5 the islanders start to evacuate their villages and then the island. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything quite like that trip to the volcano. Firstly we were transported in 4 wheel drive trucks along so called roads. The roads had no tarmac or concrete, but were just mud tracks. They were deep ruts in the earth with sides too high to see over and strewn with rocks and crevices. We scrambled our way up hill and down dale in 4x4s that could only manage about 10 miles an hour at best due to the conditions. We passed many small settlements, usually bamboo huts around a dirt clearing all beautifully swept clean and tidy.
Along the way we called in at a village where the tribespeople who own the land where the volcano is situated helped us to ask the volcano for permission to visit. They believe the volcano to be sacred as it is the dwelling place of ancestral spirits. As they danced for us and decorated the visiting ladies with face paints we could hear the volcano rumbling across the valley and see clouds of ash ascending from the crater. It was a very exciting build up. It was interesting that both here and at the welcome ceremony the men and women kept themselves separate. When we danced with them we were told in no uncertain terms ‘ladies dance with ladies and men dance with men’. It had been the same at the welcome ceremony where the men huddled around the guitarists and singers whilst the ladies danced. I asked whether ladies ever played music and the reply was guarded. ‘We do, but not here’ was the reply. Instead the ladies make a ‘tsk tsk’ noise through their teeth like percussion to accompany the all male band.
Local ladies dancing and playing their handwoven percussion, a hollow bag which they banged like a drum with the palms of their hands,
Thankfully we were told that the volcano had said ‘yes’ to the visit and we climbed back into the trucks for the ascent to the mountain top. We parked just below the crater rim and walked the final hundred metres to the top. Standing on the rim of the crater looking down into the volcano as the red lava bubbled and spat into the air was an awe-inspiring experience. Nothing could prepare you for the sound and feel of the earth heaving and shuddering underneath your feet. It was as if the earth was breathing in and out, wheezing and groaning. The sulphurous smell as the ash clouds belched into the air caught the back of your throat but the lure of the spectacle still drew you to the edge for just one more peer into the abyss. Terrifying and exhilarating at the same time!
Mount Yasur from the village, ash cloud rising from the top
Peering into the crater
Torchlight procession of our party descending the mountain with the clouds reflecting pink from the lava in the crater behind them
All in all, Tanna was an amazing island to visit. In other similar places we’ve felt that the lifestyle was being staged for our benefit, but not in Tanna. Here we felt that, although the grass skirts might not be every day dress, this was a community genuinely incorporating their traditions into modern life.