Kava and cults
Photo: Farrah Tomazin
Farrah Tomazin hears strange tales and meets true believers in the jungles of Vanuatu.
Vanuatu isn't the sort of place you'd expect to find a cult that worships Prince Philip. But after an hour-long journey through the rugged bushland and dusty townships that make up the island of Tanna, that's exactly what I discover.
It isn't an easy journey but the best ones often aren't. We have been travelling for almost 40 minutes when our driver stops to ask for directions. A topless woman cradling her baby approaches and, after a brief exchange, offers her teenage daughter to guide us. The young girl hops aboard our truck and we press ahead, along narrow dirt tracks and past modest houses made of sticks and vines. Finally, a clearing emerges and our truck pulls over. The girl jumps off to signal that we have arrived.
When I'd first heard the story about the Prince Philip village only days earlier from a staff member at my hotel, I was certain it was just an urban myth. Why would a tribe here choose an 87-year-old member of British royalty as their idol? Surely in a land as exotic as Vanuatu there are more appropriate objects to worship?
But as I stand in this village, Yaohnanen, it dawns on me that this story is very much like the rest of Vanuatu: as mysterious as it is unique.
I am greeted by Siko Natuan, a 35-year-old father of four, whose grandfather, Jack, had been the village chief until he died only weeks earlier. He takes me to his grandfather's old hut, adorned with framed photographs and newspaper clippings of the Duke of Edinburgh.
He explains that Jack had met Prince Philip in Port Vila, Vanuatu's capital, decades earlier. The locals had grown to believe - through the teachings of their late chief - that the Prince originated from Vanuatu and would return on June 10, 2010, to live among his people.
"In the custom tradition of Vanuatu, we talk about love and respect," Natuan says. "That has to be how we live our lives and ensure that this is spread throughout the world. In my mind, that's what Prince Philip lives up to. That is his aim because he is the king of the world and that is what he wants everyone to follow."
It's a strange reality: standing in rural Vanuatu, talking to a tribal leader about his love for a bloke from whom he is worlds apart. It is certainly a far cry from anything I've done since arriving in the country a few days earlier to indulge in the five-star luxury of Le Meridien, a lavish resort nestled on the shore of Erakor Lagoon in Port Vila. But then, in many ways, Vanuatu is a country of contrasts - the old versus the new; the rural versus the urban; the luxurious holiday resort versus the tribal village. An archipelago of 83 islands, it's the kind of place where travellers can discover the most unusual stories if they venture far enough.
Much of the beauty of Vanuatu is that it remains largely unspoilt, particularly compared with other holiday destinations popular with Australians, such as Thailand or Bali. Its stunning landscape varies from mountainous terrain to dense jungles and dusty city streets. With a population of about 218,000, the country has more than 100 languages and dialects, the most common being English, French and Bislama.
My journey to this island paradise begins on a Monday morning, when I leave the chill of winter and arrive at Le Meridien in the mid-afternoon, where it's a breezy 27 degrees in the nation's capital. Tucked away only 10 minutes from the central business district amid tropical gardens, Le Meridien is the sort of place you go to rediscover the art of indulgence. The resort has 150 rooms, a private beach, two outdoor swimming pools, a spa, a casino and stunning "couples only" villas that sit above the water of Erakor Lagoon.
On my first day, I spend several hours sight-seeing around the islands aboard the Coongoola, a 23-metre ketch that was once a radio-relay ship for the Sydney to Hobart yacht race. We pass the islands where the TV series Survivor was filmed, stop briefly at Tranquillity Island - home to a sanctuary that helps save endangered hawksbill turtles - and snorkel in electric-blue waters filled with coral and tropical fish.
I'm surprised by how tired I feel when we return but our group has decided that no visit to Vanuatu is complete without drinking kava, a derivative of the pepper tree family that has become the drink of choice for the ni-Vanuatu people. Kava has been used throughout the Pacific for a variety of reasons but mostly as a relaxant. The kava root is washed and cut, then chewed into a pulp and spat into a coconut-fibre cloth. The juice is then squeezed out and drunk, occasionally diluted with water to reduce its effects. "It's the only legal narcotic, it tastes like shit and it numbs your face. But it's definitely worth trying," a colleague tells me as we hail a taxi for the nearest kava bar, a few kilometres from the hotel. The bar is a dimly lit, open-air shack, with a few wooden benches and chairs. I order a shot and a beer to chase it down. The small bowl of liquid that is placed in front of me looks like dishwater and smells even worse. Like all enthusiastic travellers I consume it anyway, downing it on the count of three.
By my third drink I'm feeling relaxed, yet strangely chatty. The next day, however, I'm battling an intense hangover. Fortunately, our day is busy but not strenuous: I walk to the Cascade Waterfalls; picnic in a nearby park; ride dune buggies along the streets and beaches of Port Vila; and dine on local dishes such as coconut crab, roast chicken and root vegetables, and pawpaw salad at the Le Meridien's weekly Melanesian feast.
Twelve hours later, I board an eight-seat plane to Tanna, a popular island 45 minutes from Port Vila. Visited by Captain Cook in 1744, it gives tourists everything from traditional villages and coffee plantations to the John Frum cargo cult. Locals believe that Americans, led by a man called John (or John Frum America), will one day arrive by helicopter and bring them untold riches.
Tanna is also home to Yasur, one of the world's most accessible active volcanoes. The road to the volcano is a series of twists and bends through black-ash plains, followed by a steep 10-minute walk to the crater rim. By the time we reach the top, the sun has set and we watch the volcanic eruptions against the night sky.
I visit the Yakel village, prompted by the insights of the manager at Tanna's White Grass Resort where we'd stayed for a night in gorgeous seaside bungalows. "The men at this village wear nothing but penis sheaths and the woman only wear grass skirts, so it can be quite a shock for some tourists. But they're a very happy and proud culture," she tells us as we check in.
When we get to the village, a girl appears from the bushes and starts banging loudly on a large bamboo stick to signal our arrival. There's rustling in the trees around us and I know we're being watched. Gradually the villagers appear - women holding babies, young children with smiles from ear to ear, all naked. One of the men, Towate, takes us to meet the 109-year-old chief - a thin, frail man who hobbles out of his hut to greet us.
I ask Towate about life in Yakel. The average day, he tells me, is devoted to chores: the women prepare the food and look after the children; the men grow vegetables and tend the livestock. For this village, as it is for others, the pig is not only food but a symbol of wealth and power. Most families have five or six children but some, such as the chief, have up to 11. The villagers have an oral tradition; there is no written language.
Before we leave, the villagers insist on dancing for us. About 20 men stand in a circle. After a brief silence, they start stomping their feet, clapping in unison while they chant. The women stand outside the circle, jumping up and down on the spot as the men follow each other around the circle, their stomping getting faster and faster as their chanting hits a crescendo.
I've heard a lot of stories in Vanuatu and the best ones are always off the beaten track.
Farrah Tomazin travelled courtesy of Pacific Blue and Le Meridien Port Vila Resort, Spa and Casino.
Pacific Blue flies to Port Vila, via a change in Brisbane, from $244 ex Melbourne and $224 ex Sydney. Air Vanuatu has non-stop flights to Port Vila from Sydney ($211) and a weekly one from Melbourne ($233). (Fares are one-way, not including tax.)
Le Meridien Port Vila Resort has rooms from $139. Lagoon villas are about $330 a night. See www.lemeridien-portvila.com.