After seeing the awesome Kauri trees, we headed north to the northern tip of New Zealand, then drove back down to Aucklandon the east side of the north cape. Here’s a little blog about our time in Northland.
After Cape Reinga, we headed south (not like we had any choice!). We did a 20 minute hike up to a view point called St. Paul’s Rock.
That night, we found a place on a lovely beach to camp. Our understanding was that in New Zealand, if there are no “No Camping” signs, you can stay there as long as you clean up after yourself.
The next morning, before leaving camp, we visited a cemetery just up the hill that the cockle-collectors had told us about the night before. Maori people decorate their graves very nicely!
When we were just about to leave, another Maori woman came by in her truck. She was mad and told us that we were NOT allowed to camp there. She told us that the gate was supposed to be locked, and it wasn’t. We were camping on Maori land. She was worried about where we were going to the bathroom, because that beach is a food beach. When my dad explained that we were going in the woods behind, she told us that there had been a big Maori battle there many years ago, and so their ancestors bones laid there. It’s also near the Maori cemetery.
She left, and so did we. We headed into Rawhiti (pronounced Rafiti), the nearest town to fill up water. Turns out, Rawhiti wasn’t much… just a campground! Turns out, That lady was the manager of the campground! No wonder she was mad. We were camping on her sacred land, instead of paying at the Maori-run campground 2 km down the road! We apologized to her about what we did. She had a reason to be mad, although we had no way of knowing that we were doing something wrong. It’s interesting that the cockle-collectors the previous night had been so welcoming. I think it’s because they weren’t from Rawhiti, they were just visiting from other places and heard that it was a good cockle beach. This experience was our first insight into Maori culture, rights and land.
Then we drove south down towards Auckland. In Auckland, we got a new Bluetooth keyboard for blogging, because the one we bought in Peterborough started to go a bit wonky (the enter key stops working, then the shift key, then the space bar). Now it’s working a lot better, so with our two keyboards, the phone and tablet, we can “double-blog”, to try and get caught up on our blog entries!
That night we drove southeast towards a place called Rotorua. It also happened to be New Years Eve! We camped beside a very nice river, see our blog entry: https://1year1family1world.com/2014/12/31/2015-is-great-trust-us/ to see what we did.
New Years Day, we went to a blue hole to swim in. It was freezing! There were lots of people there, but not a lot of them swam! Most of them just went to see the blue hole and have a picnic.
For you English readers, I’m writing this blog in French but I’m translating the captions so you can understand the general idea. It’s about the kauri trees of northern New Zealand.
La région au nord de la ville d’Auckland sur l’ile nord de la Nouvelle Zélande est connu pour ses arbres kauri. Ce sont des énormes pins qui poussent plusieurs fois plus hauts que les autres arbres dans la foret, et plusieurs fois plus épaisses aussi. Notre deuxième jour en NZ, on paissait près d’un musée de kauri, donc ça a été notre première activité dans le pays. On a eu un tour du musée, et on a appris beaucoup à propos des arbres, et les deux grandes ressources qu’ils offraient aux gens: la gomme et le bois.
La gomme de kauri est très précieux, et vers l’an 1900, beaucoup d’hommes sont allés travailler dans la foret pour la chercher, la polir et la vendre. Il y avait quelques façons pour la chercher. Certains hommes grimpaient les arbres avec des piques à main et des bottes avec des piques (un peu comme grimper un mur de glace). Ensuite, ils faisaient des coupures dans le tronc et la laissait saigner la gomme, et ils retourneraient pour la chercher plus tard. D’autres hommes utilisaient de longues cannes pour trouver la gomme qui est tombé des arbres plusieurs ans plus tôt et était enterré en terre et en boue. Ils mettaient leur canne dans la terre, la retiraient et sentaient le bout pour l’odorat de la gomme. Si il y en avait, ils la déterraient. Ce n’était pas du tout un métier facile car ils travaillaient souvent dans un marais et creusaient souvent en utilisant que leurs mains!
Le guide nous a ensuite amené à la chambre du bois de kauri. On a appris beaucoup plus au sujet de cette industrie. Les hommes allaient loin dans la foret en équipes de deux pour trouver l’arbre le plus grand, et passaient des heures, parfois des jours à la couper en utilisant une grande scie à main.
On est ensuite allé dans une chambre où il y avait des sculptures et des modèles faits avec le bois de kauri.
À la fin de la tournée, on est allé dans une salle qui a l’air d’un moulin de bois. Il y avait aussi un modèle d’un genre d’hôtel dans le temps de l’industrie de kauri pour les gens qui devaient visiter. Ce n’était pas du tout pour les hommes qui travaillaient dans la foret, mais pour les
hommes d’affaires, ou ceux qui achetaient la gomme et le bois de kauri. On pouvait entrer et voir les différentes sortes de personnes qui y allaient.
Après le musée, on est allé au foret de kauri pour voir l’arbre le plus grand encore vivant, Tane Mahuta, un nom maori qui se traduit en “Roi de la Foret”. Notre guide au musée nous a suggéré d’aussi aller voir l’arbre le plus épais, Te Matua Ngahere, qui signifie “Père de la foret”, qui est moins d’un kilomètre de Tane Mahuta. Leur grandeur est étonnante. Ils te font sentir comme une fourmi à côté d’un éléphant!
Une des choses qui fait le kauri très particulier est sa transformation de forme. L’arbre a évolué en même temps que le moa géant (un oiseau un peu comme une autruche qui a été chassé à l’extinction par les maoris), donc quand l’arbre est jeune et ses aiguilles sont durs et ne sont pas bons pour manger, il a le forme d’un sapin. Mais quand l’arbre grandit et ses aiguilles deviennent bonnes pour manger, ça prend la forme d’un “lollypop” (comme notre guide au musée l’appelait) pour que le moa ne peut pas atteindre les aiguilles.
La déforestation des kauris est un effet classique de la colonisation des européens. Quand ils sont arrivés en NZ, il y en avait tant d’arbres qu’ils les ont coupé sans limites jusqu’à ce qu’il y en avait presque plus. Exactement comme plusieurs exemples au Canada comme les pins blancs et la traite de fourrure de castor. Les kauris poussent très lentement, donc si leurs nombres vont récupérer, ça prendrait des centaines ou même des milliers d’années. J’aime être à côté de choses vivants si grands car ça me fait sentir tellement petit. Les arbres kauri sont tellement cool et préhistoriques. Ils ont existé pour des millions d’années, et j’espère qu’ils existeront pour longtemps dans le futur aussi.
New Zealand is a country that captured my imagination as a CEGEP student when I took a course called Geography of Tourism. I learned a lot about the island nation that term, and made a point of visiting it en route to and from Australia back in 1992. The landforms are reminiscent of Canada, but in a much more compact area. It’s a place where you can see mountains and glaciers on the same day as you drive through rainforest and relax on a beach!
Our friends in Fiji had given us the “heads up” that the New Zealand quarantine officers at the airport are very thorough in their search for biohazards or invasive species. As an island nation that has already been ‘invaded’ by many introduced species, they are serious and cautious about any possible new additions. So we made sure we declared absolutely everything: camping equipment, footwear that could have dirt in the treads, shells, and food (I think I only had some powdered milk, but I said ‘yes’ to having dairy products). We had to do a big unpacking job at customs, and they took our hiking shoes and tent for cleaning. They were returned to us about half an hour later, wet but sanitized. And we avoided the possible $400 fine for not declaring.
One of the things we were looking forward to about New Zealand, was cooler weather (especially night temperatures that would allow us to sleep more easily!) Our Canadian metabolisms had been severely challenged by the South Pacific heat! So, we were happy to walk out of the airport terminal into sunny and comfortable 22 degree weather. (Right now, however, we are in northern Queensland, Australia, and it is stinkin’ hot again!)
Without firm plans (as usual), we picked up our rental car in Auckland, and started looking at a map. We had arrived right smack at the height of tourist time; the week between Christmas and New Year. That is when many New Zealanders are on holiday themselves, because of course it is in the middle of summer vacation! We started driving north and soon realized that many others had already done that, as the campgrounds were full!
Some European travelers (who were also looking for somewhere to camp) told us about a free app we could download called “Campermate”. It turned out to be a great tool for finding campgrounds. All you do is zoom in on the part of the map you want, and colour-coded icons appear. We tended to go for the green ones since they are places where you can camp for free! Sometimes near a lake or river, and always with some form of a toilet, but not much else. There are also “DOC” sites (Dept. of Conservation) that cost about $6 for adults and $3 for kids. Having the car was really going to pay off by allowing us to access cheap accommodation. Many tourists travel in rented vans that have a built-in kitchen and bed — smaller than the RVs we normally see in Canada, but very practical for NZ.
Our little car and tent did us well (especially at the gas pump where the price was almost $2/litre). Our first indication that NZ prices would be higher than in Canada was at a Dunkin Donuts on the first day — one donut cost $2! And, in general, a cup of coffee cost about $4. So, needless to say, we shopped at grocery stores and cooked our own meals on the camp stove.
Some initial observations about New Zealand and its people (kiwis):
1. The roads follow the landscape and are very windy, and they haven’t wasted any money on bridge-building or paving shoulders.
2. There are a lot of sheep! OK, I guess we already knew that, but there are a lot of sheep!
3. Primary schools are small, tidy, and seem very inviting.
4. The New Zealand accent seems to be a case of “promoting” short vowels to the next one in the alphabet: a becomes e, e becomes i etc. We noticed this when ordering “fosh and chops”, looking for a “bid” for the night, or when we asked fellow “trikkers” how they were doing and got the answer, “Nut bed!”
5. We also noticed that many Moari words are very commonplace in New Zealand English. This speaks well, I think, for inter-cultural understanding. The only words I remember are “pakeha” which means “white person” , “waka” = canoe, and “marae” which refers to a gathering place (some marae are run as campgrounds, and we stayed at one near Raglan.) In fact, Maori is taught as a second language all over New Zealand. The Maori are of Polynesian descent and arrived in Aotearoa (the land of the long white cloud) in the 13th century, which means that New Zealand has the shortest human history of any country. Europeans became aware of its existence in the 17th century. The Maori are still very connected to their “iwi” (tribe or people), their “hapu” (sub-tribe), their “whanau” (family), and the land. Most place names in New Zealand have Maori names only.
So, all in all, our first impressions of New Zealand were that it is a welcoming and comfortable place to travel with lots of opportunities for outdoor adventure.
We are nearing the end of our time in New Zealand. In three days time (well actually, three days have now gone by – we are at the airport) we fly out of Christchurch on our way to Cairns, Australia. I’m typing in Mueller Hut on the South Island, high up in the mountains. It’s the first time we’ve been in snow since last April when we were still in Canada. From here, we can see Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain.
We had had a great time on Santo, but we had time to visit one more island in Vanuatu. Any island would do because they all have great stuff to do. My dad spent 3 hours looking on the Air Vanuatu website for a flight from Luganville to another island with availability, but because all the people who worked in the bigger centers like Port Vila and Luganville were going back to their home islands for Christmas, the Air Vanuatu flights were completely booked up. It turned out that the cheapest way to get to any island was to charter a flight to Epi, an island about halfway between Santo and Efate (I never thought chartering an airplane would ever be the cheapest way to get somewhere!) We wanted to go to this island because there was a good chance to get to swim with dugongs, what we call manatees in North America. There’s one there named Bondas who is very well known for his friendliness and curiosity towards humans.
In the morning, we went to the Luganville airport and met our pilot Paul, a New Zealander. Since the plane was so small, we and our luggage had to be weighed and Paul loaded the plane carefully so that it would be balanced just right.
We got into the plane and taxied to the runway, and off we went!
The flight took about 45 minutes, then we arrived in Lamen Bay, Epi’s biggest village, located on the northwest coast.
We watched Paul take off again on his way back to Luganville, then took a quick truck ride to Paradise Sunset Bungalows, one of only two guesthouses in all of Epi, and the only one in Lamen Bay. We were the only people staying there.
Tasso, the owner of the guesthouse is a Lamen Bay local and was there to meet us when we arrived. The guesthouse is right on a nice beach. The room was nothing fancy, but it was clean and there were beds for all of us (pretty unusual in Vanuatu, most nights, either me or Kaia had to sleep on an air mattress on the floor).
The guesthouse is a family business. Tasso’s wife Legon did the cooking, as breakfast and dinner were included for every night we stayed. Breakfast was always delicious pancakes with fresh fruit like pineapple, mango, grapefruit and papaya. Dinner was a variety of meat, fish, and root vegetables like potato, taro, cassava and delicious yam patties.
There’s a lot to discover around Lamen Bay. Of course, there are the dugongs, which we looked for several times while snorkeling. We looked in a certain place at high tide where and when we were told we had the best chance to find them. We never found a dugong unfortunately, but the bay is full of sea turtles! They like to eat the short sea grass on the bottom, which was shallow enough for us to dive down to. Most of them would swim away if we got close to them, but a few didn’t mind us getting close to them and even touching them!
By the time I would reach the bottom where they are, I would already be running out of air so I couldn’t touch them for long, but a few of them let me dive down to them several times and they wouldn’t swim away.
Tasso showed us his grapefruit tree. The fruit were huge!
Tasso’s son Joshua also showed us a pair of puppies that one of the dogs had given birth to a month earlier.
Geckos are everywhere on the walls of Vanuatu in general, and one morning, we noticed one had jumped onto my dad’s shirt, then crawled up into his hair! We picked him up and let everyone hold him.
One day, we went to see Lamen Island across the bay. About 500 people live there. We hired a guy named Jimmy to take us across the bay in his boat. We went snorkeling on a coral reef, then Jimmy ended up giving us a whole tour of the island and brought us into his house to meet his family and have some snacks. The houses are still built with some local material, but they also have tin roofs and other modern tools and boats because a lot of them, including Jimmy and his brother, go to New Zealand for 4 months per year to work on grape vineyards and on apple and kiwifruit orchards.
We loved Lamen Bay – it was so relaxed, friendly and beautiful.
On Christmas Day, we left Lamen Bay and went to Valesdir on the southwest coast of Epi. Our flight was leaving from there back to Port Vila the next day, so we stayed at Epi Island Guesthouse, the only other one on Epi. It’s owned by Alix and Rob, an Australian couple who’ve lived in Vanuatu for 18 years. We were going to camp outside, but we left the fly off the tent and sudden rain made everything in it wet, so we ended up sleeping under a beach shelter. We’ve put the fly on right away ever since!
We took our time packing up because we weren’t flying out until the afternoon, which has been unusual on this trip. The Valesdir airport is just as small as the one in Lamen Bay – beside a coconut plantation.
The flight only took about 20 minutes or so to Port Vila.
We didn’t really do much there that day and we went to bed early because the next morning, we had to get up at 4am for our Air Vanuatu flight to New Zealand. Ale tata Vanuatu!
When Vanuatu became an independent country in 1980, they needed an official language for everyone to speak. This was not an easy task, as Vanuatu is the most linguistically rich country in the world, with over 100 distinct languages! That ruled out all of the indigenous languages, because each of those is only spoken by a small population in a small area. Then, there are English and French, because, like Canada, Vanuatu was colonized by those two countries. That means two school systems- so depending on which school someone went to, they speak either one or the other. The Vanuatu government did not want to favour one language over the other, because that would mean favouring some niVans over others. That ruled out English and French.
That’s how they decided on Bislama, a “Pidgin” or “Creole” English (language based on a simplified version of English), with some French mixed in. It is part of the Pacific Creole language group, which also includes the Pijin of the Solomon Islands, and the Tok Pisin of Papua New Guinea (PNG).
Bislama (say Bishlama) originated during the “Blackbirding” years, the 1870s and ’80s. My dad talked about this in his entry: Vanuatu: Why are they so happy? It was pretty much enslaved niVans being forced to work on sugar cane plantations in Fiji and Australia. NiVans, Solomon Islanders, and Papua New Guineans from different islands had to work together, but they all spoke different languages! That’s why a Creole English language emerged, and later evolved into different dialects in different countries.
Very surprisingly, Bislama is extremely similar to Krio, the Pidgin of Sierra Leone in West Africa (my dad spent time there). That is still a mystery to us!
NiVans in urban areas mostly learn Bislama first, and most people in the rural areas learn it as a second language. In Canada, speaking two languages is good, and speaking three is amazing. In Vanuatu, most people speak their native language, Bislama, either English or French, and sometimes the native language of their mother or spouse! Speaking 3-4 languages is no big deal.
I think that choosing Bislama as their official language was a very smart choice. It allows niVans from different islands to communicate, and it also helps communication between Vanuatu and other South Pacific countries. It makes it much easier to go to University or travel in Solomon Is. or PNG. It’s very useful, but it’s also a lot of fun to speak and read! Now I’m going to give you a mini Bislama lesson. Bae mi givim yufala wan smol lesson blong Bislama!
The pronunciation of Bislama is very easy. Once you know the basics, there are no exceptions. Vowels: A= like in the word after E= like in the word melt I= “ee” O= like in the word no U= “oo”
The consonants are pronounced the same as in English, with a couple of exceptions: J= “ch”, so chest is spelled Jes. Jake is a very difficult name to say in Bislama- one girl we met called him “Cha”! S= “sh”, so Bislama is pronounced Bishlama.
The most important words you need to know in Bislama are blong and long. They appear in almost all sentences, often multiple times. These words are everywhere! blong Blong originates from the English word belong. It is used for:
example: Taro blong mi, The taro that belongs to me/ My taro.
-and a bunch of other things, too!
I named this blog entry Blog Blong Bislama, Blog of Bislama. Blong often gets shortened to blo.
long Long is used for distance, location or position. Some examples:
-Taek mi long Luganville (Take me to Luganville)
-Kaia stap long haos (Kaia is inside the house)
-Mi bin kukum long ples ia bifo (I have cooked at this place before) Long is often shortened to Lo.
Here are some more Bislama expressions we liked:
Hello, How are you? = Halo, olsem wanem?
I’m good = i stret nomo (it’s straight no more) *Jake’s favourite
What’s your name? = Wanem nem blong yu?
My name is Kaia = Nem blong mi Kaia
Where are you from? = Wanem ples yu blong? (Which place do you belong)
I am a Canadian girl = Mi wan gel Canada
Goodbye! = Ale Tata!
Children = pikinini
Thank you very much! = tank yu tumas! (Thank you too much)
eat/food/bite = Kaekae
I like this food very much! = Mi laekem kaekae tumas! *Cam’s favourite
Us/We = Mifala (my fellas)
You (plural) = Yufala (your fellas)
You and me = yumi
everyone = evriwan
ocean = solwota (salt water)
Sea plane = Plen blong solwota*Yvonne’s favourite
Sightseeing = lukluk ples * Kaia’s favourite
No smoking in public transport = Tabu blong smok long pablik transpot
Do not wake chickens! = koaiet! no noes! yu no wekem jikin! (Quiet! No noise! you don’t wake chickens!) *All-around best
Tank yu tumas blong ridim blog blong Bislama! Ale tata long evriwan!
Other than the capital city of Luganville, the east side of Vanuatu’s Santo island is the only area that has been settled/developed to any significant extent. Our trend-setting friends George & Erica who put us onto the Marakai Trek recommended this very relaxed part of the island as a good way to “decompress” from the Marakai experience. They spoke of little bungalows on white sand beaches …. they seemed to be making sense. So upon arrival back in Luganville after the trek we stocked up on a bit of food and stumbled onto the taxi guy who picked us up from the airport a week before … he offered to take us and a few others up the 40km coast for a very reasonable rate.
The east side of Santo is all about coconuts and sand. Coconut plantations line both sides of the road most of the way, and as we drove up around 4PM we passed countless folks with machetes in hand strolling back home after a day’s work on the plantation. Coconut harvesting goes in 3 month intervals. Because the objective in this case is just the copra (“meat”) and not the juice or jelly, you harvest what has fallen onto the ground (they’re brown by now). They are husked open on a metal stake (pretty tough job … I did a few in Fiji), then the nut is cracked open and the meat is grated out of the shell into a pulp. That is also a pretty physical task. The pulp is then placed on a mesh grate above a huge contained wood fire in what they call a “hot air dryer” to be dried into a product that is put in large bags and sent to Luganville port for export. There were countless plantations along the route and dozens of these hot air dryers.
Coconut plantations make up most of the paid work along this east side. The other source of cash is low intensity tourism – a few small resorts are scattered around on stunning beaches. We went to the north end of the road to a town known as Port Olry. George had mentioned that this was a French-influenced town, so that had some appeal to us. We found a very modest bungalow right on the beach and loved the open air feel of the place.
Two very lazy days were spent swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, canoeing, blogging, reading, and playing cards. Villagers here also all had gardens back in the jungle, because there was virtually no food for sale in the town.
We hired a local women to do our laundry … and what laundry it was, after 5 days of trekking through mud. By the time she was finished, it seemed like every tree branch and line on the beach had our stuff strung up.
We made our way back towards Luganville the next day and on a whim stopped off at Lonnoc beach. Didn’t seem like much going on till we spotted some local kids jumping in from a rope swing on a huge tree at the end of the beach. Pretty soon we were all swingin’ and jumpin’ into the lovely turquoise water.
While scarfing down some sweet potato fries at the little restaurant on the beach we learned that the restaurant and little cabins were part of the island’s tourism/hospitality training institute – it was the practicum component. We felt bad for the waitress there who would have to spend Christmas working to keep the operation going. But she was well trained …she would not complain!
From there we made our way to the Ri Ri blue hole. Both Efate and Santo islands have these blue holes where the limestone surface rock has been dissolved by upwelling groundwater to form these deep inland pools . The colour is exquisite. There were three blue holes to choose from … you probably won’t be surprised to know that we chose the one that had a rope swing!
The water was clear and cool … so refreshing after coming from the ocean on a very hot day.
We arrived back in Luganville in time for dinner. Our favorite place to eat was at the local market. Some of the women had cooking stalls beside the main market area and we could fill ourselves on omelettes, chicken and fish for very reasonable rates while chatting with the cook. This market, like many others we’d seen, was so full of produce and so vibrant. But we did notice that the women looked tired, and you sometimes had to work to catch their attention to pay for something. We then learned that these women are from villages around the island and they travel to Luganville with their garden produce to sell. They literally sleep beside their produce at night, day after day until the produce is mostly sold, then return to their villages.
Post dinner had us packing up once again .. this time to get ready for our flight to the island of Epi the next day. Jake will tell you about that!
Today is Cam’s birthday and we are spending a quiet, rainy day near Punakaiki on the south island of New Zealand. We are ‘wwoofing’ here for a few days on a beautiful property overlooking the ocean, hosted by a lovely woman named Carolyn. We’ve had some great experiences here in NZ, but are still trying to process and write about Vanuatu.
Our trek in and out of Marakai and the day we spent with the people there will not soon be forgotten. Of the experiences I have had in my life, this is among those that leave the strongest impressions. Trying to put it into words is daunting!
It all started with the recommendation of our friends George and Erica who did this trek with their 2 daughters about a year and a half ago. They wanted to see and experience a custom village where people are still living a traditional lifestyle and thriving without western influences. In fact, in this particular case, the villagers have very consciously rejected the ‘trappings’ of western society. George gave us the contact information for a woman named Mayumi in Luganville who operates a travel agency called “Wrecks to Rainforest” and organized his family’s trek. So Cam emailed Mayumi from Fiji to let her know that we were interested in doing this 5-day, 4-night hike into the wild interior of Santo Island. Mayumi responded that it was certainly possible to do, but not always easy to get hold of her regular guide, Riki, who lives in a remote community. We had not even considered this complication, but, of course, Riki lives in a village with no electricity, so when his cell phone battery dies, it doesn’t get recharged until he comes into town. Mayumi said that she usually hears from him every few weeks, but sometimes months can pass without any contact. The Marakai trek is not one of the more popular excursions and only gets booked about once a month. We had a good laugh with her as she compared us (planning everything very last-minute) with George, who had contacted her almost a year in advance! Luckily for us, Mayumi is well-connected in the area and knew other options for guide and porters. It sounds strange to have to hire porters to carry our stuff. We, who are accustomed to backpacking in Canada, carrying all our food, tenting and cooking equipment for multiple days. Here we were, going out for 4 nights, only having to carry a few clothes, sleeping mats, and our lunches (since 2 meals per day would be provided by our hosts). We didn’t even need to bring a tent. Anyway, suffice it to say that there is NO WAY we could have done this trek without the porters!! Our guide (Thomas) and the 2 porters (Anatol and Anagle) were from a community called Namourou, in south Santo. It is a community serviced by a French school, so besides their native language and Bislama, they all spoke quite good French. This was fantastic for us as it allowed us to communicate directly with them. Mayumi, who knows how to organize successful trips, also sent along one of her employees, Esther, who speaks Bislama and English. Esther is a niVan from Banks Island in the north who is studying tourism at university and has been working for Mayumi at Wrecks to Rainforest. She was an excellent cultural interpreter to have along, and this would be her second visit to Marakai. The trek would involve a 6-hour hike in to the village of Fortunel where we would stay the night, then a shorter hike (2 hours) to the village of Marakai where we planned to stay for 2 nights. Then we’d hike out towards the south, again staying at a village along the way.
Our trip started with a 2-hour drive along rough roads to a ‘village’ called Sele (I did not actually see more than a few huts there). Along the way, we saw abandoned and half-buried American quonset huts from WW2.
We started the hike at about 11am, and the walking was quite easy at first (especially since we were only carrying small daypacks!) However, after about an hour, Thomas (our guide) seemed a bit perplexed as the trail was not as he remembered. He asked a local woman who explained that, due to some conflict between families, a certain trail was no longer being used and we would have to return to Sele to take an alternate route. A bit disappointing for sure, but we were still fresh enough to “take it as it comes”. We took a break for some lunch and fresh coconuts, thanks to our porters who could easily climb up the palm trees with their machetes!
We retraced our steps and started off along the correct path. Guide and porters were barefoot, and had made the comment “les souliers sont pour les Blancs”. We were all wearing our hiking shoes and strapped to the packs were our rubber boots (the ones we’ve been carting around for 4 months and only used in Costa Rica!) I explained to the porters that we were only bringing the boots as a gift for our hosts in the first village. But after hearing that footwear is only for whites, I questioned our choice of gift. However, Anagle assured me that they would be appreciated. Mayumi had arranged and sent along the proper gifts and payment for our accommodation, so the boots were going to be an extra. I was glad that the porters wouldn’t have to carry them the whole time, and I’m sure they were too!
The trail was a dirt track that took us up and down slopes. Some parts were quite muddy and slick, and there were a few creeks to cross along the way. We stopped for swim breaks, coconut breaks, and water breaks.
As we were suiting up again after the swim, Thomas suggested that I get the headlamps out. And I thought we were just minutes away! We started the longest uphill section of the whole hike, and I was already feeling like I had done a 7.5hr stair workout. In a sauna! It was practically dark by the time we made it to Fortunel, Riki’s village, where we would stay the night. Riki’s brother had passed us on the trail near the creek and had gone ahead with the message that visitors were coming (otherwise, because of dead cellphone batteries, our arrival was unannounced).
Entering Riki’s house was a moment of culture shock. We were exhausted and hungry. The house was dark, smoky, and full of people (he and his wife have 7 children). We sat on the floor and were served taro (like a dry potato) and susu (a slimy green vegetable). Riki’s wife told us (through Esther’s interpretation) that her sons had gone to the garden that morning to dig up taro root, with the premonition that guests would be coming.
Breakfast was similar to the previous night’s dinner. Riki’s family was really lovely and it was amazing to be so welcomed and looked after on such short notice. We heard that one of the reasons Riki hadn’t been in contact with Mayumi recently was because he had been dealing with his father’s disappearance. Chief Lisa, who I believe had been the head of the village for several decades, had gone missing about 2 weeks prior. Apparently, he had stayed home while the rest of the villagers had gone to a meeting in Sele (walking to Sele is not a big deal for them — they can easily go both directions in a day!) Upon their return, one of the chief’s sons had gone to check on him and he was fine. Later, they heard him talking to someone, but since no one was in the house with him, they assumed that he was talking to the spirits. The next morning, they found his front door closed but the back door standing open and he was gone. However, there were no footprints leaving the house. A search party set out to look for him but could find no trace. They continued looking for about 10 days. It is believed that the old chief entered the spirit world and has been turned into a stone. A woman from a neighbouring village was going to come to help the family discover which stone he has become.
We packed our bags and presented Riki with the gifts. They seemed genuinely pleased with the boots! I hope they can be useful. The previous night, Riki had shown me a bad cut he had on his foot and I had given him some antibiotic cream and a bandaid. But I doubt he will start wearing the boots regularly as bare feet are generally more practical!
Riki’s house has a corrugated tin roof. We wondered how the pieces had been transported, and the answer was: 2 at a time, on Riki’s back! My “7.5 hr stair workout” from the previous day was seeming kind of lame. I honestly don’t know how he managed to get those huge pieces of tin up and down all those muddy slopes!
We got a nice tour of Fortunel, including the school (grades 1-4, built by a Korean group and staffed by some locals and a Solomon Islander).
Well fed and rested, and minus 4 pairs of boots, we continued on our way to Marakai.
George had said to us before we started, “You’ll be heading into the stone age,” and I really felt that he was right when we ran into a family on the path who were walking home from their garden (I presume). She was wearing a leaf skirt, carrying a baby in a sling and a load of taro in a basket hanging from a tumpline. He wore a loin cloth, was also carrying a load: 2 baskets hanging from a bamboo stick. Their little boy was curious about us and kept sneaking backward glances as we approached. Thomas and the porters speak the local dialect and taught us how to greet people. The greeting changes for morning, afternoon and night.
When we arrived at the entrance gate to Marakai, Thomas went in first to let them know we had arrived. Most of the villagers, including the chief, were out tending their gardens. However, we were invited to come in and were able to rest at their guest house.
Marakai is an amazing place that I am still trying to figure out (but never will!) It is known as a “kastom village” dedicated to preserving the traditional, village-centered lifestyle of the ni-Vanuatu people. It was established in its present location in 1980 by a group of people (the Nagriamel movement, lead by Jimmy Stevens) who were opposed to the creation of an independent Vanuatu as it is known today. They wanted the island of Espiritu Santo to be its own independent country rather than part of Vanuatu which is comprised of 83 different islands (with more than 100 distinct languages!!) They moved further into the bush precisely because they wanted to be far away from western influence. Even though they did not achieve the political independence they wanted (and their leader was jailed) they have achieved a very real independence by living in a traditional and totally self-sufficient way.
They have a cashless society. They wear simple clothing that is made from local plants, eat only what they grow themselves and harvest from the forest and river, build their homes from local materials, and use medicinal plants. Their children do not attend school, but follow their parents and learn the skills needed for survival in their environment. There are very few manufactured items in the village, but the men do have machetes, and there are several solar lights that charge during the day and are used in the houses after dark. Esther noted a few changes since her last visit 6 months ago: there were now some plastic buckets for collecting water, a few cloth diapers hanging on a line, as well as a clock! The clock was a gift from a French woman who has been spending one month a year, living traditionally in Marakai. We read with interest her entries in the guest book.
One thing we couldn’t quite figure out was why the people of Marakai accept, and even seem to like having tourists come and visit them. What is in it for them? If they are trying to avoid western influence, why accommodate westerners in their village? The answer we got was that they are confident and proud of their lifestyle and are quite happy to share it with people who are interested.
The guest house where we stayed was really nice. It was clearly built with westerners in mind as it had a large raised sleeping platform as well as a couple of smaller platforms, a round table and 4 stools, benches along the wall, and a window at each end (none of these things are found in any of the other houses).
Soon after arriving, we were offered a beautiful plate of ripe bananas and a thermos of hot water for tea (oh, a thermos — another manufactured item!)
When the villagers returned from their gardens, they welcomed us with a song. Irene made a nice meal which was brought to us on wooden plates.
That evening, we participated in a kava ceremony and presented some gifts for the village.
The kava drinking continued for those who wanted, and Cam had quite a few bowls. Apparently he became fluent in French (or so he says) and had a great time chatting with Anatol and Anagle, the porters.
We went down to the river with Liston who was going to collect prawns. On the way, he caught a fairly large lizard which he immobilized (but didn’t kill) by scraping its neck. I realized later that it was still breathing. When lizard meat did not appear on our dinner plates, Cam said, “Maybe they noticed the look on your face.” Yes, I am a bit of a wimp that way! But I have the utmost respect for this young man, Liston. He is so in touch with his environment and skilled when it comes to survival in the Vanuatu bush. He’s probably the closest thing to “sustainability” that I will encounter on this trip.
But there is one thing that Liston cannot do, and that is speak Bislama, the official language of Vanuatu. Only the older generation in Marakai speak it, and they have obviously chosen not to teach it to their children. I really struggled with that one, knowing full well that I am coming at the issue with a MASSIVE cultural bias. Being a big proponent of bilingualism in Canada, I have always felt that it is important to learn your own language, but by all means to learn other languages too! Of course the people of Marakai have everything they need right there in their village and they can communicate perfectly with the people in neighbouring villages, but I just wondered… what if a mining company comes into the area some day and wants to extract minerals? Wouldn’t it be helpful for the locals to be able to plead their case directly? What if any of these children might someday want to travel to other parts of Vanuatu? But maybe learning Bislama is just part of the slippery slope of cultural erosion and it’s actually more valuable to have a group of people who are totally self-sufficient, living off the land, with no plans to adopt western practices. I don’t know. It doesn’t seem to have worked for the tribes living in the Amazon, though, as their land is being harvested for wood, minerals and oil. However, I’m sure the people in Marakai would question my parenting choices too. They might say, “What? Your kids have reached puberty and they don’t even know how to forage food for themselves? Why would any parent teach their child to be so completely dependent on others?”
Visiting Marakai really blew my mind.
Kaia and I tried out the local fashion and walked around in leaf skirts for most of the day. I realized that no clothes = no laundry. Imagine that! Cam had adopted the local “malmal” (loin cloth) since we were at Riki’s. The first one he got was made of cloth, but in Marakai, even cotton cloth is too western! They gave him one made from the inner bark of a tree. It was a bit stiff at first, but after he swam in it, he said it softened up quite nicely!
With Irene, we visited one of the vegetable gardens and also saw an artificial pond that the villagers have stocked with fish.
Cam took part in another evening of kava drinking and socializing in the men’s nakamal (meeting house). This time it had the undesirable effect of making him nauseous and unable to sleep. I guess all the warnings about the kava being different in Vanuatu than Fiji were true. Too bad he didn’t heed them. So our walk out the next day started off with one very hurting guy! The village sang a farewell song (actually with English lyrics, composed by Jimmy Stevens!) and we thanked them for the amazing hospitality.
Luckily, after a couple of hours, Cam’s stomach started to feel better and he was able to enjoy the walk. But I hadn’t been too worried because I had total confidence that had he been too sick to continue, our guide and porters would have simply built a small shelter for us to stay in. Honestly, there is nothing they can’t do with those machetes! The trail was quite muddy as it rained on and off, and there were some very steep sections, both up and down. We stayed the night in the nakamal of another village, Tsarangatui. Our soaking wet clothes didn’t really dry, but we knew we were only a couple of hours from the end point of the trek. Once again, the local fashion would have been more practical!
During our trek, there were four languages being spoken among the 8 of us. With Esther, we spoke English; with Thomas and the porters we spoke French, but Esther and they communicated in Bislama. And the three of them (Thomas, Anatol and Anagle) used their traditional dialect. It worked beautifully.
From Namourou, John, the same driver who had taken us to the start of the trek, drove us back to Luganville. He has been able to buy a pickup truck because he works seasonally in the fruit orchards in New Zealand.
Life in Marakai reminded me of the Himba vallages we visited in Namibia; traditional and village-centered. The openness and generosity of the people reminded me of the homestay we did on the island of Amantani in Lake Titicaca. But in Marakai, I sensed a sereneness and a level of contentedness among the people that was unique.
Vanuatu, called the New Hebrides at the time, was very important for the Allies during World War II. As the Japanese slowly worked their way down through Pacific islands, the New Hebrides had some of the closest American airstrips to the area of combat, so they could launch their attacks on places such as Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. Many military and construction machines were brought in to the bases, but after the war finished, they didn’t know what to do with all the extra stuff. The Americans offered the equipment to the colonisers of the islands, England and France, but got no reply. So, they dumped it all in the water! The place they dumped it is now called Million Dollar Point (should be called Million Dollars Wasted point), not far out at all from Luganville, Vanuatu’s 2nd largest city, located on the island of Santo.
As Kaia explained in her Millenium cave blog, the trek we had scheduled was postponed 2 days. We spent the first of those days at Millenium cave. For the day after that, my mom and I felt we were ready for another SCUBA dive. By far, the most popular dive in Luganville , and perhaps all of Vanuatu is the wreck of the SS President Coolidge. It was a luxury-liner turned into a troop carrier that hit “friendly” mines on it’s way into Luganville harbour. Knowing it was going to sink, the captain ran it aground and everyone got out safely. However, it quickly started to slide into the ocean where it still rests.
Considered the best wreck dive in the world, it’s a must-do for divers visiting the area. However, the wreck starts at 23 metres depth, and neither of us is certified to go that deep, so we decided to pass on that one.
We decided to do a dive at Million Dollar Point because it was shallow enough for us to dive amongst the wreckage, and my dad and Kaia could see it while snorkeling too.
We started in the morning by going to the dive shop to get our equipment and meet our divemaster, Steve. We then drove to the point, got suited up, and got a briefing on the dive plan. To get started, we did our first ever shore entrance, where you walk in from the beach instead of going in from a boat. It’s really hard to walk with all that equipment. Now I think I know how a giant tortoise feels! We put our regulators into our mouths and down we went. Blub, blub, blub…
As soon as we were underwater, we could see the scuttled equipment. There were a lot of old, rusty and algae-covered jeeps, forklifts and bulldozers, all of which seemed to be upside down for some reason, so we were seeing a lot of tires! It was a mix of a wreck dive and a reef dive because now, there’s coral growing on the wreckage, and the two together make a very safe place for pretty fish. I identified a lot of them, some of which are in the movie “Finding Nemo”. There were angelfish, butterfly fish, a batfish, parrotfish, triggerfish, moorish idols (Gill), damselfish (Deb), and of course, clownfish. They swim around their anemone just like Marlin and Nemo do (now we go out… and back in). We also saw sea cucumbers, starfish, and even a sea turtle! My dad was using the GoPro, so we only have pictures of what they saw while snorkeling.
One of my favourite parts about the dive was this forklift that you can sit in and pretend to drive. There’s still a bit of a seat and the steering wheel is still completely intact! BTW: the rest of the pictures are deep down (we didn’t have the camera) so are from the internet.
After about 45 minutes underwater, we came back up and walked out along the beach. We had a lot to tell my dad and Kaia and they had a lot to tell us. Million Dollar Point is really cool and interesting in so many different ways, and it reminded me how much of the world’s history, life and wonder is hidden beneath the waves.
L’ile la plus grande de Vanuatu s’appelle Espiritu Santo. C’est au nord de l’ile Efate ou se situe Port Vila (le capital). Cependant, les niVans (personnes locales) ne l’appelle jamais “Espiritu Santo”, seulement “Santo”. Luganville, la plus grande ville de Santo est le “deuxième capital” du pays. Le vol d’Efate a Santo n’a pris qu’une heure.
Notre raison primaire pour visiter Santo était pour faire une randonnée de cinq jours dans les montagnes, suggéré par nos bons amis a Peterborough, George, Erica, Kaia et Anna. Mais, a cause de quelques complications pour trouver un guide et des porteurs, la randonnée a été différée quelques journées. Alors on avait quelques jours libres pour explorer la région de Luganville.
Luganville est une ville d’a peu près 13 000 habitants. Ce n’est rien de trop spéciale, mais c’est propre et il y a un grand parc. Notre premier soir, on a soupé au marché local. On est resté chez Unity Park Motel, une place très simple mais nette et confortable.
Dans le motel, il y avait des affiches pour les différentes tours dans la région. Une qui a attirée notre attention était le Millenium Cave Tour.
Dans l’année 1975, dans un village proche de Luganville…
Un homme du village de Vunaspef a amené quelques enfants pour voir une caverne une heure de marche d’où ils vivaient. L’accès était très difficile, puisqu’il n’y avait pas de sentier et la pente était raide. Mais, les enfants ont beaucoup aimé la caverne! Quand qu’ils sont rentrés au village, ils ont parlé avec leurs parents a propos de leur journée formidable. Bientôt, tout le village était très excité!
Dans l’année 1977…
La compagnie allemande German Geographic est venue pour filmer un documentaire au sujet des cavernes. Quelques touristes ont commencé a venir, mais l’accès était encore très difficile.
Dans l’année 2000…
Le village de Vunaspef a reçu une subvention de AusAid (aide Australien) pour développer la caverne pour le tourisme. La caverne est nommé d’après cette année. La tournée de la Caverne du Millénaire est née!
De 2000 au présent…
La tournée utilise les commentaires des gens pour s’améliorer. Ils ont eu plusieurs commentaires sur des sites en-lignes de conseils de voyage comme trip advisor. Au début, c’était un mélange de commentaires bonnes et mauvaises. Mais, ils ont regardé au sites et se sont améliorés, par exemple: J’ai aimé la tournée, mais j’avais très faim quand on avait finit, et il n’y avait rien a manger.” Maintenant, il y a un plat de nourriture a la fin.
Ils ont maintenant 5 étoiles sur trip advisor, ce qui est FANTASTIQUE! Ils reçoivent seulement des commentaires positives, et la raison est claire pour moi, après avoir fait la tournée moi-meme.
Dans l’année 2014…
La famille Douglas visite les Cavernes du Millénaire!!
La journée a commencé au bureau de Millenium Cave Tours, très proche de notre motel. Il y avait beaucoup de prix de trip advisor sur le mur, tous avec 5 étoiles!
Après payer, on est monté dans un camion avec le restant du groupe de 15 personnes. La tour commence à Vunaspef, un village d’une heure de conduite de Luganville. C’est sur une route de gravier, et on a passé par quelques villages avant d’y arriver.
À Vunaspef, nous sommes allés dans le Nakamal (salle communautaire) du village. Un de nos guides nous a donné une explication très détaillée de comment la journée allait se dérouler. C’est une tournée “4 en 1”, c’est à dire la randonnée, ensuite “caving”, “canyoning”, et finalement nager/flotter dans une rivière!
Partie 1 (randonnée) a prit une heure. C’était dans la jungle, et c’était très pittoresque!
Avant de commencer la descente vers les cavernes, on a prit une pause pour faire une rituelle. Avant d’entrer dans la grotte pour la première fois, quelqu’un doit peinturer ta face avec une pigmentation naturelle qui vient de la foret locale.
Après que tout le monde a eu sa face peinturé, on est descendu vers la caverne. La pente était très raide, mais ce n'était pas trop difficile.
La caverne était très amusant et intéressant. Les guides nous ont averti d’essayer de ne pas toucher les murs de la grotte, parce que les crottes de chauves-souris sont très toxiques. Tout le monde avait une lampe de poche, un gilet de sauvetage, et il y avait un guide pour chaque deux ou trois personnes.
Après sortir de la caverne, on a mangé notre dîner. Mon père a acheté des samosas à Luganville, alors notre dîner était délicieux!
Les enfants du village de Vunaspef ont ensuite apparus et ont commencés a sauter d’une roche, l’autre bord du ruisseau. Je pensait que ça avait l’air amusant alors je les ai joigne. Ensuite, tout le groupe sautait aussi!
La prochaine partie était le “canyoning”, c’est a dire descendre une gorge avec plein de rochers. C’est un mélange de grimper, flotter, marcher et sauter. Il y avait des fils de métal pour nous aider à croiser des ruisseaux et grimper/descendre des roches.
Le “canyoning” a prit à peu près 30 minutes. La dernière partie du tour était flotter/nager dans une rivière dans la gorge. Ceci était la partie préféré de nous quatre! C’était relaxant et amusant en même temps.
Après flotter pour 45 minutes, il fallait remonter jusqu’à Vunaspef, ce qui a prit 20 minutes. Cette partie, la pente était extrêmement raide! C’était une échelle qui montait… montait… mon père pouvait pas prendre de photos.
Nous sommes retournés à Vunaspef, et il y avait des collations dans le Nakamal. Noix de coco, pamplemousse, lime, orange… mmm!!
Vunaspef est très propre et bien rangée. Millenium Cave Tours est 100% la propriété du village. Les guides viennent tous de Vunaspef et ils sont bien payés. L’argent paye pour deux écoles (une a Vunaspef, une dans une autre village) et les salaires des professeurs.
La tournée de la Caverne de Millénaire est impeccable. C’est amusant, les guides sont très bons, c’est scénique, et ça aide une communauté. Si tu te trouves à Luganville, ne manquez pas le Millenium Cave Tour. Une bonne introduction à l’ile de Santo! Kaia
An earlier draft of this entry was posted by accident. If you received that one, please disregard and read this one.
If you know only one thing about the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu, it might be that this nation of 83 small islands ranked #1 in the world in the New Economics Foundation’s (NEF) “Happy Planet Index”. No, not Norway, Sweden, Canada or New Zealand. That an almost unknown little country that ranks very far down the UN’s Human Development Index (in 2012 ranked 124 out of 187) could end up as “The Happiest Place on Earth” was cause for great curiosity on our part.
This stat did not go unnoticed by our Peterborough friend George Fogarasi who searched high and low for a place on earth that was more or less untouched by western influences of economics and consumerism. He wanted to explore such a place with his family and the summer before last they ventured to Vanuatu for 5 weeks. They came home and RAVED about their experience. They visited remote communities that did not use cash, grew all their own food, made their houses out of local materials, had a very strong sense of who they were and where they’d come from, and were genuinely friendly and open with visitors. After we’d decided in our planning stage to visit Rhonda & Henry in Fiji, we looked at the map and noted that Vanuatu was the nearest neighbour. With the Fogarasi stories & our desire to visit people who were living sustainably, Vanuatu seemed like a “no brainer” on our itinerary.
Vanuatu has been settled by Melanesians for more than 3000 years. They came from Indonesia, through Papua New Guinea then the Solomon Islands before arriving in Vanuatu using dugout canoes with outriggers. Polynesians arrived about 1000 years ago from the northeast. The indigenous population are known as “niVans”
The 1st european encounter was a Portuguese explorer (sailing for Spain) who was looking for the “great southern continent”. When he sailed into Big Bay of the largest island he thought he had found his objective so named the islands “Terra Australis del Espiritu Santo”. That island is known as Espiritu Santo to this day.
French and English explorers visited the islands (known to them as the “New Hebrides”) starting in the late 1700s and colonial interest took hold in the 1820s with the sandalwood trade (for incense). The slow growing sandalwood was running out (1870s) just as the British were ramping up their sugar cane production in neighboring Fiji, Australia and New Zealand. They needed cheap labour so started the dark chapter in history known as “blackbirding” whereby they would trick, cajole and otherwise all but force niVans onto ships to be dropped off as indentured servants on sugar plantations. In fact, Henry’s property on Tavewa Island of Fiji was such a sugar plantation before his great grandfather purchased the land for coconut plantation. Henry regularly finds pottery from these niVans on the island. The niVans could leave after 3 years but were often dropped back in Vanuatu on the wrong islands. This practice finally was shut down in the early 1900s because of pressure from missionaries.
Missionaries have had a profound impact on the islands. It was not easy going for them at first, because the practice of cannibalism was alive and well, and when niVans grew suspicious of them, they would often kill and eat them. I read somewhere that the final act of recorded cannibalism was in 1970. That aside, niVans are for the most part very strong Christians, with some traditional beliefs mixed in. Our personal experience reinforced this fact. Some of our guides and taxi drivers were deeply religious and asked us about our own beliefs.
The English and French colonial influences competed and coexisted through the 18 and 1900s and ultimately ended up in a joint administration known as the “condominium”. There were two different rules, courts, police and education systems, so critics referred to the government instead as “pandemonium”. There was a period of time when the English drove on the left side of the road while the French drove on the right. When I asked a local how this possibly could have happened, they explained that for the most part the two groups lived separately geographically so as long as you didn’t venture too far, it was OK. Most of the niVans we met spoke some English, but we found many little pockets where schools were in French.
The New Hebrides came into international importance during the Pacific campaign of WWII. The US figured that Japan would want these strategic Pacific islands so moved very quickly and decisively to build their military presence. I believe the niVan population on Espiritu Santo (“Santo”) at the time was about 5000. The US base there grew quickly to a population of over 50000 and by the end of the war more than 500000 soldiers had passed through the many facilities on the island. The US built more than a dozen airstrips and we found the remnants of several of these as we moved around the island. Dozens of plane wrecks have been found where pilots ran out of fuel, got lost, or ran into bad weather. This base was central to the US Solomon Islands Guadalcanal campaign.
When Vanuatu gained independence in 1980 (a long and fascinating course of events) the country had to decide on an official language. Because of the competition between English and French interests, those two languages were ruled out. So too were the more than 100 local languages, for the same reason. Instead, they adopted a pidgin English (with some mixed in French) known as Bislama (pronounce Bishlama) that bares a remarkable similarity to the pidgin English “Krio” spoken in my beloved Sierra Leone. This was strategic regionally because the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea and indigenous New Caledonians also speak pidgen Englishes. Peterborough friend George found some peace corps Bislama language resources to use before they arrived and got to a level of basic communication. He came home so enthusiastic about the language that we did some prep ourselves. We had so much fun with Bislama that we’ll devote a separate blog entry to that.
The 83 islands are aligned north to south and many of them host active volcanoes. We tried to get to several of these islands to climb a volcano but were unable because all the flights had been booked out by niVans returning from the capital city to their home islands/villages for Christmas. So the islands are spectacular visually, with dramatic mountains, extremely lush forests and spectacular palm lined white sand beaches.
So, back to the million dollar question: Why are niVans the happiest people on earth? There are a few ways to answer this.
First, the ranking of countries depends entirely on the criteria used to measure the nebulous concept of happiness. In this case, the survey looked at three things: life satisfaction, life expectancy and ecological footprint. The NEF chose these indicators because they measure “the ecological efficiency of delivering human well-being within the constraints of equitable and responsible resource consumption“. Vanuatu has been actively working with the UN and other countries to come up with alternate indices for measuring wellbeing. The following quote comes from a meeting of niVans, other Melanesian countries, Aussies and Kiwis who were wrestling with this question;
“The almost universal use of GDP-based indicators to measure progress has helped justify policies based on rapid material progress at the expense of more holistic criterion. Because it is a crude measure of only the cash value of activities or production, GDP is heavily biased towards increased production and consumption regardless of the necessity or desirability of such outputs. Policies developed with regard only to increasing per-capita GDP can have negative, and potentially disastrous, impacts on other factors contributing to life quality.”
It should be noted that none of the major industrialized countries ranked near the top. Of course, much can be argued about the choice of indices and how they were applied. The inclusion of ecological footprint as a central component of wellbeing is novel. And for us, refreshing. But our family’s experience was overwhelmingly supportive of this idea of happy niVans. A conversation with our driver to and from our trek into Marakai village on Santo captured what we feel is a central part of their contentedness. Many niVans work in the New Zealand vineyards and orchards seasonally, for 3 to 6 months/year. They are valued for their fast and dependable work. When I asked John if he would like to ultimately immigrate to New Zealand, he responded very quickly and unequivocally. “No. In New Zealand, you have to work every day, and you need money to live. Here in Vanuatu, if you’re hungry, you just walk to your garden and get some food”. This idea was echoed in so many other conversations we had. I read of another conversation with a niVan who had just returned from England with a university degree. When asked what he wanted to do with his life, he raised the fishing rod in his hand.
Every niVan I met had a garden. Many had canoes and fishing gear. They spent lots of time working in their garden that was often some distance from their home. The climate supports growing year round, and the soils are fertile. Rob on Epi Island told me “put a post in the ground and it will start to grow” 🙂 Even the poorest niVans have food to eat. And they are very quick to share their harvest with you, with pride.
Homes outside the capital city are modest and about 95% of the ones we saw away from the major centers were made entirely from local forest products (log frame, thatch roof, woven bamboo walls). Floors are dirt and woven grass mats are used for eating and sleeping on. If you need a home … walk into the woods and get your materials. We heard from others and corroborated ourselves that there is virtually no home or wealth envy among niVans. No keeping up with the Joneses … mostly because there are very few niVan Joneses to keep up with. Friend George explained to me that this is partly explained by their cultural practice of wealth sharing. Prestige is bestowed upon those who give gifts of food (or whatever), much as was the case with N.A. First Nations potlatches. Such gifts would more or less oblige the receiver to return the favour when conditions are right. George refers to it as “Melanesian Socialism”.
NiVans are very much tied to their land. For obvious reasons of food and home self sufficiency. But their culture also sees land as not something to be owned (expanding white/colonial land acquisition in the 1970s was a major trigger of the independence movement) but instead something to be shared by the present generation and protected for future generations. They have strong connections to past generations through the passing down of access to land.
We also observed very strong connections to extended family and larger community. It was not really clear where the nuclear family ended and the extended family began. Community gatherings were common, and our Christmas lunch was a perfect example – all food prepared and shared by the community.
Despite the unrelenting expansion of western influences (including the huge impact of missionaries), many niVan communities have maintained a remarkable amount of their traditional culture. Many villages appear to the eye to have had no contact with the west. Many others however have schools, some concrete structures and most niVans now wear western clothes.
So … self sufficiency for food and shelter, secure and sustained access to fertile land, strong connection to culture, family and community and an absence of material envy and it seems like you have some pretty important components of happiness! Despite these favourable conditions, most folks in western countries would not rush to sell all their possessions and move to Vanuatu (though we met quite a few who did). But perhaps the more important point (and maybe a bit obvious … sorry …) is that these folks are content but have only a tiny fraction of the ecological footprint that western societies do. Locally produced organic foods, every home is an “eco” home (lighting is almost always tiny scale solar), many villages consume almost no packaging and produce virtually no waste and carbon footprints for most folks are tiny. The larger cities have larger individual footprints.
This was the backdrop for the 18 days we spent in Vanuatu. We had so much to ponder as our adventures played out.
We spent only a day and a half on the island we flew into (Efate) and stayed in the capital city Port Vila. Our highlight of the city tour was a trip to the VIBRANT food market. If the profusion of food at this market is any indication of how well niVans eat … then what I said above must be true! We took some great market photos on Kaia’s phone … that I left behind on Epi island last week during a quick exit to the tiny airport there for our flight back to Port Vila … so sadly can’t share those. But today we finally have arrangements in place to have the phone mailed general delivery to us in Christchurch from where we will depart New Zealand January 23rd.
The highlight of our time on Efate had to be our visit to the Mele Cascades (waterfalls) and Mele beach. After a short taxi ride to the trail head, and payment of an entrance fee, you hike about 20-30 minutes to the base of the falls. We were the first ones there so had the entire falls and forest to ourselves for about 45 minutes. You could swim behind the falls into a little cave, could swim in the many little pools, but best of all you could jump off the ledge of some pools into the clear waters of the next pool down.
And yes, Yvonne and I had just as much fun as the kids jumping into the pools!
After about 2 hrs at the falls we hiked back to the trailhead and walked about 30 minutes to the beach. The playful fun continued when we found some large inflatable toys set up in front of one restaurant. Pretty smart business … because there were lots of kids playing on these, and lots of people eating in the restaurant.
We enjoyed a bit of beach-side lunch ourselves then headed back to town to change, pack up and head to the airport for our flight to Santo island.