This story appeared in Virgin Voyeur inflight magazine, December 2016.
“The nambanga tree represents the ni-Vanuatu,” Antonny Arnhambat says as we tread water beneath an enormous banyan. “The roots come from the floating vines. You get your roots and then become connected to the main tree. That’s how the family grows.” Its branches shade the jellybean-blue freshwater swimming hole like an awning. A rope swing is attached to the web of aerial roots concealing the trunk. “I’ve been floating around like a vine,” he tells me. “I need to get back to my roots.”
Matevulu Blue Hole is near Luganville, which is Vanuatu’s only other urban area besides its capital of Port Vila on Efaté. In 1606 Portuguese navigator, Fernandes de Queirós, created a settlement on this island of Espiritu Santo and, since then, gradual exposure to outsiders and their beliefs have challenged, changed and sometimes dispersed and divided the ni-Vanuatu people. Matriarchal land ownership disappeared long ago, cannibalism has been phased out, Christianity and animism now co-exist, a national council of chiefs advises the government on certain land and cultural issues, modern education and urban living are locked in a sort of permanent arm-wrestle with preservation of village-based communities.
My guide and travelling companion was born and raised in Vila and speaks lightening-speed English and Bislama – Vanuatu’s creole language – but has also lived and studied abroad. As Antony Arnhambat reveals his own story, against the luscious tropical backdrop of this Pacific Island nation, a sightseeing trip of Santo and Malekula becomes a journey to personally uncharted territory.
“This will be the first time I’ll set foot on Malekula,” Antonny tells me as we walk through coconut plantations and across bamboo bridges after an exhilarating and physically intense day at Millennium Cave guided by Funaspef villagers. His own ancestral home is Tenmaru, he says, in northwest Malekula.
On Santo we ride horses in the sea, go north to Port Orly where people use taro leaves as umbrellas and swim at Champagne Beach, deserted in a light rain. Over the first Melanesian feast of the trip – seafood buffet at Lonnoc – Antonny explains he’s from the chiefly line of Big Nambas, Vanuatu’s most formidable tribe, who chose to “stay on the dark side” rather than follow the missionaries.
“My great-grandfather was the last cannibal to live in the country,” he says, slurping meat from a massive mud crab claw.
The volcanic archipelago of Vanuatu comprises 14 large islands and about 80 altogether, not including the really little ones. Although Malekula is Vanuatu’s second-largest island and geographically situated between Santo and Efaté, it is seriously remote in the minds of most tourists. The day we fly in happens to be Antonny’s thirtieth birthday.
“Excited. Emotional. I’ve been emotional all day,” he says on the plane, then needs to keep his dark glasses on after we land.
It feels nothing like Santo; a lot of people are taller, like Antonny, and less reserved, like Antonny. The short drive to the administrative centre of Lakatoro has a coconut tree skyline and a copra oven understory. Roads are unsealed and there’s a high incidence of vehicle-to-vehicle waving.
Around 30 of the country’s 100 or so indigenous languages are spoken on Malekula across about 25,000 people. Names of main tribes relate directly to the size of traditional penis sheaths. If the island is a sitting dog facing westward, Lakatoro is on the back of its neck and we plan to explore the head.
Locally owned and operated Lakatoro Palm Lodge is home for three nights. Malekula’s accommodation is typically airy elegant bamboo structures with cold showers, flushing toilets, decorative gardens, solar-powered electricity, homemade meals and vatu-only payment facilities. Assunder Roy hums her favourite hymns as she prepares our breakfasts and dinners then sings them once we’re out the door.
We celebrate Antonny’s birthday at a local nakamal – a few small dimly lit structures in a clearing with outdoor benches and a single roadside bulb that stays on until the fresh kava runs out. After a few bowls we buy cooked snacks from a group of women who giggle at my attempted Bislama. Someone arrives with fire-roasted flying fox as I’m passing coins, but I tried bat in Luganville.
“I feel home,” he says through the darkness and the warm fragrant air of evening. “I don’t feel like an outsider. I’m happy that my home is still beautiful.”
We’re driven west the next day to Dram-Dram Bungalow, set on a dramatic cove. Rolin Amil prepares lunch while her husband guides us on a hike to Losinwei Cascades carrying grapefruit and cucumber in a plastic bag and a machete. Sethla Amil’s father was a cannibal and killed a New Zealander, he says in Bislama, and he’s kept the skull. This is Middle Nambas tribal land. Big Nambas territory, Sethla explains pointing at the ground across the river, is right there. Tenmaru is only a day or two away on well-trod jungle trails, but there’s no direct road access.
While we swim the last stretch to the cascades, this 72-year-old chief scales his way to the top of the waterfall in cut-off tracksuit pants and thongs worn down at the back to three-quarters their original length.
Back in Lakatoro that afternoon, the sports field is full of locals kicking balls. Island music plays at the grocery store where Antonny buys cigarettes. Kids with armfuls of baguettes pile into a parked vehicle. A handsome man standing at the back of a passing ute grins at us.
“That’s the Malekula Kid,” says Antonny with pride. Kali Jacobus, who “plays all over the Pacific and never loses a fight.”
The next morning we head up the east coast for a Small Nambas Tour at Rano where, for over a decade, they’ve regularly sounded the conch shell and beat the tam-tam for visitors. Traditional dance performances and demonstrations of customary food preparation, fire making, sand drawing and weaving not only drum up tourism but, as spokesperson Veronique Muluane explains, help preserve their “kastom ways”. Cannibal site tours are also on offer.
Further north we take a boat from Nawori Sea View Bungalow to Wala Island where Etienne Tiasinmal walks us around the island’s neglected ceremonial grounds under huge nambanga trees. “When the missionaries arrived,” says Etienne, “they stop everything”. He’s quietly passionate about reinvigorating elements of his culture but sensitive to the fact that many ni-Vanuatu people are, nowadays, devout Christians. Other Wala locals are quietly passionate about Antonny’s selfie stick.
“Antonny, yu blong wea?” asks Lyn Tiasinmal over lunch at Nawori.
Although Tenmaru is the dog’s eye of Malekula’s head, it’s only another hour and a half’s drive anti-clockwise around the coastline. Everything is drenched in late-afternoon light. People raise a hand or eyebrows in greeting. When a young girl standing back from the road waves, Antonny warns me “if you see someone in the bush, it’s not necessarily a person. It could be a ghost”. Road workers help push our vehicle up a steep section where they’re rebuilding. There are several barbed wire gates to open and close.
Just before Tenmaru, we drop into the well signposted waterfront accommodation of an aunt, but she’s away. The first person Antonny encounters in the village is an elderly man, who swears at him in surprise and then laughs and they embrace. Everyone in Tenmaru is related in some way to Antonny and I watch them examine this new face, that must also appear deeply familiar, as they calculate how he fits in.
“He born and never came,” I hear the old man explain.
Max Arnhambat, Antonny’s uncle, walks us around Tenmaru as though he expected the visit. In the church entrance are noticeboards of historic photographs and Antonny’s great-grandfather and look-alike, the so-called Cannibal King, holds a prominent position.
Down at the beach, Antonny takes a smooth stone from his pocket and places it on the sand – his sister had pressed it into his hand after her own recent pilgrimage to Tenmaru, suggesting he put it back where it belongs. Max then tells us the creation story of the village, about a mermaid and feuding brothers and their dividing line of stones that still extend into the mountains.
We leave before dark but stop to watch the sunset. Antonny recalls his father saying that, as children in Tenmaru, they’d put their heads to the sand to hear the sun hit the bottom of the ocean.
“I feel like my heart has been hugged,” says Antonny. “The vine has finally joined the root.”