This story appeared in Fairfax Traveller on 7 October 2016.
The sea turtle pendant on the leather strap around Sethla Amil’s neck hangs directly below the fine line of his pale goatee. He wears a Quiksilver t-shirt and cut-off tracksuit pants over a lean frame. His thongs have worn down at the heels to three quarters of their original length. In preparation for our morning together, he locates his machete and fills a plastic bag with grapefruits.
Malekula, shaped like a sitting dog, is one of Vanuatu’s 14 main islands. It’s the second largest in the archipelago and situated between the popular tourist destination of Espiritu Santo and the island of Efate where the capital and airline hub of Port Vila is. Yet Malekula has the reputation of being remote and hard to reach then inaccessible once you’ve arrived.
Perhaps because it was where cannibalism lasted the longest.
Dram-Dram Bungalow, belonging to the Amil family, sits on the sand’s edge of a snug cove in Losinwei on the west coast of Malekula’s ‘neck’. Accommodation in the island’s north seems to all be locally owned and operated. Bamboo structures in tropical gardens with cold showers and flushing toilets where payment can only be made in vatu.
From Dram-Dram we walk the unsealed coastal road then follow Sethla into the jungle where a narrow trail runs alongside the Losinwei River through Middle Nambas territory. For eons, Sethla’s tribe has shared the ‘head’ of Malekula with the Small Nambas and Vanuatu’s most formidable tribe – historically at least – Big Nambas.
A namba, incidentally, is a traditional penis sheath made with pandanus or banana leaf and the rest, as they say, is his story.
Up here people talk in northeast and northwest. Full and multi-day guided hikes, such as Big Nambas Trek and Manbush Trail Tour, offer sweaty exploration of the north’s roadless interior where the jungle hugs the volcanic geology and villages are accessible only on foot.
Sethla Amil offers visitors something shorter and sweeter. After 40 minutes of walking, he encourages us to get in and swim the last stretch while he scales a wall towards Losinwei Cascades. We paddle around a watery bend to see the glorious white skirts of the falls dwarfing the 72-year-old chief who’s now waving to us from the top.
Losinwei is only half an hour’s drive from Malekula’s main airport, Norsup, and the island’s small administrative centre of Lakatoro, both over on the east coast. All roads in Malekula are unsealed.
Lakatoro’s grocery shop sells fresh baguettes, its sports field heaves each afternoon and electricity is still enough of a luxury that there are only dim bulbs and fires after nightfall. The town has one restaurant and two kava bars and is surrounded by coconut plantation and jungle. Lakatoro Palm Lodge is owned by the Roy family. Each morning, Assunder hums hymns as she prepares breakfast for guests while her husband heads off, on foot, to work at the local bank.
Only a 30-minute drive up the east coast from Lakatoro is Rano where the Small
Nambas have been leading cannibal site tours and demonstrating their kastom ways for well over a decade. Spokesperson Veronique Muluane talks us through the dancing, drumming, fire-making, cooking, sand drawing and weaving as we watch.
These tours are year-round, but Malekula’s handful of cultural festivals are mainly held mid-year in the south of the island.
Just north of Rano, a slow boat from Nawori Bungalow deposits us on the coral island of Wala where we wander overgrown ceremonial grounds under huge banyan trees with Etienne Tiasinmal. Missionary influence annihilated huge chunks of traditional culture, but elements of animism have survived on Malekula and Etienne is passionate about a revival. He is, however, willing to draw the line at cannibalism. Meanwhile, back at Nawori, Lyn Tiasinmal prepares a Melanesian feast.
Continuing anti-clockwise around the coast, we eventually arrive in Tenmaru where Max Arnhambat recounts the origin story of this Big Nambas village of the northwest where the feuding brothers’ stony division still stretches into the misty mountains. The sun sets into the sea in front of Big Nambas Bungalow.
Cannibalism now feels like ancient history when travelling in Malekula and mingling with its laid-back locals. Except in the vestibule of Tenmaru’s church where, among the faded photographs of beloved missionaries, is a close-up image of Max’s fearsome grandfather who history knows as The Cannibal King. And at Dram-Dram Bungalow when, over a vegetarian lunch, I learn that Sethla Amil’s father was a cannibal and Sethla has kept a skull.