Many of the captivating and colourful images you would have seen in the glossy print and web marketing for ‘destination Vanuatu’ have very humble origins in the friendly rural people, mysterious ‘kastom’ practices, and beautiful landscapes of the numerous smaller outer islands that make up the 83 island archipelago of Vanuatu.
There is much more to experience of Vanuatu beyond the casinos, bars and vanilla lattes of the commercial centres of Port Vila and Luganville. Escape for a long weekend or a week-long excursion to experience the sometimes subtle, sometimes startlingly different cultures and environments of ‘Smol Aelan’ (small island) Vanuatu. Kastom practices hand-in-hand with Christianity both have a foot-hold in these places. People till the ground and grow bountiful organic fare to share with their extended families, and children carry packages of lap-lap manioc wrapped in banana leaf parcels for their school lunch as they shelter under hand-held giant taro leaf ‘umbrellas’ from passing downpours. These are places where nail-less houses – completely constructed of natural fibers – are skillfully woven and bound together with generations of ancient teachings.
This is not to say people of the outer islands are primitive. People from rural Vanuatu are surprisingly mobile for education; they are engaged in the outside world and are proud and motivated to share their natural hospitality, unique cultures, and their slice of paradise with visitors. Malampa is one of these proactive regions independently pursuing an assertive regional stamp on Vanuatu tourism in the last 5 years. Made up of Malekula, Ambrym and Paama Islands these ‘save’ (smart) people have created an intricate network of quality, authentic Melanesian-style bungalows and guesthouses located in some of the prettiest places on earth. Not satisfied to leave it at that, they have also created a range of alluring cultural, environmental, and adventure tours to entice all types of international and domestic travelers to their peaceful shores.
Highlights of the region are many. Malekula; famous for the ancient Big and Smol Namba Tribes – once warring, divided by the rough interior and defined by their intricate kastom practices – detailed and beautiful geometric pictorial messages in the sand, carved tam tams, rhythmic dancing, elaborate woven Nambas (penis sheaths) and a dark cannibalistic past. Other enticements in Malekula include intrepid jungle treks crossing the ‘Dogs Head’ (Malekula looks like a dog sitting down) that passes through the remote Francophone and Anglo communities or the iconic Manbush Trail – a Bear Gryls-style multiday trek learning about endemic plant and animal species and survival in the bush. The multitude of pristine marine parks and conservation areas also draw visitors to snorkel amongst beauties of the deep such as giant clams gardens in a kaleidoscope of brilliant colours and the elusive but magnificent aqua mammal – the pale dugong grazing on a bed of sea grass.
Ambrym is a powerful island of raging volcanoes and spirituality. Mount Marum and Benbow at over 1200 metres above sea level – each are super active giants. Their lava lakes (there are only four others of this kind in the world) bubble and rage eternally inside their caldrons of fire. After a hard days hike, pausing outside underneath a silent stellar sky, the glow of the two paint the night red. Ambrym also has arguably the most intricate carvings in wood, black fern, and volcanic stone in Melanesia. The carvers are revered in their craftsmanship and permission to carve is granted only by ancestral lines – born carvers. The Rom Dancers – traditionally only seen during the harvest of the sacred yam (critical to existence before the introduction of other tropical crops) are nine foot tall ‘spirits’. Entirely covert with elaborate painted, woven and feathered face masks, sweeping banana and pandanus leaf cloaks, and a singular woven ‘hand’ that beats out a paralyzing, hypnotic rhythm on the earth.
As you stand within an ancient Nasara – surrounded by giant upright slabs of ceremonial stone – contemplating the magic that bought them there and glance up at the ominously leering faces of majestic tam tams encircling you, you realise that you are worlds away from that vanilla latte in Vila. This is the real Vanuatu and it should not be overlooked.
The Malampa.travel call centre is a not-for-profit booking service, entirely owned by the collaborative union of all 37 Department of Tourism accredited Ni-Vanuatu tourism business operators in the region and can take bookings on behalf of these members. Visit their websites for further information. www.malampa.travel, www.malekula.travel, and www.ambrym.travel. 12 new packages have been released for 2015. Air Vanuatu fly from Port Vila and Santo daily to Norsup, and twice weekly to Lamap and South West Bay in Malekula, twice weekly to Craig Cove and Ulei in Ambrym, and once a week to in Paama.
Facts about Malampa
Location: Central Vanuatu
Provincial Capital: Lakatoro in Malekula
Land Mass: 2779km2
Population: 37,000 (approx.) – a mix of Francophone and Anglophone Communities
Languages: Bislama, English, French and over 30 local languages.