The Tanna Black Magic Experience
In late August this year, as part of the annual Tok Tok tourism trade event sponsored by Air Vanuatu, a few lucky media personnel attending got the chance to experience some of the wonderful activities available around Vanuatu.
This article, written by one of the group, gives a unique glimpse into his larger than life experience of the culture and traditions of a Tanna Island tribe.
When I received my itinerary for what I was going to be doing on the Island of Tanna, it read just like a menu for the most epic couple of days I would ever probably experience. Hiking through jungles, climbing active volcanoes, visiting native villages to learn about cannibals etc. But one thing in particular stood out on this list.
“The Tanna Black Magic Experience”
There was no explanation of what this was at all.
Jungle hike? I get that one.
Climb an exploding volcano? Sounds insane, but I understand that too.
But Black Magic… I’ve seen enough straight to DVD films to know this one is gonna be… interesting.
I asked some of the locals leading up to the day “So what is this Black Magic thing all about”, and in almost every instance I was told “just go into it with an open mind”.
Needless to say, I was not put at ease with this advice.
Eventually the day arrived and we jumped in our 4WD and braved Tanna’s notoriously bumpy roads. Through small towns, down narrow roads that wound through the middle of dense jungle, up and down hills taking in every angle and view the island had to offer. Just 30mins and one last left hand turn later and we arrived at a driveway that stretched past a scattering of huts made from the Banyan roots, cows and pigs nuzzling away at the ground, and local kids running around the fields. We’d arrived at one of Tanna’s many native villages.
Disembarking from the truck, we were told to wait where we were and someone would come and get us. In the distance we could hear excited yelling, mainly kids. 10 minutes or so later we were greeted by Rex. He was dressed head to toe in native clothes. Grass skirt, traditional paint, various coloured grass reeds wrapped around each arm.
“Welcome!’ he beamed, with that trademark Vanuatu smile that you could never possibly get bored of seeing.
Rex then explained that he was about to take us on an adventure that would show us exactly what the first experience would’ve been like for missionaries who first arrived on Tanna a couple of hundred years ago.
Hint: Missionaries were killed and eaten…
Suddenly, more yelling. A lot closer this time. A lot scarier…
A whirlwind of grass skirts and loud voices came barreling from the trees. And sticks… No – More than sticks – Intricately carved clubs, flailing in the air.
10-15 fully grown men had burst from the tree’s yelling at us in their native tongue. Yeah, it was part of the show, but man was it menacing!
Rex went on to explain that today we are safe, but for those missionaries… well… those flailing clubs would’ve come a lot closer to their heads!
From here we were lead to a massive Banyan tree. Which is possibly one of the most incredible trees I’ve ever seen. Its roots seem to come from above. Branches reach out and grab hold of each other, finding their way to the ground, to once again embed them selves into the soil. Centuries of growing, reaching out and re-rooting combine to create a massive tangle of roots and branches that build one of the most amazing trees on earth. The 8 year old me was begging the 34 year old me to climb this thing! Think of the massive tree in the film Avatar and you’re almost there.
From here, we were guided through the heart of the tree. Over the years, the branches had be molded and guided so as to create a pathway right through the heart of the tree. It was incredible. There were some more surprises in store for our group while we trekked through the tree – but I won’t spoil everything here.
Once we emerged that’s when the tour really began. Rex took us through a number of customs, activities and demonstrations of how things have and are done within his tribe. Everything from love and marriage traditions, foraging for food and medicine, building shelter, maintaining the forest, how boys are transitioned in adulthood (not for the squeamish), defense and protection of the tribe and village and more.
Towards the end of the tour, I even got a chance to climb the tree. (Both younger and older me was pretty excited about this).
Eventually we ended up in a big open area where what seemed to be the entire tribe appeared (about 30 men, women, and children). They then put on one of the most colorful and happy dance and singing shows I’ve ever seen. Everyone was asked to join in as they took us through the dance steps and how to pronounce the words of the song.
It was fantastic!
At this point in my story, I want to tell you that I have a lot of tattoos. Primarily cartoons. Ninja Turtles, South Park, Disney Pixar cover my arms and I have the words ‘Hakuna Matata’ from The Lion King spanning across my chest from shoulder to shoulder. (It means no worries)
Now that may seem like an odd thing to add in an article about a Black Magic tour in Vanuatu, but will soon make sense. Trust me.
After the song and dance we were informed that the tour had ended but one of us would be staying behind to become part of the tribe. A task that unwittingly fell to me. The rest of the group was led away and I was taken by the larger group down another path.
I had no idea what was going on…
It turns out that for now, the chief was handing over his role to me. I was to be made honorary chief of the tribe. As part of this title, I had to wear the traditional dress of the locals – which in turn meant I had to take off my shirt.
It appeared that for many of the local tribe I might have been the first white guy they had seen to be covered in cartoons. Everyone gathered around to look at the pictures, even though they had never seen South Park nor did they even know what a ninja turtle even was.
As they got me into the traditional garb, they began sounding out the words on my chest.
HaKu – Na – Ma –Ta- Ta.
Hankuna – Mata-Ta.
Then they all started saying it. Then yelling it. Over and over.
So there I was, dressed in a grass skirt, having just been made chief of a native Tanna tribe, with 15 or so native Ni Vanuatu jumping up and down chanting Hakuna Matata. It was surreal, and likely one of the best experiences of my life.
We went to join the rest of the group who were dumbfounded with the site before them. A 6’3” white guy covered in cartoons, dressed in a grass skirt while a group of natives jumped up and down chanting Hakuna Matata over and over.
It was as absurd as it was incredible.
The Black Magic tour was an outstanding experience. It’s run completely by the tribe, and the entire community is a part of it. All money made goes back into the tribe and allows them to keep their traditions and culture alive, while at the same time allowing tourists like me to experience it first hand.
There are many amazing things to do when in Vanuatu, in particular on the island of Tanna. My one bit of advice for those visiting Vanuatu would be – definitely head out to Tanna and experience Black Magic. It’s great fun and will be something you’ll never forget.
Want to experience all this for yourself? Book your next Vanuatu Holiday with Air Vanuatu!