History, Geography & Custom
Vanuatu has been ranked sixth on the Lonely Planet's list of the Top Ten Countries in the eagerly-awaited annual publication titled Best in Travel 2011. Lonely Planet's Asia-Pacific travel editor Shawn Low says that Vanuatu made the list for its unrivalled authentic cultural experiences.
The Republic of Vanuatu is an island nation located in the South Pacific Ocean. The archipelago is located some 1,750 km east of Australia, 500 km north-east of New Caledonia, west of Fiji and south of the Solomon Islands.
It was named New Hebrides during its colonial period. Vanuatu is only 2.5 hours flying time North East of Brisbane and 3.5 hours from Sydney and under 4hrs from Melbourne, Australia. It's a little over 2 hours from Auckland, New Zealand. There are regular Air Vanuatu flights from Noumea, Honira and Fiji.
Many of the islands of Vanuatu have been inhabited for thousands of years, the oldest archaeological evidence found dating to 2000 BC. In 1605, the Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernández de Quirós became the first European to reach the islands, believing it to be part of Terra Australis. Europeans began settling the islands in the late 18th century, after British explorer James Cook visited the islands on his second voyage, and gave them the name New Hebrides.
In 1887, the islands began to be administered by a French-British naval commission. In 1906, the French and British agreed to an Anglo-French Condominium on the New Hebrides.
During World War II, the islands of Efate and Espiritu Santo were used as allied military bases. In the 1960s, the ni-Vanuatu people started to press for self-governance and later independence; full sovereignty was finally granted by both European nations on July 30, 1980. It joined the UN in 1981, and the Non-Aligned Movement in 1983.
Since 1994, Vanuatu has been divided into the six provinces of Malampa, Penama, Sanma, Shefa, Tafea and Torba. The main Islands within these provinces include: Banks and Torres (Torba), Espiritu Santo (Sanma), Maewo and Pentecost (Penama), Malekula, Ambrym (Malampa), Epi, Efate (Shefa), Erromango, Tanna and Aneityum (Tafea)
Most of the islands are mountainous and of volcanic origin, and have a tropical or sub-tropical climate. The nation's largest towns are the capital Port Vila, which is situated on Efate, and Luganville, on Espiritu Santo. The highest point in Vanuatu is Mount Tabwemasana, at 1879 m (6158 ft), on the island of Espiritu Santo. There are several active volcanoes in Vanuatu, including Yasur on the island of Tanna, one of the world's most accesible volcanoes, as well as several underwater ones.
Efate is the main island of Vanuatu, where the capital Port Vila is situated and where the majority of commerce and tourism activities take place.
The island has a rugged coastline and rolling verdant
countryside, fast flowing rivers, cascading waterfalls, isolated
sandy bays and lagoons. The interior is verdant rain forest cut
only by a few walking tracks to remote weather and radio
Havannah Harbour on the north side is a spectacular natural haven and consequently used during World War II as a naval rear base by the entire U.S. 7th Fleet. It is also the site of some extraordinary archeological digs and gruesome discoveries. There are numerous types of accommodation scattered around Efate Island including newly built resorts, or for just a day trip in mind, you can
The capital Port Vila is located around a magnificent natural harbour offering stunning views of Iririki, Ifira islands, and a look out all the way to Malapoa Point.
The international airport is a 10 minutes drive from town and all major resorts and hotels. Vila is a pretty town. Clean and uncluttered, the waterfront area is unpolluted, visitors are stunned to look down from the seawall and see live corals and tropical fish. It's also fast becoming known as the gourmet capital of the South Pacific.
Hire a car or take a bus or an aircraft around the island.
Cruises offer day and over night charters to the nearby islands of
Hat, Pele, Moso, Nguna, Lelepa and Kakula Islands.
Vanuatu is the culinary capital of the South Pacific. A quick visit to the harbour ftont food market in Port Vila is all it takes to realise how fresh and plentiful the local produce is. You'll find long wooden tables laden with seasonal vegatables and fruit, handwoven baskets full of yams and bananas, and live crabs, lobesters and chickens. Vanuatu also boasts superb beef and a huge range of fish and crustaceans. Among other delicacies, Teouma prawns are a must during any holiday and a visit to some of the terrific Restaurants is the best way to get a genunine taste of the tropics.
Restaurants and cafes include: French, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Mexican, Thai, Melanesian and Mediterranean.
There is a lot to see and do in Tanna so, if you want to swim in underwater caves, snorkel on some of the best coral in the South Pacific, visit untouched waterfalls, see the islands wild horses and experience an ancient culture that remains largely unchanged to this day, allow time to explore.
Tanna is best known as the home to one of Vanuatu's most popular
tourist attractions, the Mount Yasur volcano and a walk to the rim
of this fiery volcano certainly makes a visit to Tanna
Considered one of the world's most accessible volcanos, Mt Yasur is just a one hour drive from Tanna's White Grass Airport followed by a short 10 minute walk to the crater rim. It is best viewed at dusk so at least one night stay in Tanna is recommended. Most accommodation venues will organise a tour and there are tour operators running overnight and day tours from Port Vila.
Anthropologically, Tanna is fascinating with the local culture largely unaffected by the western way of life. To experience the traditional Tannese culture there are day tours to local villages as well as custom ceremonies throughout the year like the renowned Nekowiar or Toko ceremony. There are also cult tribes to learn about including the Prince Philip cult and the John Frum's cargo cult.
If you visit on a Friday you will be privy to the weekly ceremony when John Frum members conduct rituals including raising flags and marching in unison, holding the belief that mimicking these American acts will lead to the delivery of magical cargo such as radios, jeeps, fridges and other manufactured items owned by American visitors during WWII.
Tanna Island is a 45min flight from Port Vila
Espiritu Santo Island
Espiritu Santo is the largest of Vanuatu's islands (4,010 km2) and with some of the most beautiful white sand beaches, amazing blue holes, caves, world renowned diving and snorkeling, it is a little known paradise waiting to be uncovered. While Santo is a Mecca for dive enthusiasts it also offers breathtaking sightseeing for non-divers. Days can be spent lazing on vacant white sand beaches, snorkeling and kayaking in the crystal clear blue water, trekking through untouched rainforest or discovering an ancient and relatively unchanged culture.
During World War II 100,000 allied troops and support staff were stationed in Santo. Remnants of this time including the SS President Coolidge, a 22,000 Tonne luxury liner turned troopship which sunk just of shore, have become world renowned dive sites. Divers and snorkelers can explore ship wrecks and sites like Million Dollar Point where thousands of tonnes of war surplus were dumped in the ocean by the US, as well as amazing coral reefs and blue holes joined by underground caverns.
- Espiritu Santo is a 50 minute flight from Port Vila.
- Air Vanuatu operates a weekly direct 737-800 service to Espiritu Santo & return from Brisbane.
- Direct connections to Espiritu Santo are available for most International flights from Port Vila to Espiritu Santo. See our schedules page for more information.
Pentecost Island has become famous throughout the world for the land diving ritual (Nagol or N'gol) which occurs every Saturday between April and June.
The ritual, which influenced the invention of bungy jumping by New Zealander AJ Hackett, sees local men and boys as young as seven jump from a 20 -30 metre high manmade tower with only a vine attached to their legs. The tower itself takes locals five weeks to build using materials from the forest.
Travelling to view this magnificent ceremony is a once in a lifetime experience. No words can express the feeling of the ground vibrating under the dancing and stomping feet of villages and the excitement of sitting beneath the tower waiting with unease for the diver to jump safely to ground.
The awe inspiring ceremony celebrates the yam harvest and is a fertility rite for men. The story of the festival tells of a woman who ran away from her husband and hid in a tall tree. The husband, Tamale begged her to say sorry and come down. She refused so he climbed the tree after her and as he reached the top she jumped. In his anguish Tamale jumped after her, only to realise that she had tied liana vines around her ankles. The woman survived while Tamale perished. To this day, men jump from the tower as a show of strength to women in the village and as a statement that they cannot be tricked again. When the vine stretches at the end of the dive the land divers head curls under their shoulders to touch the earth, making it fertile for the following year's yam crop.
For the adventurous traveller seeking a real island experience, Ambrym is the island for you. It is a place of culture, spirituality and adventure and the people are warm, friendly and welcoming.
Ambrym is considered Vanuatu's sorcery centre famous for its black magic. The North of Ambrym is famous for some of the best wood carvings in the Pacific, the mysterious Rom dance and for its easy access to Mt Marum and Mt Benbow volcanoes.
Ambrym remains volcanically active. Benbow and Marum volcanoes still rumble away and smaller vents and fractures ooze steam and lava.
The North coast of Ambrym also offers good snorkeling opportunities to view dugongs, large sea turtles and a myriad of brilliant coloured fish. Dugongs inhabit the warm tropical waters, feeding almost exclusively on sea grass. North Ambrym has a beautiful natural spring where turtles and dugongs often frequent.
Ambrym Island is a 60+min flight from Port Vila
Aneityum is the southernmost inhabited island in the Vanuatu archipelago. As with all the major islands throughout Vanuatu, it's origins are volcanic and the landscape mountainous. Rich volcanic soils and a slightly more temperate climate encouraged the growth of magnificent stands of sandalwood trees.
Prized in the Orient for its aroma, sandalwood traders ravaged the island in the previous century. Its population was also ravaged by disease and slaving (black birding) and today stands at around 550, down from an estimated 12,000 prior to Europeans arrival in 1793. The island was the first centre of the Presbyterian Church and the haunting remains of the once largest missionary church in the Southern Hemisphere now stand in ruins.
The modern Aneityum has few buildings and no cars apart from the few vehicles of the kauri replanting forestry project. It is ideal for the keen bush walker, offering many well defined tracks and paths through vegetation that is quite different from the hotter and more humid northern islands.
Over 80 species of magnificent, delicate orchids adorn the forest. Several waterfalls and hot springs can also be visited. The island is surrounded by live coral reefs offering excellent snorkelling.
The only airport is not on the island itself, but the much smaller nearby Inyeug (or Mystery) Island. Air Vanuatu services the island twice weekly from Port Vila and Tanna. Inyeug is periodically visited by several hundred tourists arriving on cruise ships, reached by launch from cruise ships anchoring inside the magnificent turquoise waters between Inyeug and the mainland.
The only accommodation on Aneityum is at Mystery Island Guesthouse. It is an exceptionally peaceful place to stay with basic rooms and outside bathrooms.
Banks & Torres Islands
The Banks and Torres are Vanuatu's northernmost islands. Geographically, they reach north and west to the Solomon Islands. Being nearer the equator, they consequently experience the highest precipitation and humidity of all the islands, with an average rainfall of 3,900 mm per year. As with all of Vanuatu, the main islands are volcanic in origin with active volcanoes on Gaua and Vanua Lava islands. Vanua Lava with its 1400 inhabitants, was once the trading base for exchanges with Solomon Islanders from Tikopia. The rugged interior looms up from the ocean to the 730m, apex of the active Sere'ama volcano . With such terrain and high rainfall, waterfalls are common - and spectacular, particularly Waterfall Bay on the west coast. South of the volcano are two small lakes varying in water level and colour. Vanua Lava is also home to salt water crocodiles brought in the last century by Bishop Patterson. Only few of them survive in the murky waters of the Selva and the Tahiti rivers. To the south is Mota Lava, a stunning island of jungle clad craggy peaks plunging to long coconut trees lining white sandy beaches. Nearby one such magnificent beach (so nearby it can almost be walked at low tide) is the classically beautiful Ra Island. From a distance, Ra looks like a thatch of greenery with coconut fronds pushing each other out of the way as they overhang the surrounding white sandy beach. The interior is studded with unusual rocks of enormous size. Ra is an excellent place to enjoy fresh lobster (weather permitting) and an ideal retreat for honeymooners and travellers looking to leave civilisation completely behind. The local culture is still very much alive and unblemished by the modern world.
Gaua's 1300 people live on the north eastern coast. Like elsewhere in Vanuatu, the population is significantly less than the estimated 16th century figure of 200,000 people. Gaua has a stunning landscape with an active volcano that towers over a crater lake in the interior. The lake is accessible in a 3 to 4 hours walk and ascent to Mt Garet (797 m. high) is fairly easy after an exciting canoe trip across Lake Letras and its beautiful sulphurm coloured waters. For anyone wishing to see the lake and volcanoes, it is advisable to check in advance. About four hours walk through magnificent jungle, and tree ferns that dwarf coconut trees, leads to the spectacular cascade waterfall draining Lake Letres. On the western coast, numerous waterfalls plunge directly from the jungle into the ocean, making for an unexpected and magnificent site for passing yachts. Perhaps the most unusual feature of Gaua is the remains of an ancient culture. At first glance it seems as if giant blocks of granite thrown out of the volcano, have landed in strangely uniform patterns along the north eastern coast, but the blocks are the remains of foundations. In years past, a sign of chiefly standing was the height of his house. As grades were taken and a chief's status rose, another layer of basalt blocks was added to the base of his thatched house.
Epi is a peaceful island with beautiful white sandy coves, many white and some black sand beaches, and inshore reefs. The interior is the rugged terrain of recent volcanic activity covered with lush rainforest. There are several small lakes where you can fish and swim and may get a chance to see wild birds, wild pigs and cows. The coastal area is very fertile and covered with coconut plantations. The people live scattered around the coast. Few vehicular roads exist.
There are two airstrips on the western coast, one at Valesdir to the south and the other at Lamen Bay, to the north. Valesdir is a plantation and in the 1920's colonial heydays, it had its own currency. From Valesdir, it is a 6 km walk to Imao lakes, known for their wild ducks. Namuka island, an uninhabited islet off the southern shore of Epi offers white sand beaches, clear water, coral and a fringing reef.
The 1.5 km long beach at Lamen Bay is considered to be Epi's finest. There is plenty of shallow coral for spectacular snorkeling. The beach is an unusual combination of black volcanic sands to the south, then suddenly changing to white coral sands at the northern end. The waters are safe and best of all, there are resident dugongs. One male in particular has taken a liking to people and is an exceptionally friendly, safe playmate even for children (who can swim). He really loves people coming into the water to interact swim and cavort with him. Being a completely wild animal, he is free to come and go as he pleases and may not be seen for a day or two at a time. About two kilometres away by canoe is Lamen Island, a small but beautiful island surrounded by white sand beaches. About 450 people live here and always delighted to show visitors their traditions. The volcanoes on Ambrym and Lopevi Island can be seen from the northern point of Epi. There is a hot spring accessible on the northeastern tip. Epi has two submarine volcanoes close to its shores, Mt. Nitaia, part of the collapsed Kuwai volcano, 3 km offshore, occasionally steams or bubbles up and Cape Kone, also part of Kuwai, which is intermittently active. T
Throughout Vanuatu, magic is believed to work best near active volcanoes, consequently the Epi people are known for their ability to make magic and invoke ancestral spirits. In the past magic was used to harm their rivals. Nowadays young male islanders use love magic to win the hearts of their favourite girls. Around Epi, the waters are safe from sharks and locals swim freely everywhere.
Malekula is the second largest island and the most diverse, culturally and linguistically, with over thirty distinct languages spoken. Some of the best custom dances come from the island. The names given to the primary cultural groups are Small Nambas and Big Nambas.
The interior of Malekula is mountainous, rugged and forest-covered with good walking and bird watching. There are old cannibal sites hidden in the bush on north Malekula and an estimated population of about 25,000 on the coastal areas and around 1,500 in the rugged interior. The villagers are exceptionally friendly and enjoy sharing their proud cultural heritage with visitors.
Neighbouring islands such as Maskelynes and other small offshore islands along the east coast of Malekula have sand beaches and coral reefs with good snorkeling and diving.
Information supplied by the Vanuatu Tourism Office. Photos