It was hard to disagree. Accountants may know Vanuatu as an offshore tax haven, military buffs may remember the small UK force sent to quell a secessionist rebellion in 1980, but most people need to hear the country's pre-independence name of the New Hebrides before recognition flickers. Vanuatu has a long way to go before it establishes itself on the tourist trail, though many would say that's one of its main attractions. Yet this Y-shaped archipelago of 74 inhabited islands offers tremendous diversity - deserted beaches, live volcanoes, primitive communities and spectacular rituals - all just two hours from Fiji.
For more than 70 years the country was ruled - many would say ludicrously mismanaged - by the Anglo-French Condominium, a body quickly dubbed Pandemonium. This absurd exercise in bi-national protocol imposed two sets of laws, two police forces and two languages. Little got done. The only positive legacy is the raffish cosmopolitan air of the capital, Vila, and its marvellous French restaurants. No nouvelle cuisine here. At Chez Giles et Brigitte, our lobster fairly basked in a luscious cream and wine sauce.
The next best thing about arriving in Vanuatu is attempting the language. Both French and English are spoken, but the lingua franca and official language is a form of pidgin English known as Bislama. In this land of just 150,000 people, some 110 local languages are spoken, giving it the highest density of languages in the world - one for every 1,200 people. Most of them are so disparate as to be mutually incomprehensible and Bislama grew not only out of the islanders' need to communicate with European traders and settlers but, as their centuries-old isolation ended, with each other.
In this delicious hotchpotch of a language, bagarup means broken, and making a repair tool is bagarup tul. Man wiwi is not what you might imagine, but a Frenchman (a man who says 'Oui oui'), while basket blong titi is a bra. It's possible to get along in this graphic language with a modicum of vocabulary, even less grammar and, when all else fails, a great deal of gesticulation.
The island of Efate, with Vila at its hub, is geared up for what tourism there is, with rental cars, water sports and three major hotels - the Iririki is probably the best. Efate's plantations, beaches and lazy colonial air give it the atmosphere of a small Caribbean island of 30 years ago, and many visitors don't bother to go further. But if you arrive in May or early June, then the place to go is the island of Pentecost, to see the most spectacular custom in Melanesia - land diving.
Securing the last two seats on a tour (places are limited and heavily booked), we flew in a light plane over coral seas, steaming volcanos, lava plains and dense jungle to land on a grass strip on Pentecost's south-west coast. A 40-minute coastal boat ride brought us to the scene of the jumping, a steep hill behind the beach. Nothing quite prepares you for the height of the tower from which the men dive: built of tree limbs lashed together, guyed by vines, it looms 90 feet above the slope.
According to 'custom' - anything to do with legend or tradition is called custom - it all began with a woman escaping a cruel husband. She climbed a tall tree and when he came after her, she taunted him, called him a coward and dared him to follow her as she leapt head-first to the ground. Seeing her land safely, not realising she had tied vines to her ankles, the husband followed and met a sticky end. The other men in the village, somewhat humiliated by this feminine trickery, built an even taller structure and leapt off it to prove their manhood. At one time the women used to dive regularly, but the men banned them (you can't help wondering if they weren't finding the competition too hot), saying it angered the spirits.
Now, on each Saturday during the season, there are between 15 and 30 dives, beginning with boys as young as eight who jump from platforms a dozen or so feet high, ending with the chief of the event, who jumps from the very summit.
I'm not much good at heights, and hardly better at watching people who are - I'm apt to be right up there with them - so the first dive took some watching. Villagers at the base of the tower stopped their dancing and chanting, and in the silence a boy stepped out on to a platform 30ft high. He spread his arms wide, threw his head back and rotated his arms to the rhythm of an incantation before crossing his hands across his chest and toppling forward.
I wasn't ready for the speed with which he fell, and the incredible jerk as the vines tightened. When his head was just inches from the ground the boy was yanked up and back with such force that you would think every joint in his body must be dislocated. As he landed in the arms of waiting helpers, I wasn't surprised to hear him laughing with relief.
In fact the divers leave little to chance. Each man or boy chooses his own vines and constructs his own diving platform. This way he has the dubious consolation of knowing he has no one else to blame if something goes wrong. If the vines are too short, he'll be jerked back against the tower, too long and he'll break his neck. Vines must possess just the right amount of stretch.
Once, the islanders put on a special dive for the Queen during a Commonwealth tour but it was late in the season, the vines were too springy, and a man died in front of her. The villagers blamed the diver for breaking an important taboo by carrying a lucky charm, but one way or another the mistake has never been repeated.
Realising how practised the divers were, I began to watch with something like confidence until, at the climax, the chief appeared on the highest platform of all. After addressing the assembled company in, successively, Bislama, French and immaculate English - a charming speech of welcome - he launched himself into 90 feet of thin air. He seemed to fall slowly at first - a trick of the perspective - before dropping like a stone. A metre or so from the ground both vines tightened then snapped without warning. Fortunately the man was only severely winded - his fall had already been broken by the vines - but it was a sharp reminder of the risks.
These days land diving has as much to do with hard-currency income as tradition - all visitors pay a 'custom fee'. However, the event is well run and accessible (in past years a two-hour jungle trek was sometimes necessary).
Needing, it seemed, to test my fear of heights still further, we flew down to the island of Tanna to peer into the crater of a live volcano. Yasur is fairly benevolent - it hasn't erupted for decades - but it's still active. A guide drives you most of the way up (joking about all the tourists lost in the crater over the years) and you climb the last hundred feet.
It is possible to go to the very lip of the mile-wide crater and, needless to say, there are no guard rails. For those brave enough to make it to the edge, the half-mile drop isn't completely sheer, just terrifyingly steep, and far, far below you don't see an ocean of molten lava, just a glowing vent (best observed at dusk). Every 15 minutes or so the volcano goes through its cycle, for which, to avoid heart failure, one should be prepared. First, a rush of wind as air is sucked down into the crater, then a deep throaty rumble that shakes the ground under your feet, and then boom] a great roar as sparks and magma belch into the air. We were most impressed.
At the foot of the volcano lies Sulphur Bay, centre of one of the oldest cargo cults in Melanesia. In 1940 a mysterious figure called Jon Frum is said to have appeared to some Tannese. He encouraged them to throw off the constraints of Christianity (already deeply unpopular) and promised them all the possessions they could ever want. In 1942, when US troops arrived in Vanuatu with dazzling quantities of equipment and cash, the Tannese decided Jon Frum must be an American - and have been waiting for his second coming ever since.
There was not much to see in a Jon Frum church, just a simple red cross (symbol of free medical treatment). The people aren't great churchgoers, and I got the feeling that the cult's enduring popularity owed more to its hard-won freedom from organised religion and government interference (Jon Frum villagers do not pay tax) than any great belief in the imminent arrival of a consumer goods bonanza.
Christianity didn't get too firm a grip in other Tannese villages either (the missionaries brought too many epidemics and tried to ban kava, the local grog), and several communities have reverted to custom, rejecting Western ways, to live as their ancestors did - in self-sufficiency, eating traditional foods, wearing grass skirts and penis-sheaths called nambas. Some of these custom villages allow visitors (for the inevitable custom fee) and will stage simple dances for your benefit.
Tanna is opening up to tourism - there's a beach-cabin resort and some guest bungalows. This could be the time to go, while the people still have a love of the old ways - and before the tourist dollar brings the second coming of Jon Frum. -
GETTING THERE: British Airways (0345 222111) full economy flight to Port Vila via Sydney for pounds 1,803. Air New Zealand (081-741 2299) excursion fare of pounds 1,065, Gatwick-Auckland return, and then Auckland to Port Vila, seven-day minimum stay, for pounds 420. Trailfinders (071-938 3939) London-Frankfurt-Sydney return for pounds 629, and then Air Vanuatu air pass, valid 30 days, for USdollars 399 ( pounds 280), from Sydney and back.
FURTHER INFORMATION: A Discover Vanautu Air Pass provides four flights within Vanuatu for dollars 199. Typhoid and malaria precautions advised. The National Tourism Office of Vanuatu, PO Box 209, Port Vila, Vanuatu, tel: 010 678 22685 / fax: 010 678 23889
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