8. The Pentecost Land Dives. This one doesn't nearly qualify as a budget-priced item, and I never witnessed it in the flesh, but here's an account as gleaned second-hand from my wife: In 1992, she coerced my agreement to putting out 45,000 vatu (about CAN$400 at today's exchange rate; extra for a video or movie camera if they are allowed at all) for her to see this. The price increased yearly from our arrival in 1987, and I have no idea what it costs today. I always considered it a rip-off, but my wife enjoyed the experience and considers it well worth the price. There is no way around the expensive official Tour Vanuatu day-trip; the villages who perform the ritual are very well aware of its market value and strictly regulate access accordingly. On the other hand, this is pretty close to The Real Thing. To get to the site on south Pentecost Island, my wife's group flew an hour to the Lonorore airstrip, traveled down the coast for about one-half hour in a 15-ft. "speedboat", and then walked uphill for about an hour into the interior. This trip will vary, depending on which village that day's jump is held at.
The land dives are performed each year in April and May; the purpose is reportedly to ensure that the newly-planted yams grow well. A large tower is built onto a banyan tree on a steep slope, and platforms (a bit like small diving boards) are attached at different spots from near the base to the top of the tower. A pair of vines are attached to the tower at each platform, and their length is carefully gauged, taking into account the expected stretch under load. The steep ground at the tower's base is dug up to make it relatively soft.
On the day of the ceremony, the tourists gather, and diving starts with young, more-recently initiated (and circumcised) boys diving from the lowest platforms. Each diver has his vines attached to his ankles and readies himself, while the village women dance nearby and sing encouragement. Each diver dives head-first bungee-style, with the vines stretching and stopping his fall just as his head grazes the steep, soft earth at the tower base. Older men dive from higher and higher up the tower, until someone dives from the very highest platform.
If you go, take lots of water. My wife reports that not enough was provided, and the day was long and hot. It also drizzled much of the day. Be dressed and prepared for a moderately-long tropical hike and for standing in the sun; there was nowhere to sit all day.
Land Diver. Photo ©H. Morgan, 1992.
9. Vao Island, off of the NE coast of Malekula. Take a taxi truck or minibus north from the Norsup Airport and pay someone to canoe you across. A red cross marks the spot on the mainland side of the island where a small boy was taken by a shark soon after we arrived on Malekula. My wife was told not to worry about swimming there because only magic sharks (see the Safety Section re: shark attacks) ever came there. Vao is a regular yacht anchorage, and I understand that permission is readily given to pitch a tent. It is a pretty small island with several very interesting nasara (family dancing grounds) that are an integral part of every ni-Vanuatu's personal identity. Visitors are free to wander around and visit the nasaras, but when we were once there with a "man ples" (person from the village), he warned us not to look up into a certain tree lest we make eye contact with a custom snake that would then possess our minds. There are also several wood carvers on Vao who sell their works a bit cheaper than Vila prices. By the way, Vao is one of those places with shallow wells near the sea and pit toilets a bit up the hill (see the Health section); I recommend treating water from those wells. There may be safe water piped from the mainland and distributed through public standpipes by now.
A Vao nasara. A slit drum, on which the dance beat is played, is on the left. The rack holds the lower jaws, with circular tusks, of pigs that have been killed (by clubbing) in namangi, or grade-taking ceremonies in which men rise in the traditional social structure. Photo ©S. Combs, 1988.
10. Ambrym Ash Plain and Volcano (actually, there are two vents some distance apart). Although I have been to Ambrym, I have never been to the ash plain or volcano, so all of the following is second-hand. To get to one of the two jump-off points for the trek to the volcanoes, you fly to Craig Cove, where I once stayed at a government rest house, although I don't know if it is always open. Then, you either rent a taxi boat to Ranvetlam on the north coast, or you take a taxi truck to Lalinda, a village on the south shore. At either place, you hire a guide (expect to pay about 2,000 vatu for overnight) and pay the custom owner a fee (I hear it is not too steep) to walk over his land to the ash plain/volcano. Some ironmen do the trip in one day, but more sane people do an overnighter. Take water; there is none on the long trek over the ash plain.
Ambrym is interesting because it has a reputation for sorcery and most ni-Vanuatu who are not from there refuse to visit or accept government jobs there. It is said that if you go out of your house at night, a sorcerer will kill you, take out your guts, and replace them with magic leaves. His spirit will then take over your mind (while his body appears to sleep), and he will go home and live with your wife for a couple of weeks before returning to his own body, at which time your body will die. People take this very seriously, but I don't think expatriates need to worry too much about it.
Sunrise through a plume of smoke from Ambrym's volcanoes. This is a rare sight made possible by a recent rain followed by clearing weather; we could rarely see our neighbouring islands because of the constant volcanic "smog". Photo ©S. Combs, 1989.
11. Hideaway Island, near Port Vila, Efate Island. I have snorkeled and SCUBAed here many times. The fish are quite good (to look at; this is a marine reserve - no spearfishing). It is a small island about 100 m offshore, about 15 minutes from Vila, but quite rural. I'm not quite sure what the bungalows are like now, but a friend swam and ate there in December, 1995 and said it was quite nice. This place is described on a WWW site run by Hideaway Travel (name is coincidence) in Australia.
Hideaway Island as seen from Efate Island. Photo ©S. Combs, 1988.
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©Stan Combs, 1996.