The plane lands on the runway at Norsup Airport, Malekula and take an audible gasp. Before me is a side of Vanuatu that I haven’t seen before, and in my excited state I wriggle out of the small plane with such speed that the contents of my open backpack scatter onto the runway.
Rugged wilderness! Remote villages! I can barely contain myself. I walk over to a three-walled shelter. This, I will come to learn, is a typical outer island airport. I love it.
There are over 30 languages spoken on Malekula, despite a population of under 25,000. While people speak Bislama, French and/or English, each part of the island communicates in their own tongue. language is an important cultural reference for a community.
A different language comes with a different culture; learning from and socialising with the people that make up some of these villages reveals just
how deeply these cultural differences run. For this reason, Malekula has long been known as one of the most unique places on Earth for cultural diversity – it is second only to Papua New Guinea for the amount of unique kastoms and cultures packed in to the one island. Here are a few hot tips and things you need to know before travelling to Malekula.
Culture on Malekula
As you explore Malekula, you’ll quickly realise just how committed people are to preserving their culture. All of the chiefs I had the honour of talking to said that they see tourism as a way of ensuring their cultural practices are passed on to younger generations. By engaging young people in the cultural tourism activities, elders pass on to their youth lessons about how they have celebrated, communicated and practiced conflict resolution for thousands of years. They believe they have a lot to teach the world about this, too. On Malekula, we had the honour of visiting the Big Nambas and the Smol Nambas tribes, differentiated by the type of penis sheath they use in their cultural dress. What was perhaps most surprising was the abundance of flowers; flowers have become synonymous with femininity in the West, and to see dances performed by male warriors draped with flowers radiated a kind of fearless strength and courage that I’ve never seen before.
Malekula is a large island, and from the Norsup area, it takes about five hours to get to the Smol Nambas, and you’ll have to drive off-road and cross window-deep rivers in order to get there. The Smol Nambas don’t participate in popular cultural festivals on other islands, so
the only way you can experience the Smol Nambas culture is by driving
there yourself. There’s nothing better than bumping around in the back of the truck, dodging branches as they swing over the roof and hi-fiving the pikinini who run along beside you. At the Smol Nambas tour, you’ll be treated to a series of dances, and have the honour of eating lunch served from the Chief’s own home. This is all arranged in advance, and is delivered as a package deal. Whether you arrange a visit to the Smol Nambas with your accommodation provider, a tour operator or through Vanuatu Tourism Office, this is part of the deal. And what a deal it is. This tribe is so willing to share more about their culture, so don’t lose sight of the storian that are on offer. While on Malekula, if you have the chance, make your way to the cultural centre of Lakatoro. There’s a small museum up on the hill there. If you catch the staff and it’s open, you won’t be disappointed! You’ll also find the Malampa Handicraft Centre. This women’s business centre, packed with hand-woven baskets and rare island treats is a must see, as is the mama’s market.
Waterfalls, Hiking and Dugongs (if You’re Lucky!)
The first thing we did after flying into Norsup on the northern part of Malekula was hit up the local waterfall called Losinwei Cascades. It’s a super easy walk, and only takes around 1.5 hours. No metaphor will do this walk justice. Thankfully, someone was there with a camera. I’ll let the photos do the talking– you’ll see what I mean. On the southeastern end of Malekula lies the Maskelyne Islands, home to coral reefs, dugongs and ocean-side bungalows. You never know when you’ll see one of these mysterious sea cows (who are not at all shy!), but it’s worth heading out with the hopes you will. While we didn’t see any, we were circled by pods of dolphins and turtles, an equally magical experience.
Yam yam! Traditional Kakai Aplenty
Malekula, like all islands in Vanuatu, boasts the most incredible array of fresh fruit. The many types of really tasty bananas available on Malekula
are impressive and there’s great papaya in abundance everywhere. Fruit is often displayed on intricately woven baskets, sprinkled with frangipanis and hibiscus flowers. For your main dishes, at least in my experience, expect yams. Yam- everything. The grated yam with grated coconut wrapped up in cabbage leaves and cooked in a bamboo tube over an open fire was definitely a favourite. You’ll have the pleasure of watching the women make it in most villages. If you’re ready for a more recognizable meal, Assunta at Palm Lodge in Lakatoro is an amazing cook and usually has cold beer (in a solar powered fridge). It pays to book your meal earlier in the day so she can have fresh food ready in the evening.
Beachside Bungalows to Stay In
Nawut Bungalows are close to the airport, and only a short boat away on Uri Island. This beachside paradise offers snorkelling, a complimentary trip on outrigger canoes, and weaving and handicraft demonstrations. It costs around Vt3,000/night, which includes breakfast. Lunch at the restaurant is around Vt500 and dinner Vt800. Nawut Bungalows have solar and you can get Digicel service there. They also, more importantly, have double-bedsized hammock-things, right on the beach. If you’re planning on staying on the island for a little while, we also recommend taking a boat out to Batis Seaside Bungalows on Maskelyne Island. The bungalows are right on the water, and the food is ridiculously flavorsome. These bungalows are incredibly close to reefs perfect for snorkeling, an the dugong if you’re there in the right season. If you’ve got a Digicel sim card, you’ll get service here as well.
Your host at your bungalow will be your best bet for booking and organizing adventures. Trust their recommendations and gently ask about what you’re getting so they have the chance to explain and set expectations. You can also consult VTO’s Travel Information Centres in Port Vila and Luganville.
Air Vanuatu flies to Lakatoro in the north of Malekula, as well as Lamap and South West Bay in the south. Phone connectivity can be challenging sometimes for the bungalow owners so make sure to reach out a few weeks in advance to give them time to respond and confirm your booking. They’ll most likely need to come and pick you up from the airport or wherever you are coming from on the island.
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