We just landed in Vanuatu and we are thirsty of adventure, we are ready to discover the authentic and untouched side of these Pacific Ocean islands. We had a taste of it yesterday, taking a short tour of Moso island where we are staying at the moment, hosted by magnificent The Moso Resort.
Today, we will head over to another little island, even less known to foreigners, Nguna island.
Nguna island lies a couple of km’s north of Efate, the major island where Vanuatu’s capitaly city is, Port Vila. It’s a tiny island of volcanic origin, with two extinct volcanoes. Reaching one of the craters is our goal today.
By now we got used to local means of transport: leaving by boat from Moso to Efate, some 20 minutes sitting on a van together with two Ni-Vanuatu women, along the zig-zagging slopes of the main island, and another transfer on a motorboat from Efate to Nguna, passing by Pele and Kakula islets.
TOWARDS THE VOLCANO CRATER
William, our guide for the day, has already given us few facts about the local islands and culture, describing us today’s itinerary. Starting at 8 am from Moso, arriving at Nguna beach at 9.30, from there by jeep up to the volcano base, hiking to the top in an hour, and back to the village by 1 pm for a meal.
Unfortunately the first inconvenience is immediate. Due to the heavy rain last night, the dirt road that rounds the island’s perimeter and penetrates its jungle has become inaccessible to the jeep. We have to go on foot from sea level to the top of the volcano. Luckily it isn’t 3,000 mt high but just 500. We don’t get discouraged and take it with wisely, we are here for the spirit of adventure, aren’t we!
THE ESSENCE OF VANUATU
From the very first steps on the island we are pervaded by the essence of Vanuatu, which we can feel with each of the 5 senses. Nature here is the undisputed queen, the thick vegetation extends ’til few steps from the shore, while we hit a narrow dirt track. The first woman we meet welcomes us with some fresh coconut water. There are no annoying sounds, only the waves crashing, the wind blowing through the trees, and the happy kids laughing and running around us. Our skin is drenched in the smell of salty water we got from the boat’s ride, and while we walk we can feel the fertile soil generated by old volcanic eruptions under our feet.
The first hundreds of meters go by effortlessly, but then a strong right turn marks the starting point of our ascent. The track if possible becomes even narrower, with branches and gigantic leaves invading it from both sides. Humidity suddenly increases, fortunately it’s a partly cloudy day and the sun does not shine the entire time.
We are out of shape and soon get out of breath. Before flying to Vanuatu we were in Australia where we did a one-month-long road trip on a van along Queensland East coast. Translated, we’ve been sitting in a car for a month without doing much exercise!
William gives us some breaks to drink and get our breath back. When we run into particular plants or trees, he stops by in order to explain what it’s about. One of the bushes we find more frequently is kava, from whose roots the drink of the same name is obtained, with a rather unique taste. A 100% natural product, kava is extracted by squashing the roots after soaking them in warm water for a period of time between half an hour to two hours. We will try a couple of cups on Espiritu Santo island, the feeling is to be drinking mud and the effect is dizziness…
MEETINGS ON NGUNA ISLAND
Meeting the inhabitants of tiny Nguna island is a very interesting experience in our eyes: it is customary to shake hands with every single person, together with the friendly greeting “Yo!“. Everybody looks happy and carefree, big laughs explode when large groups of people come together and yo’s! are so numerous! We also meet a lonesome guy who’s walking with a stereo pumping reggae music on his shoulder, in harmony with the relaxing vibe of the island. The are surely no i-pod’s here!
Getting back at us, we reach the first village when the trail enters into a plain. Here we join the main road we should have covered by jeep.
THE ESSENTIAL INFRASTRUCTURE OF THE ISLAND
William explained us how some parts of the island still show the wounds caused by cyclone Pam which devastated Vanuatu back in 2015. The school and a small hospital are buildings of much importance and pride to the islanders. Indeed they are the only constructions with actual walls and roofs. The houses scattered along the main road are all Pacific-style huts, that is wooden, no doors nor floors. The roof is obtained by braiding palm trees leaves and branches. The most “modern” homes have metal sheets as covering.
2 CARS… ON THE WHOLE ISLAND!
Nguna island counts 13 villages and less than 2,000 inhabitants overall. We are now on the central highland, here lie some villages separated by few hundred meters one to the next. The only road running through the middle of the island on its longer side, is as said a dirt track that’s traversed by 2 cars a day, the only ones on the entire island, one going clockwise and the other anti-clockwise. The cars are old 4×4 jeeps, imported from Australia as pretty much all of the vehicles in Vanuatu. The jeeps serve as taxi-bus-lorry-mail service, etc. The cars don’t belong to anyone, well, they are everybody’s! On these minor islands cars are usually donated or bought by the government and given to citizens. Everyone contributes to petrol costs by paying a cheap ticket (10-20-50 Vatu, 0.10 or 0.50 cent), and some men work on shifts to be drivers and guarantee a daily ride through all the reachable villages, weather permitting. An organisation as spartan as it is fascinating.
MONEY AND TRADING
Despite the island being self-sufficient – as Ni-Vanuatu like to say “we live of the island food”, which means that anything they need either grows on trees or within the soil – some goods as petrol, bottled drinks and canned foods are traded on nearby Efate. The capital city Port Vila is some 45 minutes away by car from Emua’s wharf where boats from Nguna dock. In the capital’s market it’s possible to find all sort of goods, being the crossroads of Vanuatu trading with more developed countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Fiji.
We were a bit surprised to see cash money flowing around a small island like Nguna. Its position not too far from Port Vila explains the fact that it is handy for local men and women to go buying and selling in the richer capital. Last year we travelled to a remote island in the Philippines, Pamilacan, where local used to go by boat to the main island of Bohol not more than once a week, in order to get supplies of rice and petrol exclusively. Money on Pamilacan islet was basically useless, they only needed it once in Bohol, to sell their fish or fruit and buy what doesn’t grow on the island.
TOWARDS THE VOLCANO’S CRATER
When we reach the village of Matoa, right at the volcano’s feet, William stops – he says he had too much kava the previous night! – and leaves us with a young boy, the son of the man that usually guides the few tourists who come up to here. Our resort The Moso together with another one on Pele are the only ones to suggest the excursion to Nguna. William is trying to create his tour agency in order to get more people visiting the area.
The boy is clearly very well trained and used to hike along the trail that once more penetrates steeply through the thick jungle. He’s a bit shy and doesn’t talk much, but he carefully lets us stop and drink when we need it. Somehow he never drinks.
ON TOP OF NGUNA!
After about half an hour uphill we get to a new clearing. We are almost at the top of the extinct crater, nowadays greener than ever.
A few more dozens meters and we reach the altitude of 500 meters on sea level. The 360° view over the blue ocean, even turquoise around the many islets, is just magnificent! The volcano crater is deeply different after centuries of inactivity: a proper forest has grown within it. The dark green of the crater blends with the light green covering its slopes, colours here are a joy to the eye.
We take in the views and let us our drone take off, to take some epic photos and videos. Clouds are very low now and suddenly our drone gets swallowed into them, we prefer to make it land quickly. We run downhill challenging young Ben, who moves effortlessly in large strides.
FOOD IN VANUATU
Back to the village we rejoin William who’s waiting us in a hut where the village women have cooked the much praised “island food”. We are served Lap lap, Vanuatu’s traditional dish. It consists of a tapioca and manioc dough, with cabbage or meat based on availability, wrapped in banana leaves. The most fascinating part is the actual cooking. In the designed cooking areas a hole in the ground is dug, in which piping hot stones are laid. Ni-Vanuatu perfectly know the art of lighting up a fire with straws and wood and this technique is still in use today in several tribes. The Lap-lap is put to rest on the stones and covered by the soil again, so that the heat of the stones cooks the meal for a full hour. Once cooked, the banana leaves are taken off and the content is ready to be eaten. The same cooking method is used to cook other vegetables that grow on the island, such as sweet potatoes and taro.
William insists and wants us to use our drone over the village, even though we think it’s a bit out of context. He asks permission to the chief who approves, he’s curious to see it too. Not even the time to take off that we are surrounded by half village, with cheerful kids and adults too very bewitched to see images of their own island from the sky, probably for the first time ever in their lives.
We stay for an half hour more with the few men of the village with whom we manage to communicate. The kids look at us and laugh but they don’t speak English yet. Locals ask us about our stories – How long is the trip from Italy? How’s life in Australia? – and we are likewise curious to know more about their lifestyle. They show us how they crack coconuts open, how they drink them, how they braid branches and leaves to build houses roofs.
Before leaving we shake hands with each of them and we’re glad to leave a small tip to Ben’s father, the one who guides people to the volcano’s top. Moving away we notice out of the corner of the eye that money is immediately divided among the village members, which strengthens the idea of community we got, and warms our heart even more.
BACK TO BASE
Having not rained anymore since last night, the jeep gets to the village for its daily stop. Not even to mention, as soon as the boys on board see us they kindly get off the car and leave the indoor seats to us, hopping on the back where everybody is standing, there’s at least 15 people! So we manage to get back to the beach quicker, or at least not on foot. Some parts of the track are in such bad conditions that the jeep is forced to proceed at walking pace. It’s interesting to witness scenes from the island life: mostly men but few women too hop on and off from one village to the next. Who’s too loaded with sacks, bags, branches or kava roots, walks along the trail, among the laughs and cackles of younger boys. When we get off at the wharf they all warmly wave bye to us like we where islanders too.
William shows us the bamboo bungalows next to the beach where it’s possible to spend the night. They’re simple but cozy, a tiny slice of paradise with the jungle backdoors and the ocean in front . When we think our trip has come to an end, they serve us lunch! Since we were late on our way up, the Lap-lap at the village was just a snack, whilst here at the beach it’s time for a proper full meal. We are already quite full but we won’t say no!
AN UNFORGETTABLE EXPERIENCE
We leave Nguna island aboard the same boat that brought us there in the morning, enriched by an experience full of hospitality and generosity, to which we are unfortunately less and less used to in the modern world.
We came as foreigners on a small Pacific Ocean island and we were welcomed like we’ve been best friends with them since forever!