║ Back from Vanuatu
01 May 2017
I had never heard of Vanuatu but ever since I came to Australia in 2007 and I found out about this country, I have always wanted to visit it. In particular, I was very interested in photographing the land diving festival (Naghol), one of the most spectacular and death defying rituals in the world. It happens every Saturday between April and May at Pentecost Island, just 50 minutes away from Port Vila.
This year I had the opportunity to go and I decided to explore three of Vanuatu’s most interesting islands with the aim of getting a few nice images and perhaps run photography tours in the future. I decided to visit Tanna, Pentecost and Santo.
Vanuatu means “Our Land” and the country’s people are called Ni-Vanuatu (Of Vanuatu). It is the Ni-Vanuatu who made my visit to this country so special.
Efate (Port Vila)
I didn’t spend much time in Efate. Port Vila was the hub to fly to Tanna, Pentecost and Santo. It is the economic and commercial center of Vanuatu and in between flights I had time to visit the local market in the center of town offering fresh organic product as well as shells, necklaces paintings, shirts and flowers.
Tanna – Namaptana (‘The Soil’)
Tanna means “earth/soil” in Tannese and it offers lush rainforests, savannah, coffee plantations, blue holes, mighty rugged mountains, deep waterfalls, hot sprints, banyan trees and the mighty and furious Yasur Volcano. Capitan Cook sailed into this island after observing the glow and smoke of Mt Yasur.
In this island I visited a couple of traditional kastom (kustum) villages wearing namba (penis sheaths) and grass skirts. They showed me their way of life and performed some beautiful dances. Although I have been focused in photographing landscapes for the last few years, I have always enjoyed photographing people and festivals subjects. I loved mingling with the locals and kids, and photographing them but perhaps to me, the highlight of Tanna was Mt Yasur.
Mt Yasur is one of the world’s most accessible active volcanos and it is absolutely mind blowing. I had never seen anything like it before and certainly in most western countries trekking up onto the crater rim would not be permitted… Boulders as thick as tree trunks are hurled hundreds of metres into the sky and the powerful sounds of swirling lava and exploding magma can shake the body to the core. Nature gives and nature takes and this place commands respect. We had activity level 2, being level 4 a major eruption. This is the maximum level of activity allowed for a visit to the crater rim. I was lucky to escape in one piece as some of the melting rocks landed just a few hundred meters of where I was photographing.
Before I came to Vanuatu I made the decision of not bringing a tripod as I wanted to focus in photographing other subjects rather than landscapes but when I climbed to Mt Yasur I regretted this decision.
To be able to capture the image below, I had to find a rock on the floor to keep my Nikon camera still for 5-8 seconds whilst the volcano was erupting. I was photographing at the highest possible point, laying down and feeling the fury and vibrations of each eruption on my chest. My heart was pumping for hours. This will be unforgettable and one of the most amazing experiences I have had in life.
If you live on the east coast of Australia, you should not miss this natural performance. Just a short 3 hrs. flight from Sydney (2 ½ hrs. from Brisbane).
Pentecost – Naghol (land diving festival)
South Pentecost has the Naghol and every year in early April as soon as the first yam crop emerges, the islanders build the towers (20-30 metres high) in the villages. Every Saturday it is performed in a different village and the “divers” wait for all the tourists before they start. The towers take two to five weeks to build using tree trunks and branches from the surrounding jungle. The core of the tower is made from a lopped tree and pole scaffolding is tied together with vines. There are several platforms. The lowest is around 10 meters and the highest is near the top.
I photographed the Naghol in a village called Rangusuksu, a few kms away from Lonorore airport. I was expecting more jumps but only about 8 locals jumped from different heights. This is the most remarkable custom in all of Melanesia but unfortunately, I believe the tradition is being lost and the locals only perform a few jumps for the tourists. It is still amazing to watch though. Absolutely amazing.
The story goes that many centuries ago a woman was dissatisfied with her husband (Tamalie) and run away into the jungle. Tamalie chased her up to a huge banyan tree. She jumped, supposedly to her death and he leapt after her realizing too late that she had tied wines to her ankles. She survived but her husband plummeted to his death. Men perform the land diving so they don’t be tricked again… Tamalie spirit was distressed so the elders ruled that only men could make the jump.
A full-sized tower is vertical for 16 meters, then leans backwards. It sighs as it bends in the winding and this indicates that Tamalie’s spirit will occupy the tower until the ceremony is over.
Men and boys dive from rickety towers with only two long springy lianas to break their falls. This guarantees an abundant yam harvest. The soil underneath the tower is cleared of rocks and loosened to help reduce the chance of injury. Each diver selects his own vines and then an experienced elder double-checks each liana to ensure that it is strong and elastic. The ends of the vines are shredded to allow the fibres to be looped around the ankles of the jumpers. If the vines are a few cm too long the diver will crush his skull and if they are too short it could collide against the tower...
The youngest go first; from as high as 9 m. It is a rite of passage for boys and after circumcision boys can participate (at the age of seven or eight). When a boy is ready to become a man, he land dives in the presence of his elders. His mother holds a favorite childhood item and after completing the dive, the item is thrown away, proving that the boy has become a man.
For the older men, it is considered an expression of masculinity associated with a warrior, however those who don’t choose to dive or back out of diving are not humiliated.
Each man prepares for the dive while his friends tie his vines. He dives wearing nambas whilst the women dance in white grass skirts made from wild hibiscus.
Although the diving boards snap and hinge downwards to absorb some of the fall, the g-force experienced by divers at the lowest point in the dive is the greatest experienced by humans in the non-industrialized world.
Before diving, the men often bring closure to unsettle business and disputes in case they die. The night before the jump, divers sleep beneath the tower to ward off evil spirits. A diver must not have sex with a woman the day before he jumps and he must take off any lucky charms when he dives, otherwise the jump will go badly and he might be hurt.
Before dawn on the day of the ceremony, the men undergo a ritual wash, anoint themselves with coconut oil and decorate their bodies. The ritual begins with the least experienced jumpers on the lower platforms and ends with the most experienced jumpers on the upper platforms. The diver crosses his arms over his chest to help prevent injury to the arms and the head is tucked in. The ideal jump is high with the jumper landing close to the ground. The diver’s goal is to bless the soil by skimming the earth with the top of his head guaranteeing fertile soil.
No one really knew how many locals would perform the dive and it was the first time I was attending it so I didn’t know what to expect but I had to get a few good shots. I had to work fast and move around different points to find a good composition to try to get some images from a few different angles. I used a wide-angle Nikkor lens at 24mm and I pushed up the ISO to freeze the action and to make sure the jumper was tack sharp. Once I was happy with a couple of shots, I asked the locals if I could use the drone for the last and most important dive. I only had one shot and not a lot of time. Luckily, I have the new DJI Mavik Pro that takes literally 1 minute to set up so I managed to get a few nice 4K videos and one image of the final dive.
In Pentecost, I stayed two nights at Panlike Guest House with “Chief” Joseph and his family, who took me around the island and prepared some nice meals and Kava. Kava is a derivative of the pepper tree family. Traditionally it is cut and chewed into a pulp, then spat into a bowl. The mushy pulp is squeezed and the final liquid drunk in. On some islands, both men and women may drink kava as an evening hard day’s work. It is quite strong and after a couple of cups, I had enough but the rest of the locals continued drinking until late.
A very basic way of life but it was very special. Joseph and his family took me to “Waterfall falls”, a spectacular waterfall which tumble down the mountain in one long drop. It was amazing.
Santo (Espiritu Santo)
Espiritu Santo (Spanish for ‘The holy Spirit’) is called Santo by almost everyone and it is the largest of Vanuatu’s islands. The four highest peaks rise from the mountainous spine that runs across the island’s west coast.
I only spent a couple of days in Santo and although the most touristic attraction is scuba diving the wreck of SS President Coolidge (the world’s largest and most intact shore-dive wreck), I decided to visit its beautiful beaches, jungle, canyons and blue holes. I really enjoyed the Millennium Cave tour: a whole day trek, trudge, climb and swim adventure through the jungle across creeks, bamboo bridges, cascades and an impressive cave full of bats.
Culture and National Heritage
Vanuatu is a very interesting and diverse country with lots to do. This diversity is the result of thousands of years of immigration from Melanesian and Polynesian countries in the Pacific and it is the reason why Vanuatu has 113 distinct languages and dialects. This density per capita is the highest in the world!
Like Australian Aboriginal stories and Maori legends, ni-Vanuatu culture is also abundant in mythic legends and even today natural events are considered events brought about by the action of individuals who may have offended certain spirits.
A village’s economy plays an important role in simple survival and as part of some complex rituals. One of the simplest examples are circumcision ceremonies. On some islands, the mother pays the uncles of boys (uncles are considered to have a more important role than natural fathers) to be circumcised. The boys are taken into the jungle for weeks and they are introduced to the ways of manhood as well as having their foreskins removed. From that point in time, they don’t run naked anymore and wear a penis sheath. The price paid to the uncles is normally in pigs, dances and food crops. And this price cannot be paid unless the mother has accumulated enough wealth.
In years following natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions young boys can almost reach adult age without being circumcised. And they are still treated as babies as a result until mothers can accumulate enough pigs and crops to pay for the circumcisions price.
Did I enjoy Vanuatu?
Heaps!. And with this article/diary and images my aim is to market this country and help the people of Vanuatu.
The Ni-Vanuatu have suffered a few nasty cyclones and earthquakes and they are very poor. I think this country it is underrated by Australians and I was very surprised there weren’t more tourists during the school holidays. I have been fortunate enough to visit a few islands in the South Pacific, including Fiji, Tonga and Tahiti but Vanuatu is certainly my favorite so far.
The Ni-Vanuatu made my visit to this country so special. They are most welcoming and wonderful people and perhaps the reason why Vanuatu was voted “the happiest place in the world”!
I also want to thank Tourism Vanuatu for all the help and support provided to help organise my trip to Pentecost and the Naghol and to my friend Luke Tscharke for providing some terrific tips on locations and accommodation.
“Lukim yu bagkegen Vanuatu, Tankyu tumas” – See you back again Vanuatu, thank you.
Ignacio Palacios, M.Photog
Vila, 26 April 2017