Circling the island of Efate by vehicle takes about 2 hours without stopping. I wanted a more in depth experience so I joined a small tour hosted by Atmosphere Tours, based in Port Vila. As we left Port Vila on the only road that circles the island (built by the Americans) our guide duly pointed out the last electrical pole some few clicks outside of the city. Beyond that, the villages do not have government provided electricity and if they have electricity at all, they are using solar panels.
The wildlife and what people do for food is fascinating. Take the golden silk orb-weavers – we spotted numerous colonies of these spiders often next to the sides of the road. Humans gather many strands of their webs and roll them together – the strands are extremely sticky. They use these as bait to catch small fish – the fish bite the strands and are unable to open their mouths due to the stickiness and then the villagers simply pull them out of the water.
And these spiders are useful in other situations as well – we were told villagers put numerous golden orb spiders on children’s bodies when they cannot stop crying. The spiders tickle the children and eventually the hope is, turn their crying into laughter.
We also learned about banyan trees – these trees can reach behemoth sizes, dropping roots from branches which eventually reach the ground and extend the girth of the trees’ trunk. During cyclones, villagers often hide within the trunk, taking shelter from severe winds. One doesn’t want to build their home right next to these trees as the roots will disrupt the foundation of the house.
And coconut crabs often live in the recesses of these trees. One can put out a coconut as bait next to the entrance of a banyan tree and if there are coconut crabs nearby, they will eat the coconut at night. Coconut crabs are powerful – they can husk and break upon the wood of a coconut to the insides. And one of our guides had the end of one of his fingers cut off by one of these crabs.
One of the stops was Ekasup Village – but upon pulling into the driveway we were greeted with rocks blocking the dirt entrance and a cardboard sign indicating the village was closed. Normally we would have been greeted by warriors dressed up in traditional battle gear and would have watched fire walkers and learned about how villages can preserve green bananas underground for up to 30 days – burying them in advance of a cyclone and then digging them up after the cyclone has destroyed the banana trees.
So we visited Secret Gardens instead – an eclectic boutique resort, cultural center and a maze of walkways forming what is called Jenny’s Jungle Joint, a restaurant and bar. The property includes a heavy dose of signage highlighting the country’s most intriguing history and traditions including plenty of information about cannibalism and a special building called the Cannibal House. And the intriguing Monkey Men who used to live in banyan trees, subsisting on what they could gather from the rain forest and the sea. Cultural performances including the cannibal dance, drumming and a magic show are offered daily.
The next day it was over to Pele Island – a visit arranged by Jaspat Tours, at the time of my visit the only locally owned tour operator with access to the island. One can stay here, the price includes three home cooked meals a day with rates for private accommodation much lower then on Efate. Located about a 50 minute drive from Port Vila and then another 30 minutes via a small water taxi.
The island is nearly empty – paradise featuring white sand beaches framing turquoise waters and a small village on the island surrounded by a variety of fruit trees. This is a place to come and clear one’s mind. We had a fleeting encounter with a gorgeous girl from Guadalajara, Mexico spending her days alternating between lounging in the hammock and swimming. Not a bad place to call home for a few days, a few weeks or a few months or your stay may turn into years as David Glasheen chronicled in his book, The Millionaire Castaway about his time on an island off the coast of Australia.
And one cannot forget the tiny Hideaway Island – not really hidden, it is located only about a 15 minute van ride from central Port Vila. During low tide one can walk along a strip of sand to reach the island or use the provided ferry. This picturesque island is home of the world’s only submerged post office – a tiny structure located about 2 meters below the surface of the water within a short swim from the beach.
It is a working post office – those wishing to mail a card from here (to any domestic or international destination) can purchase a special waterproof postcard in the gift shop and snorkel down to the post office placing the card inside.