A “Man Bush Trek” in Malekula

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For two years, I have lived in Vanuatu and I have been mesmerised by the blanket of green that covers the islands, an impenetrable surface that evoked wonder and a little bit of fear as I have floated or flown by many of the 83 islands.

I was lucky recently to enter into this mysterious and magical bush, as my partner, Janesha, and good friend Shamina and I embarked on the ‘Man Bush Trek’ – A four-day walk through the heart of the island of Malekula. With our team of guides, we were given a four-day crash course in how to walk, how to live, and how to enjoy the bush. While incidentally deepening our understanding of Vanuatu and of ourselves.

When tramping in New Zealand, the essential mantra is be prepared for anything, on this trek however I was helpless and intentionally unaware. In my day-to-day job, I am responsible for too much, so this was my chance to be carefree and rely on the others and let the journey and our guides take me.

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My phone stayed off and my mind stayed focussed on the present and the immediate. We were completely reliant on the guides, like helpless children they led us, feed us and sheltered us. They were our heroes and the hardest working human beings I have ever seen.

Everyday waking early to feed us, prepare us and begin the exhausting work of clearing a path armed with only bush knives, hacking away through whole trees and vines, following the footsteps of wild cattle. All while hunting prawns, eels, and wild pigs, finding us freshwater, carrying our bags and sometimes our bodies through the trickiest patches of muddy slopes and waterfalls.

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They steered us with smiling faces and always taking time to make sure we were enjoying ourselves, and taking moments to teach us bush lore, explaining to us the nuanced variations of bamboo and their uses or ‘kastom’ stories of the expansive nabanga (banyan) trees. This did not seem like work to the guides, this was simply life and we were lucky to live with them for a few days.

The trek took us through the two small villages of Lanvo and Lebongbong, where we slept for two of the nights. In these villages, we saw the ‘kastom’ of Vanuatu in context and in all its practicalities. This was not tradition seen through the glass of a museum, but through the footprints and homes of people’s reality.

This insight has given me new perspective and appreciation of the people of this country, the bush being the birthplace of many traditions and idiosyncrasies of Ni-Vanuatu life. On the second night, we reached the peak of Malekula’s undulating spine – Mt. Laimbele – where the three of us collapsed under the weight of our small daypacks and blistered feet from our comfortable shoes.

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Meanwhile the barefoot and spritely guides were already erecting a makeshift house from vines, leafs and trees, even decorating our new home with wild flowers.

At the end of the journey, we reached Southwest bay with a new appreciation for Vanuatu and its people. We also had a new appreciation for our own abilities and for hot showers and hot meals. Being introduced into the bush showed me the depth of tradition and nature that roots the people of these islands to their homes, and made me thrilled once again to be a guest in this country.

Post and photos courtesy of Andrew Johnston; Programme Manager (Vanuatu) for Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA) New Zealand.