The traditional way of life


On our second day in Tanna, we were booked to take a tour to experience a kustom village, right in the heart of Tanna, where we’d have the opportunity to experience a way of life that has not changed in centuries. Here the villagers have resisted the trappings of Western culture and continue to embrace a subsistence way of life dominated by their belief in “Kustom”.

The day started off bright and early with a trip to Tanna Evergreen Resort, where we had a look around and have breakfast. Given our previous day, breakfast meant a lot of coffee. We also had home made toast, and two different types of jam – one yellow, and the other red. Now, I can quite confidently say that the yellow jam was passion-fruit, but the red, I’m still at a loss to work out what it was. It was neither raspberry or strawberry, but it was very sweet and tasted amazing.

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After playing with the resorts cat, we jumped in the truck and headed south – a completely different direction to our trip yesterday. Following the coast, we yet again had the luxury of experiencing potholes and gravel roads. In all travel literature about Vanuatu, it states that they drive on the right hand side of the road… in Tanna, it’s on both sides of the road – the driver skillfully weaving his way around all the potholes to make our ride as ‘comfortable’ as possible.

dsc 0431After about 20 minutes, we ended up in the town of Lenakel; right in the middle of a relay race. Pikinini (children) of all ages were lining the sides of the street cheering on their favourite team while we drove slowly through so to make sure we did not disrupt the competition. Taking a left, we began our drive into the centre of Tanna, heading towards a village in the Lowinio area. Passing schools and the local hospital, it was quite apparent that it would have been, and still is, difficult to get aid into this area of Tanna. The roads were small and difficult to navigate, but all the way on the drive, pikinini were on the sides of the road and were always happy to give us a wave, and in the case of four cheeky young ones, a bit of a dance (both on our way there and on our way back).

Upon arrival at the village, we were greeted by a number of pikinini dressed in brightly coloured grass skirts as well as a Mamma who was to be a guide for the tour. After being welcomed, we were taken down a dirt path to their kitchen. There waiting for us were a few more older pikinini including one who would our ‘chef’ for this part of the tour. Our guide explained to us the local kustom around how they use the jungle for medicine, food and general sustainability. We were also told about the kustom around how village life works, in regards to marrying between villages, growing up and the responsibilities that come with that and interestingly, how one can dress depending on what they’ve been through.

We were then shown how laplap is prepared and made – starting with pounding taro or yam roots into a paste this is followed by adding fresh coconut cream and then some pork, beef, chicken or flying fox (yes) placed on top. In our case we had fresh island cabbage placed on top. This is then wrapped up in banana leaves and placed on hot stones and covered. Hot stones, we were told, is what they use as an oven when they cook their food.

In traditional cooking show fashion, they had one that was prepared earlier. Laplap was shared amongst us, served on a banana leave and eaten using a hand carved two-pronged fork. Compared to the laplap I’d had previously, I’ve discovered that laplap tastes best when it is straight off the stones and is piping hot.

After this we were taken further into the jungle to the chief’s meeting area to meet the men of the village. Sitting in the sweltering heat, they showed us how they use a log of a special type of wood to create fire. This took about five minutes of rubbing the stick on the log to create the ember, which when hot enough, a young pikinini boy (fire creating is a male only activity) took this ember and placed it onto some loose kindling, slowly turning it in his hands and gently blowing onto it. Within seconds, the kindling burst into flames.

We then were free to look at some village made handicrafts and ask general questions, when suddenly the men stood up, and formed a circle. After a brief pause, feet stomping and clapping began, which was quickly followed by singing. It was a unique sight to behold; seeing men, young and old, as well as woman walking around in circles, clapping hands and stomping in the heat. This lasted about 10 minutes before the men retired to the shade. After some more photo taking, we then shook each villages hand and said our goodbyes before heading back to the truck and then taking the 45 minute drive back to White Grass Resort for lunch.

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The tour was a totally unique and surreal experience. Seeing a culture untouched by western civilisation and still standing strong after Cyclone Pam is a testament to the people of Tanna, and what amazing people they are. I only wish I had more time to stay and talk and explore, but after lunch it was off back to the airport to catch our flight back to Port Vila.

I’ll never forget my whirlwind visit to Tanna. It is a must see and so rich in culture and experiences. And this is what is unique about Vanuatu. There are 83 islands and each offers a different and rewarding experience. Efate, the main port, is what you’d expect from a city, Santo has world class diving and white sand beaches, Pentecost has the land diving, while Tanna has a volcano! (So does Ambrym, but that’s an all day hike to get to, or a 3 hour helicopter ride).

On a side note, Wayne the activities manager at White Grass Resort, is now the first and only certified dive instructor on Tanna, and the resort is the only place you can get lessons or hire gear. He told us over lunch that every day he is finding underwater caves which no man has ever been to, or seen. So if you get the chance, go for a dive, and you might be the first person in the world to discover such a wonder. There are not many places in the world left unexplored.

A few tips:

  • Take some Vatu with you as you can purchase some handicrafts at the village
  • Ask questions – it’s amazing to learn about their way of life
  • The pikinini’s love to pose for photos, so don’t be afraid to get the camera out
  • Be wary though. You still need to respect and appreciate their way of life

More information

Getting there: Air Vanuatu
Accommodation: White Grass Ocean Resort: from 29,250 Vatu per night (includes breakfast and airport transfers)
Tour: Kustom Village: 6,500 Vatu (Adult) / 3,250 Vatu (Child). 3 hours long.