Malekula is known as the island of 'kastom and adventure'. Many visitors are also intrigued by its history of cannibalism. It is the second largest island and the most diverse, culturally and linguistically, with over thirty distinct languages spoken, and some of the best custom dances in Vanuatu.
The names given to the primary cultural groups are 'Small Nambas' and 'Big Nambas', where nambas is the name of the woven penis sheath worn by the men, with the distinction between big and small relating to the size of the sheath.
The interior of Malekula is mountainous, rugged and forest-covered with good jungle walking and bird watching and old cannibal sites hidden in the bush in the north.
Malekula has an estimated population of about 25,000 on the coastal areas and around 1,500 in the rugged interior. The villagers are exceptionally friendly and enjoy sharing their proud cultural heritage with visitors.
The neighbouring small islands such as Maskelynes and other small offshore islands along the east coast of Malekula have sand beaches and coral reefs with good snorkeling and diving opportunities. You can visit nearby small islands in the north such as Uri, Uripiv, Rano, Wala, Atchin and Vao.
Ambrym is first and foremost the 'black' island due to its volcanic ash and because of its 'black magic', steeped in mystery.
In the villages, the ancient customs play a significant part in day to day living. The 'Man blong Majik' are treated with the utmost respect and practice sorcery and magic beyond all imaginings. Ambrym prides itself on some unique characteristics, such as the sculpted tam-tams, sand-drawing, black-fern masks and local dances.
The twin active volcanoes of Mt Benbow (1,160m) and Mt Marum (1,270m) are constantly making their presence felt.
They are located in the middle of the island and form a huge caldera some 10 to 12km in diameter. Looking in to Marum is like looking in to the centre of the earth with is boiling lava lake of red fire. The lava flows and ash dust which surround the two volcanoes give the landscape a moon-like aspect and the sight is breathtaking. Visiting the volcanoes involves some hard trekking with trained local volcano guide and one to three nights camping on the caldera. This must be booked in advance to ensure all kastom fees are paid to the caretakers of the volcanoes.
There are many unique 'kastom' dances in Ambrym but perhaps the most striking custom dance is the Rom (or masked) dance – where 9 foot covertly cloaked and masked 'spirits' stomp out ancient rhythms to the beat of the tam tam. It can be seen in the West and also in the North. Cultural festivals around the yam harvest in the middle of the year are some of the best times to see Rom dancing.
Top things to do
Big Nambas and Small Nambas Tribes
Experience the rich and diverse cultural traditions of Malekula through costume, dance, stories, sand-drawing, fire-making, food preparation and other traditional skill demonstrations.
Visit the nearby Small Islands
Day or half-day trips can be arranged to a number of inhabited small islands just off the coast of Malekula or dedicate three or four days to visit the beautiful Maskelynes.
Guided Jungle Treks
These are a must for the fit traveller. The iconic tours such as the Manbush Trail, Dogs Head Walk, Big Nambas Trek and Losinwei Cascade Walk offer an experience of both custom and nature.
Visit Marine Protected Areas
The many marine protected areas and activities range from protection of mangroves along coastlines, to snorkelling in giant clam shell gardens, or with turtles and dugongs. Malekula is perfect balance for case studies and simply a holiday escape back into nature for the environmentally conscious traveller.
Historical Cannibal Sites and Spirit Caves
Organise a trip with a knowledgeable guide to see one of the ancient cannibal sites hidden in the bush and learn about the history of this kastom and visit some of the northern spirit caves with ancient cave illustrations.
Rom Dance and Festivals
A trip to Ambrym is not complete without witnessing the Rom Dance. This magical dance is breathtaking and unique to Ambrym. See the cloaked spirits stomp out ancient rhythms surrounded by massive guardian tam-tams. North Ambrym offers three fantastic festivals around July and August every year.
Trek to the Twin Volcanoes
For the very fit and adventurous; guided overnight, two and three night treks can be arranged to visit both Marum and Benbow and look in to their lakes of fire! A true highlight.
Getting here and getting around
Air Vanuatu flies daily (except Saturdays) into the main Malekula airport of Norsup, from both Vila and Santo. There are also regular flights to airports on Malekula at Lamap and Southwest Bay, and on Ambrym at Ulei and Craig Cove.
Visit Air Vanuatu to check the latest domestic timetable to plan routes and connections. Tourists holding a return Air Vanuatu international ticket are entitled to a 20% discount on these fares and are allowed 20kgs of luggage instead of the normal 10kgs.
Comfortable passenger boats servicing Malekula (Lislits, near Lakatoro) and occasionally Craig Cove in Ambrym include the newly operating Vanuatu Ferry and the Big Sista.
In Malampa, the local operators have established a booking service for both Malekula and Ambrym Islands called malampa.travel, and a call centre with a full-time reservations and information officer. This is a not-for-profit service which is owned by the local tourism association and are eligible to book Department of Tourism accredited accommodation, tours, and transfers on behalf of the operators.
Accommodation in Malekula and Ambrym is mostly built with traditional materials, such as Natangura thatched roofs and woven bamboo walls. There are traditional Melanesian style bungalows and standard budget guesthouses.
Things You Should Know
- Allow an 1 hour and 30 minutes check-in time for all domestic flights. There is a provincial departure tax of 200 VT per person to pay at each domestic airport after your check-in
- Reconfirm your flights with local Air Vanuatu agent by calling their local number
- Do not forget to bring with you sun screen and mosquito repellent.