Expedition cruiser, Roderick Eime, explores some of the lesser known islands of Vanuatu aboard a small ship adventure:
Through the dust I can make out the group of barely-clad men. Their feet stomping in rhythm as they chant and sing in a mesmeric monotone designed to arouse the spirits.
The men’s costume requires little description and is simply a belt and ‘decoration’ made from dried vine. The ‘decoration’ to which I refer covers the men’s nether appendage angled, presumably, to demonstrate the response they seek from the fertility gods. Minor embellishments of mother of pearl nasal piercings and delicate feather adornments complete the striking vision. Dried nut shells tied in bunches to their feet add a musical percussion to the performance.
The inner circle of eight senior tribesmen chant and beat a rhythm on slit drums instruments made from hollowed timber, producing a penetrating sound one might expect from a giant woodpecker.
Surrounding them, swirling as if blown by some unseen gust, are a similar number of elaborately costumed fellows draped in dried banana fronds and looking much like desiccated Christmas trees with an elaborate and scary mask atop the ensemble.
Here on the volcanic island of Ambrym we are watching a sacred ‘rom’ dance performed exclusively by the men of Fanla village. The penis sheaths referred to are in fact called ‘nambas’ and the musical instruments, ‘tam-tams’, all forming part of their strong belief in traditional ‘kastom’ practices.
While Ambryn is served by two airports, Ulei (ULB) and Craig Cove (CCV), we have arrived aboard the small ship, ‘Spirit of Enderby’, operated by NZ-based expedition company, Heritage Expeditions. This former Soviet ‘oceanographic’ vessel carries just 54 passengers and was built, so we like to believe, as a spy ship to keep an eye on Western navies in the closing days of the Cold War.
During the rest of the year this vessel spends most of its time in either the remote Russian Far East or on deep Antarctic voyages. In between, she has the chance to stop by a few tropical locations in Melanesia and Polynesia, before heading off again to the her familiar frozen realms.
One of our expedition leaders and co-owner of the family company is Aaron Russ, a chap whose youthful disposition belies his many years of experience leading groups in the world’s remote territories, particularly the polar regions. His father, Rodney, first secured the little Russian-flagged ship for expedition cruises more than 20 years ago.
Small ship cruising, or more accurately, ‘exploring’ is perfectly suited to the many islands of Vanuatu as it is elsewhere in Melanesia. These expedition vessels carry far fewer passengers than regular ‘big’ cruise ships, often less than 100 guests plus crew and staff.
Our journey began in Honiara and included several islands that almost never receive foreign visitors other than loggers. There’s an argument that such remote communities should be left alone and that ‘meddling’ causes disruption to traditional lifestyles. Well, yes, it can if not conducted in a careful and sustainable way. But I prefer the counter argument where sensitive visits can encourage such communities to maintain ‘kastom’ and ancient arts for the many educated guests craving authentic experiences instead of plastic ‘Made in China’ souvenirs purchased in air-conditioned malls.
Our other expedition leader, Suzanne Noakes, has bags of experience leading tours and expeditions through the jungles and backroads of the South Pacific, especially Melanesia, where her command of pidgin English quickly endears her to the locals.
Suzanne is a champion for sustainable tourism and has spent many years, decades even, furthering the cause and promoting the philosophy that responsible tourism is a far lesser economic evil, if it is at all, than activities that denude and plunder the resources of small nations such as unregulated logging and fishing.
“It is important to be attuned to the opportunities as well as the pressures of western influences like tourism on tribal kastom,” Suzanne tells us, “At the same time as running tours, I manage to raise funds for the supply of essential first aid resources, supplies for schools and provide funding for local people to receive training as teachers in village schools. More often than not, guests are only too happy to come aboard with these programs.”
Vanuatu, like her Melanesian neighbours, offers some of the few genuinely 'raw' travel experiences and small ship expeditions present some of the best options to conduct your own explorations.
For further information and bookings on all available itineraries in Melanesia, please consult expedition cruise specialists, Wild Earth Travel.
The writer travelled as a guest of Heritage Expeditions with assistance from Vanuatu Tourism and Air Vanuatu.
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About the Expeditionist
Roderick Eime has spent his whole life getting lost and the last two decades doing it professionally. From 4WD journeys across Australia to icebreakers in the polar seas, Rod isn't happy unless he's wondering where he is. In his quest to find oblivion, he's sailed all five oceans and many of the great rivers reporting for magazines and newspapers but has yet to fall off the edge of the world.