Into the hills

For my second holiday week, I had booked a tramping trip to some remote kastom villages in Santo. It was such an amazing experience that I now don’t know where to start. Ok, let’s try this:

On Monday morning, Mayumi, a Japanese lady who is the tour operator I had booked the trip with, picked me up at my motel. At her office, I had to wait for the other two people who had booked the trip, an Italian couple. I had had serious concerns that they might be the young and super-fit alpinist kind of people, but they turned out to be in their fifties and utterly normal. Well, actually slightly naive in my opinion as they came straight from the airport, where they had just arrived from Italy! And the lady had never done any tramping before!!!

On the other hand there was me, reasonably acclimatised and fit thanks to my running on the Torres airstrip the week before, and pretty used to sticking my feet into the mud when tramping.

Anyway, with us came two young men from the villages to guide us out of our comfort zone and into the hills. So we all hopped into a truck that would take us to a tiny place called Sele where we would meet more guides and start our walk. At that time I hadn’t really understood yet what we needed all these guides for, but I’d find out soon.

When we had arrived in Sele and had just taken our gear off the truck, two bushmen came walking down the road, and I will never forget this moment all my life. They were among the most gorgeous looking men I had ever seen in my life, and wearing nothing but some sort of G-string with curtain. Made in heaven! Hot as hell!!! I really had to pull myself together not to stare.

So these were the other guides that would do the walk with us, and at that stage it finally dawned on me that they were there to carry our backpacks! I had expected that we could give a couple of things to our guides, but not at all that I wouldn’t have to carry anything but my camera. So this unexpected luxury was great and I could walk quite quickly, which made the guides think I’m really fit, heehee. At least bushman Riki who carried my pack thought so, which is a bit of a joke considering that he was carrying my 15kg pack and could still have walked even faster. Anyway, nice to be called fit by a bushman!

Here’s the tramping party, having a break eating bush apples:

Bush apple break

The Italians did struggle quite a bit though, not being acclimatised and not used to slippery mud. We didn’t make it to where we were supposed to go that day and had to stay in a house not quite as far. The lady was so tired that she even didn’t want to go for a dip in the creek with me, or have dinner.

I had actually quite enjoyed the walk (wet and warm is so much nicer than the usual NZ wet and cold combo!), and sat down with the guys for dinner. This was a hard one regarding food safety, as food hygiene wasn’t exactly according to the books. So it was a choice of eating and hoping for the best, or not eating which isn’t really an option if you’re on a tramp and need lots of energy. So I decided to leave all my cultural preconceptions behind and do as the locals do.

But before I could dig into the island cabbage and chunks of taro (with my fingers, as there was no cutlery), there was one more hurdle to take. I was asked to say a prayer, since it is their custom to pray before dinner. Oooh, I’m not religious at all and it’s been decades since I last prayed! But I got it done nicely, in German so that no one would understand the not quite conventional stuff I was saying. It probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway, considering that we all had different religions (me theoretically protestant, Riki a follower of a kastom religion, Rome a seven day adventist, and the Italians Roman Catholic I guess).

I didn’t get sick and also didn’t get sick from breakfast the next day either, which was dough made of some root crop with coconut cream, so it seems that the water from the creek was fine indeed.

Breakfast was followed by a long discussion about the Italians wanting to go back again. In the end it was decided that they and two of the guides would go back, and two of the guides and myself would carry on. Here’s a photo of the whole group at Rapus, just before we split:

The whole group

The walk to Fortsunel village was quick and easy. Riki had made me a walking stick, and whenever he thought that it got a bit difficult, he gave me a hand and pulled me up the hill. Not that I would have needed it that much, for me it was more a matter of not rejecting someone being nice. One of those cultural things I suppose where I was clueless and just tried to do the right thing.

In Fortsunel, I first had to wait at the edge of the village to be invited in. Rome, my English speaking guide, explained to me what would happen and what I needed to know to behave myself appropriately. I was first greeted by the chief, an elderly man with an air of dignity around him, and gave my present to him (a bag of stuff such as candles that Mayumi had prepared). Then the village accompanied me to the nakamal (the men’s club house) while singing a welcome song for me.

The people of Fortsunel (second from the left is the chief) and me:


I was given a necklace made of flowers that Viaki, Riki’s sister had made for me. It was really beautiful, not the plastic crap you can buy in the shops. I was offered a welcome drink of kava, then food was prepared for me (taro leaves stuffed in bamboo and then roasted on the fire), and I was shown how to make fire with sticks. So far the tourist programme, but then things took a slightly different course when Riki asked me to have a look at a wound on his mum’s toe.

So I dug out my first aid kit, asked for Rome as a translator, and braced myself to have a look at a bad wound. It turned out to be a big cut of open flesh, which I cleaned and then bandaged. I gave the disinfecting ointment and more bandages to the old lady, and Rome translated my instructions. That’s not the sort of thing that I was really prepared for! Next time I’d carry more first aid stuff. And next time I’d NOT put my assortment of condoms in my first aid kit for the whole village to see.

Things then went back on the tourist track, and before I left I did a little kastom dance:

Kastom dance in Fortsunel

After having said goodbye, we left for Marakai, our final destination. This is a true kastom village, the real thing and totally not what I had ever seen or experienced before, so I was quite excited about it.

We arrived in the middle of their ‘siesta’, so we sat down in the nakamal (the men’s club house) and had a rest. We also were given lots of food, and even though I am a good eater, I struggled as I had just eaten plenty at Fortsunel. Food is a means to show that you are wealthy, so guests get served plenty of food. And as a guest, you can best show your appreciation by eating a lot.

After the siesta, I was greeted by the village with a welcome song. I shook hands with the whole village, and gave my present to the chief. This chief was in his thirties and had a really big smile. The assistant chief was assigned to me to look after me. I was then left to myself, to unpack (I was staying in their dedicated visitor’s house) or to wander around the village.

At that stage I started to really regret that I didn’t speak any Bislama (the national language), as I could just look but not talk to anyone. I’m sure it would have been very interesting to talk to the assistant chief, but as things were, we didn’t get any further than the number of kids he has (5), or why they sleep next to a fire (to keep warm since they do not wear clothes).

So what I did was wandering around the village. Their houses are entirely made from local materials:


They actually make pretty much everything themselves, houses, kitchen utensils, mats to sleep on, bark men’s dress and grass skirts for the women. Speaking of clothes, they are bloody useless there and rather a pain. While the people in the village all looked nice and tidy, I was splattered with mud. It’s so much smarter not to wear clothes in a climate where you don’t have to! Just imagine never in your life having to do the laundry!

And never in your life having to clean the toilet because bush toilets are either just a whole in the ground with soil all around it, or two wooden beams with a gap between them. They can have a roof, or a screen, or nothing at all and be so overgrown that you cannot find them and have to ask your guide to show you the toilet when you are standing right in front of it…

I saw very few ‘modern’ items in Marakai. They have plastic water bottles to take water from their creek, and they have metal bowls (not sure what they use them for). Of course they have bush knifes – and mobile phones and solar panels to recharge them. The importance of communication!

Or the lack theirof…. the inability to communicate with the locals definitely made me feel uncomfortable, like being a visitor who just stares but doesn’t engage with anything, and I felt bad about my lack of Bislama. So all I could say to the lady who brought me dinner was ‘tankyu tumas’. It was really nice food, taro, island cabbage (which I really like), and river prawns. This was quite special, as I had never eaten river prawns before. I just hope that she could understand me telling her about this, in my best personal pidgin English.

In the evening I was invited to the nakamal for a drink of kava. I was then asked if I wanted to stay a bit or retreat, and decided to stay just for a couple more minutes. This turned out to be a question and answer session, with Rome asking me heaps of questions, and me answering. Rome is quite a serious character, so this was serious stuff.

I slept quite well that night, as I had gotten over worrying about catching food poisoning, or the assistant chief’s fire burning down the house.

On the following morning, we had to leave again, so there was another round of shaking hands with all 40 villagers (the man to the left of me is the chief):

Marakai people

They then sang a goodbye song for me, which I would have loved to return by signing a German goodbye song, but I couldn’t remember anything suitable and “Oh Tannenbaum” just didn’t seem right.

It was a quick walk back to Fortsunel, where Riki had a shave for going into town (they only shave occasionally to save razor) and then on to Mere Mere (where Riki fed his pig which he has for growing tuskers which are a major status symbol). Mere Mere somehow reminded me of the Bavarian alps, it’s like a tropical version of a typical Bavarian ‘Alm’:

Mere Mere

At Rapus, where we had spent the first night, we had lunch, and there’s one more thing about food that’s worth mentioning: It always gets shared. This means whenever I had a snack, I gave something to the guys, and whenever they had food, they gave some to me. That’s actually something I got into really quickly, and when I was back in NZ I initially felt bad whenever I had food and didn’t share it!

Then a couple more hours of walking. Here’s a photo of the tramping party:

Riki Rome myself

That’s Riki who carried my pack, 45, six kids, son of ‘quite a big’ chief, whatever that means; Rome who did the translating, 29, three kids, son of a chief (not sure if big or not so big); and a slightly dishevelled me, 38, no kids, daughter of a ‘Kirchenvorstand’ (sorry but that’s as best as I can do).

We spent the night in Sele where we had set off from. Viaki (Riki’s sister), her husband and two other women from the village were there as well, on their way to the market in Luganville where I would go and buy stuff off them a couple of days later. It was quite nice to just watch them and see how they are amongst themselves. One thing that stood out to me – and even more so on the next morning, when they were trying to get their truck going and push it up the hill – was that they are much more relaxed than we are. There’s a lot of laughter and smiles in situations when us Western people would long have started shouting at each other.

The three of us were picked up again to go back to Luganville in the morning, and I was a bit sad that it was all over. It was an absolutely amazing experience, quite challenging and very rewarding at the same time. Much more personal than what you could expect from a guided tour in a Western country. It was all about the people, and in the end it didn’t feel like a commercial tour anymore at all.

Bye-bye green hills of Santo, it was GREAT!!! And I hope to be back one day!



3 thoughts on “Into the hills

  1. “Danke Tumas” Ulli! Imagine if Bislama was a hybrid of English and other languages including Bern Deutsch where they say “Merci viel mal” for Danke!

    This is beautifully written. Your tone and practice are respectful, not voyeuristic… fantastic. Bravo.

    Can you send me an e-mail? I have a question about travelling in Vanuatu that I am sure you can advise me about…

    Merci / Tanku / Danke TUMAS !


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