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Malekula Island

Written by Cathy Siegismund
September 2003

We left Ranon Bay by mid-morning. The last few days of our stay in Ranon, the winds had been quite strong. We often saw 20+ knots with williwaws gusting down from the surrounding mountains.

Route from Ranon Bay, Ambrym to Banam Bay, Malekula

The trip to Banam Bay was about 25-miles and would take us along the coast of Ambrym and then slightly southwest across the last 10 miles of open water between Ambrym and Malekula. We motored southwest along the lee of Ambrym continuing to see  shifting winds gusting up to 30 knots but flat seas. As soon as we left the lee of Ambrym, turning toward Banam Bay, the seas got short and steep and were slamming into our beam with the 25 knot winds. After a very uncomfortable two hours of this, we made it into the large pleasantly sheltered Banam Bay.

Yachts anchored in Banam Bay

We cleaned up the boat, wiping all the crusted salt off the teak, and put the dinghy in the water. The next morning we went ashore with our deliveries and to explore the village. We got a fairly early start as we had to meet the other cruisers in the achorage, including our friends GB and Sara on Djarrka at 1500 for a kastom dance at the village. We took the dinghy ashore and tied it to a branch so the tide wouldn't wash it out into the bay.

Ken, while tying up the dink,  found a coconut shell full of small hermit crabs feasting on the coconut meat

As soon as we got to shore, we saw a man on the beach sitting near an outrigger. We introduced ourselves and learned the man was John Eady, the son of chief Saitol. Our cruising guide had mentioned John Eady as the person to meet and ask about exploring the villages. He welcomed us to Banam Bay and gave us the lay of the land. There were actually four villages in Banam Bay. He also gave us directions to the school and clinic where we wanted to donate some supplies. He walked along the beach with us for a while and chatted before he left for his village. He said he would see us later that day as he would be at the kastom dance.

We walked along the beach and as usual, were greeted with friendly hellos and introductions. A small boy was quite taken with Ken and would only let go of Ken's hand when his big brother ran and got him.

Little boy firmly attached to Ken's hand

In the second village, we found James' mother, Nancy Johnson. We delivered James' clothes and his letter to her, which was very happily received. We also let her know that her laplap made it safely to James from the other boat. She seemed quite tickled by this information. We walked through the three connected villages until we came to the medical clinic. We had a note from Francis at the Ranon Clinic for a fellow student of his working in the Banam clinic. We met Deirdre, an Irish doctor working at the clinic, and Danielle, the English medical student, both working as part of the same program, Hope Alliance. Danielle was happy to get the note from Francis and we gave some school supplies to Deirdre who said she would make sure they got to the school.

We also met Jake, a Ni-Vanuatu man, who works closely with the clinic raising funds and organizing medical transportation and other village projects. I had some women's clothes and toiletries I had wanted to give away, and Jake and Deirdre recommended I go to a fundraiser the local "Women's Federation" was holding. Under open-sided thatched stands, women were selling food and various crafts to raise money for their organization.

Women's Federation fundraiser

Jake had told us they were trying to raise money to build a building where the village women could hold meetings, etc. I told Jake I would like to donate some things to the women's organization. He introduced me to a woman who was apparently in charge. At this point, most of the women were sitting around having lunch, but as soon as the clothes, soaps, shampoo and nail polish came out and started getting marked with prices, it became like a sale table at Nordstrom.

Local women fascinated by the bath scrunchie included in our donation


Donations of clothes and toiletries to the women's foundation fundraiser

We and GB and Sara from Djarrka bought a few veggies from the women, and then set off with Jake back through the villages to the boats. The villages all sat along the beach with a dirt track running behind them and leading to other villages on Malekula.

Banam Village

Walking along the dirt track that ran behind the  village

We returned to the boat for lunch and to get our cameras for the trip in to see the kastom dancing. We and couples from three other boats all met ashore. We were met by a boy of about 12, named Noah, who led us to the village where the dance would be held. There we met John Eady and he instructed us to wait while the men and women completed their preparations for the dance.

Waiting for the beginning of the Banam Bay kastom dance

The villages of Malekula are roughly broken into two groups, the Small Nambas and the Large Nambas, and are distinguished by the size of the nambas they wear. The degree of kastom tradition varies in each village. Some villages in Vanuatu have returned almost completely to their traditional way of life, dressing as their ancestors have. Others, like the one village in Banam Bay dress in western clothes and attend Christian church, but will perform their traditional kastom dance for tourists and for special ceremonies in village life.

The nasara at Banam Bay was more traditional in that only men and circumcised boys, and of course paying tourists, were allowed to enter. This was where the men performed four dances for us. The women and young children had a separate area between the nasara and the village where they danced.

Kastom dance at Banam Bay

For more photos see the Banam Bay Kastom Dance Photo Gallery

After the dancing, we were lead back to the village by John Eady and were all given fresh fruits and vegetables from the villagers' gardens. Nancy Johnson had walked down to deliver a huge stalk of bananas to us, and we left with our arms full of tomatoes, eggplant, papaya, bananas and pamplemousse. We chatted a while with Dixon, thanking him again for the dancing. We asked him if there was anything he needed and he asked if we had a soccer ball as the village one was worn out. We told him we didn't, but would send him one from Luganville. He also asked if we had a backpack we could spare. We told him we did and and that we'd bring it in the following day. After many thanks and goodbyes, we headed back to the boat. We would highly recommend a stop at Banam Bay to see the kastom dancing. It was a bargain at 1500 vatu (about 15USD) per person and the warmth and sincerity of the villagers made the experience very special.

The strong winds we had experienced during our sail from Ambrym had persisted, so we decided to spend a few more days in Banam Bay. The following day, I made scones and took them and some honey into the medical clinic for Deirdre and Danielle. They invited us to stay for tea and we enjoyed a long chat with them. It was interesting to learn about their experiences and hear about the medical system in Vanuatu and how different aid organizations where trying to help. We made a donation to Jake and his medical transport fund, as villagers that have to get to one of the larger towns for medical care often cannot afford to rent a truck to take them.

We also took Dixon our spare backpack along with some soccer magazines and Felicity t-shirts, which delighted him and we got his address to send him a soccer ball. We again were loaded down with eggs and produce so we could hardly carry it all back to the boat. The generosity of the villages was unbelievable. Every time we went ashore we were given things and were rarely asked for anything in return.

On one of our trips to town, Danielle invited us to join her for a dinner she was cooking for Jake and his girlfriend, Lucy. We accepted and joined them for a lovely night on the beach for dinner. It was interesting to hear about Danielle's experiences in Banam, and talk to Jake about his experience with yachties and his plans for the village. We even learned more about everyone we had met in Ranon Bay on Ambrym as that was Lucy's home village.

Jake and Lucy

While we waited the weather to lighten a bit, we also enjoyed spending time with some of the other cruisers in the bay. We spent a couple of afternoons playing cards with GB and Sara from Djarrka and had our friends, Brian and Sue from Nepenthe, over for dinner.

John Eady saying goodbye to us sporting his Felicity shirt

The winds finally settled enough for us to leave Banam Bay. We had said all of our goodbyes to our new friends, and set off for another stop farther north up Malekula's east coast. We had originally planned to go up about 20 miles to a quiet bay that was supposed to have good snorkeling. However, we had heard on the morning radio net that Djarrka, who had left the previous day, was headed for Wala Island and that there was going to be another Kastom dance performance there on Monday morning. We decided to make a slightly longer day of it and go all the way to Wala Island on the the northeast coast of Malekula.

Route from Banam Bay to Wala Island on Malekula

We arrived to the rather small anchorage between Wala Island and the mainland of Malekula Island. Djarrka and a large Oyster called Shear Madness were the only other boats at the anchorage, although it already seemed crowded. You had to drop the anchor just about on the beach to get a set in shallow water, then back down over the steep drop off into the channel between Wala and the mainland. The predominant southeastern winds are supposed to hold you off the island, although the tides would swing us parallel to Wala. We weren't super comfortable in the anchorage as if the wind shifted too much Felicity would have been on the beach. However, the weather was settled and we only planned to stay for two nights before heading up to Espiritu Santo. We had a quiet night on the boat, and the next morning caught a ride with Shear Madness (in their big fast dink) to the  main island to meet our guide for the morning kastom dance performance.

As on Epi, the villagers on Wala Island commuted each day to Walo-Rano on the main island to work in their gardens. So each morning and afternoon outriggers would paddle to and from the island.

Canoes parked on the beach on the main island of Malekula while villagers worked in their gardens

A river ended at the beach near the dinghy landing

We were met by our guide, George, who would lead us up the kastom village for the dance performance. We walked through the village near the beach and along a dirt road past a nice guest house.

Guest house on the walk to the kastom village

We picked up an elderly Australian man who was staying at the guest house who was also attending the dance performance. We then turned up a narrow footpath that led through the hot jungle to the kastom village.


Tall palm trees surrounded the trail and village

There, we waited a short while until the dancers where ready for us and George explained what we would see.

George standing next to the sign for the Small Nambas Amel Boas Village

After a short wait, we were led to the village. We were welcomed by a group of women and were given woven leaf leis and coconuts cut open with bamboo straws to drink the milk.

Introductions and Captain Ron, Australian professional skipper from Shear Madness

Cath ready with coconut and camera

We were then led into the nasara and to a row of benches with a thatched shade awning. While we were welcomed Chief Emil and some other men were playing different drums and tamtams.

Chief Emil wearing a large boar tusk with his kastom dress playing the drum


Village man playing two large tamtams

Chief Emil then welcomed us to his village and to the kastom dance performance. Chief Emil was extremely friendly and enthusiastic about showing us his village and dance. He has taken his village back to a traditional way of life. The band then started up and the dancing began.


Kastom dancing at Walo-Rano

For more photos see the Walo-Rano Kastom Dance Photo Gallery

After the dancing by the men and women, Chief Emil showed us some kastom magic. He and another man layered spade shaped leaves and then holding only the stems on each side they carried a young boy around on the leaves.


Kastom magic leaf trick

Chief Emil then showed us how to start fire the traditional way. He and another man had a small bundle of coconut husk blazing in a few minutes.



Making fire the Ni-Vanuatu way

We were then quite surprised when we all were invited into the nakamal, a sort of men's club room, reserved for important men in the village. As we entered the nakamal, we each took a sip of the very strong Vanuatu kava, something else that is forbidden to Ni-Vanuatu women. Vanuatu kava is much more potent than Fiji kava, and we immediately had tingling lips and the numbing sensation in our mouths. The kava was sipped from a carved wooden vessel that was hanging from a table in the corner of the nasara. Everyone drank from this sort of wooden gravy-boat-shaped bowl while a village man tipped the suspended bowl for you. Everyone clapped after your drink. Chief Emil then told us about the nakamal and the ceremonial headdresses, masks and oars that it contained. He also explained who could enter the nakamal.

Exterior of the nakamal

Interior of the nakamal with the suspended kava bowl under the counter


Raised counters in the corner of the nakamal hold various items important to the village's ceremonial life

Elaborately painted ceremonial oars housed in the nakamal

After we finished our tour of the village, we said goodbye to Chief Emil and we walked us back to the the beach where we had parked our dinks. We caught a ride back to the boats at Wala Island with Djarrka.

Sunset over Malekula with an evening outrigger commuter seen from Wala Island

We spent a quiet night on the boat and got ready for our trip to Luganville, Espiritu Santo the following day.


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