Vanuatu is definitely one of the South Pacific's best kept secrets!   Its 74 inhabited islands form a Y-shaped archipelago almost directly West of Fiji and North-East of New Caledonia.   For many years there was joint British and French colonial rule here, an arrangement officially known as The Condominum, but more commonly referred to as The Pandemonium.   Joint rule meant joint languages, so that some villages were given education in English while neighboring villages were taught in French!

The ni-Vanuatu people are Melanesian, like the people of Papua New Guinea and Fiji.   Melanesians have frizzy afro-style hair and are usually of stocky build, unlike the Polynesians of places like Tonga, Samoa and Hawaii, who are tall and have straight hair.   While Polynesians have a single basic language which can be understood by widely separated groups like the Hawaiians, Tahitians and New Zealand Maoris, Melanesians have extraordinarily splintered linguistic groups - the island of Tanna, only 40 kilometers long, has seven completely different languages!   The same situation applies throughout Melanesia - Papua New Guinea is said to have over 800 different languages - not just dialects, but completely different languages.   The solution to this Babel is Pidgin English, which everyone here speaks.   Unfortunately, rather earthy Australians provided the main source of English for this area, so phrases like "buggered up" became words like "bagarap", which is the normal and appropriate way of saying "broken"!   If you spend a bit of time in the area, you'll see some amusing Pidgin English signs and hear some interesting spoken language.

Melanesian culture is somewhat different than many third world cultures.   Many of the customs are based on the idea of mutual obligation.   One consequence of this is that there's no tipping, since a tip would leave the recipient obligated to the giver - so hopefully this is one part of the world where this dirty habit won't spread!   Another unusual custom is that everything is sold at a fixed price, without bargaining, even at street markets.   Thankfully, the Melanesians here are friendly and very honest like their counterparts in Fiji, unlike those of their race in New Guinea, where violence and theft are common.

The capital city of Port Vila, on the island of Efate, must be one of the prettiest in the Pacific, especially from the air.   The low hills above the crescent-shaped harbor allow good views of beautiful blue waters filled with coral reefs and colourful fish.   The islands have volcanic origins, something we were reminded of when a small earthquake struck while we were sleeping in our hotel.   A trip around the island on the main road quickly changes from a smooth drive on asphalt to an adventurous safari along a sometimes deeply rutted dirt track, however it's worth it in order to see attractions like the Mele-Maat waterfalls, giant banyan trees and the Eton Blue Hole, a small lake connected to the ocean and filled with reef fish.   If you want to see the reef and its inhabitants more closely then you should go to Mele Bay, just around the corner from Port Vila.   There are numerous places to snorkel or dive, including a wall around small Mele Island, now usually referred to as Hideaway Island.

Efate is very pleasant, but it would be a real shame to spend all of your time there, because there's so much of interest on other islands in the chain.   For instance, the island of Pentecost is where bungee jumping was invented!   At yam harvest time villagers climb 90 foot bamboo towers, tie vines around their ankles and jump - the idea is to just touch the dug-up earth at the base of the tower with your head, and usually it works!   Espiritu Santo has good diving, including a wreck dive on the President Coolidge, an American troop ship sunk when it hit American mines, and Million Dollar Point, where American commanders pushed hundreds of tonnes of surplus war equipment and supplies into the water rather than sell it cheaply to local planters.

I didn't go to these places, instead I opted for the island of Tanna, South of Efate.   The attractions are mostly concentrated in the South-West corner of the island.   The area is dominated by Mt Yasur, which is a constantly active volcano only 360 metres high, but quite a spectacle at night.   Instead of staying in regular accomodation, we stayed at Port Resolution, a native village where the locals have made a concerted effort to provide facilities for tourists.   The villagers have also struck up a relationship with a dugong, a close relative of the Caribbean manatee, and they're able to slap the water to bring it to shore.   Cook's Pyramid is also here, a rock where the famous British explorer Captain James Cook stopped to take sightings, as well as Shark Bay, where villagers threw transgressors to the namesake sharks.   Just around the volcano from Port Resolution is the Sulphur Bay custom village, which follows a "cargo cult" found in some other parts of Melanesia.   During World War Two villagers in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere saw people construct airfields where planes landed, disgorging huge amounts of cargo; so they figured that if they also built airfields then planes would come loaded with cargo for them, too!   These ideas survived the end of the war, and continue in some places to this day.   In the case of Sulphur Bay, villagers believe that a man called Jon Frum will one day arrive with an army and large amounts of goods for the local people.   Villagers have their own church where Christianity and their own beliefs are mixed together, and they paint the letters "USA" on their buildings and even on themselves.   Funnily enough, this primitive place also has a radio-equipped telephone you can use to call anywhere in the world, just like a regular phone.   Even more primitive than Sulphur Bay is the village of Yaohnanen on Tanna's western coast near the airfield.   Here the people decided to continue to live according to their ancient customs, even avoiding Western clothing in preference for the traditional "nambas" or penis sheath.   But rejecting modern life doesn't mean that the people have isolated themselves from others.   You can visit the village, walk around, buy your own nambas or other handicrafts, and watch a surprisingly enthralling yam harvest dance put on by the whole village - men, women and children.