Malekula is Vanuatu’s second largest island; it’s jam-packed with rich culture, welcoming people and lush, waterfall-laden rainforests to explore.
The plane lands on the runway at Norsup Airport, Malekula and I take an audible gasp. Before me is a side of Vanuatu that I haven’t seen before, and in my excited state I wriggle out of the small plane with such speed that the contents of my open backpack scatter onto the runway.
Rugged wilderness! Remote villages! I can barely contain myself. I push my notepads and rolls of film into my backpack and walk over to a three-walled shelter. This, I will come to learn, is a typical outer-island airport.
I love it.
There are over 30 languages spoken on Malekula, despite a population of well under 25,000. While the locals speak Bislama, French and/or English, and do so across the islands, each village communicates in their own tongue. This language is an important cultural reference for a community.
When cannibalism was practiced in Malekula, it was written in Ni Vanuatu folklore that you were allowed to eat anyone who spoke a different language. Now that’s a motivator to get the languages right!
A different language comes with a different culture; learning from and socialising with the people that make up some of these villages revealed just how deeply these cultural differences run.
Here are a few hot tips and things you need to know before travelling to Malekula, Vanuatu.
Culture on Malekula
As you explore Vanuatu’s outer islands, you’ll quickly realise just how committed the local people are to preserving their culture. All of the chiefs I had the honour of talking to said that they see tourism as a way of ensuring their cultural practices are passed on to younger generations.
By engaging young people in the cultural tourism activities, elders pass on to their youth lessons about how they have celebrated, communicated and practiced conflict resolution for thousands of years. They believe they have a lot to teach the world about this, too.
On Malekula, we had the honour of visiting the Big Nambas and the Small Nambas tribes, differentiated by the type of penis sheath they use in their cultural dress. This was my first time experiencing cultural dances in Vanuatu, and what was most surprising was the abundance of flowers.
Flowers have become synonymous with femininity in the West, and to see dances performed by male warriors draped with flowers radiated a kind of fearless strength and courage that I’ve never seen before.
Malekula is a large island, and from the Norsup area, it takes about five hours to get to the Small Nambas, and you’ll have to drive off-road and cross window-deep rivers in order to get there. The Small Nambas don’t participate in popular cultural festivals on other islands, so the only way you can experience the Small Nambas culture is by driving there yourself.
While it’s tempting to sit in the comfort of the car, there’s nothing better than bumping around in the back of the ute local style, dodging branches as they swing over the roof and hi-fiving the kids who run along beside you.
At the Small Nambas, you’ll be treated to a series of dances, and have the honour of eating lunch served from the Chief’s own home. This is all arranged in advance, and is delivered as a package deal.
Whether you arrange a visit to the Small Nambas with your accommodation provider, or Tourism Vanuatu directly, this is part of the deal. And what a deal it is. This tribe is so willing to share more about their culture, so don’t lose sight of the adventures in ‘Storian’ that are on offer.
While on Malekula, if you have the chance, make your way to the cultural centre of Lakatoro. There’s a small museum up the hill there. If you catch the staff and it’s open, you won’t be disappointed! You’ll also find the Malampa Handicraft Center. This woman’s business centre, packed with hand-woven baskets and rare island treats is a must see.
Waterfalls, Hiking and Dugongs, if You’re Lucky!
The first thing we did after flying into Norsup on the northern part of Malekula, in classic We Are Explorers style, was hit up the local waterfall called Losinwei Cascades. It’s a super easy walk, and only takes around 1.5 hours. No metaphor will do this walk justice. Thankfully, someone was there with a camera. I’ll let the photos do the talking– you’ll see what I mean.
We have such great infrastructure in Australia, and many of us are confident bushwalkers when there’s a clear trail ahead of us. When heading overseas, it’s so easy to slip into the ‘we don’t need to pay for this, we don’t need a porter or guide’ mentality. And sure, maybe you don’t.
However, on these outer islands, finding a source of income is pretty difficult for the locals. There’s no international trade, and not a lot of domestic trade happening either. There’s also no clearly marked trails or virtually no national park infrastructure. So employing a guide is a great opportunity to support the local economy, ensure your safety and, most importantly, learn about the culture of the place you’re exploring.
On the southeastern end of Malekula lies the Maskelyne Islands, home to coral reefs, dugongs and ocean-side bungalows. You never know when you’ll see one of these mysterious sea cows (who are not at all shy!), but it’s worth heading out with the hopes you will. While we didn’t see any, we were circled by pods of dolphins and turtles, an equally magical experience.
Read more: Dugongs and Seagrass
Go Yam With Traditional Food Aplenty
Malekula, like all islands in Vanuatu, boasts the most incredible array of fresh fruit. You’ll be drinking from coconuts left, right and centre, and cracking them open on nearby rocks to scrape out the soft flesh with your thumbnail.
The many types of really tasty bananas are impressive and there’s great papaya in abundance everywhere. Fruit is often displayed on intricately woven baskets, sprinkled with frangipanis and hibiscus flowers.
For your main dishes, at least in my experience, expect yams. Yam-everything. The grated yam with grated coconut wrapped up in cabbage leaves and cooked in a bamboo tube over an open fire was definitely a favourite. You’ll have the pleasure of watching the women make it in most villages.
If you’re ready for a more recognisable meal, Assunda at Palm Lodge is an amazing cook and usually has cold beer (in a solar powered fridge). It pays to book your meal earlier in the day so she can have fresh food ready in the evening.
Beachside Bungalows to Stay In
The Nawut Bungalows are close to the airport, and only a short boat away on Uri Island. This beachside paradise offers snorkelling, a complimentary trip on outrigger canoes, and weaving and handicraft demonstrations. It costs around 3,000VT p/ night (~$38AUD), which includes breakfast. Lunch at the restaurant is around 500VT (~$6) and dinner 800VT (~$10).
The Nawat Bungalows have solar and you can get Digicel service there. They also, more importantly, have double-bed-sized hammock-things, right on the beach.
If you’re planning on staying on the island for a little while, we also recommend taking a boat out to Batis Seaside Bungalows on Maskelyne Island. The bungalows are right on the water, and the food is ridiculously flavoursome (after all that yam, you might be missing the flavours you’re used to).
These bungalows are incredibly close to reefs perfect for snorkelling, and the dugong if you’re there in the right season. If you’ve got a Digicel sim card, you’ll get service here as well.
Your host at your bungalow will be your best bet for booking and organising adventures. Trust their recommendations and gently ask about what you’re getting so they have the chance to explain and set expectations. You can also consult the local travel centre.
Air Vanuatu flies direct to Espiritu Santo and Port Vila, where you can jump on a plane to Lokatoro Airport in the North of Malekula.
Connectivity can be challenging sometimes for the bungalow owners so make sure to reach out a few weeks in advance to give them time to respond and confirm your booking. They’ll most likely need to come and pick you up from the airport or wherever you are coming from on the island.
If you’d rather have all the logistics taken care for you, the guys at Crooked Compass are leading an 8-day tour of Malekula and the remote Maskelynes Islands during the epic Canoe Race Festival July 2021.
Join them for a celebration of fascinating kastom dance, traditional canoe making, and the freshest seafood you have possibly ever tasted, followed of course by the ultimate outrigger canoe race… Oh! And the trip offers a chance to swim with dugongs. Check it out.
Want to see more Vanuatu? Keep exploring and Answer the Call of Vanuatu.