The island of Gaua is full of culture and adventure. Here’s how to make the most of it all.
With my sticky face pressed to the window of our charter flight, the sight of Mt Garet on Gaua Island, piercing through the low-hanging clouds, gave me the feeling you get when your favourite meal is coming out of the kitchen from a restaurant you love, or when you turn a corner and find that your campsite overlooks wide open plains, or when your favourite person on The Bachelor is handed a red rose.
I look over at my mates, and they look over at me. We silently fist pump. This island is ridiculous, and we haven’t even landed on its grassy runway get.
Gaua Island is located in northern Vanuatu, in the province of Torba. It’s the largest island in the province – 342 kilometres-squared – and is home to the largest lake in Vanuatu (crater Lake Letas) and the largest waterfall, too (Siri Waterfall).
With a population of around 2500 people speaking five different traditional languages, the culture is rich and the people are kind.
Gaua has a lot to boast about. Let me show you.
Exploring Vanuatu? Read: 10 Things You Need to Know When Travelling Vanuatu’s Outer Islands
Siri Waterfall – Vanuatu’s Highest Waterfall
Siri Waterfall was one of our favourites. Siri boasts a 120m drop, and due to the tropical nature of the island (and the fact that it sees an average of 3500mm of rainfall per year), she’s always full of water.
If you’re doing the loop up to Victor’s Camp, across Lake Letas, up Mt Garet and back, you’ll definitely encounter Siri Waterfall, so be prepared for gushing water and slippery rocks. If you’re just popping in for the day, it’s around a 4-hour return walk.
Make sure you wear shoes with good grip, and take a hiking pole or two, to keep you balanced when you inevitably trip over exposed roots and vines.
Water Music Ladies
The water music ladies grace the shores of Gaua in flowers and woven skirts. Scooping and clapping, splashing and swooshing, they tell the stories of their culture. With a backdrop of deep blue ocean and the faint outline of surrounding islands, this dance, specific to the culture of the people on Gaua, is hypnotic.
The Gaua people are currently in various legal battles, trying to copyright the water music as their important cultural and ancient tradition. It seems faux pas to discuss things like copyright when showcasing such beautiful cultural dances, but it’s important to mention.
Neighbouring islands are offering tourists a Vanuatu experience, and picking and choosing the elements of various local cultures that will be most appealing to visitors. The Gaua people kindly ask that if you want to experience the water music, to please come to their island and see them there.
Interested in the culture of Vanuatu? Read: How a Visit to Vanuatu’s Outer Island’s Changed How I See the World
There Are No Police On Gaua
Interestingly, there are no police on the island of Gaua. Perched in a rigger canoe, paddling around Lake Letas after a much-needed bath in hot springs, the local men tell me about justice and punishment on the island.
There are no police here, rather, a kastom council made up of all the chiefs of the island, who determine the punishment for those who commit crimes. Most of the time it involves killing pigs and offering it to the family and the council with whom you’ve harmed. The men proudly share that they rarely struggle with crime on the island.
Mt Garet And Lake Letas
If you’ve been reading our Vanuatu articles for a while, you’ll know we love this hike.
The great thing about this hike is that you can still head away to Victor’s Camp at the base of Mt Garet and have a good time. If you’re travelling with people who aren’t as outdoorsy as you or who don’t love hiking in tropical temperatures like you do (believe me, at times I questioned why the heck I did as well) or who don’t have the physical capacity to scale the rim of an active volcano, you can still swim out in the lake, venture to hot springs and lay out under the palms at Victor’s Camp with a book.
This experience has something for everyone, and the sights will blow you away, whether you’re at the base of the volcano, or balancing on the rim.
The locals tell me that the island only sees around 100-200 tourists a year. While it’s remote and you’ll need to make an effort to get here, visitors are welcomed with open arms. Locals are telling us they want more visitors. They want to show off the beauty of their island.
‘We always learn something from the visitors,’ the quieter man on the outrigger canoe tells me, as he shovels water out of the base of the boat. ‘And we know we have a lot of things to teach the visitors too.’ It was this same gentle pride and respect we found on every island we visited that was so natural and enchanting.
Handy Tips And Tricks
No matter what you do in this remote region of Vanuatu, you’re sure to get some surprises. The weather can interrupt flights and grassy airstrips mean extra caution is taken in bad conditions. So plan to have a bit of time up your sleeve and be flexible.
Air Vanuatu often links to Gaua via other small islands, and landing on these islands can add a heap of fun to your flight. It also means your flight schedule could vary a bit – so get to the airport early and when the plane arrives get ready to board, as the plane sometimes goes regardless of the exact time printed on your ticket.
Gaua Island is in Torba Province and is so off the beaten track that sometimes when the sea is rough it can be 2-3 months between supply ships. So pack snacks, as local shops can get very low on supplies. Don’t forget there are no ATMs, so you’ll need to pack enough cash to pay for bungalows and tours.
Find out more about the water music or even donate to support them.