Whether you’re hiking up a lush mountain, with beads of sweat dripping down your forehead, or diving into crystal clear reefs, floating on your back and taking in the coastline, the relentless wilderness in Vanuatu is nothing short of spectacular.
While you’ll be in for a treat with the heart-stopping beauty of this network of islands, you must also be able to embrace the reality of the remoteness. Sometimes your domestic flight will be cancelled and nobody will tell you, because there’s no phone reception on that side of the island – so you’ll hop into the back of a ute after waiting three hours for the nonexistent plane and then the rain will come, unannounced, like that rambunctious uncle of yours at Christmas dinner, and the mud from the 4WD roads will flick up at your face as you sprawl across your soggy luggage.
But you’ll smile. Oh yes, you’ll be beaming from ear to ear. For this my friends, is the chaos that Vanuatu promises, and it’s only in the chaos, that you’ll find the beauty you’re seeking.
If you’re ready to embrace the adventure, there are a few things you should know that will make the outer island life even better.
1. The local languages
There are over 100 unique languages spoken in Vanuatu, and most people in Vanuatu can speak upwards of five languages! Ni Vanuatu (the Vanuatu people) love to have a yarn, and they have plenty of time to do so, make sure you take the time to sit down and talk to them about their culture and their family.
Vanuatu was colonised by England and France in the mid-nineteenth century, so most people have a strong grasp of one language or the other. However, the most commonly used language is Bislama, a creole similar to Tok Pisin of Papua New Guinea.
Fascinatingly, Vanuatu has the highest density of languages per capita in the world. There’s an average of 1,760 speakers for each indigenous language.
2. Book everything when you get there
You can’t run a tight ship in Vanuatu. It’s impossible. The locals will likely tell you that life is not supposed to be a tight ship anyway. Trawl through our content, scour the web, and write a list of the places you want to go and the things you want to see. Most importantly remember to do some things the old fashioned way — talk to people. It’s the best way to find the real adventure. The tour operators and service providers are an intricate web spanning across all 83 islands, so each place is well-equipped to ensure you tick those things off your list and get to the next place safely.
3. Pack snacks
While there are little shops all over the island, they’re often not stocked with the things you’re after (unless two-minute noodles and kerosene are the top of your list!). If you’re a sugar fiend like me, section off 20% of your backpack and fill it with sugar hits, muesli bars (for the hikes!) and nuts. It’s a part of local culture to share food, so if you want a foolproof way to make friends, share your snacks!
4. Don’t expect the tourism infrastructure you’re used to
For well-travelled folk, you come to expect a certain type of experience when you book a tour, or stay somewhere for the night. However, many people on Vanuatu’s outer islands haven’t had the opportunity to be a tourist somewhere else, so they’re unaware of the expectations you have when you arrive. This is part of the charm. If you’re prepared, with mosquito coils, sleeping bags and some snacks, you’ll appreciate the opportunity to experience the authenticity of Vanuatu.
5. Pack waterproof gear for your gear
Sure, pack a rain jacket, but don’t forget about the waterproof cover for your backpack, and the dry bag for your phone and cash. In the rainy season, which is in summertime, the torrential rain is a force of nature. When you’re catching exposed boats and hopping in the back of utes, you’ll want dry gear. On second thought, maybe get a big dry bag for the entire contents of your backpack.
6. The culture changes in every village
Just because you’ve been to one village on one island, don’t assume that the same cultural traditions apply in the next. Each village is an entire universe, with their own languages and dances, ways of preparing food and drinking kava. The village chief may greet you with a hug, or he may linger off to the side, while the women drape you with necklaces made from flowers. Assume nothing, and always ask how you can be most respectful to the people.
7. Be prepared for an off-the-grid lifestyle
Most of Vanuatu’s outer island villages don’t have power or running water. While the rest of us fight to reduce our consumption and look for ways to become more energy efficient, rural Vanuatu people rely on cooking fires and the rhythms of nature to eat and live. Only occasionally will you find solar, which helps give you a little light at night. Sometimes, your accommodation provider will have a generator, but don’t expect it. This makes it difficult if you want to charge your camera.
Be prepared. Borrow a couple of batteries from friends. Bring a power bank. Pack a disposable camera in case your phone dies and you spot something insane and you want to keep it forever in a .jpeg. Tell your family you might not be contactable for a few days as reception is limited.
That being said, the villages can, most of the time, hire a generator from a neighbouring village or person. This does cost money, as does the fuel, but can be arranged if need be. If you need to make a call, carrying a sim card for each of the two local providers is your best bet, but you may have to walk up to an hour to the closest tree that has service to use it (the tree itself isn’t the bearer of service, but it’s the generally accepted marker). You can usually tell what tree this is – there’ll be a hammock or some chairs and a few locals with their phones in hand.
8. Everything is owned by somebody
Every piece of land is owned by a family or a clan. This means that you’ll often have to pay a fee when you visit a beach, for example. This is a good thing, it allows the family who owns the beach to provide you with a clean toilet and hand-woven shaded areas. It may cost you around $2-$10 to set up camp on the sand for the day.
9. Make sure you have a few extra days at the end of your trip in Santo or Port Vila
If you get rained out on an outer island and they have to cancel your flight, the next one may not be for a couple of days. There’s nothing worse than missing an international flight because you’ve been delayed by rain on another island, so give yourself a few extra days at the end of your trip. Plus, if you’re not delayed you get to lap up the great food on offer in Vila – the French patisseries are a must.
10. Your best point of contact is the Vanuatu Tourism Office
The Vanuatu Tourism Office has the most reliable information available, and if you’re stuck, or you want to get from A to B, they have the contacts to make it happen. If you’re planning a trip to Vanuatu and you’re taking some notes right now, jot down the numbers of the four travel centres in Vanuatu listed here and take them with you everywhere.
If you don’t have a phone, never fear, Ni-Vanuatu are awesome at sorting things out. Often, we’re just too afraid to ask! Ask your accommodation provider, the local tourism representative or a friendly face on the street, they’ll be sure to point you in the right direction.