Having had lots of amazing experiences visiting a good number of remote Pacific islands throughout the past years, at the beginning of summer 2012 I decided to make Vanuatu my next travel destination in this greater region of our planet. For people interested in visiting this archipelago nation of 83 islands in the southwest Pacific Ocean, Vanuatu presents itself in two quite distinctively different ways.

On the one hand Vanuatu has become a very popular destination for predominately Australians and New Zealanders looking for a relaxed beach vacation with perhaps a few adventure tourism elements mixed into it. With several major Australian cities as well as Auckland only a few hours flight time away Vanuatu has gradually developed into a viable option for package tourists in recent years and competes with Fiji for this significant share of the tourist market. Most of these package tourists end up staying in one of the resorts on Vanuatu’s main island Efate with its capital Port Vila whose airport receives almost all international flights. Few of those tourists venture out to any of the outlying islands where infrastructure is usually very basic, few to none tourist facilities exist, and the prevalence of Malaria is perceived as a threat. Vanuatu also receives in excess of 300 cruise ships per year, most of them catering to Australian tourists.

 

While many of the outlying islands really don’t have anything to offer to visitors other than an “end of the world” feeling, some do hold plenty of promise for curious adventurers and intrepid travelers. Despite the small size of Vanuatu’s islands several of its hundreds of distinctive tribes have retained their traditions and live remote from modern civilization. They make do without the use of any modern conveniences, still live off the jungle, dress in leaves and penis gourds, and rarely seek contact with the outside world. Some of these tribes are very hospitable, welcome visitors to their villages, and are open to share a part of their tradition and custom with them.

(Panasonic G5 @f7,1 1/400th 28mm ISO 160)

While many of the outlying islands really don’t have anything to offer to visitors other than an “end of the world” feeling, some do hold plenty of promise for curious adventurers and intrepid travelers. Despite the small size of Vanuatu’s islands several of its hundreds of distinctive tribes have retained their traditions and live remote from modern civilization. They make do without the use of any modern conveniences, still live off the jungle, dress in leaves and penis gourds, and rarely seek contact with the outside world. Some of these tribes are very hospitable, welcome visitors to their villages, and are open to share a part of their tradition and custom with them.

 

The concept of preserving “Kustom” (i.e.: tradition) generally plays a very important role on the islands, and encompasses the passing on of ancient tribal rituals to future generations. This includes amongst others hunting, cooking, sand drawing, singing, and most importantly dancing. While tribal dances are often shown at resorts and other locations frequented by tourists to generate income, it makes for a rare occasion to stumble upon an authentic ceremony or festival where those dances are performed not for the tourists’ sake, but for the same original reasons they have been performed in the villages throughout the centuries.

(Panasonic G5 @f2,2 1/100th 90mm ISO 400)

The concept of preserving “Kustom” (i.e.: tradition) generally plays a very important role on the islands, and encompasses the passing on of ancient tribal rituals to future generations. This includes amongst others hunting, cooking, sand drawing, singing, and most importantly dancing. While tribal dances are often shown at resorts and other locations frequented by tourists to generate income, it makes for a rare occasion to stumble upon an authentic ceremony or festival where those dances are performed not for the tourists’ sake, but for the same original reasons they have been performed in the villages throughout the centuries.

 

It was an incredible stroke of luck that I happened to arrive to one of the aforementioned outer islands at a time when the probably most significant tribal festival in all of Vanuatu was staged. The island’s name is Tanna, which belongs to a group of southern islands, located a short 45 minute flight from Vanuatu’s capital Port Vila.

(Panasonic G5 @f2,8 1/400th 90mm ISO 400)

It was an incredible stroke of luck that I happened to arrive to one of the aforementioned outer islands at a time when the probably most significant tribal festival in all of Vanuatu was staged. The island’s name is Tanna, which belongs to a group of southern islands, located a short 45 minute flight from Vanuatu’s capital Port Vila.

 

At any other time of the year Tanna mostly draws visitors because of its active volcano Mount Yasur which has been erupting nearly continuously for over 800 years. Mount Yasur can usually be approached safely, and a visit to the crater rim to watch the volcano spew out lava and steam is one of the most popular and exciting activities for visitors to Tanna. Mount Yasur is visible from almost every location on the island, and its antics have strongly influenced the islanders’ lives since the time Tanna first became populated. During times of increased activity its rumbling and roaring can be heard and felt strongly, and increases with intensity as one draws closer. Black acid ash finds its way into every corner of people’s homes and wreaks havoc on air filters of cars. On Tanna Mount Yasur has had such an effect on people’s lives that some of its tribes believe God himself resides inside the depths of its crater.

(Panasonic G5 @f3,5 1/500th 28mm ISO 160)

At any other time of the year Tanna mostly draws visitors because of its active volcano Mount Yasur which has been erupting nearly continuously for over 800 years. Mount Yasur can usually be approached safely, and a visit to the crater rim to watch the volcano spew out lava and steam is one of the most popular and exciting activities for visitors to Tanna. Mount Yasur is visible from almost every location on the island, and its antics have strongly influenced the islanders’ lives since the time Tanna first became populated. During times of increased activity its rumbling and roaring can be heard and felt strongly, and increases with intensity as one draws closer. Black acid ash finds its way into every corner of people’s homes and wreaks havoc on air filters of cars. On Tanna Mount Yasur has had such an effect on people’s lives that some of its tribes believe God himself resides inside the depths of its crater.

 

This includes the followers of some of the last remaining cargo cults in the South Pacific, who believe that their prophet one day will return to deliver them riches and elevate them to the status of the island’s wealthy foreign visitors.

(Panasonic G5 @f5,4 1/125th 62mm ISO 160)

This includes the followers of some of the last remaining cargo cults in the South Pacific, who believe that their prophet one day will return to deliver them riches and elevate them to the status of the island’s wealthy foreign visitors.

Religious practices associated with cargo cults first appeared in the wake of interaction with technologically advanced cultures. The cults focus on obtaining the material wealth (the "cargo") of the advanced culture through magic and religious rituals. Cult members believe that the wealth was intended for them by their deities and ancestors. On Tanna the “John Frum Movement” has the largest following of any cargo cults in Vanuatu. Several theories about the identity of John Frum exist. Some contend that he was native man who dressed in a Western coat and made promises of wealth if only the villagers decided to shun the foreign influences introduced to the islands by sailors and missionaries and return to their “kustom” ways. Others say that John Frum was merely a spirit vision that promised the locals they would eventually gain access to the same kind of material wealth the white people enjoyed. World War 2 also plays an important role when putting matters into context, as it was at that time that the islanders were confronted with the presence of black American army personnel who looked like them but shared the white foreigners’ wealth. This realization held lots of promise for equally good fortune coming their way. In Sulphur Bay, a village of a few hundred souls in remote northern Tanna, every day at 8am four villagers dressed in WW2 army jackets raise four flags in respect of John Frum, and lower them again at 4pm in the afternoon.

 

It is on Tanna that every three to four years one of the island’s village chiefs takes on the responsibility to host Toka (sometimes spelled Tolka), a massive festival that brings together the people of all the island’s major communities and tribes to perform three days of intense rituals. Preparations for Toka last for several months, are time consuming, and strain the villages’ resources. Only when all participants agree that finally all preparations and rehearsals have been completed to satisfaction, the hosting village chief declares the celebrations can begin. For a traveler intending to witness this extraordinary festival this erratic schedule makes planning for a trip a complete nightmare. Even while I was already on the island the beginning was postponed by yet another day twice. Because of this I was unfortunately not able to stay for the entire duration of the festival, yet the one day that I did attend has edged itself into my memory like few other experiences I have had in recent years.

(Panasonic G5 @f5,5 1/50th 66mm ISO 160)

It is on Tanna that every three to four years one of the island’s village chiefs takes on the responsibility to host Toka (sometimes spelled Tolka), a massive festival that brings together the people of all the island’s major communities and tribes to perform three days of intense rituals. Preparations for Toka last for several months, are time consuming, and strain the villages’ resources. Only when all participants agree that finally all preparations and rehearsals have been completed to satisfaction, the hosting village chief declares the celebrations can begin. For a traveler intending to witness this extraordinary festival this erratic schedule makes planning for a trip a complete nightmare. Even while I was already on the island the beginning was postponed by yet another day twice. Because of this I was unfortunately not able to stay for the entire duration of the festival, yet the one day that I did attend has edged itself into my memory like few other experiences I have had in recent years.

 

Historically Toka was about forming temporary alliances between the different tribes of Tanna, celebrating, exchanging gifts, and finding suitable partners to mate with. In the old days Toka had huge significance as it wasn’t uncommon that some of the island’s tribes were constantly at war with each other. At the time of Toka peace was declared and rivalry was not fought out with clubs and spears, but with dancing competitions between the different groups.

(Panasonic G5 @f5,6 1/400th 206mm ISO 800)

 

Historically Toka was about forming temporary alliances between the different tribes of Tanna, celebrating, exchanging gifts, and finding suitable partners to mate with. In the old days Toka had huge significance as it wasn’t uncommon that some of the island’s tribes were constantly at war with each other. At the time of Toka peace was declared and rivalry was not fought out with clubs and spears, but with dancing competitions between the different groups.

(Panasonic G5 @f3,2 1/400th 90mm ISO 200)

Historically Toka was about forming temporary alliances between the different tribes of Tanna, celebrating, exchanging gifts, and finding suitable partners to mate with. In the old days Toka had huge significance as it wasn’t uncommon that some of the island’s tribes were constantly at war with each other. At the time of Toka peace was declared and rivalry was not fought out with clubs and spears, but with dancing competitions between the different groups.

 

Toka lasts three days and different rituals take place on each day. On the day I visited it was the women who took center stage. In the early morning hours a total of seven groups consisting of up to 100 dancers each gathered on a dusty clearing in the forest to kick off their dancing routines and thereby express the well rehearsed story of their culture. The different dances share a common theme of telling of the daily life working in the fields, raising a family, facing enemies, and coming together as a community.

(Panasonic G5 @f2,8 1/320th 90mm ISO 160)

Toka lasts three days and different rituals take place on each day. On the day I visited it was the women who took center stage. In the early morning hours a total of seven groups consisting of up to 100 dancers each gathered on a dusty clearing in the forest to kick off their dancing routines and thereby express the well rehearsed story of their culture. The different dances share a common theme of telling of the daily life working in the fields, raising a family, facing enemies, and coming together as a community.

 

Approaching the large clearing in the forest that had been prepared for the course of events of the festival the pounding beats of hundreds of feet rhythmically stamping the ground steadily increases in volume. Drawing closer to the festival arena several dancing groups consisting of up to hundred women each come into view. On the first day of the Toka Festival the center stage mostly belongs to them. They all are engaged in choreographed dancing, stomping, singing, and clapping, trying to outdo each other in their devotion and ambition to put on a good show and making the earth shake beneath their feet. There’s a sweeping energy and joy in the air that affects everyone who’s watching.

(Panasonic G5 @f2,8 1/400th 90mm ISO 200)

Approaching the large clearing in the forest that had been prepared for the course of events of the festival the pounding beats of hundreds of feet rhythmically stamping the ground steadily increases in volume. Drawing closer to the festival arena several dancing groups consisting of up to hundred women each come into view. On the first day of the Toka Festival the center stage mostly belongs to them. They all are engaged in choreographed dancing, stomping, singing, and clapping, trying to outdo each other in their devotion and ambition to put on a good show and making the earth shake beneath their feet. There’s a sweeping energy and joy in the air that affects everyone who’s watching.

 

The atmosphere and intensity of the performance increase with every dance. The dancers’ swishing skirts and their constant stomping stirs up incredible amounts of dust.

(Panasonic G5 @f4,5 1/200th 28mm ISO 200)

The atmosphere and intensity of the performance increase with every dance. The dancers’ swishing skirts and their constant stomping stirs up incredible amounts of dust.

 

Some of the individual dances draw shouting and cries of laughter from the mesmerized crowd.

Panasonic G5 @f2,2 1/640th 90mm ISO 160)

Some of the individual dances draw shouting and cries of laughter from the mesmerized crowd.

 

The dancers are clad in traditional grass shirts, many with colorful garlands attached to them, and their heads are donned with colorful wreaths and feathers. The Christian participants of the festival tend to cover up more, while some of the pagan participants dance with their chests bare.

(Panasonic G5 @f3,2 1/400th 90mm ISO 200)

The dancers are clad in traditional grass shirts, many with colorful garlands attached to them, and their heads are donned with colorful wreaths and feathers. The Christian participants of the festival tend to cover up more, while some of the pagan participants dance with their chests bare.

 

Participants use powders mixed with coconut oil to color their faces.

(Panasonic G5 @4,5 1/800th 90mm ISO 200)

Participants use powders mixed with coconut oil to color their faces.

 

All generations participate in the festival, from the very young to the very old.

PICTURE15 (Panasonic G5 @f5 1/200th 28mm ISO 200)

 

PICTURE16

(Panasonic G5 @f4 1/800th 90mm ISO 200)

All generations participate in the festival, from the very young to the very old.

 

  

The arena is crowded with spectators who take delight in watching the show.

Panasonic G5 @f2,8 1/320th 90mm ISO 200)

 

The arena is crowded with spectators who take delight in watching the show.

(Panasonic G5 @f2,2 1/500th 90mm ISO 160)

The arena is crowded with spectators who take delight in watching the show.

 

Two platforms were built, which allow for a good view over the largest part of the arena.

(Panasonic G5 @f2,8 1/320th 90mm ISO 160)

Two platforms were built, which allow for a good view over the largest part of the arena.

 

Even though the first day of the festival revolves around the women, men still have a certain role to play. They are allowed to taunt and mimic the women in a playful attempt to throw them off their dancing patterns. It is however strictly forbidden for them to touch them in the process.

(Panasonic G5 @f5,2 1/125th 294mm ISO 800)

Even though the first day of the festival revolves around the women, men still have a certain role to play. They are allowed to taunt and mimic the women in a playful attempt to throw them off their dancing patterns. It is however strictly forbidden for them to touch them in the process.

 

After a dance is completed some of the performers throw out candy or some other kind of treat and some of the crowd, especially the children, quickly scramble to get a hold of them.

(Panasonic G5 @f3,2 1/400th 90mm ISO 200)

After a dance is completed some of the performers throw out candy or some other kind of treat and some of the crowd, especially the children, quickly scramble to get a hold of them.

 

As the first day of the festival draws to a close after almost 9 hours of non-stop dancing the individual groups of women each make a big exit from the center stage by rushing in and out of the arena several times, still stomping the ground and singing during the process. In front of the women the men who previously teased them run in what appears as a mad frenzy. 

(Panasonic G5 @f2,2 1/800th 90mm ISO 200)

 

As the first day of the festival draws to a close after almost 9 hours of non-stop dancing the individual groups of women each make a big exit from the center stage by rushing in and out of the arena several times, still stomping the ground and singing during the process. In front of the women the men who previously teased them run in what appears as a mad frenzy.

(Panasonic G5 @f2,8 1/400th 90mm ISO 200)

 

As the first day of the festival draws to a close after almost 9 hours of non-stop dancing the individual groups of women each make a big exit from the center stage by rushing in and out of the arena several times, still stomping the ground and singing during the process. In front of the women the men who previously teased them run in what appears as a mad frenzy.

PICTURE24 (Panasonic G5 @f4,5 1/160th 28mm ISO 160)

As the first day of the festival draws to a close after almost 9 hours of non-stop dancing the individual groups of women each make a big exit from the center stage by rushing in and out of the arena several times, still stomping the ground and singing during the process. In front of the women the men who previously teased them run in what appears as a mad frenzy.

 

Exhausted members of one of the dance groups watch fellow dancers from a rivaling group finish their last performance for the day.

(Panasonic G5 @f2,8 1/320th 90mm ISO 160)

Exhausted members of one of the dance groups watch fellow dancers from a rivaling group finish their last performance for the day.

 

A dance group leader takes a well-deserved break in the shade of a tree.

(Panasonic G5 @f2,5 1/250th 90mm ISO 160)

A dance group leader takes a well-deserved break in the shade of a tree.

 

Because the dates of the festival had been repeatedly postponed on short notice, unfortunately I was only able to witness the first day of this extraordinary festival. On the second day of Toka the men would take center stage and perform dances all day, and on the third and final day men and women would dance together throughout the entire day and night. At the very end of the festival 160 pigs would, one after the other, be ceremoniously clubbed to death in front of the cheering crowd, and their meat later consumed at a huge feast. The rare hairless pig in the picture was one of only few that had been reserved to be consumed by the village chiefs. On the market it’s worth two normal hairy pigs. The killing of the pigs doesn’t only provide the foundation for an unusually sumptuous meal, but also symbolizes the cleansing of sins which may have occurred between members of the opposite sex during the previous wild night of dancing, and potentially mating.

(Panasonic G5 @f2,2 1/250th 90mm ISO 200)

Because the dates of the festival had been repeatedly postponed on short notice, unfortunately I was only able to witness the first day of this extraordinary festival. On the second day of Toka the men would take center stage and perform dances all day, and on the third and final day men and women would dance together throughout the entire day and night. At the very end of the festival 160 pigs would, one after the other, be ceremoniously clubbed to death in front of the cheering crowd, and their meat later consumed at a huge feast. The rare hairless pig in the picture was one of only few that had been reserved to be consumed by the village chiefs. On the market it’s worth two normal hairy pigs. The killing of the pigs doesn’t only provide the foundation for an unusually sumptuous meal, but also symbolizes the cleansing of sins which may have occurred between members of the opposite sex during the previous wild night of dancing, and potentially mating.

 

Because the dates of the festival had been repeatedly postponed on short notice, unfortunately I was only able to witness the first day of this extraordinary festival. On the second day of Toka the men would take center stage and perform dances all day, and on the third and final day men and women would dance together throughout the entire day and night. At the very end of the festival 160 pigs would, one after the other, be ceremoniously clubbed to death in front of the cheering crowd, and their meat later consumed at a huge feast. The rare hairless pig in the picture was one of only few that had been reserved to be consumed by the village chiefs. On the market it’s worth two normal hairy pigs. The killing of the pigs doesn’t only provide the foundation for an unusually sumptuous meal, but also symbolizes the cleansing of sins which may have occurred between members of the opposite sex during the previous wild night of dancing, and potentially mating.

(Panasonic G5 @f1,8 1/60th 90mm ISO 200)