The South Pacific nation of Vanuatu is celebrating 27 years of independence. Here are a few facts for your enjoyment.
1. They’ve a reputation for bravery – and baring their bottoms
Nick Squires, writing for Telegraph Travel, explains: “Until independence in 1980, Vanuatu was an Anglo-French colony known as the New Hebrides – the name coined by Captain Cook, who explored the archipelago in 1774.
“On one island, fearing imminent attack by up to 1,000 tribesmen, he ordered the ship’s cannons and muskets to be trained on the crowd. The locals were not intimidated. ‘One fellow shewed us his backside in such a manner that it wasn’t necessary to have an interpreter to explain his meaning,’ Cook wrote testily in his log.”
2. Cannibalism was practiced until relatively recently
“The islanders developed a reputation as fearsome cannibals,” adds Squires. “In 1839 the first two British missionaries to be dispatched from the London Missionary Society were promptly killed and eaten on Martyrs’ Island, now known as Erromango.”
After a visit in 2008 our writer was even offered a lesson in how best to cook a human.
“First, our ancestors would dig a hole in the ground,” a villager, Berna Kambai, told him. “They’d put hot stones in the hole, then cut up the person into pieces and put those on top. They’d add in some yams and taro, put in some more hot rocks, and cover it all over with banana leaves to keep the steam in.”
Standard baking time was three to five hours, apparently, and the chief of the village always got to eat the victim’s head.
Most anthropologists agree that Vanuatu’s last recorded cannibal killing took place as recently as 1969.
3. It’s the world’s most dangerous country
When it comes to natural disasters, that it.
The 2015 World Risk Report, compiled by the United Nations University for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS), assigned a risk percentage to a total of 173 countries, based on the chances of experiencing earthquakes, storms, floods, droughts and sea level rises. Number one, with 36.43 per cent, was Vanuatu, ahead of Tonga, Philippines, Guatemala and Bangladesh.
4. There’s a tribe that worships Prince Philip
“The Prince Philip Movement, which these days has its own Facebook page, started with a visit the Queen and Duke made to Vanuatu in 1974,” wrote Paul Chapman for The Telegraph in 2015.
“A warrior named Chief Jack Naiva, who died in 2009, was one of the paddlers of a war canoe that greeted the royal yacht Britannia at the nation’s capital, Port Vila. Chief Jack became convinced that Prince Philip was the descendant of a Tanna spiritual ancestor.
“‘I saw him standing on the deck in his white uniform,’ Chief Jack is on record as saying. ‘I knew then that he was the true messiah.’ Prince Philip has since exchanged gifts with the islanders, including sending them a signed portrait of himself.”
5. They invented bungee jumping
When the yam crop emerges in early April on Vanuatu’s Pentecost Island, the locals begin to build high wooden towers (around 20 to 30 meters). Once completed, and until about the end of May, village men and boys dive from these rickety structures with vines attached to their ankles. Nanggol, as the ritual is known, is seen as a precursor to bungee jumping and the country has even sought royalties from modern adventure firms for stealing their tradition.
6. It’s one of the world’s least visited countries
The Queen has been there, but she’s part of a tiny minority. Around 95,000 people visit each year, with the arduous journey being one barrier. Should you wish to go, the quickest option takes 33 hours, involves two stops and will cost £1,647 per person, according to Google Flights.
Or else book a cruise. Lines offering voyages around the South Pacific typically call at Vila, the country’s capital.
7. But is hugely reliant on tourism
Those 95,000 annual visitors are very important. In fact, tourism accounts for almost 20 per cent of Vanuatu’s GDP. The other mainstays of the economy are agriculture, cattle, and offshore financial services.
8. You can explore a shipwreck
“The 650-foot USS President Coolidge was a luxury liner that was converted to a troop ship during the Second World War,” says Nick Squires. “In 1942 it was carrying 5,000 men when it hit two American mines in Santo Harbour, near the dusty colonial outpost of Luganville. The captain managed to ground it on a reef, allowing all but two of its officers and men to wade ashore before the giant vessel slid beneath the waves.
“It’s now one of the most acclaimed wreck dives in the world. Divers encounter trucks, Jeeps, chandeliers, cannons and a swimming pool as they explore it.”
9. And peer inside a volcano
Andrew Boulton, a Telegraph Travel reader, writes: “Tanna Island in Vanuatu is home to Mount Yasur, the world’s most accessible active volcano. Ready access to a mountain filled with furious molten rock may not strike you as a good thing, but peeking over the rim of something so violent and beautiful is unique. The drive through the black, steaming ash fields is the most eerie and exhilarating journey you will ever take. And if you stay overnight, the sight, smell and staggering, ethereal rumble of the volcano against the seemingly infinite Pacific night sky is indescribable. One Fijian chap on our expedition tried likening it to laughing in the face of the devil. I can’t see how I could disagree.”
10. Or spot dugongs
The majestic dugong, or sea cow, is plentiful in Vanuatu, but endangered in many other parts of the world.
11. It’s the world’s fourth happiest country
The annual Happy Planet Index, released each summer, ranks 140 destinations according to “what matters most – sustainable wellbeing for all”. GDP takes a back seat; instead it’s all about judging “how well nations are doing at achieving long, happy, sustainable lives”.
And Vanuatu, remarkably, comes fourth in the ranking, behind only Costa Rica, Mexico and Colombia.
12. Most of the locals speak English
According to David Crystal’s book English as a Global Language, there are 45 countries around the world where at least half of the population speak English. Vanuatu is one.
13. But it’s the most linguistically diverse nation on the planet
More than 100 languages are found in Vanuatu, making it per capita the world’s most linguistically diverse country. A curious form of pidgin English called Bislama is also widely spoken. “Mi no savee” means “I don’t understand”, while a seagull is “pigeon blong solwota” [literally, a saltwater pigeon]. Prince Charles is known as “nambawan [number one] pikinini blong kwin [queen]”.
14. Smoking ain’t popular
The archipelago is one of the 10 most tobacco-free countries on Earth, according to 2014 figures from the World Health Organisation (WHO).
15. And they’re trying to ban junk food
Authorities in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu this year pledged to ban imported Western food in an attempt to ward off potential health problems.
Torba province, the northernmost island grouping in the sprawling archipelago, which has a population of just under 10,000 people, mostly subsistence farmers, aims to introduce legislation within two years prohibiting all foreign food, with the aim of becoming an entirely organic region by 2020. In the meantime, tourism bungalows have been ordered to serve guests only locally-sourced, organic produce.
16. This woman is a big fan
Telegraph Travel spoke to Cassie De Pecol last year after she became the fastest person, and the first documented woman, to visit every country in the world. Vanuatu, she said, was among her 10 favourite places. “Go there to meet some of the kindest people in the world,” she advises. What are you waiting for?