the only island where you can find a primitive culture, flying foxes with 4-foot wingspans, an active volcano and cargo cults. My first view of this exotic place was a speck on the other side of a dark rain squall, 1,300 feet below.
The tiny eight-passenger Britten Norman, the Air Melanesae air taxi of Vanuatu and much of the rest of the South Pacific, hummed loudly and was buffeted by wind gusts and rain. "Don't know how the Brits came up with the design for these planes," said the affable Aussie pilot as he checked the gauges and said he had to fly much lower than usual because of the strong head winds. "Think they started off to build a tractor and ended up with these instead."
Tanna, called the "naval of the world" by its inhabitants, promised to be one of the most unspoiled and yet accessible locations in the South Pacific. The 400-square-mile island is at the southern end of Vanuatu's 80-island archipelago -- about 600 miles west of Fiji. Planes -- and tourists -- have been going there for just five years, and the island's only accommodations are too primitive for most tourists, who rarely stay overnight. Most just take day trips to see Yasur Volcano, one of the world's few active volcanos. But my interest was in the primitive lifestyle in which many of the island's inhabitants still live.
Within an hour the little plane had moved through the storm and was gliding along Tanna's coast: volcanic boulders under jungle fringes fronting the turquoise Pacific. Moving inland toward the undulating grass strip and single windsock they call their airport, we passed little clearings in the palm and banana trees and saw thatched huts connected by dirt footpaths.
We bumped to a stop in front of a single shed and were surrounded by dark-skinned Melanesian natives eager for the captain to unload sacks of food and packages from Vanuatu's main island of E'fate'. Women were dressed in a mixture of bright cotton skirts, shawls and T-shirts. Babies, many with reddish hair, eyed the four white visitors curiously as their mothers collected parcels. The men, in T-shirts and long pants, hung back; a dozen or so make their living bouncing tourists in open pickup trucks around the island's single encircling dirt track.
"Hello, hello; welcome to Tanna," said a clear voice nearby. It turned out to be Willie Lop -- the guide we had arranged for on E'fate' and the island's most enterprising native. Lop had spent eight months in the new democratic government's tourist office and was as slick as they come in Vanuatu.
The country is only 4 years old and struggling for an identity and a piece of the lucrative South Pacific tourist trade. The name Vanuatu means "our land" and was changed from the more-familiar New Hebrides after independence in 1980, following joint French and British "condominimum" government since 1906. (The confusing system was complete with duplicate sets of laws, languages, administrative and educational systems.) English and French are still spoken, but natives talk mostly in "Bislama," a pidgin English legacy from the 19th-century European traders and missionaries.
Willie turned out to be not only businesslike and informed, but engaging and flexible. Of the four of us who had come to Tanna for the day, two wanted to see the volcano on the usual tour and two of us asked if we could spend the time in "custom villages" instead, getting at least a glimpse of the traditional way of life.
After a little rearranging and a few cups of sweet, strong Tanna coffee in the Vietnamese-French restaurant (the only one on the island), my husband and I went off with Willie and two other natives for our "custom tour." I sat in the front cab of the Isuzu pickup truck while the three others did their best to keep from being jolted out of the back on the rough bush track leading inland from the coast.
We stopped at a clearing in the jungle foliage. It was surrounded by giant banyan trees with fantastic twisted roots and hanging branches -- a perfect spot for the nightly kava-making and drinking rituals of the tribesmen. (Kava is a soapy-tasting, very strong alcohol made by masticating kava root. Women are forbidden from taking part in the ceremony.)
At the far end of the meeting place was a little shed where Willie banged on a hollow log gong, explaining that as many villagers as could would assemble here within minutes for a "custom dance." He apologized that not as many as usual would come without a day's notice, but we felt lucky to see anything. (We had tried to explain what we were interested in at the E'fate' end of the Tanna tour, but to no avail. Getting anything organized in this fledgling nation is extremely difficult.)
The meeting place serves all the family groups within earshot (approximately two kilometers). A variety of paths through the bush end there. While waiting, we followed one trail and explored the nearest cluster of huts. The split-and-woven-bamboo structures with thatched roofs are primitive, with cooking fires under lean-to-like shelters, a couple of well-used metal skillets, pandanus mat bedding and a few grass skirts and pieces of cloth hanging on the wall. The pig enclosures seemed roomy by comparison. (These creatures are very important to the villagers as both indicators of wealth -- the tusks are carefully guarded and collected -- and for food.)
The islanders eat yams (the rich topsoil is 10 feet thick and some yams are reputed to grow to six feet), bananas, taro root, pork and fish bartered for yams with islanders living near the sea. (Not long ago the tribes were cannibalistic and included war victims in their diet.) The stream providing water for the families living near the clearing is more than a mile away.
Gradually a dozen tribesmen and boys appeared in the meeting place. They were naked except for woven-grass jockstraps. After some consulting and looking us over they chanted, clapped and moved in a variety of "custom dances." One, in which they carried long forked sticks, was to call on the gods for a bountiful yam harvest. The others, Willie told us, had to do with local traditions. A couple of shy little girls in grass skirts joined in -- keeping outside the moving circle of men and boys. The dances and chanting were simple and compelling -- invocations for daily needs.
The religion of the Vanuatuans, particularly on Tanna, was complicated by the stationing of 40,000 American troops on a nearby island during World War II. A soldier named John left tons of canned food and other useful supplies on Tanna. For some reason they were not used by the troops and instead were given to the tribesmen. They've been waiting for more to arrive ever since. Animistic "John Frum" cargo cults were started to invoke this deity to come back with more gifts. The cultists have taken as their symbol the red cross they saw on another American during the war and now "sacred" fenced-in red and black crosses are scattered throughout the island.
We lunched on the coast on a cliff overlooking a magnificent black sand beach. Tribesmen walked up and down the hill to the beach -- most carrying the ubiquitous machete for cutting coconuts, cane, fish and everything else. A boy riding bareback on a white horse made a magnificent sight galloping through the surf.
As we sipped fruit juice from kava cups (hollowed coconut shells), we suddenly heard a haunting series of hoots from below. Willie explained that it was the sound of a conch shell being blown by the adult guardian of a teen-age boy who had been circumcised and, as part of an intricate manhood ritual, had to live out of sight of tribal women for two months. The guardian warns women with the conch shell to leave the area. The naked boy -- with a handful of clothed playmates -- then appeared on the beach to swim.
During the afternoon we visited more villages. These on the coast had more western, modern additions like corrugated tin roofs and wire cages for "flying foxes" (big bats with tails and wingspans as wide as 4 feet and considered good to eat). At one point in the afternoon Willie spotted some foxes high in coconut trees and stopped at his nearby house for a shotgun. We watched while he shot a fat one for a friend's dinner.
Driving back toward the airport in late afternoon we passed women washing their clothes in shallow steams, people fishing with nets and spears off the coast and everywhere saw copra (dried coconut meat) baking in the sun. (This commodity is Vanuatu's main export.) Willie stopped to show us castor oil trees and how the beans are used to make candles (they're peeled, stuck on twigs and when lit last a couple of hours). Mostly people don't bother, he said: They go to bed with the sunset.
The airport was again crowded with mothers and children who had come to see the evening plane. Typical of Vanuatu tourist operations, it was more than an hour late -- but it turned out to be very pleasant to sit on the grass watching mothers talk and nurse their babies, while other children played. Willie waited with us to greet visitors arriving to see the volcano at night, when it's most dramatic. The flight back, with the same unflappable pilot, was smooth, and we saw a spectacular South Pacific sunset. I realized that day on Tanna was from a time past I might never see again.