Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu: Into the deep heart of Vanuatu's adventure islands

"My great-grandfather was the last cannibal to live in the country," says Antonny Arnhambat, slurping meat from a mud crab claw. My guide and I have already bonded over a mutual appreciation for third helpings and shared stories – storian as they say in Vanuatu – but what Antonny reveals that afternoon and over the next few days completely transforms my holiday.

A simple sight-seeing tour of Vanuatu becomes a pilgrimage to a remote ancestral village with a chiefly descendant of the formidable Big Nambas.

We're on Espiritu Santo, lunching on Lonnoc Beach Bungalows' Sunday seafood buffet prepared by a chef from Maewo Island. Most international tourists to Vanuatu stick close to the country's capital of Port Vila on Efate but I'm committed to exploring Espiritu Santo and Malekula – another two of this volcanic archipelago's 14 main tropical islands.

The ni-Vanuatu are Melanesian people who were here for more than 3000 years before Europeans showed up. Portuguese navigator Fernandes de Queiros created a settlement on Espiritu Santo in 1606 and, since then, exposure to outsiders and their beliefs has challenged, changed and sometimes dispersed and divided the ni-Vanuatu.

Matriarchal land ownership disappeared long ago and cannibalism has been phased out. Christianity and animism now co-exist and a national council of chiefs advises the government on certain land and cultural issues. Modern education and urban living are locked in a sort of permanent arm-wrestle with the preservation of village-based communities.

Antonny Arnhambat was born to ni-Vanuatu parents and raised in Vila but has lived and studied in Fiji and Australia. He is more than six feet tall, has a hipster beard, a clothing style that's always on point, is outgoing and speaks perfect English and lightning-speed Bislama – Vanuatu's creole language.

On Santo we explore the east coast between Port Orly in the quiet north down to the laid-back city of Luganville. We ride horses in the sea at Lope Lope Beach and take a Millennium Cave adventure tour. The day before flying to Malekula we paddle kayaks to Matavulu Blue Hole – one of the island's natural jellybean-bright waterholes.

"The nambanga tree represents the ni-Vanuatu," says Antonny as we tread water in the shade of an enormous banyan. "The roots come from the floating vines. You get your roots and then become connected to the main tree". He admits he's been so engrossed in study and work and raising children that he's never once stepped foot on Malekula let alone visited his ancestral village of Tenmaru.

"I've been floating around like a vine. I need to get back to my roots."

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Malekula is Vanuatu's second-largest island and is right between Santo and Efate yet remains remote in the minds of most tourists and even locals visiting for the first time don't always know what to expect.

In fact, Malekula feels nothing like Santo; for starters, people are taller, like Antonny, and less reserved, like Antonny. He's been feeling super emotional all day so when he calls his parents to tell them where he is and they wish him a happy 30th birthday his sunglasses don't come off for ages.

The short drive to the administrative centre of Lakatoro has a coconut tree skyline and a copra oven understory. Malekula roads are unsealed and there's an extremely high incidence of vehicle-to-vehicle waving. Around 30 of Vanuatu's 100 or so indigenous languages are spoken on Malekula across about 25,000 people. Names of tribes generally relate directly to the size of traditional penis sheaths.

Lakatoro has a few shops and institutional buildings. Private homes tend to be elegantly simple concrete and bamboo structures on generous blocks with lush gardens. By afternoon the oval is full of locals playing sport. There's island music in the air at the grocery store and kids buying armfuls of baguettes. Outside, a handsome man standing at the back of a passing ute grins at us.

"That's the Malekula Kid," says Antonny. Kali Jacobus "plays all over the Pacific and never loses a fight".

We celebrate Antonny's birthday at a nakamal – a few small dimly lit structures in a clearing with outdoor benches and a single roadside bulb that stays on until the fresh kava runs out. After a few bowls we buy cooked snacks, including fire-roasted flying fox, from women who giggle at my Bislama. We sit and eat in the fragrant darkness.

"I feel home," says Antonny. "I don't feel like an outsider. I'm happy that my home is still beautiful."

The next day a man called Robia taxies us 30 minutes up the east coast to Rano for a Small Nambas Tour. Their dance performances, food preparation demos, fire making, sand drawing and weaving not only drum up tourism but help preserve kastom ways. Cannibal site tours are also on offer.

From there Tenmaru is still possibly another two hours away. We're on the eastern side of the head of Malekula and Tenmaru is directly west on the opposite coast but the only vehicle access is coastal. Robia is concerned about the road condition and the lateness in the day until he discovers Antonny is an Arnhambat and then everything changes. "If you want us to go, we'll go."

Just about everyone raises a hand or eyebrows in greeting as we pass through villages. Though when a child standing back from the road, whose feet we can't see, waves at us Antonny warns "it could be a ghost". Road workers help push the ute up a steep section they're rebuilding. We round the head of the island to find everything drenched in late-afternoon light. Several slack wire gates put across the road to control livestock need to be opened and closed. And then we've arrived.

The first person Antonny encounters in Tenmaru is an elderly man in shorts and T-shirt who swears profoundly in surprise recognition, despite them having never met, then laughs and they embrace. Everyone in the village is related to Antonny in some way and I watch the women and men examine his brand new yet deeply familiar face calculating exactly how he fits in. Fourteenth generation Arnhambat as it turns out.

Antonny's uncle Max – long-limbed and lean with striking eyes – walks us around Tenmaru as though he'd woken up that morning knowing we'd visit. In the church entrance are noticeboards layered with decades of photographs of villagers and missionaries. Antonny's great-grandfather and look-alike, the Cannibal King, holds a prominent position.

Kids walk with us to the beach as Max tells the village creation story so expressively I barely notice he's speaking Bislama. Then Antonny takes a smooth stone from his pocket and places it on the sand; his sister had pressed it into his hand after her own recent pilgrimage to Tenmaru and suggested he put it back where it belonged.

As we watch the sun set Antonny tells me that his father, as a child growing up in Tenmaru, would put his head to the sand to hear the sun hit the bottom of the ocean. Max tells us both to come back any time.

"I feel like my heart has been hugged," Antonny says. "The vine has finally joined the root."

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/vanuatu

vanuatu.travel

VISIT

All Malekula accommodation, tours and transport can be booked through Malampa Travel call centre. Phone +678 48 888. See malampa.travel

FLY

Air Vanuatu operates direct flights between Sydney and Port Vila and, from June 18, 2019, will fly non-stop between Melbourne and Port Vila. Air Vanuatu also links the country's main islands. See airvanuatu.com

STAY

Malekula accommodation is family-owned guest houses and bungalows like Lakatoro Palm Lodge, Nawori Sea View Guesthouse, Big Nambas Bungalow. Expect cold showers, warm hospitality, intermittent electricity, homemade meals and vatu-only payment. See malampa.travel

FIVE OTHER FASCINATING ISLANDS TO VISIT IN VANUATU

TANNA

See wild horses, walk to the rim of an active volcano at night, swim in underwater caves, snorkel coral reefs and visit a village where Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, is worshipped.

PENTECOST

Best known for its land diving ritual – a death-defying fertility rite for men and boys that takes place during yam harvest between April and June.

AMBRYM

Mid-year cultural festivals like Back to my Roots include Tam Tam drumming, sand drawing, magic shows and the island's Rom dance.

TORRES

Vanuatu's northern-most island group is made up of a short string of four islets with white sand beaches, active volcanos and authentic villages.

BANKS

Just below the Torres Islands is this archipelago of volcanic islands and atolls. Water music, performed by women, was first created on the island of Gaua.

Elspeth Callender travelled as a guest of Vanuatu Tourism.

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