I first heard about Tanna in Vanuatu, and of Yakel, back in 2007, courtesy of a Channel 4 documentary entitled “Meet the Natives”. In it, members of the cult which reveres Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh as a god were brought to Britain and secured a meeting with him. I was intrigued by the scenes of the villagers in their homeland and filed it away in the part of my brain entitled “Places to visit someday”.
The quad bike ride from hell
Seven years later, I found myself on the back of a quad bike heading for Yakel Kastom Village, home of that same Prince Philip cult. In my hand I clutched a postcard of the Duke ready to present as a gift. Never having ridden a quad bike before, the journey from my coastal hotel to the village was terrifying. Heavy rains had turned the path up to the village into a churned up mess of mudded ruts and puddles. I was grateful not to be driving as we bounced and yawed ever further upwards into the dense bush. I closed my eyes as we inched across a stream, our bridge a few rolling logs which seemed intent on detaching themselves as the rubber tyres put pressure on them. Still we headed upwards. My thighs burned from the effort of keeping me from losing my balance. Again and again, I slipped on the shiny saddle, trying a plethora of hand holds in a futile attempt to find one that worked. Despite the beauty of my surroundings, the lush vegetation home to squealing piglets and snuffling toddlers, all I could focus on was getting to Yakel Kastom Village and getting off the bike while still in one piece.
Dancing in the clearing
After what seemed like an eternity, we pulled into a clearing and cut the engine. Relieved, I waved to the many villagers who had come out to meet us. Women in grass skirts, children clutching their legs, began to gather. Men in nambas, or penis sheaths, their buttocks tight and their shoulders broad, emerged from wooded paths to join them. Signaling for me to sit on a log, they began to dance, a rhythmic stomp, hypnotic and all-encompassing.
Meeting the villagers
After the dancing, I was led down a path into the custom village. Kastom is pidgin for traditional; this is a side to Tanna Island Vanuatu in which lifestyles have remained almost unchanged for centuries. Pigs fed noisily on scraps thrown from huts constructed from wood and straw. The Yakel Kastom village had only basic services, clean water supplied from a standpipe shared by all. I showed the village men the postcard. They studied it carefully, breaking out into a smile as their kids still wore puzzled frowns. Emboldened, I asked about the five travellers. What would their take be on the UK, I wondered? I wasn’t to find out. They were elsewhere on the island, I was told, doing business, and wouldn’t be back until tomorrow.
How to visit Yakel Kastom Village
The author flew to Port Vila in Vanuatu from Auckland with Air New Zealand and on to Tanna with Air Vanuatu. She arranged her trip to Yakel Kastom village through Tanna Lodge.