Nature is big in the Banks. And I mean big, in everyway. Located in the northernmost part of Vanuatu, just south of the Torres Islands, the Bank Islands have long been known as one of the last frontiers. So close to Australia, yet so far, these islands are truly unspoiled.
The Banks group comprises six main islands and a number of smaller ones. The island of Gaua is famous for its volcano and is one of Vanuatu’s largest islands. Vanua Lava, to the north, is home to Sola, the administrative capital of the Torba province. Just northeast of Vanua Lava lies the smaller island of Mota Lava, with lovely Rah Island at its southern tip. It is here that emerging tourism is opening economic opportunities for this remote and enchanting part of Vanuatu.
Landing at Valuwa, on Mota Lava’s north, it is a one-hour truck trip to the south where the main village of Nerenijman and Rah Island are located. They only have two trucks in Mota Lava, and they are both as derelict as each other. But they work, most of the time, and if they don’t work, they will make them work for you because if there was only one word to describe the people of the Banks, that would be ‘resourceful’.
Knowing how remote these islands are, supplied by less than a ship a month, one expects to find only a few remnants of modern life here. Yes, there is no internet or imported jam, but all the basics are there; the coffee, toilet paper, sugar, plus absurdly huge amounts of lobster – just remember to bring the wine. Because nature, truly is big in the Banks, and although the plastic-fantastic may be in short supply, who needs it when you can eat lobster off of a plate which was in a past life a gigantic clam shell and your jam is homemade out of local fruits.
Driving from the airport towards Nerenijman, the first thing that strikes the eye is how much bigger everything is here. Giant Pandanus, huge Natangora palms, enormous Banyan trees and emerald-green jungle closing in inches away from the road’s edge. It is hard to write about the Banks without overusing the superlatives. Nerenijman, known as the ‘point’ by the locals, is the main village in Mota Lava, where the three shops, local bank (opens Monday, Wednesday and Friday only) and the main tourism attractions and accommodation are located.
The island of Rah is a short two minutes taxi ride, in the yellow canoes that will pick you up at anytime and take you across the azure, crystal-clear shallow waters for the modest price of 20 vatu. At low tide, is possible to walk across from Mota Lava to Rah and in the early morning, the children from Rah make their way across the water to the school in Mota Lava. There are accommodation options on both sides of this spectacularly azure and calm water crossing and if you had the pleasure of visiting the Banks a few years back and found the accommodation a little sub-standard, it is time to change your view because things have really changed in the Banks.
The TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) for Tourism Program arrived in the Torba province in 2014, and its main focus has been to develop the skills of all tourism product providers. For the last year, TVET has been running monthly workshops and coaching sessions on bungalow development, design and decoration, hospitality management, tourism expectations, cooking, customer service, tour guiding and more. As a result, the standard of the bungalows that populate these happy islands has become, well, what else could you say but ‘exceptional’. Be prepared to be surprised, I was.
On Mota Lava, six bungalows have been accredited by the Tourism Department as meeting accommodation standards: Totolag Homestay, Sunset Bungalows, Happiness Bungalows and Motalava Gateway Lodge.
Totolag Homestay has one of the cutest bungalows I have ever seen. Built around a lovely inner courtyard, although not right on the beach, this little place is a gem.
Owned by lovely Nancy Vores and Nicholas Woleg Tabit, it opened in 2005, after a ministerial visit sparked the idea of turning their spare little house into a commercial endeavour.
They have been improving their accommodation ever since and now have two lovely bungalows surrounded by lush gardens. Reminiscent of an artist’s home, if Gauguin was here now, this is the sort of place where he would hang up his brushes.
From the design of the gardens to the doors built out of driftwood and the amount of colourful details and textiles adorning every room, there are not many places in the world that have as much character as these bungalows. A main feature of Totolag is the fare that holds their traditional kitchen.
With a sand floor, the cooking fire stands at one end of the room while at the other end, woven mats dress the sand floor where guests can sit and eat their meals served in the ‘Natapea’, the traditional round wooden dish where food is served.
Every place to stay in Mota Lava has its very own ‘special something’ and Sunset Bungalows, located on the beach, have amazing sunsets and ‘the biggest bathrooms in the South Pacific’ with hand basins made out of giant shells and lovely porches. Spacious, the bungalows face the ocean and are right on the beach.
Happiness Bungalows, also right on the beach and managed by Alice and Edgar Woleg, has a bright open restaurant with striking stools handcrafted out of hard wood and a collection of old sea buoys hanging from the trees and bungalows. Close to Rah Island landing is Motalava Gateway Lodge. Owned by Madelyn and Franklyn Woleg, they have recently opened their new family bungalow. Under the advice of Pascal Gavotto, one of the TVET coaches who have been visiting the Banks regularly, the couple decided to build a big family bungalow consisting of two separate rooms, toilet and shower, all united by an undercover walkway and built using local materials with traditional bamboo walls and Natangora roofs. Motalava Gateway Lodge also sells local handicraft such as baskets made out of little shells called ‘Nouwoopul’ in the local language.
On Rah Island, three accommodation providers have achieved tourism accreditation, each one with its very own special flavour and uniqueness. Dori Lagoon Beach Resort has cute bungalows right on the beach and a striking display of the bones of a whale that washed up on the beach back in 2006. The whale, apparently dead already, was no longer good to eat but the islanders boiled its fat to distil the oil to be used for skin ailments and burning lamps and kept the bones as memorabilia.
Right on the landing where your taxi canoe will drop you at Rah, is Rah Beach Bungalows. Owed by lovely Parton, it matches Totolag in cuteness. The bungalows resemble something out of The Hobbit, little doll-like houses with fabled porches, and the cutest toilet with the best view in the Pacific.
Right on the beach looking towards Mota Lava, with charming little gardens in between each bungalow, everything small, colourful and compact, almost like a doll’s house, every child’s dream. Inside the restaurant there is a traditional canoe hanging from the roof and all details are taken care off by unassuming, shy, Parton. Parton has his share of experience in the hospitality industry, having worked at Aore Resort in Santo for five years and at Iririki Resort and Olympic Hotel in Port Vila before deciding to return to Rah Island to open his own bungalows.
Across Rah village, a serene five minutes stroll to the other side of Rah Island, is Rah Paradise Bungalows. The oldest bungalow in the Banks and perhaps the Torba province, Father Luke Dini opened its first bungalow 43 years ago. Considered the top accommodation in Mota Lava and Rah, and with the best restaurant in the island, it has been a long journey for Father Luke and his family. “We opened our first bungalow in 1972 and had to wait fifteen years for our first customers to arrive.”
It was not until 1987 that a group of seven New Zealanders became their first guests. “We were very optimistic and thought that everything would change from then on, but it was another five years before our next guests arrived.” Father Luke has had an eventful life. Originally a medical practitioner, he studied in PNG and Prince Albert Hospital in Sydney before coming back to Vanuatu to work as a medical assistant until 1981 when he changed profession and left for the Solomon Islands to study at the Anglican Theological College. He was ordained a priest in 1984 and returned to Vanuatu where he worked for the church until 1994 when he was asked to become secretary to the then President of the Republic, Jean-Marie Léyé Lenelgau.
He held the position for less than a year. “I was a priest and I felt that sometimes I had to say ‘yes’ to decisions that I should say ‘no’ to. I felt I was not following my morals so I resigned.” It was then that he returned to Mota Lava to spend more time developing the bungalows. Rah Paradise Bungalows is truly a family business and not the only accommodation that this quiet and dignified man and his family owns. In Sola, Vanua Lava, the family owns ‘Canal View’ bungalows and in Santo, ‘Leumerus Guest House’.
His son Young and wife Rachel manage Rah Paradise Bungalow while his daughter, Sarah and her husband are in charge of Sola’s accommodation. “You say you want to interview me, but I must say I owe everything to this woman,” he explains as he affectionately touches the arm of his wife, Rona, sitting next to him. “This is a canoe, and we push it together, nothing that I have accomplished could have been done without her being there with me.”
Rah and Mota Lava are a perfect place to do that nowadays rarely practised activity called ‘doing nothing’, or at least, doing very little. The island’s slow pace invests the visitor with an instant sense of timelessness. Time is not of the essence here, and life happens against the background of the sun’s daily journey across the sky.
Strolling along the sandy paths of the island, one walks past a few older men enjoying a game of petanque in the late afternoon. Children build sand castles by the market house using empty coconut shells. Families rest on mats outside their houses, playing games of cards. Teenagers kick the ball on a football game before the night closes in. At sunset, the women and girls fish off the beach with thin wooden rods while pikininis have one last swim before dinner.
It is life as a song, and you feel like you are singing along because the people of the Banks make you feel at home as soon as you touch down in their islands.
The Banks Islands have around fifteen languages and a rich cultural heritage, with unique traditions and kastom only found in these islands. Both Mota Lava and Rah have a custom tour where you can learn more about this fascinating way of life. In Mota Lava, the kastom village is right by the beach on the site of the original chief’s nakamal. Various displays of traditional cooking, weaving, as well as how the original currency of the islands, ‘shell money’, is made, give an insight into the local culture. Beautiful dances, very different to those from other islands, are mesmerising. If you are lucky, you may even have the privilege to witness one of the dances that are normally only reserved for very special kastom occasions, such as the ‘Neqet’, the dance of the bird. “In the Banks we have our own god, Qat,”explains Patteson. “Qat is in everything, in the trees, the birds, the sky and the sea. This dance is performed to honour our god before a man is invested with the chiefly title. The Nataqat, the men fully covered in leafs, are guarding the dancers while they dance with the spirits.” Patteson is Father Luke’s youngest son and he was one of the men performing during the kastom tour. He was also playing instruments and helping unload the Air Vanuatu plane. In the Banks, everyone helps, everyone is part of the whole.
Rah kastom tour is based on their original kastom grounds, located in the interior of Rah Island, under a huge rock, itself engulfed by an even bigger banyan tree. The rock can be climbed for a 360 degree view of the islands. The location must be seen, or more aptly, ‘felt’. In the middle of what seems an enchanted forest, with huge ferns and palms playing with the sunlight filtering from above, is the kind of forest where one expect fairies to live, definitely magic. Silos, who, like Patteson, was part of the Mota Lava kastom tour and also paddles the taxi canoe, offered to take us through the forest walk that leads to the site. On the way, he pointed out the different plants growing around us and their uses. There are many kastoms indigenous to the Banks and one of them is a recipe for food preservation found only here. A breadfruit is first roasted in the ground oven until cooked and after, peeled. The flesh is then wrapped in the leaf of the Nuyundip, a fan palm. It is then hung above the cooking fireplace to be smoked, where it will stay until its consumption, which can be as long as four years later. It is used to have food to eat in times of cyclones and other natural disasters.
Those who have the energy for a longer walk can venture to ‘Sleepy Mountain’, a two hour bush trek in Mota Lava that climbs to the top of the mountain for a fantastic view of the islands, on clear days, all the way to the Torres.
Swimming, snorkelling and fishing are literally at your doorstep and joining newfound friends in their courtyards to be part of a game of cards, petanque or a shell of kava is the best way to get to know more about these fascinating sea people.
The Banks islands are a unique region of Vanuatu and whilst in many other islands the people are from the bush and the earth, in the Banks, the people are from the sea. Expect a diet of fish, coconut crab and lobster. You could, if you so wished, have lobster for lunch and dinner everyday of your stay and a full lobster will cost you less than 2000 vatu. The Banks also have many cooking recipes that are not found anywhere else such as the delicious nangai nut-stuffed roasted papaya. I had some of the best local food ever here.
An incredible place to visit, mesmerising at every turn and light as the ocean breeze, you will be glad you made it there, don’t miss it.
TVET For Tourism Launch in Torba.
On June 23rd, the Torba Tourism Launch and celebration took place in Mota Lava and Rah islands. Organised by TVET and the Department of Tourism, newly built bungalows and tours were officially opened and participants of the Accommodation Services Tourism Pilot program received their statements of participation. The second year of the TVET for Tourism Torba work plan was launched and a MOU between the TVET program and the Department of Tourism was signed. Attending the event, amongst others was Christelle Thieffry, Senior Program Manager Education, Australian High Commission; Jesse Dick, Director General, Ministry of Education and Training; David Lambukly, CEO, Vanuatu Qualification Authority; Jerry Spooner, Principal Accreditation Officer, Department of Tourism; Johnson Toa, Acting Director, TVET Division and Fremden Yanhambath, Team Leader of the TVET Program. Olivet Dorony, Product Development Officer for Torba Tourism Office and Jimmy Kelvin, Provincial Training Coordinator for Torba TVET Centre,
MC-ed the event and informed tourism operators on next year’s training and coaching plan.
It was a cause for celebration and the whole communities of Nerenijman and Rah Island came together to offer a warm welcome and wonderful display of their tourism assets and hospitality. Dances and music were arranged at every village and bungalow while hundreds of flowers adorned every walkway, canoe and all the event grounds. During the months preceding the event the communities worked hard to ensure that everything would be completed and ready. In the final week, everyone came together, each individual having their role to fulfil, from the women sweeping the beaches and pathways of leafs, those catching the lobsters and preparing a feast that continued for two days, to the men dressed in kastom paddling the canoes. Those who had the privilege to be there were treated to the wonderful Qat dance, an important and sacred kastom dance that had not been performed in over ten years.
Mota Lava accommodation:
Happiness Bungalows – Alice and Edgar. Bungalows from 2,500vt pp per night inc breakfast. Lunch and dinner at 800vt per meal. Ph: 5396697.
Motalava Gateway Lodge – Madelyn and Franklyn. Bungalows 3,000vt pp per night. Family Bungalow 3,500 pp per night, children under 12 at 1,500vt pp inc breakfast. Meals at 800vt for lunch and 1000vt for dinner. Ph: 5690858.
Totolag Homestay – Nancy and Nicholas. 2,000vt pp per night inc breakfast. Meals at 800vt. Ph: 5355209.
Sunset Bungalows – Adelva and Ian. 3,000vt pp per night. Meals at 1,000vt.
Rah Island accommodation:
Dori Lagoon Beach Resort – Ruthy and Cecil. 2,500vt pp per night inc breakfast. Ph: 5348045/7774881.
Rah Beach Bungalows – Parton and Stephanie. 2,500vt pp per night inc breakfast. Meals at 800vt. Ph: 5948835.
Rah Paradise Bungalow – Father Luke, Young and Rachel. 3,500vt pp per night inc breakfast. Standard meals 1,000vt. Ph: 5945757.
All bungalows offer special local rates.
Rah Snake Dance, Noah. Ph: 5396125.
Sleeping Mountain, Ben. Ph: 5344276.
Mota Lava Custom Tour, John. Ph: 5977888.
Phone reception can be tricky in the islands. If you have any problems contacting the above accommodation, you can book and get more information by calling the Department of Tourism in Torba Ph: 5967577.
Story and photography by Patricia Gil.
ISLAND LIFE MAGAZINE