April 2010

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The signature cocktail at Ratua, the Espiritu Diablo. Photo by David Lansing.

The signature cocktail at Ratua, the Espiritu Diablo. Photo by David Lansing.

If it had been left up to the Europeans they probably would have given all 83 islands in Vanuatu holy names. Take Vanu Aroaroa for instance. That’s the name the natives gave to their island until a Frenchie, Louis Antoine de Bougainville, sailed by on May 22, 1768. Since that day also happened to be the feast day of Pentecost (or Pentecôte in French), he decided that’s what he would name it. To hell with the locals.

The same thing happened with the largest island in the chain, Espiritu Santo, or Holy Spirit, which picked up its strange moniker when the Portuguese explorer, Pedro Fernandes de Queirós, working for Spain, spied what he thought was a southern continent in 1606 (the full grandiose name was La Austrialia del Espiritu Santo). And then, of course, Captain James Cook came by in 1774 (that guy was everywhere) and named the entire archipelago New Hebrides after the northern Scottish islands. Because…well, who knows.

Ever since then, the ni-Vanuatu, as the islanders are now called, have been doing what they can to mess around with the place names they inherited. Here on Ratua, for instance, which is just a 30-minute boat ride away from the Holy Ghost island, they’ve come up with a spirited cocktail called Espiritu Diablo—Devil Spirit—which, I’m afraid, I’ve gotten quite fond of.

Ratua's Yacht Club Bar.

The Isa Bar at Ratua's Yacht Club.

Every evening about five, after I’ve had a swim in the lagoon and then showered off the salt, I make my way down to the Isa Bar at the Yacht Club (this is all very much tongue-in-cheek, by the way, since Ratua’s yacht club fleet consists of several outrigger canoes and a small motor boat) and slip into one of the very comfortable cowhide chairs in the lounge and not two minutes go by before Claire, who I think I am going to have to take home with me, comes over and hands me a frosty Espiritu Diablo with a wheel of lime in it. All without a single word being spoken between us.

It’s a unique drink not least because the base is neither rum nor vodka, as you’ll find in most South Pacific libations, but tequila of all things. The modifier to the tequila in this case is orange curaçao, similar in taste to cointreau but with a little more spiciness to it (curaçao being flavored from the dried peel of the laraha citrus which is a small, bitter descendent of Valencia oranges). But the key to the drink is the topper: Bundaberg ginger beer. This is an Australian brand that is fermented and flavored with real ginger root (by the way, the Australians call ginger ale “ginger beer” and most of them are just a blend of carbonated water, sugar, and artificial flavors and colors; a real fermented ginger beer or ginger ale has much more of a spicy bite to it).

The thing to do is to get your Espiritu Diablo and find a comfortable chair facing due west, ideally looking out over a nice body of water such as you’ll find here in Vanuatu, and take slow, infrequent sips as you watch the sky turn all purple and orange as the sun goes down. And then order another one as you wait for the stars to come out so that you can search for the Southern Cross (if you happen to be down under). If not, any constellation will do.


Espiritu Diablo

In a tall glass half filled with ice, add two shots of silver tequila, one shot of curaçao, and fill to the top with a good ginger beer (or ginger ale). Garnish with a lime wheel.

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“Before venturing on our long trip into the interior, Martin felt we should make a trial excursion or two to test out our equipment and familiarize ourselves with the country. Less than a week later we were off across the bay in the government’s fine, sturdy launch. We went up one of the many rivers that empty into the ocean there. It was alive with crocodiles. Soon the nipa-thatched native huts gave way to a jungle so dense with giant trees, vines, and parasitic roots that it appeared impenetrable fifty feet back from the shores; and monkeys, literally thousands, jabbered at our intrusion.

Suddenly a grizzled, wise looking old water buffalo decided to resent our intrustion and, snorting, lowered his head for a charge. The rest followed suit and the herd came at us. Martin caught me and swung me behind him with one hand, and kept on grinding with the other. The natives had already scrambled for cover.”

—From I Married Adventure by Osa Johnson, 1940

As far as I can tell there is exactly one crocodile on Ratua. And three monkeys, two water buffalos, and a tiger. I like the tiger best of all. He sits camouflaged in a thicket of ferns and bamboo, his weathered face perpetually snarling at anyone who dares walk along the coco wood boardwalk that meanders through the lush landscape from the Fish Village to the unfinished spa that sits on a point out over the water.

These wood carvings, perched at the head of the walkway to each villa, not only give name to each ancient teak bungalow but, I like to think, guard them (though I’m not too sure about how ferocious the rather tired-looking mother monkey and her two babies might be).

My villa is guarded by a crocodile who looks so menacing that I rather dread heading back to my room every evening after dinner. I swear his mouth opens just a tad bit more every time I pass. Perhaps they should have put me in the Monkey Villa.

To see more of Kate Ayrton’s photos of Ratua, please visit wandermelon.com/author/kate-ayrton/.

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“After dinner, one hot evening, Martin and I went down to the beach. It was one of the most beautiful nights I had ever known. The reflection of a full moon was on the water; the stars of the Southern Cross were bright in a velvety sky and the sea purred heavily as it stretched itself along the beach. The air had a bloom-like softness. We sat idly watching the luminous trail of phosphorus marking the course of a shark, when we heard the soft swish of canoe paddles. Martin drew me into the shadows of a cluster of palm. The canoe beached at the pathway leading to the village, and we saw the savages lift from it a long, heavy object wrapped in leaves. It took some six of them to carry it. Instead of the usual chatter, they were silent, and moved quickly and stealthily from view. Whether or not they saw us there on the beach we didn’t know, but obviously they wanted to keep secret whatever it was they were doing.

“We crept back to the house where Martin handed me an automatic. Already the boo-boos were beating their horrible cadence; the natives beginning their weird chant. Martin sat with a rifle across his knees. The tropical night had lost its beauty and was filled with a grisly menace. We did not sleep that night nor until the boo-boos stopped, near morning. When we awoke, much later than our usual hour, we saw Paul Mazouyer’s schooner anchored not a hundred feet away. I can’t think when Martin and I had ever been happier.

“When the men were loading our apparatus aboard, I questioned Atree, and blandly and with relish he confirmed our suspicions; the long bundle had been a man, and the noises those of a cannibalistic orgy.”

—From I Married Adventure by Osa Johnson, 1940

This little piggy, feasting on coconuts, might be dinner tomorrow night. Photos by David Lansing.

This little piggy, feasting on coconuts, might be dinner tomorrow night. Photos by David Lansing.

Gorgeous evening last night but damn if I could find the Southern Cross. I laid on a teak chaise lounge on the beach staring up into the starry night, an Espiritu Diablo cocktail in my hand, searching, searching, searching but unable to say, with any precision, where, exactly, the Southern Cross was.

“Would you like another drink?” whispered Claire, a lovely ni-Vanuatu employee on Ratua whose main job seems to be in making sure my glass is never empty.

“Claire, do you see the Southern Cross?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Can you show me?”

And then she bent down so that her view of the night sky was the same as mine and pointed up into the night. “There. You see?”

Well, no, not really. There were just so many stars. I changed the subject.

Fresh caught lobster for Mr. Piggy.

Fresh caught lobster for Mr. Piggy.

“So what’s for dinner tonight?”

“A choice of Vanuatu rib-eye or lobster caught this morning.”

“Oh, god…Tough choice.”

Claire giggled. “Would you like both?” she whispered.

“Is that possible?”


“I’m being a little piggy, aren’t I?”

Claire nodded. “Being piggy is good,” she said.

“It is?”

“Yes. For us, a pig is even more important than money. So to say someone is piggy is to say they have much wealth. You know that when there were cannibals on the islands they called a man a long-pig.”


“Today the men have caught one of the pigs on the island and tomorrow it will be cooked for dinner. Very special.”

“But not a long-pig.”

Claire clicked her tongue and waved a hand at me. “Not for many years.”

So at dinner I had a bit of rib-eye and a whole lobster. But what I was thinking about was that pig. And wondering if he was one of the ones I’d seen on my walk this morning rooting in the coconut groves. I’m sure not. Right?

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Waking up on Ratua

“Father Prin’s small three-room home, where we first stayed, was a sanctuary of cleanliness and repose. It was here we rested and made our plans (for exploring the New Hebrides). I had learned a lot from our first trip and had included many comforts and some luxuries in our equipment. We had air-cushions and mattresses and, with an eye to giving Martin some good wholesome food, I had brought a clear-flamed Primus stove. I settled down to make my home in what is considered one of the wildest lands of the world.”

—From I Married Adventure by Osa Johnson, 1940

I was so annoyed this morning. There was no hairdryer in my little 3-room villa on Ratua. Nor a coffee maker. Which, of course, put me in mind of Martin and Osa Johnson and the many things they did without as well on their visit to these islands in 1917.

I’m sure Osa would appreciate the rustic nature of the Crocodile House, as my villa is called, which is made out of 200-year-old teak repurposed from traditional village huts on Sumatra and outfitted and pieced together on Bali before being shipped to Ratua. This, for instance, is my bed.

Spartan, right? Probably not a whole lot different from the “air-cushions and mattresses” Osa and Martin had to make do with at Father Prin’s place (except I think my sheets are probably 300-count Frette). And then there’s this wooden water bucket with a ladle in it sitting on the steps outside my covered veranda near the wicker chair. As if I’m going to take a drink of water from that, no matter how parched I am after a bit too much of the Tattingers Claire, our ni-Vanuatu hostess, kept pouring me last night after our arrival.

Oh, wait…There’s chilled Perrier in the fridge. I guess the bucket is for washing the sand off my feet when I go for a swim. Which I may or may not do since I can see, even from my veranda, that there are all kinds of odd things in these waters. Like flying fish. And turtles. And fish whose colors could not possibly have come from Mother Nature (is there some sort of nuclear power plant around here, I wonder?).

Besides, there looks to be all sorts of coral in the lagoon. Red, green, gold, pink. And you know how badly you can get infected from touching coral. Better safe than sorry.

Anyway, I’m starving. So I think I’ll head for the Ratua Yacht Club and pray they have an espresso machine. Otherwise, it’s going to be a long day.

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Landfall on Ratua

Osa Johnson's reception upon reaching New Hebrides (Vanuatu).

Osa Johnson's reception upon reaching New Hebrides (Vanuatu).

“In pursuit of cannibals,” writes Pascal James Imperato in They Married Adventure: The Wandering Lives of Martin & Osa Johnson, “Martin and Osa sailed on the Pacifique for Vila, the capital of the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), shortly after arriving in Sydney. They spent a few days in Noumea on New Caledonia before reaching Vila on October 26. At the suggestion of local traders and planters, they went on to Vao via Espiritu Santo. Here, Martin and Osa were given a warm reception by Father Prin and the local traders. The traditional culture was fairly intact at the time of their visit, and Martin was able to document much of it. Despite the influence of missionaries and traders, local customs remained strong, including the unappealing one of burying alive those close to death.”

And this is how Osa Johnson describes her first view of New Hebrides (now called Vanuatu) in her autobiography I Married Adventure: “After the glare of the beach I seemed suddenly blind, and slid and stumbled along a dark trail that was treacherous with hidden muddy streams and wet creepers. The heavy, steaming breath of the swamps pressed down on us with the weight of something dead, and in it was the ominous smell of rot and slime. Then we started to climb. Suddenly we were in the hot glare of the sun once more, and the slope was sharp and covered with brush and tough cane. We climbed for what seemed hours. A pulse beat hard in the roof of my mouth, my breath was like a knife in my chest and perspiration dripped from my hands.

“Just then there was a shuffling sound and we turned. A score of natives carrying guns had moved in behind us. I saw Martin’s face tighten.

“Then all heads turned, and there on the edge of the bush stood a figure so frightful as to be magnificent. His face, like those of the rest of the savages, was framed in a mass of black hair and beard. A bone was thrust through the cartilage of his nose. He wore the large pandanus fiber clout, but there was a difference in his bearing—the difference of a man of conscious power. There was power in his height, in the muscles that rippled under his glossy black skin, in his great shoulders, in the line of his jaw. Two furrows, amazingly deep, lay between his brows, and his eyes showed intelligence, strong will and cunning. Here was a chief by every right of physical and mental superiority. Here, I knew, was Nihapat.”

After traveling 40 hours on three flights to Espiritu Santo, the largest of the 83 islands, spread between the equator and the tropic of Capricorn, that make up Vanuatu (formerly New Hebrides), I was now on a small boat slowly making its way up the Segond Channel in the Coral Sea headed for the tiny island of Ratua. Thick tropical rain, wrung from gray sponge clouds low over the water, stopped and started every few minutes. Along the shore there was little to see; small huts, some built on stilts; a stark white cross above a stone church hidden in the thick green growth of the jungle; swaying heads of coconut trees, lined up like soldiers, in abandoned copra plantations.

No one on the boat spoke. Our guide, Frederick, stared intently at the GPS device at his side, while a deck hand, Abraham, leaned over the gunwales looking for uncharted reefs, flotsam from the rain, or slow-moving turtles drifting just below the surface. In my mind, I imagined Martin and Osa Johnson plying these same waters in 1917 when Osa described visiting a “little mud and grass church, with its quiet images and dim altar, so strange and beautiful on this savage island” and how in the early evening “the boo-boos (native drums) began to sound back in the bush….” As our little boat began to slow and head for land, I, too, heard sounds coming from the bush and, in the twilight, saw two figures standing at the end of a short pier, staring hard at us as we approached.

Then suddenly we were at the dock and hands were reaching down into the boat, grabbing at our luggage or lifting us up on to shore. We were escorted to an A-frame hut made of teak with a palm thatched roof where a young couple was sitting on cowhide chairs sipping martinis by candlelight. Softly, in the background, brushed drumming came from a jazz tune playing on an iPod. A young woman with extraordinary white teeth came up and offered me a glass of champagne. I looked at the chilled goblet as if it were the elixir of life itself. It had an aroma of warm toasty herbs and lemons.

“Welcome to Ratua,” said the woman. “Would you like another glass?”

We had arrived at our destination—Ratua—and, I noted, it appeared that local customs remained strong, including the rather appealing one of offering a cold glass of bubbly to those close to death. The adventure was on.

My reception upon reaching Vanuatu. The champagne followed. Photo by David Lansing.

My reception upon reaching Vanuatu. The champagne followed. Photo by David Lansing.

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