Off the grid – Yakel Village Vanuatu

I’d seen the Yakkel village online a few years ago. I’d wanted to visit, so when a last-minute gap opened up in my schedule, I thought, ‘this could be the time.’ I was in London and would have had to leave in a few days, but I didn’t have contact on the island. I tried speaking to travel companies on the mainland of Port Villa but wasn’t making much progress. Eventually, I connected with Tom, the only person in the Yakkel village with a mobile phone. I called him from my office in central London, introduced myself and told him I’d like to come and visit. He was excited and we hatched a plan. I’d fly to Vanuatu and meet Tom and he would take me to his village where I’d be welcomed to live with him and shoot some film. A trip like this is always made better with company. I called two of my friends who live in Brisbane, Australia, a short flight to Vanuatu. It was a long shot inviting them, they’d have to drop everything in the next couple of days to come along, but they didn’t need much convincing. We flew to Tanna Island Airport where we were greeted by Tom with hugs and smiles. Then, aboard a pick-up, through the jungle for two hours to his home.

The men of the village wore nambas – a simple sheath made from grass.  In our jeans and T-shirts, we felt a little out of place. We asked our host, Tom if we might swap our clothes for the Yakkel get-up. ‘Are you sure?’ asked Tom. We were certain so said ‘of course’.  Tom led us down into the bush, where we stripped off, swapping our boxers for nambas – a look that doesn’t leave much to the imagination and had us feeling pretty exposed before we’d settled in. The new outfits were a hit with the villagers, who pointed and laughed, smiling and chatting amongst themselves. We had attempted to immerse ourselves in the Yakkel culture, to experience and integrate and we felt accepted. Whenever I’m filming and shooting people in remote locations, it’s essential to be humble, to show respect and to offer yourself to every experience. Plus, walking around the jungle in a nambas is liberating, I’d highly recommend it.

Our goal for the next four days on Tanna Island was simple: we wanted to connect with the community, learn their way of life and develop deep connections through sharing culture, film and photography. 

One of the main attractions on Tanna is Mount Yassur, an active Volcano that sits 361 meters above sea level. It was the glow of the volcano that apparently attracted Captain James Cook on the first European journey to the island in 1774. We had arranged a 4×4 to take us to the coast to visit the Volcano in the early hours of the morning. Some of Tom’s family had never seen Yassur before, so we filled the pick-up with camera gear and we all piled in.

Nearing the summit of Yassur, the swirling lava storm is a sight to behold. Those moments where you feel your human fallibility, your smallness in the universe and the power of the natural world – this was one of those moments, felt by every one of us that day.

For myself, Owen and Jason, close friends I’d been filming with for years, this was a once-in-a-lifetime trip. We’d never repeat this again, not in the way it had all panned out – the energy, the connections, the experiences. In Vanuatu, we made connections with the Yakkel villagers that transcended language and we shared moments I’ll never forget. Signing off, we exchanged gifts with the village Chiefs and took a few final pictures together. Then away from Tanna with our footage immortalizing those great moments – a trip to the soul of the island.