Generations of Australians have spent “one day in paradise” on Mystery Island in Vanuatu, but few know the many secrets of this stunning coral atoll, writes Dallas Sherringham.
Since 1980 cruise ships have been anchoring in the pristine waters of the island and treating literally millions of Australians to a taste of a genuine paradise.
If you are visiting this amazing, unspoilt place on a cruise, you will enchanted by its white sand beaches, warm waters and friendly locals,.
Even the name of the island is a mystery, but I am one of the few people who can solve that riddle.
You see, Mystery Island is known to the locals as Inyeug, but it gained its fame and more popular European name by sheer chance. PR man Ron Connelly was hosting a group of travel writers on board the legendary Fairstar when the ship made one of its rare visits to the island.
Pressed by members of his press group about the tiny gem, he said: “I have to admit I have never been there; the ship often can’t drop anchor…it’s a mystery to me.” And Mystery Island it became ever after.
Sitmar, owners of Fairstar, were quick to pick up the name and turn it into a clever marketing gimmick.
I suffered the same fate on my first visit to Mystery Island on board that very same ship. Captain Luigi Nappa could not anchor because of the large swell from the south.
The next time I went there, the ship did anchor, but the swell became very treacherous and it was a battle to get everyone aboard in the late afternoon as the seas picked up. That evening there were nine broken arms and wrists being treated at the ship’s hospital.
Today’s ships are much bigger and much more maneuverable than the Fairstar and most visits to the island are performed without incident
The most striking feature of the 1.5sqkm Island is the large grassed airstrip that takes up most of the land area. I have heard it described as everything from a WWII bomber base to a fighter base for the Americans.
In fact, one of the locals, Robert, told me it was built as emergency strip in WWII for military aircraft transiting the area. At that time Japan was dominating the war in the Solomon Islands to the north and Mystery Island had the potential to become a major player if they advanced into Vanuatu, which was called the New Hebrides in those days.
Today, the strip is used twice a week as the airport for nearby major island of Aneityum. Robert told me the flights could be quite adventurous as boxes of very much alive lobsters and crabs were stacked beside passengers on board, all bound for the restaurants of Port Vila.
On rough flights it has been known for the boxes to break open and live crustaceans to cause havoc amongst the well heeled clients. I thought it was just a good story until one day I saw crates of live lobsters being lifted aboard a tiny twin engine commuter plane followed by two very reluctant government officials who were heading back to the big smoke.
Mystery Island’s reputation goes far beyond its name. At night, the locals swear that the island is haunted by the mysterious spirits of their ancestors. They won’t have a bar of going there after dark.
This had the unexpected advantage of making it a safe haven for European visitors in the 19th century who feared the fierce cannibals on the adjacent mainland.
An array of Europeans happened upon Aneityum with its vast sandalwood forests and a flock of 12,000 locals who just had to be turned into law abiding, god fearing Christians. Other visitors had more sinister motives, capturing or “blackbirding” the local men for work as slaves in the sugar cane fields of Queensland. Whalers first appeared in the 1850s and also found safe haven on the tiny oasis.
Rather than being saved by the well meaning Presbyterian fire and brimstone preachers, the native population was also decimated by introduced illnesses such as smallpox and measles. Within a generation or two, just 500 people were left. Even the massive1000 seat stone church built on the island was gone, destroyed by a tsunami.
Aneityum’s main mountain, a dormant volcano, towers almost 1000m above the rainforest which still has mysteries of its own yet to be discovered. Ancient and mysterious totemic petroglyphs have been found carved into the island’s volcanic rock.
Recent research has revealed that a sophisticated lifestyle was enjoyed by locals living in an unspoilt paradise in the days before the Europeans arrived. Far from being “primitive cannibals”, the various tribes had an intricate community lifestyle.
However, because there no written histories kept amongst those people, the only knowledge was passed down by traditions. This means we will never know what life was like in this isolated part of the world in ancient times or who first populated the region.
Aneityum’s equally fascinating flora is also yet to be fully discovered. At this time, there are a recorded 80 species of stunning orchids and the island also has hot springs and substantial waterfalls, thanks to the seemingly perpetual rainfall.
Aneityum’s kauri forests were also decimated by visitors, but have since been replanted by the New Zealand government and are a valuable logging resource,
Now, there is fascinating history to be learnt from a much more recent visit. If you know where to look on Mystery Island, you will find a monument to the most famous visitor to the island.
Queen Elizabeth enjoyed an unscheduled beach barbecue on Mystery Island in 1974, en route from Port Vila to Sydney aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia. Strangely yet again, I could find no-one amongst the locals who remembered the visit, however on Aneityum there are photos of the big day proudly brought out for guests.
Looking at the island from a ship, it looks inconsequential compared to its towering neighbour. However as you go ashore in the ship’s tender you will be captivated by the crystal clear waters and waving coconut palms. As you near the jetty you will hear singing and music.
Stepping ashore you will suddenly be standing on a white sand beach that will take your breath away. It is named after its most famous visitor, Queen Elizabeth II Beach.
And you will at last be in paradise, as close as you will ever get to a perfect t tropical escape.
Words and images by Dallas Sherringham