October 14, 2012
Port Vila, Vanuatu
A Toka ceremony is held approximately once every five years on the island of Tanna in the south of Vanuatu. It’s planned years in advance, but the actual dates aren’t announced until a week before – basically, when enough sacrificial pigs are accrued, it’s party time.
We were in Port Vila at the end of a week’s cruising with John and Christine, when we got word of the festival and, on the spur of the moment, hopped on a plane to Tanna. Our hosts, Eso and Rachel, picked us up in their ute and transferred us to a cabin on a cliff top with views to the distant volcano.
The festival had been going for a day and a half already, but tonight was the Big Night.
Eso woke us at 1.00am and we – along with a few extra family members who’d never seen a Toka before – piled into the ute and bumped our way over deeply rutted dirt roads through the dark to the festival grounds.
The ground was throbbing and a crowd of several thousand locals was heaving. Security guards (unarmed, apart from long sticks) emerged from the dark and led us through the crowd. Rachel and one of her daughters pressed against me, shoulder to shoulder as we were hustled through the crowd – rumour has it that any woman is fair game during the Toka, though I’m not sure who was protecting whom!
Through the night, hundreds of dancers performed: women dancing in grass skirts and face paint, with feathers and Christmas tinsel wound around their heads and necks for maximum bling effect; warrior dances, with men in grass skirts, face paint – and the occasional bit of tinsel – with charges and counter charges, chases, stomping and chanting. As dawn broke, the Toka – a feather-covered ‘totem pole’ – was carried in and the dancing hit fever pitch.
It was extraordinary to watch and to be a part of. There were perhaps only a dozen other foreigners, and at first we felt like we were intruding, but the dancers smiled and the ‘security guards’ shepherded us, unbidden, to the best photo vantage points and made sure we didn’t get trampled by the charging crowds.
We retired, exhausted, at around 10.00 am. Some of the dancers were also spent – I watched one lady, her face paint smeared, fall asleep on her feet – but others were gearing up for the climax: the slaughtering of the pigs and the following feast.
We didn’t hang around for the pig killing – after all we had a live volcano to visit…
At sunset, on the same extraordinary day, we were standing on the rim of Mt Yasur, perhaps the world’s most accessible live volcano, looking down into its volcanic crater as re-hot lava boiled and exploded into the air around us.
How cool is that?
PS Click in Images in the menu bar to see the full photo albums for the Toka Festival, and for Cruising with John and Christine
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