The search for the real Bali Ha’i

By Lew Toulmin
This item appears on page 58 of the February 2013 issue.

(Second of two parts)

As described last month, I have been searching for 50 years to find the inspiration for Bali Ha’i, James Michener’s classic island-paradise creation in his immortal “Tales of the South Pacific” and one of the most famous islands in literature. Recently, my quest took me to dark, rainy, brooding Malakula, one of the western islands of the Republic of Vanuatu in the Southwest Pacific.

Lew Toulmin with Chief Vincent Taissets and his son Walter. A US Navy mess tray is one of the chief’s only souvenirs from his service during WWII.

Malakula has many of the elements of the fictional island of Vanicoro that is described in the “Tales.” This is key, because Bali Ha’i is described as lying just off the shore of Vanicoro.

Malakula is only about 16 miles south and a little east of Espiritu Santo, and it is clear from the story that Bali Ha’i and Vanicoro must be close to Santo. Like Bali Ha’i, Malakula had cannibalism (until the 1960s) and had tribes who wore penis sheaths all the time in the 1940s (and still do today on ceremonial occasions).

In Michener’s book of factual essays and short fiction, “Return to Paradise,” he makes it clear that he was quite familiar with Malakula. Importantly, Malakula has four small, round islands off of its northeast shore and in view of Espiritu Santo, each of which lie in a wide bay of the larger island. The islands all are separated from the main part of Malakula by narrow channels.

Thus, any of these small islands might be the model for the “small, jewel-like island” of Bali Ha’i, but none have ever previously been identified as such.

Malakula quarters

I explored the area in late August 2012, researching all four islands.

Vao has always been hostile to visitors, while Atchin is very densely populated and Rano is rather low and flat. Wala was, by far, the most promising prospect, so I decided to visit it.

Surprisingly, none of these islands are discussed in current guidebooks, such as those of Lonely Planet, so I had to ask my colleagues at work to learn about them. (I currently work in the office of the Prime Minister of Vanuatu.)

I flew Air Vanuatu from the capital of Port Vila to Norsup Airport in central Malakula. I was shocked to find that the airport terminal had been burned down many years before by a disgruntled loser in a land dispute — common in Vanuatu. No one can rebuild the terminal, since it would just be burned down again! Luckily, the airstrip still functions.

Etienne Tiasinmal beside his family stone in a nasara on Wala island. Photos: Toulmin

I took a 4WD Toyota HiLux — one of toughest trucks in the world and, hence, the most popular vehicle in Vanuatu — north along the rough road toward the Wala area, the part of Malakula that faces Wala island. Due to the large potholes, my driver could go only about 10 miles per hour; it took us about an hour to get there.

I had made a reservation at the best place to stay in this area, the Nawori Bungalow (phone 678 48888 or 678 5685852 or e-mail, run by Etienne Tiasinmal. I stayed for two nights in the 3-room bungalow, with mosquito nets, thatched roof and walls, a cold shower in a shared bathroom and a good view of Wala island. Prices start at about $28 per room per night.

Village chief

Etienne, our friendly and approachable host who doubled as the chairman of the local tourism committee, offered to take me to Wala island, about 900 yards offshore. He spoke excellent English and French and said that his island was named after Chief Wala, who was the first to settle the island some 1,200 years ago.

We clambered over the rough coral reef adjoining the mainland shore, in water up to our shins (bring reef shoes!), to board the 25-foot transit boat. Upon arriving at the short floating dock on Wala island, I was pleased to see a nice swimming area and an attractive white-sand beach — surprisingly rare in the islands of Vanuatu.

We walked up to the little village of huts built of grass and corrugated iron, just above the beach. There I met 90-year-old Chief Vincent Taissets, who told me about his service with the US Navy in World War II.

He said that he was 20 in 1942 when an American military team asked him to come to Espiritu Santo from Wala island to help in the war effort. As a civilian employee, he worked there for 18 months in construction but was also trained to use a machine gun.

He watched as Japanese planes attacked the five large American bases on the island. He said they did virtually no damage, killing only a single cow! And he was present when the troopship President Coolidge hit a friendly mine and sank to become what is today one of the world’s greatest wreck dives.

He said, “I was paid well for my war work, and I still am grateful to you Americans. Thanks!”

All about Wala

Etienne took me on a complimentary one-hour tour of Wala island (the usual price is $5). He told me that its small population of 200 is divided into five tribes. In addition to there being no electricity on the island (except that from solar chargers and a few diesel generators), there are no cars, no landline telephones and no worries!

Little Wala island.

Etienne said that the island had not had a hospital staffed with French nuns (as Bali Ha’i did in the “Tales”), but it did have a Catholic church, now ruined, with French nuns formerly in residence.

We hiked up to the top of the 80-foot-high hill at the center of the island. This was not as high as the 300-foot cliffs that Bali Ha’i is supposed to have, but it is by far the highest island off the north coast of Malakula.

We hiked across the 1.5-kilometer-wide island through the lush, rainy jungle interior. The island was “jewel-like,” with tall palm trees, gardens, ferns and banyans as described by Michener. It fit many of the elements of Michener’s classic Bali Ha’i, including almost all of the features that Ambae — his primary inspiration — lacked.

I concluded that Wala was very likely a secondary though important contributor to Michener’s creation.

Etienne showed me some attractions on Wala not mentioned by the author: the exotic and atmospheric nasaras. These are ritual locations marked by lines of large standing stones — one for each family — where chiefs were promoted based on how many pigs they sacrificed.

In the spooky, misty jungle, Etienne stood beside his family stone under a huge banyan tree. He said that his ancestors would present a large pig with circular tusks to the paramount chief at the stone, and if the offering was acceptable, the chief would bestow land rights, give out kastom (custom) names and approve marriages.

He said he could recite his ancestry for 17 generations and that he is trying to revive the nasara rituals, which have fallen into disuse.

Getting to Wala

As we walked back to the small dock, I was amazed to learn from Etienne that the small island of Wala is a regular stop for ships of P&O Cruises that sail from Sydney. In 2013 and likely into 2014, about 18 voyages with P&O Cruises (and several with Carnival Cruise Lines) are expected to stop at Wala for the day, each taking about 1,000 visitors ashore, mostly Australians.

The passengers use tenders to get to the floating dock built by P&O Cruises. They then take walking tours to the nasaras, lie on the beach, have a barbecue, snorkel on the nearby reef or watch a kastom dance.

Because of the island’s difficulty of access via air — not to mention a poor road, coral reef and transit boat — taking a cruise ship based in Sydney is probably the best way to visit little Wala.

According to Etienne, neither he nor any of the thousands of cruise ship visitors have ever realized that they just might be relaxing on the most famous South Pacific island of all: Bali Ha’i!