July 24, 2010


David Ellis

Chances are you've never heard of Ambae Island or Makana Mountain. And having agreed on that, you're probably not really interested in reading any further.

But hang on, you've doubtless heard of, and maybe even read the book Tales of the South Pacific, or at least seen the movie. So you would know of the mysteriously rumbling and beautiful Bali Hai that kept rearing its volcanic peak throughout that movie.

And therein lies today's tale. For despite the fact they're thousands of kilometres apart, with one in the Southern and the other in the Northern Hemisphere, Ambae and Makana are virtually one, as inextricably linked as the divergent yarns that American author James A. Michener cobbled together for his classic volume Tales of the South Pacific in the 1940s.

Ambae dozes in the sun off the island of Santo in northern Vanuatu, and Makana stands majestically on the northern-most of the Hawaiian islands, Kauai.

But with its bag of tricks, Hollywood made them the-one when it came to making the movie South Pacific.

James A. Michener went to Vanuatu, then known as the New Hebrides, as an Intelligence Officer with the US Navy during the Pacific War, and later switched over to working as a Supply Officer. It was this latter role that enabled him to move around the islands, meeting the many characters whom he later melded into Tales of the South Pacific when he returned to New York and civilian life as a book editor at war's end.

Santo was a major America supply base in the war effort, and it was to off-shore Ambae that the local expatriate planters sought safety for their families.

Not that their concerns were about the war. Rather, they locked up their wives and daughters on Ambae because it was Out-of-Bounds to the thousands of women-less troops stationed on Santo.

Ambae had a high central peak that actually contained a lake, which in turn contained a volcanic crater. The mountain dominated the island and fascinated Michener, who referred to it as Vanicoro in his book, but when they made the stage show South Pacific, it was renamed Bali Hai.

And when it came to the follow-on movie, Hollywood just wasn't interested in going all the way to the far-flung and presumably-godforsaken New Hebrides to shoot scenes of pretty beaches, dense jungles and a rumbling volcano – even if Michener had written his book there.

Instead Hollywood chose the closer Kauai in Hawaii, and kept the name Bali Hai for the ever-rumbling mountain, while for the beach scenes the producers chose Kauai's Lumahai and Polihale Beaches, and for the jetty where the nurses and supplies kept coming ashore, took over a trade-ship jetty in the island's Hanalei Bay

Finally for the garden scenes around the oddly octagonal-shaped home of the French planter, Emille de Beche it used the Allerton Botanical Gardens that were once home in royal times to Hawaii's Queen Emma.
(The unique de Beche home on Santo really was octagonally-shaped and was recreated in a Hollywood studio, while Bloody Mary's trade-store-cum-home did exist as it appeared in the movie, and today still stands forlorn and empty under a great rain tree.)

But when it came to finding a nice volcanic peak next to a beach on Kauai for their Bali Hai, even Hollywood was stumped.  So their cameramen went inland to Makana Mountain in the Limahuli National Tropical Botanical Gardens – and to hide the fact it wasn't a stand-alone volcano behind the beach, had artists superimpose a wreath of cloud around its foothills in every frame of the master footage.

You can join a fascinating tour of the major movie sites on Kauai – a staggering 80-plus movies and TV series have been shot there, and they're still at it – or simply get a car, pick up a Film Location Map and do it yourself, but you won't learn as much as you do from the film-tour operators.

And while you're there, don't miss Limahuli Botanical Gardens' unique Hawaiian native plants, archaeological sites, and the engrossing tales and legends you'll hear from the guides.

And of course get pics of yourself in front of Bali Hai – but remember the locals still call it Makana and not Bali Hai.

And they say they're enormously proud of that.


[] BALI HAI is calling – Kauai's Makana Mountain became Bali Hai in Hollywood's South Pacific.

[] THE real Bali Hai: Vanuatu's Ambae Island off the island of Santo

[] BLOODY Mary's tradestore still stands abandoned and forlorn on Santo Island

[] JAMES A Michener returned to Vanuatu in 1992.                                 

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