January 14, 2024

Loh and Behold: The Legend of the Giant Coconut Crab

Legend tells of the story of the giant coconut crab that inhabited the jungle of Loh Island in the Torres Group, the most remote of all the island groups in Vanuatu.

This massive, bad-tempered crustacean had the unfortunate habit of eating the villagers and threatening the survival of the inhabitants until one brave soul needed to venture into the jungle to get much-needed food and disguised himself as a beautiful red crab hoping not to appear as a delicious human. The ruse worked and the man-eating monster was so enthralled at the attractive colouring of the villager’s disguise that it enquired of the villager how he too might look so attractive.

Thinking quickly, the villager told the monster he could acquire the colouring if he was to first jump into a fire. So keen was the monster, that he insisted the villager make a fire immediately and without further encouragement, promptly lept into the flames. 

With the problem solved, the charred remains of the dead monster were distributed around the island to create the familiar landmarks we see today.

The island still retains much of its native vegetation and forest, unlike some other islands in Melanesia that have given in to the entreaties of loggers who care little for what they leave behind. In fact, the whole Torres Group of seven islands only has a population of around 1000 people, kept artificially low over time by European diseases and blackbirding, the highly suspect practice of ‘recruiting’ labour for Australian farms during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Loh Island (locally: Lō), and the Torres Group (Torba Province) as a whole, receive very few external visitors. Apart from the occasional yacht, visits by supply ships are only every few months, so our arrival aboard Heritage Adventurer was quite an event. We’d been warned to expect the familiar challenge on the beach as our Zodiacs ground against the course sand. And, sure enough, out of the undergrowth lept a contingent of near-nakled ‘warriors’ yelping and hollering while thrusting their spears at us in mock attack. Of course, we were suitably alarmed and recoiled in feigned terror as the mud-smeared, leaf-clad assailants circled us like Indians around a wagon train. We bravely shielded ourselves from the onslaught with iPhones set to video.

Our expedition leader and co-owner of the expedition cruise line, Nathan Russ, delivered his well-rehearsed speech of greeting and thanks as we unloaded boxes of school books and sundry material whereupon our donations were received with a most colourful and vibrant celebratory dance.

Even though we’ve been greeted by welcoming dances at every landing on our island-hopping voyage, each is unique. The Loh islanders’ choreography consisted of a circular, shuffling parade of young women and children accompanied by mesmeric drumbeats all designed to pay homage to the chief who commanded a central position with every inch of his skin daubed in a tar-like paint. 

Our attention was drawn to the vivid colouration of the hair and headdresses which form an important part of the traditional ceremony known as lēh-temēt. The women had ground flower petals of the most vibrant hues and decorated their voluminous coiffures with the lurid powders. The boys had constructed conical headdresses (temēt) decorated in the same fashion. Cameras clicked wildly at the spectacle - until the heavens opened and sent everyone running for cover. Given the dry conditions we’d experienced throughout the cruise, the downpour was truly heaven-sent.

In the absence of any motor vehicles, we toured the island on foot, cheerfully guided by a boisterous group of local children eager to show us their neighbourhood near the village of Rinuhe, one of the two main settlements. On the way, we stopped to visit the Robin Memorial School where the donated schoolbooks will reside. 

While isolation can be blissful, it also leads to certain deprivations. Access to the medical facilities we take for granted in Westernised countries the villagers still rely on a small contingent of 'traditional healers' (klevas) – men and women with the power to look into your soul, diagnose your ailments and prescribe 'kastom' jungle herbs. That might sound suspicious, but most healers have shown a willingness to work with national health bodies, especially in the identification of such diseases as TB.

Getting to Loh and the Torres Islands

Loh, with just a couple of hundred inhabitants, is about as isolated a place you can find left on the planet. Fresh water and electricity are only recent introductions, thanks to solar power installed following a government assessment. The villages are mostly self-sufficient, growing crops in the rich soil and fishing the adjacent waters. The airstrip on neighbouring Linua Island (TOH), just across a narrow waterway, is served by a (sometimes) weekly 16-seat Twin Otter flight from Air Vanuatu that also stops at Sola, the provincial capital, and Moto Lava. Boat transfers are also possible, but can be expensive and uncomfortable.

Birdwatching (or ‘birding’)  is a popular element of any Heritage Expeditions journey and this is no exception. The birding team sleep with their binoculars - I kid you not - so they’re always ready for a new sighting to add to their ‘life lists’ of observed species. Loh gave up 12 species on land and still more at sea, the majority being pigeons, doves, swiftlets and tattlers. 


Christchurch-based Heritage Expeditions operates its annual ‘Secrets of Melanesia’ voyages in October. The 2023 departure sails from Madang for a 17-day expedition to Port Vila via New Ireland, New Britain, Bougainville, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. 

Heritage Adventurer is the perfect vessel for such a voyage with just 140 guests travelling in supreme comfort, being looked after by a crew of 125 plus an experienced expedition team of 12 offering enrichment and interpretation along the route.

Daily excursions are conducted using sturdy and reliable Zodiacs, enabling landings virtually anywhere an opportunity presents itself.

Heritage Expeditions also offers an expansive Pacific program that includes Japan, the Philippines, New Zealand and Indonesia. For full details, dates and pricing, see www.heritage-expeditions.com

Birders can check the complete species list at: ebird.org

For more details on visiting Loh and the Torres Group, see www.vanuatu.travel

Originally published in Island Spirit, the inflight magazine for Air Vanutu

All material (c) Copyright Traveloscopy.com unless noted otherwise.

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