Vanuatu is famous for many things, most notably being home to the ‘happiest people on the planet’. If that isn’t reason enough to want to visit, it’s also home to one of the most active volcanoes in the World – Mount Yasur on Tanna Island.
Being just a 3 hour flight from New Zealand, it seemed the perfect opportunity for us to go. We’d heard that Tanna Island in Vanuatu was not for the faint hearted, but that didn’t put us off at all. We think of ourselves as pretty outgoing – how bad could it be?
We flew from Adelaide to Auckland for a one night stopover before flying to Tanna Island via Port Vila.
The first thing that hit us when we stepped off the plane in Tanna was the humidity – it was like someone threw a bucket of water over us. Having enjoyed the dry heat of Australia for 5 weeks it was going to take us a little while to acclimatise, if at all possible in just a week.
Stepping into Tanna airport was quite literally like stepping back in time.
The local women sat fanning themselves wearing garish smocked dresses with puffed sleeves, like a scene from the Colour Purple. Boxes were piled everywhere ready to go on the next flight, including livestock. We saw crisp boxes with little holes cut out in the side from which the heads of live chickens poked through. The baggage carousel was non-existent, instead we were passed our bags through a big hole in the wall.
It was a bit of a muddle but we eventually got our bags and squeezed our way out of the tiny airport.
We were met outside by Lizzie, a lovely lady who runs one of the few guesthouses on the island. With just 2 rooms we weren’t expecting much by way of our accommodation, although we were promised water and electricity is which is far more than can be said for the other guesthouses on the island.
Just to set the scene….. Tanna Island is very basic. There are no proper roads, just muddy tracks which require a 4x4 to pass. There’s no public transport, vehicle hire or internet access and extremely limited mobile phone reception. There are no streetlights, ATM’s, bars, cafes or restaurants and no taxi service.
Basically once you’re at your guesthouse, you’re at their mercy for the duration of your stay.
We left the airport and bounced along the bumpy roads in a truck dodging cows, chickens, pigs and goats. Local families including little kids were jumping and waving frantically with big smiles and shouting hello as we drove through the forest. The locals are very striking, especially the children, many of whom are naturally blonde. Almost everyone carries a huge knife, at least a foot long, yet their beautiful smiles make them the least intimidating people you’re ever likely to see.
Cute local kids:
We arrived at our resort which consisted of just 3 small huts set back from the beach. 2 of them were guest rooms while the third open fronted hut was the ‘hotel restaurant’, which seated just 4 people on plastic chairs and served a choice of 2 meals.
Our entire resort:
View to the beach:
We were both soaked in sweat from head to toe and desperate for a shower. We only had cold water which was not a problem given the heat, however our supply was nothing more than a tiny trickle of water. Our showers took forever as we had to contort our bodies into all sorts of strange positions for 20 minutes to get fully wet.
After freshening up as best we could we headed down to dinner. This is when we encountered the first of our problems on Tanna.
Lizzie had decorated our table beautifully with a tablecloth, napkins and flowers, however her efforts were somewhat diminished by the tens of beetles that adorned our table. Every time we swept them away, it took just seconds before another 40 or 50 were crawling over us and our table. With no other eating options whatsoever, we did our best to smile as we painstakingly picked the beetles out of our dinners while sweating profusely in the stifling heat. This situation repeated itself every single evening.
After dinner we headed back to our room to take shelter from the bugs. We opened our door and were confronted with a scene from a horror movie – moths, beetles, centipedes, ants…. You name it, we had it. The floor was literally crawling.
Thankfully we’d put our mozzie net down before we went to dinner so ran the gauntlet to the bathroom to quickly wash our sweaty bodies and brush our teeth before climbing into bed. Unfortunately, we weren’t aware that the water pumps are switched off overnight – we had no water whatsoever.
We did our best to laugh it off telling ourselves that we’ve done this kind of trip before and it was all part of the adventure. We climbed under our mozzy net and tried to catch some well needed zeds.
It was impossible. The humidity meant the bedding was damp which got worse and worse as we continued to sweat in the tropical heat. We can’t even put into words just how hot and humid it was – we led there groaning in a fever like state, too hot to even speak.
Perhaps we were too uncomfortable to notice at first, but it soon became apparent that we weren’t on our own in that bed. We were sharing our sweaty pit with little flying beetles that could fit through the mozzy net plus a family of fleas that infested our mattress, sheets and pillows.
We spent the entire night in a soaking wet bed scratching ourselves silly and periodically pulling handfuls of beetles off our sweaty bodies.
The following morning, Jason cleaned up the piles of dead beetles and bugs which he’d disposed of at the side of his bed. I on the other hand had a gross lumpy rash over my arms and hands, presumably caused by the fleas.
12 hours in and we were already being tested, but we weren’t gonna let it beat us – we’re hardcore!
We decided to walk into town on our first day to browse the shops and maybe treat ourselves to some beer and chocolate to lift our spirits after a challenging night. We walked along the beach and then followed a track through the forest.
As we walked along the beach, local families at the water’s edge smiled, waved and shouted hello as they went about their day. The men fished using handmade poles, the kids swam in the water and the women sat washing their clothes and pots and pans in the sea, using the sand as an abrasive. Considering what little the local people have, they are indeed the happiest people we’ve come across so far.
The walk in the heat was unbelievably tough – the long track seemed infinite and after an hour our pace had slowed to a pathetic trudge. Just as we were ready to turn back, a pick-up truck pulled up alongside us and 2 local guys gestured for us to hop in. Jase didn’t hesitate to accept but I was a little tentative about riding with strangers in such a primitive environment. Still, not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, we climbed into the back of the truck and continued towards town.
Hitching a ride:
That’s when we noticed the dead bird in the back of the truck with us – slightly odd. Next to it was a carrier bag containing something black and shiny. Convinced it was a gun, my mind started to race, probably not helped by being somewhat delirious through heat exhaustion. The truck pulled over in the middle of nowhere and the youngest guy got out of the truck – this was it, we were going to die!
We climbed out of the truck, at which point I noticed the ‘gun’ was actually a dead fish (an easy mistake).
The young guy introduced himself as Sam, gave us a huge smile, shook our hands and waved us goodbye as he and his mate drove off. Both friendly locals doing a good deed, not cannibalistic murderers as I’d initially suspected.
We looked around for some indication of the route to town when we noticed the sign ‘Lenakel’ – this WAS town!!
Big city lights:
We found a single convenience store which was really just a shed selling a random selection of products, though sadly not a chocolate bar or bottle of beer in sight. We bought a bottle of water to rehydrate before starting the arduous 2 hour walk back to our hut.
We chilled for the rest of the afternoon, making the most of the daylight hours knowing the creepy crawly horrors that awaited us after dark.
After our second sleepless night we were up at 6:30 as we had a big day ahead. Lizzie had hired us a pick up truck and driver to take us on a full day’s sightseeing including the volcano. We were joined by an Australian couple who were staying in the hut next door plus Lizzie’s daughter Sabrina, her 2 small children and a member of staff called Monique. The 9 of us squeezed into the truck and we set off for our big day out.
Our first stop was to the local market to pick up supplies. It was fascinating – women from all across the island leave home at 3am to make their way to the market to sell produce grown on their land. We didn’t recognise much of the food on offer, all of which is provided in hand woven shopping bags made of leaves.
Local food market:
Local fags - chewing tobacco:
Going green - Not a plastic bag in sight:
We tried some of the local fruits and did our best to feign enjoyment when actually they tasted absolutely dreadful. Thankfully we weren’t offered any of the local Kava, which is hugely popular amongst the locals who get a little stoned from drinking it.
The kava root is chewed then strained to produce a drink favoured by the indigenous tribes due to its sedative properties. Not only has the kava been processed in a locals mouth before you drink it, it’s said to taste muddy and taste truly disgusting. No doubt Jase would been true to form and downed a mug or two had it been on offer though.
We then hit the road and headed for Port Resolution, stopping en route at the base of the volcano. The landscape was lunar like (or so we’d imagine given that neither of us have actually been to the moon).
Our next stop was to Port Resolution, where Captain Cook first arrived in Vanuatu all those years ago apparently attracted by the glow from Mount Yasur. We went to White Beach and took a swim with the kids to cool off after our long drive.
On the other side of the bay from White Beach is Sulphur Bay where we could swim in natural hot springs. Here the sand is completely black and scorching hot, having been heated from the volcano. We didn’t realise the water would be quite so hot – neither of us could go in further than knee height before running out like big girls.
The hot springs are on the banks of Sabrina’s village, where she prepared us a meal over an open fire. As we sat and ate our food on grass mats, we could hear the volcano thundering away in the distance.
Sulphur Bay village:
Then it was time to see it for ourselves! The truck drove us as far as it could up the side of the volcano, passing through steaming sulphur vents along the way. We parked up and climbed up to the rim at sunset, all the while feeling the rumble of its belly underfoot.
We honestly can’t put into words what awaited us at the top. Without question it was the most profoundly heart stoppingly incredible thing we have ever witnessed in our entire lives.
The crater was absolutely enormous – the rim is over 400m wide. Visitors are warned that they are at risk from toxic gas, projectiles and avalanches yet are allowed to walk around the entire rim without any railings or marked boundaries whatsoever.
From the rim you can peer directly into the belly of the volcano as it smokes, splutters and bubbles away. The inside of the crater and sky above is lit up with an intense red glow from the lava. It’s like looking directly into the jaws of hell.
Every few minutes she exploded, firing white hot lava hundreds of feet into the air above our heads accompanied by a deafening boom. At risk of sounding like a complete twat, it was enough to make you want to cry.
Jase immediately sat down right on the crater rim to watch the fireworks show though it took me a while to get the confidence to get so close. We didn’t speak a word for over an hour as we sat in complete amazement.
Jase taking in the view:
RIng of fire:
The light conditions made filming really difficult but we’ve still put together a 40 second vid to give you at least some idea of the evening. This has not been slowed down in any way whatsoever – the lava seems to fall back into the crater in slow motion. Strangely like a lava lamp!
We eventually had to tear ourselves away from Mount Yasur as we wanted to make one more stop before heading back.
There are a large number of cult tribes on the island, many with some very unusual beliefs and practices. The most famous is the “Prince Phillip tribe” who worship Prince Phillip believing him to be a divine being (well he is such a hottie afterall!)
Another of the cult tribes is the “John Frum tribe” who worship an American soldier who visited Tanna during WW2. It’s thought his name has derived from ‘John From America’.
John Frum told the tribe that if he were ever to return, he would bring with him a cargo of modern items such as televisions, coca-cola and washing machines. When the troops left at the end of WW2, the John Frum followers in Tanna expected his return and even made an airstrip in the jungle and bamboo control towers so that American planes could land and bring with them more precious cargo.
Every Friday night without exception, the villagers stay up all night, from dusk until dawn expecting John’s return. They sing songs, dance and raise the American flag in his honour.
After 70 years, we’re guessing John isn’t gonna show but we thought they may like to meet a couple of British tourists instead. The tribe lived near the volcano and guess what - today was Friday!!
We pulled up in the village which was nothing more than a circle of huts with an open sided hut in the middle.
The singing was already well underway however we were asked to stay back while Sabrina approached the village Chief to ask permission for us to be there. He kindly agreed for us to stay, providing we took part in the ceremony – for Jason this was clapping along to the music, whereas I had to dance around the hut with the locals in a skirt provided by the Chief.
The music was brilliant, especially the young kids who played their guitars and sang at the top of their lungs. It was hard to believe they did this week in week out, especially as they sang with so much enthusiasm. We sat with the tribe singing and dancing, with Mount Yasur glowing bright red in the distance. It was awesome.
We stayed for just over an hour, before leaving them to their party which was going to continue throughout the night and apparently gets far more bizarre the more the kava flows!
Jamming away - the young boy in the middle was leading the whole group with his guitar and big voice!:
We’d wrongly assumed that other travellers would be there, that the event would be some sort of attraction. However there wasn’t a single other tourist there, no entry fee, no tip box, nothing – just a small village enjoying a party with no objective other than to enjoy themselves and hopefully earn themselves some electrical goods in the process.
With just one small light in the hut, filming was almost impossible. You can’t see much but hopefully you’ll still enjoy the music in this very short vid…..
We got back to our hut around 11pm covered in white sand, black sand, volcanic ash, mud and were soaked through with sweat. However with the water pumps switched off overnight, we just stripped off and climbed into our bug infested bed and prepared ourselves for another sleepless night.
I got out of bed in the morning and went for a shower to wake myself but quickly returned to deliver the bad news to Jase – we had no water. Not even a trickle.
Nowt, zilch, nada.
The water pump was broken – this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. We couldn’t wash but worst still – flush the toilet. I’m sure I don’t need to go into any more detail but let’s just say the situation was pretty desperate.
Jase and I were hot, exhausted, dirty, smelly, sweaty, covered in insect bites and rashes and on the verge of killing one another. Having had no more than 5 hours sleep in 3 days, we were both struggling to function. Even the simplest of tasks like getting dressed were becoming increasingly difficult.
Cabin fever had set in and we needed to escape!!
We got dressed and set off for a 2 hour walk up to the airport to see if we could get an earlier flight back to Efate. Efate is a more developed island with shops, restaurants and if the viscous rumours were correct – air conditioning!
Track back to the airport:
After a long slog of a walk, we finally arrived at the airport, which is basically a shed in a field. The ‘Air Vanuatu Service Desk’ is a plastic table and a single chair, occupied by Mike, a local who is the ticket guy, the luggage guy, the operations guy etc…. you get the picture! Thankfully Mike was very helpful and managed to bring our flight forward by 2 days. He handed us a scribbled note which would serve as our ticket.
We gave each other a big high five as we left the airport and virtually skipped back to our hut. In just 24 hours we could wash - WOOOO HOOOO!!
We got back to our hut and filled a bucket of cold water from the mains tap in the garden so that we could have a strip wash. Yes, you did read correctly, the garden had running water but we didn't!
I also washed my hair which was long overdue and rinsed out 5 beetles and a dead moth in the process. Minging!
Don’t get us wrong – Tanna Island is beautiful and very special, as are its wonderful people. Had we have travelled to Vanuatu from Asia perhaps we’d have coped a little better but we’ve been enjoying western civilisation and all its mod cons for a couple of months. The living conditions were a shock to the system but without a doubt, our visit to the volcano made every pint of sweat and mosquito bite worthwhile.
The following day we flew to the town of Port Vila on Efate Island. We had a tiny 14 seater plane, the interior of which was held together with gaffer tape. The Chinese guy sat next to Jase decided to start pulling the tape away from the window frame before realising the window was likely to come with it. The door into the cockpit was missing which meant we could see what a complete shambles was inside.
Against all odds we made it to Efate safely and used our 15 minutes of free wifi at the airport to try and find some accommodation. We found somewhere which sounded half decent so jumped in a cab and went to see if it was suitable.
Err let me see……
We’ve got a studio apartment overlooking the water with air conditioning, a hot rainfall shower, king size bed, a kitchen, sofa, TV and a balcony. Bliss!
The people in Port Vila are just as friendly as they are on Tanna. Within 10 minutes of meeting the security guard, he’d invited us to stay with him and his family at their home on Pele island! Where else in the World would you find hospitality like that?!
There’s not much to report on our time in Port Vila – we just relaxed and enjoyed our beautiful surroundings. We also took the time to learn a little Bislama, the main language spoken across Vanuatu.
Bislama is a form of pidgin English and not wishing to offend the good people of Vanuatu, is absolutely hilarious. If you listen to locals talking Bislama, it’s easy to understand everything they are saying though you have to be patient – they use ten times more words than the English translation.
Signs in Bislama are also easy to understand if you just pronounce them phonetically, even if they look like jibberish on first glance.
We’ve come across many words and phrases that made us chuckle but here are some of our favourites (we promise these are 100% genuine) - Enjoy!
Klosap / longwe – near / far
Mi Wannem Bia – I’d like a beer
Haf Ded – Unconscious
Smol Rat – Mouse
Bigfala Naif – Machete
Room blong cuttem man - Operating theatre
Givim Titi – to breastfeed
Fiftyfifty – Bisexual
Samting ia Buggerup – Something is broken
Fiksimap - To repair
I gat Shitwota – I have Diarrhea
Pulum I kam, pushem I go, wood I fall down – A saw
Basket blong titi – Bra
Now any idea what this mouthful might be????......
Bigfela boxis blong witman witem tut, som i wit, som i blak, yu kilim emi singoat
Small clue - this directly translates to “big box that belongs to the whiteman with teeth, some are white, some are black, you hit it and it sings out”.
It’s Bislama for ‘Piano’ hahahahahaha.
Seriously, is that not the best language in the World?!???!!
Tomorrow we fly back to New Zealand to start our 2 month tour of both the North and South island. We've just heard that a big cyclone is due to hit Vanuatu on Thursday so it seems we're leaving just in the nick of time. That's the 3rd cyclone we've out-run in the past month - flukey or what!?
So until next time folks, all that’s left is to say Baebae!!
That's Farewell in Bislama :-)