01.01.2013: What a better way to start the year than waking up in a nice Vila in the Mele Bay? We had to enjoy this because I knew our comfort level will take a hit later during the day. I wasn’t too sure what to expect but from reading online, it was pure authentic village experience we were heading at. I knew I could handle that without problem, my concern was if my lady could survive the basic and rustic accommodations and cold showers!! Our flight was schedule at 3:00pm that day, so we didn’t do much that day except just relaxing and reading near the pool. I was still waiting for a confirmation that we would get picked up at our destination as there was not much mean of transportation over there, especially on a 1st of January. At the airport, the flight was once again delayed but at least not for too long. The flight was short and we landed (quite forcefully) at Tanna tiny airport. Obtaining our luggage took some time as there was 2 agents getting all of passenger’s luggage out of the plane manually. Frank, our driver and guide for the next day, was already there at the Airport waiting for us to go at Sunset Bungalow. Arrived at the bungalow, we were submerge in our new environment for the week. The bungalows were not bad after all but very rustic without hot water. Mosquito net hanging down from the ceiling. There was no one else than us and the local manager. It was drizzling outside, but we went around the place a bit. We tried to explore the small town but there was no one and all local shops were close for the 1st January so we came back to the bungalows and had dinner there. The dinner was basic but quite good. We had a local beer and went to bed early. There was not much else to do at 8pm in the dark by ourselves! We didn’t sleep that well because the bed wasn’t very comfortable and it was hot and humid with hardly any breeze coming in even with both windows open.
02.01.2013: We woke up early and had fruits and bread for breakfast. Bananas were delicious. Because of the poor road condition and the rain, we couldn’t go to the famous blue cave we were expecting to go up north the island. Instead, we choose to go check out a Kastom Village (traditional village) nearby Lenakel. Frank our very friendly driver pick us up around 9am and we headed toward the village. It was pleasant to drive on the small dirt road in the jungle with every local villagers waving at us. There was no other tourist there. It took around 45min to reach the village where we were demonstrated few local customs, how they live, how they make fire and one of there famous dance.
In Vanuatu there is a form of chanting and stomping of feet while wearing little bits of vine and grass (you know Adam & Eve fashion style clothing) known as Kastom Dancing. It is a group dance performance that is essentially the reenactment of ancestral stories and legacies of each village. Watching a group of near naked men suddenly appear before you, shuffling their way into a small clearing in the jungle, singing and the rattles on their ankle shaking out a primordial beat was something quite fascinating. It was like if you have stepped out of a time machine into the early years of the man on earth, at a time when there was a such a spiritual bond between the human and the Earth.
Next we headed toward one of the most giant Banyan Tree of the world. The rain had make the road quite difficult and the truck couldn’t climb the damaged road. We walked through the bush for 30min up to the site. The big tree was covering an area of around 200m and around 80m high. Quite impressive. Each extending branches supported by massive amount of roots.
After some fun playing Tarzan we went back toward Rocky Ridge Bungalows where another blue hole was apparently worth checking. This one was different as it sits inside the sea and you have to walk on the rocky shore to get to it. Protected of the waves by reefs, this spot was quite amazing. Lot of colorful fish and corals.
Then we went walking around the town of Lenakel which was a really small town without much to do but it was interesting to see how people live in such places. A small fruits & vegetables market a couple of small shop selling a little bit of everything, few school, a church, etc. People were friendly as I suppose there are not seeing a lot of tourists around. Walking on the small beach, local people were just coming to talk to us while we asked permission to walk on their land. We ate dinner at our Bungalow and had few drinks. Went to bed again quite early.
03.01.2013: After breakfast and paying our bills for 2 nights, food, tour and transport at Sunset Bungalow, which was frankly too much for this place (around 300$), we arranged our pickup from West Tanna to go explore the eastern side of the Island where reside the Mount Yasur Volcano. We waited couple of hours at the bungalow reading and hunting flies away. Daniel, the manager of Lava View Bungalow of organised my trip on Tanna by phone arrived with his truck around noon and we headed toward the airport to pick up two other guest, a couple from Melbourne. It was hard to select a place to stay in Tanna from the Internet as not much up-to date information is available, however, Daniel was strongly recommended on TripAdvisor. This time, it was the good old fashion ride at the back of a pick-up truck that was waiting for us. A good hour and an half of transport to reach Laval View Volcano in East Tanna, which apparently offers a splendid view of the volcano.
Part of the road was good because it was recently completed by AusAID through International Development. Daniel was particularly proud of this as the new road (dirt road still but flat at least!) because it saves villagers from East Tanna a lot of time to come for supply in Lenakel, or to simply pickup guest from the local airport.
The road was enjoyable as any ride at the back of a pickup. Good view, villagers waving at you and jumping in for part of the travel, few bumps along a way. We made a stop on the ash plains at the foot of the volcano. This was already an extraordinary feeling walking so I could imagine what would it be seeing the volcano in action later during the day.
From the plains to the village where we going to spend the night at Lava View Bungalow, the ride was about 20-25min of pretty bad road. Arrived at our destination, we relaxed and unpacked our stuff. It was definitely another step “off the beaten track”. It was rather very basic and close to the local village standards, however in return we had a true and authentic village experience and get to share a piece of how local live, with wonderful and friendly hosts, good food, comfortable accommodation for what it is (nice breeze, comfortable beds), and a fantastic view of the volcano.
The was a tropical cyclone near Vanuatu and the wind was really strong that day and the fragile bungalow was shaking. The trees were bending over the strength of the wind guts. We asked Daniel if we could have the chance to go and check out the volcano and we attempted going despite the strong wind. We took the truck but we didn’t went really far that the road was blocked by fallen bamboos and fallen trees. Getting the local helping with axes, machetes and a chain saw we dug our way slowly toward the Volcano. It took at least an hour before we reach the main gate where we were told it was dangerous up there. After such an effort, we decide to not turn back. The road was really bad with pockets of smoke coming out the ground. We were quite excited. Arrived near the top, we jumped out the truck and looked up toward the path up the rim of the volcano. It was like inferno, the wind was really strong, we could barely stand up without falling and with the dust and the ash battling our faces, it was almost like a sandstorm or a blizzard. It was way to dangerous to go up there without risking falling down the crater into the lava soup! We resigned and headed back. It took forever to reach the bungalow, we had to cover our face and our eyes while trying to hang to something from not falling down the pick-up because of the bumpy ride. We really felt we were at the end of the world in such a remote place. We were exhausted and went straight to bed after a quick dinner. The bungalow was shaking for the entire night but we still managed to sleep very well.
04.01.2013 (aka best day ever): We woke up early again, re-energized from a good night of sleep. The day ahead was filled with activities. Good thing there was no more strong winds.We were guide by few local, among them was Robert of main tour guide. Robert was 28 years old and extremely friendly and we conversed most of the day with him to learn about the place, the customs, the culture. We started by visiting another Kastom Village where this time, women from the village performed some dance. The scenery with the volcano in the back, the joy, the warmth of the people and their dance was truly magical. An instant we will not forget.
Next, we headed to Port Resolution, another coast village with one of the few white sand beach around the Island. The roads were again quite bad to reach that place, but it was beautiful. We ate lunch there, fresh coconuts, fruits and tuna sandwiches. The water was really warm and nice however the current was really strong so I didn’t went really far. After lunch, we went exploring the black sand beach of sulfur bay and the hot springs. Climbing up the hills to the hot springs, there was millions of ants running everywhere and up your ankles and legs. Good thing they were not biting. The hot springs were a bit deceiving, there was nothing much to see for such a hike with the ants.
Our next stop was the long awaited Volcano. Back on the same road, we drove up the hill to the volcano area. We were excited, this place was the primary reason of our travel to Vanuatu and one of my bucket list item. The winds were collaborative this time and it has stop raining too. The sun was coming out from the clouds letting the whole area between of heaven and hell. On one side, it was quiet, the view was amazing, with a rainbows showing up the mountains and the jungle, on the other side the roaring caldron. We hike up the path to the edge of the rim of the crater.
Then, without warning, a deafening roar erupted from the depths of the caldron. Growling and menacing it was the sort of noise that we knew instinctively would precede something very bad, as if the gates of Hell had just opened and apocalypse was about to happen. With powerful and explosive roar, a lava geyser shot upward from the bottom of the crater, making the ground shake, spraying glowing magma rock and ashes into the air before falling to the bottom of the crater where they lay on the cold rock still glowing red. The sulfur smoke and ash stung our eyes and our throats dry. We looked at each other, we were exhaled, excited without a word to explain how astonishing witnessing this live volcanic eruption experience was. Our jaws were still hanging open.
We stayed on the top of Mount Yasur volcano for 2 hours, moving from one spot to another as the smoke clouds were covering the view while watching the spectacular fireworks lit up the darkness. Walking down the rim in the darkness of the night was even an experience it itself as we couldn’t see 1 meter in front of our while the volcano was still exploding and lighting up the sky in orange. It was a once in a lifetime experience we will never forget. We had conquered an erupting volcano!
Already satisfied from our wonderful day, we went to the last destination of the night, the John Frum Village also describe as the “Cargo Cult”. From our perspective, it was local villagers reuniting on a Friday night to play and sing happy South Pacific Island songs and dance. However, the local meaning of the place is much stronger, there is a spiritual meaning to this. I asked around to understand more about it but it seems there are many version of the story of the John Frum Village. One of them is of the Cargo Cult when some 300,000 American troops were stationed in the New Hebrides during the Second World War, bringing with them large amounts of supplies, or “cargo”. Followers of John Frum ( aka John from America) built symbolic landing strips to encourage American aeroplanes to once again land and bring them “cargo”. They apparently believe that John Frum will come back on a February 15, a date which is observed as “John Frum Day” in Vanuatu. Other version of the story explain that John Frum was a kava-induced spirit vision promising the dawn of a new age, in which all white people, including missionaries, would leave the New Hebrides, and that the native Melanesians would gain access to the material wealth that white people enjoyed. We stayed over an hour, it was interesting but we were exhausted and very satisfied from the day. The road back to the bungalow once again appeared to take forever as our hands could barely grip and hold our own weight at the back of the pick up. The night was good, we slept like babies.
05.01.2013: We packed up and had breakfast. It was time to say good bye and drive back to the airport for our flight at 3pm back to Port-Vila. The road was long, we were happy we stayed 2 nights on East Tanna instead of other tourists staying in the only resort of the place near the airport and driving 4h back and forward to see the volcano and not even having the chance the see the volcano at night. We were extremely happy with our stay and Daniel was incredibly friendly and helpful. Even though he was reasonably priced compare to other place around, we had the misfortune to run out of cash to pay him. There was no ATM on the whole island. I made him the promise I will wire him some money when I’m back to Australia. He agreed and I hold my promise back. Back in Port Vila, we just headed to our motel and relaxed for the last night in Vanuatu.
06.01.2013: We did some shopping for the last day around Port Vila and bought some souvenirs. Our flight was at 3pm back home in Brisbane. It was quite a shock to get home around 8pm knowing we will be at work the next morning!
We really enjoyed in stay in Vanuatu. Very highly recommended for the more open minded and adventurous expectations. With the exception of Port Vila, it was off the beaten track, very authentic with very few tourist. It was more expensive than anticipated. Vanuatu has cheap labor and is considered a tax heaven, however probably due to fact most of tourist are Australians and there is a lot of Australian owned businesses, prices are not always reasonable… After we immersed ourselves in the basic condition of the island, Tanna experience was amazing.
Things we enjoyed the most:
- Tanna experience and the Volcano, definite one experience of a lifetime.
- Few tourists, authenticity of the place.
- Very friendly, helpful, happy and laid back people. Smiling and waving at you and not trying to sell you something you don’t want.
- Very safe place in general
- Beautiful crystal clear water, corals, reefs, fishes.
- No dangerous / poisonous animal or insects
- Lush of the tropical jungle
Things we enjoyed the less
- Generally speaking, the prices in Vanuatu are too high. If you haven’t been to South East Asia, it is definitely much cheaper.
- Port Vila Domestic Airport: We spend too many hours there waiting! The place is hot, humid and dirty.
- Air Vanuatu poor organization and communication.
- Most annoying flies in the world, especially in Tanna!
Thanks for reading,
Pascal & Gabriela