I have just returned from an amazing trip to beautiful Vanuatu, and I loved every second of it.
My father and I have talked about visiting the island of Tanna for a few years now. Our main motivation was to see Mount Yasur, which is regarded as the world's most accessible volcano.
We decided to stay at Tanna Adventures bungalows located near Middlebush. Most accommodation on Tanna is around the coastline, and prices vary dramatically, but these bungalows are up on the island's ridge line and were a very reasonable cost.
Our hosts were married couple Esso and Rachel. They would arrive in the morning to make breakfast (included in the modest price), then take us out on our tailored tours. At the end of a long day, it was fabulous to arrive back to a lovely cooked meal served in their cosy restaurant. Being up high, there are no mosquitoes. A bonus, as malaria can be a problem. There are only two bungalows, so you are never in fear of crowds.
Day 1 tour started with a drive to the southern end of Tanna. It's not easy going. There are no sealed roads, but some are very flat and even. Unfortunately, we were not on those roads for long! It was about 1.5 hours to the volcano's ash plain. The jungle gives way to the huge black ash dunes and the land's terrain changes dramatically almost instantaneously.
From the ash plains we headed to Shark Bay. The bay is home to dozens of reef sharks. Privately owned, you are charged a fee if the sharks are in sight from the cliff lookout. We only saw three sharks (or was it one darting around very quickly?) but we were still charged. I would not go out of my way to return to Shark Bay. It was pretty, but a little disappointing.
Lunch was at a local restaurant at Whitesands. The food was wonderful, and there was so much, but the highlight was that the plates were made completely from banana palm fronds. There were gorgeous children playing just outside, and the beach was worth a quick walk. One word of warning – the bathroom was not for the faint hearted.
Port Resolution was our next stop. Captain Cook visited here in 1774. Fabulous views, white sandy beaches, and even a natural hot spring, so it is well worth the visit.
We visited a Custom Village where locals, under the leadership of Chief Chuc Woy Woy, danced and sang for us. My father and I were the only audience, so we felt very special. There was a lesson in fire starting by rubbing wood together, and plenty of photo opportunities. The backdrop for the dancers was a giant banyan tree, complete with hut built into it. If you have a little cash with you, they have carvings for sale which are a lot cheaper than Vanuatu's capital, Port Vila, and are 100% locally made.
Finally it was time to head up the volcano. We left it until the afternoon so we could be there as the sun sets. This is something I definitely recommend. There is a fee charged for entry – something to be aware of early as we were caught a bit short. As you drive closer, you see steam vents on the sides of the road. It is a little unnerving to think of all the activity going on right underneath your tyres. From the carpark, it is a short walk to the crater. Oh, and if you happen to have a letter that needs posting, there is the world's only volcano post box in the carpark before you climb - really! They clear it daily.
The day we visited it was very windy. Fortunately, the wind was at our backs as we watched the volcano. There are no safety rails, no viewing platforms, and no souvenir shops on exiting. This is spectacular nature at its finest. It is exhilarating, scary and exciting. There are a few different areas where you can get a fabulous view, and it started getting quite busy as we got to closer to dusk. There was even a French group of Vulcanologists in full safety gear. I felt slightly under-dressed in my jeans, sneakers and cardigan, standing next to them with their hard hats, goggles and breathing masks. If I could have brought one thing with me, it would have been goggles. The wind threw a lot of ash about and goggles would have come in very handy. As I stood watching the volcano splutter and cough, I made a mental note to run if I saw the Vulcanologist run. After all, they are the experts!
We were at Yasur for 2.5 hours. I heard an Australian lady on a different tour say to her son 'We can't be too long. The guide said we needed to be back at the car in 15 minutes'. There is no way you can appreciate Yasur in 15 minutes. If you visit, make sure you are going to have plenty of time there. That was a fantastic thing about Tanna Adventures; we were able to set our own pace.
It is difficult to describe just how amazing it is to stand on the edge of an active volcano. You never know when an explosion is coming. You never know how loud or how large it is going to be. Watching red hot lava rocks shooting into the air with ease, it was hard not to think that they were fire embers lightly rising from a huge camp fire – until you heard them land with giant thumps. Seeing this red, fiery crater as the sun went down was an unforgettable experience. It makes you realise just how insignificant we really are.
We were preparing to leave just as it started raining. So that just pushed us along a little faster. It was great timing. After a long drive home in the dark, it was wonderful to arrive back at the bungalows to a hot meal cooked by Rachel, her daughters and her sister.
The bungalows have a small amenities block with a flushing toilet and a cold water shower. Rachel will heat you a bucket of water if you prefer, but we just had a cold, quick wash off.
Day 2 – Esso took us on a 'Custom Walk'. There are tracks linking the villages so when chiefs wanted to give a message to the next village's chief he could tell a young boy who would then run the track to pass the message. We felt very old and uncoordinated slipping up and down these tiny tracks, knowing that local children can pelt through at a great rate of knots without a single stumble. In saying that, the walk was magnificent.
The jungle was thick, but Esso knew exactly where he was going, and really took time to make sure we got the most from the experience. We walked through two villages. One was completely deserted, except for baby pigs and chickens which were wandering around. Later, we were walking quietly, listening to bird calls and the sound of the wind through the trees, when we could hear singing in the distance. A lot of people, singing in unison. Esso stopped and listened a while. Then he told us that someone in the village had died, and that was what the singing was about. You hear stories about how messages are passed around in song; to hear it for ourselves was sad and personal and poignant.
The second village had children playing while ladies worked and watched on. We were speaking, with Esso's help, to a lady called Hannah when it started raining. She invited us into her hut until the rain eased. This was an absolute highlight of the trip for me! This was not a 'built for tourists' hut, this was her home. We sat in her tiny hut with her three children and her husband Jacob, and I marvelled at the simplicity of it all. There was an area for cooking and an area for sleeping. What else did you need?
To humble me even further, Hannah presented me with a grass skirt she had made. Another lady came over as it stopped raining to give me a feathered headdress. I was completely overwhelmed. I always carry wrapped sweets for children I meet, but I really didn't feel that was enough to repay their generosity.
We went on to the 'Black Magic Tour'. Well worth doing. I don't want to spoil it for anyone who goes, but it is a fabulous tour about the magic of Vanuatu's past - just look out the that bamboo circumcision stick.
Esso arranged for his 4 Wheel Drive to pick us up, complete with our bags. A welcome relief after such a long, wonderful walk. We drove to Lenakel, Tanna's small capital, for some lunch. Lunch with a local is always cheaper as they know all the best places. After lunch we headed to the airport for our short flight back to Port Vila.
A few pointers - don't expect things to happen on time. You are on island-time in Vanuatu. Just go with it.
Carry a little cash (in Vatu) with you at all times. It comes in handy. A wrapped lolly, or a packet of colouring pencils goes a long way in Vanuatu. The kids just love them, and you will get plenty of smiles as a thank you.
If you are looking for a bit of adventure, and to get away from the tourist areas of Vanuatu, then I couldn't recommend Tanna enough. A flight from Brisbane to Port Vila on Air Vanuatu is only 3 hours, then another 40 minutes to Tanna.
They are my preferred airline as the get you in the island spirit straight away.