Tanna, Vanuatu


Erupting Mt Yasur

For travel dates to Tanna, Vanuatu refer to the Travel Map.

My taxi driver friend had set me up with his brother on Tanna. This was the rainy and cyclone season, which meant rough seas and my departure was delayed for a couple of days. I could’ve taken the speed boat, but instead decided to go with the locals (a decision I was going to half-regret later) which takes much longer, but is also quite a bit cheaper. I was the only tourist, the other passengers were locals, mainly children on school holidays going back to their families. We were about 10 in total. The ship, the “Malekula”, was a small cargo vessel, with a small deck with a wooden bench for the passengers. Once we left the sheltered waters of the harbour, I thought to myself: “Why isn’t he going any faster, now that we’re out of the harbour?”. Well, that was the top speed – 6 knots (not quite 12 km/h)! Being an island people, the ni-Vanuatu are surprisingly unfit for travelling on the ocean (!?!). Shortly after we exited the harbour, the first few started puking, the rest followed in shortly after. It was going to be like this for the next 22 hours – slowly climb a wave, slowly descend into the trough, slowly climb again, and so on, with everybody puking around me. I did not think it possible, but I kid you not when I say that dark skinned people do turn green! Eventually I did start to feel somewhat nauseous myself, not to the point of being really sick, but kinda thinking about what the speed boat would’ve been like… Sleeping wasn’t much of an option, because laying on a metal deck, one would slide back and forth a couple of feet as the ship slowly crawled up and down the waves. Eventually we made it to Lenakel harbour on the western side of Tanna. My host was waiting for me with a pick up truck to take us across the island to his village called Rohekau. There’s only a small jungle track over the central mountain, that leads to the east side of the island.

People here still live in family clans – every family lives in their own “village” comprising 3 or 4 huts (in the old days they’d speak their own language or dialect, which the clan across the valley might not understand). Suddenly I was in the jungle, at the foot of a very active Mt Yasur, without electricity nor running water, but with mobile phone service (!!!). I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that…

When the rain cleared a bit, my host took me up to the crater of Mt Yasur, and what an experience that was! It actually feels like a living being, it huffs and puffs, and growls and roars, and spits out molten rock. One can see the blast wave as a lightning flash, followed by the sound of the blast, then the lava comes flying up quite slowly, like watching something in slow motion. Certainly one of the most amazing things I’ve ever witnessed!

One day news of a cyclone came, it was heading this way. It looked as if we wouldn’t get the full hit, “only” it’s fringe would brush Tanna. This information didn’t mean much to me, I only heard “cyclone” and that sounds scary, particularly when the shelter is a bamboo hut with a palm leaf roof. I did trust my host to know what to do, though. They’ve been living with these conditions forever. We got hit in the night, and it was weird. The wind would come in waves, one could hear a howling in the distance coming ever closer, then the hut would shake and rattle, the trees would bend and branches would break, then the howling would fade into the distance and the next “wave” would come closer again. The huts withstood the winds without damage, but most banana trees had been felled, which is quite a disaster as bananas are a staple diet. Apparently in the north of the island, a few huts had their roofs blown off, but nobody was hurt.

Due to the winds and heavy rain, the jungle track to Lenakel was impassable and I hadn’t planned cash for an extended stay. There are no banks on Tanna where one could withdraw money and I couldn’t get to Lenakel anyway. The days got boring, as there wasn’t much to do and the rain kept pelting down. Eventually word came that some people were going to try the drive to Lenakel and I could get a ride. My host came along and we did make it! Now, in the aftermath of the cyclone, the seas were still very rough and no ships were sailing, so I had to make time but had virtually no money left. Exceptionally friendly and nice as the ni-Vanuatu are, my host set me up with a friend, who rents huts at his “Holiday Heaven” in Lenakel. I got to stay in a hut, overlooking a reef paying next to nothing, and got food from my new host as well. Did I mention that on Vanuatu you find the friendliest people on the planet?

There was an internet place in town, which allowed me to book a flight back to Efate. Nobody knew when the ships would start sailing again (I wasn’t looking forward to that journey anyway). I got to enjoy Lenakel for a couple of days and flew back to Efate, with quite an exceptional travelling experience under my belt.

I hope my friends in Vanuatu are well and made it through the devastation caused by Cyclone Pam earlier this year. Best wishes to all the people of Vanuatu!

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