After two weeks of no cell service and one week of no WiFi while in the Solomon Islands, I’m back online to post about my previous adventures in Vanuatu. What a wonderful place! The archipelago, which gained independence from France in 1980, comprises 82 islands, of which 65 are inhabited.
Vanuatu is a very poor South Pacific Nation whose mainstays are agriculture, tourism, offshore financial services, and cattle raising. Citizenship may be purchased for $150,000, and many Chinese have been moving onto the islands.
The National language is Bislama, similar to Pidgin English, and the official languages are French, English and Bislama. It’s amazing these islanders that have so little are at least tri-lingual and maybe more as many have a tribal dialect too. I’d just like to be bilingual which I’m working on with my next trip to Panama in a Spanish submersion school.
A Night in Efate
I visited Vanuatu for 10 days and visited three main islands, Tanna, Espiritu Santo, and Efate. To get there, I flew from Tonga to Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, via Fiji Air. What a great airline! They had a selection of snacks, but unlike most US airlines, it’s not a choose one scenario. They served one of each. I ended up with chips, a granola bar, a fruit bar, and some cookies for a two hour flight.
On the domestic side of the Bauerfield International Airport, checked bags are delivered to a counter next to the gate for departure and arrivals. I picked up my bag and met Atmosphere Tours, the shuttle that Michael at Traveller’s Budget Motel arranged for me for $1,000 Vatu (less than $9 USD).
They brought me to my accommodations, this time on the right side of the road. From American Samoa (right), to Samoa (left), to Tonga (left) to Vanuatu (right), I hardly knew which way to look for traffic anymore.
I only stayed overnight in Efate on my way to Tanna, known for the world’s most accessible volcano and its coffee. Just in my short stay at Traveller’s Budget Motel (to which I’ll be returning for the end of my stay in Vanuatu), I learned some very useful information.
First, all domestic flights require a $200 Vatu departure tax. Second, there are only two ATM machines on Tanna, and the tours require cash. Third, the buses in Port Vila are easy to ride especially when Agnes at Traveller’s Budget Motel knows all the prices!
Needless to say, before I returned to the airport via a bus (which just looks like a shuttle van with a big red B on the license plate) for $150 Vatu the following morning, I loaded up on cash at the ATM, after I dealt with the fraud alert from my bank.
On the Way to Tanna
I arrived far too early for my domestic flight on Air Vanuatu to Tanna. Even after paying the overweight charge in cash (only 10 kilos allowed on domestic flights), and paying the departure tax at another window, I still had a good hour to sit in the single waiting area with weak ceiling fans!
After all the passengers boarded our flight for take off without passing through any security, Air Vanuatu completed the count and departed at least fifteen minutes early! No last minute ticket purchases here.
The very strict flight attendants enforced a rule “no phones or other small electronic devices may be on at all” during take off and landing. That one was new to me. Though a short flight, no snacks or beverages were served either. Quite the opposite of my recent experience on Fiji Air.
Tanna had the smallest airport yet. There was a tiny waiting area for checked bags, maybe the size of a bedroom. Outside, I met Morris. He is the owner of Volcano Island Paradise, located on the east side of Tanna, where I stayed for two nights.
The places to stay on the east side of Tanna are basic huts while the places on the west side, near Tanna’s main city, Lenakel, are resort properties. Many visitors sign up for an overnight tour from Efate just to see the volcano and stay on the western side. On the other hand, those who want to ensure good weather for the volcano visit, to see the volcano more than once, or to have a more authentic experience stay on the east side.
Getting to the East Side of Tanna
As a result of ensuring good weather, I, along with two Australians, Carol and Steve, booked huts at Volcano Island Paradise. We loaded our bags into the back of Sanga’s pickup and off we went for the Cross Island drive to Imayo Village. First we stopped at the ATM so Morris and Sanga could get money. Then we visited a fruit stand where Steve, Carol, and I bought a heap of mangos and bananas for $200 Vatu…no bartering required.
Then we stopped at a store so Morris could buy fresh bread for our breakfast in the morning. Next we found a “grocery” store for water, biscuits and tuna (our lunch). Then we visited another market where Morris purchased vegetables for the dinner we would be ordering.
At the market, we picked up a some girls to give them a ride. Then we stopped at two stores to find some chicken that would also be part of our dinner. With the shopping covered, we finally started across the road which turned from paved, to rough road, to volcanic ash. We drove across the ash plains, through the jungle, and eventually ended up at Morris’ home after a short visit to his son’s school to pick up some of his belongings while he stayed there for final exams.
Morris, with his wife, Susie, and six kids, live in a few huts by the entrance to his property, while we walked down a narrow path to four more huts, a kitchen hut and an outhouse with views of the volcano in the distance.
Each hut includes two beds with mosquito netting, a table and electricity. One hut had an ensuite bathroom and the rest share an outhouse with a toilet and shower, no hot water or sink. There was a water spigot outside my hut where people could rinse their hands. My hut also operated the outside light at night time.
Visiting Mount Yasur Volcano
It was mid afternoon by time we settled down. The promising weather forecast encouraged us to visit Tanna’s famous volcano this evening. We needed to arrive at Mount Yasur by 4pm. Our transport, Morris’ friend Sanga, took us for $1,000 Vatu (a lot less than the cross island resort tours) though we did have to pay for our cross island drive to our accommodation which got us closer to the same price.
I was stunned to find an entrance lined with signs for visitors from each country which led to a nice visitors center with pictures of different volcanoes, a bathroom and snack bar. The entrance fee is $9,750 Vatu for first time visitors. It drops to $6,500 for second time visitors, and the third visit is free!
We met a French family who did the sunrise visit, daytime visit, and the evening visit. While the sunrise and sunset visit obviously include the chance to visit during the day and night, the daytime visit allows for a hike and maybe ash boarding down (not sure if that is extra).
They accommodate about 80 visitors per session, though we were fortunate to join a group of forty which did not feel that crowded. For those who want more solitude, less people attend the 3am departure for sunrise.
The Evening Show
Before they drove us up the ash road in the back of a pick up truck, they performed a few traditional dances for us. During the show, I sat behind the USA sign where I met Joyce and her husband. Fortunately, he got picked to participate instead of me!
After the song and dance, we selected plastic hard hats and safety goggles. I’m not sure how plastic hard hats protect visitors from lava rocks, but they were useful as we ducked beneath low hanging branches on the way up.
The Drive Up
After a fifteen minute drive, all the trucks park at the base of some stairs, marked with a post box, which we all climbed to the rim of the volcano. The rim features various viewing points based on the volcanic activity, wind and weather. The safest viewpoints are determined each day by geologists monitoring the volcano.
On the Rim
Mount Yasur has been at a level two for the last few years, and relatively active as of late with a landslide just the week before we visited. The volcano is off limits for levels 3-5. Our guides led us to two of the view points. We thought the first spot was amazing until we reached the second and could see inside the active volcano!
Mount Yasur snapped, crackled and popped as lava spewed out of side vents and exploded with loud booms. It was SOOO COOL!! (Or maybe hot). Everyone stood at its edge, with flimsy or no guard rails, mesmerized with phones and cameras in hand to catch all the action. This incredible accessibility certainly would not exist in other countries.
It was a special treat to be so close as lava bubbled in the crater below and smoke billowed overhead. The glow increased with the night sky. I could not turn my eyes away from nature’s beauty! My pictures and video cannot do Mount Yasur justice. It was an incredible experience that I didn’t want to end.
I felt fortunate that they did not rush us. I kept expecting to be ushered down any minute, but we kept getting to stay. We spent at least 1.5 hours on the rim! Once our time was up, we were responsible for our own flashlights to find our way down the dark path. These days, everyone carries a phone, so that was easily handled, just a little humorous to me…no flash lights, but a plastic hard hat!
While I wasn’t ready to leave, I certainly couldn’t complain about the spectacular experience. I really just couldn’t get over actually being able to see the lava which I hadn’t seen at any of the other volcanoes I’d visited.
Pano view of Mount Yasur – 22 seconds
Side vent spewing lava – 6 seconds
Small lava eruption – 8 seconds
Big lava eruption – 20 seconds
Back at Morris’ Volcano Island Paradise
After our descent to the visitors center, we returned to Volcano Island Paradise for dinner that Morris’ wife, Susie, cooked. Our meal included a giant bowl of rice, half a plate of grilled susut with onion, some cabbage, and a tiny piece of chicken. I had never heard of susut, but after a google search, I learned it is chayote and part of the gourd family.
We had a perfect night, all the way up until I discovered a rat had eaten the food in my hut! Ok, that gave me the heebee geebees, but I was thankful I at least had mosquito netting between me and a rodent possibly scampering over me in the night! Along with a roach and some other June bug type thing, I definitely got the authentic experience.
I can’t say it was my best night’s sleep, especially with roosters crowing all night (not just at sunrise) but what can I say, that’s nature, and part of the adventure. I wouldn’t change my experience as mingling with the locals is what made my Tanna visit that much more special.
Hike to the Hot Springs
The following day, after the continental breakfast which was included in our stay, Wesley and Brian, Morris’ son and nephew respectively, led us on a two hour hike to the Sulphur Bay Hot Springs. We followed the partially shaded roads to the expansive ash plain and continued into a village that charges $1,500 Vatu to visit the springs.
None of the way is marked, thus we definitely needed our young, barefoot guides to lead the way for a small fee. I asked them if they ever visited the springs themselves without tourists in tow. They said no, and now I know why.
Sulphur Bay Hot Springs
The hot springs are a shallow, hot river which empties into Sulphur Bay. I use the word river loosely as it’s calm, wide base resembles a pool with ankle deep HOT water. So hot in fact, the locals cook their food in it. The original and natural version of sous-vide, I suspect.
It was also so hot, that the typical tourist could not even stand in it! I take scalding hot showers and could only bare it for six steps or so. I couldn’t believe the kids could simply walk right through it. I resorted to walking on the wet black sand to get to the large beach with small, cold waves.
The mix of the ocean waves with the hot water at the river’s base, however, provided bath tub type temperature for soaking along with surges of hot and cold with the surf. After maybe an hour, we changed into our shorts, shirts, and tennis shoes for the walk back.
Across the Ash Plain
With the sun straight overhead, the black sand was hotter than the hot springs. We ran from the wet beach to our gear on a dry bench. I could not figure out how those barefoot boys were going to lead us across the vast ash plain for 45 minutes. It was like walking through a black sand desert.
Upon leaving the beach, I noticed Brian and Wesley would walk fast and stop on the limited grass. Once we made it to the ash plain, they broke some branches from nearby bushes, ran as far as they could, and stood on the leafy branches until their feet cooled!
Fortunately, Carol and Steve had reef shoes in their bags, which they gave to the boys who initially refused them until we insisted. Walking across the ash plain in the heat of the day was not our best decision. It was sweltering! Upon reaching the road and rustling bushes on the other side, Carol exclaimed, “I hear water.”
I was so hot I could hardly think straight, and the only words that came to mind were, “That’s your imagination.”
Steve said, “That’s the wind in the bushes. There’s no water in the desert.”
I said, “Yes, you’ve imagined an oasis.”
We definitely had a laugh over that, and at Carol’s correct comment, “No one’s going to be fighting for hot water in the shower now.” That’s the truth!
A Relaxing Evening at Morris’
We spent the rest of the afternoon recovering from our walk while relaxing with the view of the volcano in the distance. Nothing can beat the view from the covered dining area at Morris’.
While Steve and I got our wish to walk on the ash plain, walking to the waterfall, visiting Port Resolution, or perhaps spending another day at the volcano might have been a better (or at least cooler) choice. There were certainly a variety of options written on the tour board. Regardless, I’m still glad we checked out the hot springs.
Susie cooked us dinner again. Instead of chicken, we had fish with rice and susut along with sliced cucumbers and bananas which I failed to mention previously.
I fared better with the rodents and bugs this evening, as Morris kindly secured my food inside their oven. Walking to the bathroom in the dark, however, proved a challenge. I broke my second toe and sliced off the end of my big toe when I stubbed it on the slab of cement at the outhouse.
I guess I was too busy gazing at the star filled sky! Oh well. It’s just another story to tell. The good news for future visitors, is Morris plans to upgrade all the huts with ensuite bathrooms, so no toe stubbing while stargazing.
I really enjoyed getting know Morris, Susie, and his six kids, three of which attend school with the money he makes from tourism. Four years ago, Morris was a farmer, but cyclone Pam devastated Vanuatu, and with AUS foreign aid he was able to get electricity, build huts and start his business.
Anyone who visits Mount Yasur will definitely enjoy an authentic stay with Morris. In addition, I loved getting to know Steve and Carol. They were a hoot! Their typical Australian attitude made everything “great.”
Visiting the Yakel Tribe
After breakfast the following morning, I bid farewell to Steve and Carol as they were staying a third night, while I was staying on the western side for one night at Tanna Evergreen Resort & Tours.
Since checkin wasn’t until the afternoon, Morris arranged a tour for me with the Yakel Tribe. The tribe lives in a traditional village of huts and relies on planting enormous gardens and raising chickens and pigs for food. The women wear only grass skirts while the men only don a Namba. Their village was used in the film, Tanna—The Movie which made the outside world aware of the Yakel people.
Only three people in the whole tribe speak English. Towati was one of them. He proudly led me through his village, showing me the houses and their gardens. After my tour, women gathered with their wares for sale and the men and children put on a dance that the women later joined as well. The visit to this village felt very authentic. After all, there wasn’t a daily show. They simply accepted only me with open arms.
It was also special to visit the Yakel Tribe, as Sanga’s daughter married into the tribe, and I got to meet his two tiny grandkids who loved riding on the back of the truck. They were barely taller than the tailgate.
Tanna Evergreen Resort & Tours
After visiting the tribe, and stopping for a few errands along the way as Morris prepared for his next guests, I finally reached Tanna Evergreen Resort & Tours. I was very surprised by the resort which offers single cabin accommodations with a shared bath all the way up to nice beach front villas.
The resort includes an open air restaurant and bar area, a nine hole putt putt golf course (generously described, a gym in the pool (also generously described) and a wonderful reef for snorkeling.
In addition, the resort offers a variety of tours which must be booked a day in advance, so I couldn’t add on any afternoon tour upon arrival. Thus I snorkeled in cuts of deep blue along a coral reef home to many anemone fish. The resort was really nice, and I enjoyed a relaxing evening before my morning flight back to Port Vila and then on to Espiritu Santo.
I highly recommend visiting Tanna. What an amazing and authentic place to see! To be continued…ETB