I have to be honest, up until a few months ago I had never even heard of Vanuatu. Survivor fans may know of it, as three seasons (I believe) were filmed there but otherwise it hadn’t crossed my radar.
After deciding to spend a bit of time in the South Pacific between leaving Melbourne and travelling Western Australia, we spent some time Googling and looking through Lonely Planet which lead us to Vanuatu for one primary reason: an active volcano on the island of Tanna.
Most people who travel to Vanuatu will arrive through Port Vila on the island of Efate; we were able to fly there directly from Brisbane. Since we were flying through there anyway we decided to stop for two nights and found some pretty cool stuff to do. The town itself doesn’t have much going on. We asked the guy who picked us up from the airport (William) where we should head for dinner, hoping for some local fare but most of the places he pointed us to were for tourists. Even so, we decided to go to a place he mentioned called War Horse Saloon based on his recommendation of delicious ribs.
We walked there from our hotel, which was just on the other side of town – about 4kms away. They had a happy hour special on so we got a few Tuskers (the local beer) and split a plate of ribs. I have to say, they did not disappoint!
We headed back to our accommodation, Fatumaru Lodge, making sure to pick up my personal favourite travel snack on our way – potato chips and beer (if we’re travelling for a whole year, perhaps I should pick another travel snack!). Fatumaru Lodge was just fine for our stay; not far from the airport and walk-able to town. Plus it was air conditioned which was an added bonus!
The next day we walked to EuropCar (a quick 5 minute walk) and started on our tour around Efate Island which is only about 120km all around. Our first stop was the Blue Lagoon. We were initially a little turned off due to it mostly being tourists, but it wasn’t hard to see why. It was a beautiful spot, great swimming and the key attraction that everyone was trying was a rope swing. We stayed there for about an hour, also trying our luck with the rope swing.
Our next stop was Matanawora WWII Relics, where you can snorkel a Corsair that crashed into a bay near the top of Efate. The experience was pretty hilarious. We pulled up to the entrance where there was a sign, but there was also a gate across. James decided to give the number on the sign a call and Erik said to just let ourselves in the gate and he would be over as soon as he could. So we did just that! Half an hour later, Erik came riding up on his bike to show us the War Museum which was basically a shed with a few pictures and plane parts. He asked us to wait while he got the boat ready (i.e. carried the motor down to the ‘dock’). A few minutes later we were on our way, on Erik’s small fishing boat. The tide was low which provided a few challenges, but soon we were out in the bay. We got our snorkels ready and jumped off the boat. There weren’t a lot of rules. In the western world, I’m sure you’d be asked to keep your distance and not touch the plane so to keep it in its natural state. Erik told us to get into the cockpit and grab some pictures!
The plane site is small, so we only snorkeled around for about 10 minutes, and then James flew his drone around a bit before heading back.
After that I was getting pretty hangry. We had planned on stopping at a Takara Katsom Village before going to Matanawora but we weren’t able to find it from the road. According to Lonely Planet they have dancing, music, weaving and a buffet lunch for 700VT (about $7 AUD) per person. Luckily, we came across a beach bar with a sign from the road about 20 minutes from the War Museum and close to Emua. We opted for the chicken snack and fish & veggie snack, which was basically two meals and definitely affordable.
The next stop on our tour of the island was one that caught my eye in Lonely Planet: Valeva Cave. The description mentions kayaking through dark caves and, to me, it sounded pretty awesome! We had to look closely for the road sign for Siviri village, and followed a road until we got to a place that looked like it could be the caves. There was an entrance, but no one was around. After a few minutes, a teenager came walking down the road and said he could show us. It was 2000VT ($20) for us to go in and get the kayak. Unfortunately it was a bit of a letdown. You get in the kayak, and make sure you have your phone or a torch because it really is pitch black! Two small caves and 3 minutes later, and we were done with the tour. I guess you win some and lose some! I think we both would have preferred spending the 2000VT on a few cold beers at the end of the day.
Lastly, we went to the Mele Cascades, one of the more notable sights according to LP. It’s 2000VT entry per person; after our experience with Valeva Cave we were skeptical, but I’m glad we stopped! There are a series of swimming pools as you make your way up to the waterfall at the top. Sounds easy enough, and scenic to be sure but it’s a lot more exciting than that! As you approach the top you notice a series of poles out of the water with rope that you use to climb your way up. Since I had read that the path can be slippery, we brought our watershoes and they were quintessential! The view at the top is beautiful, but it was the journey up that we enjoyed the most.
The next day we left for Tanna. Our hotel informed us that we should be there 90 minutes early, which we found odd for a domestic flight, but once we got there it became more obvious. It was a little hectic as the check-in was basically one large group without any clear direction, checking in anything from boxes of food, to plants, to a broom! It didn’t take us long to get our tickets and then we had some time to kill. Luckily, the beer in the domestic terminal was some of the cheapest we’d seen at 350VT and there is a lady with a popcorn maker that will sell you a bag for 100VT so we were pretty set.
I remember being surprised that our airport transfer from Whitegrass Airport over to East Tanna where we were staying was 5000VT one way but it became obvious the closer we got. We thought the conditions of the road in Efate were shocking, but it was nothing compared to Tanna! It’s no wonder everyone has 4WD trucks! We were going through rivers, up uneven muddy hills, you name it. But we made it in one piece. Unfortunately, Mike (our host’s) truck broke somewhere along the way and was out of commission for the remainder of our stay.
When we booked, we knew the accommodation we choose (Yasur View Bungalows) was going to be rustic and that was definitely the case! The hut we were staying in did not have any windows or airflow. There was a solar powered light to use in the evenings, but our headlamps came in handy. As did the lavender pillow spray I threw into my luggage last minute! Lack of airflow in a hot, damp jungle leads to some pretty interesting smells in a hut with a foam mattress. We had a little front porch, which provided the most incredible view of Mount Yasur, so on our first night we just settled in and watched as the view went from dark, grey smoke, to red smoke as the sun went down.
I don’t think either of us slept very well that night. We had a new appreciation for windows and fans, and the interruption of a mouse running around the floor in the middle of the night provided some excitement. But eventually we drifted off.
The next morning we woke up and had breakfast prepared by Mike’s wife, Lena, of bread, peanut butter and bananas. This was totally ok by me! Lena prepared all of our meals, which has a small added cost, and considering what she had to work with they were pretty great. There is no power, and therefore no fridge. Because Tanna is so remote, everything is really expensive. And to make matters more challenging, on East Tanna they cannot grow any fruit and vegetables due to the ash. So, yes, the meals were fairly basic, but they filled us up which was all we could really ask for!
We had some time to kill before leaving for the volcano around 3pm so we decided to walk to a nearby river and have a quick swim. James wanted to explore so I stayed at the river while he crossed and went for a walk. After 30 minutes, I wondered where he could have gotten off to so I crossed the river and started to look for him. It became obvious that it would be difficult to find him, so after 15 minutes I decided to head back – I told him if I wasn’t at the river any longer I would be back at Mike’s. Arriving back, there was still no sign of him and I started to wonder if he had been captured by a nearby village, or slipped on a rock and hit his head (knowing full well the most obvious option was that he had gotten a bit lost and would find his way back before too long). Sure enough, 10 minutes later James came running up the hill. It seems he had gotten lost, and stumbled upon a nearby village. When he told them he was staying at Mike’s, the village children walked him back (holding the standard machetes).
Pretty soon it was time to see Mount Yasur up close! We had originally booked to have a transfer to and from the bottom of the volcano for 2000VT each, each way (the walk is only a half hour, but it is through rivers, puddles, fields, etc.) but with Mike’s truck broken we took the next best option which was for his nephew Stephen to guide us by foot for 500VT each, each way. I really don’t know how we would have found it otherwise! And our water shoes came in handy once again!
We arrived at the bottom of Mount Yasur around 3:30pm, where we paid 9750VT each for the tour and transfer to and from the top of the crater. A little steep for Vanuatu, but worth every penny. There is some introduction, and a welcome dance and pretty soon you’re on your way. Since we arrived by foot and didn’t pay extra for a transfer from a tour company, our ride up to the top was in the back of a truck bed! But that was alright by us. Once at the top we were given our safety briefing: “Don’t fall in and have fun”.
It was absolutely incredible at the top. Right away, you can see the billowing clouds of smoke as you make your way up a small hill to the top of the crater. They also have a mailbox at the top, so you can send Volcano Post! We stayed at the top for about 1.5 hours, as daylight slowly faded away and the colours became more vivid.
The volcano erupts every few minutes, so there’s not a lot of standing around and waiting. Soon, our guide informed us it was time to make our way back down to the trucks, and begin our drive down to the bottom. Stephen met us and guided us back through the pitch black forest. We’d thought ahead to bring our headlamps and it was a good thing as Stephen didn’t have a torch. Either way, we would have made it back ok; he knew the forest like the back of his hand.
As we trekked through the mud and eventually got back to our accommodation to take a (cold) shower, I started to wonder if we should have spent a little more money to stay somewhere more comfortable. But thinking on it, there was something really nice in knowing that Mike’s place was managed by him and his village. Instead of paying a little more, which would have likely been a hotel or something similar owned by a foreign investor, we were supporting the local village.
The next morning was perhaps even more exciting than the volcano. We set off at 8am, despite our flight leaving at 12:30. Mike informed us that Friday is ‘market day’ and so it’s often busier on the roads. Plus, the guy from the next village over who was driving us (as Mike’s truck was out of commission) wanted to leave early. About 20 minutes into our ride, as we were going through a stream the truck became stuck on some mud. At first, it didn’t seem to be a big deal. James and Mike got out of the truck and tried to push it while the driver turned on 4 wheel drive and did his best to nudge the truck forward. But it soon became clear the truck wasn’t moving. There was a lot of digging, and moving of rocks and a few more push attempts, to no avail. Soon, the boys from the village showed up and gave it a go but still no luck. After 30 minutes, a truck coming from the opposite direction came into view and it seemed we were in the clear. Some of the boys ran back to the village to get a chain and in another 30 minutes we were back on the road.
It’s no wonder they leave a little extra time! Before long, we were back on our way to Port Vila for a quick stopover before flying to Nadi.
Tanna was unlike any other part of the world I’ve visited. The locals are not rich in money (few we saw even had shoes) but the villages care for and support each other. They do have foreign investors coming to the island to pave the roads and likely provide a little more infrastructure, so it will be interesting to see if and how it changes in the coming years. Even so, I can’t imagine it becoming a major tourist destination due to how remote it is. We were lucky to experience Vanuatu, and Tanna in particular, in all its natural beauty (even if it meant sleeping in a sweaty jungle hut 😉 ).