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Tanna Island

Tanna Island

 

Republic of Vanuatu

January 17th - 20th, 2016 



After staying one night in Port Vila, I took an early morning flight to the Island of Tanna in the south of the country. The flight from Port Vila to Tanna took only 35 minutes on a Vanuatu Air turbo prop plane.



Tanna is a small island (about 40 km long and 20 km wide), with a population of less than 30,000 people. Except for a couple of short uphill sections there are no paved roads on the island. There are no taxis either, but whichever hotel or resort you stay at, they will pick you up. The Tanna airport is not the busiest in the world, as there are only two flights a day coming in from Port Vila. I stayed at the absolutely gorgeous White Grass Ocean Resort, which is located only a few minutes north from the airport. Each of the rooms is in its own little thatched cottage with great views over the Pacific Ocean and the beautiful gardens.


The hotel had a range of tours and activities on offer. I signed up for the so-called Black Magic tour, which would take me to a village higher up in the mountain. Since no one else had signed up for the tour, they would only do the tour for me if I paid for two, which I thought was still worth it. My driver Phillimon, who grew up in the village nearby, drove me for about 45 minutes on a fairly rough dirt road (which I later found out was also the main road across the island). The Magic tour itself was quite funny, a bit touristy, but I did learn some interesting things about village life here. They had four warriors in palm leave skirts mock attack me with large clubs. It was a bit scary since they kept jumping out of the undergrowth and shouting loudly or surprised me by grabbing me by the ankles during various parts of the tour.


I saw them demonstrate, how you can carry an injured warrior just using soft leaves. They showed me how to make fire from rubbing very dry wood together. And my guide explained to me the gruesome circumcision ritual, that is performed on 4 year old boys. It involves abducting the boy from the mother (since women are not allowed to be part be of the ceremony), tying the boy’s hands and feet with rope, and then performing the circumcision with a hard piece of palm leave, which he showed me here:


There was a huge Banyan tree in the centre of the village. It was large enough that there were two tunnels leading through the root branches at the bottom. However almost all the higher branches (together with almost every other tree on the island) were broken off during Cyclone Pam, which caused devastating destruction across the entire island in March 2015. 


A funny story my guide told me, and I don't know if it's true or legend, was how it came about that the first white missionaries here weren't all eaten by cannibals, as cannibalism was quite common on the island. (Cannibalism was fairly widespread across Vanuatu, and practiced until rather recently, with the last confirmed cannibal killing occurring in 1969.). One way the locals attacked victims, was by hiding in a hole next to the path and then grabbing a person by the ankles when he walked by. (Something they did to me on the tour as well, fortunately they only demonstrated the ankle grabbing part, not the cannibalism.) Apparently they tried to grab one of the first missionaries by his ankles when he came out of his tent. However he managed to escape narrowly by slipping out of his shoe and with it out of his attacker's grasp. The tribesmen who held on to the shoe believed the shoe was part of the white man's foot, since they had never before seen clothes or shoes on a person. So they cooked the shoe and tried to eat it, but even after cooking it thoroughly the shoe leather was still too tough to eat. So the word got out to other tribes, that these white people are totally inedible, which apparently allowed subsequent missionaries to do their work on Tanna without being eaten. Based on the fact that the island today is majority Christian, they seem to have been successful.

I spent the rest of the afternoon in the beautiful resort, since I had planned to go on the volcano tour the following day. You cannot go swimming in the ocean straight from the resort, since the shore is very rocky, but there is a nice little pool. Unfortunately the ocean was too rough today to go snorkeling, otherwise I would have tried snorkeling in one of the Blue Holes which are within walking distance from the resort.


I waded through the shallow but rocky shore line, where I had beautiful views of the resort and saw some interesting marine wildlife.


I don’t usually write much about food on my trips, but I should mention that the food at the White Grass Ocean resort was fantastic and at a level of quality, you would only expect in a five star resort at major holiday destinations, but not a small resort on a very poor island like this.

Another fascinating fact about Tanna:
Tanna Island is also famous for the John Frum Cargo Cult, which mainly developed during World War II. For most islanders watching the battles between two of the richest and most advanced nations in the world, was their first contact to the outside world. The cargo brought in by the American army was their first encounter with any kind of manufactured goods. Out of this a new religion developed worshiping the people who brought all this amazing and seemingly super-natural wealth. Followers of the cult even built runways and little wooden planes in order to attract the return of the Americans and all their cargo. The John Frum cargo cult in Tanna is alive and well to this day. There is even a political John Frum party, which holds one seat in parliament.


Monday, Feb 15th
Since the volcano tours all start in the late afternoon, I had time in the morning to take the so-called Tanna highlights tour offered by the resort. I was alone on the tour again with a new driver, whose name was Happy. We drove about 45 minutes to the city of Lenakel, the capital of Tanna. Calling it a city maybe overstating its size somewhat. It is a very small town with only a few scattered buildings and no discernible city center. I was lucky to be able to take the tour today, because Monday is one of the three market days a week in Lenakel, when all of the people from the surrounding villages come down here to sell their produce. It was an incredible colorful and lively scene.


Afterwards we drove to see the world's largest Banyan tree, and that tree really was amazing. Banyan trees have external roots above ground. Even though this was really only one tree, it seemed more like an entire forest. The whole tree covers an area of about 100 by 100 meters. We had to pick up a local guide from the village, who then walked with me down a short but quite steep path to the tree. She walked me through the maze of tunnels under the roots. No one quite knows how old the tree is, but apparently it was already a large tree when Captain Cook came to the island in 1774.


 A Google search reveals that this claim is somewhat disputed, as several places in India and Hawaii also claim to be the home of the World's largest Banyan tree.


We were fairly high up in the mountains here, and had great views of the Pacific Ocean below and the dense rain forests covering the whole island.


Cyclone Pam:
Everyone I met in Tanna seemed to want to talk about Cyclone Pam. It was such a major and devastating event, and Tanna was the worst affected of all the islands in Vanuatu. When it hit in March 2015, Cyclone Pam was on of the most powerful storms ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere (little did I know that only 5 days later, I would be in the middle of a cyclone rivaling that, but more about that in my Fiji blog post). It is estimated that Pam caused damage to 90% of all the buildings in Vanuatu. And when you look at the wood and straw huts, that make up almost all the buildings in the villages across Tanna, you can imagine that little was left standing here. It is remarkable how little evidence is left from the devastation, given that it happened less than a year ago. The vegetation has grown back very quickly. And most of the houses in the villages have been rebuilt. Apparently it was very fortunate that the cyclone arrived in the morning, which allowed people to realize how powerful it is and to seek shelter. This way only 5 people died on Tanna, even though almost all of the houses were destroyed. If the cyclone had arrived in the middle of the night, when people where inside their houses, the death toll could have been a lot higher. In fact when the first relief plane from Australia arrived three days after Pam had swept over Tanna, they had apparently brought digging equipment to be able to bury the hundreds of dead bodies they expected to find.


We also went to see other parts of the city. There is one hospital (with three doctors) on the island, and we saw the local government buildings, including the open-air court house, which has to be the court house with the best view in the world. 



We also briefly stopped at the Tanna coffee factory, but sadly it had been closed since Cyclone Pam last year. The cyclone completely devastated the coffee crops, and it will take some time to re-grow all the plants, so the factory had been shut since then. Tanna is the only island on Vanuatu, where coffee is grown. Coffee and sandalwood are the two major export goods from Tanna. We drove back to the resort along the stunningly beautiful and completely empty White Beach.
  

After a lovely lunch overlooking the Pacific Ocean, we left for the main reason I came to Tanna - Mount Yasur.


Mount Yasur:

I am not exaggerating when I say that Mount Yasur was truly among the greatest and most amazing experiences I have ever had on of any my travels. I had read a bit about what it was like to climb to the crater rim and see the active volcano, and I had very high expectations, but the reality of it was beyond my wildest expectations. It was absolutely unbelievable.

Mount Yasur is located on the Southern end of the island, and it is bit of a trek to get there. The drive takes about two hours all along very rough and mountainous roads, so be prepared to have your guts thoroughly shaken for the entire drive. Our drive was briefly interrupted half way in a small village, where the villagers presented us with flowers, and sang us a couple of welcoming songs.



When we reached the other side of the island, we got the first glimpse of the big smoking mountain in the distance. The last 15 minutes of the drive took us across a huge ash plain, and from here we could already hear the deep rumbling sounds from the mountain, which sounded like distant thunder. Mount Yasur is one of the longest continuously active volcanoes in the world. It was the glowing light from the volcano, that attracted Captain Cook and made him decide to anchor at Tanna Island in 1774.


We drove up a very steep road, which took us to within a couple of hundred meters of the crater. While walking up the slope to the crater rim, we saw huge bellows of smoke coming out, and the sounds started to get incredibly loud.


They gave us these very fetching yellow rain coats, which were meant to protect us from the falling ash. We were pelted with small pieces of black sticky ash, which you can see on the backs of these two guys, who decided to protect their clothes by not wearing them.



We spent over an hour up on the crater rim, so we saw it in daylight, and then in the dark. When they said it was an active volcano, I did not expect it to be this active. The mountain made incredibly loud noises. There were continuous powerful hissing and rumbling sounds, like several large steam or jet engines. And every few minutes there was the sound of a huge explosion, and you could see large pieces of red hot lava being shot out of the crater right below us. The explosions made the ground underneath our feet tremble and shake, and some of them were so loud that I nearly fell back the other side, because you instinctively jump backwards. Some of the lava pieces landed maybe only 50 meters or so below us. (The people who were there the day before told me that at one stage they had a large piece of lava flung right over the heads out of the crater.)


At one point a huge ash cloud came bellowing out of the crater and we saw lighting strikes inside the cloud. This so-called volcanic lightening is caused by charged particles inside the ash cloud, and it is a rare and spectacular natural phenomenon, not many people ever get to witness.


The light show of exploding lava was even more impressive in the dark, and we witnessed a couple of large explosions that sprayed lava out in huge fountains and made the smoke glow in bright orange.



I also made a short video of some of the explosions and lava fountains (turn up the volume to experience to incredible sounds):


Here is an important advice for any serious photographer with an expensive camera visiting Mt Yasur: You need to find a way to protect your camera from the ash. Wrap it in plastic or put it in a waterproof casing, otherwise it could get seriously damaged. The fine ash raining down on you gets into everything. My camera survived, but my zoom lens still makes a slight scratching sound because the ash somehow got into the gears.

We left the mountain around 7:00 pm and made it back to the resort for a late dinner at 9:00 pm, to finish off what was without a doubt one of the best and most exiting days of traveling I have ever had. I flew back to Port Vila on an early morning flight the next day.

I thought Tanna Island was an absolutely gem and a destination that should be high on anyone's travel itinerary who comes to the South Pacific. Stunning and beautiful scenery, unspoiled nature, a very interesting culture, the friendliest and kindest people you find anywhere on earth, and an active volcano, where you can watch lava fountains explode right in front of your eyes.


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