After exploring underwater WWII relics and white sand beaches in Espiritu Santo, I flew south to explore the last island in my visit to Vanuatu, Tanna Island. It’s one of the most southernmost islands in the Vanuatu chain and known for its mighty Mount Yasur, renowned as the world’s most accessible active volcano! But aside from black ash and fiery lava, it turns out that Tanna has plenty more to offer. It’s my favorite island in Vanuatu and in this post, I’ll show you why!
Heading to Vanuatu? Here’s a sample 10 day Vanuatu itinerary!
Domestic flying in Vanuatu is a very interesting experience. Not only are the planes small and prone to turbulence, but there is absolutely no security in the airports. No one checks your passport when boarding and there are no scanners or metal detectors to be found. This is what flying must have felt like back in the day. Anyways, in one of the happiest nations in the world and where everyone is super friendly to each other, who needs it!
The flight from Port Vila to Tanna was designated with the ‘workhorse’ of the South Pacific islands, the small 8-seater plane. I’ve never been on one of these before, so exciting! You really get up close and personal with your pilot and forget about any refreshments on this flight, engine noise and amazing views that make it worthwhile. Talk about traveling in style! (Don’t tell my mom please).
Al Gore invented what?
In an island nation that’s already pretty remote, Tanna is remote even by Vanuatu standards. There’s one town that’s more like a remote outpost and no sealed roads, though the Chinese are taking care of that. I saw locals in complete amazement at the sight of a cement truck pouring the first sections of a future road. Some of the folks here have never even heard of the Internet. All this remoteness has led to the flourishing of tribes, steeped in tradition and living off the land – almost completely self-sufficient. There are over 20 different dialects spoken on this tiny island and even a few weird pseudo-religions, known as cargo cults.
Tanna and Cyclone Pam
Not all is well on Tanna though. It was badly hit in Cyclone Pam last march, the southern hemisphere’s version of a hurricane. The eye of this category 5+ storm passed just 10 miles off the coast of Tanna, with 250 km/h winds sweeping through the island and destroying everything in its path. Giant banyan trees were uprooted, many lost their homes and some even their lives. Power was out for months and the islanders were living off generators and Australian aid.
I’ve heard from a few locals that the cyclone even stripped the leaves off the trees, leaving them completely bare. In a tropical island that knows no autumn or winter, imagine how strange was the scene the morning after? The bad news, unfortunately, continues in Tanna, with El Nino making an appearance this year. In the South Pacific, El Nino brings with it little rain and so, all the lush produce that normally grows wild on Tanna cannot recover from the cyclone.
Make no mistake though, Tanna is a beautiful island and the local ni-Vans are resilient, so let’s start with the fun part. I checked into a lovely seaside resort that’s got a million-dollar view over the Pacific Ocean. It would almost be perfect if not for the cigar-smoking, card-playing, drunken Russians that always seem to be sitting at the table nearby.
During my first night, I was treated for the second time in Vanuatu to a spectacular night sky. We are definitely not alone…
Plunging into the blue hole
My first task was to check the local reef. I walked for about 20 minutes up the dirt road to the boringly named Blue Hole #2 but let me tell you something, it’s nothing but boring! This is what it looks like from the surface and wait until you see what it’s like beneath.
Being a volcanic island, Tanna’s reef looks and feels much different than usual. You’ll find underwater volcanic ‘mini-cliffs’ that tumble down crystal clear waters to a white sand bottom. Blue Hole #2 is essentially a massive tidal pool, complete with beautiful coral, tons of fish and a maze of underwater caverns caused by lava tubes.
Residents include lots of fish that I haven’t got a clue what they’re called but also the mysterious looking trumpet fish and the ever adorable clownfish (a.k.a Nemo).
This spot is so beautiful that I was surprised to have it all to myself. That’s probably because everyone’s off to Tanna’s ‘main event’ – Mount Yasur!
The world’s most accessible volcano
In one late afternoon, a few of us hopped on a healthy-looking 4 wheel drive for the 90-minute journey to the world’s most accessible active volcano. You might be asking yourself why on earth would it take 90 minutes to get to the world’s most accessible volcano? Well,, that’s because the road is just so crappy! Very quickly, we veered off the main dirt road and headed up the highlands to cross over to the eastern side of the island. We passed by traditional villages and friendly locals. There were clear signs of the recent cyclone, with uprooted trees and slices of tin roof stuck high up in the treetops.
At the highest point of our journey, we stopped for a gorgeous look of the coast of Tanna. Beautiful, ah?
A few miles later, we landed in a sea of fine black sand – the driver definitely took the right turn! He was clearly having fun at this point, finally making it to 4th gear and cruising on the only highway in Tanna.
As we neared the entrance to the volcano, steam just started to come out of the side of the road. We’re getting closer!
Our guides then parked the jeeps and started marching us up to the volcano. Mount Yasur has been active for 800 years. Legend has it that its lava-infused glowing peak alerted Captain James Cook to the presence of land way back in the day. As we started our quick ascent, I noticed a mailbox on the side of the trail. In a country with few sealed roads and a steady power supply, it amazes me how the Vanuatu postal service manages to reach even the most remote parts of the country, whether it be above ground or even underwater, as we saw in an earlier post – super impressive guys!
We positioned ourselves just above the mouth of Mount Yasur. Just before the spectacle was about to begin, we were treated to a pretty-looking sunset happening in the west. It would be the last time we’ll look in that direction for the rest of the evening.
All was calm until the volcano woke up, as if in queue. Sounds of never-ending explosions that I can best describe as the sound of a grenade going off, shook us up to finally whip out our cameras. For those of you that haven’t been to the army and know what an exploding grenade sounds like, I’ve prepared this little clip to give you a feel for what it was like up there. I don’t believe in hell but if there is one, the entrance is right here!
Explosions were followed by thick clouds of ash coming our way that made me crave for one of those face masks often worn by Japanese tourists and the late Michael Jackson. The ash clouds also brought with them a strong smell of sulfur that gave all of us a brief chance to relieve ourselves of excess gas without being detected by the group…
At times, the explosions were so loud and the lava tossed so high in the air, that we had to double-check with our guides if this is really a safe spot to be parked at. If you concentrated hard enough on the erupting lava, you could even see scary-looking images coming to life. Can you spot the scary-looking bat in this picture?
On the long and dark ride back to the lodge, I had nothing to do but to listen to the pilot in the back seat talking about how good his job of flying to remote Pacific islands is. Lucky for me, I had a nice lobster waiting for me back in the lodge. Overall, this was a memorable experience, summarized in this time-lapse video.
Does my insurance cover cannibalism?
With the volcano and snorkeling checked off the list, I wanted to visit the tribes of Tanna Island. The tour board at the lodge advertised a ‘black magic tour’ and decided “why not”. I was alone for this one and driven to the complete middle of nowhere, where I was greeted by Cho Ya Lulu. Here’s how the black magic tour started… I’m really in trouble now!
With my heartbeat back in proper order and feeling sorry for the poor missionary that Cho Ya Lulu talked about in the video, I was led through the giant banyan tree only to be once again terrorized – this time by aspiring young ni-Van warriors! The lads still need to practice their scary faces, but they’re definitely on the right track.
Overcoming this hurdle, we proceeded to the combat part of the tour. I made the mistake of mentioning that I was a military sniper back in the day, much to the amazement of the tribesmen. So they decided to check if I was bluffing or not.
When you’re playing with weapons, don’t be surprised if someone gets hurt. And how on earth would you evacuate someone from the middle of a jungle? On a makeshift stretcher of course made from bush leaves! The local tribesmen are very resourceful and they can pretty much find everything they need in nature.
That rule also applies to our next stop, the circumcision challenge. Fashioned from bamboo, a sharp-looking knife is used to circumcise young ni-Van males between the ages of 2-6. It’s such a painful act, that the young boys are kept away from their families for 3 weeks until everything is back in working order. They then return to the village as heroes and have a massive party in their honor. After explaining to the guys that I am Jewish and had already gone through this process when I was 8 days old, I was once again awarded extra bonus points for bravery!
As for the woman, unfortunately, they do not escape circumcision either. Moreover, when it’s ‘their time of the month’, they must stay in a special hut for the menstruating women until it’s all over. If you thought that your woman was moody during her period, try spending an hour in the menstruation hut!
All hail the chief!
By now, I went through enough to finally qualify to meet the village chief. I thought this guy was just acting for the tour but later found out he’s actually a real chief! Wow! The chief took two heart-shaped leaves that are used in marriage ceremonies and glued them together with his special powers to wish me an eternal soulmate.
With the promise of eternal love, the whole village arrived and erupted in a massive traditional dance. I even got a chance to address the crowd and thank them. I apparently said the right words so, the chief insisted that I take over his duties for the next little while. He passed over his magic stick and I was instructed to remove my clothes and be dressed up as a real chief. When all was said and done, I was paraded through the village with song and dance before returning to civilization.
A village in the middle of nowhere
The Magic Tour just wasn’t enough for me, so the following day, I headed to Louinio Village to visit the famous Yakel Tribe. Many films have been made about this tribe, who still retains a traditional way of life. The Yakel don’t really believe in much clothing. The women are bare-chested, only wearing lavalava skirts and the men wear nothing but nambas – a penis sheath. I just had to find out!
We drove once again to the middle of nowhere, where even our 4WD was struggling at times. I was greeted by the lovely Loren. So that I would be able to focus on the tour, she was more covered than the others. However, Loren was sporting very feminist-looking unshaved armpits.
Loren showed me how and where the tribe grows their own crops. In good years, they are almost completely self-sufficient, with Taro, sweet potato, sugar cane, avocado, mango, pigs, chickens, and even herbal medicines to help with ailments like the flu. Oh, and of course, the men grow Kava and tobacco – how else will you pass the time in this remote part of a remote island?!
The children then made an appearance, playing a local version of a cross between hide and seek and ‘ring around the rosy’.
We then proceeded to meet the men. They were chilling by the tobacco plants, smoking and killing the time. I was shown how they make a fire within seconds, just with a stick and a piece of dry bark. Men back home, we can certainly learn a thing or two!
For the grand finale, the whole village gathered around me and burst into a series of traditional dances. The men were at the center, trembling the ground with their powerful leg movements and the woman encircling them, providing much of the high pitch acoustics. Have a look!
Overall, I was surprised to discover that as touristy as this custom village tour might be, the very same people I just visited really do live like this. They sometimes even pop into town wearing their traditional clothing (or lack of it).
Size doesn’t matter
On the ride home, we stopped by the Giant Banyan Tree. Though the sign claims it’s the biggest in the world, even my local guide had some doubts as to this claim. Nonetheless, it is definitely the biggest that I’ve seen. Over the course of hundreds of years, a single banyan has morphed into an absolute giant, stretching wider than the length of a football field. Its exact age is not known but what is known is that even at the time of James Cook’s arrival to Vanuatu sometime in the mid 18th century, this tree was already ginormous!
Farewell Vanuatu, hello Samoa!
My memorable visit to Tanna was a great way to cap off nearly two weeks in Vanuatu. I’m saying goodbye to the Melanesian people of Vanuatu and saying hello to the Polynesian people of Samoa – my next destination. I’ve been fantasizing about Samoa for years and I can’t wait to share with you my first impressions in the next update from the South Pacific!