The next stop on our travels was Vanuatu, a small chain of islands between Fiji and the Solomon Islands. After watching the end of the World Cup final in Nadi airport, we headed to the capital Port Vila and were immediately struck by the difference between Fiji and Vanuatu. The landscape in Vanuatu is a lot more rugged than Fiji and there is not nearly as much agriculture, with lots of forest covering the hills. It is also not nearly as developed, and at first appearances seems a little scary, especially since Vanuatu was one of the areas in the South Pacific famous for its cannibals!
However, after spending a few hours in Port Vila, we found ourselves really liking Port Vila. It has a very chilled way of life and people are very friendly and helpful. Despite this it being a major destination for Austalians on beach holidays and yachting trips, you never have anyone badgering you to go on tours or to buy things, nor do you feel that you are being ripped off as a tourist. There are some really good restaurants and cafe / bars along the beautiful waterfront (our favourites were Nambawan Cafe and Jill’s Diner) and some nice small beaches and beautiful islands nearby to chill out on (Erakor Island was pretty good). Getting around is also very easy, with minibus taxis cruising the streets to take you anywhere in town for USD1.50 per person. In the end it was a good thing we really liked Port Vila, as we ended up staying there a bit longer than planned, but more about that later!
After one night in Port Vila we left on an early morning flight to Tanna, an island in the far south famous for it’s very active and easily accessible volcano, Mt Yasur. After landing in a dusty airstrip in the middle of the jungle we hopped in the back of a pickup truck for a 2 hour trip across the middle of the island to our accommodation, stopping in the main town to pick up some food and beer. Tanna is even less developed than the main island, Efate, with no tarred roads and electricity limited to the main town. For the first time on our trip we felt that we were really getting away from it all as we headed up the bumpy and dusty roads surrounded by thick forest. Every now and again we would pass small communities made up of a few palm leaf houses, a small school and a soccer field, with little kids shouting “bye bye!!!” as we passed. Eventually we got our first view of Mt Yasur and the surrounding landscape from the top of the pass, before we headed down towards the massive ash plain at the foot of the mountain (created by ash falling from the smoke blown away from the volcano by the prevailing winds), and on to our bungalows about 1km from the foot of the mountain.
We stayed at Volcano Island Paradise Bungalows, a lovely place on the edge of a small community run by a local man, Morris, and his family. The 4 bungalows are all built by hand in the same way as the local houses using palm leaves, with only a solar panel for limited lighting. The dining bungalow has a stunning view of the volcano, especially at night when you can see the red glow from the crater and occasional glowing chunks of lava flying through the air. The food was simple but good, and we got to eat some of the local foods such as roasted taro and yam fritters. As there is no running water or electricity, the bathroom facilities are very basic, and by the end of our 4 nights there Anne and I were getting rather good at “showering” with a bucket of cold water and a cup! The surrounding village was really beautiful, with neat plant-lined paths and boundary “walls” surrounding the houses and the jungle vegetation, with only the sounds of the ever present chickens, the wild birds and the rumble from the volcano to be heard. The friendliness of the people and the set-up of the bungalows meant that you never felt too much like a tourist. It really is the most removed from modern life that Anne and I have ever felt.
On our first afternoon we decided to do the 1 1/4 hour walk up to the rim of the volcano to see if we could see any activity, and we were not disappointed! Our excitement grew as the rumblings and explosions we had been hearing from our bungalows got louder as we got closer, and finally we reached the edge where we could see the crater about 50m below us. Every 5 minutes are so there’d be an explosion shootings lumps of glowing lava into the air, sometimes a 100m or more above our heads, accompanied by billowing clouds of smoke and ash. As it got darker the show got better, and we both agreed it was one of the best natural spectacles we’d ever seen. The photos and video below don’t really do it justice but it does give you good indication. We went up again on our last night and were given an even better show, with much bigger and more frequent explosions. It really is a must-do sight in this part of the world.
The rest of our time in Tanna was spent walking around the area, including a walk to the ash plains to see the day trip plane taking off, and a 15km walk through the forest to Port Resolution, a bigger village on the coast which is a popular stopping off point for yachties, where we visited the local yacht club, had some Tanna coffee and walked along the white sand beach. To give you and idea of how few vehicles there are in the area, we saw less than 10 pick-ups in the over three hours we walked along the only road in the area. One thing that really struck us was the genuine friendliness of everyone in Tanna. Cars would pull over and people would stop for a quick hello and chat everywhere we went. It was with sad hearts that we said good-bye to Tanna and flew back to Port Vila to head off to Epi Island, our next destination where we were hoping to snorkel with Vanuatu’s famed dugongs.
Or so we thought! Shortly before our flight to Epi, we discovered that Fiji and Solomon Islands were arguing over landing rights, which had resulted in Fiji cancelling all flights between the two countries, including our flight the following Tuesday to the Solomons. We had been moved onto another flight 2 days earlier, which meant that there was no way we could be back from Epi in time. Once again our plans to see dugongs were thwarted. We tried to find some places in Port Vila to see them (as they are fairly regular visitors) but we had no luck. It was however quite nice to see a bit more of Port Vila (including the small but interesting museum) and more importantly, to have a hot shower with running water (thanks to our nice little guesthouse, Vila Hibiscus)
We’re now on our way to the Solomon Islands for a couple of unplanned days in the capital Honiara (which we’ve heard can be a bit scary) followed by a week of diving on a live aboard dive boat. We’re not sure how we are going to get to our next destination, Tonga, with the flight complications, but hopefully we can make a plan! .