Friday 8th July, 2011 Newcastle to Brisbane to Port Vila
Saturday 9th July, 2011 Port Vila
Sunday 10th July, 2011 Port Vila
Monday 11th July, 2011 Port Vila to Tanna
Tuesday 12th July, 2011 Tanna
Wednesday 13th July, 2011 Tanna
Thursday 14th July, 2011 Tanna
Friday 15th July, 2011 Tanna to Port Vila
Saturday 16th July, 2011 Tanna
Sunday 17th July, 2011 Port Vila
Monday 18th July, 2011 Port Vila to Brisbane to Newcastle
Friday 8th July, 2011 Newcastle to Brisbane to Port Vila
Gavin and Diane drive us to Newcastle Airport at twelve o’clock. We’re starving but have to do with Hungry Jacks then board Jetstar at 1.30pm for the one hour flight to Brisbane. With a window seat, the flight is interesting and we watch the coastline all way – can pick out Taree, Port Macquarie and Byron Bay – all look very small with so much emptiness in between.
Land at Brisbane Domestic at 3pm when Mark gets a call from our estate agent in Lisarow who has sold our investment property and needs Mark to sign the contract and fax it back. It takes a while but we have four hours before we fly out to Vanuatu so no worries.
I have to say here, that the reason we’re leaving from Brisbane is all about Frequent Flyer points. Mark worked it out that if we flew to Vanuatu from Sydney it would cost us 36,000 points but from Brisbane only 24,000 points – saving 12,000 points each. We did have to buy return tickets to Brisbane but what with the saving of airport taxes as well, we’ll be way ahead.
After lots of phone calls to the agent and to our solicitor we catch the bus to the International Terminal. This is surprisingly lovely and we bide our time reading and eating at Coffee Club. Through immigration we buy duty free cigs, Bacardi, Vodka and an extra card for our video camera.
The Air Vanuatu flight is half an hour late coming in, because of a blocked toilet apparently, but we finally take off at 6.30pm. The plane is full with a few tourists but mainly with locals and residents. Thankfully the flight is only two hours because I have a smelly man sitting next to me.
The service is funny and slow – Vanuatu pace – and we almost land with our leftover meals still sitting in front of us! As usual, at these small airports, we have to walk across the tarmac so it’s lovely to arrive in the warm night air with a clear starry sky above – 9.30 Vanuatu time (one hour ahead of home).
The airport is cute and small with a local band playing to greet us. While Mark withdraws money from the ATM ($1AUD to 100 Vatu) I wander outside to find a way of getting into Vila.
We happen to meet a resident called Mitch O’Brien who says we can share his taxi ($18) and he’ll find somewhere cheap for us to stay – we haven’t booked anywhere ahead. He said we could stay at his place but he doesn’t have any spare beds.
The drive into town is only ten minutes where Mitch tells the driver to take us to a hotel but it’s full so we drive on a bit further to Coconut Palm Resort. They have one room left – $100 a night! Bloody hell! No where else to stay so we thank Mitch who goes off home and we’re shown to our room. It’s the size of a cupboard with a shared bathroom and no air-conditioning – whatever, as Lauren would say.
By now it’s almost midnight but no way are we going straight to bed on our first night. We find the pool then ask the guy on the desk if we can buy drinks – he’s on Vanuatu time as well so it takes ages. Tusker is the local beer and not cheap at $5 for a middy but then a can of coke is $5 as well. I dig out the Bacardi and we hang out by the pool drinking under the stars in the still night air. Fall into bed about two o’clock.
Saturday 9th July, 2011 Port Vila
Wake to a lovely sunny day after a hot and stuffy night and head straight for breakfast. So nice to be warm and wearing our summer clothes after the horrible cold weather at home.
Luckily breakfast is free with the room so we order the most expensive – eggs benedict for me and ‘Big Fella Breakfast’ for Mark. We eat by the pool and talk to a nice elderly Canadian couple opposite. Afterwards we walk around the gardens then grab our day packs to set off to explore the town.
Walking past the British Gaol and the Chinese supermarket we can see that most of the signs are written in different languages. This is because Vanuatu has three official languages – English, French and Bislama which is a kind of Pidgin English and the main language spoken all over the islands. Guide book info says that Vanuatu has more languages per-capita than any other country in the world – 109 in fact!
On our walk we come across the Central School which I remember Loretta telling me is where Jennifer is the head mistress so I give her a call. Haven’t been able to contact her through email so I’m not sure if she knows we’re here yet. She lives in the school grounds and she and her son, Andrew, are just about to walk down to the market which is where we’re headed anyway. They meet us at the gate then show us her house. She says we can stay with her as long as we want. This will be fantastic to hang out with them to catch up on family stuff and to hear about their life here as well.
We all head down into town together and have coffee at Au Peche Mignon which appears to be the place to go for Saturday morning breakfast. It’s only about a five minute walk with lovely views of the blue harbour ahead of us. The market is just across the road and busy with ni-Vanuatu (indigenous) people selling amazing flowers, plants, fruits and vegetables. Happy island music is coming from somewhere inside and we wander around for ages taking photos and meeting the market vendors.
All the ladies are wearing the national ‘mother-hubbard’ dresses – colourful, floral material with puffed sleeves, long and baggy – very unflattering but cute. With all the tourists they must get here, we’re surprised at how happy the people are to have their photos taken then get very excited to see themselves on the camera.
We buy beautiful long stalked flowers for Jennifer’s house then Mark shops for bokchoy, garlic, limes, beans, capsicum, coconuts and mandarins – he’s in his element.
We arrange to meet Jennifer back at Coconuts at 11.30am to move our stuff into her place. Meanwhile, she and Andrew go off to do their own shopping while Mark and I check out the harbour – lots of sailing boats and pretty Iririki Island just a stone’s throw across the water.
Back in the market, Mark buys tuluk which is Vanuatu’s national dish – manioc (a root vegetable like the yam) that’s been grated and made into a dough, placed on taro leaves soaked in coconut cream then stuffed with corned beef and cooked in a ground oven. We eat it down by the water then head back into the market for lunch.
Here we sit at one of the communal tables surrounded by little stalls where each person is cooking one dish each – we have fish with local curry, rice and a salad – all for just 200VT. And it’s fantastic. I talk to a local man sitting next to me – a happy friendly place and I love it.
Afterwards we do the long walk uphill to Coconuts to pack and meet Jennifer. Before going home she drives us all around town so we can get our bearings then we drop her off down near the harbour where she’s meeting some friends. Mark drives back to her house and gets his first taste of driving on the right hand side of the road since we were in Italy six years ago.
A funny story is that when the British and the French had joint rule in the early twentieth century there were two health systems, two currencies and funnily two road rule systems. This meant that the British drove on the left and the French on the right. I guess there wasn’t much traffic so it probably didn’t matter.
At the house we unpack then set off in the car north about twenty kilometres to the Secret Garden. This is a little cultural place set in thick gardens (800VT each entry) with all the different types of huts traditional to each island, flying foxes, coconut crabs (hideous things the size of a football), bamboo canopies, a cannibal house and ducks – very cute and we have photos taken with one of the girls.
A kilometre further on is the entrance to Mele Cascades which is our main destination. Hundreds of cascades of turquoise water spill down the mountain through a beautiful rainforest. After paying the $15 entry fee each (wtf?), the long walk to the top is helped with guide ropes as we walk across streams to get to the 35m waterfall at the top.
Water is crashing over the cliff above us and we wonder where it all comes from. Changing into our swimmers we wallow around in one of the pools dug out by the force of the waterfall. Mark stands under one of the smaller falls for a free massage then slides off one of the boulders into a deep pool below. The water is freezing but refreshing after the hot climb.
Back at Jennifer’s, she and Andrew are just about to go out so we jump straight into the car and end up at the Anchor Inn down on the water. This is a huge open-air place popular with ex-pats. We drink and have dinner sitting with their friends Carla and Damien and their dear little sons, Archie and Eli. A nice night but leave at 8.30pm for an early night.
Sunday 10th July, 2011 Port Vila
Jennifer is so good to us and has given us her car for today. We plan to drive the whole way around Efate (pronounced ‘ef-art-ay’) so after a quick breakfast we head off about nine o’clock. Before leaving Vila we stop at Uncle Bills – a sort of a GoLo place where we spend about $40 on note pads, coloured pencils, lead pencils, balloons, hair bands, pencil sharpeners and bags of lollies to give as gifts to a school when we visit Tanna Island tomorrow. Being Sunday, Vila so much quieter today, when most things are shut.
The cafes are still open, though, so we decide to have a coffee down by the water at the Nambawan. This is a string of cafes with a thatched roof and a sandy floor – very rustic and very popular. The harbour looks beautiful again this morning and a nice way to start our day.
Through town, we drive past Mele Cascades then along the coast road till we see the turnoff to the Wahoo Bar. Jennifer has told us that this is a nice place to have a meal and a drink. It’s a big open-air restaurant right on the water run by an Australian couple. We order seafood chowder and garlic bread then get back on the road.
Half an hour later we reach Siviri which is a pretty village just off the coast road. Down dirt tracks that run along the shoreline, we can see a volcanic island so close across the water. All the village houses are thatched and bamboo but no-one seems to be around – probably at church.
Not far further on we come across the Nasimu Holy Healing Natural Hot Springs written on a hand-painted sign propped up against a tree. At the funny little entrance we pay the 500VT fee to a young girl called Maree whose father owns the land here.
We follow her to the springs which look a bit lame – makes us laugh but what the hell! In fact, it turns out to be one of those unexpectedly great experiences. There are four natural springs. The first warm one we have to lie in for fifteen minutes. Next is the best.
It’s the mud pool where Maree covers us with black, sulphur smelling, warm mud. This one we have to wallow around in for twenty minutes. Despite the smell, we really like it although I don’t think my white swimmers will ever be the same again.
Then we stand up while Maree washes the mud off us before entering the third very warm water pool. This is followed by the boiling hot fourth pool – can barely stay in here more than a few minutes.
Meanwhile Maree passionately tells us how lucky we are to have come here. She and her family do this every day because they believe it has healing powers which means they never get sick – this and the power of God, so she says. Not too sure about God or the healing thing, but we both feel very light headed so something is definitely happening.
Back out on the road we soon pull into Sara Beach. This is a pretty little bay where people are sun-baking and swimming and where a small basic restaurant is set up under trees near the water’s edge. We can have chicken or steak so we order one of both. While we wait Mark stretches out on a bench while I chase the resident chickens. The food takes ages and is only just okay.
Keep driving now along the north coast where we stop at a rustic stall on the roadside. Here the local ladies are selling coconuts and vegetables. One lady takes a big bush knife to hack off the top of a coconut for us to drink from while we take videos of the snotty nosed little ones who come to see us.
It takes till 3.30pm before we find ourselves back in Vila. We stop at a supermarket to pick up mosquito coils for Tanna then drive back to Jennifer’s house. We decide to have a barbeque at home with supplies we’d all bought at the market yesterday. Mark cooks huge lamb steaks on the barbie then a stir fry of bockchoy, beans and carrots – the best meal ever.
We sit up for ages talking to Jennifer – never realized how smart and funny she is. Later I notice a missed call from Sherry so I know our darling Fay has passed away. Dad will be so sad. Try to text Jackie but don’t think it went through.
Monday 11th July, 2011 Port Vila to Tanna Island
We wake at seven o’clock to pack and shower ready for our flight to Tanna Island at 10.30am. At eight we walk into the school grounds where we can hear the children running around playing and laughing. Jennifer isn’t in her office but we find her coming back from the market with cakes and tuluk for the morning’s staff meeting. After saying goodbye we have breakfast back in the house then grab our gear to try to find a bus to the airport. As soon as we walk out onto the road we see one coming and flag it down. All buses in Vila charge 150VT for wherever you want to go so it’s a cheap deal for a change.
At the tiny domestic part of the airport we check in our bags then walk over to the international bit to get money out of the ATM. Apparently we have to take all our cash with us to Tanna as there isn’t anywhere to get money over there. I send a text to Lauren to tell her about Fay and that I can’t get in contact with Jackie. I decide to call Jackie but Lauren has already rang her to let her know.
For the next hour we check out the other passengers – lots of ni-Vanuatu people and lots of French people. After checking out the Lonely Planet, Mark rings Sunset Bungalows on Tanna Island to book a hut for the night – $70 with breakfast – expensive comparing it to Asia but getting used to the high prices here.
The plane is surprisingly good with a pleasant forty minute flight passing lots of small islands on the way – most of them extinct volcanos. Vanuatu is actually situated on the Pacific Ring of Fire which is a horse-shoe shaped ring around the Pacific Ocean and home to 75% of the earth’s volcanos. Luckily most of them are now dormant except for some like Mount Yasur which is the main reason we’re visiting Tanna Island.
At Tanna’s tiny Whitegrass Airport, we’re soon outside asking about transport into Lenakel, the island’s only town. A local family is going that way so Mark and I jump into the open back of the truck for the half hour trip. Brilliant passing small villages all thatched and bamboo and waving to everyone we see – just what we hoped Tanna would be like. We’ve read that the people here follow a more traditional lifestyle than most other Pacific islands and are mostly Melanesians who have direct genetic links to the New Guinea natives. They’re a very dark skinned race with tight fuzzy hair compared to the Polynesians of Samoa with their lighter skin and soft straight hair. Like all islanders, they give us a big smile and a wave as we fly past in a cloud of dust.
On the outskirts of Lenakel we pull into Sunset Bungalows. These are in a lush garden of trees, vines and flowering shrubs – bougainvillea, hibiscus and lots we don’t recognize. Helen owns Sunset and she comes out to meet us in her blue, green and white floral mother-hubbard. She’s tubby, like most of the ladies, with short cropped hair and a gorgeous smile. She speaks fluent English and probably French as most of the ni-Vanuatu people do. We ask her about going over to the east coast tomorrow to stay in a treehouse near the volcano which she says she can organize for us.
Our hut has woven bamboo walls painted in a patchwork of green, yellow and red with a thatched roof set amongst the trees. Inside we have a double bed and two single beds with colourful floral spreads, mosquito nets, a lino floor and bamboo walls. The shared shower and toilet is in a small hut just next to us. Our neighbours are two friendly Canadian women who are just about to leave for the volcano.
Dumping our packs we have a look around the gardens. There are only about ten huts here, all connected by crushed coral paths that wind between the trees and plants. The whole place looks down over rock pools where we wave to some ladies doing their washing.
Today is market day. In Lenakel we walk past a few shops and a small market then down to a stream which we have to wade across to get to the main part of town. This has a frontier town type of atmosphere – very basic with shops scattered here and there and all dirt streets. Apparently there are no paved roads anywhere on the island at all.
The market is set up partly under a big roofed structure and partly under large spreading trees. We buy some doughy looking sticks and some doughy looking balls that taste exactly the same – very sweet. Like most markets, there is fruit and vegetables for sale a lot of which we don’t recognize.
From here we walk down to the water where a tree house sits up high in a banyan tree and we see three little boys paddling furiously in an outrigger. The beach is very corally and hard to walk on so we go back to the road.
Walking away from the beach, we pass village houses all overgrown with banana trees and thick flowering gardens. All the houses have thatched roofs with a backdrop of lush green hills behind – very appealing.
At a sort of bus stop we stop to talk to some local ladies all dressed in mother-hubbards. Nearby is a massive banyan tree where other ladies are selling vegetables from a weathered wooden bench and more ladies are sitting chatting on the ground.
By now, it’s time for lunch but there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to eat. In a side street that runs away from the beach we come across a few shops selling groceries and simple household goods. They’re all mud brick with tin roofs and open windows that they board up at night.
Nearby we notice a small hand-written sign leaning against a little house. It’s a sort of café where there’s only one thing on the menu and only open until the dish runs out. Inside is so cute with a couple of small tables and an assortment of colourful curtains at the slatted windows. With woven bamboo walls, a thatched roof and a cement floor, it’s wonderfully basic.
A young woman is eating next to us and feeding her seven month old baby called Marion – doing all the same things as our little dolly and we miss her terribly. The food is a simple vegetarian dish but really great – and cheap for a change because it’s local and not for the tourists. The girls doing the cooking come out to chat and proudly line up for a photo. We love these experiences – humble and the real thing.
Back at Sunset we lie around reading until late afternoon when we take our Tuskers and Bacardi down to the water. While the sun is setting in a soft pink sky, we have our drinks sitting on the grass next to the rockpools.
On dark we tell Helen that we’re going into Lenakel to find a kava bar and that we’ll be back for dinner in an hour. It’s pitch black outside on the road. Finding our way with our torch, we cross the stream and walk around town but can’t see anything happening. Most of the houses are in complete darkness as no-one has electricity here and even the street lights are just an oil-filled lantern hung on a piece of rough wood with a small piece of corrugated iron over the top to keep off the rain, we suppose. No rain tonight and so lovely walking around here in the peace of the night.
Back towards the stream Mark sees a dimly lit place set back off the road and thinks it might be a kava bar called a namakal here in Vanuatu. He’s right. The Bislama sign out on the road warns people:-
‘No Cleanem Bush
No Cuttem Trees
No Pullum Fence
No Buildem Haos’
Kava is only drunk after sunset and long ago it was only drunk during special ceremonies. Now it’s drunk every day by men and even some women. No women here tonight though – only me.
Like all the namakals in these remote islands, it has bamboo walls and a tin roof with an earthen floor. A simple counter at one end serves as a bar, and benches ring the outer wall. Lighting is a low-wattage bulb hanging from a wire near the bar.
Kava drinking has a protocol about it, including being quiet. In fact, any talk is at a whisper so I get a few raised eyebrows when I loudly ask a bare chested man, ‘can we get kava?’ – sorry, I forgot.
The drink is made from pounding the roots of the kava plant to release the psychoactive resins that make your mouth numb. We’ve been told that it’s not like alcohol because it relaxes you but you can still think straight – not sure about the last bit because everyone here looks totally whacked.
Anyway, the bare chested man pours a ladle of brown liquid (the kava) into two plastic bowls. Taking our first sip, it looks and tastes like mud and causes a dry numbness around our lips and tongues. We take little gritty swigs but then a man comes over to show us that we have to swallow it in one hit – better that way because you can’t taste it. We’re also to stand facing the wall to down it in one draw. A bout of hacking and spitting then follows. Now we go back to the bar, where we return the bowl which is then rinsed in a bucket of water.
Also as is the custom, you eat something to take away the horrible taste. Just next door is a shack where a lady is cooking some food but it looks too awful so we pass.
Now a man called Steven shows us another kava bar nearby. This is even more basic and only candle-lit. We down another kava each then think, ‘I’m going home now’.
By this time I’ve had two and a half bowls and Mark four and a half. Obviously too much because we’re totally trashed and doing the high step home trying to look sober. Suddenly I want to go to the toilet and can’t wait – I wee wee my pants for the first time in my life. I hold on as much as I can then have to finish it off when we come to the stream – Mark takes a photo.
Back at Sunsets we’re very sick and Mark falls head first into the garden. We vomit together in the plants outside our hut – very romantic. We still haven’t eaten so we try to eat the dinner Helen has cooked for us but we only manage a mouthful each. Mark then dry retches for the next hour while I try to fall asleep.
Tuesday 12th July, 2011 Tanna Island
Wake very tentatively about seven o’clock expecting to have massive hangovers but neither of us feels too bad. The weather has been kind to us again and it’s another beautiful sunny day. Helen comes to see if we’re okay after last night’s drama. She’d stayed up to keep an eye on Mark until he stopped vomiting and finally went to bed – sorry about that, Helen.
Breakfast is in the little shack attached to the kitchen and served by two sweet barefoot girls. Just tea, toast and beautiful homemade bread with butter and jam – just what we need and both of us feel better for it as we don’t feel as great as we thought at first.
At eight o’clock a truck arrives and we’re introduced to Fred from Treehouse Bungalows and Phillip, our driver. The cabin is full of a French family so Mark and I sit in the open tray at the back which is where we want to be anyway. Fred tells us that the French people have already booked the main treehouse but that they have another one where we can stay.
In Lenakel we stop at a shop where Fred picks up provisions. At another shop Mark and I buy an ice cream each and I feed my cone to a mother hen and her darling chicks. We now have two more trucks with two other French families – all friends apparently. Typical of the French, they don’t even make eye contact and I hate them all – even the kids – a very ugly bunch they are as well.
They stand around for ages talking to each other and generally stuffing around – a taste of things to come. Finally about nine o’clock we set off with our truck thankfully in the lead – don’t want to be eating their dust. Fred is in the back with us and he points out things on the way. At first we speed along the dirt road, so bumpy that we have to hang on tight so we don’t fall out. The truck rattles and squeaks, farting out black exhaust fumes so we hope we actually make it to the other side of the island.
The first hour is along a narrow winding road gradually climbing upwards and shaded most of the way by overhanging trees. It’s a pretty drive past tiny thatched villages and we wave constantly to people walking alongside the road or from their houses. All the men carry long bush knives as the vegetation is so thick they have to hack their way through to get anywhere. At the top of the mountain the blue waters of the east coast appear and there is Mount Yasur in the distance belching out black ash high into the blue skies.
Downwards now, the road is terrible with massive potholes and boulders slowing us down to a snail’s pace. As we get closer to the volcano the road becomes black but has flattened out so at least we’re not worried about falling out. The potholes, though, are big enough to swallow our truck so the pace is still slow.
Suddenly around a bend, Fred calls out ‘now we come to the moonscape’. This is a surreal, wide, barren ash plain that rises steeply to the volcano itself. We’re right beneath the volcano that is still erupting. We’ve got gritty ash in our eyes and our mouths and can smell the stinking sulphur gas that accompanies the volcanic ash. It’s one of the strangest sights we’ve ever seen.
As we drive around the other side of the volcano, all becomes tropical and lush again. Because we’re just a kilometer or so from the coast, the prevailing coastal winds continually blow the ash to one side leaving the coastal side green with thick vegetation. This is where most of the villages are and where we’ll be staying tonight.
Along another potholed dirt track we soon pull into another potholed dirt track that leads up to Treehouse Bungalows. Two treehouses looks magical perched up high in a huge banyan tree. Again the French idiots stuff around for half an hour and we’re glad we’re not staying here with them.
Finally we’re on our way to our own treehouse. This is about a ten minute drive back down on the main track. At another big banyan tree we turn into a narrow track past Fred’s family home to the top of a hill to our own treehouse. Mark says ‘it’s not even finished’ – it’s pretty ugly with bits of wood sticking out on two sides where they’re obviously extending verandahs – whatever! We climb the steep scary stairs and we like it a lot better up here.
Inside is the tiniest room with a table and two chairs and two tiny bedrooms. Phillip and Charlie say ‘you sleep here’ pointing to the one behind the door. The walls are covered with colourful cloth and there are folded towels and hibiscus flowers on the beds – adorable. The best thing is that we have a view of the volcano. Amazingly, it erupts loudly every few minutes and we can see the smoke and ash pouring out above it and thankfully in the opposite direction. Sunshine pours in through the little windows where we can look down onto the gardens and the rainforest just metres away. Despite all this cuteness, everything is gritty even the pillows and blankets we’ll be sleeping on. Our entire luggage is covered in black grit as well.
Mark asks Fred about lunch and he says he’ll come and get us and also that he’ll come and pick us up if the Frenchies are going to a village this afternoon. Otherwise he’ll be here at 4.30pm to take us to the volcano. The ‘coming to get us for lunch’ thing never happens so we make do with potato chips and muesli bars.
Charlie, Fred’s brother, shows us the shower and toilet which is a tiny bamboo shack in the gardens and another tinier shack which has a sink. Feeling filthy and gritty we head straight for the shower – cold but lovely to feel clean again.
Charlie is hanging around and wants to take us to see the village. His sister, Susie, is weaving a basket from a palm leaf that the village women take to the gardens each day to collect vegetables. She shows me how to do it but it’s beyond me. Then she shows us how to make a football from some long leaves and I’m better at this. Joseph shows us how they make fire by rubbing together two sticks from the hibiscus tree so Mark has a go, too.
From here we walk down past the school and a big open grassy area where kids are playing soccer. Most of them are barefoot but a few share one shoe each. Charlie points to the long straight roots hanging down from huge figs that the village people use to build their houses and we see a few wide pigs running through the undergrowth. He jokes that his ancestors used to be cannibals and they ate the first white missionaries who came here but they won’t eat us today. He proudly wants to show us the shop which ends up being bloody miles away. We buy the three of us an ice cream then wander back home.
Meanwhile, Fred hasn’t turned up to take us to the cultural village so we read and have our usual afternoon nap. At four fifteen he arrives with some of the French crew who now want to sit in the back which means Mark and I have to sit inside. Apparently they did go to a village but we were forgotten somehow. No problem as we don’t want to hang out with these dickheads anymore than we have to.
From here we drive to the entrance to the volcano where we meet the truck containing the other French families and pay the exorbitant fee of 3,350 VT each. More bumpy tracks lead upwards till we can see a few other trucks parked on a black ash hillside with a steep path leading up to the crater. Here Phillip tells us that we need to pay him 500VT each because he’s our guide – this is costing us a fortune! Anyway it’s worth it because Mount Yasur is the most accessible active volcano in the world and we’ll never experience anything like it again.
Besides our crew, there are only about ten other people here as well as a group of seismologists. All of us stand right on the rim – no guard rails or any other type of safety measures. The ground shakes with each massive eruption as red hot lava bursts into the sky. Inside the crater we can see the two vents that explode every few minutes with billowing ash and boiling lava. When both vents blast together the view is spectacular – like a giant fireworks show. One huge blob of lava, the size of a bathtub, lands only about fifty metres away so this isn’t totally safe. Phillip had told us that in 2007 a Tanna man and a Japanese lady we’re killed up here. He said the lady was hit by lava that ‘burned a hole into her’.
We stay till dark when the lava show looks even more dramatic. It’s very cold and windy up here so we’re glad we knew to wear warm clothes unlike some of the other poor tourists. We’re also glad we brought our torches to make our way back down the slope in the dark.
Now that it’s cold and looks like rain, the French arseholes have decided that they all want to sit inside the cabin so Mark and I get the open back again. This is fine with us and we love the ride back in the open air – even get a few sprinkles of rain. Back at the Frenchies treehouse, we’re all now told that we have to pay for the transport to the volcano – another $10 each! And we’re not sure what Phillip did to earn his 500VTguide fee – all he did was say ’Welcome and thank you for coming to see our volcano’, then point to the stairs. The rest of the time he spent playing with one of the French kids on top of the crater – hilarious!
Luckily for us the Frenchies decide to have a shower before dinner so Fred walks Mark and I up and down dirt paths through the forest to the restaurant – rather a grand name for it. It’s a shack in the middle of nowhere but a nice rustic atmosphere with the rainforest pressing in on every side. The generator is broken so they bring out candles for us to eat by. Fred introduces us to Marion who has cooked our meal. She’s a chubby sweetie and proudly gives us our dinner of beef stew, rice and the usual vegetables that we don’t recognize.
We finish eating just as the French people turn up – good timing. Now Mark and I jump into a truck with Fred who’s taking us back to our place. Of course, the battery is flat and the other trucks have disappeared so Mark and I have a long walk back in the dark. Lovely walking out here on our own so we’re glad about the dead battery.
From our treehouse we see Charlie coming towards us in the dark with a torch and some candles – naturally no electricity here. His torch is actually a burning ember from a fire and he lights the candles with it. After a quick undress we’re soon in bed reading by torchlight and listening to the volcano erupting behind us.
Later my phone beeps that I have a message and it keeps it up all night but we’re too lazy to get up and turn it off.
Wednesday 13th July, 2011 Tanna Island
We wake about seven after a good sleep except for the beeping phone, the volcano and the gritty bed. Since Fred is supposed to pick us up at eight o’clock we get up to shower and pack. I call out ‘good morning’ to Charlie in the garden but he says ‘I Joseph, Charlie’s big brother’ – he looks the same. Since there isn’t any water in the shower he runs around disconnecting and reconnecting hoses and shoving the new hose in a hole in the ground – the old water supply has run out. After Mark has a freezing shower I decide to just use the loo and wait till we get back to the west coast.
At eight, Charlie calls out and says that he’ll take us down to the school. Obviously and predictably, Fred won’t be here on time so we grab all the gifts we’d bought in Vila and follow Charlie down the stony track past his family homes. We meet three young girls on their way to school who giggle to have their photos taken and then another photo with Charlie’s mum who’s working in the vegetable garden. A few people are hanging around under the banyan tree and lots of kids are playing on the road.
At the school the kids are still running around on the grassy playground out front and there’s great excitement when they see our camera and video camera. Charlie introduces us to one of the teachers so Mark gives him the books, pencils, pencil sharpeners, lollies, balloons and hair rings. He’s very happy and the other two teachers come out to look.
Meanwhile I’ve given a big packet (about a hundred) of stretchy toweling hair bands to one of the older girls to hand out. You’d swear she was giving out $100 notes – she’s swamped with kids with their hands out, pushing and shoving to get closer to her. She stressed to the max but very importantly gives one each then they’re all happy.
The teacher takes us to see the first and second year’s classroom. It’s in an old dark building but cheerful inside with the children’s drawings decorating the walls and hanging from the ceiling. Next we’re introduced to the headmaster who takes us to a newer building where the older children are piling in. They sing a Jesus song at the top of their voices – their morning devotions, we’re told. The headmaster asks if we want to see the little ones who do their lessons in the living room of his own house which is just next door.
Here two teachers and about ten tiny children are sitting on the floor. They’re so excited when Mark videos them then plays it back for them to see. Now they sing us a Sunday school song, firstly in English and then in their own language – so adorable and we think of Abi.
Back outside we talk for ages to the headmaster who tells us about the school and how in the three years since he’s been here, he’s built all the fences and put up the sign near the gate. He tells us that he speaks four languages – English, Bislama, his own language from another island and his wife’s language.
Back to our treehouse, we run into Joseph in the garden and have another long chat with him. He tells us about the family business that he’s created with his brothers. He has these bungalows while Fred has the other treehouse business, Joseph has our treehouse and his youngest brother rents horses to tourists. They all share the profits with the community. Don’t mind and understand now why everything is so expensive. He hates the government and wishes Vanuatu had never gained independence because now they’re much worse off.
He tries to ring Fred to come and get us but ‘sorry phone turned off.’ Anyway Fred does turn up minutes later and thankfully we’re the only ones going back to Lenakel today. We sit inside the cab while Charlie sits in the back. It’s a slow drive out as we stop to pick up people along the road. We fly across the black ash moonscape under the volcano at a thrilling speed then down the steep banks of the stream. There’s only a trickle at the moment and when I ask Fred what happens when there’s lots of water he says ‘we wait’.
Also on the barren moonscape we stop to pick up a woman just standing in the middle of nowhere. Along the very bumpy black tracks people gallop past us on horses then we stop to pick up a bush knife someone in the back noticed lying on the road – a great find apparently. Later on top of the mountain we can see Mount Yasur in the distance still erupting and spewing out tons of black ash.
Later we pass lots of people walking to a village where people from the neighbouring Jon Frum village have come for a celebration. Jon Frum villages are only found on Tanna. They worship a strange cult called the John Frum cargo cult which worships an American World War II soldier. Apparently he landed on the island by parachute and then had a plane brought in with supplies, so the Tanna people thought he was a god and they’re still waiting for him to come back. The cult is called John Frum because he said his name was ‘John from’ somewhere or other. If this sounds weird, there’s an even stranger cult in a different part of Tanna who revere Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh – bizarre!
The rest of the trip seems to go fast as we wave to people the whole way. We see men carrying bundles of sticks on their heads and women selling more taro and sago at a small market under a huge banyan tree.
At Lenakel we drop some people off then set off for the half hour drive past the airport to Tanna Evergreen Bungalows. This is a pretty place set amongst flowering gardens and overlooking the ocean. Luckily they have one room left at 8,850VT but tell us that we’ll have to change to a cheaper bungalow tomorrow. Putting in our lunch order first, Mona then shows us our lovely bungalow – big and airy with slatted windows, two beds and a bathroom.
Mark has a hot and cold shower – boiling hot one second and freezing the next. Before lunch we walk down to the water where a wide coral reef drops off to a blue hole. Lunch is in the lovely open-air dining area overlooking the beach. Mark has chicken while I have beer battered fish both with chips and a salad – very expensive at $16 each but worth it – not a piece of sago or taro in sight.
Back to our bungalow for my turn to have a hot and cold shower – lots of yelling involved – then both read and sleep on our lovely big bed.
It’s now four o’clock and we’re sitting on verandah looking over gardens and the surf beyond. I’m diary writing and drinking a Bacardi while Mark is reading his first book of the holiday and drinking a Tusker – happiness.
At five o’clock I go off to the restaurant to order dinner. Oh shit – everything from $25 to $30! This holiday is going to cost us a bomb! Before dinner we have a few Tuskers and Bacardis on our verandah then head over to the restaurant at six o’clock. Dinner is garlic prawns for me and fish of the day for Mark. We talk to a nice New Zealand couple but don’t stay long as Mark is just about falling asleep. An early night.
Thursday 14th July, 2011 Tanna Island
Mark is feeling awful this morning – one of those days when he aches all over as well as feeling sick in the stomach. No problem as we can just have a lazy day. Neither of us had a great sleep with lumps in our bed like ribs. Breakfast comes with the price of the room (big deal) – fresh fruit, tea, coffee and more of the beautiful homemade bread and butter. Afterwards we walk out onto the dirt road past thatched houses and cows to White Grass Resort. We’re thinking of staying here tonight but they’re booked out so we just check out the restaurant and decide to come over for dinner tonight.
Back at Evergreen we’re in trouble for not checking out of our room at nine o’clock (it’s 9.30am) then there’s total confusion because we don’t have a ‘voucher’ for our accommodation. It takes a while for the girls to work out that we hadn’t booked ahead with a travel agent – I think we’re the only people who’ve ever just rocked up asking for a room. More confusion when we want to stay again tonight then even more confusion when I ask if they can confirm our flight back to Vila tomorrow. We don’t have a ticket, just an email printout which doesn’t make them happy at all. Finally one of them rings the airline but ‘sorry must be at lunch’.
To make them happy we pack as quickly as we can then hang out in the restaurant while our new bungalow is being cleaned. It’s smaller and we have to share a bathroom but it’s still lovely and we’re happy. Mark is still feeling horrible and just comes over to watch me eat lunch – too sick to eat himself.
We spend the afternoon reading, sleeping and Mark making lots of visits to the toilet. By now he has terrible stomach cramps and is feeling worse than ever. Definitely a case of Bali Belly or Vanuatu Volcano Belly, as we now call it. At one stage he manages to walk over to the restaurant and calls out to me – there are whales just out front and we can see them frolicking and blowing water spouts into the air – great timing, baby.
At sunset he thinks he’s feeling a bit better (dosed up on Imodeon) so we walk over to Whitegrass to have dinner. We just order one serving of Moroccan prawns but he can’t stomach it, so I get the lot. He does manage a beer and I order an orange juice (tastes like shit) to have with my duty free Vodka.
Back home along the dirt track in the dark past pretty village houses with kids playing around a bonfire. Nice for me but Mark too sick to give a shit. Poor baby.
Friday 15th July, 2011 Tanna to Port Vila
Mark wakes feeling a bit better so we decide we’ll do some snorkeling later this morning. The weather is perfect again but we want to wait till it warms up even more.
Breakfast is the usual tea, coffee and toast sitting in the open-air restaurant which is just about full this morning. We need to check out at nine o’clock (exactly) so we pack and put our bags in storage. For the next hour we lounge around in the restaurant reading and diary writing then decide to walk down to Blue Hole as the clouds are starting to roll in. Along the dirt road past Whitegrass Bungalows we walk another five hundred metres to a little beach next to a few village houses.
Grabbing our snorkels, goggles and one pair of flippers we painfully limp our way across the exposed part of the coral reef. Blue Hole is a deep hole in the reef but it’s hard to find the best place to jump in. There’s only a small entrance to the hole and I’m scared of getting ripped by the coral. Luckily another couple is here and tell us where to get in. Sharing a flipper each, we hold hands as we swim around seeing beautiful coloured fish especially schools of yellow and black striped ones. We crush up muesli bars and let them fall to the bottom which attracts lots and lots of different coloured fish.
Afterwards we lie around on the sand to read then walk back to Evergreen for lunch. It turns out that we don’t get charged for it – suck eggs, we think – this place has cost us too much anyway. More reading after lunch as we wait for a truck to take us to the airport at two o’clock. By 2.15pm we’re checking in our bags with locals booking in live chickens. They’d arrived with the chickens in woven palm baskets then transferred them to cardboard boxes that they cut holes in each side and pulled the chickens’ heads through.
The plane is running late but a band has struck up playing joyful island music while the locals dance around. Most of the town is here to welcome the Minister of Public Works who’s coming in on the next plane – big fucking deal you might think, but apparently it is here.
The plane still hasn’t arrived an hour later and the band is getting tired. I amuse myself by wandering around outside and I find a funny (not meant to be) Bislama sign in the toilet – ‘Pispis Long Toilet Bowl, No Pispis Long Floor’ – okay.
By now everyone is starting to get a bit restless. If the plane doesn’t arrive soon we’ll all be stranded here for another night because we can’t take off in the dark – no lights on the runway. The word goes around that the plane has left Vila and will be here soon but we start to get a bit concerned when the airport staff start up a soccer game on the runway.
Finally the plane arrives one and a half hours late. The Minister of Public Works is very officially presented with a lei around his neck while the band launches into another song. We take off just before dark for the quick forty minute trip. We land in Vila at 6pm to find Jennifer and Andrew waiting for us.
For the first time since we’ve arrived it’s actually been raining but hopefully it will be sunny tomorrow – anyway, it’s still warm so all is good. On the drive into Vila, Jennifer tells us that she and Andrew are house-sitting for the next two weeks for some friends who’ve suddenly gone to Brisbane so we have the house to ourselves all weekend. They can’t be with us tonight as they also have to mind the little boy living in the house.
After unpacking, Mark and I walk down steep stairs to the main street to the Port Bar where we order salt and pepper calamari, beer and orange juice to drink with my duty free vodka – wish I’d just got Bacardi but too late now. Again the street is busy with locals partying from the back of utes flying past in both directions. Today was the day of the annual horse races so it’s a festive atmosphere.
We listen to upbeat music and really enjoy being back in ‘civilization’.
Saturday 16th July, 2011 Port Vila
This morning Mark still has cramps and the weather is cloudy so we decide to just hang around for a while and see what happens later. While Mark sleeps, I load up our photos onto Facebook and send off a few messages home. It’s nice to have phone and internet coverage after being in Tanna – not worried about the internet but I don’t like being out of phone contact – always afraid something might happen at home.
About ten o’clock Mark is a bit better so we walk down to the market to buy some salad vegetables for tonight. We’ve decided to have a barbeque at home so we need to go to the butcher as well. We also need to buy beer at the supermarket as no-one sells takeaway alcohol anywhere in Vanuatu from noon on Saturday until Monday morning.
After the market we check out a few souvenir shops. I buy a bundle of throws for us and for Lauren while Mark finds the butcher. At the house we decide to go back down to the water for lunch – Mark must be feeling heaps better. The skies have cleared as well so it’ll be a good day.
Lunch is at Nambawan next to the Women’s Market. While Mark orders a pizza, I do some shopping and get totally ripped off – two grass skirts for $5 each, a bangle for $5, Abi a dress for $8 and a bag for Lauren for $15. Oh well, I have a nice time with the ladies.
On dark we sit out on the back verandah for our barbeque. While Mark cooks, I catch up on diary writing and drink Bacardi – lovely.
Sunday 17th July, 2011 Port Vila
It’s been raining through the night and the skies are still dull so we’ll probably have another quiet day. After showers we walk down to Au Peche for ham and cheese croissants, coffee and hot chocolate while we read the local newspaper.
Afterwards we wander around town buying Mark a couple of t-shirts and looking through the souvenir shops. A cruise ship has come into port so the town has been invaded with day-trippers. They’re the saddest looking bunch imaginable – most of them look retarded – unbelievable really. They’re all wearing their resort gear with name tags hanging around their necks. We feel very smug feeling ‘locals’ ourselves.
On the way back to Jennifer’s we can hear singing coming from the Presbyterian Church and I want to go in for a look and to take some photos. Mark doesn’t like the idea so he walks home. I don’t expect to stay long but a friendly lady sees me standing at the back and rushes to show me to a seat. The congregation is totally made up of ni-Vanuatu people with everyone wearing bright floral. Different groups of people get up to sing – it’s so lovely especially a very old man singing from the heart. It makes me cry and cry. Angie is here. I can feel her so strong –don’t leave me yet my little one. I stay for half an hour but the tears won’t stop.
Back home, Jennifer calls in to invite us to a barbeque at her friend’s house where she and Andrew are house-sitting. She gives us directions because we decide to walk over later rather than go now. It takes us about twenty minutes past Government House and then through a green area of houses and a few namakals.
The house is amazing with the whole kitchen, lounge and dining areas completely open to a deck that looks over a swimming pool and a lagoon at the bottom of the garden. Carla and Damien are here as well so I get to nurse baby Eli.
About four o’clock Jennifer drives us home where we just hang around reading and diary writing. On dark we head back down to The Port Bar for another good night.
Monday 18th July, 2011 Port Vila to Brisbane to Newcastle
The sun is shining again and we mean to make the most of the beautiful island weather for our last day in Vanuatu. Up early to pack, shower and have a quick breakfast before Jennifer comes at 9.15am. She wants to have a coffee with us in town but first she takes us over to her school.
She’s headmistress here in charge of eight hundred children from kindy up to year 10. Just watching her, we can see how much she loves them. We visit some of the classrooms where each time she gets a very loud and heartfelt ‘Good morning Miss Bird’. She asks the littlest ones to sing a song for us – of all the songs in the world they sing ‘B-I-N-G-O’ – Angie’s favourite song when she was in pre-school because she thought it was about her – ‘b-i-angie-0’. My little one. It makes me cry but happy, too – she’s here with me again.
Driving down into town, Jennifer takes us to a lovely open-air café right on the water. It’s an upmarket French-run place with a perfect view of the aqua blue waters of the bay. Across from us is Iririki Island which looks so gorgeous and tropical and where we plan to have lunch. After coffee and muffins we wander around the Women’s Market next door while Jennifer walks back to her school.
We think we’ll need more money, so Mark goes off to find an ATM. Meanwhile I buy a grass table runner handmade on Pentecost Island and Abi a cute black dolly dressed in a grass skirt. The main market is close by, so we spend an hour in this happy place. We buy a few things to leave at Jennifer’s – raspberries, mandarins, bananas, fresh peanuts and more bunches of ginger and bird of paradise flowers.
Walking back up the hill we stop at the Kindergarten fence to watch the little ones playing. Then at Jennifer’s, it’s a quick change into our swimmers and to grab the snorkeling gear. Down the steep stairs near The Port Bar, we cross to the Grand Hotel where the boat to Iririki Island leaves every couple of minutes. The island is only about one hundred metres across the harbour and looks so pretty with little white sandy beaches, coconut palms and thatched huts built out over the water. It costs a fortune to stay here but visitors can visit the island for 1500VT each. Jennifer has told us just to walk off the boat like we know what we’re doing so the guys on the counter will think we’re staying here – we do and don’t get asked to pay.
The weather is perfect – hot and sunny with no breeze at all. Off the pier, shaded walkways lead right to the restaurant/pool area, uphill to more bungalows and left to the beach. We’ll eat later but now we can’t wait to get in the water. Deck chairs are set up under the trees that overhang the sand so we grab one each while we put on our snorkeling gear.
Instead of struggling over a coral reef like in Tanna, we just walk straight into the water. And it’s crystal clear with a white sandy bottom so we can easily see the coloured fish and coral. Little yellow and black striped fish bravely challenge us when we swim over the coral where their babies are hiding – tiny little ‘mini-me’s and so cute. The mothers come right up to Mark’s goggles and tap on the glass. We crumble a muesli bar to feed other fish then decide to go kayaking.
The kayaks are free to use so we go for a paddle amongst the sailing boats anchored just out from the shore. The water is as calm as a pond. Afterwards, Mark swims out to the boats while I collect coral on the beach. This is paradise and we’re so grateful for the magnificent weather to have this beautiful experience on our last day.
At eleven o’clock, we walk up to the restaurant on the other side of the island. The building is huge with a soaring thatched roof, a vast reception area and two restaurants. We head for the more casual one that overlooks the pool. The menu looks pricey but we’ve decided to just have a drink here anyway and head back to the Waterfront Bar and Grill in Vila for lunch. While our beer and pineapple juice is coming, I have a swim in the infinity pool that looks out over the water.
Back at the wharf we’re straight onto the little ferry where we can see the Waterfront Bar and Grill looking wonderfully rustic and island-ish. Walking through the Grand Hotel we’re there in minutes. The Waterfront is described by the Lonely Planet as a Vanuatu institution so we’re glad we decided to eat here instead of on the island. And it’s cheap – an excellent hamburger for 1000VT and fish and chips for 1800VT. And, it’s right on the water. And, a man is walking around nursing a tiny baby so we get our baby fix for the day. Only one more day till we get to see our baby girl Lauren and our little dolly Abi!!
Back to Jennifer’s then to shower and pack then she and Andrew drive us to airport at 2.30pm. Two flights to Australia are leaving at just about the same time so there are a lot of people to check out while we wait. We’ve got some Vatu left so we buy ice creams and drinks to get rid of it.
The plane leaves twenty minutes late so we’re a bit worried about our connecting flight to Newcastle. On the plane I talk to the Australian lady sitting next to me. She and her husband came to Vanuatu on a holiday nine years ago and now they come back twice a year for a month at a time so they can help the local people. He’s an engineer and she teaches the ni-Vanuatu ladies how to sew.
At Brisbane’s International terminal we make a dash to duty free for alcohol and cigarettes, pass through immigration quickly because we’ve both got the new passports with the chip, then wait for our bags. By now it’s a quarter to seven which means we’ve only got fifteen minutes to get to the domestic terminal and check into our Virgin flight to Newcastle. If we miss the plane we’ll have to stay overnight in Brisbane – not a tragedy but we really want to get home tonight.
We’ve just missed the airport bus but the next one gets us there just on 7pm. Now we make a mad dash for the Virgin desk and literally make the flight by minutes.
At Newcastle Airport we share a taxi home for $40. It’s still only 10.30 so we unpack and put on a load of washing – want to be organized to see our baby girls who will be here early in the morning.
Another great holiday!! Lukim yu (see you soon), Vanuatu!