Vanuatu – Volcanoes, Ocean and Culture

Port Vila Market Women

In our bungalow on the remote Tanna island, we saw and heard the Mt. Yasur volcano erupting several times every hour.

View of Mt. Yasur Volcano

The next day we drove through the desolate and windswept ash field in front of the volcano.

Mt. Yasur Ash Field

As we looked at the stairs to the rim, we felt rumblings, smelled sulfur and saw plumes.

Steps to Mt. Yasur

We proceeded onto the ridge in our closely monitored group.

Ridge of Mt. Yasur

By this time, everyone had on their hard hats, goggles, and dust-masks and were looking into the crater, while resisting the strong winds.

Mt. Yasur Visitors

Dusk was approaching and eruptions were now visible in an orange hue filtered by blue-tinged gas.

Finally, the sky was black, and we saw the fury of the volcanic bursts.

Mt. Yasur Eruption

We realized how small and powerless we were next to the volcano. The experience was riveting but very scary.

Why We Travelled to Vanuatu

In September 2019, my wife Khadija and I went to California for our dear friends Peter and Caitlin’s son’s wedding. Before then, the four of us were having drinks in New York and decided to go to Australia. Since we would be making this long journey, it was a no-brainer to check out some Pacific Ocean nations. To us, Vanuatu is relatively straight forward to fly to and is full of cool things to do. It also isn’t well known in our circle of friends, which made it more exciting.

The main draw for us was Mt. Yasur which far exceeded our expectations. Beyond the volcano, the country has quality lodging as well as guest houses in remote forests. There are many areas for diving and snorkeling. Importantly, it was an opportunity to learn about the fascinating cultures of Melanesia.

Men in Lenakel Market

Travel Itinerary for Vanuatu

Vanuatu is an archipelago of over 80 islands. We had only a week, including arrival and departure, so we decided we could only go to two islands. We chose Efate, where the capital Port Vila is, and Tanna Island, where Mt. Yusar is. If we had another three days, we could have gone to any of the five islands which are especially interesting: Ambrym with grade-figure carvings and two active volcanoes, Espiritu Santo with scuba diving for wrecked ships, Pentecost where bungee jumping originated, Epi with charming fishing villages and Malekula with tribes wearing only Namba covering. To properly experience all seven islands would have taken at least three to four weeks.

In Efate, we stayed in a Port Vila resort. In Tanna we split our time between a resort and rudimentary accommodations by Mt. Yasur, which provided two different and enjoyable experiences. Air Vanuatu has a 40-minute propeller-plane flight between Tanna and Port Vila. We hired cars and trucks for transportation or used ones provided by our hotel or guest house.

We were there during the main tourist season, from July to December. The other months are hotter, more humid and in some areas rainier. There are daily flights between Port Vila and Australia and Fiji.

Is Vanuatu Safe?

In Vanuatu, the crime level is very low but like everywhere visitors should be careful, especially in Port Vila, at night and in deserted areas. You are unlikely to have problems, but if you do it probably would be from natural occurrences (sharks, flooding, landslides, earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis) than theft.

Where is Vanuatu?

Vanuatu is about 2,000 km (1200 mi) northeast over the Coral Sea from Australia, about 1,000 km (600 mi) southeast of the Solomon Islands and about 1,000 km northwest of Fiji.

Brief History of Vanuatu

Vanuatu is part of Melanesia (“islands of black people”) which is composed mainly of the countries of Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea and the French department of New Caledonia. The classification was based mainly on black skin color which is different than those in Micronesia and Polynesia. Most experts believe Melanesia was originally settled by the Lapita people from East Asia who probably walked there during low ocean levels of the last glacial period. (Lapita culture is also believed to have founded Polynesia and parts of Micronesia but by arriving on boats.)

While Melanesians are black-skinned, they are not related to Africans except perhaps tens of thousands of years ago as humans migrated out of Africa. They are also distinct from Indigenous Australians. What is unusual is that blond hair appears in the Melanesia population, the only place outside of Europe.

Blond Haired Child Vanuatu

A Spanish expedition was the first Europeans to discover Vanuatu in 1606 and they were unsuccessful in establishing a settlement. Europeans returned in the second half of the 18th century and British Captain James Cook in 1774 named it New Hebrides. Soon afterward both the British and French colonized different parts of the archipelago. Eventually the two countries formed a government called a “condominium” that divided New Hebrides into separate English and French communities (nick-named “pandemonium” because of the inefficiencies from having two overlapping governments). In 1980, the country became independent and named itself Vanuatu which means “Our Land Forever” in many Melanesian languages. The people called themselves ni-Vanuatu and are 98% Melanesian.

Language of Vanuatu

There are three official languages, French, English and Bislama, a pidgin language derived from English. There are also over 100 local Melanesian languages. We were in a primary school in Tanna Island where there were displays of Bislama phonics.

Vanuatu Classroom Phonics

Bislama and other pidgin languages partially came about because of blackbirding, which was a despicable practice of tricking Pacific Islanders onto boats and kidnapping them to work on sugar plantations and cotton fields in Australia and other places. The amalgamated language developed in order to communicate with the captured from other islands and the agricultural overlords. Unbelievably this practice was not stopped in Australia until 1904.

Port Vila, Capital of Vanuatu

Most visitors on international flights arrive in Port Vila. It’s a good city to learn about the national culture. We found it’s worth a full day of visiting. If you are in a resort you like, you could stay longer. Another day is possible if traveling the shore highway around Efate, the island Port Vila is on.

Here is a map of Efate.

Port Vila, Efate Island Map

Vanuatu National Museum

The cultural highlight of the trip was visiting the Vanuatu National Museum housed in a traditional, high-roofed building. The museum has several well-displayed exhibits including Lapita pottery, slit drums (a hollowed log with a slit used as a percussion instrument, sometimes made with human features). It also had historical exhibits depicting cannibalism (practiced into the 19th century in Melanesia and elsewhere), blackbirding, and conflicts with European explorers. I liked the collection of grade-figures, where the size and carving technique of a statue reveal the hierarchy of the individual. This figure represents an 11th step chief.

Vanuatu Museum Grade Figure

This statue is from Ambrym Island as most are. Grade-figures and slit-drums from Vanuatu are highly prized by collectors and found in major museums including the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

A highlight was seeing sand drawings, which are geometric figures drawn in sand with a fingertip that never leaves the ground. Coincidentally, one-line drawing has become very popular on social media. In the following video, the artist is drawing a blackbirding ship.

Sand drawing is the ultimate performance art. When finished, the artist shifts the sand and the image is gone forever, like an Etch-a-Sketch.

There were also nifty models of outrigger canoes.

Vanuatu Museum Model Ship

There are three words on the sail. “God” refers to the deeply religious nature of the people. Almost all are Christian, and a majority are Protestants, though it is common for one to change churches if a more desirable one is found. Kastom, Bislama for custom, are the traditions of society, many are still passed orally to future generations. “Together” represents the cohesion of the country and also the joint ownership of land by families, villages, and tribes.

Central Market

This colorful market has mostly female vendors selling produce, firewood, and flowers.

Port Vila Market

Caitlin was duly impressed with the raspberries.

Port Vila Market

This was the first place we saw a concentration of “Mother Hubbard” dresses, a throwback to Victorian times as they are loose and long in order not to be revealing. In Vanuatu, their colors are bright and shoulders are ballooned. They started when the missionaries came and have remained in style.

Port Vila Market Woman

Mele Falls and Pools

This was the most beautiful place we found in Efate in our short stay. After paying admission, we climbed steps next to a stream and a series of small pools.

Mele Cascades Pool

As we walked up the hill, the water flow became more intense and wider, covering the steps.

Photographing Mele FallsFoolishly, I did not take off my shoes and they were not the same afterward. At least I made good use of the tripod. At the top is the long fall where visitors from Australia were climbing.

Mele Falls Vanuatu

Melemaat, part of Mele Village

When walking back from Mele Falls to our taxi, we met Joshua who was wearing a Bob Marley tank top. We walked together to the parking lot and he was generously describing the local vegetation and crops.

Vanuatu Man in Bob Marley shirt

While Melanesians are not part of the African diaspora, they have some affinity for it. For instance, when we traveled in Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, and Fiji, the main music we heard was a countryfied reggae. He told us that his village was on Ambrym Island but had to be moved because the proximity to the volcano was too risky. The chief of Mele on Efate let them have some of the village’s land and they relocated to their own section called Melemaat.

Mele Maat Village Soccer Players

Mele was a quiet residential village with lines of small houses off the main street. The only business we saw was a store the size of a New York City deli with this woman as the cashier.

Mel Maat Woman

Paradise Cove Resort

We stayed two great nights in a two-room bungalow at the Paradise Cove Resort.

Paradise Cove Bungalow Vanuatu

The setting on Mele Bay was scenic and available for snorkeling. The highlight was talking to the owner Mark who runs the resort with his wife, Constance. They are French citizens who did very well working in the financial sector in New York City. They saved enough money, quit their jobs and sailed throughout the Pacific (Mark was a sailor in the French navy) including months anchored outside a village in the Solomon Islands. They eventually bought Paradise Cove from the former Italian owners. Mark gave us literally hours of information on the people and practices of Vanuatu, all wrapped with good anecdotes.

Paradise Cove Port Vila

Tanna Island, Home of Mt. Yasur Volcano

Tanna Island was natural for us to go to next, as we wanted to see if Mt. Yasur lived up to the hype (it did). We also found terrific snorkeling, a scenic waterfall, and a vibrant market. Here is a map of the main sites.

Tanna Island Map

There was even more to do, but we did not have time to see the rest.

Lenakel Market

The market in the main town of Lenakel is partially under a pavilion. Most of the locals don’t own cars and use pickup taxis to come here and other places.

Lenakel Market

As with Port Vila, women were the vast majority of vendors and shoppers.

Lenakel Market Women

Central Road and Ash Field

For the first two nights, we stayed close to the volcano. We used a pickup to make the 30 km (18 mi) trip over modest mountains, with Peter and I bouncing in the cargo bed.

Tanna Cross Island Road

The ride took about two hours because the roads progressively deteriorated. By the volcano, we passed through the ash field. We stopped for photos which allowed Peter to check out the dark and grim terrain.

Mt. Yasur Barren Ash Field

It reminded me of the barren Uyuni Salt Flat in Bolivia, except this was dark, dusty, silicon-laden ash, instead of light-colored, crystal salts.

We saw another group who were on the twice-daily tour from the resorts as they scanned the landscape for photos.

Mt. Yasur Ash Field Photographers

Volcano Roaring Front Lodge

For two nights we stayed in guesthouses made on stilts with thatched roofs.

Volcano Roaring Front Vanuatu

Khadija and I had the upper one-room space. The first night we were cold as the shutters did not prevent wind and occasional rain coming through. The next day, the owner Freddie put blankets on the window which took care of the problem. We slept well the next night except for going to the outhouse which was down the hill in the dark.

During our whole stay, the volcano thundered and belched sulfurous gas every five to ten minutes. We felt the presence of Mt. Yasur our whole time there.

Mt Yasur and Cat

Freddie runs the Volcano Roaring Front Lodge with his brothers and mother. We highly recommend it if you want an authentic experience staying in Tanna’s remote forest. They provided tasty meals with local vegetables, fish, and eggs and gave us a tour of the nearby village and primary school.

Nazareth Twin Waterfall

We went on a walk to a nearby waterfall which took about an hour.

Vanuatu Waterfall

While there, I met the local man who was responsible for maintaining the grounds.

Tanna Island Waterfall and Maintenance Man

On the way back, the lodge sent a pickup to take us some of the way. Unfortunately, it became stuck and we were afraid it might flip trying to get out.

Eventually, with sufficient stones and wood support under the tires, the driver hit the accelerator in reverse and extricated it.

Mt. Yasur Volcano

The most exciting thing we did on our six-week trip was to be on the rim of an active volcano watching eruptions through the vents in the crater. The power of the volcano cannot be expressed adequately in words, as it rattled the ground, covered the sky with blankets of gas and roared during eruptions. The volcano has been active for centuries, even Captain Cook saw it in the early 1700s. The park only lets visitors in if the Volcanic Alert Level is 1 or 2. If it’s 3, 4 or 5, no access is permitted. For the last few years, it has remained a Level 2. The guides determine where visitors can stand depending on where the wind is blowing.

Freddie arranged for a pickup to take us through the ash fields to the park entrance in the late afternoon. After paying the entrance fee for two (VT 19,750, about $190), we were treated to a traditional dance performance.

After the performance, everyone was given protective gear and driven to the stairs leading to the rim. As the sun was descending, guides led the group up to the rim where they waited for dusk.

Rim of Mt. Yasur

The guides killed time by chatting and looking at their phones but kept an eye on wandering visitors.

Mt Yasur Guides

While there, a French man went to a ridge that was off-limits and a guide had to run and bring him back. This type of action is a bad move as in 1994 a Japanese tourist and her guide went to an unsafe area and were fatally hit by rock spewing from the volcano.

As the sky became darker, the eruptions turned to an orangish-red. The best visual effect was when the sky was dark blue.

Mt Yasur Erupting Lava

When it’s completely dark, it’s easy to see the explosions from the shafts.

Mt Yasur Lava Blasts

After about 15-minutes of darkness, we were summoned to leave. Everyone walked double-time down the hill as psychologically they were escaping to safety.

Tips for Photographing Mt. Yasur Volcano

It is challenging to photograph Mr. Yasur as you are laden with safety gear and the shaking of the ground and the gaseous, high winds make it difficult to concentrate. Eruptions occur unpredictably, do not last long and are not always in the same place. Here are my recommendations:

For best results, I suggest the following:

  • Use a Single Lens Reflex camera or comparable mirrorless one. This is a once in a lifetime experience for most people and cell phone pictures are not of the same quality.
  • Use a zoom lens in order to get wide shots of the crater and close-ups of the vents.
  • Under no circumstances change lenses. The air is full of debris and it is highly likely it will spot an exposed sensor, thus putting unwanted blots on all following pictures until it is cleaned.
  • Don’t use a tripod. The ground is not still and there is so much commotion in general that it is very difficult to set up.
  • To take a relatively long exposure, say one to two seconds, place the camera on some type of cushion on the fence. Try to hold the camera as still as possible when the shutter is released.
  • The best light is when the sky is turning dark blue. Shoot constantly during this time.
  • Do not try to photo and video. You need all the concentration you can muster. Let someone else shoot the video.
  • Forget flying over the volcano, which is an available but pricey option. There is nothing like standing on the rim and feeling the incredible force of Mt. Yasur. You also spend more time on the rim, thus have more opportunities for the “keeper” photo.

Rockwater Resort

For our final two days on Tanna, we stayed at the Rockwater Resort close to the White Grass Airport. It’s the first eco-resort in Tanna and built organically into the coastal hillside.

Rockwater Resort - Tanna

Peter and Caitlin snorkeled in the water by the resort and found colorful coral and an abundance of sea creatures. Rockwater is owned and managed by John and Silvana Nichols. John is a gregarious fellow who grew up in New Caledonia and is a citizen of France, Australia and Vanuatu.

Rockwater Resort Vanuatu

He had a comprehensive understanding of the culture of Vanuatu and what it’s like to do business there. Having just renovated a brownstone in Manhattan, I listened closely to the decisions he made to construct the resort and the challenges he faced.

John Frum and The Cargo Cult

This movement originated in Tanna and is still practiced there. We didn’t have any interaction with it, but it’s so bizarre that it’s worth mentioning. John Frum is a figure of disputed origin, who may or may not have existed. A version of the story is that he preached before WWII that the ni-Vanuatu should disassociate with all practices from the Europeans and Christian missionaries and the result will be unprecedented wealth.

Another version is that when the Americans came to Vanuatu during WWII, John Frum (or maybe “John from” America) was an African American requisition-officer who gave the locals Coca-Cola, cigarettes and radio equipment and treated them with respect. John’s actions fit into the prophecy of wealth coming to the island. This led some in Tanna Island to worship John Frum and practice their version of a Cargo Cult religion which believes rituals will bring the material wealth of advanced cultures.

The John Frum phenomenon can be seen every year on February 15th when there is a remarkable celebration honoring him in Tanna. Also, every Friday, the village of Namakara in Eastern Tanna has dances and songs, based on American battle hymns, praising John Frum.

Final Thoughts

Vanuatu was my first visit to a Melanesian country. The culture was warm and welcoming, but very different. One thing that is common to all of us is music. Outside of the Port Vila market, we listened to street musicians:

The local guitarists played some fine rockabilly.

Next stop: Sydney, Australia.

Picture of Ed Hotchkiss
Ed Hotchkiss

My goal is to travel to all the United Nations list of 193 countries of the world. For the rest of my life, I want to see and experience as much of the world as possible, while documenting it in photographs and observations.

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