Vanuatu: Tanna Island – A volcano, a tree-house, and a rat that ate my bag.

08/08/2014 – 12/08/2014

The day started off as a big mission, getting to the airport. My flight was at 7am, therefore I had to be at the airport by 5am. I didn’t want to pay over the odds for a taxi at 4am, and the airport was a 1.5 hour walk away, so that was my chosen way. In Vanuatu, they have shared taxis for about $1 a journey, so I was hoping there would be at least one of them around to take me to the city, where I could try to get another one to the airport.

I didn’t get much sleep due to the noise in the hostel as people were outside talking, and due to the worry of having to leave by 4am at the latest. I was awake and decided to leave at 3:30am. One of my room-mates, Neville, was awake anyway as he always at silly o’clock. Luckily I could leave most of my luggage in the hostel for my trip to the island of Tanna, an island in Vanuatu, about a 50 minute flight from the main island of Efate.

As I started to walk towards the airport, it started to rain. I was walking down a main road, but very quiet and dark at this time, as the drizzle came down. I was wearing my head-torch, but that just made the rain sparkle in my eyes, and attracted bugs towards it, so when I could, I walked in the dark, except when a vehicle was coming. The only vehicles that passed were ones on their way to work, and I didn’t get a single offer of a lift, unlike during the day when it would be every 2 minutes.

I walked to town in the normal 45 minutes, and started looking out for the shared taxis, I found one, but no driver. I had heard that the food market in town was 24/7, and for sure, it was, many fruit sellers sleeping by their stalls waiting for customers. I walked out of town, and after about 15 minutes more of walking I found a ride for the rest of the way. A guy had ordered a private taxi, but he didn’t show, so he found someone else, picking me up was just a small bonus dollar or so for the driver. I made it to the airport just before 5am, and was the only person there, with no staff either, the place was desolate, without a member of staff there to check me in.

The flight itself was a small adventure, it certainly was small, carrying about 12 passengers to this remote island, about 50 minutes flight from the mainland, in a country 3 hours flight into the ocean from New Zealand, in a pretty far corner of the world.

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The plane from Port Vila to Tanna, Vanuatu

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The tree-house that overlooks an erupting volcano, Tanna, Vanuatu

I landed on Tanna Island, in Vanuatu, an island famous for its coffee grown in volcanic plains, the tribe that worship Prince Phillip, and having to longest continually erupting volcano in the world. The airport is on the other side of the island to where I was staying, so I had to go even more far out, with a 3 hour truck journey across mud-roads through the jungle, and finally across the volcanic plains, where I got the first glimpse of the volcano, before reaching my accommodation for the next four nights. I had booked myself into a tree-house overlooking the volcano, at a guest-house called Lava View Bungalows.

I was staying at the same place as two people that I met on the main island of Vanuatu, in Port Vila on Efate. I was there with one person for the first night, Flo, the second and third nights with the other, Geraldine, both girls from France, and the fourth night was spent on my own. At such an isolated location, it didn’t take long before I spotted my first friend, who had arrived there in the previous days, in fact, I spotted her before I even arrived at the tree-house. She was the only other guest that night.

Upon my arrival, she warned me of a rat that chewed through her bag in the exact tree-house that I had elected. I still chose that room thanks to the working toilet (which only one had), plus it was highest up the tree. As it was Flo’s last night, she decided to go to the sunset at the top of the volcano again before being dropped off at the Friday night session at the John Frum Village. I decided to wait for the volcano, to tease myself with it and not go to the peak too soon. I met Flo at the village that evening.

John Frum was an American, who visited Vanuatu and warned the locals to keep their customs as outsiders will try to change them, they now worship him by largely keeping their traditional ways. On Friday nights, members of the different John Frum tribes meet up, socialise and play music. When I arrived, I was instructed to sit down around the edge of a canopy area. There were a few tribe members all playing guitar, it seemed like the same song that they played repeatedly, for maybe 30 or 40 minutes. The head of the village came over and sat by us, at this time, Flo and myself were the only tourists there. He was a low moving, elderly gentleman, and can be seen with me below. We started to talk to him about what was happening with the get together, such as the playing of music, and also how long he had been head of the village. It was a very long time, in maybe 30 or 40 years, and as head of the village, his word is the law over any governmental law.

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Me and the chief of the village, Tanna, Vanuatu

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The John Frum tribe getting together to play some music

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The females of the tribe putting on an impromptu dancing show

Next, another group sat in the middle of the canopy, this time more people with even more guitars, and started playing, the same thing happened, with the same song being played for 30 or 40 minutes before it ended. It did happened for a third time too, with almost every villager involved, men sitting in the middle with guitars, while women and children sat around the edge, and the now more tourists on the outside edge of them. It’s pleasant seeing a whole community get together regularly. My biggest curiosity is how the get so many guitars in such a remote place, there are no shops around, so I struggled to even get a drink of any sort. We left shortly after this third set of music.

This was the first night I spent in the tree-house, and what a fantastic novelty it is to hear the volcano rumbling in the night. The next day, I woke up, and went to my hand-luggage bag. It was on a separate bed, wrapped tightly in a bed cover, and wrapped again in a mosquito net. However, a rat, had managed to get through it all, chewed at the zip on my bags front pocket, and eat the most of a packet of my instant noodles that I had in there, leaving just a few crumbs. The little bastard. I then put the rest of my noodles in the kitchen which was in my neighbouring tree-house, and put them under a bowl on a table-top, with a few heavy bowls and objects on top to prevent any further damage or loss of my meals. I said goodbye to Flo as she left, I then had several hours before I expected Geraldine to arrive.

I had advised the host of the tree-house resort that I’d like to spend the day visiting one of the kastom villages on the island, so he kindly guided me about 45 minutes through the jungle on little mud tracks, and made little arrows on every junction so I could return on my own. It was quite eerie the thought of trekking back through remote Vanuatu jungle on my own, but I was up for the adventure. The trek was interesting as I spoke to the host about his way of life, and how he was in a relationship with a woman from a different village, and he had never left this island in his life, so not even seeing his own country’s capital city.

The guide left me at the road to the kastom village, which also went by the entrance to go up the trail to the volcano. The guide walked back, and I walked on to the village, which feel strange as I was a foreigner just turning up to an isolated village, just to see people, I was told that they could make me a penis sheath, which is the souvenir that I wanted from Tanna. I dreamed of a photo of me wearing nothing but the sheath, to show off.

Upon arriving at the village, I walked around the entrance area, and shouted, but got no response, so I had walked all this way and not even got to see the villagers. On the way back I stopped by the store at the entrance to the volcano, which had in stock a total of approximately 20 items, and treated myself to some soda and biscuits. I then made the return journey back towards the village where I was staying, using arrows carved in the mud to guide me, and trusting they were untouched.

On the way back, and once I knew where I was, I took a detour towards the volcanic plains, a huge area with very little, if any vegetation, due to the wind coming from the coast and blowing the majority of volcanic ash into the one side of the volcano. It makes for an otherworldly experience as you walk along, alone, until some machete welding local kids spot you and decide to follow you. The children followed me suspiciously for a few minutes, until one of them was brave enough to test his English on me, it turns out they were off to find some wild vegetables to take back to their village on the other side of the plain.

Late afternoon, Geraldine arrived, having passed Flo briefly at the airport, getting a quick word in to warn her about the rat. After dinner we just sat in the kitchen in the tree-house, watching the volcano’s black outline in the dark night sky, with the lava lighting up the sky above it in fire red. We also discussed the rat, and what happened to my stuff. I warned her that I had heard rats like bars of soap, as apparently they like the fat it is made off. She laughed it off as her soap was laying on her bed. When we called it a night and went to our respective rooms, I had heard a little scream. The rat had already starting chewing the bar of soap.

The following morning, I had woke up with no noticeable trouble from the rat. It had spent the night having fun with Geraldine. I had warned her to keep everything protected, but like me, she unpredicted the rat’s cunning, and appetite. She had purchased some coffee from Tanna Island Coffee as a souvenir, and during the night, she could potentially hear two rats fighting in her room. Upon waking up and turning the light on, the rat had started gnawing through the coffee back. She had sorted it out, and tried to get back to sleep. However, she had coffee on her fingers, and no running water to wash, so spent the night sleepless fearing it would nibble her fingers.

The day’s itinerary was the same as the previous, only with company this time. We hiked through the jungle alone, topping up my arrows in the mud from yesterday, on our way to have another go at visiting the kastom tribe. We again had no success in locating the people in the village. I also had no success in finding somewhere to sell me a beer to take up the volcano. On the way back we got speaking to a teenage brother and sister as we walked through the jungle. Asking why everybody carries a big knife, he said that it is useful if they ever get hungry or thirsty, as they can just climb up the tree to get a coconut for both food and drink. I was impressed, and now regret not asking for a display.

My initial plan was to spend that evening up at the volcano peak with Geraldine, to see sunset and to see the lava as it turns dark, however she had wanted to go in the morning. So we did it that way. Therefore we had an early night, after more volcano watching from the balcony. I did repeatedly try to film the volcano as it rumbled, without luck, so she kindly offered to do the sound effect as I filmed, which resulted in both of us giggling.

Waking up at 3am to get as much time up the volcano as possible before sunrise, we hit the road. The journey was dark, cold and bumpy, but my adrenaline was already rushing. I had teased myself with the volcano up until this point. Geraldine was on to a winning idea at visiting in the morning, as it was just us, and a couple up the summit, and they were on the other side of the cone. Every evening I could see all the trucks come down the volcano shortly after sunset, and it was a lot busier then as full of day tours from the main island.

We found a rocky area to sit on as we got to the top, and we shared Oreo’s while we watched the natural fireworks, of the erupting volcano right in front of us. The loud booming of the volcano, that had disturbed my sleep in previous nights, was now in front of me, exploding even more thunderously. There was the odd occasion, where it scared the life out of me, often followed by flaming red rocks being shot into the air, and being unable to tell if it would land near, or on me. As the sun rose behind us, the dramatics of the lava faded as became less visible. We walked around some more of the cone to get a slightly different view, before heading down and back to the tree-house.

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The view from the tree-house, Tanna, Vanuatu

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Mt Yassur Volcano erupting, Tanna, Vanuatu

As we arrived back, Geraldine had to leave straight away to catch her flight, leaving me on my own for my last day on the island. I had spent maybe a bit too long here, but I figured if I was spending the time and money to get out this far, I might as well make the most of it, and of course, the volcano was certainly not getting boring. Saying farewell to Geraldine, I headed back to my room, where the rat had struck again. I had nothing in my back except the tiniest amount of crumbs of instant noodles left by the rat on a previous night, but I still took the precaution of wrapping my bag up thoroughly. This time the rat had eaten a rat sized hole in the side of my back, destroying my ability to use that portion of my bag, all for little reward on his part. The fucking bastard. Due to this, and having to replace my bag, I did get my last night accommodation for free though, but didn’t get a good chance to replace my bag for a couple of weeks until I was in Australia.

My final day was spent more lazily, catching up on sleep after the early morning, and walking through the local village. I went by the local village during the school’s lunch break, where there was perhaps 100 children, all playing football. The main game was using wooden posts as a goal, and a flat football. There were two side games on smaller pitches, using a coconut. This made me wish I knew before, and could bring several footballs with me, along with a hand pump to help them inflate the balls. A lot of kids were also wearing old and fake football shirts, so I could’ve also bought some Liverpool shirts with me to recruit a few more fans, again in hindsight. Also on a walk through the village, I had smelt the aroma of kava being drunk, and went to watch as the host of my accommodation was there. They were purely chewing the kava routes, but, with limited supplies available, they still kindly made me some kava for me to try. I was eager to try the kava on Tanna, as I had read it is the most potent, and yes it instantly had an effect on my lips and tongue, making them feel numb.

In the evening, while relaxing and watching the volcano, I had spotted the rat. Geraldine had left me some spare noodles, so I decided to create a trap for the rat. I put a pack of noodles on a table, on its side, with a heavy deep bowl on top, so if the noodles were touched, the plate would fall and trap and the rat. I went for dinner to have some noodles myself. On my return, the trap had fallen. Excited, and slightly nervous of the rat under the plate, I planned my next stop. I got a place mat, and slide it under the bowl, and as the trap was next to the window, I threw everything under the bowl out of the window to the 10 metre drop to the ground. I walked down the steps, with my torch to find the rat and noodles. All I found was a pack of noodles, and no rat. Dam it. I left some noodles out down near one of the other tree-houses, and went to sleep. By this, my final night, the novelty of being woke by the volcanic rumbles, slightly wore away.

I woke up for an early truck ride back across the island, much as before. We had plenty of time before my flight, so we visited the Tanna Island Coffee Factory, where I expected to buy a souvenir and try some coffee on the island itself. However, it was just a factory, but got a vague guided tour around the factory, seeing coffee beans from fruit, to dried, to bag. I did get to sample some of the islands deliciously strong coffee at a café before the flight.

The flight back was on a bigger plane than my flight out, and I managed to get back to the hostel with no problems like before. I returned to the same room, to be greeted by Neville who was still there in the same place where I left, and to some Oreo’s left for me by Geraldine.

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The local schoolchildren playing football with a flat ball

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Making kava from the roots of pepper

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My make-shift trap to catch the rat

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