Overview: Having started 2014 with a two week expedition to rarely visited Sub-Antarctic islands south of New Zealand in the Southern Ocean and then visited two rarely visited by Americans, Australian islands in the Indian Ocean I finished my trip in the Pacific Ocean visiting Vanuatu, a UN country. It would be my 187 out of 193 UN countries to visit.
The Advantage Travel & Tours group I had started with on the expedition in the Southern Ocean to sub-Antarctic islands had dwindled to five of us to visit the Indian Ocean islands (Laurie Campbell, Bob Ihsen, Del and Linda McCuen) and then to just Bob Ihsen and me visiting Vanuatu.
Wednesday, January 22, 2014: Fly Perth to Port Vila, Vanuatu via Brisbane, Australia
After barely making the connection by just three minutes in Perth from the flight into the International Terminal from Christmas Island to the flight to Brisbane at the Domestic Terminal a twenty minute bus ride away, I flew a ‘red-eye’ to Brisbane landing at 05:05. I had my usual trouble passing through security in Australia where they make me shed my belt, shoes and watch and then go over my carry-on and back pack scrubbing it for explosive residue. I told Bob to go ahead and to meet me outside the Air New Zealand Lounge.
When I finally got everything back in order after the security check I proceeded to the lounge and didn’t see Bob. At the lounge I found that since I was flying on Virgin Australia I could not use it. I returned to the main Departure concourse and couldn’t find Bob so I walked to the flight’s’ gate which was at the very end of a long wing of the terminal. It was a long walk but they had interesting modern art displays on the wall and in one area four very colorful larger than life size wooden figures in a musical theme.
Bob was not in sight around the gate so I walked back to the main concourse and still did not see Bob. I had not eaten breakfast and our flight was not scheduled to depart until 10:30 so I ordered a Subway 6-inch breakfast sandwich (poached egg, bacon, cheese and tomato) and hoped that Bob would find the food court that I was in.
Bob didn’t show so I returned to the gate at 06:45. Near the gate was a large table with six chairs on each side and 12 power outlets in the middle. I set-up my laptop and found the airport had three hours of free Wi-Fi. I was processing email when Bob arrived. He had eaten at a different food court.
Our flight departed on time and landed at Baurerfield International Airport (named after Lt Colonel Harold W. Bauer, a USMC fighter pilot ACE and WWII Medal of Honor recipient for his actions on Guadalcanal) in Port Vila, Vanuatu at 14:05. Passport control was fast and easy and outside the baggage room we found a man with the name of our hotel (Grand Hotel & Casino). He directed us to a waiting area until everyone had exited the Baggage area. We then boarded a small bus towing our luggage in a trailer (a common practice in Australia and New Zealand) and drove us to the hotel.
The Grand Hotel and Casino was the largest and tallest (7 stories) building in the country and is located at the south end of the city center. Just north of it was the city market in a very large covered building with open sides and an adjacent large parking lot. The bus turned into the parking lot and stopped at the water’s edge where a small open sided boat was waiting to take passengers to Iririki Island about 400 yards out in Vila Bay. After they were off loaded the bus stopped in from of the hotel and we got off and checked in.
Our room was OK with a nice balcony but only one outlet at the head of the bed and one desk and no table. There was a window between the sleeping area and the bathroom. So as not to shock us old fat men viewing each other in the buff there was a power shade that closed the window. I requested a power strip from the front desk and was able to plug in the bedside lamp and my power strip to plug in my CPAP machine, laptop and camera battery charger. Bob used the desk to write his journal and I used the laptop on my lap to write mine. We had a nice view of the Iririki Island Resort’s 11 bungalows facing the bay and the waterfront of the city since the bay curved northwest from our location which faced west.
After unpacking I went for a walk through the city main street (Lini (Kumul) Highway). On the east side of the road were several open front stores that were typical of waterfront island resorts selling post cards, bathing suits, suntan lotion, snorkeling masks and fins and children’s water toys. You could be walking the street and see the same stores in a Caribbean Island, Venice Beach, Hawaii or Florida. On the west side of the street was the Fruit and Vegetables Market. A park with a dirt area were men were playing Bowls, a form of lawn bowls without the lawn in which the objective is to roll biased balls so that they stop close to a smaller ball called a "jack" or "kitty". It is popular in Australia on lawns and hard dirt in New Zealand. Between the Bowls area and the sea wall was an area where clothes were sold by “Mamas”. The later typical of African clothes markets.
Past the park area there were tourist shops, ‘Supermarkets’ and open front cafes on both sides of the road. The Post Office had a very large colorful modern art façade. I visited the Information Center and picked up a fact sheet on the nation. There are 83 islands in a Y-shaped chain of diverse range of scenery from volcanoes to coral atolls with sandy beaches. Each island has its own distinct culture and language. The capital is Port Vila on the island of Efate. Espiritu Santo is the largest.
The following is a short background on the island:
It is thought the first people to reach Vanuatu were the Lapita from Papua New Guinea, who arrived about 2000 BC. The first European explorers arrived in May 1606 as part of a Spanish expedition headed by Pedro Fernandez de Quiros. British explorer James Cook, who drew the region’s first charts, arrived in the islands on 16 July 1774, christening them the New Hebrides. In 1848, Rev John Geddie established a Presbyterian mission on Aneityum.
The people were decimated by European diseases, leading to a huge population decline. Although protestant missionaries put a stop to traditional practices such as cannibalism and initially, kava drinking, today’s traditional cultural life (kastom) remains strong, particularly in the outer islands. By 1844, the country’s first trading post was established on Aneityum (the southernmost island at the base of the Y) and in 1906, the Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides was created, giving France and Britain dual administrative powers.
US forces arrived in Vanuatu in 1942 to counter Japan’s rapid advance through the Pacific. Bases were built at Havannah Harbour and Port Vila on Efate, and on Espiritu Santo. Some 500,000 troops were stationed at Espiritu Santo over the course of the war, making it the largest US base in the Pacific outside of Hawaii. Vanuatu achieved independence under its present name in July 1980, and has a democratic government. The nation's name was derived from the word vanua ("land" or "home"), which occurs in several Austronesian languages, and the word tu ("stand"). Together the two words indicated the independent status of the new country.
Vanuatu’s official languages are Bislama, English and French. There are 115 ‘mother tongues’ in common use – the world’s highest concentration of different languages per head of population. English is widely spoken, and most people speak some Bislama. Business communication is conducted in English, French or Bislama.
From the Information Center I walked back toward the hotel. I stopped at a Tour Agency to inquire about island tours. After getting brochures I continued and cut down a side street to the sea where there I walked along the sea wall past the “Mamas” tents, past small docks with ski boats, Snorkeling, scuba diving and water cruise vendors. I walked past the hotel and up a slight rise past a gas station and a supermarket and then back to the hotel.
I was hot and thirsty when I reached the hotel so I stopped to have the local Tusker beer. As I was drinking the beer at the bar a middle age man sat down next to me and ordered a beer. He asked me where I came from and we engaged in a conversation. He was an ex-restaurant owner who fell in love with Vanuatu and its life style. He then bought a small resort and has moved to Vanuatu to manage it. He was an interesting character and I had another beer to continue talking to him.
At 18:30 Bob and I went to dinner in the hotel. We sat at the window in back of the restaurant with a great view of the bay. We ordered the country’s national dish “Laplap” diner. It incorporates fish, root vegetables such as taro and yams, fruits, and vegetables. While we waited for the meal to be served we watched the sun set. The scene was picture beautiful with an orange color sunset and boats lined with colored lights.
After dinner we returned to our room and wrote in our journals.
Thursday, January 23, 2014: Fly Port Vila to Tanna Island, Vanuatu
I woke at 06:00 to get a head start on re arranging my luggage so that I took less than 10 kilos in my carry-on bag. First I showered and shaved. The “hot” water never got past warm but I gutted it out. After emptying the contents of my carry-on I put in just my toilet kit and CPAP machine. In an outer pocket I put my bathing suit, a t-shirt, laundry soap and small brush, sink stopper and my pills.
Bob got up and we went to breakfast. It was raining and we decided to skip our plan to take the 09:00 two hour tour of the city. When we returned to our room I talked to Judy on Skype and did some email clean up.
By 09:00 the rain had stopped so we decided to try to book a city tour with a drop off at the airport. We walked across the parking lot alongside the hotel to a tourist agent that Bob had talked to the day before about arranging a tour. She was busy so we started out for the Tourist Agency I had talked to the day before and found it was further than I had remembered so we reversed direction and returned to the first agency. When or turn came to be waited on she told us the 09:00 tour had left and that she couldn’t arrange anything for us. As we left the building a woman that had been in there was sitting outside and inquired if we got what we wanted. When we told here that the agent couldn’t arrange for a driver/guide to give us a two hour tour and drop us off at the airport she remarked she could arrange it to start at 10:00.
We returned to the hotel and checked out and wheeled our bags back to the tourist agency. The agent inside was surprised to see us and had no knowledge of what the other woman had told us but she had a driver/guide she could call.
The guide arrived shortly with a van and we loaded our bags in and started the tour. He drove us south past No. 2 Supermarket (the guide explained the numbering of supermarkets) to the Main Wharf where we drove past all the vans lined up for a cruise ship arrival and the vendor shacks to sell tourist items. The guide told us the city is planning on building permanent stalls to replace the blue tarp framed stalls. He drove us around the Pango area overlooking Erakor Bay past the Amalfi Court Resort and then along the Erakor Lagoon past the Vila Bay Heath Center to Chief’s Nakamal. A Chief’s Nakamal is a building in most villages where the village elders meet to discuss village issues. The sides of the building is very colorful weaved palm leafs. Across a park was the National Museum of Vanuatu. We rode past the front of the museum and then stopped at the Parliament House for pictures. The Chinese built a beautiful building. In front of the building was a statue of a Vanuatu couple and child. In front of the statue was the symbol of Vanuatu which is a circle of wild pig’s horns. Bob and I got a nice picture of the statue through the circle with the Parliament Building in the background.
Next to the Parliament was the construction by the Chinese of a large convention center. The picture of the building indicates it will be an impressive structure. We then rode through the working class neighborhood of small homes, past the site of the court house lot which had burned down and the town hall.
Our guide explained the governing system in Vanuatu before Independence.
Settlers came looking for land on the islands to establish cotton plantations. When international cotton prices collapsed, planters switched to coffee, cocoa, bananas, and, most successfully, coconuts. Initially, British subjects from Australia made up the majority of settlers, but the establishment of the Caledonian Company of the New Hebrides in 1882 attracted more French subjects. By the start of the 20th century, the French outnumbered the British two to one.
The mixture of French and British interests in the islands brought petitions for one or another of the two powers to annex the territory. On the verge of a settlement a typhoon hit the islands causing great damage. Both the French and the English worked together to repair the damage. As a result in 1906, France and the United Kingdom agreed to administer the islands jointly. They called it “the British-French Condominium”, it was a unique form of government. The separate governmental systems came together only in a joint court. Melanesians were barred from acquiring the citizenship of either power. We rode by separate French and English Police stations and jails during our tour.
Challenges to the joint form of government began in the early 1940s. The arrival of Americans during World War II, with their informal habits and relative wealth, contributed to the rise of nationalism in the islands. A referendum was voted on to give the locals the choice to become a French Colony, an Australian Territory or an Independent Country. They chose the latter but have found that self-government is more costly that they expected and the roads and infrastructure has declined.
Our next stop was the War Memorial across from the Reserve Bank of Vanuatu. The Memorial honors those from the islands that served in World War I and II. It overlooks the city and was a great photo stop. From there we rode down the hill past the Teacher’s School, and around Fatumaru Bay and stopped for pictures across the bay of the city. There was a small beach with kids swimming and a little bit up the road cows grazing.
Our final stop was the Domestic Terminal at the airport. It was noon when we checked in for our 14:00 flight to Tanna. The terminal was small and at first the majority of the people in the terminal were airport employees eating lunch. The café was serving local food that did not appeal to either of us. We walked over to the International Terminal next door to find more palpable food but everything was closed so we returned to the Domestic Terminal and a drink and a bag of chips to tide us over. A group of Chinese checked in to the flight. Two of the group was teenagers and they were horsing around a lot. Then an elderly Australian woman checked in. We had to pay a 200 vt (US$2) departure tax before departing the terminal. When it appeared that an agent was ready to check us in the woman rushed to the door. I lined up behind her and she told me she wanted to get on the plane “before those boys did”. Their horsing around had bothered her sitting in the terminal. Her name was Jill and she had been a school teacher in Africa, but for younger children and teen agers bothered her. When I asked her if she had the departure tax and gotten her boarding pass stamped she said she wasn’t leaving the country and she didn’t think it applied. I told her it did and she rushed to pay it before the Chinese boys got in line for the flight.
It turned out that Bob and I were assigned to row 1 and Jill in row 2 and the Chinese in the back of the plane. The plane was a Twin Otter DHC 6-310. I introduced myself to the pilot and he told me he was from Australia and had just joined Air Vanuatu from flying for Buffalo Airways in Yellowknife, Canada. He was impressed that I had visited the Buffalo Airways Operation just last year and had met the character that ran the operation and saw the early 1950 Fords and Mercury’s he had in a hanger.
It was a 55 minute flight to Tanna Island south of Port Vila. The airport was named “Aeroport de Whitegrass Tanna” which was interesting since we were staying at the White Grass Ocean Resort. Jill was also staying at the Resort so she spotted a pickup truck with the resort name on its side outside the terminal as we waited for our bags to be delivered to Baggage Claim. The truck had bench seats in the back and a two-step box was used for us to climb in the back. Bob had trouble getting over the side of the truck bed so Jill traded places and let Bob ride in front with Jill and I in back.
Less than ten minutes after we landed we were at the resort driveway and we passed a small golf course and tennis court down the road to the resort lodge where we were greeted by the managers: Nicola and Jean-Francois Crinquand and their staff. The receptionist handed a fruit punch drink and the registration form. We were told our luggage had been carried to our “bure”. (Bure is the Fijian word for a wood-and-straw hut, sometimes similar to a cabin).
The lodge was open to let the breeze flow through. In the middle was the bar and off to the south side were the kitchen and reception desk and small shop. Past the reception was the management office. Facing the ocean was the dining area. The bures were north of the lodge accessed by sandy paths though manicured lawns, flowers, palm trees and native sculptures. Down a path from the lodge was a long concrete pier leading to a small dock. A rope was attached to the dock so if you wanted to swim or snorkel you could use the rope to pull you back through a rip tide if it existed.
Our bure had a high pitch grass roof with just a fan for cooling. There was mosquito netting hanging over the beds. I took the larger of the two beds because it had the power outlet next to the headboard. The bure had a beautiful view of the ocean and was a short walk to the pool.
Bob started to write in his journal and was getting bothered by mosquitoes. In the room there was an ashtray with a coil of insect repellant that if burned would repel flies and mosquitoes. I used up half the cheap box of matches trying to get the coil to burn before I realized that I needed to turn the fan off until the coil started to burn. Its flow was blowing the matches out before the coil would catch on fire.
I walked the grounds and took a swim. The pool was warmer than my shower had been in the Grand Hotel that morning. It was not a lap pool but it did feel good until I got out and found that flies were attracted to my wet legs. After I dried my legs they lost interest.
At 17:30 I stopped in the lodge for a beer and the cocktail of the day (a coconut and pineapple rum drink) before dinner. I was able to connect to the internet and talk to Judy over Skype but then the connection dropped. Bob wanted to skip his post trip to New Caledonia and I had been communicating with Cathy Parda to change his tickets and it was frustrating that the internet was not connecting. I could connect to the Resort router but then I got a message that the DNS Server didn’t recognize the router. I tried to trace the problem and discovered the reception desk and back office were on different systems. I disconnected the router and plugged it back in and the DNS still couldn’t find it. Cathy must have sensed that I was having a problem and sent Bob’s revised ticket information to Nicola to relay a printed copy to Bob.
The menu for dinner was listed on a chalk board. I had spicy Thai fish cakes with a small mixed salad and pan seared yellow fin tuna in garlic butter sauce, steamed rice and a mixed salad. For desert I had a scoop of rum raisin ice cream. After we ordered and were waiting for our food the sun set and we had a beautiful unobstructed view.
We signed up for two tours for the next day and retired to our bure for the night.
Friday, January 24, 2014: Tour Tanna Island, Vanuatu
I slept pretty well with the mosquito netting dropped around my bed. It did tangle with my CPAP machine and I never heard any mosquito’s flying around. The shower was hot with strong water pressure. Bob and I went to breakfast at 07:15.
The breakfast menu was written on a blackboard displaying a choice of punch or juice, fruit platter, cereal and a basket of toast or pancakes or fried eggs and bacon. We ordered the eggs.
Our first tour of the day left at 08:30 on the 3 hour ‘Lagalangia Kustom Village – Lowinio’ tour. Phillip was our driver and guide and we were in a 4WD Toyota Land Cruiser. The temperature was pleasant and we rode with the windows down. He turned south out of the resort driveway and drove past the airport toward the town. The road was not paved and was full of pot holes and at one point a mud hole. The bridges across deep gullies and streams were British Army ‘Bailey’ bridges. A type of portable, pre-fabricated, truss bridge developed in WWII. Phillip told us they were installed after a typhoon had wiped out the concrete and wooden bridges built by the French and English during their joint administration of the island prior to Independence.
About five minutes south of the airport we passed a set of shipping containers painted white with windows and a red awning. It was the office of an Australian planning to set-up a 4 wheel ATV Rental Agency. As rough as the roads were on the island it makes more sense to have an ATV than a Rental Car Agency. Continuing along the road to the town we were mostly in rain forest with a few wooden vendor huts, mostly vacant but some selling pineapples or bananas or gasoline in small containers. Pigs, chickens, horses and cattle were grazing on the tall grass. Phillip told us the name “White Grass” came from the sun shining on the tall grass giving it a white look.
We rode past a school. It had a color coded map of the world and a large map of the Vanuatu islands painted on the wall of one of the buildings. Phillip told us there were English and French schools on the island. He had attended an English school. Past the school was the French run power station. The main source of power for the island was diesel generators but some solar and wind turbines are used. Most of the island does not have electricity and uses kerosene lamps in the huts.
Phillip told us that arranged marriages were no longer practiced on the island. As a matter of fact he married a Samoan woman he met while on a vacation. When a girl marries she moves to her husband’s village and her first born when he or she grows up has to move to her birth place village. Phillip has sent his oldest daughter after she finished high school to live in Samoa.
As we approached the Lenakel town center there was a small strip mall with the National Bank, Telcom Office, and a few stores. Down the hill from the mall were a dry river bed and then a few stores in concrete buildings leading to the town center with a large area set-up as a Fruits and Vegetable Market. We saw peanuts still attached to their plants and root vegetables lined up in a row. Across from the market was the ocean with a few boys swimming off a stone covered beach.
A large map of the island and of the Lenakel area with locations numbered and a directory between the two maps was displayed at a bus stop. It was “Proudly Sponsored By Tafea Province and Tafea Tourism”. Men drive pickup trucks which serve as buses around the island. They have a large red B on their license plates. Behind the bus stop was the covered market. In between the covered market building and the bus stop people had displays of their fruits and vegetables laid out on colorful cloth. South of that area there was a very large tree and many of the vendors set up beneath the tree. The men wore shorts and colorful shirts and were bare footed. The woman wore colorful dresses or shirts and shirts. It was typical of Caribbean or Polynesian island attire.
We walked around the market taking pictures. In some countries I have seen chickens sold at market in cages. Here they were lying down with their feet tied together. When we got back in the Land Cruiser we rode around town. The Fish Market was in a concrete building not far from the market building. The town had a traffic circle with a monument with a rooster on top in the middle of the circle.
The Lenakel Municipal building was in a concrete structure south of the traffic circle. Up on the hill overlooking the town was an old wooden Presbyterian Church building across from the Lenakel Presbyterian College.
We left the village and drove up the hill and encountered our first paved road. The steep hill through the rain forest was paved in concrete and had a street sign saying it was Wvara King Street Funded by PWD in collaboration with Amoros Keipal Walalo. The paved road soon ended when the grade leveled off and we came upon the Lowinio village and a Baha’i religious building. A short distance away was a large clearing ringed with Banyan trees. One of the trees had a large square cavity that served as a room. Someone had painted a house number on the side of the cavity. On the north side of the clearing was a grass covered open sided lodge that Phillip told us was the village elders meeting place. There was also a round dry palm leaf roofed enclosed hut along the edge with grass growing out of the roof.
There were three barefoot boys and a girl playing in the clearing. The boys wore colorful shorts, the oldest with a dirty t-shirt. The girl wore a ragged dress. They were happy to pose for pictures.
We got back in the Land Cruiser and drove a short distance to the Lekalangia Cultural Village. There we were met by Rita, dressed in what looked like a grass dress. She was our guide for the tour of the village. She led us down a path through the rain forest with coffee plants along the way. She stopped to pick a straight branch from a tree and showed us how they peel the bark from the plant and dry them to make the grass dresses.
We stopped in an open sided round dry palm leaf roofed hut in which she showed how it was constructed using vines to lash the frame together and the weaving of dry palm leaves to form the roof. She also explained that the villagers have resisted the trappings of Western culture and continue to embrace a subsistence way of life dominated by their belief in “Kastom”. (Kastom is a pijin word used to refer to traditional culture, including religion, economics, art and magic in Melanesia.). After the rest stop we continued down the path as Rita explained the use of the plants and trees we were passing.
In the village center we entered an open sided building with mats on the floor and a woman in a grass dress with large banana leaves on the mat preparing a traditional village meal similar to the ‘Laplap” dish I had at the Grand Hotel but way more authentic. She started with coconut shredded and molded into a dough base. She used a stick that had very short bristles to shred roots into the dough. Then she flattened the dough and covered it with leaves and small chunks of vegetables, finishing by wrapping the mixture in the banana leaf and tying it close with thin shreds of a leaf. All this time a young girl in a grass skirt sat and watched the preparation.
In another area of the hut a woman was uncovering a cooked meal. Another woman was heating stones in a fire and when the first woman had completed wrapping the meal she made they placed it on the hot rocks moving them around using two sticks like tongs. The meal was then covered by leaves and dirt covered the leaves.
The meal that was uncovered was laid out in front of us on a large banana leaf and unwrapped to show the white dough in a long roll. Using a sharp edge bamboo knife the roll was cut into small pieces and placed on a leaf. From another cooked packet eggs, bits of fish and chicken were added to our leaf and served to us. I found the meal to be surprisingly delicious salted with sea salt.
In the yard outside the hut a group of children were playing a form of blind man’s bluff. The girls were wearing the grass skirts and the boys a few leaves hanging from a rope around their waist. The youngest boys were naked.
After we finished our meal we moved to another open area where straw mats were laid out and native handicrafts, beads and coconut cups were displayed for sale. A young mother with painted symbols on her cheeks holding a baby greeted us.
The village chief came out to greet us. He was naked except for a tuff of grass covering his private parts. The grass was tied together with a rope around his waist and the knot of grass stuck out like a short erection. He was a handsome man with a big grin and a curly hairy chest and grayish hair. In the hut he had emerged from sat a number of men wearing the same private parts cover.
The chief shook our hand and in good English explained how his village wanted to maintain their culture and way of life. He told us that they are completely self-sufficient growing their own food and raising pigs, goats and cattle to eat. If they have a very good crop they will take it to the market to trade or sell to buy things like machetes and other farm instruments.
The chief’s son and a young boy then demonstrated how to make fire rubbing two sticks together. He held a narrow foot long stick in one hand and rubbed it very rapidly in a grove on a bigger stick held firmly by the young boy. Soon a small pile of shavings formed at the end of the grove and soon the pile started to glow and then start to burn. Other shavings were added and a flame started up and was transferred to a fire setting. It was remarkable how quickly the procedure took to generate the flame.
Next the men and boys formed a circle with the woman outside the circle. The men chanted and started to dance around while the woman jumped up and down to the rhythm of the chant. They group worked themselves into a frenzy stomping and jumping. It was a sight to witness but wouldn’t play on ‘Dancing with the Stars’.
After the dance Rita lead us back up the path to our Land Cruiser. Phillip then drove us back down the mountain passing the hospital on the way and a French school and to the traffic circle in the town. On the way back to the Resort we passed fish hanging from a tree limb for sale along the road and a small pond with a lime stone bluff. Phillip told us it was the quarry where they excavated the limestone for the road surface. It then served as a fresh water hole for goats and cattle. We also passed the Tafea College campus and got to the Resort by 12:30 in time for lunch.
Again the menu was on the blackboard. I selected the Toasted tuna and cheese sandwich with fries and a mixed salad. The bread was a little strange for a toasted sandwich since it was not dense and the tuna and cheese would ooze out. The fries were not deep fried and also a little different.
At 14:30 Jill met with us as we prepared for the evenings visit to the Yasur Volcano. We had to sign a release and since we would arrive after dinner we had to order our dinner in advance so they could serve us on our return. Again the menu was on a black board. I selected the Grilled Mahi-Mahi with white wine and lemon sauce.
The Land Cruiser was being serviced and we had to wait until 15:00 to start our long drive across the mountains to the east side of the island and then down and around and up the volcano. I packed my rain jacket and floppy hat with the chin string since Phillip told us it would be very windy at the rim of the volcano.
We started out with Jill in the front seat and Bob and I in back repeating the route we had taken that morning to the town and then turned east up the paved hill and then into rutted rough roads through rain forest, farm land passing horses, cattle, pigs, goats and chickens. In some of the villages we saw boys playing in open areas. They were very friendly waving and posing for a snapshot as we passed with our cameras raised. At one point we passed the new Mormon Church under construction.
About thirty minutes into our journey we encountered a tree house and 15 minutes after that a cemetery and a short distance later we stopped and walked to an open area where we were greeted by a group of men women and children from a local church. We were each handed a bouquet of flowers, Jill’s by a baby that could barely walk. The minister spoke to us and explained the group was a choir and then they sang several religious songs. Phillip passed the minister an envelope (it came from our fee for the tour) and we returned to the Land Cruiser and our journey.
An hour into our trip we reached a point in the mountains were we could see the coast and sea on the east side of the island. The road down from the mountain was very steep and we entered a point where it was paved and rounded a bend in the road we saw the volcano in the distance. It was erupting puffs of smoke and a line of clouds hung just above it.
As we descended and began to level off the paving ended and we were bumping along again trying to avoid pot holes and ruts in the road we passed a group of musicians with homemade string instruments. An hour and one half after we left the resort we entered the lava and black ash field at the base of the volcano. We could clearly see the puffs of black smoke erupting every five minutes or so. The lava terrain looked very much like the moon’s surface. We had to ford a shallow river as we were circling around to the south side of the mountain. The wind was strong and at one point it had created a sharp ridge of black lava ash up the side of the volcano. A group of young people were at the base of the ridge holding snow boards. As we drove by a young lady with a snow board under her arm was climbing the ridge to slide down.
We left the lava ash plain and re-entered a road through the rain forest and at a point where the road split we stopped to pay a local villager a fee to enter their village area. Soon we drove past the Banyan Castle Tree House, a tourist facility where the lodging was built in large Banyan trees. They looked very sturdy with glass windows, wood panel sides and a shake like roof. A wide wooden stair case with hand rails lead up to the balcony in front of the tree house.
At 17:00 we entered the gate for the Mount Yasur Volcano. Phillip had to pay another fee and we picked up two young ladies as guides. We bounced along a road with high grass on both sides and broke out in in an open area where several pickup trucks were parked. Up the side of the volcano was a concrete path with posts about every ten feet. At the start of the path was the famous mail box where one could mail a post card from the volcano.
We parked and I put on my rain jacket to shield against the wind and the lava ash and then I walked up the grade. It was steep but without steps and with the posts it was not a difficult climb for me. It took less than ten minutes to reach the viewing spot at the rim. It was around 17:30 and the volcano was still erupting every 5 minutes but not throwing up a lot of fiery lava.
We were viewing at a rim looking down about 50 feet to the crater where the eruptions occurred. There were about thirty spectators watching and photographing the eruptions. A guide told me that in the dry season the red lava would be thrown higher than where we were standing but the wet season causes the sides to slide into the crater and diminish the lava eruptions. The night before it had rained and the eruptions were mainly steam.
Finally as it got dark we could see fire and sparks of lava emitting in the eruptions. The darker it got the more we could see. At 18:20 the sun started to set and through the smoke and haze of the volcano it was a bright yellow sight along the mountain ridge giving the impression that the mountain was on fire. It made for a couple of beautiful pictures. The brightest fire in an eruption came at 18:30 and then it seemed to diminish so we started down the mountain at 18:45. The girls assisted Bob and it took less than ten minutes to get back in the Land Cruiser.
Phillip then had to navigate across the black ash with very few tracks to follow. He forded the river which was full of cows drinking the water and had to navigate around a couple of cows that refused to move. I am glad he drove the route three times a week and knew where he was going because I was in the front seat and couldn’t see very many landmarks until we reached the road again.
When we reached the volcano entrance gate where we had picked up the girls it was dark. I guess who ever had transported them to the entrance building had left and Phillip had to take them to their village. He started back on the road we had taken to get to the entrance but then turned off towards the coast to a village where we met a man with a flashlight waiting for the girls. After dropping the girls off he turned around and eventually got back on the road to the west coast.
It took two hours to reach the resort. Our dinner was waiting and I found the Mahi-Mahi to be delicious. When I returned to the bure I changed into my swim suit and headed to the pool. I sleep in my swim suit so I didn’t want to get it wet and I slipped into the dark edge of the pool and rid myself of the volcanic ash. The pool was a little cooler than the day before and felt very refreshing after the ash filled air we had experienced.
When I returned to the bure I washed out my underwear and found black ash in the sink. I didn’t lower the mosquito netting and found a little more breeze cross my bed from the fan and the windows. It had been a long day and I dropped off to sleep very quickly.
Saturday, January 25, 2014: Fly Tanna Island to Port Vila, Vanuatu
I had a restful night and woke just before 06:00 only to find that the hot water was not working so I had to take a cold shower. Each bure had its own hot water heater fueled by a bottle of butane. It had worked before we had gone to bed so it wasn’t a case of being turned off so maybe the butane ran out.
We had breakfast at 07:30 and then left on a tour of Tanna Highlights at 08:30. Our driver/guide was Phillips’ cousin “Happy”. He told us he was named Happy because he was born on New Year’s.
Happy drove us in a different Land Cruiser back towards the airport and turned off the road at a sign for the Giant Banyan Tree 4km. The road was through very tall grass on each side and soon we turned off to the abandon Burton Field Airport. It had been a grass strip with a dip which was often flooded during the rainy season so they constructed a paved runway close to the coast. The old terminal building was still there with no windows and across an open field now used as a soccer field was the operations building next to an old weather tower. Happy told us Phillip used to work for Air Vanuatu at the terminal and when the airport moved he was transferred to Port Vila. While in Port Vila he had occasion to fly to Samoa where he met his wife.
After we left the airfield the road became narrower and we rode through the rain forest past a split in the road at the 2 km point until we reached a village with an open field full of men and boys playing soccer. Happy stopped and a man ran over and jumped in the back of the Land Cruiser. A short distance later we stopped at the car park for the World’s Largest Banyan Tree. It was reportedly certified in the Guinness Book of Records.
Our guide led us down a path for ten minutes to the edge of the tree. It was amazing there were aerial roots in both directions measuring a 100 meters (a football field) wide. Paths weaved through the aerial roots and we spent about ten minutes following them until we reached a path of steps dug in the hillside that led back to the car park. It took Bob a little longer to climb the steps. He was exhausted when he reached the Land Cruiser. I took a picture of the tree from the view point and the brochure claims it covers an area of 200 meters (656 ft). Just try to picture one tree as big as the bowl of a football stadium, absolutely blowing! The tree is still growing north and east and is believed to date back long before Captain Cook arrived on the island in 1774.
We drove back down to the village and dropped our guide off at the Tour Operations & Visitor Center. And then we continued passing by other villages. Happy told us some of the villages were “John Frum” villages. They have a belief in a mythical messianic figure named John Frum was the basis for an indigenous cargo cult (a movement attempting to obtain industrial goods through magic) promising Melanesian deliverance. Today, John Frum is both a religion and a political party with a member in Parliament. It was formed before World War II but reinforced when Americans would drop supplies by parachute to troops on the island during the war.
When we reached the coast highway Happy turned toward the town of Lenakel. Happy gave us a tour of areas that Phillip had not taken us to such as the Province Capital Building, the Province Governor’s house, the USAID building, the Road Maintenance Shop where the road repair machines sat in rust. He showed us the French and then the English Governors buildings. He told us that prior to Independence the roads were well maintained but the country only repairs them during the dry season. We passed through Isangel where we saw the open-air Supreme Court Building.
We rode back through the Lenakel town center and towards the resort and stopped at the Tanna Coffee Plantation and processing plant. Since it was Saturday the plant was closed. Past the plant Happy drove down to the beach and up the beach towards the resort. It was rocky with outcroppings of lava rock. We saw fisherman in the surf and we stopped to examine a row of native dugout fishing boats. They were very narrow with outriggers.
Past the boats we came upon the Catholic mission, a beautiful building facing the ocean with a large lawn down to the beach. Past the mission we turned away from the beach and rode past a church and an old coffee mill to the main road near the quarry. This time there were even more goats than the day before grazing around the quarry.
Back at the resort we ate lunch and packed for our trip back to Port Vila. The internet was still not connecting to the DNS Server so they gave me the Reception Desk password and refunded the Internet fee. I was able to download my emails and answer the important ones before leaving for the airport at 15:30.
Before I left the resort I engaged Jean-Francois in a conversation about the Tanna Island government’s attitude toward tourists. With the Giant Banyan Tree, Volcano, dive spots and the friendly villages they had a lot to offer but I didn’t get a feeling that they were encouraging more tourists. He told me that there was a feeling that the locals want to limit tourists in order to maintain their culture. We also discussed the wear and tear the roads must have on his vehicles and he agreed and said the roads are graded once a year during the dry season. He didn’t sound optimistic that things would improve or change very much.
Our flight back to Port Vila was on a larger aircraft, an ATR-72. I sat next to Mr. Sato Kilman, Minister of Trade Commerce and Tourism, Republic of Vanuatu. I discussed with him the same issues I raised with Jean-Francois. He told me the government wants to expand tourism to the island, build a wharf for cruise ships and improve the roads. They have funded a project for road improvement that will start in July. He is meeting resistance from the locals who are afraid that an increase in tourists will ruin their way of life. He found that the John Frum cult is especially resistant to change. He has been trying to increase the production of coffee on the island to gain more revenue but since the locals are basically happy growing their own food they have no incentive to need more revenue. It was a very timely chance meeting for me.
It was only a 35 minute flight back to Port Vila. Since it was a larger plane the wait for our bags took longer. There was some large freight on the plane. One box held labeled “Chow” held a rooster who’s head was sticking out an air hole. When we got our bags we hired a cab to drive us to the hotel. The cab was a new KIA only a week old. The driver was very pleasant and we agreed to use him to take us to the airport the next day.
Our hotel room was identical to the one we had two days earlier except it was on a higher floor providing an even better view of the city and the bay. We decided to not eat in the hotel and instead crossed the street to a Brewery Café which we had discount coupons for. I ordered a sea food platter and they told me they were out of shrimp so they gave me extra fish. It was a huge serving. At a next table a customer had their cheese burger and it was as large as any I have ever seen. My meal cost less than the hotel and I had a lot more than I would have at the hotel.
After our meal we walked back to the hotel to rearrange our luggage for the long flight home in the morning.
Sunday, January 26, 2014: Fly Port Vila, Vanuatu to LAX via Auckland, New Zealand
We ate breakfast at 07:00 and returned to our room to finish packing. Our cab was scheduled to arrive at 09:00 to take us to the airport. Check-in and security was quick and easy. I was flying on Air New Zealand so I had a pass to the VIP Lounge. It was not very large but it was air conditioned, had free Wi-Fi and cold drinks.
We walked to the plane and as we left the parking spot a heavy rain storm hit. We were lucky that all of us were on board before it rained. The plane still took off at noon landing in Auckland at 17:00 local time. Our bags were checked through to LAX but I had to retrieve a bag of winter gear that I had stored after the expedition so I had to go through passport control and then get my bag, and receive a new boarding pass with the additional luggage tag number.
We only had a two hour connection. I went up to the Air New Zealand Lounge hooked up my laptop and had a small lunch. A thunder Storm hit the area and the lounge had two leaks. I sat there watching the staff placing buckets under the leaking water. At 18:00 I walked to the gate and found Bob reading a book. The plane was there and the crew arrived when but they were stopped from going on the plane. The gate agent explained that the plane had been delayed landing due to the thunder storm and it was still being cleaned and refueled. The outside of the plane was painted as an advertisement for the Hobbit movie. When the refueling completed the crew was allowed to board the aircraft and start their pre-flight preparations.
We boarded an hour late and departed Auckland an hour late at 20:15. I sat in an inside aisle with an empty seat next to me. I tried to set up my laptop and write in my journal but the people in front of me reclined their seats and I couldn’t use the laptop. I had seen the movies that were offered on earlier flights so I watched a number of TV comedy shows until after dinner was complete and the treys picked up. I was able to fall asleep for about three hours when I was awakened by the flight attendants running back and forth. I had the flight map display on and saw that we were headed for Honolulu. I got up to go to the rest room and found the one in my cabin to have a sign that it was out of order so I walked to the rear and while waiting for the toilet to be available found out from a flight attendant that we were being diverted for a medical emergency. We were too heavy to land at Fiji or Samoa so we were heading for Hawaii. I later learned that a woman had a miscarriage in the restroom that had the sign on the door.
We landed in Honolulu and were told to stay in our seats with our seat belts unfastened and all electrical equipment off as they were refueling the aircraft. I tried to sleep on the four hour flight to LAX but didn’t sleep very much. We landed at LAX at 13:30, three hours later than the scheduled time. I quickly passed through passport control using the Fast Pass kiosk. My bags were the first two off the carousel and I was embarrassed because so many people either missed their connecting flight or had a short time to get to their next flight and were waiting on their bag and here I was terminating and the first one to exit baggage claim. My bubble burst when there was no one from the car service to greet me. I walked out to the Prime Time Shuttle stand and asked the agent to call dispatch and find out the status of my driver. I gave him my reservation number. There appeared to be some confusion trying to locate my driver. An hour and several calls later they finally decided to get met a dedicated Prime Time Van to drive me home at 15:15 an hour and forty five minutes after landing I left the airport. My fee was refunded the next day.
The trip had been another adventure with few dull or routine moments.