Vanuatu: Going with the flow in a volcanic Eden

By Beck Vass

"Excuse me, there is a man here to see you," the airport official says sternly, minutes before my flight departs Vanuatu, causing me to jump, even in my very-relaxed-holiday-state. "You must follow me."

I do so, suddenly nervous, worried that Schapelle Corby really did have drugs planted on her and a 28-year-old Kiwi girl is about to meet the same fate.

I am escorted back past the immigration officials and x-ray machines to the terminal . . . where I am met by the man who checked me out of my hotel over an hour earlier, at 4am, who had driven to the airport simply because I had forgotten to sign my check-out form.

In other countries he'd have had no show of reaching me. But this is Vanuatu, where stringent protocols don't exist. It is a place of wonderful simplicity.

The joys of this easy-going approach were evident throughout my six-day stay, but nowhere more so than two days earlier, when I sat through a Pacific sunset looking down into the crater of Mt Yasur, touted as the world's most accessible volcano, as liquid orange lava spattered out towards awed spectators.

My excitement about this visit, the trip's highlight, had been rising for weeks. But excitement had been turning into nervousness since stopping two-thirds into the hour-and-a-half journey to the volcano and seeing for myself the clouds of grey and brown smoke billowing from its 361m-high summit.

Even from far away I could hear the subterranean rumbling and the impressive ash plains we were driving across showed how much molten rock and ash Yasur pumps out.

My edginess increased as we drove beneath the mountain across an area strewn with large volcanic rocks.

Getting there was part of the adventure. I had bounced my way around the bumpy, steep road, seatbelt-less (they are not legally required), in a 4WD ute on the remote and rugged Tanna Island, a 45-minute flight south from Efate, the Vanuatu mainland.

Jack, my guide, delights in telling gruesome decapitation stories of tourists who ventured too close. Just in case I get too scared he explains that volcanic activity is at level two - of five - tonight. Apparently tourism is stopped at level four.

As we stop in the carpark on the ash mountain, Jack casually says: "Just follow the footprints between the rocks," - rocks, I anxiously observe, which were fired here in previous eruptions.

I make the five-minute trek to the top, my heart thumping at the sound of frequent booms, and in anticipation of what we'll find.

Even though the last major eruption was several years ago and, of course, predicted by modern science, I can't help but fear that tonight could bring the disaster no one predicted.

There are no fences. Only a single sign warns visitors of the danger ...
and it is advising those posting mail at the world's only "volcano post" that they do so at their own risk.

I sit, just 150m from the volcanic core, and watch a pink-orange sunset fade to darkness - making the bright bursts of molten rock appear even more spectacular - and inhaling the subtle smell of sulphur.

The earth quivers as vivid bombs of orange lava burst up and out towards us, the spatters cooling and turning to rock with a chorus of thumps, as fading clumps hit the soft ash and shuffle their way back towards the fiery cauldron.

Normally I photograph everything, but the sight, smells and sounds are so breathtaking I have to put my camera down and just watch, knowing that no combination of words, photos or videos would ever replicate this.

The trip left me - usually quite chatty - speechless.

I went to sleep that night in my mosquito net-encased bungalow bed with bright orange outbursts burned into my mind, listening to the sea splashing gently at the nearby coral reef, a gentle tropical breeze rustling the leaves overhead.

The next day was spent lying on my bungalow hammock and although I was reading a great book, my mind constantly returned to the night before.

The fact that tourists can undertake such risky pleasures so casually was one of the most charming features of Vanuatu.

It's a very friendly country. Even though about 220,000 people live in Vanuatu and surrounding islands, it seems as if everyone knows each other.

My Tanna tour guide Jack, just happens to be the cousin of Joe, my host from the Vanuatu Tourism Office, who had entertained me since my arrival, when my first attempt to reach Tanna failed.

Bad weather had delayed the ship taking fuel to Tanna, reshaping my entire itinerary. Fuel prices can rise to as much as $1000 vatu (NZ$16) a litre in desperate times, so the remote island had come to a standstill.

Joe occupied my time with a variety of local attractions - cultural tours, adventure tourism, relaxation, dining and shopping - all well worth seeing.

We visited the Cascades waterfall, where after a pleasant 20-minute walk through lush jungle we were greeted, as the name suggests, with clear water cascading down in a series of waterfalls, each ending in its own slightly milky-looking swimming spot. Two Australian tourists follow a local, clambering part way up the largest waterfall, to have their shoulders pummelled by water falling from 30 metres above.

There are no warning signs here either. But then, under the caretaker government running things at the time I visit, drink-driving isn't illegal either.

I was charmed by Vanuatu, and the almost-naive manner of its people, much more laid-back than their more commercialised neighbours in Fiji.

But, despite their easy-going ways, driving seems to make them hurry. Even though are in no rush they are compelled to overtake. The practice of hooning along the wrong side of the road without a seatbelt is my only source of stress. Vehicle registration plates have only four digits here and cellphone numbers just seven.

Transport is equally simple. Buses (vans actually, and identified by the "B" on the number plate) will stop at your wave and take you pretty much anywhere you want to go. They're a great way to get around.

I also cruised through 50km of Port Vila's roads on a beach buggy, zooming past fields of tall coconut trees and through villages where grinning white-toothed children run out hoping to "high five" tourists.

In the afternoons, I enjoyed seaside strolls to colourful market stalls, where clothing, arts and crafts and fresh fruit and vegetables are for sale, providing income for villagers.

Although I was already relaxed, I experienced even more calmness at a local kava bar (look for a red, green or blue roadside light and just walk in).

Even the vibrant tropical fish were laid back, unconcerned as I snorkelled through them over stunning coral reefs, to send a postcard from the world's only underwater post office (much safer looking than its volcanic equivalent).

The postcard arrived safely, though maybe it took a bit longer than usual - but that's what you come to expect on Vanuatu.

Beck Vass visited Vanuatu as guest of Air Vanuatu and the Vanuatu Tourism Office.

GETTING THERE:
Air New Zealand and Air Vanuatu fly from Auckland to Port Vila three days a week. See airnewzealand.co.nz or airvanuatu.com.

WHERE TO STAY:
In Port Vila, The Sebel offers excellent hotel accommodation or for self-contained resort accommodation try Poppy's on the Lagoon.

On Tanna, see Tanna Evergreen Resort.

THINGS TO DO:
Buggy fun - Take a 50km tour of Vanuatu's streets by beach buggy through villages and along a stunning beach.

The Secret Garden - enjoy a garden tour of Vanuatu's mythical history with snakes and coconut crabs to pose in your photos.

Vila Chaumieres - dine out above Erakor Lagoon at one of Vanuatu's top dining spots.

Island Night at Poppy's on the Lagoon - mingle with guests and enjoy fresh organic local fruit, vegetables and meat sourced from the local markets and cocktails served in coconut shells.

Hideaway Island - only a 2-minute ferry ride from the main island but a world apart with a fantastic bar and restaurant, great snorkelling and the world's only underwater post box.

Ekasup Cultural Village - an entertaining tour of Vanuatu's history where you will learn how bananas can be preserved for many years in a hole in the ground.

USEFUL TIPS:
Take insect repellent, and enough cash as there is a 10 per cent surcharge on all credit card transactions and minimum spends of $20 at most stores.

Cyclone season is from around November to April and even if the wind stays away rainfall can be quite high.

Duty free is slightly cheaper in Vanuatu and the stores send it to the airport for you to collect after check-in.

Food prices, except for the markets, are not cheap. A can of coke is 250VT ($4.06).

FURTHER INFORMATION:
Visit vanuatutourism.com.

- NZ Herald

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