Active Volcanos, Roots of Bungee Jumping, and Destroyed Reefs
Our journey in Vanuatu started on the largest island Efate. The other 83 islands of Vanuatu from which only 67 are inhabited stretched over a 12000 km² area in the south pacific. Port Villa, the central town on the island, looked for us as an ideal starting point. From here we planned to explore the island and visit other islands for either a day trip or a more extended stay. As we came here with almost 23KG luggage each, we had to decide what we could take with us because Air Vanuatu had a 10KG baggage restriction. Luckily, our Airbnb host Mark, who came from England to Vanuatu 30 years ago, offered us to leave some luggage at his house.
The first days we rented a car and explored Efate. We drove north and as we passed a great looking beach we parked the car on the road and took some photos. Immediately a man appeared and asked us to pay 500 VUV. We didn’t understand why we should, but he argued that we stepped on his land and had to pay a fee. This should not be the only case where we asked to pay an “entrance fee” for making a step on a piece of land. The tour around the island itself gave us a good impression of Efate, and at our next stops, we spend some more money to get access to a beach or a place to snorkel.
On Saturday we started our journey early to the airport to travel by air taxi Vanuatu towards the Pentecost island. Only on Saturdays between April and June the Sa Tribe from the southern part of Pentecost celebrate their “Naghol” also known as “land diving”. Naghol is a Bislama word (the language spoken on Vanuatu), although the Sa Tribe originally named the event “gol”. Today the event is much commercialized, and a high fee had to be paid to attend. Several small airplanes brought people to the island airport from where 4x4 trucks were used to travel to the jump tower (tarbegol). Anyhow, the singing and the jumping was spectacular and worth the effort. Young boys used the lower level of the tower and the upper part, which could be between 15 to 30 meter high, is the platform for the man’s jump.
After attending the land diving, we went by plane to Epi Island for lunch and a snorkeling tour. Here we saw our first huge Crown of Thorns Starfish (COTS – a new meaning for this abbreviation to me, I only was aware of Commercial Of The Shelf). They are common in the Indo-Pacific region and occur naturally in low numbers. But they became a relevant problem to the coral reefs. Sometimes they appear in large densities called an outbreak. They feed on branching and table corals which has an impact on the ecosystem of the reef. COTS could strip of 90% of living coral tissue, and only healthy reefs could recover from such an outbreak in 10 to 20 years. Although the natural decimation of reefs helps to keep the diversity of corals intact, the dramatic increase in outbreaks in the last years impacted many reefs negatively. If you are interested in more details, check out http://www.reefresilience.org/
Our next Island was Tanna, best known for the erupting Mount Yasur volcano. As the weather can change quickly on the islands, we decided to stay minimum two days close to the volcano. We hoped to increase our chance to visit the top several times. We paid a high entrance fee to be allowed to visit the volcano. This time it was 10.000 VUV (equal to 122 AUD) per person for the first visit and 6.500 VUV for the second. The last entrance would be for free; only the transport had to be paid. Our Airbnb accommodation was just opposite of the volcano park entrance, but 1.5 h drive cross the island from the airport.
Just after arrival, we started our first tour up to the crater at 4 pm. First, we had to attend some traditional dancing and singing of the tribe people. Then someone had to hand over a cava root to the tribes chief to get the permit to enter the volcano. Finally, we departed for a 15-minute drive with 4x4 trucks on a very steep track.
Arrived on a plateau, almost 60 people walked up to the crater rim. What fantastic scenery, ash and sulfur clouds just in front of us and the lava explosions in the center. After a view minutes here we hiked even higher and “boom” the first loud explosion made us cringe. Lava bombs everywhere, luckily in some distance to the rim. As it became dark, the eruptions looked even more spectacular. We never experienced such a sheer natural power elsewhere. Check out our Mount Yasur video.
Higher at the rim, the wind became stronger, and the sulfur smell and the ash made it difficult to breathe. We quickly put our hats on and used our baffs over our breathing masks. Unfortunately, we didn’t bring any eye protection, so I used my reading glasses, and Micha put her sunglasses on when the particle wind became too intense. After an hour we started the descend in darkness using our headlights and left this amazing place behind us. As goodbye message, Mount Yasur spit again some lava bombs which reached the edge of the crater.
For the night we stayed in a small hut with shared shower and toilet just opposite of the park entrance. At darkness cockroaches and spiders joined us; luckily we had our mosquito nets and a thin sleeping bags including a pillow with us. All day long we heard the rumbling and the explosions of the volcano. At daytime, we could even see the sound waves before we heard them. Usually, the volcano eruption happens 500 times per day; the last large critical eruption took place in 2012. During our visit, the volcano was in level 2. Level 2 means moderate to high activity, and lava bombs may land beyond the crater rim. Luckily part of the rim was still accessible. Our second visit to the crater the next afternoon was much different. The visibility was even better, and we had an excellent view of the crater. It was less windy, and the explosions were more powerful. We could enjoy this time much more because we were prepared and know what is happening up there.
Because of the two fascinating volcano visits, we decided to travel earlier to the west coast of Tanna. Here we stayed in a basic hut directly at the beach. Luckily they offered better food than the volcano accommodation. Anyhow, we decided twice to travel northbound using a local minibus to a high price resort for lunch and snorkeling. After our experience on several islands, this was the most intact reef we found. The water at turtle reef was clear, and the sight was possible down to 15 meters.
The second day we decided for a walk up to the world most massive Banyan Tree. After a 4.5 km walk uphill, we approached an enormous monster tree. It was so large that we couldn’t identify where it starts and ends. As always we had to pay an entrance fee, this time 2000 VUV per person.
After paying, Micha started to discuss with the local community member the price gouging. In our opinion the Tanna people will distract the tourists by such high prices and their business will collapse over time.
After five days we were glad to continue our journey to our next island, Espiritu Santo. Here we hired a rental car for two days. On day one we explored the island up to the most northern point, Port Olry. On the way, we stopped at the beautiful white sand of Lonnoc Beach and Champagne Beach. At Champagne Beach, we had to pay an entrance fee of 1000 VUV. Luckily no cruise ship anchored at Lonnoc, and we enjoyed Champagne Beach without any tourist.
If you show up here at the wrong time the beach is filled up with 3000 people. We had wished to see the coconut crab (also known as palm thief) once on our visit, but so far we had no luck. So we decided to have one for lunch at Port Olry before we drove back.
Next day we started early for a snorkeling tour. We had talked to some locals the day before and found out were dugongs could be spotted. The landowner didn’t ask for a fee, but we brought some sweets for his grandchildren. The water was very shallow, and although there was plenty of seagrasses, we could not spot a dugong. We tried our luck further north at the turtle beach resort. But here as at many places around the island, the corals were destroyed by Cyclone Pam in 2015. Only in deeper water at reefs far out the situation is better. We extended our car lease for another day to try a snorkel tour at Port Olry. A fisherman told us that we could see green sea turtles between the islands. We were lucky and spotted several of them in deeper water and again enjoyed a coconut crab for lunch.
On our way back to Luganville we passed many small huts which looked like a large oven and produced a lot of smoke. We stopped by one and talked to the owner. They use the shelters to dry copra, which is packed in large bags after it was 24 hours above the heat. Among other things, copra is used to produce coconut oil.
Back in Efate we picked up our luggage and went for a final day at Hideaway Island Resort. We had been here during the first days in Vanuatu, and the reef in front of the island is declared as a sanctuary. Snorkeling was great, and we saw plenty of different fish, two large moray eels, and magnificent corals. A great final accommodation.
Now it is time for our next step traveling further east. In summary, we found that some places on the Vanuatu Islands are worth a visit e.g., Mount Yasur, but a lot is overpriced, from entrance fees to meals. Interestingly this is not only our own opinion; we met several travelers from other countries who experienced the same.