I had heard that Mt Yasur on the island of Tanna was one of the few places in the world where you can get up close and personal to an erupting volcano. I have had this experience on my bucket list for a few years now, so when the opportunity came to run an Excellence for Life workshop with Vanuatu’s athletes, I added to the itinerary the 45-minute domestic flight to Tanna. Because the dates fell on the school holidays it meant my family could come too. The stars were aligned.
Vanuatu is nation made up of 83 islands and a population of approx 250,000. It was named New Hebrides during its colonial period. Vanuatu has 105 local languages as well as English and French. Bislama is a form of pidgin practiced as the linking language for all of Vanuatu's indigenous people. It is a mixture of phonetic English and loose French which is woven into a local sound. Hello = Alo, Thank you = tankyu, Full/had enough = fulup! Water = wota, Ocean = Solwota and Food = kai kai.
Tanna Island emerged from the sea about one million years ago; the oldest archaeological evidence found dates back to 2000BC. Europeans began settling the islands in the late 18th century after Captain Cook landed. Captain cook sighted, Mt Yasur's (meaning god) volcanic glow from afar and anchored in a small bay in 1774, naming the bay Port Resolution after his vessel. He attempted to climb the volcano but because it was taboo the islanders would not allow him to do so. In 1887, a French and British naval commission administered the islands. In July 1980 independence and full sovereignty was granted by both European nations.
Tanna’s first missionaries landed in 1842 but were forced to flee several months later. The islanders believed a devastating epidemic of dysentery at the time had been caused by sorcery from these white people. A few years later Polynesian religious teachers replaced these missionaries but their work ended after they were blamed for an epidemic of small pox. By the early 20th century Presbyterian missionaries dominated Tanna’s religious experience.
Our tour of Tanna took us high up into the mountains where one of the local villages have opened up their culture to tourists. They live like they have done for hundreds of years, in huts made from local materials with men wearing only Nambas (penis sheath) and woman wearing grass skirts. They cook with stones and light fires with sticks. There is customary dancing, child brides and no schools. The soil in enviably fertile and their crops are highly prized. There are cows, pigs and chickens roaming around with the naked kids. These people all have the most amazing smiles and appear genuinely happy. If there are any disputes then they are settled by the men of the village under a sacred tree drinking Kava! There are still villages all over Vanuatu that live like this – most of them where tourists are not welcomed.
Afterwards we visited what is claimed to be the biggest Banyon Tree in the world! This tree is at least 170 metres in diameter and you can climb right inside. I am sure many fairies live here!
Fortunately on the last day we got the weather window we needed to get up close and personal to Mt Yasur. The hour and a half 4WD ride to the top was incredibly rough, and an adventure all on its own! When we got to the crater, we were greeted by a thunderous explosion that we could feel right through our bodies. It was a timely reminder of the dangers around us. For the next hour we perched on the edge of the crater, watching the show of steamy volcanic cloud swirling all around and the display of the best natural fireworks I have ever seen.
Tanna Island gave us a myriad of experiences that enriched my family’s awareness and appreciation of life. It took us back in time; showed us nature at its best and made us all realize how simple and happy life can be.