Another loud explosion. We looked at each other with a mix of excitement and worry. What would we see up there? We were walking towards Mount Yasur on Tanna, one of the few very active volcanos in Vanuatu which was considered ‘kind of’ safe to view up close. It was still a two hour hike ahead but the noises were already worryingly loud.
Words Bart de Zwart // Photos Bart de Zwart & Trevor Tunnington
As we walked, I reflected on how we got here: I sailed the islands of Vanuatu in 2007 with my wife and daughter and we had very fond memories of the people, nature and the culture. So, the expectations were high. But what we found made us fall in love with the people and gave us a rare insight view of their unique way of life.
For this SUP expedition, I had asked Starboard team mate, Trevor Tunnington to come along. He didn’t need much convincing and was directly on board. “A SUP expedition, to one of the most friendly but also most dangerous countries (in terms of national disasters) on earth, what is there not to like?” replied Trevor the same day.
We were travelling light with two Starboard inflatables (Touring 14’ x 30” and IGO 11’2 x 32”), 3-piece paddles, a tent, sleeping mat, basic navigation gear and just an emergency ration of food and two water bags. The IGO has a double chamber which brings extra safety for crossing far at sea. Vanuatu consists of thirteen main islands and many small ones and apart from the main island, it is remote, so remote that many villages rarely see tourists. Vanuatu is one of the least visited countries in the world. After a short flight on a tiny plane looking over the shoulders of the pilots, we landed in Tanna. We found a 4×4 willing to take us to Port Resolution, a village on the other side of the island two hours away over a muddy, barely doable road.
It is custom in every village in Vanuatu to go first to the village chief and ask for his permission to visit and stay in the village. You should bring gifts. We brought t-shirts, lycras and hats, which were much appreciated. After we talked to the chief, he gave us permission and a great spot to put up our tent on a cliff overlooking the bay.
Before we started our long walk to the volcano Mt Yasur, we had a swim at the deserted white coral sand beach on the other side of the village. My feet pounded the trail as we hiked up the slope of the mountain. The thunder like explosions got louder and louder, soon we found ourselves in front of the entrance of the volcano. After a brief ceremony and some instructions not to jump over the crater’s edge, we went to the rim. A light sulfur smell greeted us as we peered over. Then we saw smoke and deep down, the lava boiling on the bottom of the crater. We were standing there watching this spectacle when suddenly we got hit by a pressure wave from a loud explosion which threw up the lava hundreds of meters in the air, a lot higher than we were standing. The first reaction of our little group of people was to duck down and run for cover. This was so freaking awesome and thrilling at the same time. We stayed on the rim till it got dark, the lava explosions coming every five minutes or so and with the diminishing light the spectacle became ever more impressive. After a few hours we went hiked back down and luckily got a ride on a 4×4 back to our tent which saved us the 2.5 hour walk.
Kava For The Soul
The next morning we blew up our boards and paddled for a few hours to the next village, Ipikel. On the way we came across, something straight out of a scene out of the BBC Planet Earth series, a shark feeding frenzy. About five sharks were hunting a school of tuna out at sea. We saw splashing and fins coming out of the water. We went for a closer look, until we were right in it. A few sharks were herding the tuna close together and the others were happily biting at any coming their way. I pushed my camera under water, hoping that the sharks would not mistake it for a tuna. We continued our paddle along the coast to Ipikel. When we got closer, someone was waving and guiding us to a safe landing spot through the beach break, this turned out to be Chief William. A crowd gathered quickly around us as we pulled our boards and gear on the beach. They were as excited to see us, as we them.
If there is one thing you take away from traveling in Vanuatu it is the way the Vanuatu people live. The contrast to the way the western world lives couldn’t be more different. Chief William and his adopted son also called William showed us around and explained about their culture.
In the village they don’t use money. They grow everything they need on their land, use natural building materials and manage to survive without money, only trading if needed. They have a lot of time for each other and themselves. No one is in a hurry or stressed and everyone is friendly, helpful and looks very content. It is a simple but also rewarding and happy life.
That evening we were invited to drink kava with the men of the village. It is a ceremony they do almost every night in a special area in the village where only the men come. The way they make the kava is also very ‘special’. They take a mouth full of cava root, chew on it for about 15 minutes. Then, with a lot of noise, they jiggle it from the back of their throat and spit it out on a leaf, so do the rest of the men. Then they put a little of the gathered mash in a piece of cloth, pour water over it and fringe out the cloth in a coconut shell. The left over, is a yellow milky liquid which is highly sedative. I drank only a little, which immediately numbed my lips and mouth. Trevor drank the entire bowl and seemed to enjoy the feeling, me, on the other hand, not so much.
We were woken up by pigs snuffling around our tent which we had put up right in front of the chief’s hut. After fried fish for breakfast the chief caught just that morning, we took off and had a great down winder to Waisisi. Again the same arrival scene, at first one of the villagers looks bewildered when they first see us and then curious, they all come out with the chief in front to see what just arrived. The chief John was very friendly and showed us where to put up our tent. He told us that most of the bay was ‘Tabu’, forbidden to go swim and fish. This is a ritual, the chiefs hold every year to give the fish in the bay time to lay their eggs. The chiefs of all the surrounding villages sit in a hut on the beach discussing things all day for days on end. Nobody knows exactly when the Tabu will be over; the villagers told us it is mostly a couple of weeks before the chiefs decide with a ceremony that fishing season is on again.
However all the kids in the village (and us too) were allowed to swim on the side of the bay were the waves broke on the reef. We decided it was a good idea to take the kids out on our stand up boards. It turned out to be a high light for them as well as for us. The whole village went wild when one of them tried to paddle into the waves and fell off. Everyone was laughing. Not in a mean, but rather joyful way. In the afternoon some of the kids asked us if we would like to get coconuts. We walked up into the jungle and a few of the kids climbed up the 50ft tall palm trees bare foot like monkeys, no fear and lots of skill. We had even more respect for their skills when we tried climbing the palms ourselves but failed miserably. The kids here walk to school for about 90 minutes each way every day. And again, nobody seemed to complain, rather the opposite, they all seem genuinely happy. Our last night on Tanna we shared a meal with the chief and his wife, on the ground as is custom.
We were now into the second part of our trip as we flew to Ambrym. Our passenger plane landed on a tiny grass airstrip. A short walk through the forest brought us to the volcanic lava rock beach where we blew up our boards. Ambrym is another volcanic island but just recently after flowing for ten years, the lava flow has stopped – but it still rumbles beneath the earth’s surface. Apart from the constant threat of the volcano, the inhabitants endure frequent earthquakes and just five years ago a category 5 cyclone hit and destroyed everything.
Although some residents rebuilt with concrete blocks, most just went into the forest and built their huts the old way in a short time. I have read that humans are using 1.7 times yearly what the earth is capable of producing. In Vanuatu, clearly most people don’t take more from the earth than it gives. And because they only use natural resources directly from their back yard they don’t have any waste or garbage.
We didn’t see any plastic or waste other than what arrives from their plastic consuming distant neighbors, like China and the Philippines. Most islands and villages have no electricity but there are a few cell phone towers. We did see more and more huts with a small solar panel for one light at night or to charge a phone. They use rain or river water to drink and cook.
After spending a night on a deserted beach along the coast we woke up to learn that one of our full water bags had a leak and was now empty, leaving us without water. The temperature and humidity in Vanuatu are high and so is our usage of water. After a couple of hours paddling we explored land where I saw a river on the map. Unfortunately, the river had dried out and we had to continue to the next village with a bigger river to find water. By the time we got there we were very thirsty. But everywhere we went, people were genuinely friendly and tried to help us, sometimes because they felt for us coming from the water on our SUP boards. It was something they’d not seen before and mostly called a kayak. An older woman sitting under a tree in a small village gave us water and some bananas. We eagerly bite into the fruit and fill up our stomachs with water, life can be so simple.
That evening we camped near a village on the North East point of Ambrym after permission from the local chief. We got some fruit for dinner and paddled with the local kids in the waves. At one point Trevor came racing in to the beach; for a moment he thought he saw a salt water crocodile which do roam the northern part of Vanuatu and are very dangerous, but it turned out to be a dugong, a large friendly sea grass eating mammal.
Our next mission is to make the crossing to the next island, Pentecoste. In the southern parts of these islands they practice something which has become very famous with thrill seekers all over the world: this is where bungee jumping comes from. Every May and June, for as long as locals can remember, young men get a chance to prove their bravery. Instead of bungee, here they use vines out of the forest and the tower they jump from is built from small trees. This makes the whole tower very flexible and is one reason why most jumpers survive the jump. Trevor and I talked to Samuel and many people in the next village we visited. Although they are very proud, they all admit, it is very scary to do. During the hours we paddled between the villages, Trevor and I had many conversations about their way of life compared to ours. It seemed that the people on most islands live with another rhythm. They sit under the trees for hours and discuss life, love and dead. Kids have a lot of time play and they play without toys and love the water. Our kids in the western world could learn so much from them.
On these last two islands we can see that for some villages it is becoming complicated to keep to the old ways and traditions. There are so many outer influences coming from returning citizens who have worked in Australia and come home with some money, tourists, and the smart phones some people have. Even in the most basic villages, with no electricity, no cars, no-money economy, there were always one or two phones around and they all knew what Facebook was. It will be hard to stop Vanuatu from slowly changing and modernizing. The Chinese are buying up a lot of land which worries the locals and although most try to resist, some will break, go for the money and change their lives forever. I am just afraid it will not always change for the better.
Back In Time
Our last night we spend close to the ‘airport’, a tiny house next to the runway. To get to the beach we run back and forth over the runway. With only two flights a week there’s no risk. Just then, we found out that our flight to the main island is going to be four hours late, which would suck because we would miss our flight back home by 20 minutes. That would mean a four day delay for me. Trevor’s mum back in Australia helps out and calls the head office and convinces Air Fiji to wait for us if we get there in time. In the morning the plane passed by on its way up to other small islands before it returned on the way back to pick us, and a few other passengers up. This gave us the chance to talk to the pilots. We told them that we would be super grateful if they could come on time or even come a little early so we could make our flights. And they did come early, a whole 30 minutes early.
We arrived 5 minutes before our official flight time. With a little running and help of the ground crew we got to our next flight and took off right away. Fastest connection ever!
In Fiji before Trevor and I were going our separate ways home, we concluded that Vanuatu is very special place. We saw some spectacular sites but what mostly touched us were the people. With no exception, young or old, chief or fisherman, rich or poor, every single person was friendly, kind and very generous with the little things they have. We can all learn a lot from them. SUP International
Bart is grateful for his support from: main sponsor Starboard.
Co-sponsors Patagonia, Maui Jim, Black Project Fins, Supskin.