Tanna: Land of Smoke and Fire|
Courtesy of New Zealand Adventure
Tuesday, November 23, 2004
"Are the bungalows very far?"
|Photo Courtesy of New Zealand Adventure
"No, not far - just over there." A finger points at a small mountain range. "You wanna ride your bike?"
With the sun baking down and the road looking more like a well-used goat track, plus the back of the truck beckoning, we made the best decision we made on the whole trip. "Na, we'll ride with you guys." Smiles all round, we jumped aboard.
Our destination was the Friendly Bungalows on the island of Tanna, somewhere in the middle of the South Pacific. Unfortunately, the name of our destination did little to prepare us for the less than 'friendly' roads that awaited us. Tanna, a part of the Vanuatu group, is a large island with a fairly mountainous interior fringed with black sand beaches and lush vegetation. It was a wild and remote place.
Unfortunately for us, the airport lay on the opposite coast to the Friendly Bungalows. The only way there was straight across the interior. To say the roads were a little rough would be an understatement; to call them road was even stretching the definition. However, it was either that or a few days' ride around the coast, so we set off towards the interior.
The beginning of the ride wasn't too bad: plenty of clay to be seen, not too many potholes and only a gradual climb. The heat of the day made water consumption essential. We were lucky to be carrying our camel packs and plenty of spare bottles already filled from Vila, as you wouldn't want to be drinking the local water.
Our first stop was a small cultural village, one of the very few places in Vanuatu where the local people still embrace their original lifestyle and adorn their original clothing of little more than a grass skirt. I'm not too sure which of us experienced the greater cultural shock, them seeing a white couple with hi-tech mountain bikes (something that intrigued everyone we met on the island) or us experiencing a group of people with seemingly so little, living a lifestyle unchanged in thousands of years.
Here we refuelled with some of the local delicacies - the ever present coconut juice and Nealy. The people were shy and reserved, but they performed their local dance at a distance. We also met the chief who looked at least 100. I asked one of the younger guys how old he was. He told me the old bloke had been alive forever, and he looked it. We were given rough directions and told we could bike from where we were as most of it was downhill. Obviously a bit of a language barrier there, as the next two hours were taken up with the hardest mountain biking I have ever known. Not only was it 100 degrees in the shade, dusty and pretty much all uphill, it had to be one of the most remote places I had ever visited. You felt that if anything went wrong, you'd be well and truly knackered.
Eventually we came to a small stretch of tar seal and a clearing in the trees that exposed the coast line. We were over half way there and looking around us it looked like the rest of the ride was going to be all downhill - yeehah! From our viewpoint you could see the smoldering volcano of Yasur to the south, and the surrounding landscape of black ash. This was our destination for the following day, and from here it looked like a pretty awesome sight. Yasur volcano is one of the most active volcanoes in the world and one of the few that you can actually get close to - at your peril.
|Photo Courtesy of New Zealand Adventure
The rest of the ride to the Friendly Bungalows wasn't quite as easy as predicted, as the tar seal soon gave way to deeply-gouged clay once again. One thing's for sure, you wouldn't want to be doing this in heavy rain. We eventually arrived at the Friendly Bungalows to be met by Mary, a local who runs the place, and were shown to our room, a replica of something out of Robinson Crusoe. Talk about isolated! No power, no phones and only one way out - back the way we had just come!
The next day broke clear and sunny, and after a breakfast of diced bananas, sweet bread and plenty of water, we prepared for our day's outing. First we were biking out to Port Resolution, the home of the late, friendly dugong, then at dusk we were going to head up to Yasur volcano. The ride to both Port Resolution and Yasur was a lot easier than the previous day's ride as the road followed the coast and therefore saved us from any major climbs. We left the Friendly Bungalows, and to get to Port Resolution had to skirt the base of Yasur. The sight from here is incredible you feel like you have landed on another planet; probably Mars! One minute you're biking through dense, lush bush and the next there is not a tree to be seen as a desert-like landscape appears.
The contrast between Yasur and Port Resolution was barely credible. As Port Resolution lies upwind from Yasur Volcano, the beaches are still golden, untouched by the eruptions that have discoloured the beaches downwind of Yasur to a dull grey. Up until recently, Port Resolution had been home to a 'friendly' dugong that would allow people to swim and pat him. A month before we arrived, the dugong passed away, and with it the throngs of tourists who used to visit the remote spot.
We lunched down at the now remote beach and talked about the impact this death had had on the locals. My husband had visited Port Resolution many years previously (not by mountain bike I might add) and had experienced first hand the local dugong. By slapping on the water the dugong would come and bunt you over in the shallows. Its huge frame and curiosity made it a really unique attraction. The locals had kept its skeleton and were going to put it on show. Unfortunately, this does not have the same pulling power as a live dugong. But there is a Vanuatu legend that says when one thing dies another will take its place. We'll have to wait and see.
We still had a few hours to kill before we were to meet our local guide to take us up Yasur volcano, so we acted like tourists and swam and sunbathed at the local beach. Unfortunately, you now have to pay a tariff for access to Whitesands, one of the more picturesque spots on the island. However, this is the locals' only form of income and you do have to get used to passing over a few hundred Vatu every time you want to see anything.
We left Port Resolution and biked back to the base of Yasur where we met John, our guide for the evening. After paying our customary fee to get onto the road that leads up the mountain, we threw our bikes and ourselves on the back of a 4WD pick up and settled down for a ride up the easy way. We had debated whether or not to bike up ourselves, but as hard to believe as it may be, the road up was worse than anything previously experienced. Just driving on the roads in Tanna provides an intense adrenaline rush, and going up the Yasur road was no exception. We held on for dear life, hoping the 4WD didn't tip over while wondering whether is would have been safer to push our bikes up the hill after all! The road not only looks impassable but there are fissures belching gas and fumes. John reminded us not to step into any big holes. We didn't need to be reminded twice!
However, we arrived in one piece, unloaded our gear and the plan was to push our bikes up to the rim of the volcano, watch the "fireworks" display of molten lava and ash and then take the quick route back down the far side of the volcano! Sound like fun? Whilst having breakfast that morning, we had been reading the sign in the 'restaurant' that talked about visiting the volcano. Statements such as "go at your own risk" and "tourists beware" did little to improve our confidence. The advice given about what to do if large boulders of volcanic lava spewed your way made us wonder what on earth we were doing. The advice read something like, "If a large explosion occurs and rocks begin to fly your direction, do not turn and run. Hold your ground, watch where they are flying and attempt to avoid where they land."
The other small factor niggling away at my nervous system was the fact that the year before a Japanese tourist had been killed by a flying rock the size of a bus! Yes, we were a bit nervous as we pushed the bikes up to the rim. The rim feels like it is only a foot across, with one side falling into the crater below and the other falling steeply over 1000 feet to the bottom. Looking back at the photos, I can now see that the rim was a lot wider, but at the time I would have sworn differently.
So, butterflies and all we precariously followed the rim round to the far side to get a close look at the flying lava! Unfortunately, there was a rather steady breeze blowing in our direction, and the combination of sulphur fumes and blowing ash made for a rather uncomfortable experience, so we set off down the side of the volcano back to the Friendly Bungalows.
The ride back was pretty awesome as the adrenaline was still pumping fiercely. It was now pitch black with only the headlights from our bikes to light the road. We arrived back to the Friendly Bungalows covered from head to toe (and all those little places in-between) with a fine black dusting of ash. No hot water meant a dip in the ocean was the only way to get clean.
We had a week on Tanna and barley touched he surface of what was to be seen. If you are looking for five-star accommodation, fluffy towels and air conditioning then Tanna is not for you. However, if you are looking for a unique place, unspoilt and pretty much as it has been for the last thousand years then Tanna needs to be on your list of must do's.