After 36 hours in Tanna, flying home I had two things on my mind – a 1980s Australian slogan, and Lara Bingle.
I imagine most people fly home with the memory of standing on the crater of the world’s most accessible volcano, or the smiling faces of the local people etched on their minds, but for me, it was a little different.
Tanna is a 35-minute flight south of Port Vila, but nothing can prepare you for the journey ahead. Arriving at White Grass airport you are forced to disconnect from life, as you know it. A small sign points to the baggage claim area, an open window separating the apron from the airport terminal. There is no activity; no one is in a rush here. The tourists shrug their shoulders at each other, realising this is an island where everything will happen, eventually.
Our bags collected we walk outside and see Tanna for the first time. Trucks are lined up waiting to cart visitors away. There is no pomp and ceremony here, you must find your own truck and sit in the back, the adventure has begun.
Our first stop, about 20 minutes in to the journey is the local auto mechanic workshop. At first glance I thought we had arrived at a drive in cinema with rows of trucks lined up. Then I noticed most of them had three wheels. I assume the roads are not great on Tanna.
A few pounds of air in our fourth tyre and we’re away, finally on the open road. We pass clean villages, rainforests and jungles; more churches per capita than surely anywhere else in the world and many local schools, but not another vehicle for the next hour.
Men hand-carve volcanic mud from the mountain to fill the monster potholes that collectively form the road. They are all smiling and seemingly without a care in the world. The bush knife marks along the walls show kilometres of work and the road teams, some with men as young as eight and old as 80 take pride in their jobs.
The journey is long and the road at times has us hanging on for dear life, but it is irrelevant. I have indeed fallen in love with Tanna.
The jungle clears and we hear the sounds of waves crashing before we see them. Our sanctuary for the night is before us. Friendly Bungalows, like the volcanic mud used to fill the potholes has literally been carved out of the mountains. The guesthouses and main nakamal (restaurant) are made without western influence. Coral, pandanus, bamboo and natangura are the only building materials used to construct the authentic houses in this little village. Plastic chairs in the dining room seem out of place, but are a welcome relief from the two hour journey on the back of a truck.
Mary, the matriarch of Friendly Bungalows greets each guest with a giant, toothless smile and a glass of fresh limejuice. She is genuinely excited to see everyone and extremely proud of her village accommodation.
“This is my home, this is my island. I love it.”
Our room is exactly as it should be. Pandanus trunks are used for the walls, doors, chairs, shelving and beds. The floors are made from Royal Palm Tree (aka Black Palm) and bamboo. The roof is made with coconut fronds weaved on wild cane and attached to the frame with Pandanus leaves.
A heavy down pour later that night proves the Tanna people are leaps and bounds ahead in construction techniques as not a drop of rain spills to the floor.
It’s four o’clock and time to head to the volcano, our only planned tour for our visit to this magical island. Loaded in to the back of the truck the drive this time is almost a disappointment – we are now experts at anticipating the potholes and minimising the whiplash.
We are not prepared for the sight however, of the ash plains nor the volcanic ash that pours all over us on the way. Trees whimper under the weight of recent expulsions of ash and the road disappears. We could be on Mars for all I know.
Covered in volcanic mud (it rained on the way, transforming the ash to a mask one would pay good money for in a beauty salon) we arrive at the base of the volcano. She is indeed awake, and seemingly hungry, like a tummy rumbling in the distance. Every few minutes the earth shakes and sounds of ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ can be heard.
I feel terribly under-prepared; the only thing I have read on Tanna was a story from a friend.
“What makes this natural wonder so accessible is a fluke of nature, meaning that it is unusual to be able to drive to within 10 metres of an active volcano. But what makes it relatively safe to visit is local knowledge. The locals have lived with it for millennia, it is like living with a dangerous dog in the backyard, whose mood must be judged on the day to know whether, how close and from what angle he may be approached.”
The climb is not long, but rather steep and finally we reach the top. Mt Yasur welcomes us with an explosion of molten rock flying into the night sky. It is a sight to be seen and one I will never forget. It was at that very moment, just has Mt Yasur fired another storm in to the sky that I thought of Lara Bingle.
Where the bloody hell are you? This volcano, this island, is in our backyard, so accessible, so breathtaking; I couldn’t believe we had her almost to ourselves. I mean, seriously, we’re just three hours from Australia – is this the best-kept secret in the world?
The drive home was in total darkness, a surreal feeling knowing there was no road to follow on the ash plain, but we were not at all afraid. My friend was right, the local guides knew their stuff and we were in safe hands.
I don’t remember getting to bed that night, all I remember was being pleased we had chosen Friendly Bungalows, being so close to the volcano, we were home, washed and fed within the hour.
The next morning our jelly legs carried us from our bungalow to breakfast, to the back of the truck. With Mary and her nephew Nasse as our guides, we we’re off exploring the island.
Just when you think your last breath has been taken away, Tanna throws a curveball and a beautiful coastline, a panoramic view or a hundred laughing children exhale and you are alive again.
We visit hot springs, custom villages and the unsurpassed Port Resolution beach. I had it wrong when I said Champagne Beach on Santo was the best in Vanuatu – Port Resolution hits it for six. So remote, so untouched, no sign of a P&O Cruise Liner here.
The village children run to the truck, laughing and dancing as we drive by. Sensing our journey is coming to an end, we are saddened at the thought of saying goodbye. Another two hours in the back of the truck and the reluctance has diminished somewhat.
Our final night is spent at White Grass Resort, near the airport. We arrive to a serene setting, but one which feels out of step on our journey. There is a beautiful restaurant, swimming pool, manicured gardens and well-organised staff.
A hot shower, fresh towels, sunset drink and undoubtedly Tanna’s finest dinner later, we realise we have had the perfect Tanna experience. We have seen the real Tanna, climbed the world’s most accessible volcano, swum in possibly the world’s most pristine beach, experienced village life first hand and finished off our trip in luxury, ready for our flight back to the real world.
Sitting on the plane, Lara is on my mind and so is that slogan “Wake up Australia, Tasmania is floating away.” Except this story has nothing to do with Tasmania or Lara Bingle. It’s about all of us and what the bloody hell we’d been missing out on. Quite simply, I had had the time of my life; I just can’t believe it had taken me so long to get here. So wake up to Tanna, it’s right on our doorstep.