Joe Versus the Volcano

I often relate my travels to a movie, and for my trip to Vanuatu, one of my favorite movies, Joe vs the Volcano comes to mind. Joe vs the Volcano is about a young guy-Tom Hanks, who is living a passionless life until he believes he is dying and is paid by a wealthy businessman, who can convince a tribe in a remote South Pacific Island to sell their valuable mineral rights by having Joe save the tribe by sacrifice himself to jump into the island’s volcano, the Big Wu. The tribe has no volunteers so Joe steps up to save the day and have one last all expenses paid adventure before dying a hero. The movie is exotic and fairytale like, just like Vanuatu and especially the island of Tanna in Vanuatu. Tanna is a remote island with an active volcano in its center surrounded by rainforest, and traditional tribes that practice the old way of living because they believe it brings them closer to the spirits of their ancestors. I had always wanted to find an island like the one in Joe vs the Volcano and Tanna was it.  As part of a multi-country trip that included the Solomon Islands, and Fiji, I visited Tanna.


Where is Vanuatu

Location of Tanna, Vanuatu in South Pacific

Vanuatu is a remote island archipelago located in the South Pacific. Its inhabitants are Melanesian, and it was colonized by multiple European countries, Spain, France and England that all left behind their influences on the island nation. But it was the British that had the most influence because of the heavy presence of they and American forced had during World War II.

To get to Vanuatu, I first had to fly from Los Angelas to Fiji on Fijian Airways, then to the Solomon Islands before flying to Vanuatu’s capitol, Port Vila. The capitol is more westernized, modern, built up with resorts for Australian and New Zealand tourists and for me not as appealing as the outer islands. I spent 4 nights in Vanuatu in total (2 in Tanna and 2 nights Port Vila). To reach Tanna, I flew on a small prop plane with 6 other passengers. My flight I discovered was the first in weeks since the island was pounded by a typhoon.


Tanna Island

May 2011: When I arrived in Tanna, it immediately felt like a different world compared to Port Vila. Tanna is extremely undeveloped and underpopulated. The villages are made of thatch and the roads are horrendous only traversable via 4WD trucks.  I arranged a stay at a local guesthouse-Nima in the middle of the island with a view of the Yasur Volcano. One of the guesthouse managers, Oesso, a local guy from Tanna met me at the airport, and we hopped into the back of a shared taxi or pick-up truck. We stopped in town at a marketplace, which was a produce market out in the open with women in colorful dresses sitting on the ground selling kava roots, vegetables, fruit, and pigs.


Shared Taxi in Tanna Island-typical mode oftransport for locals on the back of the truck

Then we proceeded up a rutted muddy 4wd tract into the jungle clad hinterlands to the guesthouse. The road was horrendous, but Oesso promised me it was a good road compared to the one we would later take to the volcano. The road evidently was always bad, but the recent typhoon made it go from bad to worse. The guesthouse was in a rural village on a hilltop with a cool breeze overlooking the Yasur volcano and Pacific Ocean. Maybe it was offseason, but I was one of the only foreigners on the island and everywhere I went, it seemed I would have the place to myself, just as I hoped. 


When I wasn’t visiting Yasur Volcano or some of the villages deeper into the island, I used the guesthouse as a base from which to hike into the nearby jungles, villages, beaches and waterfalls. A village guide always went with me since I would hike through village land and my guide’s fees would go back to supporting the village. I crossed paths between the villages that were ancestorial and have been used by villagers for generations. In between villages I hiked across deep jungle clad ravines and across streams. The villages, even though people wore western dress were traditional in every other aspect, traditional beliefs although most people practice some form of Christianity, pigs and thatched houses with no electricity. The beach was volcanic black sand and extremely isolated. I hiked to a waterfall near the beach and went for a dip in the pool at its base. Probably the most interesting place I visited was the kava bar. Small sheds at night where kava is mixed and sold were popular among the villagers. These places are lit by candlelight and have nothing more than a small wooden bar, with an attendant and a plastic bucket full of kava water. The soapy tasting kava water is mixed with ground up kava root and when drinking the kava there is a small ceremony or ritual that is conducted before sipping the kava usually from a small coconut cop.  The kava relaxes you and gives you a tingly sensation at the end of your tongue.


Hiking through the jungle in between villages

Typical village

Volcanic sand beach

Village girl I met on the beach

Drinking kava at the kava bar at night

Running from Lava Bombs at Yasur Volcano

The star attraction of Tanna Island is Yasur Volcano. Yasur has dominated the island for many generations. Even Captain Cook when he arrived at Vanuatu during the 1500’s noticed the red glare emitted from the volcano. The volcano is one of the most reliable volcanos in the world to observe volcanic activity because it is constantly spewing lava bombs and is usually safe to visit as long as you do not visit when it is having a bad day. To get to the volcano I had to drive along a long and very bad mud road. The typhoon absolutely devastated the road, and we ended up getting stuck more than a few times.


Stuck on the way to Yasur Volcano

Yasur Volcano in the distance

After eating a locally made lunch at my guesthouse, my guesthouse manager, Oesso and I set off to Yasur Volcano in his 4wd pick-up truck to get there for the afternoon lava show. I could see ash clouds in the distance erupting from the volcano and hear its big booms so I knew the volcano would not disappoint. As promised the road was terrible, we had to dig ourselves out of deep mud a few times and I hit my head on the ceiling of the truck’s interior on many big bumps. After a few hours’ drive we arrived at the base of the volcano, a dirt lot. We were the only visitors in the parking lot. There was one other local man collecting an entrance fee. I was anxious to get up to see the volcano and so I greeted the man asked him if it was ok and he said yes and set off up the volcano a short 30-minute steep hike to the top.  I stood at the top on the rim looking over towards the crater a few hundred feet away. I knew there was activity, but I only saw it from a distance, so I needed to wait at a safe distance to gauge the extent of activity before approaching the crater. I stood waiting. There was no activity for the first 20 minutes as I stood there. I turned on my video of my camera to record the first explosion. Then it came. The ground shook violently, and I could feel the percussion of the shock waves in the air of the lava bombs that came exploding into the air from the crater. The sound was deafening, and, in that moment, I wasn’t really sure what was going on, but I could see the lave bombs accelerating high into the air above me and I knew that the next path for them was to come raining down upon me. There were too many bombs to count, and I did the only thing I thought I could do-run back down the volcano. I turned around to run and Oesso, who came sprinting up to me, grabbed me and firmly with a calm voice command me not to run but to turn around and look at the lava bombs and wait to see where they will land and move accordingly. This is exactly what we did. Bombs fell behind, in front and to the side of us. One fell just where I was previously standing 30 feet away. It was huge chunk of lava rock that was still on fire the size of a truck. Oesso then said let’s go down, the volcano is too dangerous to visit from up here now. It was level 4 and evidently level 4 is too dangerous to visit. When we safely made it back to the car, we drove down away from the volcano even further because even the parking lot was not safe at the current level of activity. From a safe distance we sat back and watched in disbelief as lava bombs cascaded down the sloped of the valocano where we stood. Oesso expressed how dangerous the volcano can be and how a relative of his was killed when he took a tourist up there. The lava bomb decapitated the tourist and his relative killing them immediately. There were a few more stories like this too.


Yasur Volcanic Explosion that sent lava bombs raining down upon me

Giant lava bomb the size of a truck that landed near where I was just standing

Traditional Kastom Villages that Idolize Prince Phillip of England

Most villages on Tanna live a traditional life and practice some traditional island beliefs. But the people in these villages speak English, practice Christianity or at least a hybrid of it mixed with traditional animistic beliefs, and they wear western dress. But here are a few other villages on the island that have decided to practice the traditional customs and turn their backs on western influence almost entirely. These are called kastom Villages. These villages wear the traditional grass skirts, penis sheath, animistic beliefs and only speak the local language because the children do not attend schools.  They believe that western influence separates them from the spirits of their ancestors and that by living this lifestyle they will be happier and more fulfilled. Of course, they still value foreign money and visiting these villages is always possible for a small donation to the village chief.

I visited Yakel Village, a kastom village that at the time I wasn’t sure I could visit because the chief had just died, and the village had been closed to outsiders for almost a year. The new village chief was not excited about having outsiders visit evidently. In the end my driver, Oesso was able to obtain permission for my visit and when I arrived, most of the men in the village were seated around the giant banyan tree, considered a sacred tree and usually doubles as a village meeting place for the men.  The villagers, who stopped everything they were doing to meet me and performed a dance and song just for me. The women wore grass skirts and were topless and the men and boys wore penis sheaths. Some of the kids were terrified of me and screamed, while others smiled and played with me. Unlike other villagers on the island most didn’t speak any English and those that did only spoke a few words. One of the elders showed me around the village and introduced me to some of the stone idols that represented ancestorial spirits. When I asked where the new chief was, I was told that he was in England. Evidently a British reality show paid for him to come to England to meet Prince Phillip, who is believed to be almost God like to the village. This was evident by the photos that some of the villagers showed me of prince Phillip. According to the beliefs of the and other villages on Tanna, Prince Phillip is the reincarnated chief from Tanna who was prophesized to be reborn some day with white skin, cross many seas to marry a very powerful women and then return to the island of Tanna. According to the people prince Phillip who visited Tanna in his youth, sometime in the 1950’s and brought many modern gifts and cargo to the island was this reincarnated chief and the people have revered him as a kind of Jesus like figure ever since.


Yaken Village

kastom Villagers, Yakel

Me at Yakel Village

Kid with Penis Sheath

Yakel Village Idols

Kid who just finished crying when first seeing me

Yakel Village girl

Tanna is a big island with very little infrastructure and there are villages deep into the island, some that can only be reached by foot that are more interesting far less visited than Yakel and other kastom villages along the road. I asked the people of Yakel if there were more villages in the interior that were kastom, and they said yes there are and that I could walk to them with a guide in a day. The idea of doing this seemed very appealing to me but sadly I didn’t have any time left. The next morning, I departed by flight to Port Vila and onward to Fiji.


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