The Island of Tanna – Vanuatu

We had a last hurrah in Fiji at Vuda Point Marina where we had to go to book out from the country. Why the Immigration and Customs staff are based there rather than the somewhat bigger Port Denarau where all the super yachts are, I really don’t know. However, it necessitated us moving the 5 miles across the bay where we got the chance to meet up with Be and Be, languishing in Vuda Point still waiting for the parts to fix their sail drives, broken all the way back in Viani Bay. The kids hung out and had a good time and we said our goodbyes to Peta and Geoff. We are hoping that they will be fixed in time for us all to have a last blast together in New Caledonia. Fingers crossed that the repairs work out.

We made a rather tedious passage across from Fiji to Vanuatu, a distance of about 450miles as the crow flies. The first 36hrs were wild and racy and we charged along. However we fell into a hole and slopped along before the wind turned to our nose and we had to beat. I’m afraid I got v bored and decided to turn on the get there juice. We motored in the last 20 miles to arrive in daylight rather than wait until the next morning.  Tika and Time Bandit had screamed across and both were in over a day ahead of us but handily were able to confirm route in and anchorage. Oh to be 10’ longer and that fast…….

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We had a strange time trying to spot land as we beat up towards Tanna. We could see the island of Futuna, a rarely visited island some 30 miles E of Tanna from a huge distance away, over 50miles but Tanna itself remained obscured until we were 20 miles away.

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We decided that the dragon we saw in the clouds, coming directly from the volcano on Tanna must have had something to do with it!

The Island of Tanna - Vanuatu

We had received permission to enter Vanuatu at Port Resolution on the island of Tanna, not a entry port but the closest anchorage to the famously active Mt Yasur, the most accessible volcano in the world. Although Customs and Immigration Officers will come across the island to book people in (with a significant additional cost), we got permission from Customs HQ at Port Vila, the capital, to simply enjoy our stay and formally book in once we reached Port Vila. We were charged a $50 unnamed entry port fee once we reached Efate. I’ll write more on this issue in our next blog post on Port Vila.

Tanna in the local dialect translates as “earth”. So the story goes, when Capt Cook arrived on the island he lifted up a handful of earth from the ground and asked what it was. Confused, rather than tell him the island name (what I think he was after) the locals said “tanna”. So the island was named on Capt Cooks chart and so it has stayed.

Navionics’ mapping appears to be a problem yet again in Vanuatu. Port Resolution, a major bay on the SE corner of Tanna doesn’t even show up as an anchorage. Thankfully I had bought the Rocket Guide to Vanuatu (a quite excellent publication which I wholeheartedly recommend) which had lots of details and handily, some waypoints that would get me in to the bay. We dropped in about 20’on to hard black sand. Great holding. We were a little surprised to find the bay full of other yachts. However, as we were in the process of dropping the hook, many of them were upping sticks and heading out. The yachts were from the Island Cruising Association Rally from NZ and having had their short stop in Tanna were off again heading N. By the next day they had all gone and it was far more peaceful. The locals mainly fished in the bay and no one used anything else other than a traditional dug out canoe from a single tree with outrigger. We did some trading with a couple of them. Biscuits (cookies), matches and cooking oil were traded for local fruit and veg.

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The bay initially had a NW wind blowing, bringing ash from the volcano down in to the anchorage. We had been told if the volcano was active this could be dangerous, hot ash not going well with fibreglass hulls but all we got was a very fine black power in great quantity. We tried to keep up with the cleaning but it was wasted effort. Note – even a month after our visit to Tanna, we are still washing off black volcanic dust from the deck daily. Pernickety stuff!

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The bay is well sheltered from any wind other than a NE when a sharp sea can set in. The advice is to leave quickly if the wind sets there. Volcanic activity is evident around the bay as well with smoke vents and small hot water springs pouring into the bay on its W side. There is the “Yacht Club” on the E side of the bay where you can arrange trips to local villages, eating out and of course a visit to the volcano. Park your dinghy on the rocky beach by the fishing boats and walk up the hill to the club. The view is lovely and they sell beer! It has a few huts with basic amenities (that doesn’t include lights after dark!) which can be rented. When we were there there was a Australian group of  volunteer dentists and medics staying there. They come in twice a year to treat the locals. They said that if there were problems, all they could do is extractions as there was no way they could do any follow up treatments. Thankfully the generally dental standard of the locals is pretty good, mainly they think because the diet is a traditional one with low sugar content.

After a day of the NW rubbish we had to beat into to reach Tanna, the wind relented and changed back to the more normal SE trade. It was good to meet up with Stop Work Order again who arrived the morning after we did who had a passage much like our own – sloppy and not that quick. Of course the girls were soon in contact and Jaiya, Truly and Hannah were soon as thick as thieves, added to with the arrival of another kids boat, Fluenta with the Shaw family on board.

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The main reason to visit Tanna is the volcano of Mt Yasur. Tika, having arrived 24hrs before us had already liaised with the locals and had arranged for Time Bandit, Tika and ourselves to visit the volcano together. Stop Work Order joined us which led to a bit of fun in the transport.  4+4+5+2 seemed a squeeze for one vehicle and we were promised a second car. Of course it didn’t turn up. I’m sure it wasn’t legal but we all piled in. The big adults went inside and the rest of us clambered in to the cage on the back, holding on for dear life!

The dirt roads on Tanna are a lane and a half (at best) track and are covered by volcanic ash. It made for a dusty and exhilarating bumpy ride for the 20km to the park entrance.  Some of the trees we saw were magnificent, huge banyan type affairs that the locals revere.

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Once we were at the entrance to the park we were welcomed with flowers and then a demonstration of local dancing. These days a trip to the volcano is very commercialised and not cheap. It cost us $60US for the transport and then about another $100US a head for the volcano itself.

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After the short presentation and welcome, we jumped back into the vehicles for the 10min ride up on to the volcanic plain beside the volcano itself. Sadly we didn’t know about the bizarrely placed post box and as there was nowhere to buy either cards or stamps we didn’t get to send Shona, a fan of exotically posted cards, one to remember!

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Mt Yasur itself is fantastic. You arrive about a couple of hours before sunset and troop up under the careful supervision of a bunch of locals. They decided to tighten things up after a tourist got squished by falling debris a few years ago. Health and Safety isn’t a high priority in Vanuatu but they are trying. Active volcanic activity is measured on a sliding scale between 1-5 with anything over 2 being cause for serious concern. We visited when the activity was at 2 which is the highest the authorities will now allow people to approach the caldera. Even so, the initial position we were taken to by the guides became a little dangerous as falling magma from the eruptions, occurring every few minutes, started to land 50m in front of us and we were moved to a new position further to the NW of the caldera. There are no rails or paths to follow as you troop around the edge. Just guidance to stay back a little from it and not to fall in! With more instructions to “Keep looking up and no running” if there was a big explosion ringing in our ears we kept a careful eye on where the wind was and where the fallout was at each mini eruption.

In the daylight, the volcano is mainly to do with bangs and huge billowing clouds of sulphurous smelling nastiness.

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As the sun sets, what was impressive becomes extraordinary as the three different magma tubes feeding into the caldera become very evident. The power of the volcano (in a relative quiet mode) is belittling and you can understand why the locals thought that the volcano speaks with the voice of the Gods. The bangs are bloody noisy. The power of even a small eruption is scary.

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Here is one of the bigger bangs we had.

We were allowed a little more than an hour at the top before being shepherded back to the vehicles and the dusty ride back towards the anchorage.

We had arranged for a meal at one of the locals houses. Sally, the lady in question served us all and another family just in that day for a total of 26 of us sitting down. It was the largest gathering she had ever had. We fed very well for the grand total price of 800vatu a head – about $8. Excellent value for a selection of local dishes, lots of fish and a papaya and banana pudding.

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The three year old dude below is Ben of Fluenta. He decided that dark specs were required and carried the 70’s look off with aplomb. Marvel, take note. A Spiderman of the future!

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Having had four days around the bay and lots of interaction between the four kids’ boats, we headed out a couple of hours after Tiki who were heading straight for Ambrym for the festival due to start there a few days later. Sadly we didn’t get to see the pod of Humpback Whales they saw playing at the entrance to the bay. We just haven’t had the luck.

This was to be the last sail for Eleanor as she would be leaving the boat to return to the UK to start senior school. The wind was kind and we reached N overnight towards Efate, the main island of Vanuatu. Stop Work Order charged past us looking good with the volcano in the background.

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