For nearly everyone who holidays there, Vanuatu means luxury hotels like Le Legon and Meridien where a mostly Australian clientele lounges near the pool and orders drinks with little umbrellas in them.  That was our impression, too, until we left the cheerful hedonism of Port Vila behind and took our chances with the island of Tanna, a place straight out of an Indiana Jones adventure. If luxury and swaying palm trees seem just a little ho-hum, then the island could just be the ultimate South Pacific experience for you, too.

This is a basic and uncompromising destination, a wild land where an active volcano rumbles and roars, where a huge dugong faithfully comes when he is called, and where an odd cult waits for a demi-god named Jon Frum to return in a C-47.

An hour’s flight south of Port Vila and we are approaching what once passed for the airport on Tanna.   But below was us not a tarmac but a paddock (these days the strip is made of asphalt).     On the ground we wait and wait a little longer while someone tries to find the bloke with the ute, the one who was supposed to have met us an hour ago.   We’re stranded and it looks like things can’t get worse.  We are wrong.

At the beachfront resort we’d booked, a local politician had decided to stay an extra night so we were dispatched to a very basic but clean guest house in tiny Lenakel. 

Just when we’d given up on finding any place for a meal, we discovered to our delight that on this of all nights, the village was putting on a feast and a dance in honour of a few islanders who had done some exceedingly good work for the Red Cross.  We must have looked a bit hungry because the organisers took pity and invited us to eat and celebrate with them.  Who could refuse?

After the usual speeches and a buffet meal of pork, fish, several unidentifiable veggies and taro (which has the consistency of wet cardboard but isn’t quite so flavourful), it was time to get down and boogie.  Men danced in one line, women in another and the children behind them.  Here was an ecstatic display of joyous abandon , a night of uninhibited pleasure.

The next day we set off on a costly but very much third class tour of the island. Perched precariously on a spare tyre in the back of that infamous ute, there I was hanging on desperately with each jarring bump in the primitive road.  But what the trip certainly lacked in basic comforts it more than made up for in adventure.

First stop was a custom village where people live the traditional way, meaning with pigs underfoot but without blenders, Nintendos or much in the way of clothing. 

We arrived in a mountainous jungle clearing to wander among their huts and inspect some decidedly un-touristy handicrafts, then watched as the villagers danced in close circles, raising a ghostly cloud of dust.  Afterwards each dancer came over, smiled and shook hands with us.   I might be hopelessly naive, but they really seemed pleased that we had come.

Then we galumphed over to a majestic sheltered harbour called Port Resolution, one of those hundred or so places in the Pacific where Captain Cook dropped anchor, in this case in 1774.  For a small fee, a couple of local boys jumped into the warm water and began beating on it furiously. In a matter of minutes a three metre-long 300-kilo dugong dutifully appeared. 

We experienced the thrill of swimming alongside the massive mammal for a while before it tired of our company and shuffled off towards the other side of the bay.  The locals told us that the dugong’s mate had died some years ago and it was a bit lonely, that’s why it was so happy to swim with us.  True or not, it made a nice story.

Not far from Port Resolution is the village at Sulphur Bay, the centre of the Jon Frum cult.  Believers are convinced that Mr Frum, who may or may not have been an American GI from World War Two, will return to the island someday with massive quantities of cargo to distribute among the faithful.  Certainly it was an odd sight watching the Stars and Stripes (next to a tattered state flag of Georgia) fluttering over a place so far from the USA.



In another village, the locals worship the late Prince Philip, but we somehow missed that one.

While we were exploring Sulphur Bay (idyllic scenery, lousy name), we kept hearing chest-thumping rumbles from the mountain nearby. 

“Oh, that’s just the Yasur volcano erupting again,” a helpful villager explained as Jill and I eyed each other with that  will I ever see you alive again?  look.  “Want to go to the top and have a peek down the crater?” 

  “Yeah, I guess so,” I replied.  “Do you lose many tourists over the edge?”

“No, that’s not a problem.  Just watch out for boulders that the volcano heaves up sometimes. Stay very alert,”  he warned.      Thanks.

Just before dusk we began our trek up the grey and lifeless side of Yasur. Fifteen minutes later we arrived at the summit, just in time to see the sky turned a vivid orange and feel a refreshing a cool breeze gusting in from the north. 


Below us every two minutes or so there would be a low rumble and then one of the volcano’s three main vents would suddenly spew forth sheets of molten lava.  Each eruption felt like someone pounding your chest with an open hand.    The lava glowed an evil menacing red as it was hurled into the dark edges of the crater. 

 I said nothing; my mind was filled with images of the creation of the world.  Here was one of nature’s most basic processes at work in front of our eyes – scary, to be sure, but utterly unforgettable.

So is Tanna worth a few days of your Vanuatu holiday, or do you prefer your Indiana Jones-type adventures in a nice safe movie theatre?   If you are prepared to put up with uncertainty, taro for dinner and sitting on a spare tyre for a few hours,  then visit Tanna while it is still relatively undiscovered.

 The warmth of your welcome will be genuine, the oneness with nature thrilling.