x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Vanuatu: South Pacific rim

A short hop from Sydney, the islands of Vanuatu survived last week's massive earthquake intact but there's still an active volcano for those seeking excitement.

Trips to the summit of Mount Yasur, on Vanuatu's Tanna Island, are usually timed to arrive after sunset so that the volcano's activity can be witnessed to greatest effect.
Trips to the summit of Mount Yasur, on Vanuatu's Tanna Island, are usually timed to arrive after sunset so that the volcano's activity can be witnessed to greatest effect.

I'm crouched by the rim of a volcano, watching molten rocks being hurled high up into the air to an accompaniment of crackling lava explosions. One bang is so loud I almost jump out of my skin. Beneath my feet, the ground rumbles. I'm nine parts terrified, one part spellbound by this remarkable sound and light show. I'm on Tanna Island, in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu, and I've driven for hours to reach Mount Yasur, as this bubbling, hissing cauldron is known. It's supposed to be the world's most accessible active volcano, but peering over the edge, I can't help wondering if this is just because everything in Tanna is accessible. If Yasur were in Australia, for instance, where I live, it would be out of bounds - or, at the very least, enclosed by safety barriers and a forest of warning signs.

On Tanna, one of the bigger islands in the Vanuatu archipelago, you can do pretty much as you please. You can snorkel or dive in absurdly clear waters full of coral and tropical fish. You can try out the local cuisine: dishes such as coconut crab or laplap - baked dough parcels of fish or meat. You can visit jungle-clad villages populated by tribespeople who hunt with bamboo bows and arrows. Or you can simply unwind as you savour the leisurely rhythms of life on this hilly, picturesque island.

Although an established tourist destination, with regular flights from Australia and New Zealand, Vanuatu is less developed than other South Pacific countries. Outside the capital, Port Vila, which is on the main island of Efate, most roads are unsealed and electricity is patchy. Getting around is a bit of a challenge, and you may find yourself dining by candlelight (although the principal resorts have their own generators); in general, the relative lack of infrastructure adds to Vanuatu's appeal.

Mount Yasur is one of several active volcanoes in Vanuatu, which lies in an area of high seismic activity. Last week, a 7.5-magnitude earthquake struck just off Port Vila, shaking buildings and generating a small tsunami. However, it caused no significant damage. During more stable times, Port Vila is a pleasant place to linger for a few days before venturing further afield. It's a charming, slightly scruffy, not altogether unsophisticated town, sandwiched between Vila Bay and the large Erakor Lagoon. There are few formal "sights", although the National Museum has an impressive array of traditional artefacts, including a gigantic outrigger canoe, while the imposing Sacre Coeur Cathedral is a reminder of Vanuatu's colonial past: as the New Hebrides, it was jointly administered by Britain and France until independence in 1980. Vila is cheap and easy to get around: just hop on one of the numerous minibuses, tell the driver where you want to go and hand over the flat fare of 150 vatu (Dh6). However, much of the town can be seen on foot.

Join the smiling women in brightly coloured dresses strolling along the frangipani tree-lined waterfront, and watch the kids jumping off the quay into bright blue waters teeming with fish. You'll find a string of cafes and souvenir shops, and a sprawling food market (daily from Monday until Saturday lunchtime). A little farther on is the market's arts and crafts precinct; the beautifully carved wooden bats make good mementoes, as does the excellent basketware.

France's influence is evident in Vila's restaurants, many of which specialise in Gallic cuisine with a Pacific twist. Chantilly's on the Bay, right by the water, was one of my favourites. For a different perspective, take the free, 24-hour ferry to little Irikiki Island, in the middle of the bay, and enjoy the city views while sipping a drink at the island's resort. You can snorkel and dive off Efate, but many tourists choose to visit one of the outlying islands, reached by ferry or a short domestic flight. Underwater fanatics head to Espiritu Santo, considered one of the world's top diving spots, where the wreck of the USS President Coolidge, sunk by mines during the Second World War, lies close to shore. A very different activity, "land diving", can be witnessed on the island of Pentecost, when the local men throw themselves head-first off 35-metre-high towers made of tree trunks and branches, with vines tied around their ankles.

Tanna, a 35-minute plane ride from Port Vila, has a bit of everything. (It has no ATM, though, and the shops are thinly stocked; make sure to stock up on essentials, including mosquito repellent, before leaving the capital.) We based ourselves in the island's south-west, not far from the airport and main town of Lemakel, where the beaches (mainly black sand) are nothing special but the snorkelling is outstanding. Just offshore is a sheer coral drop of about 30 metres, inhabited by an extraordinary variety of marine life, including oversized angel fish cavorting in almost electric blue waters.

A popular place to stay in this area is the Evergreen Bungalows, with its delightful, laid-back ambience, or, next door, the White Grass Ocean Resort, which is more upmarket. Meals, not included in the nightly tariff, feature plenty of locally caught fish, such as wahoo and mai mai. Most accommodation centres offer free snorkelling gear, as well as reef shoes, which are a must. A short walk north of Evergreen and White Grass is idyllic Blue Hole One (there are three), a great snorkelling spot popular with the locals - ni-Vanuatu, as these friendly, intriguing people are known. After school, boys swim and mess around here in dugout canoes, while women sit cross-legged in the shade, and ridiculously plump hens peck around the shoreline, pursued by fluffy, days-old chicks.

It's worth catching the "bus" (an ancient van with an irregular schedule) for the half-hour ride into Lemakel, which has a small beach, a few dusty shops and a pint-sized market. But the principal attraction on Tanna is Yasur, and most of the resorts run tours which, although relatively pricey (about 9,000 vatu, or Dh335, per person), are not to be missed. The tours leave after lunch and reach the volcano at dusk; the journey - a bone-rattling ride along twisting, potholed dirt roads - is almost as interesting as the destination. Driving along a road that hugged the beach, we saw children raucously splashing in the shallows and surfing to shore on makeshift wooden planks; women were washing clothes and laying them out to dry on the sand, while men sat around in little groups, drinking kava, the local brew.

Turning inland, we passed villagers wielding machetes by the roadside, and giant banyan trees, with thick aerial roots. Wild pigs dashed in and out of bushes. One small boy jumped up and down as we passed, beside himself with excitement. As we climbed ever higher, marvellous views of the east coast opened up ahead of us, and soon we could see Yasur itself: a smoking, smouldering silhouette, dominating the horizon.

The road leading to the base winds through the ash plains, an unearthly, grey-black moonscape. Then followed a steep, 15-minute hike up to the rim; as we drew closer, the ground shuddered ominously and a series of ear-splitting explosions heralded fiery lava displays. I was fervently hoping the volcano had not chosen that day for one of its regular eruptions, although our guide assured us that scientists keep a close eye on Yasur and close the area long before that happens.

By the time we reached the top of the crater, the sun had set and the night sky was a perfect backdrop for Yasur's pyrotechnics. The volcano is said to be inhabited by spirit figures, including, oddly, one who is believed to be the ancestor of Prince Philip, the British Queen's husband. I was so intrigued by this story that the next day I made the gruelling journey to a village called Yaohnanen, where the tribespeople worship Prince Philip and are convinced that he will one day come back to Tanna to live among them.

The Duke of Edinburgh did visit Vanuatu with the Queen in 1974, which is when the cargo cult is believed to have taken root. The chief of Yaohnanen, Siko Nathuan, showed us three signed portraits sent out by Buckingham Palace over the years. They are stored in a bamboo hut with a thatched roof and dirt floor, which has been made into a shrine. The plan is for Prince Philip to live in the hut when he returns.

This curious movement is one of scores of cargo cults that sprang up in Vanuatu and around the Pacific following the arrival of missionaries and other westerners. They were triggered partly by awe of the outsiders' material possessions, but were also a way for the islanders to hold on to their traditional customs and beliefs. One anthropologist familiar with the region, Kirk Huffman, describes them as "taking elements of the outside world and slotting them into their own belief systems".

In another village, Yakel, my companion, gave his blue straw hat to the chief as we left. Arriving at the airport for our flight back to Port Vila, we saw another Tanna man outside the terminal. He was wearing the blue hat. I think we may have started a new cargo cult. travel@thenational.ae