After leaving Rough Guides to go and explore some of the Pacific’s tiniest islands, Kia Abdullah discovers serenity and adrenaline on Tanna Island in eastern Vanuatu.
Port Resolution Yacht Club – the name alone evokes vistas of bejewelled starlets sipping cocktails by a Monaco pier. It’s elegant, glamorous, refined – but also a bit of a misnomer. Located on the east side of Vanuatu’s Tanna Island in the South Pacific, this set of eight bungalows is what I’d describe as ‘rather basic’. With no electricity barring two hours in the evenings, shared bathroom shacks frequented by bugs and mosquitos, cold water showers (and, during my stay, no water at all at certain times in the day), it’s not exactly the epitome of luxury. It is perplexing then that I came away feeling relaxed and invigorated after five nights in its most basic bungalow.
I had booked the stay on a whim, tempted by the offer to sample some real ni-Vanuatu culture. It was only later – after doing some proper research – that I started to worry. Were five nights too many? Would I tire of the bracing cold showers and midnight treks to the toilet? With trepidation, I landed at Tanna’s tiny Whitegrass Airport.
We were greeted by manager Werry Narua who packed us into his four-wheel drive for the bumpy two-hour drive across the island. Werry isn’t the most loquacious of fellows (when I asked him how he met his wife, the entirety of his version of events was “we met while we were playing sports”), but he is something of a godfather among the islanders, and frequently stopped to exchange greetings, give someone a lift, advise youngsters on how to get drunk older gentlemen home, ferry residents to a funeral and so on.
Port Resolution Yacht Club, Tanna by Peter Watson
By the time I arrived at the Yacht Club, twilight had come and gone and the grounds were bathed in darkness. Werry hopped out and turned on the generator, low lights humming to life in the outhouse. I met Monique, Werry’s wife, who fed us a delicious home-cooked meal and showed me to my bungalow – a one-room building with two beds and, I noted with mortal fear, many, many open spaces for bugs and insects to worm their way in. That first night, I secured my mosquito net like Fort Knox and nestled down into a deep and dreamless sleep.
The next morning, after the first cold shower of the stay, I went off to explore the area of Port Resolution, named so by Captain James Cook after the HMS Resolution. Following Werry’s directions, I came upon ‘Little Beach’. Swathes of yellow sand, vivid azure waters and black volcanic rock made for a stunning slice of paradise reminiscent of Alex Garland’s Ko Phi Phi – but without the teeming tourists. In fact, in my whole time there, I met only one other westerner.
Little Beach’s neighbouring beach boasts huge expanses of the softest black sand while the nearby ‘White Beach’ completes the enchanting trio. As I lounged on Little Beach that first morning, I realised that I need not have worried; I could spend five weeks here – five nights would be a breeze.
Little Beach, Tanna by Peter Watson
Friday nights in particular are interesting as visitors are able to observe the rituals of the ‘John Frum’ cult at Namakara. Members of the cult sing songs of praise to the tune of American battle hymns in honour of John Frum – a figure most often depicted as an American World War II serviceman – with the hope that he will one day bring them the material riches of the American west. At five kilometres from Port Resolution, Namakara is easy to get to and offers a unique way to end the working week.
Other points of interest on the island include its ‘Giant Banyan Tree’. At 80 metres tall and over 100 metres across, it is larger than a football field and continues to grow today. It’s a couple of hours’ drive from Port Resolution and, at approximately £15 per person, is a tad pricey but worth a visit if you have the time and cash.
The most unmissable attraction on the island, however, is Mount Yasur, one of the world’s most accessible active volcanoes. Yasur has been erupting nearly continuously for 800 years and continues to do so several times an hour – guaranteeing fireworks for most visitors.
My visit to Yasur started just before twilight with a 40-minute drive from Port Resolution, followed by a steep 10-minute walk to the crater. Many visitors choose to stay at the first viewing point but while it’s a great spot for watching eruptions from the bigger of Yasur’s two craters, it doesn’t offer a view into the crater itself. I walked a further 10 minutes to a spot that allows direct view into the second crater replete with black ash and oozing lava.
Mount Yasur, Tanna by by Peter Watson
The evening started with a few small eruptions but, 15 minutes in, I heard a stomach-churning roar followed by red hot lava shot metres into the air above. A collective gasp of awe was followed by a collective step away from the crater’s edge. With no safety precautions policing access to the volcano, one false step could you have you tumbling to its depths. I found myself repeatedly pulling back Peter who was leaning over the edge taking photographs.
As darkness fell, I watched – and felt – numerous ground-shaking eruptions. At one point, a single flare flew above my head and landed threateningly close by. As a nearby French tourist put it, it felt “super dangereux”.
Around 6pm, most visitors shuffled back to their waiting transfers. My advice is to agree an extended stay with your driver beforehand as, by 7pm, we had the volcano all to ourselves – undoubtedly one of my ultimate travel experiences. And yet it’s not the main reason why I’d recommend a visit to Tanna.
The island, and particularly the village of Port Resolution, is the perfect antidote to the stresses of modern life. Its charm lies in its simplicity, a trait that Werry consciously preserves: “I want people to experience real village life,” he told me. “If you want to stay in a big hotel, there are lots of places for you. You come to Tanna and to Port Resolution to live like we do.”
Port Resolution Village, Tanna by Peter Watson
Essentially, Werry encourages guests to get back to basics. His fellow residents live in bamboo huts with thatched roofs, grow or catch their own food, wash their clothes and dishes by hand, and live a simple life unmarred by the trappings of materialism. Like most ni-Van, they are generous with their time, curious, respectful and, evidently, one of the happiest peoples in the world. And they’re infectious. Staying at Port Resolution restored a sense of peace and wellbeing that had long been stripped by my smoky, dusty hometown of London.
On the journey back from Yasur, I watched Werry stop for yet another passenger. It reminded me, as all good travel does, that it’s human nature to talk, laugh, share stories and help other people – something you seldom see ensconced in a Sheraton.