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Tanna

Written by Cathy Siegismund
August 2003


For those of you who have not heard of Vanuatu, here is a little background on the country and its people. This is based largely on information from a couple of cruising guides, Lonely Planet Vanuatu, and Microsoft Encarta. Vanuatu is comprised of a approximately 80 mostly mountainous and  volcanically active islands in an archipelago. The southern islands are  between Fiji and New Caledonia with the islands running roughly northwest with the northernmost islands being only a few hundred kilometers from the Solomon Islands. Vanuatu, like Fiji and New Caledonia are part of Melanesia.

Vanuatu's background is complex and full of colonial rule as is most of the South Pacific. The islands were visited by Captain Cook, who named the islands the New Hebrides because they reminded him of Scotland; the Spaniards; plantation owners; blackbirders; and of course, the missionaries. These European visitors nearly caused the people of Vanuatu, called Ni-Vanuatu, to become extinct due to introduced disease. According to Lonely Planet Vanuatu, in the early 19th century Vanuatu's population was estimated to be about 1 million, in 1935 the population was 41,000. The islands hit the worst loss all but five percent of their populations. The 20th century has thankfully seen the Ni-Vanuatu population grow to approximately 200,000. Over 90 percent of the population is Ni-Vanuatu with the remainder being European, Asian and other South Pacific Islanders. Over 80 percent of the Ni-Vanuatu live in rural villages throughout the islands.

In the later half of the 19th century, the New Hebrides were being settled by the French, who had colonized New Caledonia, and the English who had recently accepted rule of Fiji. In 1900, a joint French and English rule was created called The Condominium. This produced a bureaucratic nightmare, which did little but create large amounts of red tape for the Ni-Vanuatu.

World War II had an enormous impact on the New Hebrides. Japan had invaded the Solomon Islands by 1942, and later that year over 100,000 US troops were sent to Luganville on Espiritu Santo. During the war, over 500,000 Allied troops would pass through the islands. Many Ni-Vanuatu went to work for the Allied troops during WWII, the affect of which is still seen today.

The New Hebrides continued to be under English and French rule after the war. During the 1960s, the Ni-Vanuatu, mostly concerned about land ownership and rights, began to voice political concern. As in Fiji, the Ni-Vanuatu had no doubt witnessed the situation of the indigenous peoples of Australia and New Zealand and the result of colonial rule. In 1980, after serious threats of political uprisings, the New Hebrides gained independence and became Vanuatu.

This is also the first time since we were in Tonga that English has not been the primary language. We were somewhat concerned about how we would fair with our communication, particularly in the smaller villages. We have since realized that the Ni-Vanuatu are master linguists. There are over 100 indigenous languages spoken in Vanuatu, 28 on Tanna alone. The common language that all Ni-Vanuatu speak is Bislama a type of Pigeon. It uses some English and French words. You can often understand some of it in writing, but we have yet to pick up much when it is quickly spoken by the locals. For example, to say "I don't speak Bislama", you would say "Mi no toktok Bislama".

 Bislama is spoken at home and among the Ni-Vanuatu, however, French and English are taught in school. Most children attend primary school where, depending on the location, will learn French or English. It is not uncommon for children who only speak Bislama and French to be in the same classroom with children that only speak Bislama and English. The teachers will teach the class in both languages to accommodate both the Anglophones and Francophones. Children that reach secondary school, only about 30 percent, will then be taught a second language - either English or French.

Therefore, it is not uncommon, to find a person that speaks four languages, their native village language, Bislama, English and French.

Early morning light reaching Tanna's mountainous interior

I woke up early on August 28 to a very chilly but clear morning. Although, we had only traveled one degree south from Fiji Tanna was much cooler. As I put on warmer clothes and started coffee, I went out on deck to enjoy the sunrise in Port Resolution Bay; it was breathtaking. The heavy dew had all the palms glistening, the morning light was just hitting the mountain above the anchorage, and several volcanic steam vents could be seen along the shore and on the hillside in the cool morning air.

Steam vent from Tanna's active volcano, Mt. Yasur

We had washed down the outside of the boat fairly well the previous afternoon as we motored the last 10 miles into Port Resolution. So the next day, we worked on cleaning the inside of the boat. I started working on a fairly large pile of salty laundry from a leak in the v-berth, this is a more daunting task than you probably imagine as it needed to be done in a bucket by hand. There are no laundry facilities on Tanna. As water is scarce, the locals can be seen washing their clothes in the volcanic hot springs or in the sea.

A couple of other boats that had been on the passage with us from Fiji, arrived during the morning as well. After talking on the radio for a couple of days, we introduced ourselves to Karen and Wes on Caprice a Mariah 31, a boat very similar to Felicity and to Henry and Maddie on 2 Extreme a Corben 39.

We then went ashore, carefully winding the dinghy through a maze of coral bommies. We had been told that the Port Resolution Yacht Club was at the top of the hill. We walked up and met Willy, a local man who showed us where we could dump trash and told us it was OK to walk through the village. We had gone ashore prepared to take the truck ride across the island to the town of Lenakel to check into the country with customs, immigration and quarantine. However, Willy told us it would be better to go to Lenakel the following day. He said it was best to leave in the morning, and that Friday was also a market day where we could buy fresh fruits and veggies. The yacht club is a pole and thatch hut with a tables, a small kitchen and rather basic bath and toilet facilities. There are also several thatched huts that are rented out to tourists who land travel to Port Resolution. Willy and Werry were the "go-to-guys" in Port Resolution. One or both were usually around the yacht club and they could set up transportation and tours around the island. We asked Willy to reserve a truck for us, Caprice, and 2 Extreme for the following day.

   

Port Resolution Yacht Club

Goats, pigs and dogs all roam the village

Since we weren't going to town that day, we decided to explore the village. We walked down a dirt road to the edge of the village, where a group of girls had mats laid on the grass with a few fruits, veggies, shells, and boat parts sitting in little piles with handwritten price tags next to them. We said hello and introduced ourselves. One of the girls went and got an older man named Ronny, who was wearing a vaporous warn pareo and little else. We later found out Ronny was the Presbyterian minister. We introduced ourselves and told him how happy we were to be in Port Resolution and asked his permission to walk around the village and to go see a recently wrecked sailboat, Coker Lady. He told us to go anywhere we wanted and said some of the village girls would show us around. 

The three local girls and Cath on the beach at the village at Port Resolution

Ken on the beach on the eastern beach of Port Resolution

Local boy fishing with a spear in the shallow pools on the eastern side of the village

Coker Lady was a beautiful Taswell 56 that we had seen in Kadavu, Fiji. The English owners had had her for just about a year in July when they made the passage from Musket Cove to Tanna. They had been anchored in Port Resolution, a bay open to the north and east. The bay is very shallow, so when the wind starts to pick up from the either of those directions, the waves can build and make Port Resolution uncomfortable at best and possibly dangerous. A few boats had left the bay during the day, but Coker Lady decided to stay and wait it out. As it got dark, the owners became more and more nervous. The villagers told them that there boat would be safe, and even offered to let them stay in one of the huts at the yacht club for no charge until the seas calmed down if it was too uncomfortable aboard. One of the men also said that he would talk to the chief and ask him to quiet the seas and wind for Coker Lady. Much of Vanuatu remains very superstitious and believe in magic, which they use in their daily lives. We don't think the owners and two crew aboard Coker Lady were but at ease by the offer of magic, so they decided to try and leave. The story gets a little fuzzy from here, but the consensus is that they left the narrow bay in the dark at about 1900. It is a straight shot out of the bay, but there are reefs on either side. As the boat was leaving the bay in the headwinds, they lost their engine and all of their electronics. They became disoriented and without their engine soon were on the reef and in trouble. One of the village women saw this and alerted the village who all ran to help the crew. By this time, the boat was being pounded in the surf on the large volcanic boulders and coral. They rigged a line from the boat's mast to shore, and the owners and crew swung ashore with the help of the village. One of the village girls told us that everyone was crying as the people were rescued. The boat was a total loss. The owners spent about a week staying in Port Resolution pulling their personal belongings from the boat. They then gave what remained of Coker Lady to the village to use and sell as they saw fit.

It is easy to second guess the decisions of the owners of Coker Lady, why didn't they leave during the day, why didn't ride out the weather with anchor watch aboard the boat until morning, why didn't they have their sails up before they left the bay, etc. However, it is often just a series of small mistakes or errors in judgment combined with some bad luck that can have disastrous consequences. Fortunately, no one was hurt, and it seemed that the owners, particularly the wife, were not too sorry to say goodbye to the cruising lifestyle. The boat was insured, so the owner will likely get most of his money back, however, those of us who carry insurance will are affected by these disasters with increased rates by the few insurance companies that will insure small shorthanded boats who sail offshore.

We were told by on of the villagers, that as soon after the boat was wrecked on the shore and owners and crew rescued, the seas and wind calmed down. May they should have believed in Ni-Vanuatu magic?

The quite sobering photos of Coker Lady, (the Tas-Not-So-Well, as a friend of ours called it) now in several pieces on the shore of Tanna

   

   

The wreck of Coker Lady, a Taswell 56, at low tide on the east coast of Tanna, Vanuatu

After we were done crawling around the wrecked Taswell, the girls led us back to the village and let us stop and look at the various parts from the boat that were for sale.

      

Coker Lady's engine as well as any number of other boat parts are strewn throughout the village either in use by the villagers or for sale

They then took us back to where they were selling fruits and veggies. I said I wanted to get some of their green onions and maybe a papaya. A girl disappeared and returned with an arm full of papaya, lemons, bananas and the green onions, and told us they were a gift. We thanked them and returned to the Felicity.

Felicity and several other yachts in Port Resolution

On our return to the boat, we told Caprice and 2 Extreme of the early morning truck ride to Lenakel; we were told to be at the yacht club at 0645. That night we went to Caprice for cocktails with Karen and Wes. Karen and Wes are from California, and though we were all part of the same group that crossed the Pacific from Mexico in 2001 and then stayed in New Zealand for 18 months, we had not met them until we reached Vanuatu. We really enjoyed their company and it was nice to compare notes with cruisers on a boat so much like our own.

The next morning the six of us went ashore armed with seat cushions (we had been warned of the bouncy long truck ride), bug spray to ward off malaria, our documentation, and of course our cameras. Our transportation was waiting for us, a small pickup truck with wooden benches in the back and bars over the bed. The six cruisers clamored in the back along with 2 locals, Joseph our driver, was joined in the front seat by Werry and Joseph's brother. We were soon off bouncing along a rutted dirt road holding on for dear life as the truck made the nearly two-hour trip across the island to Lenakel.

Our transportation to and from Lenakel

Trip from Port Resolution to Lenakel and back

We wound our way through the thickly wooded coastal area of Tanna, and then turned inland to work our way around Tanna's active volcano, Mt. Yasur. We soon found ourselves driving across a dusty black volcanic ash plain. Until a couple of years ago, their had been a large lake in this plain, but heavy rains caused the lake to break through the land at the end and the lake drained into the sea.

   

Driving along the ash plain with Mt. Yasur in the background

We reached Lenakel at about 0830. Our truck dropped us off at the bank as we all need to exchange various currencies for vatu, the Vanuatu money. There was a line at the bank, but we all got through it in a little less than an hour. Werry was waiting for us, and we through he said he had to go to the bank, and that we should wait here. We explored the little area of town, which had a couple of stores and a guest house. We could see a rather open bay with a large ferry of sorts being rocked around by the southern swell. We ended up waiting to find Werry for several hours. We later realized that these pickup trucks, don't wait for you, but rather make runs all over the island all day, as it seems few locals, on Tanna, at least have cars. Finally, after cowering from a squall in the guest house and looking unsuccessfully for Werry, we started to walk in the direction thought was the way to customs. Not 10 minutes, after we set out on the main road, we saw Werry driving the opposite direction with a truck load of local people. He soon returned, and picked us up and took us to the immigration offices. Apparently, the truck had already made a second round trip to Port Resolution and back. We were dropped off at immigration, to find the immigration officer sitting outside of her office. She said, she was sorry but she was locked out of her office, and the fellow with the key had just left to drive the Prime Minister to the airport. We again waited. A Vanuatu sporting competition had just ended in Tanna; this was apparently the cause of the Prime Minister's visit. After close to an hour, the fellow returned with the key and we checked into the country with immigration. Werry and our pick-up truck were waiting for us, and then took us to the quarantine office. We filled out forms that said we had the "usual ships stores" and paid a 3000 (about 30 USD) vatu inspection fee for an inspection that would never happen. Of course since we had frozen meats, fresh dairy, a few fresh vegetables, and an excess of liquor; we were just as happy to pay the 3000 vatu and not have anyone come inspect the boat.

Werry then took us to into the heart of town to the market, and where we could wait for the customs guy to show up, and visit a few small grocery stores.

Fresh produce market in Lenakel

We bought some lovely fresh produce, which was amazingly inexpensive, and after a few tries found a store that still had some fresh bread. We finally, saw an open door at the customs office. Ken, Henry and Wes (the skippers) all went in and started filling out the forms to check into the country. While filling out the forms the customs official, a somewhat slippery fellow, disappeared again. We all sat around the little store and market for a while longer waiting for his return. We bought cold drinks and ice cream, and watched the Friday afternoon activities in the dusty town of Lenakel. There actually was quite a bit to watch with truck loads of locals coming and going from the market, and the heavily overloaded ferry full of Vanuatu athletes departing to shouts and waves and best wishes from the town, and women doing their wash in the surf on the beach.

The customs fellow returned, and a bit to our surprise, looked at our forms, folded them, placed them in an envelope and told us to take them to Port Vila when we arrived there. It wasn't quite what we expected, but we were now officially checked into Vanuatu. It was close to 1400 and we were finally ready for the bumpy ride back to Port Resolution. Of course, our truck was again no where to be found. We along with Werry sat in the hot dusty town for about 1 1/2 hours, until our truck returned and we all piled in for the return trip. We bounced and climbed back into the interior of Tanna heading to Port Resolution. The truck stopped a few times at what the locals called "bush markets", little road-side stands selling fresh produce. We again were sharing the truck with several locals. This included some folks from the village at Port Resolution, who were buying everything from sugar cane, kava, cabbage, boiled peanuts, among other things.

Bush market on the road between Lenakel and Port Resolution

We also were sharing our ride with a young school teacher. She was from Malekula (an island to the north of Tanna) who was teaching English and Social Studies at the only secondary school on Tanna. She was a little shy, but friendly and patiently answered all of our tourist questions. After she graduated from secondary school, she went to a two year teachers college. She since has spent two years on Tanna, and would likely remain there for another year or so. The government would then probably assign her to another school on another island. She liked Tanna, but village where she taught was at the base of Mt. Yasur and she was still not used the rumbling of the volcano that would shake her house and school. She said she hoped she would eventually be able to return to Malekula to teach as she missed her family.

It was late afternoon, as we climbed over the mountains in the interior of Tanna, and began our descent to the eastern coast. Although it was chilly, it was a beautiful sunny day and we had the truck driver stop on the summit for us to take some photos.

A small village and soccer field can be seen from the hills on Tanna

A breathtaking view of Mt. Yasur from the top of the winding mountain road on Tanna

At 1700, we arrived back at Port Resolution. The day was about five hours longer than we had been told to expect and did have a certain amount of frustration, but that is often part of cruising. We were at least checked into the country.

That morning, we had singed up for a truck to take us to Friday night signing and dancing at Sulphur Bay, a Jon Frum Village. At the time, 2 Extreme and Caprice had wanted to join us, but after close to 12 hours of "checking in" they wanted to call it a day.

As this would probably be our only chance to visit the Jon Frum village, we told Willy that we would go if the truck driver would still make the trip with only two people. He said he would, and told us to be back at the Yacht Club by 1845. We hurried back to the boat and quickly had dinner. We also changed into much warmer clothes for the evenings activities.

The Jon Frum Movement is a cargo cult that has been thriving on Tanna since as early as the 1930s. During the 1930's, the people of Tanna were getting tired of the arrogance of the European plantation owners and the rigidity of the Presbyterian church, which had Ni-Vanuatu give up their traditional beliefs and many aspects of their traditional way of life. No one really seems to know where the name Jon Frum comes from or who he really was, or even if he was a real person. However, there are several versions of the story, which try to explain these things. Some say Jon Frum was really "John from America", and was a member of the US medical corps who wore the red cross emblem and came to Tanna with medical aid during WWII. This seems somewhat supported by the fact that the red cross and US flag are symbols of the Jon Frum cargo cult. Many "Jon Frummers" fly the US flag instead of the Vanuatu flag and refuse to pay Vanuatu taxes. Whatever the start of the Jon Frum movement, the beliefs seem to have been reinforced during WWII. When hundreds of thousands of US servicemen and all of their ships, planes and supplies arrived in Vanuatu, it seemed to the Tannese that Jon Frum must be from the US. Many Tannese people went to work for the US government during WWII, and were overwhelmed by the wealth they saw. They also were impressed by the generosity of the US servicemen, particularly the African Americans whom they believed where Tannese in disguise. Since WWII, the Jon Frum cultists have waited for the "second coming". They believe that Jon Frum will return with full cargo ships for the faithful Tannese. It is interesting to note that the villages that worship Jon Frum also seem to have returned more to their traditional practices and beliefs, as Jon Frum seemed more tolerant of these than the Presbyterians.

Willy, a friend, and his brother joined us on our truck drive to Sulphur Bay and the Friday night worship at the Jon Frum village. Willy told us that several religions are represented in the small village at Port Resolution. There are Presbyterians, Catholics, and Jon Frummers, which included Willy and his brother.

Village singing group practicing for their performance in the hut at Sulphur Bay

Every Friday night, the Jon Frum believers from around Tanna walk to Sulphur Bay for a night of signing and dancing from 1800 to 0600, at which time they walk back to their villages. Some evenings are better attended than others, but each Friday night a type of worship is held in the village. There is a central open-sided poll and thatched hut where groups of singers from different villages take turns performing 10 songs at a time. A drum sounds to alert the next group of singers who are outside practicing their new songs, that it is time to enter the hut. At the end of the groups 10 songs the drum is sounded again.

The Port Resolution singers at the Jon Frum village

During each group's performance men and women in dyed grass skirts sway and dance to the music in the open space around the hut.

Men dancing to the songs at the Jon Frum Friday night celebration

It seems to be the epitome of dancing to your own beat. There are no rehearsed steps, as most of the older men just sway and shuffle to the music and some of younger girls seemed to be moved to more exuberant dance moves. Beyond the dancers, are other houses and groups of people sitting around fires.

   

Anyone who is moved by the music puts on a brightly dyed grass skirt and dances.

Ken and I weren't really sure what to expect, when we arrived at Sulphur Bay. The night was crystal clear and cold. The red glow of Mt. Yasur could be seen from the village as we sat and listened to the signing and watched the dancers sway just beyond the light of the single gas lantern that illuminated the central thatched building. As the only tourists present that evening, we felt like we were intruding. However, Willy repeatedly told us to walk around, take any pictures we wanted and enjoy ourselves. We felt like we were taking pictures in church, which in a way we were.

Cath posing with the village kids at the Sulphur Bay

After several hours we asked Willy to take us back to the Yacht Club. We had to return before the tide got so low it would be impossible to negotiate the coral strewn bay in our dinghy and make it back out to the boat in the dark. Willy was reluctant to leave, and asked if we could wait until the Port Resolution group had performed. We had no objection to this, and made it back to Port Resolution by about 2030, where we slowly and carefully made out way back to the boat.

The following day, we decided to just hang out on the boat. The previous day's activities of the ride to Lenakel and the Jon Frum village, including a total of about six hours of bouncy truck rides, had wiped us out. We slept in, did some chores, read books and watched a movies.

During the day in the bay we'd see the local villagers paddling around the bay, some were fishing, others would paddle around the bay with their dugouts full of fresh fruit. Unlike many places we've been were the boat-to-boat local salesmen can be persistent, the people on Tanna would rarely come up to the boat unless you waved them over. If they did come over it was usually rather quietly done, sitting in their dugouts carefully holding onto the boat. They often wouldn't even say anything, and several times when we were below we looked out and were startled to see heads outside our ports. Village life in Tanna is mostly devoid of hard currency. The number of pigs a man owns and can slaughter and give away to the village is a sign of his wealth and status. Money does not seem to have a prominent role in village life, the villagers don't really have a way of making much money, and if they did, there is little to buy on Tanna. Our local canoes visitors had a rather shy way of trading items. Often the villagers would come by, say hello, ask where we were from, and then either give us fruit, and after a few moments ask for a favor. We were asked for a ride to Port Vila, and were asked for D batteries and magazines from the younger boys. Sometimes the favor was asked first, and then some fruit was given. However, the two things didn't really seem dependent on one another. If they gave us some fruit that was viewed as a gift. If they then asked us for some batteries and we didn't have them, that seemed to be OK. Politely say thank you, and paddle away.

   

Some visiting teenagers, Tims and Tom.

Tom stopped by the boat several times, usually asking for D batteries. He said it was for his torch so he could go pig hunting. The first time he and Tims stopped by, they were on school holidays and were paddling around in Tom's father's dugout. He said the canoe had taken his father a year to build. Their primary activity for school holidays was bird hunting with a wooden slingshot and pig hunting with their fathers and older brothers.

The following day, Sunday, we had again a quiet day. However, that afternoon we were to meet at the yacht club to be picked up for our ride up to Mt. Yasur.

Mt. Yasur is claimed to be the world's most accessible active volcano. Mt. Yasur sits just above Port Resolution at 361 meters. The volcano's activity is rated on a scale of zero to four. Zero being relatively calm and four being quite dangerous. If the volcano's activity is rated at a three or four, no tours are given. We're not sure if this rule was put into placed before or after several people had been killed by molten "lava bombs" shot out of the volcano or a some that were killed when the edge of the rim gave way and slid down into the crater.

During our stay, they locals said the volcano was fairly calm, only rating between zero and one. We met the truck at the yacht club at 1600 for the hour or so ride to the base of Mt. Yasur.

Loaded in the truck for our trip to Mt. Yasur

The two truck load of tourists stopped for photos

We had been able to see steam and smell the sulphur on the drive up to the volcano. The truck driver let us out at the car park and told us to walk up the last 150 meters or so on the path through the ash and chunks of volcanic rock to the crater rim.

   

Car park and walk up to the walk to the crater rim on Mt. Yasur

This is one of those tours that would never exist in the regulated and litigious U.S. There are no release forms, no guard rail and no tour guide.  By a little after 1700, we found ourselves standing on the rim of Mt. Yasur's crater. The wind buffeted the barren landscape, but we had fantastic views of the surrounding island and sea and watched the sun set.

   

Steaming crater of Mt. Yasur

Sara and GB from Djarrka at the crater rim

The "guard rail" at the edge of the crater

   

The steaming crater of Mt. Yasur

The "calm" calm volcano was constantly steaming and rumbling below our feet. Every few minutes there would be a sound like a huge exhaling whale and molten rock would be shot hundreds of feet into the air. The molten boulders, or "lava bombs" could then be heard as the landed back around the crater. It was amazing, and this was only between the levels of zero and one on the activity scale!

   

Mt Yasur shooting molten rock from the crater

We stayed at the crater until about 1830, so as to watch the continued eruptions of molten rock as it got dark.

  

Mt. Yasur

Molten rocks are shot out of the center of the crater

After watching the volcano for a couple of hours, we returned to the truck and were taken  back to the yacht club. As usual, we always feel we could stay longer at islands, but we are beginning to feel the time crunch of the impending end of the cruising season. There are many more islands to explore and only another four to six weeks to see them, before we need to start thinking about our passage to Australia.

Over the next two days, we did a few boat projects and chores, took another walk around the village at Port Resolution and had our friends Brian and Sue from Nepenthe over for dinner.

Port Resolution Village

   

Port Resolution Village including one of the many huge banyan trees you see everywhere in Vanuatu

The villages only radio telephone

   

One of our walks took us through the village just as the primary school was getting out for the day

We enjoyed our stay on Tanna, and are glad to be among the few tourists who visit the island. If Tanna remains a port of entry to Vanuatu, it would be interesting to visit in a few years and see how much the island has changed. Wednesday, September 3, we got up early to sunny skies and flat seas. said our goodbyes to some new and old friends in the anchorage and set out for the 133 mile trip from Tanna to Port Vila, Efate.