The Tanna Kastom Volcano Experience

It’s weird to be writing this, anchored meters away from the in the most populated and modern place in the entire Vanuatuan island chain, when the last few days were the most fascinating immersive cultural experience I’ve ever had, all inclusive of the highs, lows, and perfect imperfections that come with the adventures. As a preface, the day leading up to what we will from here on call “the Tanna kastom volcano experience” was a bit of a buzz-kill… We anchored before the sun rose, so one by one as we awoke after our all-hours shifts at the helm we stepped out to see this idyllic harbor town we were excited to see foot onto and explore. Me and two others hopped onto the dingy to go inform customs we were ready to check into the country, only to find a sign on the door of the customs office notifying us that it was a national holiday and no business works be conducted today. The sign on the immigration office said something more along the lines of “good luck contacting us ever unless you pay us money, sacrifice 3 pigs and fast until the next harvest moon” so that was out of the question. We proceeded to pick up some local “donuts”, buy sim cards, get cash and peek at the local market and headed back to to boat to see if any others wanted to join us at the shoreside restaurant when we were instead informed by the captain that we really shouldn’t be on shore until customs checked us in, regardless of the fact that it’d didn’t seem like a soul would care. Bummer, but probably the right thing to do. So we proceeded to do some boat prep and food prep and cast only a few longing glances at the shore while the townspeople were out and about in full celebration of “unity day”. C’est la vie. The next day I got to the customs office bright and early to a single agent who I apparently awoke from a slightly hungover nap. He wasn’t quite sure what to do about this boat that arrived from Fiji the day before, but he was sure the he wanted my number “Single? No kids? Single?” but would settle for my email address. After filling out the form he found that looked like it would do the trick at least until we got to Port Vila, we were free to proceed with our Vanuatuan adventures!

The troops were rallied, a guy in a pick-up gave us a reasonable price for a ride across the island, and we were on our way. Side note, we had no set plans, but only the possibility of running into the chief of a small village who (if we found him) may be able to guide us on a night hike up to perhaps the most accessible active volcano on Earth, except he’d be doing so at the risk of angering the tour operating company; the volcano is on his family’s land but the tour operator says the chief cannot bring others up there since they have sole rights to tours. Through the open truck bed we whisk by numerous small villages with roadside stands selling veggies, fruits, eggs, kava root and, diesel. We crest the high point of the island and peer into the thick blanket of rainforest below, a lush carpet of mixed greenery continuing down to the ocean shores. Or gazes are raised across the valley to see a stark contrast – a black hillside, rising up to thick black clouds. In case there was any question on what was hiding there, just then low grumbles sounded from above confirming that the mountain was alive. We hop back in the car, a buzz with anticipation, and stop minutes later when we emerge onto a vast ash field, an alien landscape providing an eerie frame for the monster before us. We watch in awe as be intermittent gurgles emerge from the mountain, followed like clockwork with new billows of smoke spilling from the summit. The truck delivers us onward back through the jungle to the far island shore and the nearest accessible town to the chiefs village. Because I hadn’t yet mentioned: the chief’s village is a good hour hike from the nearest road. We mention the chief’s name to the town’s people who look confusedly at this truck of white people speaking a language they don’t understand (14 distinct languages thrive on the small island of Tanna) and after about 20 minutes we are following a girl who speaks French who is gladly leading us up a trail, apparently in the direction of the chief’s village. Sure enough, an hour of a straight-up scramble later, we emerge from the jungle onto the most idyllic village with about 7 beautiful woven huts, pristine landscaping lush with flowers and abundant gardens, and children playing. They smile at our arrival, we mention that Captain Clemens sent us, and the town welcomes us with open arms. We’re introduced to each of the family members one by one. We are given a tour around the immaculate village as the Chief’s family steps into action preparing food for us and a place to sleep. The chief then takes us on a hike to meet his horse, and he shows us the viewpoint where we can assess the weather on the volcano’s summit. Although the sheer possibility of ascending the volcano was in question due to tour rights, he poses the question whether we would like to hike to the crater rim tonight given the clouds hindering visibility. We all agree without hesitation that we’re committed to the hike regardless of mother nature’s plans for the evening. Plan made.
We return to the village, and the men from our group are invited to join the men from the village for their daily Makanal. They retreat to a separate hut where women are strictly prohibited , where they sit around, discuss the issues at hand, and drink a slightly mood altering beverage prepared by young boys chewing up the kava root and thereafter spitting it into a bowl that is filtered through coconut husks and shared. As much as I would have loved to experience the makanal, I arrived to town aware of the gender roles of the kastom and the chief even apologized that we would be excluded so I left my equal rights pumps in the corner and joined the women of town in the common cooking and dining hut to chat. The Philoman’s sister Mary had very good english so we exchanged life stories. She was 30 and had 3 children from a previous marriage with a man who lived in Tanna’s main village, and was due in January with her third from her current marriage. That said, it was very apparent she lived a happy and empowered life. She was impressed by my previous position as a female building satellites and called me “strong”; however even though she wanted to stay in touch she did not look listful of my life. They say that Vanuatuans are the happiest people on the planet. They have the resources they need as they live in very fertile areas lush with an abundance of native fruits and vegetables. They have kastom traditions and purpose to teach their children and connect their community. Many children do go to a “modern” school until they’re teens, at which time some move to one of the bigger cities for college and a higher paying job. But many others return to the village to raise children and continue to contribute to their community.  Money is unnecessary within the village, and as such they happily share meals and a bed to sleep with complete strangers. More than one of us commented that never in our lives had we experienced such immediate and unwaivering generosity.

Soon the men returned from Nakamal, each with a fresh kava-induced glaze over their eyes, and we were presented with a dinner of butter greens, slow cooked manioc root, fried bananas, and tomato salad with coconut cream. Everything was delicious and the food was plentiful; the chief said we couldn’t hike the volcano until we finished anything but thankfully he let us slide as we were stuffed before the plates were cleaned. So with that we put on our sneakers and followed our guides into the jungle. The barefoot kids and teens who led the way cleared the path with machetes and their dogs bounded up the trail missing the blades by millimeters. As the foliage thinned out we turned off our headlamps and lowered our voices to avoid any detection by the tour company. Headlamps weren’t needed anyways, the sky glowed an ever brighter shade of red with each step closer to the churning mountain ahead. We emerged onto the barren ash plain, and with no sign of security guards we started our ascent, scaling straight up the loose volcanic rock. 20 minutes later we were at the crater rim, smoke billowing out of Mt. Yasur’s mouth. You couldn’t clearly see the cauldron of boiling lava below, but periodically booming explosions would sound, followed by spurts of red hot liquid flying through the depths below us. We sat, waited and watched as the performance repeated itself time and time again. This was the second time in my life that I’d seen molten lava up close there’s really nothing that compares to seeing the flowing or explosive display of liquid earth with your own eyes. I could have sat there all night, but our guides didn’t want to risk us getting sick from the presence of the sulphuric gasses. We were treated to one last explosive display which I was lucky enough to catch on video (shown below), then we started clamouring down the rocky expanse (still in the pitch black mind you) back to the ash plain below. We made our way back through the jungle and eventually met the welcome site of the hut they’d made up for us for the night, and we slept. In the morning we emerged to find breakfast waiting, and the chief filled us in on the plan for the day. We’d hike over to Port Resolution, through jungle and past other neighboring villages, down to the black sand beach, through the woods and emerge at white sands. Although slightly overcast with intermittant rain (they don’t call it a rainforest for nothing), the scenery was stunning. We all played in the waves in crystal clear waters on an empty beach. We stopped in at the chief’s cousin’s restaurant for a lunch of chicken & vegetables, some of the most delicious rice I’ve ever eaten, and “tusker OB”, the local beer that is 7.5% ABV and pretty damn good. There was then the unfortunate incident of me reaching into my bag and slicing my finger on the cover of the peanut jar I’d “responsibly” picked up to avoid littering, but with the help of a friend’s first aid kit and some patience we had it wrapped up and I held it above my head while we hiked on to control the bleeding. With scars come good stories :-p We made our way back to the village, the men had their daily Makanal session, we enjoyed dinner and packed up to spend the night in another neighboring town where we’d be guests a the weekly John Frum dance.
John Frum is the highest power of the religion followed by many cargo cults across Tanna. Story goes that in the early 1900’s a man in a western military style jacket appeared to Vanuatuans promising goods and transport if they remained true to their traditional village life (kastom) and rescinded money, western education and christianity. Once a week on Friday nights there’s a gathering where musical groups from all the area John Frum villages take turns playing songs and girls in grass skirts dance from sundown to sunrise. We were provided with grass skirts to participate, however I found the traditional “dance” of walking forward, spinning 180 degrees and walking backwards again and again a tad repetitive so I was good after a few songs. We were all pretty beat and although appreciative of the invite none of us were overly enthralled by the music so we let them continue their festivities and retreated to our hut for bed. In the morning we packed up, were again presented with breakfast (these guys take hosing seriously), and were met by the chief to pick up our taxi ride to return to the other side of the island and our boat. Problem was that the taxi wasn’t there, and we’d soon determine that the constant rain the night before had washed out the road up at the ash field. So we sat for about an hour at the base of Mt. Yasur’s persistant groans and smoky bellows as we organized a backup ride. Not the worst place to wait for a cab. A ride came, we piled in the back, and I gladly stood in the truck bed with the others for the rainy trek across undulating mounds of ash, up through the rough jungle roads, and back down to Lenekel where the sun was shining and our boat awaits. We shared our stories with Captain Clemens who had stayed behind to spend some much needed alone time “at home” with his family, and only a few hours later we raised the anchor and left the magical land of Tanna for the bustling city of Port Vila. Yasur may have been behind in our wake, but the volcano and the warmth of Philoman’s village will burn bright for a lifetime…

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