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Vanuatu: Remote volcanoes and tribes

Vanuatu, in the South Pacific - north-east of Australia, south-east of the Solomon Islands, north-east of New Caledonia, and straight west of Fiji.

What first comes to mind when thinking of VANUATU? To some people - nothing. To others: "remoteness", possibly "tribal life" but most likely... "an unknown island".

Enter Vanuatu: The raw power of planet earth.

anuatu is an archipelago of 83 islands, some very remote. Most never visited by Westerners. There are several volcanoes on Vanuatu, with the most active being Ambrym, Lopevi, and Yasur, as well as several underwater volcanoes. Rainfall on these islands averages about 2,300 mm per year but can be as high as 4,000 mm in the northern islands of Torba and Sanma. 

Fly from Australia or New Zealand into the largest town, the capital of Port Vila, situated on Efate Island. From Port Villa, board a four or six-seater plane on a 70-min journey south to Tanna Island. You'll fly over Erromango Island with its enigmatic history of cannibals and missionaries. Check into the rusting huts at the "Tanna Beach Resort" with its black volcanic sand beach. Put down your backpack, put on your explorer-shoes, and pull out your island map.

Find a local guide with his aging landrover and head off for Mount Yasur. At a height of 361 m above sea level, next to the dugong harbouring Sulphur Bay, Yasur lies slightly east of the taller Mount Tukosmera. Yasur is a stratovolcano and known for its largely unvegetated pyroclastic black cone with a nearly-circular summit crater measuring almost 400 m in diameter. The volcano was originally formed by the eastward-moving Indo-Australian Plate being subducted by the westward-moving Great Pacific Plate. Yasur never sleeps. Even from your thatched roof hut on the other side of the island, you will constantly hear Yasur at work. It has been continuously erupting for many centuries. Its eruptions, often several times an hour, are classified by volcanologists as "Strombolian" - relatively low-level, constant, volcanic eruptions, named after the Italian volcano named Stromboli.

Yasur can be highly unpredictable. Before setting off to Tanna from Efate Island, check with the Vanuatu National Tourist Office. Once Azur is at Activity Level 3 (5 being the highest), you may not be allowed nearby. (I was able to get in even at Level 4 thanks to my smooth talking guide and after signing the necessary liability release forms). Don't attempt climbing to the crater at Level 3 or higher or you just my burn your nose, or wipe off your face! Viewing the power of the volcano at night from only 150 meters from the base, is a hair-raising experience. First the glow, then the majestic spray of fireworks, and then - thunder. This is repeated about once every 30 to 90 seconds, sometimes less, sometimes more frequently. Huge red hot boulders, some as big as buses, shoot up in the air, then roll down the volcano -- remaining red hot for up to 20 minutes, lighting up the silence of the dark nights!

At least one dugong (family of the manatee) lives in nearby Sulphur Bay. Slap on the seawater and if you are lucky, "his majesty" will appear to frolic with you in the water. Be careful - he is normally gentle with women and very rough with men!

Vanuatu is more than dugongs and volcanoes. The islands are known for its friendly Melanesian people. Wherever you go, people smile and easily initiate a conversation - often in the local language of Bislama which you may understand with your broken English dictionary. On Tanna Island, negotiate a deal with your landrover guide and soon you may be on your way to conquer the rainforests enroute to Yakel Tribal Village. This trip into the jungle is not for the faint-hearted. After a 60-minutes bumpy ride, slipping and sliding over the rough terrain, you will arrive at this remote village. Be here in the late afternoon and you will become one with their afternoon sun-dance. Time has been standing still here for centuries! 

Outside the capital town of Port Villa on Efete Island, a challenging hike leads to the Mele-Maat falls deep in the rugged tropical rain forest. On the way to the falls, don't be surprized to come across locals with a fresh wild pig kill. If you are lucky to see this - do remind yourself that the last recorded case of cannibalism was just around the corner - in 1985!

Drinking kava at the "red light district" of Port Villa is a must. Every house with a kava bar displays a red lantern outside the bar. Kava is a popular intoxicating drink and is made from the roots of the Piper Methysticum scrub (also called the Intoxicating Pepper). Kava drinking is a ritual evening (sundowner) drink throughout the South Pacific islands. In some of the more traditional areas, such as Tanna Island, pre-pubescent boys carefully wash the roots, then preparing them by chewing them into a mush and spitting the hard bits onto leaves. The mush is then placed into a container such as coconut, water added and thoroughly mixed with their fingers. The mud-coloured liquid is then filtered through coconut fibres (coco-hair) and served in a coconut cup in a kava hut where only men may participate. During this sermon, noise and conversation are kept to a minimum. Believe me: It tastes awful, will render your mount and lips numb (like after a dentist injection), and you most likely will hallucinate - flying pink elephants! 

The thought of kava being prepared by humans chewing the roots and then spitted out to make the drink, may make you feel a bit sick...but on the positive note---it is chewed by pre-pubescent boys and not by old men with rotten teeth. After slowly sipping in the dimly lit kava bar for about 15-30 minutes, you may want to say farewell to you new "kava buddies" and head back to your hut to have a good sleep. Have fun in Vanuatu - its an experience you won't easily forget.