Port Vila, Vanuatu (including Mt Yasur volcano, Tanna Island)
23/8/16 – 3/9/16(Blog readers please note - by left clicking on photos you will see them full size and a photo gallery below. The same applies for previous blog posts..see blog archives below.)
With only Immigration entry processes to complete, we came ashore at Yachting World, Port Vila, to the very spot we had stood when we had disembarked from Pacific Pearl in August 2015. We remember standing there, visualising Calista on one of the moorings out from the Waterfront Bar and Restaurant, and asking ourselves – could we really sail Calista all the way from South Australia to here in Port Vila? Could we really be like the world cruisers we could see laying on moorings in the harbor, with their flags from the seven seas? Could we?? We walked away thinking, if they can, why not us?
|A vision becomes reality, anchored off Yachting World, Port Vila|
To be there in Port Vila in 2015, to visualise ourselves sailing there too, was crucial to us setting our sights on these faraway isles. Without the voyage on Pacific Pearl there is every chance that we would not have made it to Vanuatu. It is easy to get sidetracked by the day to day humdrum of life and see a year and a priceless opportunity slip away. Still, we felt like pinching ourselves....we really had made it to Port Vila! To stand on the spot and visualise something that you are keen to achieve, to see it, sense it and almost touch it is a powerful thing indeed. We had even gone to the extent of checking out the menu at the Waterfront, knowing that whilst this might seem absurd at the time, what with us soon to re-board the Pearl, which was full to the plimsoll with food, and knowing that the only way we could ever place an order and select a table with a view over the harbor, was to sail there to do so. In my mind I had pencilled in the Beef Curry with all the trimmings, a “speciality of the house”, and now it was time to order that curry...and there was the small matter of the Sparkling Shiraz, now chilled and ready to go. Yes, there are easier ways to enjoy a Sparkling Shiraz, than to sail to Vanuatu to do so, but we doubt that Sparking Shiraz has ever tasted sweeter, than this one was for us. Bon appétit!!
|Celebrating our arrival at the Waterfront Bar|
As much as we enjoyed our time in Noumea, in no time we were wedded to Port Vila, not so much for what is there but for the people, the ever smiling and ever friendly people of Vanuatu. Yes, the fact that nearly everyone manages English, apart from the native Bislama, was important, but somehow it was more than that, and it started with Moses and Leimara at Yachting World who have been friends to yachties from all over the globe, for over 40 years! Cookie and Leimara had been conversing via email, and when Cookie strolled to the office to introduce herself, Leimara rushed up and gave her a true Vanuatu hug, just like that. In Vanuatu, you may come for the islands and their sumptuous anchorages, but you will never forget the people. Both are beautiful we have been assured and we can’t wait to experience the Vanuatu that lies beyond Vila for ourselves!
First, though, apart from places to see in Port Vila, there were some crucial things to do; the first of these being the stolidly practical process of re-provisioning and re-supply, which came after we had strolled through town to Immigration where our arrival was finally and easily formalised. At home shopping is a functional activity and we spend as little time doing it as we can and yet when away, and especially when arriving somewhere by sea, a curious alchemy takes place and the humble process of purchasing our needs can become a valued part of the experience. Fortunately, from mooring 62, just opposite Yachting World we were just a step or two from our major sources for re-stocking Calista. The first of these, the Port Vila Market, became an instant favourite of ours where fruits and vegetables – not to forget flowers – of every exotic species imaginable, plus the colour and the conviviality of the sellers, made this a place we returned to, time and again. You could buy a delicious home cooked meal here, and sit at a trestle to enjoy it, elbow to elbow with the locals; all of whom wanted to know where you were from, and wished you well in these friendly isles. Cookie, who cannot manage a brimming plate for lunch, left me contented whilst she browsed the myriad of clothing and veggie stalls, sometimes turning browsing into buying. The Port Vila Market is open 24/7, Monday to Friday and closes Saturday afternoon and Sunday. Yes, that is right, open 24/7, so that if you really want to, you can buy a bag of eggplants, or a succulent papaya, at a fraction of the Noumea price, on your way home from a good night out. The sellers camp out in their stalls, although we suspect that not much retail occurs in the wee hours of the night. By day though, the Port Vila Market is abuzz and is a destination in its own right and It was so easy to find ourselves saying...”must pop down to the market and get some tomatoes” - oh, the succulent beauties they sell there, real ones from someone’s garden, that you can smell when you dissect them, and you can eat like peaches - and find that a half day has wafted away. Just like that.
|The colourful local market|
The other key re-supply need was to find a well stocked supermarket, and again, on our Pacific Pearl trip to Port Vila, whilst most other passengers donned flowers, went on tours and sat in bars, we went searching for the best facility in town and found it just up the road from Yachting World, where we now lay to our mooring; yes the one we had imagined in 2015. There are probably not many cruise ship visitors to Port Vila who go up and down supermarket aisles, and come away with lists of products and their availability, down to sauces for stir fries and the cost of a vacuum packed porterhouse, for an omnivore like me. The Bon Marche supermarket was just like being at home, with prices to match, and what was more, for 150 Vatu (85 Vatu to the $AU), we could jump on one of the local 10 seaters, the ones with B on the numberplate, and get dropped off back at Yachting World with our booty, as easy as winking, and with a smile to boot.
Whilst we found browsing and shopping in Port Vila both fascinating and fun, and without the predictability at home, there were always delightful eateries, like Jill’s Place, to snare our attention, where Cookie’s fondness for a Mocha milkshake, had the ladies there heading for the blender, almost before she stepped in the door. By night, if we chose to dine out, there were options aplenty, all agreeably priced and including, to our absolute delight, a fine Indian Restaurant, called Spice that we would have happily lifted and “helicoptered” to our home town where we would become epicurean devotees.
Amongst the practicalities, such as food, water, gas and fuel, we wanted to take the opportunity whilst in Port Vila to source some cultural experiences which we certainly could not get at home. Just up the hill from the town is found the modestly promoted Vanuatu Cultural Centre, which has an absorbing snapshot of exhibits, collected over time from far-flung isles. We easily wiled away some time here, fascinated by the exhibits, which included hand hewn dugout canoes, the incredible regional crafts fashioned from local materials, an insight into the former practice of cannibalism, and even down to an example of a Namba, the woven leaf fibre that makes a receptacle that cocoons the primary male appendage. On the island of Malekula, you apparently have Big Nambas and Small Nambas, and as we left that exhibit, just a little bemused, in the direction of the excellent sand sculpture display, I had already decided that beyond a sarong for sleeping there were clear limitations to my adoption of local culture. It is not likely that the Namba will catch on back at the Surf Club at Port Elliot!
|Not sure if it's a big Namba or a small Namba!|
|Demonstration of traditional sand drawings|
The other cultural experience we fixed on was to see a Fire Dance, which involved us heading for nearby Mele Bay, the heartland of Aussie Culture on tour, where a group of local performers do a regular dance with fire. The Fire Dance was great and we marvelled at the athleticism of the performers who combined gymnastics, on the ground, in ensemble, and on the high and low bar and wire, with extraordinary skill and dexterity. Seeing this, however, amongst Aussies on tour and waist deep in cocktails, made us yearn for the gentle souls in the market, and delete Mele Bay as a haven in which we might anchor.
|Amazing fire dances|
In the meantime we had planned a fire-dance of sorts of our own. We had always yearned to visit the island of Tanna and see its famous volcano Mount Yasur up close and personal. As we have noted, we had originally planned to island-hop to Tanna on our way to Port Vila, before the practicalities of time and trade winds had us seeking another way to see the island’s smoking giant, and to do so from Vila. In our tramping around town we had been busy sleuthing information about packages to Tanna and Yasur, and although there were modern travel agencies aplenty, wired, packaged and ready to go, we sauntered into a low-key agency, between the wharf and the market, where with John and his nephew Stuart, a fine young man who works at night at the Waterfront, arranged it all for us, at a good price and with not a computer in sight. Then, with our bags and peril glasses packed and primed to go, I fell ill and we had to delay everything.
|Finalising our Tanna trip with John & Stuart|
The day before our Tanna excursion was due, I awoke feeling flat and listless, a touch nauseous, and, presenting, which is the key for me, with no appetite for anything except sleep. Luckily John was able to put our plans on hold and, not being certain of the nature of my Melanesian malady, or its time-frame, and with the local medical clinic being just across the way, Cookie found out that this was something that was “going around”, and that a course of antibiotics would probably do the trick. Then, on the following day, with my graph rising, Cookie succumbed to a close cousin of my condition and was “flattened” as well, a state that for her is seen less frequently than Halley’s Comet. Unfortunately, with all the buzz of the marina happening right there, just metres away, we had no option but to lie low until our equilibriums were restored. Yasur would have to belch, hiss, roar and wait!
|Unity Airlines unique airport transfer vehicle|
|Birdseye view of the Port Vila anchorage|
The package to Tanna and Mt Yasur made life easy, with a smart 10 seater plane taking a small group from Vila, with transfers, overnight accommodation, meals, and a guided experience at Mt Yasur, in the hands of experienced and trained locals. We had heard horror stories about opportunistic “cowboy” operators on Tanna, but the package run by Unity Airlines was hard to fault, and what is more, as we gazed out the window of our Piper Cherokee near Erromango Island at a turbulent sea below, we marvelled at covering the 112nm to Tanna, not being hammered by the incessant trades, and with Mastercard managing the self steering. The Airport at Whitegrass on Tanna still bears the scars of its pounding by Cyclone Pam in early 2015, and our transfer to the low key but delightful Evergreen Resort saw it, too, still mending its scars, and, with a film of ash settling on our bungalow from Yasur, we were already mindful that we were in a place where the power of nature ruled over all.
|The easy way to get to Tanna!|
|Our room at Evergreen Resort|
Our group included Julian a young ex-pat Brit, Bethany, a Sydneysider, in Vila visiting friends, Ken and Leanne from Bulli, members of the remote Era SLSC in the Royal National Park between Wollongong and Sydney, and Naoto, an ever smiling young man from Tokyo, with a drone in his backpack and with lofty visions of flying it over Mt Yasur and its fires of hell. Sometimes the world is a small place, and in chatting with Leanne and Ken, we found that given our different connections to good folk at the Wollongong SLSC, we had common friends there, and given the kinship shared amongst “clubbies” whenever we meet, Leanne suggested that if we found ourselves in Cronulla on a weekend on our “return journey” later in the year we should catch the ferry to Bundeena next the National Park, do the four-hour cliff walk to their shack at the walk-in only hamlet of Era, and share a weekend with them by the sea. According to Ken, I could even borrow a cap, don my speedos and do a surf patrol at Era. You never know.
We had heard horror tales about yachties who had endured bone shaking utility rides to Yasur from ports on Tanna, but with Kelson, an experienced tour operator on Tanna, and a friend of John’s, we were soon trundling across the countryside in air-conditioned comfort, on post-cyclone roads that had been upgraded thanks to foreign aid from countries like Australia, New Zealand and China. Then, after ascending the spine of the island, the smoking monster with its surrounding plain of ash lay just in front of us and in no time, with Kelson’s guidance, we had alighted onto a field of grey, every bit as desolate as the surface of the moon.
|Mt Yasur moonscape!|
With us skirting the volcano, Kelson pointed out his tree house accommodation and soon-to-be-completed eatery, and we wondered what sleeping alongside the firey giant would have been like, because had we not succumbed to the virus, John had arranged for us to overnight there, up in a tree with one of nature’s greatest fireworks displays, right out of our bedroom window!
At the base of Mt Yasur, we were met by the Volcano Guides, who led us to a shaded area where people from the local village conducted a ceremonial welcome, complete with a local dance, in which Cookie was invited to join, where and she performed admirably, demonstrating a nimblicity of foot that drew wide acclaim. From there it was only a short 4WD drive with our guide to the assembly point, only a couple of hundred metres, below the crater rim from which smoke billowed skywards, and the sound of eruptions filled the air.
|Glad I didn't have to wear the grass skirt!|
Soon we were on the crater rim itself and we watched in awe, and with some trepidation as at regular intervals the roar of a hundred jet planes was heard accompanied by a burst of lava high into the sky. Smoke billowed, gasses hissed, and bombs of magma fumed as they cooled below us from arterial red to the brown of ochre. All around were chunks of cooled magma, some as big as mini minors, that had clearly been hurled out by Old Yasur in a fit of pique. The experts monitor Yasur’s activity, and give it a “safety rating” on a scale of one to five. For us Yasur was grumbling along at two on the “volcano scale”, but more than this and our visit to the rim might have been cancelled. Nonetheless, whilst our activity was guided and monitored, you got the feeling with the power of nature on awesome display below just about anything could happen next.
|The climb to the viewing area|
With the afternoon closing and the promise of some amazing fireworks in the early evening ahead of us, the guides suggested that those who chose to could proceed up to the elevated crater rim, from where, and after a climb, unforgettable views into the caldera would be on offer. Unforgettable indeed!
We had just ascended the upper rim of the caldera, and were taking in the astonishing display below, when, with a pyroclastic roar of volcanic reflux, Yasur went ROOOOAAAARRRR!!! And KAAAABBBOOOOMMMM! flinging magma, smoke and fire high into the sky. Time seemed to congeal as we watched the ruddy projectiles head aloft in a parabolic arc and head closer and ever closer to the path where we were perched. THUMP! One chunk of magma landed just metres below the path where we were about to head! Surely, this was not in the script! It then occurred to me that filming the explosions below, which we had been doing, carried the enormous risk of one not seeing a deadly projectile about to descend from the heavens. This was very dangerous!
Some of our group, including Naoto with his tripod, had by now made it to the top of the rim, when a roar to end all roars saw belching fire and hundreds of projectiles hurled into the heavens, including some fiery chunks bigger than ever before. We watched in horror as one massive piece headed up, up, up, then down, down, down straight for Naoto, and his tripod! Others yelled at the last moment and Naoto, jumped back from his camera as THHUMMMPPP!!! The ground shook beneath us as a table-top size glob of magma smacked into the side of the path, where it lay ruddy, crackling and sizzling, only a metre from where Naoto had been filming. He had missed an instant and horrible death, by a whisker, and was now standing back shaken, trying to comprehend what had just occurred. It had been a very near thing.
|The molten missile !|
For the guides, it was clear that Yasur was angry and had gone from controlled to dangerous, and they moved to get those of us on the upper rim to a safer place as soon as they could. One local up on the top took off down the scree slope on the back of the mountain and headed for his village. In the fading light we just had time to take a grainy snap of Cookie alongside the smouldering blob before we too, with a wary eye on the sky, headed for a lower and safer location, from where, the early evening, lava explosions were spectacular beyond description, and left all of us open mouthed in awe.
|What an amazing experience!|
Seeing Yasur and experiencing the astonishing display of the power of nature, as close and as personal as we did had us musing....bucket list....stand on rim of active volcano.....TWENTY TICKS!!! Unreal. Now we knew why the young couple, Mark and Millie, off the large cruising yacht on the next mooring to us in Vila had said to us “we have just sailed across the Pacific, and going to Mt Yasur is the most unforgettable experience of all”. Ditto.
Next day, as we waited for the plane to take us back to Port Vila Naoto showed us the footage of his near-death experience up on Mt Yasur. He was still a rattled young man. His film shows the magma explosion below, and there is an eerie wait before the glob of lava flashes past the camera and jolts the tripod on its foundation (should we get the link to this remarkable footage if it appears online, we will share it in a later blog). Unreal, again!
Back in Port Vila it was time to finish our fresh provisioning, before, with a double check of the weather, heading for the string of islands to the north of Port Vila and Efate. Port Vila had been all that we hoped it would be, and more, and whilst there we had either met or re-connected with so many other folk who, like us, have a home afloat, under canvas. Paul and Juan off Bumpy Dog, were headed in a like direction, whilst the vastly experienced Fred off Serafina, with a “boatpacker”, Lena, from Belgium on board as crew, were planning to be not far behind. Fred is on his THIRD circumnavigation of the globe!
As we planned our first leg from Port Vila, to nearby Havannah Harbour, we wondered whether we would experience anything that could match that extraordinary day when we stood on the rim of the great volcano and stared into the fires of Hades. In the meantime the beautiful isles of Vanuatu lay to the north, offering the opportunity for other experiences that we were sure would linger long in our memory. We could not wait to sail to them and see them for ourselves.