Tanna is the southernmost island where one can check in to the country. It is 218 square miles of varied geography ranging from savannah in the north to dense forest in the middle to rugged erupting volcanic mountains in the south. Geologically, Tanna is only about one million years old, and it has probably been inhabited since around 400 BC.
Tanna has a colorful history of traders and missionaries, and fortunately many of their traditional customs have survived despite this interference. Their villages continue to be managed by a local chief (yeremanu) whom oversees lesser chiefs in various roles. Although there is a small hospital on the island, traditional medicine is still widely practiced. There are also witch doctors (kleber) who are called upon to heal or harm others as well as influence weather and natural phenomena. There is a strong belief in ghosts, and the spirits of the dead are believed to reside within Mt Yasur, Tanna’s active volcano. Although Tanna was the site of much political unrest during the 1980s, it is now quiet and peaceful.
We arrived Tanna at Port Resolution which is a natural harbor on the east coast. The bay, which is in the shadow of Mt Yasur, is surrounded by black sand beach and dramatic walls. Volcanic steam vents and hot springs are scattered about. There is a lovely little yacht club (simple thatch structures) on the top of one of the surrounding cliffs, and it has spectacular views of the bay and surrounding area. The yacht club is run by Werry and Stanley whom help visiting cruisers arrange things they need and/or want to do.
Women walking across ash plain
One of the first things we needed to do was check in with customs and immigration, and both offices are across the island in Lenakel. Werry arranged for a truck to take us across with six or seven other cruisers, and Stanley went along. One person rode in the cab of the truck, and the rest of us rode in the back holding on tightly. It was a bumpy two hour ride each way, but it was beautiful. We passed through numerous villages, crossed the ash plain near Mt Yasur, and had breathtaking views of the island. Lenakel itself was rather dull, but we did get checked in, and our trip back to Port Resolution was equally bumpy but beautiful.
During our first few hours at anchor, two local canoes came out to visit us, and this is when we first met Tom and Bryan. They gave us a lobster and a few vegetables, and in return, we gave them some gasoline and loaned them a few DVDs. They continued to visit us almost daily, and we were enjoying making new local friends. We also met Eric, Tom’s older brother, and we gave him some batteries for his flashlight.
Eric invited us and the crew of a French boat to a lunch in their village, and we thoroughly enjoyed it. After lunch we made a ‘donation’ to the village, and we hiked up the hill to another village that wanted to show us some of its magic. We watched them perform a ‘magic lift’ and firewalk, and, of course, this involved another ‘donation’. They also had some fresh vegetables for sale, so we bought a few.
But Mt Yasur continued to loom above us, and it was on our ‘must do’ list while on Tanna. And after a few frustrations, we finally got to go up and experience the volcano. At 1200 feet elevation, Mt Yasur is not a particularly big mountain; however, it is a very active one. Its volcanic activity varies between relatively calm (level 1) to very dangerous (level 4). We visited it at level 2-2.5, and we wouldn’t want to see it any more active. (Access to the volcano is restricted at level 3 or above.)
Getting to the volcano involved another 45 minute bumpy truck ride. We made the short-but-rugged hike up the side of the volcano during the late afternoon, and we were speechless at the sight. We were on the rim of the crater looking down in to the volcano! There are three vents that spit steam and molten lava almost continuously, and there was a huge eruption every few minutes. When it erupted, the noise was deafening, the ground shook, and huge masses of molten lava shot a hundred feet over our heads. As the lava fell, it landed either in ash with a muted sound or it tumbled back in to the crater. And it only got more spectacular after sundown. We are VERY glad that we experienced this, but this was a very up-close-and-personal experience with nature’s fury, and we don’t care to do it again. Yes, people are occasionally killed on the volcano.
Firewalker with son
Mt Yasur erupting
We were about ready to leave Port Resolution and head north, but we decided to stay for a get-together at the yacht club. There were about ten boats in the anchorage, and the yacht club offered to prepare a dinner for us. And it was a lovely evening. We had a few beers, ate a hearty local meal, and listened to some impromptu local music. We thoroughly enjoyed the evening, and it seemed a fine way to say ‘good-bye’ to Tanna. But when we returned to our boat, we discovered that we had been robbed.
While we were at dinner, someone had been on our boat. They took our binoculars, a flashlight, some clothing, and Nita’s wallet with all her credit cards and about 35,000 vatu (approximately $350 USD). We called Werry at the yacht club on the VHF radio to advise him of this, and two other boats added that they, too, had been boarded. A camera and jewelry was taken from one boat, and some line was taken from the other. Werry said that this had never happened before, and he was very distressed and apologetic. He borrowed two flashlights from us, and he set off to sleuth out the culprits.
The next day, Stanley came out to tell us that they had found the thieves, and he asked us to come to the village to identify our things. What an experience that was! Four of the five thieves were seated together on the ground, and a few hundred locals were arguing over what to do about this. Some villagers wanted to deal with this at a village level, and some wanted to call the police in Lenakel when they reopened the following day. We just wanted to claim our things and leave before this heated up any further. We did get out of there after about an hour with most of our things (we were missing a few binocular parts, one credit card, and the cash) and heavy hearts. Three of the five thieves were our ‘friends’ – Tom, Bryan, and Eric.
Some angry villagers
So we knew it was definitely time for us to move on. We were leaving Tanna with a mixture of good and bad memories, but we are certain that the good memories will prevail over time. We headed north for the main island of Efate with a stop at Erromango on the way.