Tanna: At the Foot of Mount Yasur

Read Part One of this two-part series here.


The next morning we woke up to roosters crowing and hens clucking just outside of our bungalow. We laid under the mosquito netting, listening to Yasur and feeling that we were in a dream world. At breakfast, we were served a refreshing fruit salad with just-off-the-tree shaved coconut followed by a fried egg sandwich. Malakai came by to ask what activities we were all interested in doing that day. We decided to pick two things that we could actually afford: a visit to a nearby village to learn about Vanuatuan kastom culture and a walk to the foot of Yasur across it's pyroclastic ash plain. We only had enough money for one of us to do the kastom visit, but figured that one was better than none. That is until Esther and Ochre generously offered to pay for the second person to join. They too had brought less cash than they thought they'd need but were incredibly kind to share what little they did have so that we could have a "real Tanna experience."

After a quick jaunt down to Friendly Beach too cool off in the calm water, we were back at TYH in time for our kastom experience. Kastom essentially means traditional Vanuatuan culture. In many parts of Vanuatu, visiting a kastom village means seeing life that's un-influenced by Western culture. Our kastom experience wasn't exactly like that; in fact it was more representative of a blend of modern globalization's effect on Tanna and the traditions that still persist in spite of it. Perhaps the most glaringly obvious example of the theatrical nature of our experience were the outfits (colorful grass skirts and printed sarongs). This was solely for our benefit as the more modern outfit of trousers or skirts and shirts was much more typical in the area we visited. This is not to say that there aren't people on Tanna who do wear grass skirts - in fact, there are some villages that choose to fully preserve kastom and ignore modernity. Perhaps the best part of our entire visit were the Bislama songs that the group sang throughout the presentation. 

The experience kicked off with male villagers of all age jumping out of the bushes to scare us. They told us that this is how locals had greeted white people like ourselves when they first arrived on the island - angry faces and spears in tow. After listening to a few welkam songs played by their band, we sat down for a weaving demonstration. Before it began, though, two of the women came and painted small Vanuatuan flags on our faces. Then we were presented with strands of palm leaf delicately woven together. Some of the women demonstrated how the weaving was done and gave me a chance to try it myself. They were then a bit delighted and surprised when Emmett was even more keen to attempt the weaving than I was. For them it was a traditionally female pursuit. Little did they know that Emmett can knit, sew, and embroider and daydreams about having his own loom some day.

 Trying my hand at some weaving.

Trying my hand at some weaving.

Then it was time to learn about laplap. Laplap is mashed taro cooked in banana leaves under a pile of hot stones in an underground oven. Once the banana leaf parcel is removed from the stones, it is sliced and covered in a coconut cream sauce. Very straightforward and very tasty.

 Taking the top layers off of the underground laplap oven.

Taking the top layers off of the underground laplap oven.

 The finished product: rolled laplap on a banana leaf plate.

The finished product: rolled laplap on a banana leaf plate.

Emmett and I ate three laplap rolls each and had a peek at the nearby taro grove. By then it was nearly time to say farewell. The group sang a farewell song and then we were on our way back to TYH with Malakai. Overall, I really enjoyed our personal peek into the traditional customs of Tanna. Laplap is delicious, Vanuatuans are super friendly, and bislama folk songs are beautiful.

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Next on our agenda: hiking around Yasur's ash plain with Malakai as guide. In order to get to the plain, we hiked through narrow dirt paths in the bush. These paths were ultra confusing and sometimes indiscernible, hence why Malakai joined us. Some of the paths took us across logs placed over dry riverbed ravines. Other times the path went down into the riverbed. This was definitely not a trek that would be doable in the rainy season. Then, suddenly the dense trees parted and the three of us were facing a grey dune. We had reached the ash plain. We ran up the side of the dune, filling our shoes with sand in the process. Looking out across the plain from the top, we saw the pyroclastic remains of Yasur's most recent eruptions.

 Emmett and Malakai on the ash plain.

Emmett and Malakai on the ash plain.

We were stung by ash whipped up by wind as we crossed to more solid parts of the plain. Every few feet there seemed to be a new type of rock or color of sand. It. Was. Incredible. Being there felt like we were the first three people to explore a new planet. The terrain was unlike anything else - even different than the volcanic landscape of Tongariro that we'd seen just a few weeks prior. Emmett and I were in awe with each step, slowly taking in every new facet of the plain as Yasur loomed ahead, rumbling and puffing away.

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 Malakai in the riverbed just before Yasur's base.

Malakai in the riverbed just before Yasur's base.

We climbed down into yet another dry riverbed, crossed a small stream, and then climbed up one last ash wall before we reached the base of Mount Yasur. The way the ash had been blown on the outside of the volcano made it look like there was a path straight up the steep mountainside. It made it all the more tempting to go up, but alas this was not the designated safe side for approaching the crater. Still, though, I was nearly speechless when we sat a little way up the volcano's side. Yasur was such an enormous physical presence that I could feel it - not just the ash I was sitting on it but like it was an energy in the air around me as well. Probably something to do with the clouds of volcano burp dissipating into the atmosphere. But in that moment it felt like magic. 

The sun was dipping beyond the horizon as we reluctantly left the foot of Yasur. It was beginning to make so much sense to me why so many cultures have deified volcanoes. They are an insanely powerful presence. It was nearly dark as we reached the beginning of the plain where we had started. We climbed to the top of a taller dune to watch the firework-like strombolian eruptions from afar. Even though we weren't right on the edge of the crater with all the other paying tourists, it was still unbelievably awesome to be just there - to see not only the pink and then red-orange glow of the crater reflected on the clouds as it grew dark but also the occasional streak of lava as it jumped out of the crater into the air. I'll never forget it.

Flashlights helped guide us back in the dark. After another tasty dinner, we went to bed still slightly coated in ash from our incredible excursion.


Last morning on Tanna:
Banana pancakes. A brief snorkel off of Friendly Beach. Leaving a place where we felt like we could have stayed for weeks.

I've never had an experience quite like those two days on Tanna Island. Malakai and his family were amazing hosts and I would seriously recommend staying with them if you ever turn up on Tanna. Tanna Yasur Homestay is the ultimate way to immerse yourself in local ni-Vanuatu culture.

 Thanks, Malakai! We hope to see you again.

Thanks, Malakai! We hope to see you again.