Our journey began at the domestic terminal of Port Vila's Bauerfield Airport. The tiny terminal did not have any gates, but rather one exit door onto the runway. When I approached the Air Vanuatu ticket counter for check-in, the clerk gestured to a sign of prohibited items and asked if I had any such goods with me. I said no. And that was it - the extent of domestic security at Bauerfield. It was the first terminal I've ever visited that had virtually zero retail. It had a cell phone vendor, one cafe-style counter that sold lunches, and a woman seated behind a table that featured a popcorn machine and tub full of pink juice. According to the departures board, there were just five other flights scheduled that day and three of them had already left. The waiting area was a mix of suitcase-bearing Aussie tourists and locals with carts full-to-the-brim of cigarettes, electronics, and other big city buys. Before long, the ticket clerk told us to board and tore our tickets. We walked across the tarmac in a midday blaze of heat. We were off to Tanna Island.
If I had thought Bauerfield's Domestic terminal was small, I had another surprise coming: Tanna's Whitegrass Airport. It is an unlit, tiny space. We walked in and there was a nice big open-air windowseat from which one could sit and watch the plane being unloaded. Then the baggage handlers got close and I realized it was not a window seat. It was Tanna's baggage claim. Everyone's bags and boxes of supplies were there, as were quite a few Vanuatu Post packages. I took a look at the handpainted map of the island on the wall as we waited for our big backpacks to be pushed along the "bench." We slung them on our backs and then wandered to the small car park to find our ride.
Having heard what you did about the airport, you may be shocked to learn that we had booked our accommodation on Tanna through airbnb. Yes, that's right. For just $70 NZD (a little less than 50 USD), we had booked two nights at a village homestay on the opposite side of the island, just north of the island's famous volcano. A man named Marcel asked us who we were looking for, the answer being our airbnb host Malakai. As it turns out, Marcel was sent by Malakai to pick us up. An older man whose name I didn't catch was to be our driver, he waved at us from the front seat of a pickup truck. We threw our backpacks in the truckbed and then rode to our accommodation on a bench seat just behind the cab, Vanautu-style.
We drove through a small town, where our driver stopped for some groceries and Emmett bought us a small bag of sun-dried peanuts to share. As we began to leave town, a few passengers hopped in the cab when they stopped our driver to see if he was heading their way. Over the course of the rest of our ride, locals were in and out of the truck. We passed small homes, shops, churches, schools, but most of all people. People on the roadside carrying vegetables, gaggles of toddlers with machetes, schoolchildren in uniform. We waved and smiled at everyone, and literally everyone returned the gesture. The children were most excited to see us pass, yelling "Hi" or dancing goofily or feigning karate moves. We weren't at our destination yet, but we were definitely feeling welkam. After about a half hour of getting blissfully dusty and wind-whipped, we crested the top of a hill and had our first look at Mount Yasur.
The hilltop views confirmed it: Tanna was a gorgeous, lush island. With an active volcano casually puffing away in the southeast. We descended downhill and continued our waving & smiling routine until we turned a dirt road that led to our homestay. We passed thatch roof homes of the village of Lonasanna and then arrived at Tanna Yasur Homestay (TYH). Immediately we were greeted by our host Malakai, the charismatic young owner/operator/builder/tour organizer of TYH. (And when I say young, I mean young - he is twenty-three). Malakai greeted us and showed us to our bungalow which turned out to be an absolutely beautifully built thatch-roof hut. Ours was one of two bungalows available to rent, and just in between the two was a shared shower and flush toilet outbuilding.
After we'd dropped our bags in the bungalow, we talked with Malakai a bit more. I heard a rumbling sound that I initially registered as thunder until I realized that the sky was perfectly clear. "Is that Yasur?" I asked. Indeed, it was. The rumbling continued on and off every five minutes or so. Wow, to say the least. That's when, in conversation, we found out that we'd made a mistake - we did not have enough cash to pay for the activities that we wanted to do. After paying our truck driver for the ride, we had half the money with which we'd arrived. I'd miscalculated the correct amount of vatu to bring to Tanna because I'd perused an old website that had an inaccurate pricing for the trek to the top of Mount Yasur. That was the reason we'd decided to go to Tanna - Mount Yasur is not only the world's most continuously active volcano but it is also one of the most accessible. To hike to it's top and peer at Yasur's molten crater was only a 45 minute walk from the base. As it turns out, a recent Oscar-nominated film had drawn more tourists to the volcano and prices had thus increased. It was nearly $100 AUD per person to go up the mountain and we had slightly less than that combined. We were pretty disappointed, to say the least. Though the volcano entrance fee was more expensive than we'd expected, we still would have paid the price just for the once-in-a-lifetime experience. But of course, we were in an ATM-free zone. It felt pretty sad to be within listening distance of a place we couldn't actually visit. After a bit of moping, however, I realized that I was... spoiled. I thought about how lucky I was to be able to be somewhere like Tanna, to stay in a thatch roof hut on a remote island as an active volcano belched and groaned nearby. Our current setup was honestly pretty damn cool.
Filled with gratitude at our luck for being there, we made a walk down to Friendly Beach just 15 minutes away. A black volcanic beach littered with washed up coconuts and pumice, Friendly Beach is a beautiful little cove on the Eastern coast. We took a walk along the shore, stopping briefly to admire the hand-carved canoes parked on the sand.
The sun began to set as we left Friendly Beach and we soon reached a hilltop that afforded us a peek at Yasur through the dense trees. It rumbled away, almost like a giant contented cat purring aimlessly away. I'd read online that the glow of Mount Yasur's crater reflecting on the clouds above is what drew the explorer Captain Cook to land on Tanna Island during his South Pacific expedition back in 1774. We decided we'd have to return to the same lookout that night to see for ourselves.
Back at TYH, it was dinner time. We joined our fellow guests, Aussie couple Ochre and Esther, at the table in eager expectation of dinner. A single solo-powered bulb gave the dining area a secretive speak-easy vibe. Though Malakai had seemed a bit surprised to hear that Emmett and I did not eat any meat, our chefs were very accommodating. We had a vegetable omelette, rice, lap lap, and boiled greens for dinner and were quite satiated. Actually, that's an understatement. The food was delicious and I especially loved laplap, the national dish of Vanuatu. At the time, I didn't know exactly what was in it but I hoped to find out soon. (Spoiler alert: I did and you will too if you keep reading).
Read Part Two about our experience on Tanna here.