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On the Edge of the Crater  - Mt Yasur - Tanna

When we left Lifou we had intended going onto Aneityum, the southernmost of the Vanuatu islands but the weather forecast wasn’t too good for the westerly facing bay where we would have to anchor to clear customs and immigration, so we decided to head for Tanna where we had things to deliver to the school. It is the most extraordinary place! There is no power or running water in the villages and it is basically a subsistence economy although they have some need for money to send their children to secondary school and for the few things they have that they don’t grow themselves. 

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At the same time they have a sophisticated, thoughtful and welcoming culture which is intact from the pre-colonial days. Fortunately they were colonised by both the French and the British simultaneously.....the French and the British called it the “condominium”, the locals called it the “pandemonium”.  As a result the two colonisers spent most of the time arguing and the local culture was able to survive.  We heard that the French drove on the right and the Brits drove on the left!  On Tanna it didn’t matter because the roads are just tracks anyway.  We found that out when we went to clear customs and immigration.  We had to cross to the west side of the island to get to Lanakel on the West of the island, from where we anchored at Port Resolution on the east side. It was a 2-hour ride in the back of a hilux ute across a rough track.  There were 17 in the ute.....2 in the front , 3 in the back cabin and there were 12 of us in the back, kids on the way to school, people on the way to work and to the markets and the two tourists, us.  

One of the women we meet on the truck was a senior person in her village and she invited us to a celebration in her village the following day.  The celebration was to welcome back 4 boys who had been circumcised and had been away from the village for a month.  It’s a big celebration because a man cant start to establish “wealth” (pigs) until that time and a man has to have some wealth to marry.  It was a great day and it was humbling to be invited and to be welcomed into the village.  

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We were guided in what to do by Stanley who is one of the leaders who welcomes all the yachties and whose father set up the yacht club at Port Resolution. The yacht club is a beautiful open sided hut where the yachties in the bay and other visitors come.  The yachties trade and some people come back annually and bring things the villagers need.  

We took supplies for the school and 3 boogie boards which were a gift from the Cammeray Marina where we started our journey. We also took reading glasses which were very popular.  

We found the people of Tanna to be a very spiritual group of people - a mix of Christian, traditional spiritualism and the John Frum cult - Too complicated to even begin trying to describe but I hope someone has done their PhD on this. But it was striking that their relative material poverty was not matched by a spiritual/cultural poverty.  They are warm welcoming - a strong people with a great sense of confidence. 


 For me it was all summed up in the motto for the local school.. “Without Vision, People Perish”.  It’s a statement of a philosophy for a culture rather than an instruction for the children.  We passed a school in Vila some weeks later which was prosaic in comparison yet more typical of normal school mottos – something like “Do your best in all things”.  I couldn’t help making comparisons between what we saw in Tanna with the aboriginal communities and the problems in Australia.  It’s like the Mick Dodsons and Noel Pearsons really do lead their communities here – all backed up by the hard men of the culture and held together with a clear set of values which are central to how they live.

The other moment we had on Tanna was our trip to the volcano. We climbed once more into the back of a ute and drove for about an hour over an even rougher road. We arrived at the entrance where we paid a fee to put our lives at significant risk but there were no warnings or OH&S or insurance company- led precautions which you would find in Australia. 

Anyway we drove on until the forest gave way to the ash plains of the volcano and then we pulled up and were pointed in the direction of a path that was marked by posts for the first 100 metres and then became a track marked out by previously passing feet and nothing else.  After that it was just a matter of walking to the edge of the crater and standing watching the thing erupt! 

Video of Eruption - Mt Yasur - Tanna - Vanuatu

It was extraordinary to stand there watching the smoke billowing out of the crater and to feel rather than see the eruptions beginning. Larva would be hurled from the crater at regular intervals and mostly it would land back in the crater but occasionally it would be flung in our direction. One time the larva came our way and we all watched one large lump as it went over our heads and landed behind us.  I was amazed how comfortable people seemed standing on the rim of a crater of an active volcano. Anyway Chris and I, led by me I have to admit, were the first back to the truck - having earned our points for bravery and got the photos I didnt see a lot of reason to tempt fate any longer.

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 If you would like to see more photos of Tanna visit our photo album

 Amongst the other memorable moments on Tanna was the occasion when we decided to shift anchorage because the swell was catching the boat on the beam and tossing us about a bit.  This plan came to a quick halt when we discovered we couldnt start the engine - somewhat of a concern when we were 24 hours sail from the nearest diesel mechanic!  I eventually figured that the starter solenoid was the problem and, with much help and advice from other cruisers and text messages from friends in Melbourne and Noumea, was able to start the engine by belting the solenoid at the same time as turning the ignition key - the good old approach of "if it's not working - hit it with something". 

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One of the difficulties was that the solenoid is firmly tucked away out of sight behind the heat exchanger on our engine so simple tests became major exercises.   Our friends on other boats were wonderful in their advice and support and Jack and Zdenka on "Kite" most generously offered to sail to Port Vila with us in case we needed assistance.  As it happened we got there unaided - belting the engine into life again as we approached Port Vila in a pitching sea.  But it was wonderful to know they were there and little more than a radio call away.



© Michael White 2013