Vanuatu: adventure in the tropics

By Rebecca Baker | March 18, 2014

It’s easy to fall for Vanuatu. In these tropical islands of adventure, you can climb an active volcano, swim into a cathedral cave and abseil down waterfalls.

THE SHOCK WAVE catches me off guard. It hits me right in the chest, pushes the air out of my lungs and resets the rhythm of my heart. I am standing on the rim of Mt Yasur’s lava pit with a few brave others watching smoke and lava shoot up into a pale blue sky. We sit slack-jawed and “ooh” and “aah” in sync at the power and volatility of Mother Nature’s pyrotechnic display.

Deep in the ground we can hear the rumble of earth’s factory, endlessly pumping out lava – it’s a little unnerving. Molten rock shoots into the air then rains down on the dusty ash below. The soft, glowing chunks roll down the sides of the volcano’s crater and back into the mouth of the beast. “Don’t forget to look up from your camera after each explosion,” says Roland, an Australian who manages a resort on the island.

I knew seeing a volcano up close would be remarkable, but I didn’t realise just how close we’d get. Mt Yasur is one of the most accessible active volcanoes in the world. It takes less than 10 minutes to walk from the car park to the crater’s rim. Mt Yasur is in the south-east of Tanna, one of Vanuatu’s southernmost islands, and the volcano is surrounded by a lunar-like landscape of ash plains made of black sand dunes. On the outer edges you’ll find tropical jungle and hot springs with perfectly clear water.

We wait at the top of the volcano as the sun sets. It’s only 361m above sea level, but the temperature starts to drop. Our guide offers a member of our group in shorts a pair of long pants, but after some intense explosions that had us all wide-eyed the offer is quickly rescinded. It’s clear there’ll be no exchanging of pants on this trip. My advice, definitely bring spares.

Vanuatu welcome

There are no airs and graces on Tanna; people have a simple and relaxed approach to life. The airport is a tiny building with no windows. You grab your backpack from a trolley, jump in the back of a ute and hope for the best. The drive across the heart of the seemingly tiny island is long and, at times, a white-knuckle ride, but it’s broken up by roadside markets, steep, winding sections with fantastic views, passing utes filled with local kids waving furiously and dogs, chickens and pigs darting out of the way.

Members of our group get to know each other well after being squished in the back of a ute. We’re heading deeper into the jungle, the track is narrowing, the soil is a rich grey-black and ferns and vines are encroaching further and further onto the road ahead, whipping the truck as we pass. We arrive, with numb buttocks, at Friendly Bungalows, huts on a secluded, sandy beach in Lowelkas Cove, about six kilometres from the volcano. They’re built from local materials – bamboo, pandanas and coral – but with some surprising luxuries compared with some huts in nearby villages. We have flushing toilets, hot water and power.

We’re greeted by Mary, the matriarch of our new home away from home. She’s excited to welcome us with a glass of cold coconut juice and I feel like we’re family in no time. I’m shown to my hut, right down the end of the beach where I can see locals snorkelling for lobsters for tonight’s dinner.

After our welcome, it’s back into the ute to head to a nearby village. When we arrive, the whole village is there to greet us. Mums, dads, uncles, aunts and even the children are showing off a mixture of traditional and modern dress, including brightly coloured sarongs, flowers, grass skirts and tinsel. They burst into a dance, chanting, singing and clapping. It’s a joyous welcoming event and at the end the women who’ve painted their faces approach and thank us for watching. One of the small girls launches at me, puts her arms around my neck and presses her sweaty, painted face against my check. We leave with an imprint of their festive face paints on our cheeks and smiles on our faces.

Caves and cliffs of Vanuatu

We have come up the east coast of Tanna, headed to a place called Blue Cave. “And now we swim,” Thomas, our guide, says as he dives off the boat and into the turquoise water. I realise now why we couldn’t bring cameras. And, before I know it, I’m treading water at the edge of a cliff face.

It’s okay because it’s warm, relatively still, tropical water and white sand ripples five or six metres below my feet. We’re searching for the entrance to the cave. “It’s here…down there,” Thomas says, running his hand along the rock then down into the water and into a wide hole about a metre below the surface. I let someone else go ahead of me. Another member of our group duck dives down next to me and I watch his feet disappear into the darkness.

I’m a strong swimmer, but watching someone disappear into the darkness with no idea how long the cave is or what’s on the other side is a little unnerving. I’m game, but my heart is pounding and I take the biggest breath I can manage. I dive down and kick like crazy, then I open my eyes in the salty water and see the light. It seems impossibly far ahead, but is only 5m away. “I’m never going to make it,” I think to myself, but Thomas is swimming next to me and about 10 seconds later we pop up on the other side, where I’m left breathless yet again.

The cave’s cathedral-like ceiling makes the whole chasm seem sacred. From a large hole in the roof, a pillar of light shines down into the water and the jungle is weaving its way inside, with vines and roots lining the edges of the hole and dangling through. The stunning grotto is about 60m across and I’m floating in the most glorious blue water. Tiny fish and crabs dart away from me as I find the nearest rock to stand on. I find myself lowering my voice to almost a whisper as we take it in. I ask who owns the cave, “My tribe does,” Thomas says. His village is just around the corner.

The best thing about a place like this is it’s only accessible if you have a local guide. Plus, there are no queues, no gift shop, not even any signage – just you and Vanuatu’s pristine wilderness. It’s all yours, as long as you’re willing to take a breath.

Wet and wild in Vanuatu

It has been raining all night and, when we set out for Tanna’s airport, some of the main roads are flooded. We pile into our ute turned safari vehicle – it has little to no canopy on the back – and prepare for some slipping and sliding through mud and water.

Our wet weather gear is useless. Within minutes we’re all soaked, but it’s excellent fun and our driver doesn’t seem fazed. He did learn to drive at the base of a volcano, so I guess we’re in safe hands. He yells through the window while pointing to the very steep, mud-road ahead: “We gonna go dancing!”

We make it and the flight is quick. I barely have time to dry before we’re back in Port Vila, Vanuatu’s capital, on Efate Island. I soon realise you can’t visit Vanuatu and not get wet – you’d miss out on too much. That afternoon, en route to Hideaway Island Resort, our glass-bottomed boat doesn’t cut it and we’re back in the water in no time to check out the world beneath the waves.

Surrounded by coral reef, Port Vila’s Hideaway Island Resort has a more cocktails-on-the-beach feel to it. It’s perfect for relaxing, but it’s the amazing marine life that most tourists are interested in. The surrounding area is one of Vanuatu’s only marine sanctuaries and it’s not hard to see why. There are thousands of colourful tropical fish, corals, rays and giant blue starfish to see and swim among. You can even post a letter in their famous underwater post office.

Hiking to Hideaway Island on Vanuatu

It’s our last day and I’m getting in the water one more time. We’re doing a bit of cascade abseiling at the Mele Cascades, about 15 minutes north of Port Vila. They’re easy to get to and you can take a self-guided walk through the cascades, but we’re abseiling today. We need to get to the highest point as quickly as possible, so we go up and around the cascades to the top of the waterfall.

Our guide, Mastin, points out the views as he bounces up a hill that’s leaving us all gasping for air. The short hike gives our group magnificent views of the coastline. It’s all blue ocean and tropical jungle lined with white, sandy beaches stretching all the way back to Hideaway Island.

Mastin and the Edge Vanuatu climbing team meet us at the top and we begin our abseiling crash course. “I’m going to ask you if you’re ready, and when you are you say ‘ready’, then we go,” Mastin says. I agree and we attempt our tiny practice wall. “Ready?” he asks. “Yep,” I yell back over the water rushing downstream. “Okay, let’s go,” he says. It’s fun and easy, and I make it to the bottom and climb back up to the top to tackle the main waterfall.

Before I know it, I’m leaning backwards over a roaring 50m waterfall. My mind is elsewhere and as a complete novice to waterfall abseiling I’m surprised that the force of the water isn’t making me slip. “Ready?” Mastin interrupts. I look down at the tiny people at the bottom, and back at him. “No!” I yell. “Okay, let’s go!” he yells back at me with a smile.

We finish the abseil and with adrenaline still pumping, I look back up at the waterfall, the cool, fresh water spraying on my face, and I can’t help but think that sitting on a beach is nice, but this is what real island getaways should be about.

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