Where in the world is Vanuatu?

“Two Fish. Two Fish.”

That’s Sam yelling from the top of the cliff overlooking Port Resolution as he tries to hail the sailboat below. On our drive from the airport, I had naively suggested we could use the VHF radio from the yacht club to contact my friends in the harbor. At the time, he nodded in agreement, distracted by the endless stops, diversions and seemingly random pickups and drop offs. The yacht club was at best an open-concept shack and, of course, did not posses a radio.

skinny dogs
The ubiquitous rooster scratching at the dirt, and an assortment of scrawny, wide-eyed puppies

There is no movement aboard Two Fish. Jason and Gail had just sailed from Fiji to the island of Tanna in Vanuatu and were most likely asleep after the long passage. Around me are a few rustic cabanas, the ubiquitous roosters and chickens scratching at the dirt, and a scrawny, wide-eyed puppy that cautiously sniffs around me. Upon closer inspection of the cinder-block and well-ventilated thatched roofed cabins I had originally thought I would stay in, I whole heartedly join Sam, the luxurious cabin aboard the sailboat calling out to me.

“Two Fish. Two Fish.”

Girl playing with knife
Knife play to send any mother into hysterics. Here a more hands-off approach to parenting seems to prevail – all fingers still intact.

When I got the invitation to sail from Vanuatu to Australia, of course I said yes. It was only after accepting that I went for a spin on Google Earth to figure out where in the world I was heading. After a dizzying approach across the Pacific, I found the scattering of islands called the Republic of Vanuatu. The island nation is about 1200 NM East of Brisbane, or about a two-week-long sailing voyage to Australia, more or less.

The plan was to rendezvous in Port Resolution with Jason, Gail and crewmember Darren, who unfortunately missed his connecting flight. Darren and I had crewed aboard Two Fish and sailed from Fortaleza, Brazil to Trinidad a few years earlier. During that trip, we made a diversion to Kourou, French Guiana, hoping to see a rocket launch from the Guiana Space Center, a country I had originally placed on the wrong continent [link to read story published in Bluewater Sailing Magazine]. This time, Jason and Gail were on the last leg of their voyage across the Pacific. They had joined the ARC, a world cruising club that organizes rallies and informal races, and were about to leave the group after sailing with them from St. Lucia nearly six months earlier.

Driving behind Mount Yasur
The only stretch of road where the driver can make up any time is speeding along the volcanic ash covered roads behind Mount Yasur.

Port Resolution is located in Ireupuow Village on Tanna Island near the bottom of the archipelago. It is a slow and rutted two-hour drive from the airport along dirt roads, definitely Land Cruiser territory. Waiting for Darren to join us, and eager to learn more about the village, I spent the first afternoon exploring, poking around classrooms, peering inside open doors, and meeting the very gracious people around the village.

Miriam, one of the teachers I met, tells me about some of the boys who are out in an undisclosed location in the forest. They are following the local “kastom” for a coming-of-age ritual that involves circumcision as part of the ceremony. I understand that one of her boys is in the group. She’s worried about him and sends him food with one of the messengers.

school teacher in Vanuatu
Miriam pointing out the names of all her kindergarten students. These are not spelling errors but words in Bislama – a language based on English spoken in Vanuatu.

While the islanders follow some form of Christianity, they also abide by their traditional customs. The island of Tanna is unique for the number followers of ‘cargo cults’. Here, the John Frum cult is still practiced – a vestige from World War II when US troops were stationed on the island and brought with them vast amounts of, well, cargo. Today, the villagers are preparing for a ceremonial dance and feast in honor of the ARC organization that typically brings supplies of various canned goods, hammers, nails, clothes and tourist dollars on an annual basis – a slight variation of a cargo cult.

There are a few huts and various school buildings, a computer room with non-functioning monitors, a church, a clinic and small store that sells hand carved canoes and woven baskets. The store doubled as a charging station for cell phones and had solar arrays mounted on the thatched roof next to what looked like drying laundry. There was also a small café where the local men lazed on the lawn outside. Past the village is a path leading to a beach where the surf has attracted a kite boarder from one of the yachts, and further down the beach, the fiberglass remains of a broken hull.

boy carving a toy boat
More knife play. This boy knows how to wield a knife and carved out this pretty cool looking canoe in no time.

Vanuatu is positioned on the notoriously named ‘ring of fire’, a horseshoe shaped belt that lassoes around the Pacific Ocean from New Zealand to South America – a geographical hot bed for earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Mount Yasur was just one of the many active volcanoes in the region and is relatively easy to access. Port Resolution was named after Captain James Cook’s ship the HMS Resolution. Cook was drawn to the glowing light of Mount Yasur while on his second expedition to circumnavigate the globe in 1774.

While my knowledge of volcanology is limited to a grade-school diorama made of paper mache, the volcano on the day we go to see it is considered safe by the Vanuatu Geohazards Observatory which rates the alert level on a scale of 0 to 4, zero being low activity and four indicating a major eruption.

Local Chief in Tanna
Awaiting the presentation of kava at a ceremonial dance at the base of Mount Yasur

We had confirmed this during a ceremony with the local chief, presenting him with kava, which he offered to the Gods who granted us a safe passage before we crammed into pickup trucks and chugged up the side of the volcano following a track that was better suited for an olde tyme mine cart ride at an amusement park.

We hike up the side of the volcano – sliding backward on the loose ash with each upward effort until we reach the top. Here, as we stand at the edge of the caldera, the wind swirls around us, throwing ash and dust into our faces. I can feel a slight pressure on my ears, then a muffled silence before lava and rocks are released into the sky before hitting the ground – a fire-breathing dragon exhaling. The volcanic bombs are the size of bowling balls and shoot well past the crater. Some land near the sloppy cauldron of smoke, fire and lava, others land closer to the rim where we stand.

Volcanic Activity on Mount Yasur
The volcanic bombs are the size of bowling balls and shoot well past the crater.

The oval crater is 400-meters wide (1300-feet) and is mostly barren, surrounded by grey ash and rock debris from cooled and solid fragments. From one vantage point, I can see three distinct vents, each bubbling and oozing lava, exploding with incredible and unpredictable power. I stay up there as long as possible until the guides heard up back to the pickup trucks with the dim glow of flashlights and we ride down the track to Port Resolution.

The people of Tanna literally live under the shadow of the volcano. Earlier that morning, while I watched the fishermen in their dugout canoes set their nets in the bay, smoke appeared from around the shore. At first I assumed the villagers had set up camps and were burning brush, but on a closer look, it was steam released from volcanic vents. While the volcanic soil is fertile ground for planting, the volcano can just as easily spew enough ash to smother the vegetation, or worse.

volcanic vents
Fishermen setting nets in Port Resolution with volcanic vents in the backdrop.

With a favorable weather window, we leave the following afternoon. Jason and Gail bid their cruising friends goodbye as we weigh anchor and motor past the protected bay, past the pinnacle of rocks and breaking waves and sail north to follow the coastline. We get another glimpse of Mount Yasur just as the sun begins to set. The ash-laden hill stands in stark contrast next to the lush mountains, sulfurous steam wafts above the volcano, melding into the nearby clouds and obscuring our view one final time.

We are quickly enchanted by the ocean’s rhythm; none of us ready to leave the deck in preparation for the long watches ahead. The sun sets on the horizon, orange and glowing like the lava, before disappearing behind a black, moonless night and I wonder where in the world I’ll be next.

Sailing into sunset
We are quickly enchanted by the ocean’s rhythm.

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