The island nation of Vanuatu is perfect for adventurous travellers
Its unruly topography and wild beauty feels right right out of a movie
BY Tara Lal | March 22nd, 2019
A shell-pink coral sways with the rhythm of the water. Lit by a shaft of sunlight, it looks like a feathered headdress. Shimmering fluorescent fish dart by, and then, a turtle gently coasts past into the deep blue. I am snorkelling in the balmy waters of the South Pacific Ocean, off the coast of a remote island in the country of Vanuatu. I’m so absorbed in this enchanting underwater world that I’ve lost all sense of time. When I look up out of the water, all I see is the endless sea extending all around me. Nothing else. No land, no boats; nothing. And this is when the panic sets in. Where is the boat that is supposed to have been following me? I’ve come out snorkelling with an eccentric French- Vanuatuan man named Fabrice, who has a side business running tours out of his pint-sized boat. He and his mini craft are nowhere to be seen. As I bob here, all alone, I wonder if this is how I’m going to die. Why do I go on these ridiculous journeys to far-flung places?
The island nation of Vanuatu is a wisp of a country on the edge of the world map, somewhere east of Australia and south of Papua New Guinea. You’d need a magnifying glass to locate it. I found it when I was eight years old, as I pored over my parent’s gigantic world atlas. In a time of no iPads, that atlas was my escape into a world of wondrous possibilities.
Kids playing on the beach in Espiritu Vanuatuan
Vanuatu is an archipelago of roughly 80 islands, each with its own distinct culture and customs. The main island, Efate, is called Vila by the locals, and seemed to be the least exciting with its profusion of mid-level hotels and pasty Australian tourists. I chose to skip past it, and flew to Tanna, an outlying island with an active volcano and a history of cannibalism. Getting from the lodge to the volcano is a full-day affair, and we left early in the morning in a brokendown four-by-four with a slashed plastic sheet for a window. Tanna’s terrain, formed by volcanic activity, is undulating and dense with greenery. Hours of winding up and down mud tracks pitted with craters and lakes left me shattered. And just when I thought, who cares about volcanoes, there it was—a mountain of sand incongruously wedged between green hills.
Mt Yassur wedged between green hills
Our safety briefing for climbing the volcano was given to us by an ancient Ni-Vanuatuan man with only three wobbly teeth. He had an aura of tranquillity that comes from a life of island living—and possibly a life of drinking cava, the hallucinogenic local beverage, made out of cassava root, that is fermented into a fetid brew. He said to us, “When volcano erupt, you don’t run. You stay still. You look up. Is there a rock coming towards you? If yes, you step out of its way. If you run, you trip, you get hurt. No running, okay?” So off we went, up the steep, sandy slope to the narrow ledge that overlooked the open mouth of the volcano, Mount Yasur, which spat up a few mouthfuls of red lava—a reminder of the active molten layers that ran below our feet.
The turquoise waters of Espiritu Santo
After my adventures in Tanna, I wanted a restful few days, so I picked Espiritu Santo, a sparsely populated island with lush jungles, champagne coloured beaches and the famous blue holes: crystalline natural pools of freezing spring water. I spent a few days at a sleepy beach hut, kayak-ing, gently spelunking, and watching Vanuatuan women perform tradition-al water music—slapping the surface of the sea to create sound—in traditional leaf dresses and bougainvillea crowns.
A local market in Tanna
The covered market in Vila
Megan, an intrepid New Zealander who lives on Espiritu Santo, took me riding through the rainforest and coconut plantations on horses she has rescued and rehabilitated. We trotted past hills, ponds, a coconut oil factory and several villages. I learnt that many of the plantations are actually Chinese owned, and now grow plants that are popular in cities, but do no good for the local ecology or community. From the rainforest, we descended onto the beach. Our horses seemed ecstatic to see the ocean, and walked straight into the water. After our ride, Megan suggested a snorkelling tour with her fiancé, Fabrice.
A suggestion I took up, and why I now find myself alone in the ocean, contemplating multiple ways to murder Fabrice, ifI ever see him again.
I try to estimate the direction I had been snorkelling in from an island in the distance, but it is too far to get to. So I turn around and swim back as calmly and steadily as I can. After about 20 minutes—that feel like an eternity—I see what looks like a dot, and send a silent prayer to the gods of the sea. I keep swimming, and gradually the dot takes shape: it’s Fabrice’s boat. As it turns out, there’s been a mechanical failure, and Fabrice looks sweaty and greasestained as he fiddleswith the engine. I was so happy to find the boat that I forgot I was angry. Mechanical failure sorted, we go looking for dugongs in shallower water.
Fabrice’s new boat
Later, sitting on the bow of the boat, looking down at the dolphins alongside, I remember why I choose to go to far-flung places, and make a promise to myself to never stop.
Photographs: Tara Lal