Vanuatu is “an obscure place and not easy to get to,” says author Simon Proudman. But it’s clearly worth a visit because you can walk up to a volcano and experience a unique culture. Sydney-based Simon is one of the few authors to write about this Commonwealth country, formally known as the New Hebrides, in his Vanuatu: Far Flung Places Travel Guide.
Vanuatu is made up of 68 inhabited islands scattered around the South Pacific and covering a landmass the size of Belgium. It’s 1,100 km off the coast of Australia and the majority of the visitors who reach the capital, Port Vila, on the daily cruise ships are from Oz or New Zealand. Between 9am and 5pm the streets of the capital are, “thronged with tourists,” says Simon. “Few people get away from the main island of Efate, though the smaller islands can be more interesting,” he adds.
Simon visited the tiny island of Gaua last year and that’s one of his recommendations, although don’t expect to find many tourism services there. “It was May when I travelled and I was visitor number two of that year,” he says.
Historically, the islands were the only joint British and French run colony. Although most locals speak a language called Bislama, the colonial legacy means that both French and English are still widely spoken. And thanks to the French you’ll get good baguettes and plenty of French butter according to Simon. The joint tenureship was apparently, “a recipe for chaos.” It wasn’t repeated elsewhere, “and possibly with good reason,” says Simon.
Both world powers ran their own currencies, armies and police. “Cars were driving on the side of the road based on the nationality of the driver. And unsurprisingly there were many accidents. “Eventually they agreed that the next shipment of vehicles on a cargo vessel would decide which side they drove on. It was a consignment of Citroen cars,” says Simon, “so now they drive on the French side of the road – the right.” Even more ridiculous was the daily flag raising in Independence Park. Both nations would argue about which flag had been raised higher. So, at great expense, they hired a Swiss national to ensure that they were level.
Port Vila is the largest city and you’ll have to visit it because the main sea and air terminals are based there. But Simon thinks you won’t see a true representation of Vanuatu unless you venture beyond the main town. “There are 250,000 people so it suffers the problems of larger cities everywhere. There’s a lot of traffic and buildings. There are also some great bars, restaurants and some of the best hotels. And, as it is the South Pacific, there are the beaches and palm trees that you would expect.”
The islands feature a number of active volcanoes. “The easiest to get to is on Tanna. It’s called Mount Yassur,” Simon explained. It’s a Stromboli-type volcano and resembles the classic cone formation that schoolchildren draw. “You drive up the side of the crater for fifteen minutes on a rough road, which requires a four-wheel-drive. They drop you just below the lip of the crater and you follow steps for 45 minutes up to the crater itself. And then you’re actually standing beside a live volcano, which explodes every fifteen minutes or so!”
That sounds a bit scary. Simon says you have to visit with a guide who will look after your safety. “He or she will take you to an area opposite to the wind’s direction so material doesn’t blow towards you. The guide will also act as your spotter because you can’t be sure what’s going on around you if you’re taking photographs. Your guide will grab you if lava is heading towards you. It is slightly terrifying. I’ve visited a number of times. Standing and watching lava being thrown high up in the air, tumbling slowly back to the ground and turning black as it cools down is an astonishing thing. The noise is incredible too. The lava sounds like waves crashing on the shore as it moves backwards and forwards. It’s the only place in the world where you can do that with any modicum of safety.”
With the mountains and the heavy rainfall you expect in the tropics there are some incredible waterfalls too. Guau Island has the best at the side of Lake Letas. “It takes a day’s trek to reach the caldera. Where it breaks to the ocean you’ll see the incredible waterfall,” says Simon. “The island also has beautiful white beaches and you’ll be the only person on them.”
I asked Simon about the historical sites around the islands. “Well there’s Hat Island, which was the base of the early ruler Chief Roi Mata. He lived in a massive cave and when he died, his relatives and many wives were killed and buried in graves there.”
There’s a lot more recent history including Second World War relics, which are fascinating. The SS President Coolidge was an American troop carrier that sank in Santo Harbour. The cruise ship had been commandeered during the war effort. “It is slightly larger than the Titanic and is one of the best wrecks in the world you can dive on. Parts of the ship are accessible at just 20m down,” says Simon.
“Isn’t Vanuatu the country that invented bungee jumping?” I asked. “Yes,” said Simon. “AJ Hackett, who introduced it to New Zealand, went to Pentecost Island in the north of the chain. Locals build towers out of natural materials and swing off them with vines. The aim is to touch the ground with your forehead before bouncing back up again. It’s a ritual celebrating a good harvest. You can see it between April and May each year.”
“Is your heart in your mouth when you watch it?” I asked, “Because when you go bungee jumping in New Zealand you know there’s been stringent health and safety assessments and tests.”
“Well only locals can do it of course,” Simon adds, “and they do test the vines. It rarely goes wrong but it did famously when the Queen went to view the practice. They were demonstrating the jumping out of their normal season and the vines didn’t have the right flexibility. Sadly one person died. That is an extreme rarity.”
Talking of royals, I had heard that Prince Philip is revered by some locals. “Yes,” said Simon. “On Tanna, south of the main island of Efate, locals believe that the Duke of Edinburgh is their leader. It stems from a royal visit by the Queen and the Prince in the 1950s. They think it fulfilled a prophecy that a strong white man would come and rule over them.”
Another cultural experience is the women who create music using water on the island of Guau. “They play percussion by banging the water with their hands and singing traditional songs. Occasionally they tour Europe and you’ll see them at festivals but to see them at home is remarkable.”
“People are very friendly,” says Simon who adds that there is so little tourism they are genuinely interested in you. But I had to ask whether stories about cannibalism were true. “Yes, in the west of the islands some missionaries did end up in pots,” he says. “It was mainly an intertribal issue,” he adds, reassuringly.
So how easy is inter-island travel? Simon says travelling by ferry to destinations closer to Efate is straightforward. There are also three or four flights a day to Tanna, which is home to the Mount Yasur volcano. As you travel north to islands like Gaua, there are three flights a week and they get booked up pretty quickly, he says.
And what about accommodation standards? “You won’t get a five star hotel outside the capital, Tanna or Santo. You can rent a bungalow with a roof thatched with coconut fronds in the northern islands. The shower won’t have hot running water but that’s okay because it is extremely hot. It’s basic,” says Simon.
One of the best things is the food, he adds. It’s normal for three daily meals to be included in the price of £15 to £20 a day. And highlights include lobster. “In most countries it costs an arm and a leg but locals find it easier to prepare than chicken. You just jump off the beach with a spear and catch it. When I stayed in Guau I had lobster three times a day,” laughs Simon.
“If you’re looking for somewhere off the beaten track the northern islands of Vanuatu are well worth seeing. You can drink water from the mineral springs and catch and cook freshwater prawns.”
Simon’s final piece of advice is to make sure you allow enough time for your trip. “If you’re in the northern islands you don’t want to return to Efate to take an international flight with, say, six hours to spare. The islands have grass airstrips and if it rains no planes will fly. You need to be flexible. Also bear in mind that it’s island time. There’s no rush. If your hotel room isn’t ready when you arrive it might be ready in three or four hours. Meals take time but that helps you relax and get out of your workday mindset.”
Simon Proudman’s Vanuatu: Far Flung Places Travel Guide is available on Amazon.
Listen again to my chat with Simon here: