Tanna - Volcanoes, Kastom and Cargo

There are photos of the volcano exploding and others of Vanuatu on

Sometimes when the wind is at right angles to the waves, anchorages
become so rolly that its like trying to sleep in a washing machine. So I
was up at 5am and we left Dillon's Bay anchorage on Erramango
before 6am. The village had advised us that Wahoo are off the southern
point, and we caught a monster. It took most of my line until
after 30 minutes it tired enough for me to get it alongside, although it
was a close call whether it would catch me as I tired or vice versa. It was so heavy
that Tom (who is a fit 6ft 3") couldn't lift it over the rail, and it took 2
of us straining hard to get it into the boat. It was 5ft long, and
weighed 40 Kg (88lbs). We filleted half, which is still about 35 lbs of
fish then left the rest on the back, and ended up giving away 40 lbs of fish
to local villagers and other yachts. Wahoo is very tasty and firm, more than
I probably am.

Tanna Island, the most southern of the Vanuatu islands but one, is about 16
miles by 24, shaped like a pork chop, (they eat a lot of
pig here), with a huge and VERY active volcano in the south eastern part. We sailed south along the
east coast towards Mount Yasur which obligingly greeted us with clouds of black
dust and ash which covered poor Intrepid, so recently cleaned. Then we
turned right as the whole of Port Resolution came into view, and anchored
neatly in 4 metres of water, then re-anchored as dusk fell, and put out a
stern anchor as it became apparent that the swell in the bay (which is open
to the northeast), would also be more conducive to churning butter or
washing clothes than to sleep.

This was Friday, and we horridly arranged to go Sulphur Bay which is the
'Cathedral' of the John Frum Cargo religion, but as we were to discover
subsequently on Tanna, an arrangement and actuality are very different
things. So the truck never came, and instead we went to a party hosted by
Bill, who is sailing a 1920 Long Island Sound built yacht, with an
assortment of people he finds via websites
and bars.

One of Bill's crew was a German girl called Silkie who
lives in Perth, WA. As soon as she heard that there was a German boy (Tom)
on Intrepid, Silkie rowed straight over, and
she and Tom were soulmates on Intrepid for the evening at least, while we
partied with Bill and most of the other 8 yachts in Port Resolution. But
sailing romances are tough, Bill and Silkie sailed off  next morning, and
Tom is single again.

Port Resolution was named by Captain Cook after his ship, when it was 20
metres deep, but an earthquake raised the sea bed, so now its only 4 metres.
Mount Yasur sits right over the bay, belching fumes every 5 minutes, and
steam rises from hot springs. Eric came out to meet us in his dugout canoe,
the only boats they have. Tanna has 20,000 people and little tourist (or any
other) income. The phrase dirt poor has meaning here. So Port Resolution
relies on yachties for their income.

At Sinai Village (one of about 5 villages dotted around Port
Resolution), we shot the bow and arrows they use for
hunting fish and birds and people (a 100 years ago), and watched fire
walking - impressive. I have heard that its easy - just keep walking and by
the time the heat gets through the thick skin on the soles of your feet, you
are out. I wanted to try it, but Nicky (who would have to treat me if it
went wrong) disagreed, so there's another theory waiting to be tested.

We gave away 20Kg of Wahoo to local villages and yachts, then
asked Eric to organise a pig-roast on Sunday for us and as many of the
other yachties as he could, and after, to take us up the Volcano. Eric is 23
and is still learning as a guide, so the pig-roast turned out as a pig and
taro buffet, but we had 16 yachties (so V8000 ($80)  for the

I gave fishing line and fish hooks to Peter. His father was killed in a
knife fight about 10 years ago, and Gjalt and Corinna were at a wedding on
another island this same week, when the youngest son of the Chief was killed
also in a knife fight. There is violence under the surface. Peter is being brought up
in Eric's family - he is 14, and when I asked him
whether he could read, his eyes filled with tears and he said they could not
afford the schooling. In fact, since the fees are per family, I think he
could have gone to school but lacked motivation. He was trying to spell out
the words as best he could, so he may yet get there. Lionel and Isabelle on
a French yacht bought him a torch, I provided batteries so he can be a
proper guide up to the volcano.

So at 4pm, Tom and I with Keith (an Australian originally from California - we meet a
surprising number of Aus-Americans) and Luke his son set off guided by Peter and another Tom, to walk up the
Volcano through the jungle. Nicky and the rest of the party (mainly French)
would follow by truck.

The jungle is dotted with plantations, banana, taro, manioc (tapioca),
mostly fenced with upright sticks to keep out wild pig, but in between its
quite dense, with fallen logs to negotiate. We stopped half way, Keith
pulled out a water bottle, but Tom and Peter climbed a coconut tree, and
within 3 minutes we had 7 coconuts which they
expertly opened with a machete, holding the coconut in one hand as the
wicked blade sweeps down just 2 inches from their fingers to cut away the
husk. These coconuts hold about a pint of liquid. But by now dusk was
starting to fall, and as we hacked our way along the path, we began to be
covered with black dust and sweat mixed, a nasty combination with the
sulphur in the air. But suddenly we emerged and there was Mount Yasur just
300 metres away, covered with black dust. We scrambled around the base and
up to the nearest observation point, just as the light faded entirely.

We were standing on the rim of the volcano, on what seemed like a black sand
dune (and about as stable) looking down about 100 metres to the inner double
circle crater. Suddenly the earth shook, and the volcano exploded. I mean
it, there was an almighty roar, an orange glow and hundreds of bombs shot
up from the nearest crater about 200 metres into the air, carried by the
wind which was blowing towards us, to arc over and land with great thuds
within about 50 metres of us, (but within the inner bowl). The level of
activity we saw was unusually strong. The photographs look like a view of
hell, which I suppose is what it may be like.

3 people have died in the last 6 years, many tourists have been burned, and Werry (the main guide at the
Yacht Club) told us that when he took a party of New Zealanders up last year, they wanted to go to the inner crater
edge. He refused, but they went anyway, just as there was an eruption. They
tried to get back, but one woman was hit on the leg by a small lava bomb.
Her ankle was shattered (the bombs travel at 200 metres/second), and Werry
had to risk his life to carry her back.In the west you wouldn't be allowed
within 1 mile of the place.

After a while in the dark, I realised that Nicky was not there. I wondered
whether perhaps Hell had claimed her. That seemed unkind, but there was
no sign of her. In such circumstances, there is not much you can do, we had left
her with a guide at the beach, so Tom and I returned by truck, each paid Sam
(the guide with the truck) the V2250 Volcano Park Fee he asked for (I insisted on a
receipt which Sam said he would get me the next day), and eventually, sweaty
and black, found Nicky having dinner with Dick and Pam on the next yacht. By
this time I was pretty grumpy, but a glass of wine and some of our own Wahoo
(which we had given them earlier) improved things.

Next day as we bumped along the rough track (the main road) to Lenacil to do
the official clearance at Customs and immigration, we started to learn more
about what had happened. The truck organised by Eric had been
hijacked by some Irish/Australians, whose own truck had not turned up. And
Sam had wrongfully taken the Volcano Park money. Eric said I had to see the
Police: The handsome and fit policeman was courteous::
"I suggest you both go to Sam and ask for your money back, then give it to
Philip the Gatekeeper; if Sam doesn't hand over the money then tell us and
we will see him"
(long pause).

On the way back we went to a Kastom Village, where they live much closer to
the original 'customary' way of life - we watched some dances - 8 men and 8 boys each
wearing only penis sheaths, singing and stamping, then went round the
village including the kava hut where the men sit every afternoon. Chief Jack
showed us round, he has 2 penis sheaths.....I guess to show what a big
swinging dick he is, although he was charming to us. The websites that advertise penis
enlargement would do great business here if only Tanna had broadband. Maybe
a line of penis sheaths for the smart executive who wants to show it off -
the XXL size perhaps? However the village are happy - they have just
received 4 kms of 1" pipe so they wont have to carry their drinking water 3
miles every day. Beats broadband.

Then I went to see Sam, with Eric backing me up from 10 yards behind. Sam just
happened to be cutting wood with a huge, wicked looking axe.
" Hi, Sam, I have come for my Volcano Park Receipt". Chunk, Crash,
"I haven't got it, my son has taken the money to the village shop" Chunk,
Crash, Splinter....
"You should not have collected or used the money, - it should have been
given to the Gate Keeper, so I need it back. I will give it to him myself"
Sam paused, axe in mid air, thought a bit, looked at me again, and ..........slowly put down his axe :
"OK, we will have to go to get it back"
So Sam, Eric  and I walked into the village, Sam got the V4500 back from the
shopkeeper, gave it to me, and together with Eric we strolled back.

I was trying desperately to think how to repair relations between Sam and
Eric who were brothers, but clearly distrusted each other. We had heard that
Sam was a bit of a loose cannon among the guides.

" When was the last time all the guides met together to decide how to
organise the tourists?"
" It all used to be organised through the Yacht Club, but then someone stole
the money, and all the guides moved out to different villages. So now we
just approach the yachts separately"
"Would it not be a good idea for all the guides to meet, perhaps over a
shell of Kava?"
"Yes, that would be a good idea, we will arrange that, we need to talk..."

Whether or not they will, I dont know, one is very conscious that the best
intentioned visitor can easily cause more harm than good by starting
projects that dont get completed. But at least they smiled at each other

As we slowly learned, the guides, although brothers or cousins, don't
trust each other. About 10 years ago a New Zealander helped the village
build the Yacht Club and cabins, and all guiding activities were coordinated
through here. But then someone stole some of the money, and the
guides all went off to different villages around the bay, and paddle their
own canoe literally and figuratively.

Part of the problem is communication - Vanuatu has some 70 languages, there
are 15 or so in Tanna alone, and Vanuatans are often communicating in their
3rd or 4th language - so fine shades of meaning or precise arrangements must
be lost or misinterpreted. They also miss any appreciation of things
mechanical or electrical. So cars are not maintained, and tours run on Vanuatu time. We take for granted so
much of what we learn at school and just learning to live with machines and

Nelson was another guide who had got fed up with whatever was going on at
the Yacht Club, so moved out and started his own restaurant  4 months ago on
the beach behind Port Resolution Village. We had a superb lobster lunch
there next day, (V650-$6). He wants a fresh water supply and a fridge, so we
suggested he starts a fund for tourists to contribute to, and gave something
to start it.

He asked us for a spare hammock for his restaurant. We didn't
have a spare one, so I spent 20 minutes designing a hammock to be made from palm
fronds in the same weave as the local women use for making baskets. They
caught on really quickly and we  soon had the design sorted (2mx1m with 10
woven strings at each end, held apart by a piece of wood, then tied and
suspended from 2 palm trees). They will make a prototype, then some for the
restaurant then some for sale at V2000 each.

Nicky still hadn't gone up the volcano, so we went up that evening, and saw
the crater by dusk which made it even more impressive. On our return to the
Yacht Club, Werry the Manager needed help with his new computer - given to
him by the grateful owner of a yacht that was wrecked on the rocks last year - the owner
was saved by the village. The large new yacht was a total write off, but
no lives were lost.

Next day we gave Eric about 20Kgs of tinned food, and a large selection of
tools to help him towards the car that he is saving up for to transport
tourists. He has V42,000 ($420), and needs V1.2million ($12000). I also
prepared and printed a brochure to describe the services he provides and how
much he charges. Up to now each skipper has to try to guess what each guide
can do, and how much they charge. Then 10 Kgs of flour and lots of coffee
and tea to Nelson for his restaurant.Most yachties try to do something to
help, its not always obvious what will have a lasting benefit. For example,
Keith showed DVD's on his laptop to the village kids. Good fun, but it
probably induces a hunger for more that is not easily satisfied.

Primary School fees are V1000/family/term ($10) but Secondary fees are a
whopping V30,000/term ($300) more than most families can even dream of. So of
course they have to prioritise - do you spend the money on a DVD player
which needs a generator and DVDs, or on school fees? We gave more school
books to the headteacher, and he asked us to teach, but we had a weather
window to catch - we had to suggest he puts up a notice inviting yachties to
teach a few hours.

Port Resolution although it has a faintly Christian air about it, is
actually a John Frum cargo cult village.  However the massive surplus cargo
often abandoned after World War 2 made the new religion spread fast. In the
evening in total darkness we went to what amounted to a John Frum choir
practice on the village parade ground preparing for the main service in
Sulphur Bay on Friday. Strumming guitars, beautiful harmonies, the men sang
the verse, the women added the chorus in a high pitched almost metallic tone
that was in perfect key, all bathed in a yellow glow from the single oil
light. The songs were about the 2nd coming of John. The legend of John Frum
started in Tanna in 1936 as resistance to missionaries who were outlawing Kastom
practices ,but gained momentum from all the cargo dumped by the Americans.
John is known to be a black American, whose symbol is the red cross (who of
course provided relief supplies to many islands). Most villages have a
discreet red cross. They say that Christians have waited 2000 years for
Jesus to return, so the 60 years since the cargo
and John Frum is nothing. And anyway John Frum is more concerned with
traditional ways of life, than about cargo.

Nicky is concerned about getting to Brisbane before there is an increased
risk of cyclones, so we have to keep moving, and we left Tanna on Thursday.
I gave Eric a digital watch. I hope he still thinks they are a really neat idea,
It may enable him to keep better time. I heard him mutter something about
prophets bringing  cargo........

But then it was time to go, we took up both anchors rather clumsily, and
sailed slowly out of Port Resolution, promising to send photos back. Its not
always clear what is the best thing to do - the people on Tanna are very
very poor, but generally well fed (Taro and Yam mainly) and happy. They at
least are independent, which is more than can be said for their neighbours
to the west. But that is another story.....New Caledonia......

With best wishes from the crew of Intrepid,

Tom, Nicky and Andy.

Please reply to intrepidofdover@yahoo.co.uk. See www.intrepidofdover.co.uk
for photos, logs and schedule

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