A driver in a battered 4WD, was waiting hopefully at the airport for passengers. “Welkam, Claude nom mi. Iu lookee long Tanna Island?” (Welcome, I’m Claude. Have you come to see Tanna Island?)He greeted us in Bislama. We told him we hoped to stay for a few days and needed a hotel. He happily helped us into his vehicle and drove off along the set of tyre tracks that served as a road into the dense jungle.
Time passed. We bumped slowly through the hot and steamy terrain, flowering vines tangled through the trees, their heady scent filling the air. There were no other vehicles and we felt the first nervous qualms as the sun went down and darkness enveloped the unfamiliar landscape. Claude reassured us, “Iu fren blong mi.” (You’re my friend).
Every few kilometres there were people walking along the roadside and kerosene lanterns beside narrow tracks leading into the dense foliage. We asked Claude in the best Bislama we could manage if they were the entry to villages. He said they marked the way to Kava Bars. We’d been told the kava on Tanna was better left untried. It is made by the host chewing the root of the kava plant then spitting it into the bowl and mixing thoroughly with water from the nearest stream.
Two figures suddenly appeared on the track in front of us. Claude had no option but to stop as there was no room to pass around them. Two tall men, naked except for penis sheaths, dreadlock hair almost obscuring their faces, blocked the road, Both carried a bundle of very long spears. I grabbed Judith’s hand as she asked Claude, “Gudfala frens blong iu?” hopefully. (Are these good fellows? Are they friends of yours?) His quiet, “No”, left us two options, run or stay. Neither was very attractive.
The two warriors climbed in the back of the 4WD and said not one word. Claude drove on in silence. His silence made us wonder if he too was worried.
Suddenly a clearing showed through the trees ahead. We saw a kerosene flare lighting up a sign, “Resort Hotel”. The need to laugh or cry became urgent. I think we did a little of both. Claude looked unconcerned as he placed our bags beneath the sign and said, “Tangkyu tumas,” (thank you very much) as if nothing at all untoward had happened, maybe it hadn’t. We gave him the fare and with a feeling of overwhelming relief waved our escorts goodbye. Judith told me what she thought of my choice of holiday destinations.
The Resort Hotel was a group of grass huts clustered along the edge of a black sand beach, stunningly beautiful in the moonlight. The owner came quickly to greet us. His welcome was warm and his English polished. “Good evening ladies, welcome to Tanna, I’m Marcel, welcome.” We introduced ourselves and thankfully accepted Marcel’s nurturing hospitality to as he led us to one of the grass huts.
He lit a kerosene lantern and we could see the interior held two beds with mosquito nets and nothing else. To us it looked like heaven. He showed us to another hut which served as a bathroom and invited us to come to the restaurant where he would cook us dinner.
The bucket showers were none the less refreshing and the smell wafting from Marcel’s kitchen was tantalising. The restaurant was a thatched roof over two poles surrounded by kerosene flares. The salty breeze coming from the sea and the crashing of the waves against the rocks was exhilarating. As Marcel brought our dinner, whole lobsters, bigger than any we had ever seen and covered in a delicious light and creamy sauce, our earlier anxieties vanished into memory and Judith told me things were looking up.
Marcel told us we were the only visitors on the island and said he had a lot to show us tomorrow. When we returned to our hut we found the beds strewn with fresh frangipani and hibiscus flowers. With blissful relief we sank into them.
We woke to the sound of gecko and birdsong. We made our way to the restaurant to find Marcel had laid out a breakfast for us of sourdough bread, crabs, banana, pawpaw and grapefruit. Delicious.
Marcel drove up in a battered 4WD just as we were finishing the last crumbs.
“Good morning,” he called cheerfully, “are you ready to experience Tanna?”
Last night’s nerves had vanished and we both looked forward to whatever the day was to bring.
On leaving the hotel’s grounds we were immediately plunged back into thick jungle. We passed a swiftly flowing river where several women were doing the washing and calling noisily to each other and us. When we thought our bones couldn’t possibly stand any more of the jolting and bumping we suddenly broke through the trees and found ourselves outside a village set on the shore of a large bay, the waters a brilliant blue, the Pacific Ocean disappearing into the horizon.
The sarong clad chief and a group of young men wearing swimmers were waiting for us. I guess they’d heard our vehicle’s noisy exertions. After an enthusiastic welcome five young men ran ahead towards the bay calling to us to follow. They leapt into the rough swell of the waves and enthusiastically beat the water with their hands. This went on for about fifteen minutes during which time they tried to entice us to join them. No way was I getting into that rough water but Judith eventually decided to brave it. As she bobbed about and I wondered what I’d do if she drowned one of the men let out a shout and pointed to sea. A large, very large, shape could be seen rolling just under the surface and slowly approaching the swimmers.
Judith called to me, “Can you see what it is?”
I shook my head, speechless and my heart in my mouth, but the overjoyed reaction of our new friends kept some of the panic at bay. They all started clapping and calling out, “Dugong, dugong.” They’d called a wild dugong in from the ocean. The huge, beautifully ugly creature rolled in the water with the swimmers clinging to his back, stroking and wrestling him. He pushed Judith at breakneck speed through the waves.
Marcel was pleased with our enthusiastic response and told us he was now taking us to a Kastom Village. He wouldn’t elaborate further, saying he didn’t want to spoil the surprise.
Some forty-five minutes bumping and jolting later we came on another village. Again the chief was waiting to greet us. A couple of old men were standing behind him and behind them a small group of women. We couldn’t understand any word of the dialect they were using to converse with Marcel. The men wore only penis sheaths and the women grass skirts, which reached to their knees. They were small people, most barely reached our shoulder height. They didn’t have the strong, healthy, demeanour of the other islanders we’d met but they escorted us into the village. The usual grass huts were clustered around in a circle but several huts were built in the trees, huge banyan trees with ladders leading to the towering branches which held the huts. Groups of women and children sat together on the ground picking through each other’s hair. It made me feel very uncomfortable.
“The men want to dance for you,” Marcel led us to a wooden bench in the clearing. “What men?” I asked surprised. I hadn’t noticed anyone likely enough to have the agility to dance. “Look,” Marcel pointed to the biggest banyan tree.
It was an amazing optical illusion. A group of about twenty young men appeared to materialize out of the very tree itself. They must have been standing there all along, but so still and silent, their skin tones that of the ancient banyan.
“Forest people, magic,” Marcel whispered in response to our surprise.
They danced enthusiastically for their small audience. Tribal rhythms sung with fervour, the women eventually joining in. I wished I could understand the words. Marcel shrugged and said, “Kastom,” to our queries.
After the dancing the women took us to a large hut, a communal kitchen. Two women were sitting cross-legged on the ground. They were placing a mix of mashed banana and island cabbage into banana leaves. They squeezed the cream from fresh coconut fibres over this mixture then rolled the banana leaves around to form a parcel. This was then placed in the hot coral ovens to steam. Dogs, piglets and chickens wandered freely through the kitchen helping themselves to whatever they wanted. We hoped Marcel did not expect us to stay for dinner.
He didn’t and on arrival back at his hotel we found a note from Claude on the restaurant table. The envelope was addressed; Marcel. Plis iu givem disfala leta long frens blong mi. (Please give this letter to my friends).The message inside read; Mi takem iu kwiktaem long Yasur. (I’ll take you to Yasur soon).
“He’s taking you to the Yasur Volcano tomorrow morning.” Marcel looked more pleased for us than we felt. Claude’s idea of a pleasant morning may include more hitchhikers.
When he arrived he greeted us with such exuberance we couldn’t help but feel flattered and delivered ourselves to another drive through the jungles of Tanna.
This time we left the jungle and drove across a moonscape of ash and ancient black lava flows. The monstrous cone of the volcano loomed above us and the smell of sulphur became increasingly cloying as we approached. Claude stopped where the road ended and a narrow walkway snaked its way up the side of the volcano to the rim far above us. He pointed enthusiastically to the track and started climbing vigorously towards the top.
“Oh, joy,” I thought as I pulled myself up the slope after him. Judith again began telling me what she thought of my holiday destination.
As we climbed closer towards the summit the ground shook and rumbled with a sound like waves. Plumes of smoke and ash belched from the cone with each rumble and breathing became more difficult. When we finally arrived gasping at the summit Claude took our hands and led us to the edge of the crater. Looking down a sheer 1000 meter drop into a boiling cauldron of molten lava and flying red rocks without any safety barrier and the soft ash covered ground rocking and grumbling with angry fury beneath you is a sensation that truly once in a lifetime is definitely enough. Claude was obviously disappointed at our reaction – total terror.
Judith and I both sat down and inched our way back from the edge on our knees. Most unladylike. It also gave me the opportunity to notice how many still warm lava rocks were lying on the ground around us. How could Claude be so trusting of this malevolent beast? What was to stop it suddenly giving an almighty heave and covering us with lava? Later that night Marcel told us there was no danger as the people of Tanna make regular sacrifices to the god that lives in the volcano In return he brings no harm to them and keeps tourists coming to look and share in the spectacle. We were a long way from home.
Maybe ladies our age should plan less exciting holidays.