Wandering back from the beach with the boys, we walk single file along a track weaving our way through a thousand shades of green. Pushing aside the overgrown vines with leaves like dinner plates, I wonder if the locals here sensed the magnitude of what was about to happen on the night of March 13, 2015.
That evening cyclone Pam bore down, wreaking havoc in Vanuatu and the remote island of Tanna. The 300 kmph winds howled and continued to rage across the landscape for a full twelve hours – twisting, uprooting, and snapping thousands of massive trees like matchsticks, tearing through tiny communities and when finally over, leaving a trail of destruction of biblical proportions.
Yesterday Jack, our driver, told us of a local family who, after their house was blown apart, ran through the storm to a hut where another family was sheltering before this dwelling in turn lost its roof, exploding with the wind, and tossed them all out into the storm. Luckily they made it safely to another shelter buried in the ground where several families eventually made it through the storm.
On Tanna, most villagers survived by burying food, and huddling in these purpose-built storm ‘bunkers’ set down into the ground with extra strong traditional thatching and no windows to avoid blowout.
Three months later, the warmth, rain and rich volcanic soil had replenished, foliage to hide most of the destruction but it would be another two years before main crops started to produce. By then, communities on the West Coast had healed and rebuilt to the point that it is hard to tell Pam ever showed up at all.
Today the scenery on Tanna is back to its dramatic best. Mt Yasur, the centrepiece of this area is very much alive and well, belching ash and rumbling away.
As we drive toward it, Jack points to a low-lying island just off the coast. It’s ‘Tabu’ he explains, with spirit rocks that if disturbed will capsize your canoe. A bunch of young guys didn’t heed the warning and disappeared not so long ago.
It’s all part of the tapestry, the mystery of Tanna and as we draw closer, the ground shakes physically and the volcano’s overwhelming presence becomes all encompassing, powerful beyond anything we have ever experienced.
We were on a family holiday with grandparents and kids thrown in. But that was no deterrent for our search for adventure, and even a primeval quest to seek danger perceived or real. Places like Tanna offer an opportunity to immediately break free, to step outside of your comfort zone, and to watch the wonder in your child’s eyes as the horizon expands rapidly in front of them.
To walk toward an erupting volcano is to open your arms and face God. With the roar of lava exploding below your feet, and only metres away directly in front of you, a shockwave is sent through your senses – and no matter who your God is, you feel a heightened sense of life by coming close to him.
Tanna is a place that can be rough around the edges, there is no room on the back of the ute for those who seek to impose their reality, or judgement on this place – the locals have enough challenges without adding a bunch of whinging tourists to their daily lives. But with the right approach, like us, you will have an unforgettable experience.
After our volcano experience that day, we lay listening to its explosions that night only a kilometre or so away, while our host Kelson sang country and western karaoke in the restaurant.
Here our guide Donovan dug clay from the earth and gave the kids a lesson in natural face painting.
On the way back, I hung back to flop around in a small stream with the boys just because we could, before slowly heading up the hill for lunch.
That day, we were meant to carry on to another beach but, tired out, we decided to leave it for another day. The next day we went down to the water to find a young man waiting for us. He had waited for us the previous day as well, and when we didn’t show up, he decided to come back the next day.
He guided us barefoot across the reef and pointed out the best places to dive. Back sheltering amongst the roots of trees, he gave the kids bananas and just as we prepared to leave, started digging a hole in the ground and lifted a large watermelon from the hole where he had stored it for us from the day before.
Like buried treasure for me, this is the true legacy of Tanna and Vanuatu. Local people like this young man. The genuine smiles and laughter, conversations and stories, music and hugs with virtual strangers. Knowing that at least some of our money was going to school fees for their kids.
Our holiday was full of memorable moments. We ate local food and the boys played soccer together, bare-footed, with the village boys.
We dove and drank fresh coconut juice, bought baked bread still warm off the side of the road, and ate it with our fingers, climbed up inside the trunks of massive Banyan trees, swam off a pristine white sand beach where villagers generously provided us beautiful food for lunch. At night, we gasped under bucket showers containing fresh, cool, water.
This was our Vanuatu adventure, personal, full of happiness and for us deeply meaningful. One of the best trips these three generations ever did.
Story and photography by Cam Feast. www.offthemap.tv