From the blue glow of sea caves, to the fiery, orange glow of lava, Tanna island etches itself into your mind.
Tanna is one of the southern islands of the Vanuatu archipelago (a country in the Pacific). With New Caledonia sitting not too far away, across the western horizon. It’s an island of deep culture and extraordinary nature, and seemed to be the home island of many of the local bus drivers I spoke to in Port Vila, who had moved to the capital to seek opportunities. There is a small central town called Lenakel, and hundreds of small villages dotted around the island.
The roads around Lenakel are sealed and bustling with locals moving between shops and markets, but as you travel down the dusty roads towards the centre of the island you’ll see small clearings of tables and stalls between the trees that had been set under nakamals (sheltered areas with roofing) where cooked foods and produce are sold, and where people gather together, after school, or work. Children wander back along the roads from school in uniform and women carry netted bags and baskets as they walk to set up a stall for the afternoon with freshly harvested produce.
CURRENCY | Vanuatu Vatu
TIME NEEDED | 2 days – 1 week
SEASONS & WEATHER | Warm in winter (Apr-Sept), hot and humid in summer (Nov-Mar), although the coastline will be cooler. Summer is typically the wet season, however there is still plenty of hot and sunny weather with rain showers being fairly short (I visited in Feb), although tropical cyclones can sometimes pass through.
LANGUAGES | Bislama, English, French, 138 Indigenous languages
HOW TO SAY HELLO | Halo
HOW TO SAY THANK YOU | Tank yu sumas
TRANSPORT | Walking, local buses to the town Lenakel (200-500 Vatu), for Accommodation inland your hotel or homestay will likely collect you from the airport (check with them first!)
NEAREST AIRPORT | White grass airport (TAH)
Planning: what to see and where to stay
There are some incredible tree houses and homes next to the volcano on Tanna Island where you can see and hear it rumbling away at night. But, if that sounds scary, (and I must admit, I’m not sure how well I’d sleep listening to a volcano…) there are a number of hotels, and private bungalows/tree houses and homestays dotted throughout this small island to choose from on booking.com.
Tanna Evergreen Resort
I had booked some last minute accommodation on booking.com at the Tanna Evergreen resort. It felt a bit odd booking into a ‘fancy’ hotel, as they’re not usually my scene. But, it was close to the airport and the dive shop (and was much cheaper than the hotel that actually housed the dive shop, that apparently Will Smith once hired out all to himself!).
It was a special place. Huge pillars of ancient coral had been made into garden features, and a maze of bridges and walkways meandered through the carefully maintained gardens. I arrived just in time for sunset. And sat up on a viewpoint looking out to sea, surrounded by tiny skittering lizards with bright blue tails. The staff were so sweet, and the food was incredible. Make sure to try their volcano soup!
Arriving from Port Vila
You’ll glide in to White Grass airport. A tiny lick of tarmac, and I think possibly the smallest airport I’ve ever used. It was a nice sight walking through the tiny building and out into the small paved area. People had come to greet family members arriving from the capital, and a group of boys from the plane, that appeared to be from an international school, were whisked away in small buses. I was then met by a friendly lady from the hotel, who came to pick me up in a small car.
What to see
From Mount Yasur (the active volcano), village visits, the Sulphur Bay hot springs, and the Blue cave. Tanna Island takes you to the heart of Vanuatu culture, and the heart of the earth.
The Blue Cave
I met a local called Benny on Hideaway Island in Port Vila on the morning of my flight to Tanna. And we talked about some of the dive sites on the Island as he used to be a dive instructor there. He very kindly rang his cousin Max who still worked as a dive instructor at ‘Volcano Island Divers‘, to say that I would be arriving and wanted to dive. If I hadn’t met Benny and Max, I possibly could have missed this… I hadn’t really budgeted for a dive here. But I’m so glad I didn’t skip it.
Even if you only plan to snorkel, swim, or just take a look. The boat ride there was half the fun. Flying fish glittered across the surface, dolphins glided in and out of the wake of our boat, and we saw fishermen wandering out to deeper water in wooden canoes to fish.
The Blue cave is a naturally hollowed out space in the cliff face, with a small opening in the roof. The sunlight pours down into the cave like a spotlight, illuminating the cave and the rippled sand with an ethereal blue glow. Depending on the tide, you can very easily swim into the cave, if its a higher tide, you’ll have to duck under for a few moments. There are also some stairs outside which lead up to the top.
The community spirit is strong in Vanuatu, and the ancient cultures are unique and still very much alive. From village visits, kava tasting tours, traditional rod fishing trips and a visit to the world’s largest Banyan Tree. There are so many opportunities to glimpse the islands traditions, including the intriguing religions that centre on Prince Philip and the mysterious figure John Frum. Speak with your accommodation or hosts to see what you can get involved with.
The most accessible active volcano in the World. The sheer power of Mount Yasur leaves you feeling very humble. Don’t let its active status put you off. Mount Yasur has been consistently erupting on a small scale for well over 200 years, therefore it is always releasing power and pressure, which stops it from building up and causing an eruption on a much larger scale.
I asked several locals how they felt about living on an island with an active volcano. And they didn’t seem to mind in the slightest. So without further ado, I hopped on a sunset tour that the hotel offered (roughly 13,000 vatu – £85, which is quite pricey but worth it). Myself and two other guests were driven out to the volcano information centre nestled on the lower forested slopes of Mount Yasur. Which was about an hours drive.
40 minutes into the journey we glided out into the ash plains of the volcano, and I could tell this was our drivers favourite part… He meandered across huge banks of ground coated in ash, and even climbed part of the volcano base. I must admit I would have loved to have driven across it too.
As we finally arrived into the Volcano information centre. We were officially welcomed by hosts and a Kastom ceremony from locals. At the end of the ceremony we were given a garland of leaves and flowers. For protection.
We then had the option to pick up hard hats, goggles or masks. It’s as safe as standing on the edge of an active volcano could ever be. But there is of course risk involved, and after signing the waiver at the entrance, I opted for a hard hat…
The tour group hopped into jeeps, and we began an extremely bumpy climb through the forest and up to the volcano. Our guides were very relaxed but professional. Explaining safety procedures, and constantly evaluating the wind, so the toxic fumes were always blowing away from the side of the rim that we stood.
One freak gust of wind caught us all off guard, as the billowing edge of an ash cloud momentarily engulfed us. It was alarming how difficult breathing became in that short moment. You could feel the dust brushing against your skin, and you could also sense the lack of oxygen and taste the sulphur. We were all efficiently moved further round the rim, upwind to the swirling mix of toxic gases.
We all stood silently watching the sunset for a moment, then as it settled behind the range of hills. We turned to see the pyroclastic display of lava take on a more dramatic look against the darkening sky. Peering over the edge and catching glimpses of the churning lava was thrilling. The rim is largely unfenced, so you have to be extremely cautious whilst treading around.
Our guide suggested (if you felt confident enough and wanted a great view down into the caldera) to go and stand next to the danger sign as it gave you a great angle. It was indeed an excellent view. But I cannot stress enough, how much standing at the edge is not for the faint-hearted…
One misstep and… well… it doesn’t bear thinking about. We were in fact treated to a display of how long it would take one to fall down. As someone accidentally knocked a hard hat that had been precariously balanced on a fence, down into the depths.
I didn’t see it knocked, but a group of lads were chuckling and I asked what had happened. They pointed down at this white speck, rolling down into the distance. We watched it solemnly for some time… until finally it disappeared over an edge, and we let out a small cheer. Our offering. (Of course nothing should ever be intentionally thrown into the volcano).
Every few minutes, the thundering would become explosively loud, and we all knew in a few seconds we would be treated to a cascading spray of lava that shot up to 200m above our heads. The darker it grew, the more impressive it became as each speck of lava glowed a fierce orange.
I highly recommend a sunset/evening tour. To see the surrounding landscape as the sun begins to set, then to be treated to its night time display of flickering lava fountains. It’s a memory that is still so sharp in my mind and one that will stay with me forever.
It was like standing in the middle of a powerful thunderstorm, without the rain or wind, just the shuddering noise, reverberating through your whole body. Nature is POWERFUL.
I am very happy that I am alive and was able to witness the beauty of Tanna Island.