Tanna means “earth” in Tannese. The home of cargo cults, the most accessible volcano in the world and traditional, peaceful people.
It is an island of contrast, stark black volcanic sand and pure white coral sand beaches fusing into each other. Uncrowded surfing or ash boarding down a live volcano. Tanna has lush rainforests skirted by fragrant gingers and fat cows grazing in a pure ecological haven.
Some Tannese are gentle artists others tough pragmatic businessmen, yet all are superstitious, even the politicians, consult their sorcerers or “wise men” on important issues. With a land surface of 565 square kms and a population of 35,000, the people are scattered throughout the whole island where each meter of land is owned and cherished.
Tanna is about a million years old. In 1777, Captain Cook was attracted to Tanna upon seeing the distant glow from Yasur Volcano and anchored in the bay he called Port Resolution after his ship the HMS Resolution. It is said that he pointed downwards towards the land, and asked the local chief for the name of the island: the chief responded “Tanna”, meaning earth, hence the island got its name.
Early trading was in sandalwood. As the Tannese were at war with the neighbouring island Erromango, 30 km away, the shrewd Tannese negotiated with the trading ships: “We will supply you with sandalwood and pigs in exchange for captive Erromangans you bring to us”. The irony being that Erromango had much larger sandalwood forests than Tanna!
Christianity came later (1840’s). The first were westerners, which were killed and eaten, then Polynesians who could not speak any of the numerous languages were sent by the religious organisations hoping they would not eat people their own colour. That didn’t work either. Due to the Tannese natural distrust of foreigners, compounded by diseases introduced by the newcomers, foreigners were accused of bringing sorcery to the island. Many suffered Tanna Chiefs retribution. Tanna has now a co-existence of cult followings, traditional custom and western religions.
With an average of 30°C, and little rain, Tanna is holiday friendly. Nights can be cool especially on top of Mt. Yasur Volcano where small gale winds whip up a black sand storm within minutes. Bring a wind jacket as precaution.
To really see Tanna, a minimum of 3 to 5 nights is recommended; splitting half your time on each side of the island.
You can get to Tanna by air or sea. By air is a sure way of getting there as ships are notoriously ill maintained, often overloaded and normally make the journey every 4 to 5 weeks. Basically do not consider going by ship from Port Vila as you will be facing the south easterly winds all the way, which can make for a troubled journey.
Air Vanuatu Domestic airline flies to Tanna 7 days departing from Port Vila. On some days, there are two flights in a day. The flight to Tanna takes 45 minutes. It returns for Port Vila immediately after landing. Tanna is also well serviced daily by private airlines such as Air Taxi, Unity Airline and Air Safaries.
From Tanna you can fly to Aneityum island (landing on neighbouring Mystery Island, 30 minutes later) every Thursday, or to Aniwa island (30 minute flight) every Saturday. When flying to Tanna, remember to sit on the left of the plane (facing forward) as you will view Erromango Island on the way and Tanna island as you fly in to land, (have cameras on the ready). The right side you will see endless ocean. Tanna boasts one of the best airports in Vanuatu.
There are two main means of transportation on Tanna. 4WD ‘taxi’ utilities or your legs. Accommodation providers on the island will have a ‘truck’ (4WD vehicle) waiting for you. If you don’t suffer from back problems, take the option of sitting in the open back of the truck as it’s truly an experience! Road rules hardly exists in the islands so you’re in for a great ride with the highly experienced 4WD drivers who know every pot hole by name, and when it rains, it gets even better! There are local buses servicing the main road roughly every 30 to 45 minutes (well that’s the general idea, don’t plan your itinerary on it). Taxis are not cheap (due to expensive fuel costs and repairs due to the road conditions) so it is a good idea to group-up before hiring a taxi to split the fare.
About 7km under Tanna island is the Australian plate plunging under that of the Pacific plate at the same time fusing with it, generating magna that reaches the surface creating hot spots, one of them is the Yasur Volcano; a ‘young’ volcano, only 100,000 years old.
Mt. Yasur is what is commonly referred to as a ‘dry’ or a ‘strombolian’ volcano, it explodes magna hundred of metres into the night sky, a life changing experience for anyone witnessing it. Pompei was a dry volcano; isn’t that reassuring? Mt. Yasur is regarded as the most accessible dry volcano in the world because you can stand on top of the rim looking in (depending on the activity level of the day – please be very cautious and take advice from your driver/guide). A vast reservoir of lava feeds into Yasur’s eruption vents through a network of faults and large gas pockets measuring over a meter in diameter hundreds of meters under you to erupt in the crater measuring 400 to 700 meters in diameter. The journey to the volcano is just as exciting – moonscapes made of ash, rivers cutting their way through the soft limestone or even softer volcanic ash, altering the landscape in front of your eyes, cascades, breathtaking panoramic views, coffee plantations, local villages, lush forests and the road of a thousand pot holes!
You can post a letter from the only post box in the world on a live volcano. Don’t ask, Vanuatu Post is into extreme post!
To watch the Mt Yasur webcam LIVE and check on current volcanic activity visit geohazards.gov.vu.
Mt Yasur is an active volcano on Tanna Island, Vanuatu with a height of 361 m (1,184 ft) above sea level, located on the South East coast near Sulphur Bay. Mt Yasur has a largely unvegetated pyroclastic cone with a nearly-circular summit crater 400 m in diameter. It is a stratovolcano caused by the eastward-moving Indo-Australian plate being subducted under the westward-moving Pacific Plate. It has been nearly continuously erupting for centuries, although usually it can be approached safely. Its eruptions, which often occur several times an hour, are classified as Strombolian or Vulcanian.
The glow of Mt Yasur volcano was apparently what attracted Captain James Cook on the first European journey to Tanna Island in 1774. Today the mountain is a sacred area for the John Frum Cargo Cult. The cult reveres John Frum, a deified messenger who foretold the bringing of wealth to the island by American forces. They believe he resides in Mt Yasur with his countrymen. The village of Sulphur Bay, the centre of the movement, claims the volcano as part of their territory.
Because of the importance of the volcano to the tourism industry in Tanna, the local government has created levels to restrict people’s access:
Level 0 – Low activity, access to the crater allowed
Level 1 – Normal activity, access to the crater allowed
Level 2 – Moderate to high activity, lava bombs may land beyond the crater rim, access to the crater is closed;
Level 3 – Severe activity with loud explosions, lava bombs ejected up to hundreds of metres outside the crater and large plumes of smoke and ash, access to the summit zone is closed
Level 4 – Major eruption affecting large areas around the volcano and possibly other parts of Tanna and even neighboring islands, all access closed
NOTE: Mt. Yasur is not an amusement park. It is a live volcano, so listen to advice from the resort tour staff but don’t forget your sense of adventure – Tanna is an island lost in time with Mt. Yasur; the most thrilling, awe-inspiring, natural phenomenon you will experience in Vanuatu.
“Kastom” is a way of life in Tanna but more so in this tribe. It is said that many years ago the chief of Yakel told his people to reject everything introduced from the western world. The children do not go to school. The village dress from, and eat what the forest will provide. Visiting Yakel is a voyage back in time. The guide will be he only one who speaks English or French. Most of the Yakel tribe villagers don’t even speak Bislama. When visiting, they are always happy to accept a bag of rice as a gift, some aspirin and bandaids, or a “bush knife”. They will welcome you openly and be happy to will walk you through their village and the villagers will perform a few dances to welcome their visitors. Handmade carvings etc., are for sale at great value (please don’t barter for a better price unless you are buying a large quantity, also don’t buy shells if presented as this only assists in destroying the reef from which they feed themselves). There is an entrance fee which will be part of your tour. Best time to visit is late morning. Private visits are not suggested as it interrupts their daily chores.
One day the chief was asked by his villagers “What have you done with all the money collected?” The chief sheepishly displayed his pride and joy – a mattress stuffed with notes. He thought it was better than sleeping on the ground at his old age. Nowadays, money collected is kept for medical emergencies, and fixing the one truck that services then and the surrounding villagers.
There are numerous other villages where you will experience the friendliness, dancing and indigenous art for sale. Ask if they’re a traditional ‘Nambas’ village. The Nambas is the sole dress apparel for a ‘Kastom man'; it covers his modesty.
The largest cultural reunion in Vanuatu is the Nekowiar (more commonly referred as the Toka). Up to 4,000 people spend up to 3 days and nights together. Celebrating the reunion of villages, organising marriages, and other important inter tribal agreements. Taking up to a year to organise. It is more often performed at two to three year intervals and held late in the year. The atmosphere and intensity of the dancing increases with every dance. The Toka is performed on the second morning and reaches climax that evening.
On the third day after much traditional dancing, the hundred or so pigs are slaughtered and cooked. The morning killing of pigs symbolises the cleansing of all sins, following the previous night of “sinning” (where consenting adults are permitted to indulge in their sexual pursuits…). Much kava and Lap Lap is consumed in an awesome feast. It is hard to know the exact date of the Toka, so one must allow at least 2 weeks in the country to be able to jump on a plane as soon as its announced a few days prior to its start.
The next Toka to be advised on this website.
Tanna offers exceptional pristine coral viewing close to shore where visibility is 20 to 30 meters. Swimming over brilliantly coloured coral and sunlit black sand with turtles effortlessly swimming past you is quite a unique experience.
For the present horseriding for visitors to Tanna is not an activity.
February 15 – Jon Frum Day
July – Tafea Agricultural and Trade Show (this is a biannual fun filled fair lasting three days with horse racing, rodeo and a lot of horsing around!. Handicraft stands – get their early; the best and original art is purchased quickly by the expatriot population. Great day to meet a large part of the population and see them really enjoy themselves).
August – Circumcision celebrations in the villages.
October – Cultural Spirit Arts and Carving Exhibition – again, great art bargains to be got by the early bird.
Nekowiar or Toka Ceremony – see The Nekowiar/Toka information.
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