What I wish I had known about Tanna (Vanuatu) before going...
I chose to stay on the east side of the island mainly for two reasons. 1) It’s closer to Mt. Yasur, 2) It’s closer to Sulphur Bay and the main John Frum villages I was very interested in visiting for the dancing and singing that happens there on Friday nights. Tanna is a small island, but considering the road conditions especially on the east side of the island going from one place to another takes a substantial amount of time. At the same time distances are mostly too far to walk between them, so choosing a convenient place to stay is quite essential if you don’t want to be dependent on trucks for going anywhere. I would recommend choosing your bungalow first and foremost with that in mind. In that sense I was very happy with my choice of bungalow (Island Dream). It’s a 20 minute walk from Port Resolution, 30min from White Beach, 20min from Turtle Bay, and 45min from Shark Bay. I paid 2000 Vatu per night (shared facilities, including breakfast). Meals went for 750 Vatu, were very good and usually too much to finish. The bungalow is located on a plateau with fantastic views over the valley, Port Resolution, and the volcano in the distance. Generally speaking I would have been completely satisfied if it hadn’t been for one major flaw… (see under “Transportation” below).
(Be careful with food in your room. Unless it’s kept in sealed containers it will attract mice and/or rats. If you must keep anything put it in a bag and dangle it off the ceiling so that rodents can’t get to it. I learned the hard way. A rat chewed its way into my bag and left a hole the size of a golf ball.)
Most bungalows operate their own vehicles. This is especially true for the “fancier” ones on the west coast, some of which operate a small fleet of them. My bungalow, as great as it was, didn’t have their own (yet?). While it was pleasant and easy to walk to many places in the greater vicinity, others were simply too far. Walking to Mt Yasur takes about 2 hours + another 45 minutes up the volcano. That’s not too bad, but makes for quite a long excursion if you also have to walk back again, especially after dark. Walking to Sulphur Bay takes about 4 hours following the road. (I was later told there’s a shortcut across the mountain from Port Resolution to Sulphur Bay. Depending on whom I asked some said this was a very easy or a very difficult trail to walk on. Allegedly it cuts the walking time in less than half though. I don’t think this is a practical alternative to the road after nightfall though.) In any case, if you walk anywhere after dark you need a good flashlight as the night is pitch black on the island.
If a bungalow doesn’t operate their own vehicle, the owners ask drivers from other bungalows, or from the villages, to provide for their guests transportation needs. However, if the drivers of the other bungalows are busy with their own guests, and the village drivers have a reason not go either, you end up being stuck. I learned this the hard way on my first day on the island when my bungalow didn’t manage to source a driver to take me to the John Frum villages at Sulphur Bay. Many of the village drivers are 7th Day Adventists and don’t life a finger from Friday 6pm to Saturday 6pm. Hence I couldn’t go, which was a huge disappointment for me as my interest in cargo cults was one of the main reasons not only for coming to Tanna, but all of Vanuatu. Next day, on Saturday afternoon, when I wanted to go to the volcano, my driver simply didn’t show up either, apparently for the same reason. Despite staying relatively close to Mt Yasur, at least compared to the people staying on the west coast, ironically I barely made it up to the volcano that day (I ended up walking and arrived short after dark) while a good dozen vehicles with tourists from the west coast did with ease.
Some examples for transportation costs: Airport to Port Resolution (2500 one-way shared, 5000 if you are the only foreigner, 2 hours), Port Resolution to volcano (1000 one-way, one hour), Port Resolution to Sulphur Bay (2000 one-way, 90min).
White Beach is a nice rough beach that’s suitable for swimming. There are some corals, but nothing spectacular. Entrance is free.
Turtle Bay is another nice beach. It has a different character than White Beach. You can swim there too. Personally I preferred White Beach.
Mt Yasur: If you stay in a bungalow close to the entrance gate you can walk up in about 45 minutes. It’s a nice walk actually. Make sure to bring a good flashlight though for your way back. The entrance fee is 3350 Vatu and gets slashed in half should you decide to return for another visit, as I did. Up on the top you can either stay at the main viewing platform, or try to climb the ridge to the far side of the caldera. There’s no trail there but the slope isn’t too step, and the higher elevation allows a better vantage point from which to look down into the caldera. Most visitors arrive at around 5:30pm, short before nightfall. The eruptions are more impressive to watch in the dark, but I would still recommend trying to get to the top earlier as the atmosphere is a different one in daytime, not to mention that photography is easier under those light conditions.
Sulphur Bay: Sadly I didn’t make it there on a Friday night as I had wished I would. I did, however, took the trip and went to both Sulphur Bay village as well as nearby Nakamara to talk to the chiefs and leaders of the John Frum movements there. The chief at Sulphur Bay happy to answer my questions and showed me around his village and the beach, but was a bit lethargic overall. Chief Isaac at Nakamara on the other hand was a lot more enthusiastic and fervent in explaining his beliefs to me. He speaks little English so you need someone to translate for you. There’s a daily ceremony happening at 8am and 4pm when 4 dudes dressed in army jackets walk up, blow a whistle, and ceremoniously raise or lower the American, US Navy, French, and Vanuatan flags. Well worth watching!
Arriving to Tanna I learned that the famous Toka festival was about to take place in a few days. I was ecstatic! It’s only staged every 3-4 years, and according to LP usually in August, so I never expected having a chance to see any of it (I arrived to Tanna in early October). As a traveler it’s also almost impossible to plan for as the exact dates of the festival are announced on short notice, and then may get postponed a few times until everybody is ready to get things started. That also happened in my case. The first news was that it was about to go down on Saturday until Monday. It was then postponed to Monday to Wednesday. I then only learned on Sunday evening that it was postponed another day to start on Tuesday. Because of this I unfortunately only got to be there for the first day as I couldn’t possibly delay my departure from the island (no money left, visa expiring) anymore. However, this first day at the Toka was by far the best experience I had in Vanuatu, and without a doubt one of my best travel experiences in recent years. It was simply spectacular! I paid 3000 Vatu to be allowed access, but there was some arguing between my guide and the gatekeepers as the price was apparently meant to be 6000 Vatu. They also tried to charge me a camera fee, which I fortunately avoided.
We were on a tour that was organised by Joseph from Vanuatu Discovery in Port Vila. We were picked up by John our Tour Guide at Tanna Airport. We drove through their local village picking up fresh fruit & vegetables for lunch. We arrived at Banyan Castle and was shown our tree house which sat about 8 metres of the ground over looking the volcano which was about 1km away. We were served lunch which was a local Tanna soup which Johns son David had made for us. We went with David to the Volcano and he showed us around. We got to sit on the mouth of it and watch it irrupt. At night time we sat on our balcony on the tree house and listened to the Volcano rumble and watch the lava shoot up out of the top of it. David also took us on a tour to the local custom dance which was good to watch and they like to get the tourists involved. If you come to Tanna you have to make staying here at John's Banyan Castle a must.
Stayed December 2013, travelled as a couple at Nauhiu Banyan Castle Bungalow.
The accommodation is pretty basic but the key thing about this place is that it is right at the base of the volcano, which means greater freedom! We went up the volcano after the big tour groups from the main resorts on the other side of the island had left and it was amazing. Just us an our guide. The staff were really friendly and arranged for us to go ash boarding (snowboarding down the side if the volcano) the next morning. The rooms are clean and comfortable but basic and there is a shared toilet and shower. Don't be expecting luxury. Food was also good and hearty.
We went to sleep listening to the volcano erupting throughout the night Great for the experience.
Stayed January 2014 at Jungle Oasis Bungalows
We absolutely loved friendly. It was just that, so lovely and friendly. The setting was amazing with the bungalows right on the beach. The drive in is not for the faint hearted but we'll worth it. The location was great, right near the volcano so you truly get to experience it daily hearing the grumble, it's very exciting. The bungalows are basic but just what you need. A great way to relax. They made our nye so memorable and really authentic too. We highly recommend to couples who are looking for a true Vanuatu experience. Ps the food was really good too.
Stayed January 2014, travelled as a couple to Friendly Bungalows
We (a family of 5 with 2 boys aged 2 and 6 years, parents and grandmother spent 8 nights at Hidden Treasure after our reservation at Rocky Ridge was lost. It offers basic accommodation but was an amazing place to stay. It has one of the few sandy beaches on Tanna, and we were able to swim and snorkel with ease. Tom and Martha were great hosts. Martha prepared hearty tasty meals, including lobster freshly caught by Tom on 3 occasions. She also took us on a 90 minute walking tour to her veggie garden, which included passing through a couple of small villages. Several children live within the complex, and they were great playmates for our children, teaching them to play their games, climb pawpaw trees and collect nuts. A highlight for our 6 year old was going out for a paddle with Tom and some of his new friends in a dugout canoe. The menagerie included roosters, baby chicks, baby kittens and baby pigs which all added to the fun. We felt like part of the family. Hidden Treasure is a 20 minute walk into Lenakel, which is very worth doing especially on market days (Monday, Wednesday and Friday). Martha is happy to arrange any tours at a good price and airport transfers.
Stayed October 2013, travelled with family at Hidden Treasure Bungalows
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