Other Islands of Vanuatu

With only a 30 day visa to see Vanuatu we chose a couple of islands to go to after Tanna for the volcano and Ambrym for the Back to My Roots Festival. We used the winds to help us get places knowing we needed to return to Port Villa to check out.


Mele Bay is just North of Port Villa and was a nice sheltered bay for a stop when we were making our way North after Tanna. The perfect place to hide out from NE winds before heading towards Ambrym. A long beach to stretch our legs and the Beach Bar ashore was great for a nice cold drink, entertainment in the evenings and good views. They put on a few shows to get people in, the most popular being the fire show on Friday nights.

From Mele we caught the local bus into Port Villa to see the big smoke and do something a little different as a tour. Buggy Fun Adventures had an afternoon Jungle Safari tour that was a great way to see Port Villa town including buzzing around the countryside to see the views and out to the beach. The local kids gave us a hi fi along the way with lots of friendly locals who smiled and waved at us.  

Views back to Port Villa
Great fun on the beach
The fruit n Vege market in town was huge but there were lots of roadside stalls everywhere

Port Sandwich, Malekula

After the Ambrym festival we headed to Port Sandwich and went up past the main village to the end of the bay. It felt like we were in the jungle with mountains surrounding us. The kayaks were good for some exercise and getting to the far end of the bay and  into the mangrove lined river.

Up the mangrove lined river

The kids (or pikanini as the family called them) from the plantation close to where we were anchored paddled out with 2 baskets of fruit, coconuts, eggs and nuts and invited us to come ashore to meet the family.

Ashore there was a small protected area with 3 buildings, including a church and the hillside was covered in coconut trees. Very pretty area.

It was interesting sitting talking to the family who appeared to be a lot better off than some Vanuatu families we met along the way. The school closest to the farm is taught in French so we struggled to talk to the children while Bernadette, Suzanne and Simon spoke excellent English. Bernadette had come to this part of the island in 1970 with her Anglo husband and they had cleared and replanted the lands with vegetable plots and coconut trees for producing copra. Her husband passed on in 2016 at the age of 86 so farming was obviously good for him. Suzanne was from Santo and been with the family helping Bernadette with chores, farming etc for the past year.

Suzanne &, Bernadette

Simon, Bernadettes son has taken over the farm and was working hard clearing trees and vines to plant Sandalwood for the families future. We’d heard him calling the cows and them talking back He had 30 cows that he sells locally for ceremonies and food. He’d actually worked in NZ under one of the programs the government has for Vanuatu people farming but had returned to help his mother.

Awei, Maskelyn Islands

Awei is a very small island with 1 family on it, at the Southern end of Malekula within the Maskelyne Islands. It has a protected bay behind the reef where we were anchored and where the local women from Avokh Island 2 miles away come to fish. It was busy with about 10 canoes of women when we arrived, all anchored in the reef and casting lines. Apparently the supply ship comes Tuesday evening so Mondays & Tuesdays the ladies are out fishing to gather fish, mud crabs (found in the mangroves) and lobster to sell to the ship returning to Port Villa and in return buy staple supplies.

The locals would paddle past to their gardens in the hills on South Malekula returning to Avokh village daily with produce and firewood.

Taking produce back to Avokh after working the garden

Ledo & Crème stopped by to chat after being at their garden and offered us a mud crab which was huge and that they sell to the supply ship for 1000 vatu (US$10). We watched her pole the canoe back across the reef towards Avokh. Some canoes have made sails thanks to material given from the yachts, which definitely looked easier than poling.

Sailing home with the produce looked a lot easier, except for the guy holding the mast up

Ledo had invited us to visit the village of Avokh where approximately 200 people live in traditional flax houses. It was definitely a crowded village. Chief Kaiser was in Port Villa so one of the other men welcomed us and took us to meet Ledo. The ladies were all busy weaving mats from flax but all stopped to talk with us and introduce their families.

Ledo with some of the local kids

It was school holidays so the kids were about and eager to talk to us and wanted to see a picture of themselves on my camera. We gave them a soccer ball but learnt that they are not allowed to play with it on Avokh. Sports can only be played on the school grounds at the island across the reef from Avokh. The school which teaches English has approx 80 children and 3 teachers. When we asked how the children get over to school the response was “the kids have their own canoes so paddle to school”. Like everywhere we have been, the people here were very friendly but you could see that life on Avokh was tougher than the other islands we have been to.

Epi Island

With South winds we took advantage and headed over to Lamen Bay on EPI island. It’s a nice protected bay from the trade winds with some friendly resident dugongs and lots of large turtles. We’ve been very lucky and seen dugongs (sea cow) in every bay we have been in around Central Vanuatu. Its tough getting pictures of them though. Kayaking ashore one morning a dugong surfaced and breathed right beside us and then just hung out with us. They are typically shy and don’t really interact but it seemed like this guy wanted some company and was checking out our kayaks.

Just surfacing they look like a log

Ashore we wandered around and ended up going to lunch at Bennington’s restaurant for Roast chicken and fresh salad with Kumera (sweet potatoe), which was very tasty. Benny, as she likes to call herself, has travelled throughout NZ and Australia and worked on various farms. She now has a farm of her own and sells produce and fresh bread to the sailors. So of course I had to buy lettuce, tomatoes, bok choy, beans, bananas and couldn’t miss her coconut bread. All very tasty especially the lettuce as we hadn’t had a salad for 4 months.

Benny in her kitchen

There is a Primary and high school here in the bay and the school children are responsible for tending their own gardens. We saw a 6yr old with her Mum returning from their gardens and the little girl was carrying her own spade. So cute. We wandered up one of the roads to look at the gardens but all you could see was walking trails that headed into what looked like jungle to us. Lots of banana trees, papaya trees and taro on the side of the road.

gardening here looks like hard work with all the vines
someone was growing pineapples in their yard.

Along the EPI coast we stopped at Revolieu Bay where we got a great night sleep behind a reef to then head south to Mele Bay on Efate again. Port Havannah on the way was where the US had stored all their ships in WW11 but it has been closed to yachts for the last month because of a Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle infestation, so we had to pass by.  Shame as its meant to be pretty.

We relaxed for a few days at Mele Bay but before we knew it a window appeared to go to New Caledonia so we caught the bus into town to clear out. The officials were all at the port so it was all very efficient.

Vanuatu has been a great stop with such friendly and happy people.

Back to My Roots Festival, Ambrym

The people of Vanuatu are mainly Melanesian and are called Ni-Van which means ‘of Vanuatu’. Each island here seems to have its own traditions, ceremonies, status objects and rights, which is known as their Kastom way of life. There are many tribal languages but the main language is bislama, a Melanesian language with English roots.

The village of Olal on Northern Ambrym puts on an annual festival in August called Back to My Roots to communicate and educate the traditions and kastom way of life of the people of Ambrym. It’s a fundraiser but also a way of educating the younger people in the hope of keeping the stories alive.

Chief Sekor proudly stands with the Rom dancers showing his chiefly status thru the pigs tusks

We anchored at Nopul anchorage on the Western side of Ambrym along with about 15 other boats and walked to Olal, where we met Chief Sekor and paid our fee to attend the 2 day festival. (9000 vatu). Then it was a walk into the jungle where we arrived at a clearing with carved totem poles, a small hut with Rom masks on it and tree logs for us to sit and watch. Men in traditional Nambas (penis sheaths) entered the clearing stomping their feet to the beat of tam tam drums.   

One of the locals John would communicate what each dance represented so we had a small understanding of what was happening. For each dance the men gather in a circle facing inward to a story teller in the centre talking in their local language and tam tam drums beating. The dances were mainly performed by the men who stomp their feet into the earth, occasionally breaking from the circle to dance around the group, while the story continues on.

children showing us a game that they play

Magic is important in this culture with black magic being feared (e.g. barbed wire being placed around an object to keep the evil out) and good magic being practiced (e.g. the chief must plant the first yam on Ambrym of the season as that ensures a good crop). They had a couple of magic shows for us where a small palm tree was planted in the ground and it took 3 men from the audience to pull it out.

Brett was challenged to stop a stick from moving through the energy of dancers

The Rom dance tells a story of good versus evil and has been passed through the various villages on Ambrym where each villages stories are told and kept alive in their local dialect. On the island the Rom dance is still used for different celebrations eg appointment of chiefs, Yam harvest time and circumcision ceremonies. The Rom dancers who have colorful masks and are encased in banana leaves represent evil spirits who move in mass around the ‘good’ men and boys who are chanting, singing and stomping to the beat of the drum.

Sand drawings are another traditional way of telling stories or drawing pictures and messages. They start with a rectangle which is split into segments and then without removing their finger they draw with circles and shapes but never a straight line.

drawing a turtle

The ladies of Ambrym took us down to the waters edge to perform water music where their hands move rhythmically through the water and create sounds, which was amazing to hear. They typically do it in the rivers to communicate to the men that the women are bathing and should not come to the river.

ladies demonstrating water music and getting very wet with the waves

You could see that these people are very proud of the kastoms and traditions and enjoyed sharing their stories with us. Its not something we could completely comprehend and understand as there are so many traditions that have been passed down through generations but it did give us a small look into the rights of people in the community and their kastoms.

Ambrym is lush with fruit and vegetables because of the volcanoes on the island. As we walked the mud roads we met many locals who were very friendly stopping to talk after working their gardens. Sometimes they’d wait patiently till we were free and would shake our hand and welcome us. Rope was very much in demand here with the locals wanting it for tying up their cows and was traded by many a sailor for incredible stone and wood carvings.

Beautiful sunrises and sunsets here probably because of the volcanoes.

Tanna, Vanuatu

Prior to leaving Fiji we received special permission from Vanuatu Customs to clear in at an “unofficial” port of entry; Port Resolution on the island of Tanna. By email we were quite surprised to receive a typed official document for entry followed up with an email from the customs officer on Tanna; Iau to say he was on standby for clearance for the day we expected to arrive.

Why did we want to go to Port Resolution? A protected bay where there is good access to Mt Yasur, one of the world’s most active volcanos, where you get up close and personal. So yes it was definitely worth getting the special permission and was a highlight for us.

On arrival into Port Resolution, Iau from Vanuatu Customs had driven from Lenakel on the West Coast to Port Resolution on the East Coast to clear us and another vessel SV Coquelicol into Vanuatu. It was all very efficient to be honest and surprised us. Immigration didn’t turn up but Iau told us he’d come out over the next few days. Hmmm…..As Iau was heading back to Lenakel the 5 of us saw this as an opportunity to go visit the big smoke of Lenakel so jumped into the truck, together with Stanley, the organizer of tours at Port Resolution. The 1.5hr trip there was amazing with incredible scenery driving on a dirt track or ash while passing the volcano, lots of villages and a very dense forest. It was a crazy trip across the island in the back of Iau’s 4WD truck.

The road thru the ash plains ahead

Lenakel is a small town but was incredibly busy as it was market day (Monday’s & Friday’s) with LOT’S of people hanging out and selling produce. There was an ATM machine, plenty of stores for food and the all important Digicel or TFL SIM card stores. Stanley organized a truck to take us all back and all up it was a great adventure, which we hadn’t expected.

Brett organizing a SIM at the local store

The Lenekel Market

Back in Port Resolution we kayaked around the bay admiring the steam vents rising from the rocky walls lining the shoreline and at the far end of the bay we’d spotted ladies gathering at low tide to bathe and clean clothes in the natural hot springs among the rocks. At night you could spot the red glow of the volcano on the hills surrounding the bay. All signs of the volcanic activity in the area and our upcoming adventure to the rim.

The village here is broken down into lots of smaller communities of families where there was a central cooking station surrounded by traditional homes made from woven thatch. A very basic existence and extremely happy and friendly people.

no wheelbarrows here

traditional houses in the village

After a couple of drizzly days we finally saw an opportunity for our volcano tour. We organized a big lunch at Chez Leah’s together with Sylvie, Daniel and Thomas from SV Coquelicol who were also going to do the tour. Leah served us up a tasty chicken stir fry dish with vegetables at a Cost of 850 Vatu pp (US$8)

The 5 of us decided to get some exercise by walking the 8km dirt track towards the staging area to the volcano where we met locals along the way wondering who these crazy white people were walking.

Once at the entrance gates we paid our entry fee of 9750 pp Vatu (US$100) and signed all the waivers etc. There was a ceremony to welcome all the tourists and trust me there were probably 50+people from all over the world there. What happened to our private tour! Yeah right.

men, women and children stomped into the black ash soil in the Ni-Van kastom

Prior to being loaded into trucks, together with a white hard hat, we were given the security speech….. “If the magma comes over the rim don’t run, listen to us we as tour guides are here for your safety”. We drove up to the base of the volcano and then walked a series of stairs to the rim of the volcano where plumes of smoke, gas and steam billowed….before an all mighty boom and molten magma flew into the air. Cameras came to life with lots of excitement.

Unbelievable that we could be this close to an active volcano. After a huge rumbling blast where molten rock was thrown into the air and beyond us we all gasped and the safety crew arrived to tell us we had to move further back down the viewing area. We all sighed, secretly wanting to stay close to where the action was. As darkness came the colors in the volcano intensified and we all crept back up to our previous positions at the viewing area to see the orange glow with a deep rumbling that threw magma up again.

Magma blowing out

Before we knew it our 2 hours were up and the call for last photos and a 5 minute warning to leave the area came. It was truly amazing hearing the rumbling sounds, booms and seeing molten magma being thrust into the air from within. Just as we were leaving the volcano gave an almighty boom and sparked to life again.

Great time in Tanna.