Shelter from the Storm

‘Scuse the profanity, but goodness gracious great geezy peasy, this last week in Vanuatu was the best spontaneous decision I’ve ever made. To be honest, the stress of wrapping up our lives in New Zealand left Gary and I pretty exhausted, meaning that the trip was slightly ill-planned and under-researched. I’ve never flown to a new country knowing as little as I did about this one, and spent the flight frantically googling as much as I could about this South Pacific archipelago.

Beachy paradise found

Crazy plant lady

Port Vila is the capital, and the country’s largest city, but after landing we still had to find our Airbnb from written instructions due to a lack of a street addresses. After flagging down one of the numerous local buses (that really operate like taxis since they take you wherever you request), we were dropped off at “the bakery.” After sampling a croissant or two, we walked north while keeping an eye out for various landmarks, successfully reaching our little cottage for the night.

But seriously

We were pretty sweaty and also pretty exhausted from our 4am start, but we resisted the temptation to nap and instead headed to the downtown area. Gary always strides along with purpose, a true New Yorker, and I’m constantly trying to convince him to slow to my California crawl. But here even while sauntering along the waterfront at my speed, we still found ourselves cruising along at three times the speed of everyone else. We were now operating on island time, a realization cemented when we found ourselves greeted over and over again with big friendly smiles, waves and warm hellos. I was instantly in love, and that first night all my stress seemed to simply melt away with the setting sun.


After each sleeping for twelve full hours (!!!), we set off on another local bus to the village of Emua. On the drive we passed various billboards where I was able to see my first example of Bislama. Vanuatu is considered to have the highest density of languages per capita in the world, with over 100 indigenous dialects spread across the islands. While English and French are taught in school, Bislama is the common unifying language. Unfortunately I didn’t hear it spoken, but it was still really fun to read. On our drive we saw the following, see if you can translate: An ad for an off-road truck, “Numbawan, eni rod”; a billboard about no longer eating the endangered coconut crabs, “TABU”; an ad for a phone plan, “Wao! Tok mor!”; and on the door of the bus “Plis no sawam doa.”

Best sunset of my life

Emua wound up being a little slice of perfection. Initially we thought we would use the village as a base to explore some of the smaller islands just offshore, but we wound up being too charmed to leave. Instead, we spent three days sleeping in a bungalow steps from the ocean and passing our time snorkeling, tide-pooling, napping in hammocks, and subsisting on a diet of peanut butter on crackers, paw-paw, pineapples, tubers and “tin meat.” I wasn’t in love with our roots and mystery meat from a can, but the pineapple was so sweet it almost tasted fake.

There were so many of these funny little crabs, I named them water tarantulas
A little water snake also out exploring the tide pools

The reef seemed a little over-fished, so while snorkeling we didn’t encounter much wildlife. Luckily, the variety of corals more than made up for it, I’ve never seen so many types of soft corals in all kinds of gorgeous pastels. The tide pools, on the other hand, were unbelievable. At low tide the entire shoreline was literally sizzling with life, I’ve never heard anything like it. The air crackled with the same sound as when you have a mouthful of Pop Rocks, a phenomenon caused by all the minuscule animal activity underfoot.

First view of Yasur

Feeling totally relaxed, we hopped on a short flight to Tanna to visit Mount Yasur, arguably the country’s main attraction. Mount Yasur is one of only six continuously active volcanoes in the world with a visible lava lake, and its relative accessibility draws tourists from all over the world. Driving across the island on the only dirt road everything was ridiculously green and lush, until we crested a hill for our first view of the volcano, its barren grey a stark contrast to the surrounding landscape.

Skirrt skirrt, Mad Max, vrooooom

After a bumpy ride we checked into the coolest place I’ve ever slept, a treehouse straight out of my childhood dreams. The afternoon was spent nestled high up in the tree branches, playing cards while watching shock waves roll through the smoke emitted from the volcano, the “boom!” rattling our ramshackle treehouse a few seconds later. That night we visited the volcano, and WAO, my mind was blown.

Volcano post office!
The crater

After a hasty safety briefing and a rough ten minute ride in the back of a pickup truck, we walked five minutes up to the crater rim. The lake is only visible from one particular place, but when you first arrive the sounds and the massive clouds of swirling smoke on their own are incredibly powerful. Far below, the rhythmic churning of the magma sounded like a cosmic washing machine. It somehow felt like witnessing the earth’s heartbeat, and without prompting the entire group began to speak in whispers, awed and humbled. That first night the wind wasn’t in our favor, so we weren’t able to see the lake itself. Still, the intermittent explosions sending chunks of flying magma high into the sky before they arched to the ground in apparent slow motion was like watching the world’s greatest fireworks display.

River walk to the ash plain
“Giant steps are what you take, walking on the moon…”

The next day we hiked through the river out to the eerie ash plain. With bizarre salmon-colored hillsides on one side, a smoking volcano on the other, and a flat, ash-covered landscape in between, it was like we’d somehow entered a portal to another world. That night we attempted to see the lava lake again, this time with success. Now situated on the other side of the rim, each unpredictable explosion blew my hair back, and lava bombs landed dangerously close to where we stood. I couldn’t take my eyes off the lake below, mesmerized by the frothing, golden waves of magma. When the guides told us it was time to head back down I could barely bring myself to walk away, I could have sat there all night, entranced. After one more sunrise visit the next morning, it was time to head back to Port Vila and catch a flight back to New Zealand.

Mount Yasur just smoking away
It was really hard getting a good picture on an iPhone, this was the best I could do, and it doesn’t really do it justice

Despite how much I loved our week here, in actuality we barely scratched the surface. We didn’t have a chance to attend a meeting of the Jon Frum cargo cult, or drink the natural sedative, kava, and we only were able to visit two of the area’s 80+ islands. It’s tempting to say “next time,” especially since this trip piqued my curiosity about the many other Pacific Island Nations. The people in Vanuatu were perhaps the friendliest I’ve met anywhere, and I think I can safely say that the lava lake was the coolest natural wonder I’ve ever seen… which has me wondering what else is floating out in the deep blue sea, waiting to be explored.

Volcano toilet
Aspiring volcanologists


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