Joel’s been in deep cover for the last year on Vanuatu, one of our nearest island neighbours. He’s uncovered a tropical adventure paradise bursting with stunning natural phenomena and rich cultural experiences.
Winter again, eh? Gone are the long days of summer – and as much as you love to insist winter is a great time for ‘crackling fires and crisp, clear days on quiet trails’ – the reality of arriving at work before the sun comes up, and leaving after it has set, bites hard. Wax lyrical about the way the frost glistens on the tent fly as much as you want – we all know where you’d rather be. Somewhere warm. Somewhere tropical. On a beach.
But I’m not talking about Club Med. I’m not talking about some resort where the only sea creatures you get to interact with are swimming in cream sauce on the buffet table. You want somewhere where you can swim with dugongs, glide down rivers on bamboo rafts, explore ruins that are being smothered by jungle, and island-hop on traditional outrigger canoes, stopping only to surf the odd reef break or snorkel over giant clam gardens.
How about somewhere you can climb to the crater of active volcanoes, or free-dive in pools of crystal clear, sapphire-blue springwater in the middle of the jungle? Somewhere where you can visit black sand beaches, cloud forests and plains of volcanic ash all in the same day. Somewhere that has deep canyons and dark caves to explore, where 80% of the population still live a traditional, subsistence way of life in forests and on islands so remote that they hold the highest linguistic density on earth.
No, it’s not in Australia. But it’s not Hawaii, the Galapagos or some far-flung Caribbean hideaway on the other side of the world, either. It doesn’t take 3 red-eye flights, two leaking boats and an alpaca to get there. In fact, it’s one of our closest Pacific Island neighbours, just a 3-hour flight from the East Coast of Australia, which means you can get here quicker than you can drive from Sydney to Canberra, or Brisbane to Bundaberg. Here’s why you really should be waking up in Vanuatu (rather than Canberra – did I mention it’s warm?).
Get A Workout In Nature’s Jungle Gym
Millennium Cave, on the island of Santo, is every adventurer’s dream. It starts at a traditional village deep in the forest, where you can hang out with the locals over a plate of tropical fruit or some local kakai (food). From here, you set off hiking through the jungle… but it’s more like a jungle gym, climbing up and down hand-cut ladders and crossing bamboo bridges above deep ravines. And then, you plunge down into a big, dark hole in the earth, wading through an underground river.
After half an hour in darkness, you emerge through a narrow slit into a beautiful canyon, with lush ferns and moss cascading down the walls, filtering the light green all around you. You’re now far below the forest floor. Follow the rushing water downstream, climbing up, under and around huge boulders that chock the bed of the canyon, sliding down rock slabs and fording the river holding onto ropes strung above your head. And finally, throw on a lifejacket, lie back and kick your feet up as you float down through the slow, deep pools, while silvery waterfalls tumble off the canyon walls on either side of you. Go on – you’ve earned it.
Vanuatu, I Lava You…
Caving, canyoning, waterfalls – we have all that in Australia, right? Well, let’s talk about unique adventure experiences. Let’s talk about what you can’t find in Australia. Let’s talk about sunrise on the crater of an active volcano.
It’s 4:30am and the pre-dawn light hasn’t even started to stain the horizon. Your whole world is black and intense, angry orange. Below you (no, right below you) is a vent in the earth that has been continuously spitting molten lava for the last 800 years. And when the lava bombs shatter the air, you can feel the impact in your chest, and in your boots. The thunderous clouds of ash and smoke are lit from underneath by the fiery glow, making it look like the sky is on fire.
But it’s not until the dawn light spills in at the edges that you really start to see where you are, on the rim of a huge crater. No guard rails, no fences, no ‘viewing platforms’ – the ground centimetres in front of where your boots crunch the black ash falls away into the spitting, roiling caldera. And if you’re standing in just the right spot, at just the right time, you get to see two suns mirrored on either side of the horizon – one climbing the sky, and the other deep in the earth.
Tanna Island is the home of Mount Yasur, the most accessible continuously-active volcano in the world – that means it’s been erupting a couple of times an hour for the past few centuries. If you’re the kind of early bird that’s never once bothered a worm (and isn’t about to start), you can also visit the crater rim for sunset – but for a tick that really shreds the bucket list, try strapping on the snowboard that they keep at the nearby village and carving some black lines down the steep face of Mount Yasur. Ash-boarding on an active volcano? Check.
It’s The Vibe…
You’ve exchanged black ash beneath your feet for hard-packed earth – but the ground is still shaking. Around you, under the outstretched limbs of a giant banyan tree, an entire village is dancing, their grass skirts flying, faces painted in striking lines and patterns. There are no instruments other than the rising voices and the drumming feet of the people around you. The same people who have spent the day with you, explaining how they hunt and cook over an open fire, how to drink kava, the different roles and responsibilities of men and women, and the use of every tree and plant in the forest around them.
We’re in the Ikunala village where the people welcome visitors with 1000-watt smiles and wreaths of grass and flowers, but we could well be in any village in Vanuatu. While visiting a traditional (kastom) village with a tour like the Ikunala Native Tour on Tanna can give you an in-depth insight into the way of life of around 80% of the ni-Vanuatu (the people of Vanuatu), this is a living, breathing culture.
It’s there in the excited shouts of pikinini (children) that run to greet you as you hurtle by on the back of a ute, it’s there in the shy glances from the women selling fresh produce at the sprawling markets that are the beating heart of every major town, it’s in the pride in every ni-Vanuatu tour operator, taxi driver and bungalow owners’ voice when they talk about their island, their country.
In Vanuatu, culture will find you. Even on the main island of Efate, the bustle of the international airport and luxurious resorts and restaurants is only an hour away from a small boat, waiting to take you across to small islands like Pele or Nguna that are inhabited entirely by ni-Vanuatu people – and visiting or staying in these villages, in the island bungalows run by local people, is the exact opposite of staying in a resort – it leaves you richer.
Hold Your Breath
You’re floating, rising and falling gently as waves roll past, looking up at the sea cliff you’ve just leapt from. In front of you is a blank wall of rock, but right at the base there’s a tiny little hole revealed by the trough of each wave – the only indication of the big underwater tunnel beneath you. Hold your breath and duck-dive into the shadowy passage (don’t worry, it’s not far), and emerge into a place of absolute wonder and imagination.
As your eyes adjust, you find yourself in a huge circular chamber of rock, bathed in the sound of the lapping water echoing off the walls. Shafts for pure sunlight pierce down through the opening at the top of the cavern which acts like a massive skylight, shining a spotlight down into the darkness. But light also floods in through the underwater entrance, turning the sea-pool around you an iridescent blue.
The Blue Cave on Tanna Island is part-cenote, part-sea cave, and something else entirely. You can organise transfers from the main town of Lenakel, and while you can drive all the way there, we recommend taking a boat so you can see some of the other amazing caves and rock features along the coastline. I wonder what other wonders wait along that coastline?
Colour Me Intrigued
Where’s the desaturation filter when you need it? This place doesn’t even look real. Santo island is home to the Nanda, Riri and Matevulu Blue Holes, but calling them that really doesn’t do them justice. These jungle pools are vibrant jewels in the forest, shining vivid aquamarine blue when the light hits them just right. Schools of fish swim lazily by, waiting for something to fall from the treetops above.
The vibrancy of the colour is due to the purity of the water, which is filtered through limestone springs deep underground before bubbling up to the surface; the purer the water, the more longwave (red) light is absorbed. So in addition to being an incredible colour above the surface, just imagine floating in the clearest water you’ve ever seen – snorkelling in these Blue Holes is like swimming inside a magnifying glass.
But that’s not all – you can kayak from sea-to-source to reach the Blue Holes, paddling up tropical rivers with that same incredible water quality and surrounded by lush, jungle vegetation. Hire your own or get one of the locals to paddle you up in an outrigger canoe for just $10.
Waterfalls That Are A Little Bit #Extra
Oh, and there’s waterfalls too. Lots of them – it’s a tropical island, right? But some waterfalls are special. Lololima falls is a tiered series of cascades, so we recommend you start at the bottom, with the rope-swing into the clear turquoise pool. Float on your back for a while looking up at the falls to soak it all in. Meander up through some of the smaller cascades and check out the bat cave which hides around the back of the main falls, where you can stand in the dark chamber amongst the stalagmites and stalactites (which was which again?) and think about the fact that you’re in a cave UNDER a waterfall.
Then clamber straight up the middle of the main falls on the steps that have been carved out of the rock and smoothed by the water which showers down all around you. Keep going up to the spa-pool (the Bubble Bath) right at the top of the falls, overlooking the whole valley. And if that’s not enough, there’s a twisting section of river canyon upstream to explore as well.
Lololima is a private falls on the island of Efate, which means you’re likely to have it to yourself when you book with Pascal of Vanuatu Ecotours. It’s about 45mins from the main city of Port Vila in a 4WD – adding on a 3-hour flight from the east coast of Australia, that means that YOU could be HERE this afternoon.
Getting Here And Away
No, you read that correctly (que infomercial), Vanuatu is only a 3-hour flight away from the east coast of Australia. One of our closest Pacific Island neighbours, Vanuatu is a long archipelago of 83 islands to the north-east of Australia, stretched out between the same latitudes as Cape York and Hamilton Island in Queensland. Most visitors fly into the capital, Port Vila, on the island of Efate, and from there catch domestic transfers to other islands, though Air Vanuatu also direct flights which go from Brisbane to the island of Espiritu Santo (just ‘Santo’ to the locals).
Vanuatu tourism isn’t as developed as places like Fiji, which means that you don’t have the hordes of tourists and there’s still a lot to discover. You can also go as off-grid as you want – you can stay in anything from 5-star Balinese-style resorts, right through to basic ‘island bungalow’ accommodation (usually with cold water and solar lights).
But what the latter lack in creature comforts, they make up for in location – you can stay in a two-storey treehouse at the top of banyan tree at the base of the Mt. Yasur volcano where the eruptions make the curtains ripple at night, or 3 feet from the sand on some of the best beaches in the Pacific, all for less than $100 a night. And while Vanuatu still feels like an undiscovered gem in the Pacific, with incredible natural beauty, an amazing range of unique experiences and its reputation for having some of the happiest people in the world, it won’t stay like that for long – get here before it ends up all over the ‘Top Travel Destinations for 2019’ lists…
To plan your trip, visit the Discover Vanuatu website, while for more detailed information on booking tours and accommodation on each of the islands, contact the Santo Travel Centre, Tanna Travel Centre or Malampa Travel Centre.