‘The universe is incredible,’ I think to myself for the umpteenth time that evening. I’m standing at the crater rim of Mount Yasur; an active – and erupting – volcano on the tiny island of Tanna, Vanuatu. There’s a red mist in the air and the blanket of stars above me look as though they’re on fire. Suddenly a thunderous roar; and a burst of glowing molten rock fills the night like thousands of ruby stones spilling out over black velvet. Seriously, wow.
The story of Cyclone Pam
Situated in the southwest Pacific, Vanuatu is one of the lesser-known group of islands in the region. More recently, it hit the news when category five cyclone, Pam, devastated many of the islands.
Pam’s brutal 155mph force wind struck in the early hours on Wednesday 13 March 2015, taking homes, businesses and crops with her during her 14-hour devastation. Five weeks later, when I visit, trees are still fallen, houses without roofs. But, remarkably, it’s business as usual for the people who live here.
Sadly, media reports of the devastation resulted in many cancelled bookings, meaning the efforts of the Vanuatu people were going mainly unrewarded. This was especially frustrating for businesses like the beautiful Aore Resort, which sits on a small island just off the coast of Espírito Santo, an area untouched by Pam. When I visit, there is not one fallen tree in sight. But they, too, suffered from cancelled bookings.
The reality of devastation
Santo is one of the Pacific’s diving meccas and yet when I head out with dive masters Aiden and Simo from Santo Island Dive, I’m the only one in the water. Which is pretty amazing. Underwater, I am greeted by an incredible sight – the sunken President Coolidge – surrounded by schools of fish. While the dive is very special in itself, it is the stories from Aiden and Simo that stick with me months, even years, after my visit. The boys didn’t get paid if they weren’t working. So in the aftermath of Pam – if they were lucky – they would be paid for just two mornings work a week. Tourism is not quite what it used to be, even now.
On Tanna island, the exotic interior of banyan, bamboo, banana and coconut trees no longer fill the skyline. Instead, roots splay wildly into the road and palm trunks torn. Tom and Margaret Naieu showed me around their resort, Rocky Ridge. When the cyclone hit, this place was a shell. Margaret tells me how husband Tom used fallen tree trunks as ladders to rebuild the pandanus leaf roof in the kitchen and restaurant. They were welcoming guests within three weeks. A true representation of Vanuatu’s incredible work ethic and spirit.
Port Vila and Efate
Lush, coconut plantations, booming waterfalls and stunning dive sites – Efate might be Vanuatu’s most populated island, but you can easily lose yourself in its isolated interior. Colourful reefs and underwater wrecks dot the area outside of Port Vila. Luckily, the island escaped total devastation when Pam visited.
Jack and Janelle’s Traveller’s Motel is one of the better-priced budget stops in town. Singles, doubles and a dorm room (from VT8,800 [approx. £50] per night or VT50,000 for a week, two beds per room, AC available) surround a welcoming pool. But it’s Janelle’s fantastic knowledge of the islands that you’ll benefit most from. Whether it’s diving, a day trip to waterfalls or arranging accommodation on one of the other islands, this lady’s little black book is bursting with contacts.
Mount Yasur may just be the most spectacular thing you ever see. Opt for the 45 minute hike from the volcano entrance; it’s not too strenuous and the reward for a bit of sweat is worth it.
Rocky Ridge Bungalows is a wonderfully local, friendly spot to base yourself on the west coast. Double rooms are VT8,000 [£48] and family rooms VT10,000 [£62]; breakfast is included. Tom can organise trips to Yasur.
The President Coolidge – at 200-metre long, and located from 21 to 60 metres under the sea – is waiting to be explored. A two-tank dive with Santo Island Dive is VT12,000, £70 (including transport and lunch). Gear hire is VT2,000. If you’re not a diver, plan a refreshing swim at the stunning Riri and Matevulu blue holes. The Millennium Cave is great for trudging through jungle, wading under cascades and riding rapids.
Peaceful Aore Resort, run by Anne and her team, is a wonderful place to kick back and forget about the real world. Bungalows (approx. £150 per night for a double beachfront view) are divided up between the ‘family’ and ‘adults-only’ area. The coconut chicken curry is a winner. The scheduled ferry leaves Philips Wharf on Santo and is free for guests. Staff can book you in for day trips and diving.