Wednesday 28 April 2010

Vanuatu: erupting volcanoes are scary, Mt. Yasur puts on a show

I didn't need much convincing to go to Vanuatu, but when Em told me you can go to the top of an active volcano, I was sold.  Ambrym's 2 day walk taking in the Benbow and Marum craters was out because the volcano was too active.  So we flew to the southern island of Tanna, to take in Mt. Yasur: one of the world's most active volcanoes.  Yasur has been erupting more or less continuously for the past 800 years and is known as the "Lighthouse of the Pacific".  Jeff Probst stood on the crater rim to introduce Survivor Vanuatu.

We boarded the Friendly Bungalows party ute at the White Grass airport and rocked out for the 1.5 hour 4WD trip towards the volcano.  A Kiwi couple staying at the bungalows told us how they thought they would have to sleep in a nearby village when rain made a hill in the road an impassable mudslide the week before we arrived. Friendly Bungalows was amazing - basic bungalows built on a remote beach, and Mary who runs the place lived up to the name by being one of the friendliest people we met in Vanuatu.  The food was...interesting.  Due to the remoteness of the village, you pretty much eat what they can grow.  I've never had choko quiche before...

After hanging out on the beach for a while we headed up to the volcano at 4pm, on an even worse road (I have it on good authority that it is much better than it used to be but you could still film an awesome 4WD commercial there).  We raced across an ash plain, forded a river, forked out some cash to the village that 'owns' the volcano, and walked to the crater rim.

We had these conversations with locals:

Greg: The volcano is on [an activity level of] two, right?
Guide:  Mmm....yes, almost three.  I think three next week.
Greg: When do you stop taking people?
Guide: Four
Greg: When was the last time it was 4?
Guide: 1996...the Japanese tourists died.

Em: It's safe right?
Mary: Mmm...mostly safe.  Is a little bit dangerous.

Turns out standing on the rim of an active volcano is really scary.  Ash poured out continuously, and molten lava bombs (tephra) exploded out, preceded by ominous rumbling and cracking.  I couldn't get that video of Mt. St. Helens erupting in 1980 out of my head.

The only saving grace was that the wind was really strong and blowing the ash and lava bombs away from us.  If the wind had changed I probably would have run away.  Because the activity level was at 3, we didn't go right up to the highest viewpoint where you can look down into the lava lakes.  I was plenty happy with our position because rocks were landing about 100m away.  Once the sun went down the eruptions looked amazing (and a lot like fireworks).  I found myself wishing for a big one....but not too big.

Update: As promised, Yasur went to Vanuatu Volcano Alert Level three on the 27th of May, described as:
Large eruption, danger in specific areas within parts of Volcanic Hazards Map Red and Yellow Zones.
Yasur volcano is currently undergoing moderate to large eruption with strong explosions ejecting volcanic bombs reaching the view points for visitors and the parking area with the significant ash fall in the villages nearby. High risk of volcanic projections remains in the red color Zone and threats of ash fall in parts of the yellow color zone that are exposed to trade winds (see hazards map).

Sunday 25 April 2010

Vanuatu: mie tung felth num, and it only took one shell

On ANZAC day we went with our friends to a small but moving dawn service held at the war memorial 'on top' in Port Vila.  The service was followed by a free breakfast, a snooze, and then some lazy beach time at Erakor island.

The next day we went to the 'Secret Garden', which had heaps of hilarious kustom stories like the one pictured, and a great array of information and wildlife.  The coconut crab was very cool (they only eat coconuts!!), although someone should tell the tourists that they are endangered, because they are a common menu item in restaurants.

Our lovely hosts took us to 'The Havannah' for lunch, which was amazing.  If you want super-luxury honeymooner bungalows on Efate, this is where you should be.  Apparently they turned down Cate Blanchett because of their no kids policy!

At night we went to a cool Kava bar called Hennington's, one of hundreds of kava bars in Port Vila.  You can recognise them by the lanterns they hang out on the street, there are usually no other signs, and often the 'bar' is not much more than a shack or someone's house.  Hennington's has a beautiful view over the lagoon.

Unlike in Fiji where Kava is drunk as part of a ceremony, in Vanuatu you drink your kava in one go, on your own and facing away from the other bar patrons.  After you have drunk your 'shell', you sit down at a table for some snacks and conversation with friends to 'listen to the Kava'.  Kava is a muscle relaxant, but the most obvious effect is numbness of the lips and tongue.  It tastes horrible and looks like muddy water.  NiVans will tell you they have the strongest Kava in the world.

Saturday 24 April 2010

Vanuatu: Bungee with vines instead of elastic

For our second action-packed day in Vanuatu we boarded a teeny-tiny charter plane for a tour to see the Pentecost land-divers (Naghol).  These crazy guys bungy jump from a wooden platform with vines tied to their legs every Saturday in April and May.  Traditionally the ceremony is partly for initiation into manhood and partly to ensure a good yam harvest.  The jumpers featured in the Survivor Vanuatu opening credits, although I note their dress was much more modest.

I estimated the platform to be about 20m high, with 11 jumping platforms.  The platforms break as the vine draws taught to help absorb some of the energy.  The idea is for the jumper's hair to brush the ground...No-one was injured, while we were there, but in 1974 Queen Elizabeth II visited the island outside of the usual jumping season and a jump was performed for her during which one of the jumpers died.

Funnily enough the guys jumping seemed to be much more worried about their penis sheath coming off during the jump than anything else.  This happened to one unfortunate guy, who got laughed at by the whole village and ran off into the jungle.  It was a great atmosphere, with the local villagers outnumbering the tourists.

There are better videos of land diving than the one I took above on YouTube.

On the way to Pentecost we flew over Ambrym, which was spectacularly active, putting out a huge cloud of ash (incidentally, given that air travel over Europe has been halted due to Eyjafjallajokull's ash cloud, we were all fairly worried that we just flew through it...).  In any case we got a great view of the volcano, and even saw the pool of lava in the crater.  That's right, I saw frickin lava.

After the land-diving we stopped at Lamen Bay on Epi for lunch and snorkelling.  They have some bungalows there that would be a fantastic place to stay.  The area we snorkelled on Lamen is known for a friendly dugong that hangs out in the area.  Sadly despite much looking around at the edge of the reef there was no dugong to be found.

It was a great day, it is amazing how much you can pack in with your own charter plane to whiz between islands!

Friday 23 April 2010

Vanuatu: Lelepa, in the footsteps of hungry americans

Our first non-travel day in Vanuatu we spent on the Lelepa island tour.  After a bus ride from Port Vila we spent the first few minutes in the boat circling around a school of tuna with the lines out, hoping to catch some lunch.  Despite the tuna literally jumping out of the water in front of us, we didn't catch anything.

On the way to the island our guide (one of the Solomon brothers) regaled us with stories about Survivor Vanuatu, which was filmed on the mainland beach opposite Lelepa, with 'tribal councils' and challenges held on Lelepa.  The Australian Celebrity Survivor was filmed in the same location.  Both TV series' (especially the American one), were great for local business and especially our tour guide, who got a new bus as part of the deal.

We walked over the island and got an interesting tour of the bush tucker, medicine, and other uses for the surrounding jungle plants.  We snorkelled off the beach (not bad but there was better to come), and had a lazy lunch.

After lunch we visited an amazing cave that has great significance for Ni-Vanuatu as the place where Chief Roi Mata died (and is now world heritage listed), before being buried on Hat Island (with more than 25 members of his revenue, some of whom were buried alive!!).  It looked to me like a lava tube, and was pretty impressive, but too hard to take photos of since we only had candles for light.  The locals are scared of spirits in the cave - the first tour they made the tourists go in first to see if anything bad would happen :)  The way I understood it the custom was to take people to the cave to die, where they would be left on their own.  Nasty.

After the cave we went to a marine sanctuary on the east side of the island that had amazing snorkelling.  Our friends told us that it is considered the best snorkelling on Efate, and I believe it.  The coral was better than any I have seen on the outer Barrier Reef, and the fish were similarly amazing (we fed them the scraps from lunch).  Another couple on the tour said the snorkelling was much better than at Hideaway island, which is the best known snorkelling location in the area.

After snorkelling we visited the village on Lelepa, which was great.  We chatted with our guide about his village, and met his family.  We were the only motorised boat on the water, everyone else was a local in a dugout outrigger canoe.  Awesome.  I'd highly recommend the tour to anyone visiting Vanuatu.

Sunday 4 April 2010

Australian Rogaining Championships: 24hr rogaine in the snowys

"Are we doing this? Yes we are", and so it went, a friend and I entered the 2010 Australian Rogaining Championships just two days before the event. We crammed in a few days of training by going to work and sitting in front of computers, and then we were ready to mix it with Australia's best in the beautiful Snowy Mountains.

For those who don't know, Rogaining is a sport where crazy people dress up in lycra and gaiters, and crash around in the bush finding orange markers with a map and compass for anywhere from 6 to 24 hours.

We caught the bus down to the site, which was incredibly frustrating as it was late getting out of Sydney, and with a break for the driver we ended up leaving about 7:30, when we had expected to leave at 5:00pm. At least we could avoid the deadly drive home after being awake for 24 hours. We finally arrived at about 10pm, set up camp, and woke up the next morning to register and plan our route.

The organisers had set up a giant marquee for all the bus travellers, which was great. We all got busy trying to plan which bits we wanted to do at night, deciding which controls were worth getting, and colour-coding controls. Our (rather ambitious) flight plan is shown in green.

The race began at noon on Saturday; and the first thing we did was cross the Eucumbene river, which came up to mid-calf, soaking shoes and socks and paving the way for bad blisters later.

We started well, then had an embarrassing nav fail (got a bit cocky because the first few were really easy). After that we got our confidence back a bit, although we struggled with 83, and got to 31 at twilight, far short of where we wanted to be by that time (ie. around 37). We joined a number of other groups that were really struggling to find 31, and eventually found it. 62 then caused us heaps of problems, and the tone was set for the rest of the night.

We came down off 93 over what was practically a cliff, holding onto bits of scrub at about 2 in the morning, then had to rock-hop across an extremely fast-flowing Eucumbene river. We came very close to the all-night-cafe at 88 around 4am, but decided we couldn't be bothered walking the 2km round-trip for hot food. Instead we began the long slog back to the hash house down a fire trail. At this point I found out my friend had a lot more stamina than me, since he still had his mind on the race, whereas all I could think about was having a lie-down so I could stop feeling nauseous. He managed to convince me to pick up a few of the controls on the way back, and we retired early at about 8am.

Wish I had: better nav skills :) one of those thumb-compasses to help keep you on your bearing, a dry pair of socks, something to pad blisters that will stick to wet skin, and possibly a brighter headtorch - although the combo led-and-halogen was quite handy. I would also consider not wearing my goretex trail runners next time, since they are good at keeping water out, but once it is in (from a river crossing) they don't dry out quickly.

Despite the lack of training, both bodies held up reasonably well, apart from blisters due to damp, and our clothing was right - we were comfortable even though it dropped to about 2 degrees overnight. The weather was beautiful and clear, a light dew, and a very heavy fog early in the morning in the valley around 77.

I had a great time, although I've decided a 12-hour rogaine is much more my style :) Our score? Respectable, we came about middle of the pack.