Vanuatu..of spiders and volcanoes

A few years ago I'd been having a rough time with the death of my mother, selling the family home and major renovations on our home. I really needed to get out of town and so I visited my travel agent. He suggested Vanuata, it seemed like a good idea. I should have gone to Bali.

Port Vila, on the island of Efate,  is a sleepy town with a very heavy French influence. The restaurants serve expensive French Cuisine and most of the books for sale are in French. The largest area in the local supermarket was taken up with insect repellent and rat killing products. This should have told me something.

I stayed at the Iririki Resort, which is beautifully located on Iririki Island in Vila Bay over looking Port Vila. The dining room was very colonial and had great views. To get off or on the island you rang for a water taxi, which was owned by the resort. Port Vila was small enough to walk around it quickly.



Photographs are from the Iririki Hotel site. 

On the first day I decided to walk around Iririki Island. After about ten minutes along a forest path I looked up and saw that the gap created by the path had been joined at tree top height by spider webs. The spiders that had created the webs were huge with long legs that gave them a width of between 30 to 40 centimetres. I am an arachnophobe and started to beat a hasty retreat only to realise that the path behind me was the same. It took me nearly and hour to walk a very short distance as I had to weave across the path to make sure that I didn’t walk directly under a spider.

Photograph from Vanuata Travel site

Spiders in Vanuatu are really large with thick webs. But they’re harmless; not if you’re terrified of them. The web the large spiders weave is golden. Villagers get a forked- stick and wind it into the golden web. Then they wave it over the top of the water. Fish are attracted by the golden light thinking it is a bug and come up to the surface where they were caught and eaten. I was to see a demonstration of this later.

The architecture of Port Vila was concrete block moderne with some luxury mansions over-looking the bay.




The only thing to do was to go on tours so I went on three. The first was to a cultural village. It was surprisingly well done with informative discussions and demonstrations of traditional medicines and cultural practices, including cannibalism. Actually they didn't demonstrate the cannibalism part. A highlight was an incredibly inappropriately dressed young female Japanese reporter with her cameraman. The natives became the spectators.


One of the locals talked about the spiders and their place in village life. He had a large spider crawling over him while he demonstrated fishing techniques. The reporter screamed when he went near her. I just quietly moved back but couldn't take my eyes off it. They let it go it on a trellis. It was heading towards me and I was looking for an exit. These spiders are really, really big.

Photograph taken from Vanuatu travel site.

The tour finished with dancing and music.







The second tour was a circumnavigation of the island of Efate.
The roads were appalling, the car’s air-conditioning had broken down and the jungle was being strangled by Morning Glory. The Morning Glory had been brought to the island by the Americans in World War II as a camouflage for armaments. It has turned into an incredibly noxious weed that is killing the local vegetation. It was interesting to see the locals living with no Western or tourist input, washing and drying their clothes by the riverbanks. Tourism hasn't really taken off.




This is one of the oldest trees on the island.

The third tour was the most exciting and was the reason that I was finally glad that I had come to Vanuatu. Having been so impressed with the Volcano at Hawaii I was flying to the island of Tanna to see the active volcano of Mt Yasur. The day didn’t start very well. I haven’t mentioned that the bed in the cabin was high up in the air and was reached by a small set of steps. Because I was having an early start  I had arranged for an early morning wake up call at 5am. When the phone rang I was disoriented and swung my legs out of the bed with the top of my foot whacking into the points of the stairs. Ouch. A lot of curses and bandaids to staunch the blood and I hobbled off to the airport with a chipped bone, throbbing and aching.

The tour involved another couple, a guide and a driver. I sat up the front with the driver in what was to be a very memorable trip. The guide told us that the volcanic activity had been upgraded to a class four and no more planes would be landing today although we would be able to fly out that evening. Maybe. I asked what happened with a class five rating and was told that the island would have to be evacuated. Oh, I thought.

We started at the home of the female guide, cups of tea in an earthen floor hut with her mother, brothers and sisters and the family chooks. She suggested that we shouldn’t really do the entire island because of the volcanic activity. The idiot tourists decided to go ahead anyway. What could be so bad?

The roads were terrible and so steep that ridges had been embedded in the road surface to allow tyres to grip the surface. From the distance we could see Mt Yasur and the mushroom clouds being ejected from the cone. The sound was a dull physical thud. About three kilometres from the mountain the ash started. By the time we got to the Ash Plain the fine ash was swirling in the air and getting into everything including the camera. It was in our hair, our eyelashes and clothes. This close to the volcano was very physical, the sound of the explosions was so loud and deep that you could feel it in your bones. It was a unique feeling.



The start of the Ash Plains

Up this close you could also see the debris being thrown out and tumbling down the sides of the mountain. The chunks of rock were as large as cars and you could hear the thud as they landed and rolled to the bottom.



While we were watching, a car raced passed us and went around the bottom of the mountain. Where the rocks were falling. I asked the driver what sort of idiot would go so close. He smiled and told me it was the only road and that's where we were going. We drove up to the edge of the debris field and stopped; the driver and I peered up at the mountain. We had to wait for the next explosion and for the debris from that to land, then we took off at a really high speed, trying to avoid the rocks on the ground, to get
passed before the next explosion. All viewing areas around the mountain had been closed because of the danger. Both the guide and driver were getting very edgy and I wondered what we were doing just being there.

We then drove to a village not very far from the mountain. The poor villagers in true exploitative tourist style were to dance for us. When we arrived everyone in the village was in hiding. I commented to my companions that if the locals were scared maybe we should get the Hell out of the area. The driver finally bullied the locals to come out and dance. For us it was the perfect Kodak moment; locals dancing with an exploding mountain as a backdrop. For the locals it was nerve-racking as they kept their eyes on the mountain the entire time they danced. A wonderful example of colonialism.






We then continued to Port Resolution. Named by Captain Cook in 1774 after his ship the HMS Resolution. He had sailed here to investigate a red glow in the sky. The red glow was Mt Yasur. As an aside I forgot to mention that Captain Cook had originally called Vanuatu the Sandwich Island after Lord Sandwich who was his patron. He also named the entire island region the New Hebrides as they reminded him of the island region off Scotland’s coast. Port Resolution was a very pretty, deep-water cove with great gardens. We had lunch here. It was primitive and the locals were on edge because they were worrying about being evacuated. It was good to be away from all the fumes and ash although you could still hear the explosions. There was a dugong swimming near the shore. The dugong had an aversion to men and there was a warning sign to keep males out of the water. We could still hear the explosions at Mt Yasur.

The trip back was just as exciting because there is only one road back and we had to repeat the duck and run under the falling rocks. The plane back to Efate had to make a postal drop at Erromango Island. The plane had to buzz the runway twice to get the cattle to move so we could land. The locals come out to see us land on the very jungle-looking strip.




Back in Efate I visited the local museum. It was great if you are into native artefacts and canoes. I feel Vanuatu would be perfect for divers. I'm not one of them.



Then finally back to Melbourne. I wouldn’t have exchanged the trip to Tanna for anything but on the whole I wish I’d gone to Bali.


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