Monday, June 22, 2015


Our last stop in Vanuatu was the island of Efate, more specifically the city of Port Vila. Efate was our least favorite destination in Vanuatu, mainly because it was much more crowded and developed compared to the other islands. Accommodation is expensive there (more than $100/night), as is food and transportation. After much deliberation about where to stay for our last 2 nights in Vanuatu, we ended up at the Traveller's Budget Motel, which I cannot recommend enough. The owners, Jack and Janelle, greeted us immediately when we arrived and helped us to plan our time on the island.
Just because Port Vila is the biggest city in Vanuatu doesn't mean that the baggage claim area is more sophisticated there!
The outside entrance to Traveller's Budget Motel
On our first afternoon in Port Vila we walked to town and found Jill's Cafe, an American-style diner where we indulged in huge burgers and split a delicious thick shake. We were craving western food after our time in Tanna eating lots and lots of root vegetables. We checked out the local market where we were surprised to see that we could still purchase fresh coconuts for only 20 cents. Of course we bought a few and also picked up a pineapple, because pineapples in Vanuatu are too-die-for! Port Vila is a major stop for many cruise ships, so there were cruise passengers out and about in town, another reason we were a bit turned off by Port Vila.
Port Vila's market
After a short walk around town we headed back to the motel and decide to check out the gym across the street. It had been a while since we had been able to get to a gym, so we paid $7 each to work out in a ridiculously hot gym with old school equipment on very full stomachs from our "American" style lunch. Fortunately we were able to relax in our motel pool after the session! While hanging out poolside we met some Irish doctors who are ex-pats in Brisbane. Ironically we were actually with them at the RiRi blue hole on the island of Santo about a week prior to this meeting! We enjoyed chatting with them late into the evening.
A good spot to relax!
In the morning I woke up feeling quite ill. I had felt a cold of some sort coming on over a few days but being pregnant I pretty much couldn't take anything to make me feel better. As a result of me not feeling well, we had a bit of a lazy morning and then caught the bus (which is a great way to get around Efate) to the Mele Cascades. The Cascades are waterfalls which we learned are expensive ($20 per person) to visit and also attract LOTS of cruisers. The waterfalls are nice and they are fun to play in but there were just so many people around that it wasn't all that enjoyable. We ended up finding some smaller pools to hang out in to avoid the crowds and we stayed there for a few hours.
The main waterfall at Mele Cascades
A quieter and more enjoyable place to hang out
From the Cascades we walked about 3km to a place Jack had recommended called the Beach Bar, where we split a pizza and a fruit smoothie for lunch. Prices for food here were pretty similar to Australia, so again, not cheap.
We encountered a wild pig on our walk to the Beach Bar!
We took a ferry over to Hideaway Island, where we were told there was good snorkeling. Of course they charged us to enter the island (about $13 per person!), but we did see lots of colorful fish and a pretty cool underwater post box from which you can actually mail letters. There were also nice beach chairs to relax on while we enjoyed some happy hour specials (non-alcoholic drinks are not quite as exciting, however!) and watched the sunset.
Hideaway Island
A good way to end the day
That night we chatted with the Irish doctors again (who also provided me with some medical advice and some pregnancy-safe medications!), telling stories of our travels within and outside of Australia. They were not too fond of Efate either and were disappointed that they had left themselves with too much time in Port Vila on the end of their trip. Erik and I were certainly happy that we only had two nights in Vila and if we were to go to Vanuatu again I think we would avoid Efate if possible.
Port Vila is pretty but crowded compared to other islands we visited
We woke up the next morning (Christmas morning!), FaceTimed our families, and then headed to the airport to catch a plane to our next destination, Fiji!
Our plane after landing in Fiji on Christmas morning!

Sunday, May 17, 2015


The journey from Santo to our accommodation on the island of Tanna took essentially an entire day. We left Santo in the morning and had a 3 hour layover in Port Vila, the largest "city" in Vanuatu. Unfortunately flights do not go direct from Santo to Tanna, so it made for a long day of travel. Also, you would think that when flying domestically in a small country you would not need to get to the airport 2 hours before the flight time, however, we were told by both locals and travelers that you better be at the airport early because the plane will leave whenever it feels like leaving! We didn't have to show ID at the airport and there was no x-ray machine or security whatsoever for our domestic flights.
Boarding the flight to Tanna
Eventually we arrived on the island of Tanna to meet Morris, the owner of where we would spend the next 3 nights, Volcano Island Paradise Bungalows. Transport is expensive on Tanna but that is because it takes a long time to get to the other side of the island and petrol is not easy to access. The main attraction on Tanna is an active volcano, Mt Yasur, and it is a decent drive from the airport to get to the volcano.
Tanna's airport from the tarmac
Chaos inside the Tanna airport for baggage collection
We made a short stop in town for some bottled water and food, but most shops were closed because it was the weekend. The road was unpaved and extremely rough and hilly. We passed many Ni-Vans along the way in their villages and most everyone waved hello. Pigs and goats were roaming around near the "road". One of Morris's sons was in the back of the truck loving life, and often someone would hop in the truck to hitch a short ride. The road that officially put us on the east side of the island was insanely steep, and the road to get to the bungalows was even crazier. Eventually we were driving along ash plains right next to the volcano itself, which was amazing. 
Driver and passengers fixing up the road so that we could make it up the hill!
We arrived at the bungalows around 7pm (we left our accommodation in Santo around 9am that day), and Morris's wife, Susie, prepared a great dinner for us - fish, rice, and veggies along with the most amazing tasting pineapple for dessert. It was relatively dark at that point and we heard what we thought was thunder, however Morris quickly corrected us and explained that we were hearing the volcano! Eventually when it got a bit darker we could see red lava coming out of the volcano.
Our bungalow
Our bungalow was clean and cozy with a solar powered light. The cost was about $30AUD per night and our meals were also served to us for a reasonable rate (there is really no other way to eat meals other than to have someone cook for you as there is literally nothing around the volcano). The toilet is a long drop which was very clean but at the time Morris was also in the process of installing a flush toilet and a shower to accommodate Westerners! We fell asleep to the sounds of the erupting volcano that we would visit the next evening.
The new toilet Morris is installing
The current toilet that is very clean and not at all smelly!
When we woke up the next morning we were in awe of our view of the volcano. Our brekkie was quite simple, breakfast crackers with peanut butter and jam. We went for a swim after breakfast in a freshwater river about a 5 minute walk from the bungalows, where there was also a view of the volcano. It was very refreshing except for the occasional biting fly, so eventually we got tired of the flies and headed back to the bungalows.
Even with all of the ash around, beautiful things grow!
Another bungalow with a view of Mt Yasur. Note the solar panel for electricity.
Morris's youngest child
For lunch Susie cooked us local vegetables, rice, and noodles. We spent the afternoon relaxing and reading while listening to the volcano. We also made an attempt to try a time lapse video of Mt Yasur.

Mt Yasur from Ashley Hanson on Vimeo.
This view from the restaurant did not get old!
Around 3:30 we left the bunglows to walk to Mt Yasur with Morris's 10 year old son Janson as our guide. It took about 45 minutes to walk to the entrance, where we paid our entry fee, and then another 45 minute walk up to the base of the volcano rim. Most people seem to get a lift to the top but we quite enjoyed our walk even though we were the only tourists walking up there. 
Erik and Janson on a mission
You can even mail a letter from the top of the volcano!
Eventually we made it to the east side of the rim, where there was lots of smoke and many loud rumbles. Pieces of earth were flying in the air and we were very close to the action. After an hour or so, we moved to the south rim to get a closer look inside the volcano. Janson did not come with us, as he was a bit scared of the noise and of the volcano itself! It was very smokey on the south side and our lungs were occasionally filled with sulfur and ash. As it got darker, the views were more and more impressive.
Crazy smoke coming out of the volcano
Us with a little bit of action from Yasur in the background
This couple ended up with a better picture than us as the timing of the eruption was perfect!
Large pieces of earth in the air
Erik on the rim
There were about 30 people on the rim with us, and most were staying on the west side of the island, so they had a 2 hour drive to Mt Yasur to stay for an hour and then they drove back another 2 hours after dark. I was convinced we did the right thing to stay near the volcano. We were the last people to leave the rim and that was around 7pm. It was hard to leave such a magical place, and we knew that we may never get that close to an active volcano again. 

On the rim of Mt Yasur from Ashley Hanson on Vimeo.

We paid for transport back to the bungalows, which was a good idea because I'm not sure we could have easily made our way back in the dark. Dinner was waiting for us when we arrived.

The next day was a very special one, as Morris's youngest brother was getting married and we were invited to watch and participate in the ceremony. We walked to the center of the village around 8am, where we met the village chief and we were welcomed with open arms. One of the elder village women put ceremonial paint on my face simply by placing my cheek against hers and rolling our cheeks together. I was impressed!
One of the older women in the village
My paint came directly from her face!
All of the groom's family and village was there and we were just waiting for the bride, her family, and her village to walk to the ceremony. When the bride arrived she was crying, and her mother was sobbing loudly. There was a gift exchange between both villages, as women had worked hard to make many gifts. We watched as pigs were sacrificed by being beaten over the head with clubs, something we were totally not expecting to happen!

Children of Tanna from Ashley Hanson on Vimeo.

Morris's village presenting gifts to the bride's village
Erik also helped with the presentation of gifts!
This gift presentation took ages. All of the material that was unfolded to be put here was taken by the bride's village, who then proceeded to fold it all back up again!
Eventually the bride came over to sit with the women from the groom's village, and she seemed a bit happier.
The bride's face is in the left of the picture. The gifts from her village to Morris's are also seen.
At the end of the exchange there was some ceremonial dancing, whereby both villages took part. The gifts of food, including the pigs, were split between different families in the village. The bride would now stay in Morris's village for life. Sometimes there is a church ceremony as well but for this wedding this was the only ceremony, called a "kastom" ceremony.

Wedding celebratory dancing from Ashley Hanson on Vimeo.
Who knew that an FSU jersey could make its way to Vanuatu?!

Rain began to fall and lasted most of the afternoon. We were happy we had been able to see Yasur the evening before, as it would not have been the best weather to walk to the rim that night. That afternoon another group arrived, a British brother and sister, along with her two kids who were about 3 and 1. Morris's children loved playing with her children. She is an ex-pat living in Port Vila and her brother, Matt, lives in Brunei. They grew up in Singapore, so they were very interesting people to talk to about life and travel. 

That night Erik and Matt (the Brit) were invited to a local kava drinking ceremony. There were no women allowed, so this was very exclusive! The chief himself was chewing up and spitting out the kava that Erik was drinking, and it is considered quite special to drink kava from the mouth of a chief. That night the pig was roasted and kids were playing with "ashballs" instead of snowballs in the village.
Games of soccer were also played in the village, thanks to Matt who brought the ball.
We were up early on our 3rd day for brekkie and goodbyes. The truck was full of people on our way to the airport, including the bride's brother who was also heading to Port Vila. We made a quick stop at the market in Lenakel, where more things were open this time around.
We bought a fresh coconut here for 20 cents and had one of the market ladies cut it open with her knife.
Our arrival at the airport was early again, just to make sure the plane didn't leave without us. This flight was even more casual than our flight to Tanna, as we were given a piece of paper for a "boarding pass" and obviously did not show any identification. We were amazed at the things that were being carried on and checked on this plane...fruits and veggies from the market packed in banana leaves, knives, coconut crabs, and even live chickens!
Boarding passes, check! Tanna airport in the background.
A friend hanging out with us while we were waiting for our flight
Overall we loved our stay with Morris and Susie on the island of Tanna. Yasur was the highlight, but we also cherished the chance to be part of the village, and we were welcomed with open arms moreso than any other place we have traveled. The Ni-Vans truly want outsiders to see and experience their lifestyles, and all without ulterior motives. Tanna was hit hard by Cyclone Pam in early 2015, and unfortunately all 4 of Morris's bungalows were destroyed in the storm. I am told, however, that Morris has already re-built 2 of the bungalows, so I highly recommend staying with Morris and his family if you ever get the chance to visit Tanna!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Espiritu Santo

The island nation of Vanuatu is a popular holiday destination for Australians. Most Americans have never heard of Vanuatu (us included before we made the move Down Under), a country made up of 82 islands a few hours east of Australia. At some point in mid-2014 I checked a book out of the library about Vanuatu and shortly thereafter decided that it should be on our list of places to visit. The hard part was deciding which islands to visit, and in the end we chose Espiritu Santo, Tanna, and Efate.
Just a few of Vanuatu's islands!
We departed Australia on December 16th on a flight bound for the island of Santo. Our intinerary included a short layover in Brisbane before heading to Luganville (the main town on Santo). This was the first time we had flown Qantas domestically in a looooong time, and we had forgotten how good it is! Usually we fly the likes of Tiger and Jetstar within Oz, and while those carriers are okay, they are just not as good as Qantas. The flight from Brisbane to Santo is less than 2 hours, so overall it was about a 5 hour trip from Melbourne including our layover.
Vanuatu is just east of New Caledonia and west of the Fijian islands
Upon our arrival in Santo we hired a taxi (really just a guy with a truck!) to take us to our accommodation for the next 4 nights, the Hibiscus Attraction Centre. There we met Marie and Lois (the lovely owners), and also an energetic single traveler, Floui, who we would spend a lot of time with during our time in Santo. Our room was basic but clean and a good value for about 35AUD/night. The location was within easy walking distance to town and the market, where we grabbed delicious fruit and veggies along with freshly baked kumala (sweet potato) chips.
The streets of Luganville
A hibiscus flower at "le motel"
A map showing the east coast of Santo, most of our destinations are labeled on the map.
Ladies at the market. Floui took this picture, along with a few others in this post!
A Ni-Van and his knife, used for just about anything except violence.
A Ni-Van woman setting up her food stall
On our first full day in Santo we decided to join Floui on a trip to Fanafo Village. She had recently met a local Ni-Van (the name for people of Vanuatu), Hollingsworth, who helped us get a lift out there and knew some people in the village. Floui, Hollingsworth and Erik rode in the back of the truck on some bumpy roads. I got to sit in the cab of the truck, seeing as I was just over 12 weeks pregnant at the time. :) The people in Fanafo were very friendly, welcoming us into their homes and waving hello as we walked by them. It was a VERY hot day, so we headed down to the river for a swim, which felt amazing. Unfortunately during our swim it started to downpour. A local family was incredibly kind to us and provided us with a dry place to sit, fed us banana and some other local fruits, and built us a fire so that we could keep warm.
Fanafo locals
These Fanfano residents were hamming it up for the camera!
The river where we cooled off with the locals.
That night we headed to a local kava bar. Kava is a plant and the root is used to make a drink that is said to have some sedative qualities. The kava root is chewed up and spit back out and the drink looks like a bowl of mud! I thought it was bit risky for me to try the kava, but Erik was a trooper and had enough for both of us! At the kava bar we met Ernest and Gen, a couple from Montreal who were in Santo for a big scuba diving trip. We all ended up at a market stall for dinner (stall 8 to be exact), where we chowed down on beef stew and fish for about 3AUD per dish!
Doesn't look very tasty, does it?!
Erik, Floui, Gen, and a doctor doing placement on Santo who was staying at Hibiscus
The next day Erik had arranged to dive the Coolidge wreck. The SS President Coolidge was a luxury ship (complete with a swimming pool!) that hit a mine off the coast of Santo in 1942. Originally when we planned our trip I would have been diving too, however, I felt diving could potentially not be safe while pregnant, so I made alternate plans. Floui and I took the free ferry to Aore island, where I splurged on an amazing fruit smoothie (the fruit in Vanuatu was unreal!) while she had lunch. We snorkeled there for hours, as there were tons of fish and we were the only people in the water.
Erik took this picture on his dive as he knew I would love it!
Approaching Aore island. A 10 minute ferry ride from Luganville.

My delicious fruity drink!
Erik loved his time spent swimming through the Coolidge and decided to do both a morning and an afternoon dive, so I tagged along with Floui to the Matevulu blue hole, where she planned to do a dive. While she was diving I got the chance to snorkel and swim in this stunning blue hole.
An eel swimming around in the blue hole
Amazing colors!
Floui getting ready to head underwater
We ended up at the market again for dinner, stall 7 this time, and tried an omelette (which was delicious!) and beef stew.
Our cook is missing, but she served us through the window.

We decided to rent a car the next day and invited Floui and Hollingsworth to join us while we explored the east coast of the island. Our first stop was at RiRi blue hole, where the colors where breathtaking!
The hubs and I after a swim!
You could catch a ride from the RiRi blue hole down the RiRi river.
An Instagram-edited shot of Erik's last look at RiRi blue hole
Our next stop was Oyster Island for lunch. In order to get to the island you must bang on a dive tank to get a boat to come pick you up, ha! We had some amazingly good pizza for lunch (topped with famous Santo beef).
Boarding the boat to Oyster Island
Empty beach after lunch
Interesting trees on Oyster Island
Hard to say goodbye to this spot!
Further north we skipped the more popular Champagne Beach and stopped at Port Orly instead. There was not another car in front of or behind us for this entire trip up the coast! All we saw was coconut trees and cows for miles (or kilometers) and it was beautiful. We enjoyed a good swim, snorkeling with fish and a handful of turtles, and some drinks at a beach bar (not me, of course!) before heading back to Luganville. There was actually a little bit of traffic on the way back into town, but it was mostly people walking along the roadside and they were always waving to us as we drove by. The Ni-Vans are such friendly people!
Port Orly paradise
Our last stop of the day was at Million Dollar Point, which is a prime snorkel spot for an interesting reason. During World War II, Santo was a military base, and when the war ended the United States tried to sell their military equipment to the British and French, who were occupying Vanuatu at the time. The British and French would not agree to purchase the equipment, as they thought the Americans would just give it to them anyway, since they would not want to take it with them back to the States. Instead, the American military lined up all of the expensive/valuable equipment and ran it into the water, where most of it remains today, hence the name "Million Dollar Point". Snorkeling amongst tanks was pretty cool!
A version of the Million Dollar Point story
We spent our last evening on Santo hanging out at Hibiscus and enjoyed a leisurely morning before heading off to our next destination, the island of Tanna.
Erik and Marie, one of the sweet Hibiscus owners
Luganville airport