Our second last day on Tanna. Over on the other side of the bay was not somewhere I had been – a beach of coral and sand, with a restaurant hut 100 metres from the shoreline. Although we’d previously decided we wouldn’t need a guide to walk to the John Frum village the next bay over, a very lovely local man called Paul (a lot of people choose an extra Anglo-type name to make things easier for all concerned) gently insisted on accompanying us.
Within about ten minutes we were very glad he did. In addition to guiding us through the multiplicity of pathways, he showed us many different plants and what they are used for; staunching bleeding, curing nausea, eating. One of them, which looked like bracken, is pulled from the ground and the stem is split. The core of the stem is long and stringy – it is removed and dried to become very strong and is then used as a bow-string for bows and arrows.
All around us the vegetation bloomed and towered. Huge fig-looking trees with tendrils like sapling trunks. Paul pointed out the male – which is used for contstruction – and the female, which is not – it is not as strong.
This was a two and a half kilometre walk – which doesn’t sound like much (Michael McCabe) but the terrain is steep. We asked Paul if anyone ever goes hungry on Tanna. He laughed and shook his head. “Nah. We grow everything we need.”
For 12 years he had worked for one of the resorts, taking groups of 20-30 people at a time on a seven hour walk to an inland village. In the end, he kept being underpaid and decided his time would be better spent tending his garden. He has three young boys.
As we walked it was obvious that wherever the foliage was not blocking the sun, people were growing bananas, yams, manioc, pawpaw, taro, kava and a huge amount of stuff I have no idea about. The soil is rich and volcanic – everything is lush.
We stopped occasionally to take in botanical information and to drink some water. We passed a few people coming in the opposite direction. The paths took us up into hot sunlight and then along banana shrouded sections. We were all barefoot and the ground was covered with leaf litter.
Yani was pausing now and again to film or photograph interesting fungi – after about two hours the four of the kids had run on ahead, playing spies and ninjas (it’s amazing how far they will walk uncomplainingly if they have a friend along).
Having parted from Paul, who’s final instructions were “keep to the right and you will get to the village” we made our way down through areas that were clear of vegetation – mostly grasses and rocks. Our feet started to warm up and we noticed steam rising from different spots along the way. VOLCANO-LAND!
From this point we began to have a bit of a niggle about where the four youngest Smalls had got to. Two seven year olds, a ten-year-old and an 11 year old. We figured they’d made it to the village and on to the beach. The main reason we had made the journey was to visit the hot river – thirty degree water running down to meet the sea over a riverbed and beach of black sand.
The beach was quite alien – lots of bits of coral, honeycombed black pieces of lava rock, pumice and the occasional little pig. Lots of kids. The village was to our left – huts arranged neatly on the fine black sand and at the other end of the beach was the river, running down to the sea.
The children were nowhere. We had only a short window of time to explore the hot river, because we didn’t want to be walking two and a half kilometres back in the dark. Gah. M was convinced they had not kept to the right, but had instead gone to the left and were still up in the hills we’d just left.
We left Reminy on the beach near the river, her blonde-ness making her our beacon among the dark surrounds. We enquired in the village if anyone had seen four kids – no one had. A woman went with M and Melissa back up the side of they hill – they were swiftly followed by about 20 kids who were enthusiastic helpers.
Meanwhile, I spoke to a local and explained what we thought had happened. He suggested I walk 10 minutes to the next village further inland, to make sure they hadn’t ended up there. My annoyance, by this point, far outweighed any worry. I didn’t see that they could come to much harm – provided they didn’t fall into a steam vent or trip and sprain an ankle. Unlike Australia, there is not herds of spiders, snakes, scorpions poised to take out an unsuspecting tourist – it’s all fairly benign.
I reached the village, having noted that there was an entirely different dialect spoken compared to that in Port Resolution. And a lot of French. Nevertheless, most of the people I met thought I was some crazed white-woman who kept miming that she had lost her children. God.
On my way back to the beach I walked with a local guy, and we had a good conversation about how he lived on Tanna. Along the way we passed a posse of older men who looked generally surly and nodded to me. One of them spoke a few words to the guy I was walking with and then they continued on.
“What did they say?” I asked.
“That your children are found,” he said.
I could barely contain my eyeroll. “Good.”
All this time searching for the bloody children (who, as it turned out, were completely unaware they were even lost and so were crushingly nonchalant) and I could have been lazing in the shallow river. If you think of the temperature of a slightly steaming bath – this was it.
But now we were DEFINITELY going to be walking back in the dark. Small Z was distraught because we were only going to have 10 minutes at the river (suck it up, sunshine) and the three adults were trying to figure out an alternate means of travel.
A guy M had been chatting to said we could use his phone to call Miles back at Port Resolution – it was literally about a ten or 15 minute dinghy ride away. Miles wasn’t answering his phone.
This guy, however many months ago, had won an aluminium dinghy in a raffle run by SunRice. He offered to take us all for 5000 Vatu. We didn’t have 5000 Vatu, so he agreed to do it for 3000 (about $45AU). This bought us about 45 minutes to wade in the river – it was not long until the dinghy, surrounded by many locals, was pushed out into the surf (after a few attempts that left most of us quite wet).
Because the boat owner was helping us, we were pretty much under the command of him and his friend. They were trying to balance the boat (which was probably registered to carry about six people – but contained 11) – but not in an ideal manner.
The owner was steering, while his friend went and sat on the bow. This, unfortunately lowered the bow, allowing waves to wash over into the boat. M and Yanni were quietly conversing about what could be used to start bailing, while Melissa scanned the shoreline for hospitable spots to swim to after our inevitable submersion.
Me? I was oblivious and kicking myself repeatedly for not bringing my phone. The view of the volcano was incredible from the angle we were at. Eventually we got far enough out to sea to get around the point – the boat owner guided us through the waves as wet seven-year-olds shivered on the forward seat.
We weren’t going fast, but after about 20 long wet minutes, we saw the lights of the yachts in the bay at Port Resolution. MAJOR RELIEF. We motored toward Pandion and Miles emerged from below.
“Ah,” he said comfortably, as if having his whole family turn up in an unknown boat with two unknown blokes was his normal, “I started wondering if I should come and get you…”
I could hear Reminy grinding her teeth.
Our two saviours in their raffle-winning SunRice boat accepted a shirt each. M helped bail out the water and they took off back out to sea to get back before the darkness became absolute.[There are no photos for this story because I left my phone at home, but I’m hoping for some photographic donations from @yanisurfer to add in at a later date.]