Seven things to do on Tanna Island, Vanuatu

Volcanoes, thundering jungle waterfalls, Vanuatu’s famous Blue Cave … the island of Tanna in Vanuatu is like nature writ large.

Tanna is one of 83 islands that comprise the Vanuatu archipelago. Epic proportions best describes my entire time on this petite drop of land in the Pacific. The island is only 44 kilometres long but everything here appears to be on steroids. Monstrous clouds hang low over a dense and dominating forest of banyan trees, coconut palms and tangled vines, occasionally broken by groves of sugar cane and yams, bananas and mangoes.

The underwater world around Tanna is all caverns and grottoes carved through rocks and coral bommies. Divers can easily see vibrant corals clinging to steep walls, big-lipped clams and anemones, rays and colourful fish. 

The underwater world around Tanna, Vanuatu
The underwater world around Tanna is incredible

The Blue Cave

A highlight of visiting Tanna island is visiting the Blue Cave. The cave is accessible via a 30-minute motorboat ride that passes wild tropical forest and limestone bluffs. To get into the cave at low tide, you swim under a rock ledge, at high tide you swim underwater for a very short distance before surfacing in the cave. With snorkels and fins, we kick towards a sliver of light peeking out under the rock face.

The ceiling opens up to a natural leafy skylight – with sunlight beaming through. And of course, there’s an enormous turtle swimming by. Because we’re in Tanna, after all, and nature doesn’t disappoint. You can perch on rocks inside Tanna’s Blue Cave and admire the postcard shot before swimming back to the boat.

Tanna Blue Cave
Tanna’s Blue Cave © Groovy Banana

Mount Yasur

Many regard Mount Yasur as the most accessible active volcano in the world. Indeed, having travelled two hours to get here across desolate ash plains, our 4WD parks less than 150 metres from Yasur’s crater. All we have to do is walk five short minutes to the rim to be peering into a bubbling pit of lava. Mount Yasur has been erupting almost continuously for several hundred years

Whiffs of sulphur swirl through the air, followed by whooshing and roaring sounds. The ground trembles, then bright orange bangers explode into the bruised sky. Vents take turns to spit rockets of red-molten rock and smoke toward the heavens. Boulders somersault back down into the broiling hole in the Earth in apparent slow motion. Wait five minutes and it all happens again.

The eruption of the volcano Yasur on Tanna Island, Vanuatu
Mount Yasur © Shutterstock

Hot springs

The village at the base of Mount Yasur has been happily co-existing with the volcano for a thousand-odd years, with the locals unperturbed by the intermittent booms that echo through the valley. Their home, Sulphur Bay, is not only blessed by rich volcanic soil but has the added advantage of a hot spring running alongside the village. The underground activity that feeds the volcano creates the hot springs and small geysers in the bay. You can laze about in the warm stream, with the occasional refreshing wave of cool seawater. 

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Louniel Waterfall

Like all things on Tanna, Louniel Waterfall is not far away – in theory. In practice, it’s a decent drive over potholed roads, followed by a walk down a precipitous jungle path. Then we turn a corner and there it is, dropping in postcard-perfect precision over a 40-metre ridge. I strip to my swimsuit and paddle through the water towards the drop – it’s not an easy task, the force is that powerful. It’s a special experience, made all the more magical by the fact we have it all to ourselves.

Traditional villages 

Aside from its bountiful natural assets, the other thing Tanna is known for is its kastom clans – ‘kastom’ loosely translates from Bislama (the pidgin English spoken in Vanuatu) to ‘custom’. In essence, villages that preserve local traditions. There are a number across the island, including Yakel, where women wear grass skirts and bare-chested men don penis gourds. 

Villagers on Tanna Island demonstrating child-carrying using pandanus leaves.
Villagers on Tanna Island demonstrating child-carrying using pandanus leaves © Shutterstock

Yakel 

Yakel is also home to a so-called cargo cult: “A system of belief based around the expected arrival of ancestral spirits in ships bringing cargoes of food and other goods.” The idea of cargo cults spread across Melanesia in the late 19th century, and still grips much of New Guinea and various other Pacific Islands.

In Yakel’s case, the ‘cargo’ arrived courtesy of the late Queen Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Philip. The prince visited in 1974 and signed a portrait; the village chief declared the prince to be a descendant of a Tannanese mountain spirit, and ever since, the whole village (population 100) has worshipped him. That portrait gets pulled out (along with dozens of other framed photos from the royal visit) while we wander Yakel’s grounds, dodging piglets and puppies and admiring the cyclone-proof bamboo huts.

Lenakel Market

At Lenakel market you can see where Tanna Island’s beautiful produce comes from. The market is also flowing with a sea of colour. Ladies in bright sarongs peruse bundles of carrots balanced like teepees on patterned fabric, while men lug giant hands of green bananas through rows of taro and cabbages. Elderly women natter away as they hack at coconuts with sharp knives gripped by leathery hands, and children peer out at me from behind their mothers’ legs.Most people have brought their produce to the coastal market from the mountains, where 75% of Tanna’s 30,000-strong population lives. After selling and bartering their harvest, the locals will bundle back into the village car or set off on foot to return to their thatched huts in the forest. 

Traditional habitation of Ni-Vanuatu people living simple life in the middle of jungle, Tanna island, Vanuatu
Traditional habitation of Ni-Vanuatu people living a simple life in the middle of jungle on Tanna island © Adobe Stock

Tanna grown coffee

There’s always coffee. Tanna grows Arabia beans in rich volcanic soil, resulting in a full-bodied and aromatic brew with a nutty flavour and long, smooth aftertaste. 

White Grass Ocean Resort, Tanna accommodation 

White Grass Ocean Resort has 18 thatched-roof bungalows looking out towards the ocean through gardens laced with hibiscus flowers. The rooms are perfectly comfortable, drawing inspiration from the traditional homes of the locals. White Grass coordinates tours to all major attraction and has the only PADI dive centre on the island.

Island dining 

At the resort, I worship an icy Tusker beer, made locally and perfectly paired with poached ginger poulet (a type of snapper) with spicy tomato-and-pineapple salsa. The menu in the White Grass dining room is chalked up daily. One evening we’re treated to lobster swirled through spaghetti; another we devour tuna sashimi so fresh it’s gleaming.

Given the remoteness of the island and lack of infrastructure, dining options beyond the resort are limited.

Getting to Tanna, Vanuatu

Air Vanuatu flies from a number of Australian cities to Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu. The airline also flies domestically to various islands, including Tanna.

Plan your Vanuatu holiday at vanuatu.travel

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