How to fail to reach an active volcano

..and still have an adventure.

When someone says “air taxi”, I have a mental image of some kind of private jet. Think again – how about a 1974 Cessna, which just squeezes in me and my five travelling companions, and one young, very professional, Kiwi pilot. The good news is I get the co-pilot’s seat. We are doing a quick overnight hop from Port Vila to the island of Tanna in Vanuatu – the home of Mt Yasur, the world’s most accessible volcano. It is a very active volcano and can be relied upon to put on a fiery nightly show. One side of the volcanic crater has collapsed into a neighbouring hilltop, allowing drive up access to about 200m from the rim – possibly the shortest walk to the top of a volcano anywhere.

Visit the live volcano at Mt Yasur

We head off about 3pm to get to the volcano by sunset – four of us plus a local driver in a good four wheel drive. I start to get a sense of what might be coming when the driver tells us it will take 2 hours to get there, 17 km’s away. That’s an awfully slow trip! The road is notorious. For most is it’s length it is a dirt track. The problem is the island soil is basically volcanic ash, which the road is also built on, so the ‘dirt’ collapses easily, leaving deep ruts and tracks,  huge potholes, and collapsed sections of road. There are a lot of tourist vehicles every day, and no money for road building. And that’s before it rains. I am here at the end of the rainy season, meaning it has been raining heavily for part of each day. And as we set off the rain starts again, a torrential downpour. So add mud, flooded roads, sliding and getting bogged down to the list.


The locals are certainly resourceful. They know the spots on the road where vehicles most often get either bogged or roll. So they gather there and wait, in case some tourists want to pay to get their help to get their vehicle out. Torrential rain doesn’t stop them, they just fashion umbrellas out of large tree leaves.

Buckle up, it’s getting rough.

It’s a white knuckle ride like no other I’ve been on. The vehicle bumps, bounces, skids, stops and starts forcefully and  continually. We brace, we hang on to anything we can get a grip on, and I hit the roof and door with my head  a lot – hard. But our driver is good, we feel bruised but not unsafe. We also feel very wet – the only way we can stop the front windscreen fogging over (not something we want to add to the list of dangers) is by leaving our side windows down all the way – and the rain pours in. We get to a lookout spot where there is usually a great view of the volcano but no point in stopping, we are in the cloud, visibility is about two metres.

Cloud, rain and views

We finally emerge out of the hills and rainforest onto the volcanic plain around Mt Yasur, a huge smooth curve of black ash. We still can’t see the volcano for the rainclouds, but a few minutes later the clouds start to lift and we finally see Mt Yasur. We are only a kilometre or so away now, we are approaching the highest side of the volcanic wall and need to circumnavigate around the base of the volcano to get up into the collapsed lower side.

No way across

But there is a problem. The tiny creek which the vehicles normally cross as they traverse the volcanic plain, well all this torrential rain has turned it into a much larger raging river. We can’t safely cross. Indeed there are two vehicles that crossed earlier which now cannot get back out until the rain stops and the river drops again. Our driver mentions how, three weeks previously, facing a similar river, a truck driver decided he could make it through – the current caught him and rolled his truck three times over. We have no desire to try.

It’s fair to say that I hadn’t come prepared on this trip. I had come on a last minute whim, without raincoat or tripod, to try and photograph an active volcano at night in the rain. The rain hasn’t stopped at all, but we are all so wet from the drive that we don’t care anymore.

Feeling the eruptions

I hear a loud “boom” and feel it shake through my body at the same time. Mt Yasur has woken up for the evening show. Even though we are in the lee of the highest part of the crater wall, which will block a lot of the view, we decide to stick around for a while and see what happens. In the last of the dusk, big pillows of steam and dust come billowing out from each “boom”, some whitish, some yellow, some dark grey. And as the sky turns black I start to see the first reddish glow of lava. At first its just a reflection on the underside of the steam clouds, but then we start to see showers of bright red lava  been thrown  many hundreds of metres into the air. And all the while the “booms” continued to physically pulse through my body.

It’s exciting – for a minute we talk about how amazing it would be to be on the crater rim, to be right up close with all this, how disappointed we all are that we are stuck a kilometre away. Then there is the biggest “boom” so far, like a massive thunderclap two inches from my eardrums, and lava spurts out so high that it falls over to the outside of the crater. And suddenly I am thinking that if I was on the rim, I’d be pretty scared by now.

Our driver tells us the volcano has been more active than usual for the last week, and so no-one is allowed closer than the car park at the moment (even if they can get across the river) because a week ago some lava rocks landed within two metres of some people on the rim. It’s getting more dangerous. Maybe, soaked to the skin and a kilometre away, is not so bad after all. As I have no tripod, I am hand holding my very wet camera against the top of the car door (fervently hoping the wet won’t permanently destroy it), so at best my photos are vague silhouettes with a large blur of red, no nice distinct drops of lava spray to be had. But they will always remind me of the experience!

Now it’s time to make the two hour trek back again. The conditions are worse, it’s pitch black, the rain has washed away more parts of the track and is gushing alongside much of the road, we slip and slide seemingly out of control more often. In many parts we are reduced to inching along a centre strip, both side of the road collapsed into a three or four foot drop into a raging torrent within centimetres of our tyres, or over the edge of a steep slope. I am grateful that I can’t see the worst of it through the rain. We mask the fear by telling silly stories and belly laughing all the way home to our cosy little rooms at Tanna Evergreen – our driver concludes that Aussie women are very loud and a little bit crazy – he may be right. I am lucky, my camera dries out and still works. I start thinking maybe I’ll come back another time, in the dry season, and try again (once I’ve forgotten the bruising!)

Running away to the island of Rah

It’s a beautiful view of turquoise sea, coral lagoons, and rich green rainforest as we come in to land on the small grass airstrip on the island of Moto Lava. I am in the far north of the group of islands that makes up Vanuatu. But this is not my final destination. Moto Lava has only one “road” and two vehicles – both 2WD utes. One is at the airstrip to meet the plane so I jump in, lucky to get a seat in the cab and not on the back tray.

The next 45 minutes we drive to the other end of the island, over a narrow mud track, often a foot deep in water and mud, rainforest brushing high up both sides of the ute, slipping and sliding, in the hands of a driver who only ever has one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding his mobile phone in case he picks up a signal. And somehow it all works perfectly.

With much fishtailing and bouncing we make it to the white sand beaches at the other end. From here I jump onto a small outrigger canoe, my suitcase balanced precariously on one of the struts, as I am transfered to Rah, a couple of hundred metres away over a shallow lagoon. I meet Rachel, the matriach of the village family who runs the handful of bungalows for visitors, and she shows me to my lovely traditional bungalow, on the edge of the beach, with this view:

Before I can draw breath I am devouring a beautiful lunch of coconut crab and fresh pamplemousse (the sweetest grapefruit I have ever tasted), while some of the woman of the village prepare to perform custom dancing for me. A strong tradition in Vanuatu, each island has its own custom dances and outfits, which differ between the men and the women.

Today is not the best day to visit, as it is Mother’s Day on Rah (one week after the same day in Australia) and all the women have the day off to relax, while the men cook and look after the children. Luckily for me some of them were prepared to interrupt this day of laziness to perform the custom dances, which are quite hypnotic to watch, their feet create great percussion. And two of the young boys of the village create their own custom dance outfits from the local leaves, wanting to be just like Dad, until they realise that Dad isn’t dancing today.

my snorkelling buddies
my snorkelling buddies

And then begins a long lazy afternoon on the beach and in the blood warm lagoon, accompanied by a tribe of the local kids. Not surprisingly they can swim like fish, but I have fun teaching them how to breathe through a snorkel. Little by little I lose a mask to one, a snorkel to another, a fin to a third, the other fin to a fourth.

So I finally retire to my hammock under the palms and watch. And yes, one of them does swim around and around in circles with his one fin on. As the afternoon sun starts to wan, Rachel’s ten year old son Dimitri proudly shows me the fish he has caught for my dinner, using only his hands, no nets or lines. Sure enough Rachel serves it up to me deliciously spiced and steamed in banana leaves a bit later.

I have planned to be here for 4 days/ 3 nights but the vagaries of Air Vanuatu have intervened, turning this into a short one night stay. So I don’t get the chance to go fishing with the villagers, or learn basket weaving from the woman, but it is still well worth the effort to get to Rah, the very definition of an unspoiled paradise.  I hope I get to run away to Rah for longer next time.

Zanzibar, the most exotic island of all?

An ancient, crumbling, Arabian nights fairytale island, surrounded by the brightest turquoise water. Once a major trade capital for spices, silks, slaves and more, it’s the original melting pot, mixing ancient Africa, Arabia and India, with the Chinese and then the Portuguese following in later centuries. It’s a very visceral history that you can see, smell and feel in the air around you.

18 years ago, while doing an overland through east Africa, I arrived in Zanzibar and fell for its many charms. In three weeks time I will finally return, and I am wondering how much it has changed or not? Here’s my memories from the first time.

Getting to Zanzibar.

The ferry to Zanzibar from Dar es Salaam was not the most reliable, or safest. We’d booked the morning ferry, it breaks down, we wait a few hours and catch the mid afternoon one, a four and a half hour trip sitting on our packs on the deck, in the bow of a very full boat, towels over our heads to ward off the intense sun. Then there was the mad scramble to get off the ferry, through immigration and pound the streets to find a room – $15 a night for four to share, with very dodgy mosquito nets. My notes at the time said “the Sambusa, down an alley, past the rubbish dump – nice little room though.”

Prison Island.

We took a dhow out to Prison Island, a tiny island with a little sand bar beach, just a few meters wide, extending out into the true blue water. There’s remnants of an old prison, and a small population of very old, very huge giant tortoises, who in spite of being very wrinkly, are very adorable. We sunbath in the hot sun and cool off in the water until the wind comes up and starts scouring our skin with sand. We head back to Zanzibar in a choppy sea and get drenched in very salty sea spray, and need a very good warm shower on our return.

StoneTown, Zanzibar.

We explored the Byzantian alleyways, the old fort, the sultan’s palace – the architecture was amazing, but most building were run down, worn out, peeling and in need of some renovation. We spent more time wandering the streets and alleyways than we did on the beaches, it was just so fascinating. We dined cheaply but well. Beers at Africa House, fresh coconuts on the beach, calamari for dinner at The Dolphin, and back for omelettes for breakfast. Freshly cooked seafood straight off the stalls in the marketplace, and calamari stew at the Floating Restaurant next to the market. Fish coconut curries and banana milkshakes at Caymur’s. I wonder if any of these places still exist? – apart from the markets, probably not!


The Beach, Zanzibar.

We grabbed a ride in a jeep to Jambiani, a popular beach a two hour drive to the opposite side of the island to StoneTown. On the way we stopped off to see the endangered red colobus monkeys. What is surprising is that we didn’t also do a spice tour, to one of the spice plantations, given Zanzibar’s fame as a spice island – having grown up on farms in NZ we didn’t see anything interesting about visiting a farm. The beach was stunning – when we arrived the tide was out about 500m, and by late afternoon it was right back up the beach lapping our toes. The local kids were busy selling us papaya and coconuts, and were just gorgeous to watch.

Tangalooma – a tropical trip back in time

Shall I tell you a secret – a really well kept secret? There is an island, a tropical playground only 75 minutes by ferry from Brisbane. I’m talking about Tangalooma Island resort, on Moreton Bay island just off the coast from Brisbane. In my ten years in Australia I’d say that pretty much every local and about 50% of imports and visitors I have talked to have heard of Moreton Bay Island, and yet I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve come across who’ve heard of Tangalooma. I suspect if I lived in Brisbane that number might be higher, but for the rest of us, its been a secret for far too long.

Tangalooma Island Resort, a trip back to the seventies.

Moreton Bay Island is a large sand island surrounded by beautiful shallow turquoise water teeming with sea life. Its 95% National Park, so if you are on Moreton Bay island its likely that you are at the Tangalooma Island Resort. In spite of their excellent efforts to modernise the accommodations, what I love about Tangalooma is how it feels like a step back into a good seventies motel. Here’s a holiday spot where I can embrace my inner bogan. Bring out your beer brand t-shirts, your hawaiian shirts, your tracky-dacs or your checked bush shirt and you will feel right at home here. I order a XXXX Gold – no,  I don’t have a choice, its the only beer on tap – at least it is lovely and cold. I mull over my choice of fish and chips, pizza or meat pie for dinner, order from behind the bar, sit outside in the beer garden, watch the sky turn deep orange and realise I really don’t need any other mod cons.


It may be the 1970s but there is a raft of brilliant things for us to do. First off we are staying on a beautiful sheltered white sand beach with calm shallow clear blue waters. As well as swimming, we can snorkel, kayak, or go for a ride on a water trike (giant three wheeled floating tractor for those who haven’t yet had this thrill). Around the resort there is tennis and archery. Heading inland there is sand tobogganing and quad biking. But we are looking at the sea, so we head off for an afternoon of whale watching. The boat heads around to the seaward side of the ocean, where from June to October each year the humpbacks migrate right past the island. We see a lot of humpbacks, including a few that come right up and swim under and around us, slapping their tails, blowing through their blow holes, but sadly no spectacular breaches today.

Hand feeding wild dolphins.

Night-time brings the most unusual entertainment – hand feeding the wild dolphins. Now this doesn’t immediately sound very ecologically sound to us, but we are reassured that it is in fact a highly controlled program, only about 11 of the population of around 600 local wild bottlenose dolphins participate (at their choice), and they are all feed only a small proportion of their daily requirements so that it doesn’t stop their normal hunting and feeding patterns. Re-assured that we are not doing anything bad, we line up for the process of dolphin feeding, which goes like this:

  1. Strip down to swimwear.
  2. Stand under a cold shower and make sure we’ve washed off any trace of mossie repellant, sunscreen, moisturiser or any other lotions and potions, as these can irritate the dolphins.
  3. Stand in a queue waiting our turn, getting colder and colder  – warm sunny day has turned into cold windy night
  4. Wash hands again in a special antibacterial solution to ensure we don’t pass any bugs on to the dolphin
  5. Pick up nasty slimy smelly fish from bucket and try and hold in the approved fashion, which is “just like an icecream “, the head is poking out toward the sky and the tail resting in my palm, as apparently dolphins prefer to munch their fish head first.
  6. Then its my turn and I shuffle forward hip deep in the cold water with one of the biologists, hold my fish a foot under the surface, and wait while one of the dolphins swims up and and swallows it straight out of my hand. I notice what big teeth it has as it opens its mouth wide.
  7. There is a strict no touching rule (we can’t touch the dolphin) but the dolphins have their own rules, and my dolphin starts nudging my shin – the biologist says it OK so I stand there with it nudging me until it gets bored at my refusal to play, and off it swims – the whole time I am desperately trying to stop myself from reaching in and giving it a huge hug – dolphins do have that effect on us humans!
  8. We wade back onto the beach and start dancing around in excitement – again its that joyful effect dolphins seem to have on us.


Dugong spotting.

In the morning we go for a walk up to the northern end of the beach, where there is a large man-made ship graveyard just offshore. This has been created deliberately in recent decades, and has turned into a spectacular dive and snorkel spot, with rusting skeletons of boats in shallow clear warm waters housing a colourful parade of fishes and sea life.
Then we jump on another boat to go Dugong spotting. Dugongs are a protected species, are notoriously shy, and can swim a long time under water without having to come up for a breath, so they can be hard to find. Thats why we head to the sand banks, in some very shallow water between Moreton island and the mainland, as it is easier to spot them when they are close to the surface. The dugong are large, up to 3 metres long, and have a rather ugly bulbous head which rather belies their legend of being the animal that made sailors think they had seen a mermaid. But when spooked they can instantly accelerate and speed off like a missile, no speed boat has a hope of keeping up with them. So both we and our boat try and stay as quiet as we can, and we are rewarded with a mass of sightings, pod after pod of dozens of dugongs, and we are under their spell for the next couple of hours, watching as much of their antics as they will let us.
As the afternoon shadows lengthen, we head back to the jetty and are soon on the ferry and heading home to Brisbane, very happy with our sea mammal encounters for the weekend.

If you want the best snorkeling in Ko Phi Phi – first get yourself a diver!

Usually snorkeling and diving don’t mix in the same spot – divers want to go deep to find their beauty and snorkelers want shallow water with all the goodies close to the surface. The one exception I have found to this rule is Ko Phi Phi, a mecca for divers and snorkelers alike. In fact the keys spots are so popular for snorkelling that they are ruined by too many snorkelers– if you book a day trip then you will probably find yourself on a 50-100 person mega boat, with compulsory wearing of life jackets as many of the snorkelers cant swim. In other words, my version of snorkeling hell.

the Beach, Maya Bay, Ko Phi Phi Leh, Thailand
the Beach, Maya Bay, Ko Phi Phi Leh, Thailand

Ko Phi Phi – overcrowded snorkeling.

Dive trips are very popular too and there are many operators but most boats are taking around 8 to 12 divers, so the scale of overcrowding is nowhere near as bad. And the key dive spots are reserved for dive boats only, the snorkelers have to go to their own designated sites, mainly in shallow bays rather than around the karst chimneys.

snorkelling at Ko Bida Nok, Thailand
snorkelling at Ko Bida Nok, Thailand
So there seems to be two ways to achieve your snorkelling pleasure. The first is to rent your own long tail boat and do your own itinerary – even better if you can figure out the big boats’ timetables and arrive at the best spots when they are least likely to be there. But this can be an expensive option. Or, grab yourself a diver, and when they book their dive trip, book yourself on as the travelling buddy of the diver and then they will let you come along as a “non-diving” companion, who can then jump off the boat and go for a snorkel – for a bargain price. Good thing Travelling Sis is a diver, otherwise I would’ve had to scour the bars for a diver to accompany.

Ko Phi Phi – best snorkeling spots

One of the most common dive trips from Ko Phi Phi is a two-dive trip to Ko Bida Nok (a karst massif just south of Ko Phi Phi Leh, which itself is about 1.5 km south of Ko Phi Phi), and Malong, a section of the external karst walls of Ko Phi Phi Leh. At both these sites you are diving along these karst walls – near vertical sandstone cliffs, which means it is just as interesting on the surface for the snorkeler as it is 15m down for the diver – and I had a great view of the divers below me at times too. And of the languid turtle who swam over the heads of the divers and floated straight under me. There’s coral and huge amounts of colourful fish and anemone life close to the surface, the water temp is a languid 31 degrees, and there are usually no surface currents, especially in the morning. And I have all this to myself for nearly two hours.

snorkelling off Ko Phi Phi, Thailand
snorkelling off Ko Phi Phi, Thailand

Maya Bay – paradise wrecked

Between the two dive stops we stop off at Maya Bay on Ko Phi Phi Leh – the famous location of the filming of The Beach. It is possible that it is still a gorgeous bay, but very hard to tell through the line up of dozens of jet boats, dozens of long tails, and 3 or 4 big 100 person tourist boats, which combined with the people disgorged, makes it almost impossible to see any part of the green waters or white sand. I hear there is an overnight beach camping trip, if so, this may be the only way to experience the original beauty of this bay. Were you lucky enough to see Maya Bay before it was overrun, or have you found a great snorkeling experience from Ko Phi Phi? If so, please leave a comment.

What would James Bond think of all this?

James Bond Island in Phang Nga Bay, Thailand

36 years after The Man with the Golden Gun, tourism in Thailand is still making a mint out of the iconic view of Scaramanga’s hideaway. The karst pillar in Phang Nga Bay originally known as Ko Tapu, has been called “James Bond Island” ever since. It seems that every day there are hundreds of long tail and speed boats ferrying tourists out to have a look, and today, I am on one of those long tail boats.

We are dropped on the small karst island next door (Ko Phing Kan), and walk about 30 metres through a ravine completely filled with market stalls of the usual trinkets. We emerge on a tiny 20 metre wide beach, and there it is, straight in front of us, James Bond Island, about 50 metres out in the middle of the bay. This is the viewing spot, from this angle it looks completely stand alone with its huge backdrop of sea and other karst islands in the distance.

The de rigueur smug shot here is to be photographed as though you are holding the island in the palm of your hand. This seems a bit lacking in originality, perhaps a gun stance surrounded by bikini babes would be more appropriate, or perhaps a beach stall selling martini’s ,shaken not stirred, balancing the island on its roof? Or maybe I should just take a photo of the island, no tricks.

Sea canoeing in Thai caves and islands

Our longtail also takes us about 10 minutes away to Ko Talu Nok for some cave canoeing. I am disappointed that I am not allowed to paddle my own canoe. We sit in the front while a local guide paddles at the back. But it’s enjoyable enough as we spend the next half hour lying back and looking up at cave roofs 10 cm above our faces, up sheer cliffs of internal lagoons accessed through caves and covered in rainforest, and at sea worn karsts shaped like skulls, alligators and more.

Like all the karsts in this area, the sea erodes from the base in, so all the karats look narrowest at sea level. At Talu in particular the sea has worn away a lot of caves and tunnels to internal lagoons, with towering cliffs and glimpses of the sky from the middle of the island.

All of this is in Phang Nga bay area, where we originally boarded our long tail boat.  The tour operators insist on everyone wearing lifejackets but as the water is generally about one metre deep and the life jackets are a “one size fits no-one” and rather hot in this weather, most of us ditch the lifejackets as soon as we leave shore.

We also eat well at the floating village on the Ko Panyee, known as the Muslim Village. Lunch is a banquet including chilli fish, deep fried prawns, chicken and cashews, tom yum soup, omelette, spicy chicken legs, stir fried veges and fresh pineapple. And there is an interesting little craft market to explore, with a side of voyeurism into the village life.
As we leave James Bond Island we see a group of people arrive on a speedboat named James Bond, and I realise that I have only scratched the surface of the James Bond experience – next time!