16 September 2010 | Tanna Island, Vanuatu
Arriving in Vanuatu our first mission involved getting down to the erupting volcano of Mt. Yasur on the island of Tanna. Upon arrival we found ourselves on the opposite side of the island and had to hitch a ride in the back of a four wheel drive truck that would take us on the dirt road through the mountain pass. Along the way the kids of the little villages we passed would come running to the roadside smiling and waving trying to catch a glimpse of these strange white visitors. At the center of each village would be a huge ‘magical’ banyon tree wide enough to drive two cars through but unlike the redwoods of California instead of being one massive truck the banyon is dozens of smaller ones fused together at the base then spanning out to shade an area the size of football field.
After a couple hours of rough mountain switchbacks we came around a bend there she was – Mt. Yasur, rising majestically out the otherwise densely forested island was a massive silver cone complete with a black plume rising out of her belly. We were still an hour away but we couldn’t take our eyes of her. Our windy road of rocky potholes soon turned into a soft ash sand road and then emerged onto a ash plane several miles across. Our driver explained how this all was once thick forest like the rest of the island but has since been covered in volcanic ash. Then he floored is across the ash field. It felt like were trying to break the land speed record as they do in the salt flats of Utah.
It was now dark and were back on a windy road on the back side of the volcano. We got out of the truck and began our accent by foot. We could see the firey glow up again. very evil looking. Jim sprinted ahead yelling back for us to him at the gates of Mordor. We ran to catch up when we heard our first close explosion. It was so loud I could feel it shake my whole body, the earth trembled beneath my feet and the red glow ahead of us turned into a red fountain of lava. My body wanted to turn and run away. We all looked at each other. We heard and read that this was a ‘safe’ erupting volcano but nothing about going forward seemed safe. We pushed ahead.
Reaching the rim we could now look down into the firey pit of molten lava. It was time to throw the ring back from whence it came when without warning – BOOOOZAAAMMMM. It had exploded again but this time we were so close the warm wave of wind pressed our clothes to our bodies and we could now see chunks of red hot magma the size of cars being spewd hundred of feet into the air. We could not believe what were watching – an erupting volcano from its very rim.
We proceeded around the rim to catch different vantage points of this amazing site which repeated its fireworks display at random intervals with several minute breaks and always without warning. There were no guardrails or warning signs. We could have jumped in if we wanted to.We found a section of earth that particularly warm with smoke coming out some little holes and since it was a cool night we layed on the earth and enjoyed a natural heat massage as the cool night wind blew over us.
After several hours at the rim it was time to go find the Jon Frum village who we heard was having its weekly all night celebration. The village was completely dark as we entered and it was only the lights of our truck that showed bodies shaking with dance surrounding the thatch huts until we arrived at a center structure where 7 guys with local made guitars were sitting in the middle of a group of 20 women and children clapping and singing to the beat. We soon learned the routine – 10 songs at the end of which a man in the corner would hit a drum giving the signal for the current group to exit and the next would enter and the process would start over again -10 songs then switch. They do this event once a week and it goes from sunset to sunrise with other villages from the island coming to participate in the ‘Jon Frum.’
During the activity a elderly man approached us introducing himself as chief of the village. When he learned two of us were American his eyes lit up and quickly told us that they would be raising the American flag in the morning. He then lead us to one of his huts and said it was ours for the night. We slept to the sound of local singing and woke the same sound at sunrise.
We stepped outside our hut to the sight if pigs, chickens and little kids running about the huts and smoldering fires from the night before. Walking over to the village center where we found Chief Isak who smiled brightly at our approach. He could only speak broken English and there was an elder from another village (who had come to see these white visitors) who spoke French so we now did most of our communicating through Dr. Marion, our french boat doctor. The chief let us know were just in time for the flag raising. Just then two boys came marching out of the bush tooting a whistle wearing old us army uniforms and carrying an American flag. They marched up to some bamboo poles unfolded the flag and raised it. Chief Isak then took out another bigger US flag that was 8X15 and a marine officers hat proudly showing us his US military memorabilia.
We were awestruck at the event especially its venue of a tribal jungle village so far from America and on a remote volcano island in the south pacific. We began asking many questions and this it what we found. The islands of Vanuatu were approached by missionaries in the 1800’s, many of which were eaten, but some of which lasted and as tried to stamp out local custom and religion amongst the tribes. As these Europeans settled Vanuatu they wiped the population from over one million down to just 40,000 by the early 1900’s but a few villages managed to keep a strong hold on ancient culture and beliefs and one such village the one we were in. Chief Isak’s grandfather was chief at the time and stood up against the Europeans to protect tradition and was thrown in prison for it. Then WW2 in the pacific started and the US military based over 100,000 troops here building airfields, roads and bridges as well as bringing huge supplies of jeeps, radios and coca-cola. Many locals began working for the US military and told the Americans of the Chief who had been imprisoned for protecting tradition. Upon hearing this the US military released Isaks’s grandfather (who had been in prison for 17 years) and gave him a US flag telling him to fly it and that it “would protect his customs and traditions.” He returned to the village and the flag has flown everyday for the past 65 years.
But who is Jon Frum? My best guess is that the US soldier who presented the flag, when asked his name said ‘John from America’ but when we asked Chief Isak who Jon Frum was he said Jesus Christ and pointed at me and Jim saying that they had been waiting on the return of the American messiah and we had showed up during the very ceremony they have for him! He then waived over more villagers (we already had 20 around us) who presented us with woven bags and colorful feathers which they placed directly in our hair. Within a couple minutes we each had multiple feathers sticking out of our heads and all eyes were on us. We explained that we sailed here on a sailboat and had to get back to Port Villa so Jim and Dr. Marion could get there flights but before leaving we were given a message to Barack Obama that he must come to the Jon Frum village. We told them that because Jim was returning to the states soon he would deliver the message and so after saying our goodbyes to the villagers we went on our way…
Recent Update: For more information on the John Frum Village of Tanna, check out the Facebook page. Although, it’s not really doing them any good (as they don’t have internet), it seems right to at least represent them in some way.
Here’s another article by Smithsonian for reference.