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Island Hopping and Paperwork Flopping: A Mariner's Odyssey in Vanuatu"

Updated: Jul 7

Clearing into Tanna was a full 3-day bureaucratic fiasco. Garry had tried to alert Vanuatu Customs a week, before our arrival, and a second email was sent while en route, which was also ignored. Finally, a call was made to the Port Vila authorities, who promised to forward our messages to the Tanna officials. The day before arrival, we finally had a confirmation by email that they were expecting us in Lenakel. We were instructed to drop anchor, stay on the boat, fly the yellow Q flag, and contact them on channel 16, which we did, once we arrived in the late afternoon.

Customs radioed us on the VHF the following morning, around 9 am. Once the dinghy was launched, Garry and I zipped over to the concrete wharf where we were met by two officers who introduced themselves as Marvin and Rudolf. They were friendly and welcoming, and Marvin explained that he had done some fruit picking in Otago last year, commenting on how much he enjoyed New Zealand. We were in a bit of hot water for stopping at Mystery Island the day before, it seems like the authorities had been following our AIS locations. Once Garry explained that it was to make repairs to our alternator, they seemed satisfied that we weren’t drug smugglers. Rudolf stamped our cruising permit, pointed out the highlights of the village, and told us to wait on the boat for Bio-Security and Immigration. In the next breath, rolling his eyes and muttered that Immigration might not arrive until tomorrow but we could visit the fresh market for provisions. The four remaining tuna fish (minus the eyes, see previous post) were gratefully accepted by the agents.

While Garry remained aboard November Rain, waiting for the Immigration and BioSecurity officers, the rest of us piled in the dinghy and forayed ashore, Dave skippering. It was our first step on terra firma in over six days.

Lenakel is a typical waterfront Ni-Van village scattered with small shops all selling the same limited stock, generally canned mackerel, bully beef, cooking oil, rice, soap, machetes, and other dry goods. The center of activity is the open-air fresh market, spread out under a massive shade tree, directly across the road from the wharf and waterfront. All concrete structures supporting the market are painted the ubiquitous Digicel red, courtesy of the local telecom company. It was Monday morning and the town was full of people, mostly NiVans, as well as a half-dozen yachties. Dozens of Mamas milled around, gossiping or napping in front of their stalls. Fresh fruit and veg were piled up on mats on the ground and small wooden tables. Prices were handwritten on cardboard signs next to piles of gorgeous produce.

Village vegetable market
Lenakel Fresh Market

We wandered around, replacing our diminishing ship’s stores with mandarins, green beans, pineapple, bok choy, lettuce, fresh raw peanuts, and pomelo, and spent less than 10 NZD for the lot. Not a plastic bag in sight, illegal in Vanuatu’s progressive environmental culture. We passed on the taro root, fresh coconuts, chilis, and plantains. While we wanted bananas and pawpaw (papaya), there weren’t any available, which seemed odd, but it may be that they are so readily available for free in the jungle, that no one bothers to sell them. Fresh bread was found in a nearby shop, and most surprisingly, imported ice cream.

We follow Victor into the Western Union, where he changed some US Dollars to Vatu, remarking that the rate was surprisingly good. A good part of the local economy is provided by seasonal workers working aboard, sending money home to their relatives, which explains the Western Union.

The next stop was a poke around the fish market, a concrete block building that was marked with a sign that read in Bislama “I gat fish”. Five or six jumbo-sized chest freezers were lined up against two walls. Shoppers simply opened a chest and selected one of the whole fish piled atop one another and paid the woman managing the shop. Each fish had its unique price, written in black marker onto paper, stuck on the side of the fish. Some of the fish appeared to be quite fresh, sitting atop others that were frozen solid. I doubted the fish were regularly rotated and it would be hard work if you decided you wanted whatever was on the bottom of the pile. Species were varied, small reef, pelagic, and large deep water fish all mixed. We saw some beautiful Poulet, a prized deep-water redfish, but at 6,800 Vatu for the whole fish, a bit rich for our blood (about 70 NZD).  Obviously, too dear for most of the locals as well, as evidenced by the lack of shoppers.

Concrete building
I Gat Fish

We made our way over to the Tanna Tourism Office, somewhat hidden behind a solid wooden door in a windowless building, sandwiched between two competing shops with identical inventory. The walls inside the tourism office were plastered with posters of exotic islands and broadly smiling NiVans in dugout canoes. A local woman at the desk was speaking to a French couple in their native language, explaining options for visiting the Mt. Yasur volcano.

The tour manager, Marie, was happy to have visitors and explained that she had opened the tourism office just for us and the other two visiting yachts in the bay.  She insisted the six of us smile for a photo, as we were the most tourists she had seen in a couple of weeks.  Marie gave us lots of insights on how to visit the volcano, but we were hesitant to book anything as we were still considered illegal aliens.

We headed back to November Rain, where we and the other two yachts in the bay were ordered to pick up anchors and move further out, to allow the incoming cargo ship room to the wharf. In the afternoon, BioSecurity finally hailed us on the VHF. Garry met them on the wharf, paid our fees, we were now 2/3 of the way through the clearance process. Still no word from Immigration.

Catamaran at anchor
November Rain at Anchor

Elmo, Victor, and Dave spent time in the water, exploring the small reefs around the boat. Unfortunately, Elmo managed to lose one of his spearfish fins when he left it dangling off the duckboard. It floated off in the tide unseen, and after a long search with the dingy, some NiVan pikininis on the beach signaled him that they had found it. Elmo offered the pikininis 1,000 Vatu (about 14 NZD) as a reward for the safe return of the fin. It’s probably the most money the kids have ever seen.

The next morning, now day three since we arrived in Tanna, we twiddle our thumbs, still waiting for Immigration. Garry couldn’t reach anybody by VHF radio and not one of the six phone numbers we found on Google was answering, including the Port Vila office. Was it a public holiday? A quick search confirmed that it wasn’t, just island time. Finally, beyond frustrated, Garry and I set off on a mission in the late afternoon. After walking around the tiny town and finding no government buildings, we flagged down a minivan taxi. The driver knew where the immigration office was, and drove us to a concrete bunker at the top of the hill, off an unmarked dirt road, about 5 km out of town. When we arrived, the building seemed deserted, but as soon as our driver pulled into the car park, a young woman ran from across the road, unlocked the building, and got to processing our visas.  Since 3/5 of our crew was missing, Garry and I completed the visa documents on their behalf, forging their signatures and listing their occupations as drug mule, human trafficker, and terrorist. That should be fun to watch when they exit the country….

Our driver returned us to the shoreline, collecting other fares along the way. We asked the driver if he would wait a few minutes and make the same trip again, this time with the Swedish couple in the neighboring yacht; they had also been waiting days for Immigration. As we were motoring back to NR, by chance, the Swedes were in their dinghy making their way to shore, on the same mission. Garry hailed them over and let them know their chariot was awaiting, to whisk them away to Visa heaven.

Now that we are official, we decided to take the opportunity to visit Tanna’s volcano, Mr. Yasur.  Garry and I had done the trip in 2015 and convinced our crew that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We hosted a movie night in the saloon and screened the 2015 Oscar nominated Indie film “Tanna”, to orient the crew to Vanuatu’s Kastoms.

The final night off Lenakel was so rocky, if you told me that we were at Northwest Bay at the Three Kings, I would have believed it. For those of you who’ve been there, you’ll understand. Garry pulled up anchor at dawn, then we spent 4 hours smashing through 20-knot headwinds to Port Resolution. It’s the closest village to the Mt. Yasur volcano and in Garry’s mind, it’s better to make the trek to the volcano from there than to risk a 90-minute bus drive across the island from Lenakel.  We spent 4 hours bashing on the water to save 45 minutes in a car….Captain’s Math.

Poor Elmo was seasick most of the way over, and Garry’s response to the frequent “Are we there yet?”, was always “Another forty  We arrived in Port Resolution after 6 x 40-minute interval

Man standing in dugout
Peter, in his canoe

Port Resolution Bay is a lovely, pristine oasis, surrounded on three sides by sandy beaches and dense jungle. A half-dozen blue-water yachts bobbed around and the same number of men in dug-out canoes fished off the shoreline with nets. There is nothing “Port” about the shallow bay, no wharf, town, or longshoremen. One of the fishermen glided up in a dugout, introducing himself as Patrick. Elmo handed off some of the remaining tuna filets in exchange for info about tours to the volcano.  Patrick was helpful and directed us to the “Yacht Club”, a small shack, just visible through the jungle on the hillside.

Port Resolution Bay
Port Resolution Bay

Not two minutes after we had the anchor set, Immigration Vanuatu was hailing us on

Man in boat
Garry, with November Rain in background

the VHF, asking if we needed visas. OMG! From one extreme to the other. Garry and I made a re-con in the dinghy to the yacht club to inquire about Mt. Yasur tours. The small, open-sided shack was decorated with dilapidated donated maritime flags, furnished with a rustic wooden table, a couple of mismatched chairs, and a couch so mangey, it would have been rejected by Dunedin Uni students for their annual bonfire. An Immigration Office sat at the table, portable VHF in hand and open for business. A NiVan woman, managing the “office” from the couch helped us book the volcano tour for later that day.

Port Resolution Yacht Club

A 4-wheel drive Ute picked us up that afternoon, and we were joined by the French couple that we had met a couple of days earlier in Lenakel. The seven of us piled in, Garry and I choosing the relative comfort of the rear cab, while the rest of the crew toughed it out on wooden benches in the truck bed. The roads were rough mud cuts through dense jungle and it was a good 40 minutes of jostling to the visitors centre. There, three staff members welcomed us graciously and complained that since Air Vanuatu had gone into liquidation, the tourism business had been shit. The only tours they were hosting now were from visiting yachts. We were asked to sign releases about the dangers of visiting an active volcano and we signed the forms as our favourite sports athletes and politicians. No one checked our IDs.   

The couch

Another 10 minutes back in the Ute, followed by a 10-minute hike had us at the rim. There is nowhere else in the world, I believe, where you can intentionally get this close to an active lava throwing-fire-breathing-exploding volcano. It was incredibly windy at the top, with only a narrow wooden guard rail right at the edge of the precipice. If you were to slip on the sandy, ashy soil and fail under the rail, there is no coming back. Steam and smoke spewed out of the cavernous hole, peppered with sporadic explosions of fiery molten lava. Occasionally, a cloud of sulfur gas would force us back from the rim for a few minutes. We stayed until dark, to enjoy the heightened effect of the glowing lava against the black night.

The Visitor’s Center staff hitched a ride home with us, to their shacks hidden in the jungle along the track. A young NiVan woman took a bit of a shine to Elmo, using bumps in the road as an opportunity to brush up his leg, but he wasn’t taking the bait. Inside the cab, we chatted with our guide, who shared that he had been the driver for the director of the Tanna movie, and bragged that his personal dug-out canoe was one of the props in the film.

People on rim of Mt. Yasur
The crew at Mt. Yasur

Back at the yacht club, we stumbled down the jungle trail to the dinghy, in pitch darkness, guided by the lights of our cell phones. We launched the dingy from the beach and tried to avoid coral balmies that we couldn’t see. Fortunately, Garry had the foresight to put the anchor light on before we left that afternoon or we would have never found November Rain in the dark.

That night was the best night’s sleep yet. The crew was refreshed and ready to go, and we trolled lures to the next island in the chain, Erromango, 50 miles to the north. A small mahi-mahi was reeled in by Elmo and went into the fridge. Not enough for dinner but it’ll make fantastic fish tacos for lunch tomorrow. A small blue marlin cruised into the gear and sniffed two of the lures, but didn’t hook up. Later, the rapalas were put out in the shallows and there was a double hook-up on Barracuda, which was released. We hate stinky barracuda so much, that we won’t save them for the locals, as we believe it might be seen as an insult, not a gift. Not to mention, they may be a vector for the neurotoxin, Ciguaterra.

At anchor, a muscular yet grizzled old man, well into his 80s, paddled out in his dugout, trading bananas and papaya for rice, sugar, and milk. Victor thinks we got the better end of the trade, and it included a lovely hand-woven basket. Note to self, start stocking up on supplies like rice and cooking oil for the local traders. Erromango is very remote and villagers rely on passing ships for all supplies that they can’t grow or catch, as do many of the other islands.    

The kayaks were launched and Elmo paddled out for a fish with soft baits, while Victor headed off in a different direction, on a scouting expedition to find crayfish habitats. I suggested we have a contest to see who would be the winner, bringing back fodder. Garry put his money on me to win, pulling something out of the freezer. Elmo had some success, landing a nice-sized Job fish along with a small parrot fish, both released. Victor returned from the scouting mission, commenting that the reef looked pretty picked over, but he would try again, after dark.

We had barely finished supper when Victor, the madman, jumped overboard with a full plate of lasagne in his belly and headed out for a night dive….by himself…in complete darkness… searching again for lobster. He was gone for 2 x 40 minutes, returning empty-handed and complaining that it was still a wasteland.

The next day promised to be a long one, it was 75 nautical miles (or in Garry time, 40 minutes) to Port Vila. We planned to target a bank along the route that we had had some success with, a few years back, so we could add another 40 minutes to travel time. We left Erromango at 6 am and by 7 am, were in the thick of a mass of tuna, boiling on the surface. We picked up a couple of small yellowfin before heading on our way. It was a good opportunity for Garry to play with the Simrad Omni-scan Sonar, having large schools of fish to ping off and learn on. The rest of the day was not productive, but hey, we don’t want to peak too early.

The last bit of water to Port Vila disappeared behind us as Garry kicked the ponies into a gallop, racing in at 16 knots, We expect to arrive in Port Vila in about 40 minutes, as Garry tells me, but we won't be hanging around for more than a day or two. Garry will organize a tanker to refuel, and I’ll be restocking our galley from the supermarket and fresh market, nominating the crew as grocery donkeys. We also have a few items that need to be delivered to some random people that we don’t know, including a two-man kayak, 10 liters of house paint, and some decorator blinds, all shipped from New Zealand, courtesy of November Rain Freight Lines.  That's how we mariners roll. Someone unknown to us will repay the favor someday.

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Vanuatu Map
Vanuatu Map

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Jul 03
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Thoroughly enjoyable. Hope u getting that Simrad Sonar worked out Garry.


Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Excellent blog enjoyed reading it and hope Elmo wasn't blushing from too much attention.


Jun 28
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

What an amazing place and a great job documenting your travels ! Adding it to my bucket 😃 Good luck and safe sailing !


Jun 28
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Wonderful trip and interesting journey😊


Jun 28
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Great yarn folks!! Keep them coming!! Cany belive there is a rail at the top of Yasur now!! Not too keen on the bright green colour though!!😂

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