Tanna: Land of Smoke and Fire
Mountain biking the Vanuatu Islands
November 19, 2003
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"No, not far - just over there." A finger points at a small mountain range. "You wanna ride your bike?"
With the sun baking down and the road looking more like a well-used goat track, plus the back of the truck beckoning, we made the best decision we made on the whole trip. "Na, we'll ride with you guys." Smiles all round, we jumped aboard.
Our destination was the Friendly Bungalows on the island of Tanna, somewhere in the middle of the South Pacific. Unfortunately, the name of our destination did little to prepare us for the less than 'friendly' roads that awaited us. Tanna, a part of the Vanuatu group, is a large island with a fairly mountainous interior fringed with black sand beaches and lush vegetation. It was a wild and remote place.
Unfortunately for us, the airport lay on the opposite coast to the Friendly Bungalows. The only way there was straight across the interior. To say the roads were a little rough would be an understatement; to call them road was even stretching the definition. However, it was either that or a few days' ride around the coast, so we set off towards the interior.
The beginning of the ride wasn't too bad: plenty of clay to be seen, not too many potholes and only a gradual climb. The heat of the day made water consumption essential. We were lucky to be carrying our camel packs and plenty of spare bottles already filled from Vila, as you wouldn't want to be drinking the local water.
Our first stop was a small cultural village, one of the very few places in Vanuatu where the local people still embrace their original lifestyle and adorn their original clothing of little more than a grass skirt. I'm not too sure which of us experienced the greater cultural shock, them seeing a white couple with hi-tech mountain bikes (something that intrigued everyone we met on the island) or us experiencing a group of people with seemingly so little, living a lifestyle unchanged in thousands of years.
Here we refuelled with some of the local delicacies - the ever present coconut juice and Nealy. The people were shy and reserved, but they performed their local dance at a distance. We also met the chief who looked at least 100. I asked one of the younger guys how old he was. He told me the old bloke had been alive forever, and he looked it. We were given rough directions and told we could bike from where we were as most of it was downhill. Obviously a bit of a language barrier there, as the next two hours were taken up with the hardest mountain biking I have ever known. Not only was it 100 degrees in the shade, dusty and pretty much all uphill, it had to be one of the most remote places I had ever visited. You felt that if anything went wrong, you'd be well and truly knackered.
The rest of the ride to the Friendly Bungalows wasn't quite as easy as predicted, as the tar seal soon gave way to deeply-gouged clay once again. One thing's for sure, you wouldn't want to be doing this in heavy rain. We eventually arrived at the Friendly Bungalows to be met by Mary, a local who runs the place, and were shown to our room, a replica of something out of Robinson Crusoe. Talk about isolated! No power, no phones and only one way out - back the way we had just come!
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