To the Volcano – Part 3

At the Whitegrass Airport on Tanna, F (small and organised and quiet) and her husband C (with a cheerful smile and hair in an impressive top-knot) and the driver whose name I never did quite catch collected me. F and C climbed in the back of the Hilux and we set off over unpaved roads towards the other side of the island.

We stopped at a co-op to buy three eggs. A few kilometres further we picked up more supplies and some extra people for the back. We passed an inlet where some goats were climbing, and a group of peace corps workers walking down the road and came to another smaller store with Bible verses painted over the door and a hurricane lantern hanging in the trees nearby to advertise a kava bar. A little girl wanted to join us but was only allowed to pass up bunches of bok choy and fresh peanuts with their stems tied together. Then the owner of our truck appeared and took over driving. He was friendly, but spent most of the drive on the phone, swearing at one of his drivers (a new mobile phone company had opened across Vanuatu the week before, and the coverage was better than in Australia). We went back to the co-op where some chickens ignored us, then back to the small store and bought potatoes and bok choy and added a few more people to the back. It must have been at this point that the little girl joined us after all.

We turned inland – past coconut palms and overgrown plantations, bougainvillea apparently coexisting peacefully with other plants, farming families walking down the road waving and smiling and swinging their bush knives, cows tethered on banks or blundering loose in the road and regarding us with that particular unimpressed expression native to all cows, past extravagantly-tailed roosters and neat compact pigs which waited intelligently for the truck to pass before crossing the road. We stopped at a little outdoor market under a spreading tree and the driver bought more fresh peanuts, still on the stalk and with a sweet vegetable crispness, which we ate as the truck laboured over rutted, slick hill road.

At last we came over the top of the island and saw the sea on the other side. The horizon seemed as high as we were and the mother-of-pearl ocean fell down to the shore far below us. Down there was an iron-grey plain of ash and the volcano – smaller than I imagined but more barren, a black cone smoking distantly and rumbling.

On the other side of the plain, which was cut by clear streams, we found an ash road between the trees and almost ran over a puppy. Someone recognised it, so it was picked up by one leg and added to the back of the truck. We drove to the driver’s bungalows, unloaded most of the people and supplies, then went back down the ash road and up a rutted side road to our bungalows. I put my bag in my bungalow and then W (driver) and P (guide) and I left in the dark and drove to the volcano.

The main ash roads had been smooth and firm, but the track to the volcano was very rough, well beyond corrugations, and by now it was very dark. We drove to the base and then P and I walked up, P a bit behind me, shining the torch on the path. It didn’t take long to reach the top and then we were on the edge of the volcano.

K and B had described the volcano to me, but it would have been hard to have been prepared. I had been mesmerised by Isabella Bird’s descriptions, but this was not a lake of fire. Instead, a great black sulphorous pit fell away below us, and from the darkness at irregular intervals fire flew upwards. The earth would gather itself with a great roar like the rushing of the sea and then glowing molten rocks would fly up into the air, from far below us high into the sky and fall, whistling and glowing orange against the night. There was more than one cone and they would explode alternately, sometimes a hiss of glitter, sometimes howling and shrieking. Many of the glowing rocks fell back into the earth, but some seemed to stop suddenly in mid-air, fallen on the sides of the cone which was otherwise invisible in the darkness. Huge rocks rough with glassy knobs lay around us, fruits of more violent explosions – some within the last few weeks.

It was hard to turn away – it felt disrespectful. Walking back down, the volcano rumbling and venting behind us, I looked across to another mountain, cold and dark, with the plume of the milky way sailing up from it like an explosion of ice.

(Part 1 here; Part 2 here; still to come: Part 4 “Things that didn’t kill me”)

Vanuatu: To the Volcano – Part 2

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John Gillespie Magee, Jr.’s sonnet “High Flight” begins “Oh I have slipped the surly bonds of earth…”.

I’ve known the poem for years, but never really understood the first line until we took off from Port Vila in the De Havilland Twin Otter, reputed to be very reliable, but the smallest plane I have ever paid to be in (I went up in a Cessna once, and saw a rainbow come down in the centre of a paddock, but that was a long time ago).

The airport in Port Vila is a large industrial shed divided in two: the domestic and international terminals. That’s the domestic departure gate on the right in the picture above.

Through the gate and on the tarmac were two very small aircraft. When it was time to board, our little group of passengers (laden with assorted luggage – bags and woven mats and cooking oil and bundles of fresh peanuts with their stalks tied together) walked out between the two. One had the reassuring words “In Emergency Cut Here” painted on the side near a dotted line. The pilots of the planes were leaning out talking to each other across the tarmac. A passenger ahead of me asked which flight was our flight number. The pilots looked blank and we milled around between the two planes until I called out, “Are you going to Tanna?” to one of the planes and the pilot laughed and said “Yes, that’s the right question!”. So we clambered up the stairs.

That’s the interior of the plane on the right. It seats 20. The stairs fold up into the plane (see the wriggly line about two thirds up the right side of that page? That’s the handrail of the stairs). There was no pressurisation. My elbow was pressed against an emergency exit door and cold air came in around the edges of the door. Cold air coming in around exit door pressed against elbow. From the back seat (where I was) we could see into cockpit. See the left-hand cockpit window? I’ve drawn the windscreen wiper there.

Twin Otters don’t need much of a run-up to take off. We leapt up and into the buffeting island winds. I could feel the plane strain and toss against the pull of the earth, and was very aware of the size of the plane and the wind whistling around the door. And then we pulled free and the engine didn’t seem to labour as loudly, and we were up above the island and the reefs and sandbanks, each circled by concentric rings of coloured sea.

Oh I have slipped the surly bonds of earth…”. The words of “High Flight” suddenly made sense, and kept going through my mind, together with these lines from Judith Wright’s poem “The Idler”:

The islands ran like emeralds through his fingers
(Oparo, Manahiki, Tubuai)
till he turned truant, cleared the heads at dawn
and half-forgot the seasons, under that sky…


(Part 1 here).

Vanuatu: To the Volcano – Part 1

While in Vanuatu, I went on two jaunts by myself. On both occasions I expected to be thrown in with an existing group of tourists, and instead was alone with a guide. The first was a Saturday rainforest trail ride through some of the prettiest cattle country I have seen. The second time, I went to Tanna to see the volcano.

When I was little, a combination of factors (to wit: living in a wooden house with a wood-burning stove; living on a cattle property in a drought; growing up on novels of the Ash Wednesday fires; a well-read National Geographic with pictures of Mount St Helens; a children’s encyclopaedia which described in sufficiently lively detail the tale of the farmer in Mexico who found hot rocks popping out of his paddock and a week later the farm was covered by a live volcano; and my family’s general inability to get out of the house in a timely fashion) gave me nightmares about fiery pits and infernos for years. And then I read Isabella Bird’s accounts of climbing up and looking into volcanoes on Hawaii, and generally being Victorian and fabulous, and decided that I would quite like to see one. Her descriptions were awe-inspiring.

I did very little research before I went to Vanuatu, partly because I do fly by the seat of my pants and partly because I didn’t expect to be doing anything on any other islands. But then K and B washed in on the tide bearing tales of maritime adventures and videos of the volcano and I realised that I was right there, in Vanuatu, only a few islands away from a Real Live Volcano.

The rest of the group were kind enough to encourage me to go (and then give me a hard time later about skipping out on work), so when I went to the markets to buy cucumbers and pamplemousse, I kept walking to the thatch-roofed tour agencies and found an overnight trip to Tanna, including everything except dinner and the fee to enter the volcano area, for only a few hundred dollars. One of the shiny shop-front agencies offered a trip for over a thousand, but that did not include flights. The next day I collected my tickets, and the next morning I worked, had a quick lunch and caught a bus to the airport.

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Vanuatu: Sketchbook

My poor maltreated Moleskine. It is held together with duct tape now (on the inside, so I can’t pass it off as industrial punk) and has been soggy and dirty and flecked with volcanic ash and had a near miss in the Port in Port Vila.

But it survived and the picture pages are scanned and up as a set on Flickr: Vanuatu 2008 Moleskine.

This sketchbook has fewer receipts and brochures and tickets than the American one (although there are one or two pages of receipts and boarding passes I didn’t scan in), and is better scanned and – in the drawings at least – more colourful due to my acquisition of more markers. My handbag was (is) full of markers (and pencils, erasers, sharpeners, gel pens, blending pencils, etc).

But next time I will carry the book in a ziplock bag. Just in case.


Now, so far I only have one question to answer about Vanuatu, and my answer is: no, to the best of my knowledge there are no longer cannibals in Vanuatu; that doesn’t stop the tourist trade trading on that piece of history; and from time to time startled linguists have been ‘discovered’ by anthropologists searching for cannibal tribes.

Any other questions?


Vanuatu: Illustration

I haven’t forgotten Vanuatu: I’ve been uploading the sketchbook (almost there!) and sorting through photos for a presentation at church. Here are the illustrations I did for SIL/VBT. The originals are still on Efate. (If you want to see details, click on the picture which will take you to the Flickr page, and then above the picture click on “all sizes”).

LW wanted a design for a notecard from SIL/VBT (Summer Institute of Linguistics & Vanuatu Baebol Translesen (sp?)). It was to be photocopied and/or printed in black and white, so I did a few designs (based on things lying around in Vila) and styles: nautilus shells, basket/bags, frangipani.

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The middle nautilus shell (above) and the book and flowers (below) are my favourite:

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I went further with the basket design for the other illustration job. These are my thumbnail sketches and the cover for “Histri blong yumi” (our history), a collection LW was putting together of stories by translators’ children. The picture couldn’t be very specific to one island or one family, so I ended up doing a basket (I can’t remember which island this design was from, but I think either Efate or Pentecost) and hibiscus and frangipani and shells and a book. I asked LW what sort of things western children being brought up on the islands would likely carry around with them and she said the girls usually had beads and her sons had always had their shanghais and spent hours wrapping the handles with colourful designs in tape.

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Breads: Kind of tangentially Vanuatu related

I had all these interesting things to say, and pictures to illustrate them with, and then I started going to the orchestra and the movies and working late and slowed down with the uploading and – I apologise!

Aimee asked for the beer bread/damper recipe and since she visited on the weekend and I turned it into coconut bread and it is thus doubly (if indirectly) relevant, here it is:

Beer Bread

  • 1 can beer (375ml)  – this can be replaced with water, milk, Guiness, etc
  • 2 tablespoons sweetener (golden syrup for my preference – but sugar, honey etc will do)
  • 3 cups self raising flour

Mix. Bake at about 180degrees celsius for about 30 – 45 minutes. If the top gets too dark too quickly, cover with foil.

It’s a very flexible recipe. Swap things in and out. Add chopped up dried apricot (highly recommended!) or a handful of muesli. Cook in in muffin pans. Wrap it in foil and put it in a campfire. It doesn’t keep terribly wrong but that’s never been a problem. Tastes best hot with butter, but also good the next day toasted with butter. In Vanuatu I made it with Tusker beer and chopped up dried pawpaw which was amazing. If you can get dried pawpaw, it is even better than apricot. Serve it with soup or stew or cheese or avocado or (most especially) “cocky’s joy” (golden syrup).

For the Coconut Damper I added about half a cup of dessicated coconut and swapped the beer out for a can of coconut milk. I’d used some on my oatmeal the day before so I cut it with some regular cow milk and had to add a bit more because the coconut milk is thicker than beer or water. It took longer to cook through, as well, and was heavier and tasted very good, especially with a fruit salad of banana and red pawpaw (they do sell it here – I’d only every seen the regular yellow/orange kind). Aimee started the idea of putting pawpaw slices on top of the damper.

Next, I want to try the Coconut Pumpkin Bread from the Vanuatu Kwisin cookbook that was part of the thankyou present that  L&R  (SIL directors in Vanuatu) gave me. I seem to be being stalked by Wycliffe cookbooks. Or possibly just by Wycliffe. I’ve been trying to order some of the international cookbooks and while that was being set in place, I received an envelope of information and flyers and newsletters and another Wycliffe cookbook, and another envelope with another newsletter and people at church seem to have decided I am going to do the SIL course in Germany which… isn’t accurate.

But I did receive yet another newsletter, this one from L&R, about the dedication of the new NT translation in Tanna which M was baking banana bread for, and the newsletter had my picture of a Megavoice in it (the sketchbook uploads will get to this point eventually).

Vanuatu: Work/Party

Bonus: If you get all the way to the end, there’s a picture.

When I sent text messages from Vanuatu or on returning showed people my sketches, I was asked, more than once and with a particular tone of voice, “So, did you get much work done?” The less arduous aspects were, I admit, overrepresented, but that is for the very good reason that it was very difficult to send humourous text messages or draw little pictures while I was working. So, to forestall that response, and because it was a work party (any excuse), I am going to tell you about the work first, before I get to the colourful stuff.

Continue reading


I’m back! Not back in circulation, exactly, as I am nursing a throat infection, oddly cramped fingers, a distinct lack of bat-consumption, an aversion to going to the office and a strange inclination to cook, but I am back in the country.

The new header is Hideaway Island off Efate Island in Vanuatu, and is proof that there is a sketchbook which will follow soon, together with more details.


Things that should have been occupying my mind:

  • Drafting all leases before I leave*
  • Leaving useful memos for colleagues**
  • Remembering my passports***
  • Paying bills
  • Not forgetting to take malaria medication
  • That my doctor’s surgery can’t diagnose heart attacks and has to call the ambulance in and the ambulance people teased their victim all the way out about how the mask looked on her
  • Whether the malaria medication will have horrible side effects****
  • Packing^
  • Inexplicable absence of board shorts from Queensland stores
  • Making sure I have my towel^^

Things that have been occupying my mind:

  • What size sketchbook to take^^^
  • What street the Dursleys lived on^^^^


*four down, two to go


***while in shower this morning

****what is the perfect medicine for a tropical island paradise? Oh, how about one that makes you sensitive to sunlight? People have asked if it is having that effect already and I point out we haven’t actually had any sunlight here this week.

^I can’t do light yet, but I’m getting good at compact!

^^all is right with the world.

^^^I decided on a large sketchbook and will show the results when I get back. In the meantime, I have been uploading my other sketchbooks, if you are interested in these things:

^^^^Emily and I had to check last night: it’s Privet Drive, and ‘privet’ in German is “Liguster” so “Ligusterweg” makes perfect sense after all^^^^^

^^^^^I’m reading Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen which, along with lumberjack cake, was a fortunate discovery of my lunch with Rachel T at the American Bookstore & Cafe this week.


I’m leaving for Vanuatu on Friday. Yes, it is now Sunday and I did have vague intentions of mentioning the trip before now, but that is the problem with vague intentions.

I thought I’d better mention the planned absence in case anyone was bothered by three weeks of radio silence.

On Friday evening I fly out to Port Vila to make myself useful with Wycliffe Associates for three weeks, repairing verandas at the translation headquarters, among other things. I was told I need to be willing to swing a hammer, and I confirmed I was willing but couldn’t guarantee I would hit what I was aiming at.

Whenever I say this, people joke about me hitting my thumbs, and I realise that maybe I am the only person who holds the nail in place with pliers. It’s a brilliant technique and I don’t intend to change because of peer pressure.

I still have to buy more full, below the knee skirts (and I intend to feel very Isabella-Bird, working and exploring in skirts). I confess it took me a moment to remember not to be bothered by the thought of wearing skirts and sneakers together. I am also diverting unnecessary brainpower to the question of what size sketchbook to take: pocket or large?

The following is from the Tourism Vanuatu website and I have pretty much learned it off by heart:

There are no public transport systems in Vanuatu. Privately owned mini buses are common and run unspecified routes through the municipal areas. You need only board one heading in approximately the right direction and tell the driver where you wish to stop and you will get there, albeit by a circuitous route! Taxis are also plentiful and relatively inexpensive. To get to other parts of Efate, utilities are licensed to carry passengers and can be found at the Markets.